2015-04-13 : 5 Questions from Owen

Owen Briggs wrote to ask me some questions, which is something I'd invite anybody to do who feels like it, and kindly allows me to answer them here in public. Thanks, Owen!

1. What's the most obscure and yet most impressive game you can think of? What makes it impressive, and why do you think it's obscure?

Oh easy! Troels Ken Pedersen's amazing game Dulce et Decorum.

It's a single session scenario with a strict timeline and a dedicated system. You play English volunteers in WWI. You're trying to survive the war, but the game is stacked against you; it's quite a wringer, emotionally. It's also not a game about you or the soldiers, but about the poetry that real historical soldiers wrote. At the end of each round of play, as a group you read poems aloud: "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae, "Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen, "When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead" by Charles Sorley, and others.

It's impressive to me because of the way that the game takes the unforgiving mathematics of its system and uses it not only to create an emotional gutpunch, but to profoundly, viscerally teach you these poems. I'm a better citizen of history and literature for having played it. If there were justice in the world, every AP English class would include the game in its curriculum.

It's obscure because it's a Fastaval-style scenario about WWI poetry, and there's no justice in the world.

2. Who do you think is the weirdest, most unorthodox designer out there? What makes their design weird? What do you think of it?

Paul Czege. All of his games, but especially My Life with Master and The Clay That Woke, are sharply observed and insightful, and intensely Paul. Nobody else sees things the way he does, and his games brilliantly communicate what he sees. The Clay That Woke is my favorite game I haven't played yet.

Now, I'm surrounded by weirdos. This is a field with a lot of excellent contenders.

3. What makes your design unique? What do you think you do better than anyone else?

Oh I have no clue.

I guess I'm pretty good at envisioning the conversation I want people to have and designing systems that provoke them into having it.

If someone else were to sit down and examine and analyze my work in context with others', and write an essay about what makes mine unique, I'd be too embarrassed to read it.

4. Which single game has influence you most, and how has it influenced you?

If I have to choose a single game, then Pit, I think. It gave me one of my earliest and most clear insights into how you can arrange simple procedures and goals to provoke emotional engagement. It's possible that all of my games past kill puppies for satan, and all the reams I've written about games too, have followed from understanding Pit.

5. Are there any good resources on design you could recommend?

I don't think there are! I haven't read a book on game design that I'd recommend to a budding designer, that's for sure.

Play a million games, and carve your experience of them up into pieces you can see clearly. When you find that you can't see an experience clearly, you need to find or create a new game to illuminate it. Play harder and carve more finely, every time.

When someone creates a game, they want you to experience it as a player, and that means misdirecting you from their work. To understand a game's design, you have to refuse to be distracted by its gameplay, look deeper in, and instead find the secret architecture that the designer is trying to hide from you.

But maybe some of my readers know about better resources than I do. Anybody?

1. On 2015-04-13, Kit said:

Something I think you're hinting at, or at least hope you are, in your answer to question 5: you have to understand the game as a player, but not only as a player. You need to experience the reality of play, paying attention to the emotions and such, and then you also need to analyze the (presumably hidden) structure that gets you there. Don't just play, don't just analyze.


2. On 2015-04-13, Vincent said:

Kit: I think so, yeah.


3. On 2015-04-13, Tybraal said:

Ooh, ooh, Dolce et Decorum! I also loved the hell out of it in 2013 when it was ran at Fastaval. Complete agreement on the lack of justice in the world. This year Troels wrote the fantastical and fantastic Children of Dunsain which used a cleverly cut down version Apocalypse World. Combined with a terrific world-building sequence it easily made the top of my list again.

(Of course it didn't hurt that our game was ran by Brand Robins, the man who could run a cereal box maze puzzle as a mystical adventure.)


4. On 2015-04-14, Andy said:

Kit: Yeah, I think that's it. Play with awareness; as you play games, you can't help but develop that awareness anyhow. Start to see the implications of certain game elements, question what caused your particular play experiences, understand how it all comes together into the game.

And that includes non-RPGs. Maybe even especially non-RPGs, because they've gotten some cutting-edge design.


5. On 2015-04-14, Levi said:

The power 19 is a tool for designers I'd recommend.

Open-source game designs (usually via licenses) are also resources worth considering, though not in the sense of instructions.  d20, Fate, etc.


6. On 2015-04-17, Tim Ralphs said:

Great thread! I shall check out Dulce et Decorum.


7. On 2015-04-25, E. Torner said:

I played Pit with you, Vincent, and you explained it nicely: what we were doing as players was enacting an elementary sorting algorithm... but our feelings were nevertheless intense and individual.

Definitely enlightening!


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