Archive for February, 2007

Great Reckoning in a Little Room

February 25, 2007
    When a man’s verses cannot be read, nor a man’s good wit seconded with the forward child understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.
    — Shakespeare, referencing the killing of Marlowe

Here’s the usual suspects of 1593.

The Men in the Room

Ingram Frizer: The one who stabbed Marlowe. A servant and spy for Thomas Walsingham.

Nicholas Skeres: Servant and spy for Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. Involved in investigating the Babington Plot.

Robert Poley: Servent and spy for Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. Involved in investigating the Babington Plot.

Masterminds

Thomas Walsingham: Cousin of Elizabeth I’s deceased spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. Marlowe was staying at Thomas Walsingham’s house when he was summoned by the Privy Council to be tried for Heresy, mere weeks before his death.

Frances Walsingham: Only daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham. Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen. Widow of Sir Philip Sidney, killed in fighting in the Netherlands. Wife and later the widow of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex: Second husband of Frances Walsingham. Later executed for treason in 1601.

Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury: Elizabeth I’s new spymaster after the death of Sir Francis Walsingham. Rival of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Sir Walter Raleigh: Former favorite of the Queen. Fellow atheist and friend of Christopher Marlowe. Imprisoned in the tower after the Queen’s death in 1603. Executed in 1618.

Thomas Kyd: Fellow playwright and friend of Marlowe, worked with him as a part of Lord Strange’s Men. Produced evidence, under torture, that incriminated Marlowe as a heretic.

Arabella Stuart: Tutored by Marlowe. Potential heir to Queen Elizabeth. Later involved in more than a few plots. Dressed up as a man and attempted to flee. Died in the tower in 1615.

Mary Queen of Scots: Catholic! Potential heir to Queen Elizabeth. Subject of most of the plots of this era, including the Babington Plot for which she was executed in 1587, five years before Marlowe’s death.

Slippery Kit

February 22, 2007

Another conversation about the game-in-progress. One of these days I’ll figure out a good format to repost chats. By the way, I think the female character may end up just being called “The Agent” or “The Agent of the Queen.”

Jonathan
– i kinda suspect that i want the second character to have a hand in his death
– or to ultimately be responsible
– but maybe it should end with things unclear as to whether he’s actually dead
– so it’s not clear who triumphs
– that makes it more interesting
– maybe Marlowe’s last letter is “to be read on the event of my demise”
– and anticipates it

Shreyas
that’s pretty exciting

Jonathan
– hmm, i’m thinking maybe that the female character’s letters are all to various people, trying to arrange Marlowe’s death
– and the other player plays all these people who keep being baffled when Marlowe slips out of their hands
– so like “sorry, mistress. we tried to poison him, but the poor sod didn’t seem affected in the slightest”
– so like Kazekami Kyoko in that way
– with one person concocting plans that the other challenges
– but eventually, they get him

Shreyas
– dude
– yes
– that’s um really weird
– but in a cool way
– i want to play it

Shreyas
– so is the final letter pre-written?

Jonathan
– hmm
– could be
– i wonder if play could continue even after his death
– “to make sure we got him”

Shreyas
– haha

Jonathan
– i just don’t want it to become Kill Doctor Lucky

The Untimely Demise of Christopher Marlowe

February 22, 2007

So I finally have a premise and a title for the game for Josh’s girlfriend (to go with the basic rules which have been done since Sunday). As a bonus, The Untimely Demise of Christopher Marlowe sounds somewhat similar to Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan — they are both flowery and both about a famous man’s death — which reflects their interconnectedness.

The game will concern itself with the events leading up to the mysterious death of “Kit Morley” as he was often known, supposedly in the scuffle over paying the tab. However, since said scuffle involved several known spies of Lord Walsingham and Marlowe was about to go on trial (being — according to various accounts — an atheist, a Catholic, a heretic, a counterfeiter, a spy, a conspirator, a lover of attractive young men, a hedonist, and/or William Shakespeare), it seems unlikely his death (or the staging of it) was entirely accidental.

Now I just need to find a female character as devious and interesting as Marlowe. Right now, Arbella Stuart, who Marlowe may have tutored at some point, looks to be a promising candidate. She was potentially next in line for the throne after Elizabeth I, which gives her more than a few reasons to be involved in Walsingham’s espionage activities. And just because she was 18 when Marlowe died (at 29) doesn’t mean there couldn’t have been some romantic or sexual tension going on there.

