2011-10-19 : Murderous Ghosts for Halloween

Murderous Ghosts

Coming in 5...

1. On 2011-10-19, Simon C said:

If that's the new cover, I like it way better! No more issues!


2. On 2011-10-19, Paul T. said:


I'd like to hear some about the development of this game. How has it changed from playtester feedback? Is it minor polishing, or major reworking, based on a significant difference in principles?

And if you have time to go on for a bit, also:

What inspired this game? How has that changed (if at all) from the beginning of the process: concept, design, playtest, final version?


3. On 2011-10-20, Vincent said:

Major reworking from internal playtesting, substantial reworking from wave 1 to wave 2 of external playtesting, polishing from wave 2 to now. No difference in principles, start to finish, although I've changed how I'm expressing them. A playtester might or might not recognize them as the same.

I'll tell about the inspiration for the game when I'm ready to talk about Trauma Games. It hasn't changed at all.

I'm being short because I'm working, not because I don't want questions! If you have any specifics you want to know about, ask away.


4. On 2011-10-20, Simon C said:

Is it intentional that you tell the player that their goal is to win, but then give them heaps of stuff to do that doesn't affect whether they win or lose?


5. On 2011-10-20, Vincent said:

You're mistaken! There's no such stuff in the game.


6. On 2011-10-20, Simon C said:


"Tell the MC something you wanted the chance to do before you died."

How does this affect whether I win or lose?

"What?s the worst thing this suggests to you? Choose, and tell the MC which:
Betrayal. Turn to 18.
Cruelty. Turn to 20.
Madness. Turn to 22.
Revenge. Turn to 24.
Sorrow. Turn to 26.
A threat to me, here and now. Turn to 28."

How do I decide which choice will help me win?


7. On 2011-10-20, Simon C said:

Also: Vincent, it's fine if you're too busy to get into this right now. You don't owe me an answer.


8. On 2011-10-20, Vincent said:

Ah! Those. Yes, intentional.


9. On 2011-10-20, Simon C said:

Does that imply that the player has another, secret agenda which the game is silent about?


10. On 2011-10-20, Simon C said:

Attempting to answer my own question:

Actually none (or very few) of the player's choices have a clear (to the player) relationship to whether they win or lose. That suggests to me that the player's "try to win" agenda is something of a smokescreen. It's more about the player's attitude to their character than it is about how the player relates to the game as a whole. It's saying:

"This is not one of those games where you're trying to get your dude in trouble, or watching horrible things happen to them. In this game, you're trying to get your dude out of there, but you might not succeed."

Is that accurate?


11. On 2011-10-20, David Berg said:

I like the image above, but I saw something in it, and now I can't un-see it, so I have to share.  The woman on the right is totally air-guitaring.


12. On 2011-10-20, David Berg said:

Simon, if that's your theory on what "try to win" means, then what's your theory on how the player relates to the game as a whole?

As I see it, "Play an RPG with another person about murderous ghosts," covers so much that little further agenda may be required.

When I played, my agenda was partly to enjoy those things that I enjoy when I roleplay: making stuff up, imagining being there, and communicating both of those through words and portrayal.

"Try to win" adds enough focus to that to proceed efficiently.


13. On 2011-10-20, Simon C said:

David: "Play an RPG with another person about murderous ghosts" isn't in the rulebook.

I mean, I agree with you that, for certain values of "Play an RPG", that's the agenda, I'm just saying that the game kind of pretends like it isn't.

Which I guess is part of the whole "micro audience" thing.


14. On 2011-10-20, Simon C said:

I feel like I'm being mean!

When I think something is cool and interesting, I show love by asking hard questions and criticising.

Vincent! I know you don't exactly need my approval, but I know this is the hard, shitty part of game design, so sorry that I'm being kind of a jerk.


15. On 2011-10-20, Vincent said:

Simon (back at #10): That's not what I'd say, no.

The game's tactics won't show themselves until you've played to win, attentively, a few times. Unskilled play is fun but random - like unskilled play in Settlers of Catan, say - and I think that's what you're seeing.

It's a learning curve, but it's a pretty quick one. Play half a dozen games and you'll find that you can tactically judge the real moves, adapt to changing circumstances, play safe when you need to and take educated risks when you can.

