2015-04-27 : Followup Questions from Owen

Owen Briggs asked me some followup questions to his original five. I've been so busy with other projects that I couldn't get to them until this morning!

From which non-RPG medium do you draw the most inspiration?

It used to be the obvious one, the FX- or HBO-style sex-and-violence ensemble drama. In Apocalypse World you can pretty clearly see Oz, Sons of Anarchy, maybe The Shield, conceivably some Spartacus, frickin Battlestar Galactica, and I forget what else I was watching while I worked on it. These kinds of shows had a lot more influence on the game than the obvious in-genre movies did. They really gave the game its structure.

These days, though, I don't know. Post Apocalypse World, I've been designing games mostly in response to other RPGs, not other media. I think that RPGs take too narrowly entrenched forms, and I'm grappling with that instead.

How do you think RPGs comment on other media? (On this and the previous question: I've found PBTA games are really fantastic at getting the structure of TV and movies.)


A thoughtfully designed RPG pairs systems of interaction with genre or subject matter in a way that gives you immediate, effortless access to its hidden underpinnings. Like, the way that Murderous Ghosts uses Blackjack in service of suspense allows you to effortlessly create suspenseful ghost stories. If you choose to, you can take this insight away with you, and next time you watch a murderous ghost movie, you'll see how it builds suspense in a Blackjack-like way.

Or the way that Epidiah Ravachol's game Wolfspell uses Apocalypse World-style read a sitch moves to put you effortlessly into a wolf's headspace, or the way that Ben Lehman's game Beloved pits your current imagination against your past imagination to show you how you've let your thinking about romance ossify.

I have no idea if I'm making any sense here! Ask me more questions, anybody, if you have them.

What do you hope to achieve with the games that you make, and how often do you achieve it?

It always depends on the game.

For instance, with The Vengeful Demon of the Ring, I hoped to resolve an outstanding argument in game thinkery, and I achieved it with maybe 1 person. Rock of Tahamaat, Space Tyrant was much more successful in this regard, but then, the argument in game thinkery that I hoped it would resolve was a much less contentious one.

For many of my games I have both gameplay goals and market goals. I hoped that my game Midsummer Wood would get played by at least 10 people out in the world, for instance, and it achieved that. It may have achieved it twice over!

Which emotions do you tend to want to evoke with your games?

When I look back at my games, they make me seem unkind. I want people to feel trapped, betrayed, sold out, suborned, bound by honor and justice to do bad things, led by ambition to do bad things.

I'm pretty kind in real life. My games just don't reflect it.

Which RPG makes use of emotional ambiguity in the most engaging way, and how? (Put simply, emotional ambiguity is not knowing how you're supposed to feel about something.)

Of my games, Dogs in the Vineyard is the only one that makes much use of emotional ambiguity at all. Of others', I don't really know! I'm personally more drawn to games where how you feel about something is or can be perfectly clear, unambiguous.

Thanks for asking!

1. On 2015-04-27, Vincent said:

If anybody has any followup questions or comments, please! I always welcome them.


2. On 2015-04-27, Caitie said:

"Post Apocalypse World, I've been designing games mostly in response to other RPGs, not other media. I think that RPGs take too narrowly entrenched forms, and I'm grappling with that instead."

1) Can you give an example of something you made that is responding to something else, and how you think that conversation would go?

2) What do you mean by RPGs being too narrowly entrenched? What do you think makes them that way, why is it even a big deal, and what does that mean for RPGs?


3. On 2015-04-27, Disco said:

This sort of goes along with What do you hope to achieve with the games that you make...?

You've mentioned "in-character GMing" and "dirty secret GMing" before, but do all of your games have some sort of "named" GMing style to go along with them? Is that even a thing that you put thought into for every game, or just some of them?


4. On 2015-04-28, Owen said:

Man my second question was really vague! What I meant was this:

What do you think RPGs can teach us about other media? What can other media learn from RPGs?

Like for instance, I was writing a combat system for one of my games. I watched a bunch of fight scenes from TV & movies, saw what they had in common, and extracted a kind of generalised fight scene model from them. I took this model and put some RPG bits and pieces on it - dice rolls*, attachment to a stat, etc. - and I guess I've answered my own first question there because the model originated outside RPGs. Putting it in an RPG allows you to play with the model and so perhaps understand it in practice - giving it to me in a really engaging, brain-sticking way.

* Uncertain outcomes - I think RPGs as a medium are defined by uncertainty and open-endedness. As a result I think there's tons unscripted media can learn from RPGs as are (Like RPGs have got the best random generators anywhere) but right now I can't think what scripted media could learn from their structure, except insofar as you could record the unscripted stuff, polish it and present it as a script.


5. On 2015-04-28, Alex D. said:

"In Apocalypse World you can pretty clearly see Oz, Sons of Anarchy, maybe The Shield, conceivably some Spartacus, frickin Battlestar Galactica, and I forget what else I was watching while I worked on it."... is there some reason you did not mention Firefly? It seems like that's a pretty notable omission?


6. On 2015-04-28, Vincent said:

Alex: Hahaha! Yes, Firefly. I knew I was forgetting something obvious!


7. On 2015-04-29, Vincent said:

Caitie: Straight to the point!