The other option is, of course, the imprisoned Catholic monarch herself, Mary Queen of Scots. The only problem was that Mary was dead 5 years before Marlowe.

Or I could have the main characters not include Marlowe or anyone else especially famous at all, and instead simply be conspirators involved in the mysterious events surrounding his death. Hmm. Still some thinking to be done, but I’m getting pretty close now.

Oh, one other thing.

Kit Marlowe died — and I’m not making this up — from being stabbed in the face. So, basically, it’s an indie game waiting to happen 🙂

Focusing the Game

February 21, 2007

Last night, Josh hinted that he might prefer a more focused game than the open-ended system I was writing. So now I’m thinking about making the letter-writing game be about espionage, either the Walsingham conspiracy (Elizabethan spymasters!) or Civil War-era spy networks (which involved numerous notable women). But I guess I’ll need a new title, then. Maybe The Greenhow Ring or The Babington Plot.

Bonus: Just got off the phone with my dad and he said that noted playwrite and general rapscallion Christopher Marlowe was reputed to be part of a Catholic conspiracy against Queen Elizabeth (organized by Mary Queen of Scots), hence his mysterious death in a London barfight. Hmm…

For the Right Reasons

February 20, 2007

I was thinking today that there are two approaches to gamethought.

1) Thinking and posting about games to gain the attention and respect of others for being gosh-darned smart, interesting, and sexy.

2) Thinking and posting about games because you’re actually working on a project — whether for publication or your local gaming group or for yourself or for someone else — and gamethought is the byproduct.

I suspect that online forums — the Forge, Story Games, etc. — even if they start out with other goals in mind, gradually tend to drift towards the former. Or maybe, those of us (including, of course, me) who are easily seduced by the instant gratification of [1] do that so much that those forums aren’t great environments for [2].

Thing is, people’s attentions are ephemeral. The “Hey over here! Look at me!” thing might work in the short term, but in order to really gain people’s respect and long-term attention, you really have to put up AND shut up. You have to stop tooting your own horn in their faces and just quietly do your thing in the corner. After all, if you and your ideas are as awesome as you think they are, people will be drawn in without you doing a whole lot. And that’s real gratification.

Really, this is a marketing lesson. If you’re all hype and no substance, people will get bored with the hype pretty fast. But if you have a lot of substance, a tiny bit of hype will blossom into a huge hype machine run by other people, as your admirers tell other people how cool you are.

If you can’t tell by now, this is an attempt at self-criticism. Sure, I’ve been around long enough to have slowly earned the respect and admiration of some pretty cool people. And I’m really grateful for and humbled by their support. But I really only started feeling productive, as a designer, when I left the Forge and started this blog. So now I’m thinking about spending less time on Story Games and more time on my new WordPress blog.

Instant gratification is hurting my productivity, basically. I need to get away for a while and finish a few things. I’ll still need support. But I need to write games for some long-term awesomeness, rather than writing posts for some fickle attention. I need to sit down and write games for myself or for specific people. I need to finish Gridiron Gods for John Harper. I need to finish The Good Ship Revenge for Mike Sugarbaker and Andrew Kenrick. Right now, I need to finish While You’re Far Away for Josh Kashinsky and his girlfriend and Mo.

So I guess you folks are stuck with me here (and here) for a while. Hope my explosion of productivity on the blog side of things won’t overwhelm you.

Retro: Gridiron Gods

February 19, 2007

This game has a long, involved history that I wasn’t even fully aware of until I started writing this retrospective. Bear with me.

The story begins with my Argonauts project, which was an attempt to hack Steve Kenson’s Mutants & Masterminds to handle tragic Greek heroes. The inspiration and development of Argonauts will be the topic of another retrospective, so I won’t talk too much about it now. Suffice to say, John Harper was one of the project’s most enthusiastic supporters and he was clearly sad when it looked like the game was in limbo, despite being promoted in an issue of Matt Synder’s Daedalus zine.

Then in Oct 2003, a Forge poster by the name “RaconteurX” (real name, anyone?) said “…we don’t see any sports roleplaying games. Why is that, Ralph? I’d love to know. …Actually, I have an answer. It’s because gamers don’t want to play games about those things, and they’re the ones who write the games.” By this point, I’d been thinking about sports RPGs for a little while, based on the fun I had watching the basketball anime series Slam Dunk with my host brother in China. So I started a thread on sports RPGs, but people seemed mainly to be interested in crazy lasersharked fantasy/scifi sports instead of a game that tried to emulate actually playing sports, watching sports, or coaching sports.