Like, I win 3 games out of 4. I know when to try to hide (almost never), when to confront a ghost (only when you're sure), and when to stay in a room for one more draw even though I could bolt now (about half the time).


16. On 2011-10-20, Simon C said:

I remember you saying sometime that it's usually good if there's a clear link between "what we're doing now" and "what we're doing over the course of the game"


You say:

"In your game, you want it to be obvious how the most immediate-term play relates to the longest-term play"

Does that hold true for Murderous Ghosts? Is it true for the bits that don't affect whether you win or lose?


17. On 2011-10-20, Vincent said:

Oh, absolutely, yes to both. Try playing without them and see what happens, if you want.


18. On 2011-10-20, Simon C said:

I'm down with the fact that those bits are essential to "what we're doing over the course of the game", I just think that's because the player's "what we're doing over the course of the game" is more than just trying to win.

I think that at a higher level than the agendas presented in the book, the players are both at the table for the same reason. Does that sound right to you?


19. On 2011-10-20, Vincent said:

I get you, but I think you've got it backwards.

Like in Chess, I wouldn't say that the players' agenda is "more than just" to win, because "at a higher level" they're both at the table to use a board of alternating colors and 16 pieces each. I'd say that using the board and pieces is fundamental to their pursuit of their agenda, a baseline, not larger than it or higher than it.

In Murderous Ghosts, the player and the GM both create and share incomplete backstories for their characters. These pieces of backstory help both players engage and identify with all of the characters better. Curious asides, hanging information, and unanswered questions on both sides serve an important baseline purpose, which is just to create the impression of a fictional world larger than the bare events of the game.

You can consider this to be a higher-level agenda if you want! I think that's a very strange way to look at it.


20. On 2011-10-20, Alex D. said:

Vincent, are the player backstory bits about giving the player increased drive or incentive to "win" (AKA survive)?

I can totally see it that way, since I'm dropping bits here and there about who my guy is, I'm going to want to see him as more "real" or more human; and, generally, I'm going to push all the harder for his survival. (As opposed to, say, a card-board cutout.)

Accurate at all?


21. On 2011-10-20, Weeks said:

How does your internal playtest process differ on a game this small than on a big game like Apocalypse World?  Did you write software to model Murderous Ghosts or anything?


22. On 2011-10-20, Vincent said:

Alex: Accurate at all, yes. It depends on what you say about your character, but that's one way it can go, absolutely. Importantly, it'll work on the GM too.

You can also use them to buffer yourself emotionally from the trauma your character's experiencing, if that lets you enjoy the horror more, for example.

You can use them to set yourself up to make canny choices when it comes time to interact with a ghost, too.

Weeks: The biggest difference - and this was super evident in external playtesting too - is that you can play a complete game in 30-60 minutes. Playtesting it was more absolute than usual and very fast.

I didn't write software or anything, no. I thought I might just set up a spreadsheet, but ultimately didn't need even that. The game consists of a backbone (the MC book's 3 core loops) and two rhythms, and I've found them easy enough to keep in my head.


23. On 2011-10-21, Simon C said:

Vincent, I don't buy it.

Boards and pieces and alternating colours are fundamental to how you win the game of chess. You can't win the game without them.

For the player, engaging and identifying with the characters is at best tangential to them winning the game. A fictional world larger than the events of the game isn't required for the player to win.


24. On 2011-10-21, Vincent said:

I most utterly disagree.

Here's another way to pose it:

Board and pieces are what Chess has in common with other games of its kind. (I wish I'd chosen a different example, now, since there are few other games of Chess's kind surviving. You'll have to imagine back to a time when there were many.)

The impression of a fictional world larger than the events of the game is what Murderous Ghosts has in common with other games of its kind. That is, rpgs.

(This is a classic creative agenda misunderstanding, Simon. "You say you're playing to [foreign creative agenda], but I don't buy it. Of course you're REALLY playing to [familiar creative agenda]." It's what happens when you associate Big Model-exploration with only one creative agenda, when in reality it underlies every one.)