Every game I've designed and finished since Apocalypse World has had winning and losing. I think there's a whole lot of game design that winning and losing opens up, just like turn-taking does, that is outside the entrenched form that my games always used to take.

Say that you want to make a rpg in the horror subgenre of murderous ghost stories, for instance. The entrenched mode among us old Forgies is to systematize the story - protagonist(s), conflict across moral lines, escalation, resolution - and furthermore, to systematically democratize it at the table. The result of this kind of design is that everyone at the table participates in creating a "satisfying story about murderous ghosts," right? This was my ideal game for 10 years.

But now I've come to think that it's not the best way to make a game in the horror subgenre of murderous ghost stories. This particular genre is as well-served, or better, maybe far better, by a game in which the driving impulse is not let's make a story but I really don't want to get murdered by ghosts.

With The Sundered Land, I tried it out on adventure fiction, and I found that it worked great there too. Freebooting Venus is a further development, an expansion, of this.

With Midsummer Wood, a fairy tale. Is it more true to fairy tales to say "let's create a fairy tale," or to say "I'm going to try to rob you fairies, and you're going to try to catch me"? Maybe the latter. Maybe the latter!

Why is it a big deal?

It's probably not a big deal at all. So a prevailing mode right now is to systematize democratically-created satisfying stories? That's actually good, not bad. Why should I fight against it? I shouldn't. It's just that it's not my ideal anymore, and I find working outside of it more inspiring.


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This makes...
JC go "It's totally a big deal."
VB go "It is?"*

*click in for more

8. On 2015-04-29, Vincent said:

Disco: Sort of? Just some of them.

Every game with a GM, the GM has some set of responsibilities, specific or general, implicit or explicit. Sometimes they overlap with other games' and sometimes they don't. The two I've named, "in-character" and "dirty secret," don't exactly overlap with other games, but with bodies of practice - they're good ways to GM games with pretty general and not very explicit GMing needs.

Owen: Yeah, I don't know. Playing and talking about Swords Without Master gave me productive insights into writing my Jakko Orange & Tam-tam stories... but is that the same as roleplaying teaching something to short stories? I don't know if it is.


9. On 2015-05-01, Ben Lehman said:

Expanding on your response to Caitie, I think that, at least for me, once I figured out we can consistently make satisfying stories with RPGs and it's actually not a big deal (which: basically, the first time I played PTA), I became interested in a different hard thing, which is consistently making particular emotional experiences.

Now I'm interested in an even different thing I think.


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This makes...
GcL go "So we gotta ask?"*

*click in for more

10. On 2015-05-15, Marhault said:

JC here, sorry for the delay!  I'm not sure I can answer the question simply, Vincent, but I'll try.

If the purpose of rules text is to structure the conversation that we have when playing the game, then associating the rules' direction to particular players with a clear goal is a great way to deliver that structure.  "Let's make a story" is a very unclear goal, and "Let's make a story about folks getting murdered by ghosts" is only a little bit more clear.

Once you put a win condition on it, every single instance of decision making serves a clear purpose.  "Will this help me steal from the fairies?"  "Will this help me not get killed by ghosts?"

I feel like I should also mention that this isn't new - not entirely.  You yourself were headed this way (the Agenda/Principle/Move structure in AW) and other Indie Games do stuff like this as well (Sorcerer, Polaris, DitV, MLwM).


11. On 2015-05-15, Marhault said:

Or maybe it's just a big deal because I like it.  That might be a simpler answer...


12. On 2015-05-20, Gordon said:

Marhault (and Vincent, I guess) -

"Every single instance of decision making serves a clear purpose"? That's crazy talk! People don't work that way. I mean, it's useful, in particular circumstances/ways, but let's not get carried away here ...


13. On 2015-05-21, Vincent said:

Marhault, I think you're right, but I think that the object of the game has that effect, whether it's a win condition or not.

I've basically lost all patience for RPGs that don't tell me the object of the game in a sentence or two. There's no earthly reason to keep it secret, fellow designers, except for RPG exceptionalism, and that's a mistake.


14. On 2015-05-22, Marhault said:

Vincent, I think we're in roughly the same place.  "Win conditions" are just a different version of "object of the game".  Maybe a somewhat stronger-purposed version.

Gordon, is it the vehemence of my language that you disagree with?  Like, if I said instead, that "having a win condition (or other objective) grants a clarity and focus to play that allows the player to concentrate his attentions", are we good then?


15. On 2015-05-26, Gordon said:

I think I agree with Vincent about the few-sentence object, and certainly think more than a smidgen of RPG exceptionalism is a mistake (guess I'm OK with a smidgen, though). I also seem to be committed to the idea that objects are WAY complex in ways he seems uninterested in.

Marhault, I think that's my answer for you. I'm fine if you include "or other objective", because I think that's very complex. Leading to complex clarity, and focus, and concentrations of attention.

Since the VAST majority of what I do with these ideas is "design" only in the sense of tinkering for play with a particular group, I can't pretend for a moment to stack my experience against those who've written/tested/re-written multiple games. On the other hand, I can only call 'em as I sees 'em.


16. On 2015-05-26, Marhault said:

That works for me!  I think we're as much in agreement as we can be without looking at specific instances.  Groovy.


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GcL go "Groovy is Good!"

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