Later, in the same 2004 Forge “wishlist” thread that inspired Nine Suns Must Fall, John Harper said: “I want Gridiron, by Jonathan Walton. The sports RPG about rookies in the NFL. What are you willing to do for your career? How much can you take? Are you a winner? At what cost?” This was clearly a terrific concept, but I honestly forgot that John originally proposed the idea until 20 minutes ago when I stumbled on the thread. How prophetic and utterly appropriate!

A few short months before GenCon 2006, John Harper was struck with the uncontrollable need to put aside his long-awaited Trollbabe adaptation, Stranger Things, and write Agon, a game about tragic Greek heroes. Agon sampled most of the good stuff from Argonauts, though I get the sense that most of the borrowing was semi-unintentional, just like how I’d totally forgotten John’s Gridiron proposal. In any case, these samples were remixed with heaping portions of John’s own design genius, creating a game very different from what I had planned for Argonauts, but one that kicked ass in no uncertain terms. I became one of the game’s biggest fans, writing a rave review for 20×20 and playing it a bunch both at GenCon and back here in Boston.

Then came Frank T’s “1st Transatlantic Setting Design Challenge,” in which designers were supposed to choose an existing game system and write an adaptation for a new setting. After fiddling around with making Folkways work under Clinton Nixon’s The Shadow of Yesterday system, I decided, completely unaware of John Harper 2004’s wish, to write a game about American football using Agon as my base. It was to be called, coincidentally enough, Gridiron Gods.

The game replaced Agon‘s skills with individual player positions. Players could be impaired just like attributes and skills to represent them being tired or injured. The battlemap was going to be replaced by a model of a playing field divided into ten spaces each representing 10 yards. If you’re on offense, you have to advance across into the opposing endzone in order to score.

Aside from players, I also included a space for player-created “Unquantifiables” which would also assist in winning the game. These could include things like “Strong Working Class Roots” or “Laser-Guided Missiles” depending on the genre and degree of silliness you were planning on.

I planned for the example team to be the fictional Pemberton Panthercats from Jason Morningstar’s Shab Al-Hiri Roach.

To sum things up, this is a game I would really like to finish, both because it would be a fitting end to all the weirdly unintentional mind-sharing with John Harper and also because having a sports game (even one about the most myopically American of all sports) would be sweet.

Edit: Additionally, Joe Prince’s game, Contenders (about boxing), has already proved that sports games totally rock, especially in a short campaign with brackets and rematches and the like. And Vincent Baker’s Mechaton has shown that the miniatures model of “create a team and tweak it over the course of a season” is something that even crazy Nar hippie roleplayers can get into. So, yeah, more inspiration from GenCon 2006 and after.

Sources
– 2003 May 20: One of the Major Argonauts Threads on the Forge
– 2003 Oct 15: Argonauts Preview in Matt Snyder’s Daedalus
– 2003 Oct 28: RaconteurX Asks Why There’s No Sports RPGs
– 2003 Oct 29: My Forge Thread on Sports RPGs
– 2004 Apr 04: John Harper “Wishes” That I Write Gridiron
– 2006 Aug 10: John Harper Releases Agon at GenCon
– 2006 Aug 15: Cache of My Agon Review at 20×20
– 2006 Nov 16: Frank T Announces the Setting Contest
– 2006 Nov 28: Gridiron Gods Initial Thoughts
– 2006 Nov 29: First Attempt at Picking a Spread of Positions
– 2006 Nov 29: Description of the “Planet Football” Setting
– 2006 Dec 01: First Attempt at a Team Sheet
– 2006 Dec 04: Thanks to Jruu, I Discover Strat-O-Matic Games
– 2006 Dec 05: Thoughts on How to Adapt Die Rolls for Football

Retro: Nine Suns Must Fall

February 19, 2007

On the Forge Birthday Forum in 2004, Ben Lehman said, “I want an Asian fantasy / history game that isn’t reheated D&D and SamuraiNinjaKewl. And, of course, Mr. Walton writes it.” So I started work on something that was originally known as The Shang Dynasty Game.