25. On 2011-10-21, David Berg said:

Hey Simon, are you asking, "Why include exploration?" (as Vincent seems to be inferring) or "Why include this specific take on exploration?" (which makes more sense to me)?

If the latter, what game procedures do you see serving that take (i.e., a high level of identification with characters)?  Page numbers, man!


26. On 2011-10-21, Tim Ralphs said:

You seem to be talking at cross purposes. But that's not what I want to say. Also, I kind of wish this game had been around when we were talking about how the reward to playing a game was necessarily it's longest repeating cycle,but again, that's not what I want to say. What I really want to say is "holy shit? There's a strategy by which you can win 3 times out of 4? That doesn't seem remotely possible!"


27. On 2011-10-21, Vincent said:

Tim: In the earliest version of the game, the rhythm of the books and the rhythm of the draw converged, so that all the high-stakes draws came when you were about to get a high hand, and when you were in danger of busting, it was always a low-stakes draw.

Now the books stagger and double-step all the time to throw that convergence off, and the GM has some fun baffles to throw in your way, and the draws are harder too. But if you know the rhythms you can still play to bring them back into alignment.

Which is to say: playing to win means timing your busts. To a bystander it looks like you keep just getting lucky, but it's because you're making your high-risk draws on your strong hands.

The coolest part to me is how the fiction plays into it. The fictional decisions the GM makes about her ghosts now affect the next 3 or 4 draws, so timing your busts means adapting constantly, as best you can, to the precise individual ghosts the GM's describing.

Anyway, it's still a gambling game, you're still vulnerable to the pure perversity of a shuffled deck, no matter how sharply you play. But 3 games out of 4, sure.


28. On 2011-10-21, Tim Ralphs said:

Interesting! I suppose a lot depends on knowing what the stakes are, hidden in the draws.

I'm also curious, now you've got all the playtest stuff in, as to how many players resolved a ghosts unfinished business. Ever.


29. On 2011-10-21, Vincent said:

None. It's a trap! I'm not sure it's possible, but it just might be, occasionally, depending on the ghosts.


30. On 2011-10-21, Marhault said:

Oh, shit, Vincent!  Really?  Nobody has EVER resolved the unfinished business?

Now I've really got to play...


31. On 2011-10-21, Vincent said:

Good luck!

I could say it this way: it's possible to build that outcome using the pieces that game provides. Whether you can outplay your GM into going along with it... well, good luck!


32. On 2011-10-22, Paul T. said:


Hmmm. I wonder if I'm getting this?

" timing your busts means adapting constantly, as best you can, to the precise individual ghosts the GM's describing."

Can you give an example?

Is "playing to win" a function of knowing what's in the MC's book, or can it be inferred purely from the fiction? If it's the former, I *might* be able to see it, if it's the latter, I'm really not sure.


33. On 2011-10-22, Simon C said:

I still don't understand creative agenda super well, I guess.

Here's another way of getting at my issue:

When the book tells me "Tell the MC something you wanted the chance to do before you died." How do I decide what to say next? What are my considerations? At the moment I have literally no idea.


34. On 2011-10-22, Vincent said:

I'm at a loss.

You decide what to say next by thinking of something that maybe your character (or you yourself, that's fine too) might have wanted to do before she died. Then you say it. What considerations?


35. On 2011-10-22, Vincent said:

Oh wait! I thought of something that might help. Stand by.

(Paul, I'll answer you too as soon as I can.)


36. On 2011-10-22, Vincent said:

So Simon: In a horror flick, there are two possible brave, smart, athletic 23-year-old urban spelunkers who get murdered by ghosts. One of them is kind of shallow and mean, and doesn't deserve it, by any stretch, except as the flick is a glorious, bloody, insane hyperbole of our minor emotions (which it sometimes is: see Heathers or Ginger Snaps). The other is humane, responsible, and sympathetic, not shallow or mean, and suffers because the murderous ghosts, unlike us, have no sympathy and recognize no humanity.

Those are the two, but horror flicks can profitably play around with them, letting any given character slide or quick-reverse from one to the other, or stake out middle ground, or ground more extreme, or whatever else.