This project was tangentially related to a few earlier thoughts (not really an actual project, as such) that anachronistically combined the Warring States period with Chinese rock musicians circa the 1980s. As I described it then:

    The Qin Emperor, in a effort to pacify the nations he has conquered, has issued a edict outlawing rock ‘n’ roll. Now, the rocker heroes of Zhao and Chu have raised the devil sign of rebellion, strapped their amps to their horses, slung a eight-string over their shoulders, and are staging the biggest rock show that All Under Heaven has ever seen… in the heart of the Imperial Palace at Xi’an. Do you RAWK or give up the axe? You RAWK, of course!”

Of course, the project that Ben convinced me to work on was dramatically different than this. Rich Forest provided me with a truly inspiring core concept: “Shang Dynasty China meets Disaster Movie!” The idea was that you would play the court diviners of one of the last Shang kings, rulers who were known for being arbitrary, ruthless, and incompetent, at least in comparison with their honored predecessors. Natural disasters are plaguing the land and the diviners, using their rituals and peering into the future, have opportunities to prevent or mitigate these diasters, if only they can convince the ruler to allow them to take action in time. Ultimately, the game was to be a tragedy, but one in which the diviners could succeed at making a difference, saving large numbers of people or even preparing for the next dynasty to come.

Progress in the game is measured in suns. The Shang believed in ten suns that each took turns ruling over one day or a ten-day week. However, the Zhou kings, who eventually defeated the Shang, believed only in a single sun and spread the story of the great archer Hou Yi who shot down nine suns from the sky. So every time a disaster is not circumvented or the Shang king grossly mismanages the affairs of state, a sun plummets from the heavens (maybe that could be what actually causes the flood or famine or whatever?) and the Shang Dynasty moves closer to collapse. Interestingly, it would have been a game that could be played in 10-session arcs, with each session representing a single disaster.

The system of the game never really came together in any meaningful way. There were some discussions of Shang period divination techniques in the thread and how to go about recreating those, but mostly it was just an amazing premise and game structure that never developed the basic rules that would have allowed it to be playtested.

Sources:
– 2004 Apr 04: Concept Originally Suggested on “Wishlist” Thread
– 2004 Apr 08: Shang Dynasty Game Thread on the Forge
– 2005 May 19: Livejournal Post with New Description

Retro: The Good Ship Revenge

February 19, 2007

This project is an easy one to start off with because all work on it was concentrated in a few days, right before I got distracted by the Avatar game. The plan was to write a game similar to my freeform duets (Heavenly Kingdoms, Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan, Waiting/Tea), but for a variable number of players. The game also drew on The Pale Continent‘s use of chess pieces and ideas about incorporating board game techniques that would later see the light of day in Avatar and the Exalted hack.

The premise was terrific. Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and Calico Jack Rackam command the rollicking casual-sex-and-death pirate ship, The Revenge. The original subtitle was “Yo ho ow, emo pirates!”

Two to five players would control the three co-captains and a few other important characters which would be represented as major chess pieces (not Pawns). A few other major pieces would represent important NPCs. All minor characters are Pawns. Black pieces are pirates, white pieces are lawful citizens.

Players take turns moving pieces around a board shaped like a broken wheel, with each space representing a basic piratical activity to frame the next scene about. Major characters would spend these scenes engaging in sex and violence (or whatever else they desired) with any minor characters they liked and any major characters whose players agreed to participate. However, in order to have sex with or kill a major NPC or PC, their pieces have to cross over the treacherously emo “Love & War” space (where some undeveloped resolution system would kick in) and from there to spaces specifically for “Sex” and “Death.”

All in all, a very fun little game and one I’d love to return to at some point. It seems like it could be whipped up into a fully working 10-page booklet without much trouble. Perhaps I could sell it alongside Seadog Tuxedo as a couple of short pirate games.

Sources
– 2006 May 14: Initial Wheel Design and Discussion
– 2006 May 15: Design Goals
– 2006 May 17: Explaining the Rules to Josh and Shreyas Over Chat
– 2006 May 18: Second Draft of the Broken Wheel

WordPress Retrospective

February 19, 2007

So, based on advice from tons of folks, I’m planning to eventually move this blog over to my new WordPress blog which just went live (at least, officially).

Now, this change isn’t going to happen immediately. I still have that series on “Traitless games” to finish here. However, in the meantime, I’m going to try to collect links to all the game design work I’ve ever done and turn them into a retrospective that’s going to kick off the new WordPress blog. So if you want to hear about We Regret to Inform You the Gamemaster is Dead and other obscure, older projects, subscribe to the new feed and then you won’t have to worry about missing stuff when the true switchover happens in a few weeks.

There is a LOT of ground to cover in the design retrospective (I have accumulated dozens of half-finished projects over the years), so I’m going to try to post about one project every day or two, with links to all the old stuff and some commentary on what’s important about it and what might happen to it in the future.

Anyway, see you there on the new blog and I’ll see you here as well as we wrap up this one.

Retrospective

February 19, 2007

So it’s final. I’m going to be moving the One Thousand One blog over from my old Blogger site. It’s going to be a gradual process, however. I still have a series of posts on “Traitless Games” to finish over on Blogger first.

In the meantime, what I want to do over here is take this opportunity to consolidate all the design work I’ve done and categorize it under various “project” headings. That way, if anyone wants to know about The Good Ship Revenge or Nine Suns Must Fall or some of the other more obscure things I’ve worked on over the years (or if I want to dig them up and revive/mine them), everything will be available in one place.

So prepare yourselves for a Jaywalt retrospective. While some, if not most, of these projects will never see the light of day as a full game (unless someone else finishes them, like how Argonauts was sampled by John Harper in making Agon), each one contains important lessons and interesting ideas that might be valuable in future work.

Humble Mythologies d20

February 18, 2007

So back in… I don’t know, 2004 or something, Eero Tuovinen and I were discussing this game concept called Humble Mythologies. The idea was to write a game about the real world, in which normal people did normal things, but have game events be driven by a secondary, abstract layer that was superimposed over the top of normal life. I think it was going to be kinda Tarot influenced. So that businessman might be the Knight of Pentacles. And he might try to capture The Star, which would mean reaching some personal or professional goal. I hope you get the sense of what the premise was.

Anyway, Ashi apparently invented the same game with a few of her friends, though using d20 as a base and set during the protests of 1960s America. Very cool.

Games Without Traits: Part 1

February 18, 2007

What was going to be a single post is turning into a series. I discovered I have a lot to say.

Ninety-five percent of all published roleplaying texts and, probably, eighty percent of all roleplaying groups presuppose an artificial divide between the rules of the game and the content of play. Not everything that happens in play is considered to have “weight” when it comes to resolution systems, the mechanical core of ninety-nine percent of all published games. Instead characters, events, situations, locations, items, and the like are distilled into lists of descriptors, measurements, resources, and the like. It doesn’t matter, mechanically speaking, if a given character has a competitive relationship with her sister if that is not somehow embodied in a Trait of some kind (though, occasionally, Traits are improvised on the spot).

The storytelling movement in roleplaying, to which the indie roleplaying movement is closely connected, tries to make heretofore mechanically inconsequential details more important by turning them into Traits. In Vampire, characters have a Humanity score that measures how well they are able to maintain their composure and morals despite being blood-sucking monsters. Games like Sorcerer, Riddle of Steel, My Life With Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, Breaking the Ice, Polaris, and Shadow of Yesterday to name just a few, are clearly part of this tradition, turning things like “Attraction,” “Self-Loathing,” “Light,” “I Will Rule This Land,” and “My Daddy Used To Whup Me Good” into Traits.

Games that turn really interesting and unusual things into traits are sweet. My last post talked about different ways to represent traits in play and many of those representation methods arose, I suspect, from trying to represent things that are sometimes awkward to contain in a description, a single word, a number, or a die roll. Having many different ways to represent Traits and being ever more creative with Traits, picking fascinating and non-obvious things to give mechanical weight to, enables us to explore a nearly infinite range of potential play content.

However, in other ways, thinking of game content in terms of Traits has the potential to limit roleplaying’s development. Roleplaying groups develop rich symbolic languages in the course of building communities of practice, and the nuances and depth of these languages is not always reflected in Traits. My own dissatisfaction with the focus on conflict or task resolution in most game design discussions may really be a dissatisfaction with Traits. After all, why do we describe game entities in terms of Traits?

1. To summarize things to make them easier to remember (like taking notes).
2. To enable things to be processed or compared in traditional resolution systems.

I tend to think that [1] can be accomplished in plenty of other ways, without requiring Traits. But [2] is a big deal. Traits are in bed, effectively, with traditional resolution systems, which in turn trace their roots back to wargaming. Now resolution can do a lot. I’m not trying to suggest otherwise. As Shreyas just commented to me, “It allows you to do a lot of neat stuff: compartmentalize things, manipulate them abstractly, etc.” But, like Traits, it’s not the be-all and end-all of roleplaying and, in the next post, I’ll talk about a few alternatives.