By answering those questions as the player, you're putting your character into play in those terms. ARE you shallow and mean? ARE you humane, responsible, and sympathetic? Any answer is fine. Every answer changes our relationship with your character. Even if you're participating naively, answering by gut or whim, we need to know, because it's an essential piece of your character's position.

(In a horror flick, only very rarely will the character turn to the camera and say something she hoped to do before she died. Usually it'll appear in clues, casual mentions, sometimes flashbacks and cut aways. Facts of the medium. A sentence like "Chris always hoped to see the Eiffel Tower before she died," straight from author to reader, doesn't fit into most movies, but it might well appear in a written horror story.)

So, if you want considerations, there they are. That's why those pieces are in the game. They're what we used to call "genre sim," before the Big Model swiped "sim" for something else and folded our genre sim into "exploration."


37. On 2011-10-23, Vincent said:

Hey want to see something nuts?


38. On 2011-10-24, Simon C said:

Hi Vincent,

I've been thinking a bunch about this, and tying to get my head around this thing. It's hard for me to understand, because I get what you're saying in your last post, but on the other hand, I'm like "How does that help me win?" If it doesn't help me win, then isn't there some other agenda in play?

I've played a bunch of Step on Up. By which I mean, for example, I played a bunch of Tunnels and Trolls, where each week we'd see how much further we could get into this crazy dungeon full of deathtraps, and usually we'd all be horribly killed. I played a bunch of similar games too. When other people talk about Step on Up play, I recognize what they're talking about. When you describe Storming the Wizard's Tower, I'm like "Yeah, I know how to play that game".

But Murderous Ghosts just seems alien to me, and I know what it is. It's the bit where there's an explicit win condition, enforced by the real-world mechanics of play. That's something which I think is very different from other Step on Up supporting games.

In Mentzer D&D, for example (the oldest D&D I know well), there's no explicit win condition (well, there kind of is in the Immortals box, where it says you win if you go from 1st to 30th level twice with one character, but I'm fairly confident that's never been done). In Mentzer D&D, there's a shared commitment to the shared fiction because all the rewards for success in that game (building towers, hirelings, gold pieces, etc) only exist within that shared fiction. By contrast, in Murderous Ghosts, the reward for success (winning the game) exists outside the shared fiction of the game.

I think that's a fundamental difference. What do you think?


39. On 2011-10-25, Alex Abate Biral said:

Vincent, thanks a lot for explaining about that loop's role in the game. I imagined it would be something like what you said, but I never realized that the spelunker's personality was so cut and dried.

In fact, I wonder if you don't have similar insights into your other games. I for one would love to hear this kind of commentary on Poison'd or Apocalypse World. For example, were there similar genre considerations for the stuff each character in AW can say when we define the Hx?

Hey Simon! Maybe I am completely wrong, but if I groked what Mr. Baker said, this has a big impact in the over all strategy. A lot of things in Murderous Ghosts is decided by the GM's choice of what is appropriate. By setting yourself up as either type of spelunker, you make certain types of actions flow better. For example, I think it is easier for a humane spelunker to rouse the ghost's pity than a shallow one.

And about your comment of a fundamental difference, I think that both in Murderous Ghosts and D&D, victory and defeat are deeply linked to the fiction. In D&D, your gold, your deeds, your possessions, they act like a score. In MG, you win if you escape, or maybe if you help it finish its unresolved business. Both have your victory linked to the fiction. The difference seems, to me at least, that MG acknowledges that you won, while D&D is played more to beat your score. Another difference is that D&D doesn't set for you what exactly means to do well or to win, it leaves up to the player to decide that.


40. On 2011-10-25, David Berg said:

Hey Simon, is the alien-ness related to the multi-agenda-ness in your eyes, or are those two separate things?

As far as win conditions, old-school D&D dungeons have them.  The big difference that I can see is that some dungeons don't tell you, "You beat me, now you can stop playing."  I've played other dungeons, though, where the DM made it really clear that this was the final monster and if we beat it we were safe and free to grab the treasure and leave.  Played as a one-shot, is that any different than what you're observing with Murderous Ghosts?


41. On 2011-11-08, Paul T. said:


(Paul, I'll answer you too as soon as I can.)

I'm still holding you to this, I hope you know!

(Post 35, in response to 32.)


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