High Fidelity

February 8, 2008

Jason Morningstar asked me why textual fidelity was one of my main goals for the Water Margin hack. I see it as a variation on the historical fidelity in Jason’s games, actually, and was planning on talking about that in the game’s introduction. Just like how Grey Ranks and Night Witches educate people about under-appreciated historical events, I hope the Water Margin hack can help educate people about one of the classics of non-Western literature, something most people will never actually read (partially because it’s hard to find good translations in most bookstores).

For example, in the Water Margin hack, you play a group of fixed characters who don’t change mechanically over the course of up to 70 sessions of play. Instead of the characters changing, you just change which characters you’re playing between sessions. That’s very different from most of the stories modeled in roleplaying games, where creating your character and watching them develop mechanically over the course of play is the fundamental goal in most cases. But these characteristics of the game are directly derived from my subjective literary analysis of the original text and the way it is used in different parts of Chinese society (in opera or Yangzhou storytelling, for example).

My goals for this game are different than say, Meg Bakers’s goals for 1001 Nights. Meg wants you to create stories that are similar to those in Alf Layla wa-Layla, but relies on your knowledge of that text, gained vicariously in most cases, from various pastiches of it in Western culture. I can’t do that because hardly anyone knows the Water Margin in the West, not even enough to pastiche it. So part of what I have to do through the game’s text — and, even more, through the rules and structure of the game — is educate people about the Water Margin tradition and create guidelines that enable them to create what is basically Water Margin fanfic without actually having any familiarity with the Water Margin.

That is a difficult task! In playtesting my Avatar: The Last Airbender game, I found that it tended to fall apart or at least stop feeling much like Avatar if I had more than one player in the group who was not a somewhat dedicated fan of the TV show. I am much more confident that I will be able to avoid that problem with this game, but I’m still a bit worried, honestly. There are all these unstated implications of playing one of the 108 bravos and I’m not sure how to communicate them.

For example, the bravos do kill people, but only very rarely (it happens three times in the first 25 chapters), after demonstrating their anger and giving their opponent a chance to back down or submit. Only people stubborn enough to stand up to a bandit chieftain get killed, and generally these are stupid or arrogant local thugs that seem to “deserve it” (though, adulterous wives of the bravos are also numbered among the dead). How do I ensure that some players won’t simply walk around maiming people because “You said they were bandits and robbers, Jonathan”? I’m still working on that.

But I don’t want to make a game that’s “kinda like the Water Margin, if you squint.” That might be fun for laughs and a good time, but I also have a few more serious goals in mind, including the kinds of goals that you might find in game like Grey Ranks or Night Witches. I do want to communicate the awesomeness of this text to people and I want them to revel in it, not revel in something that is somewhat like it in some respects. I want people to go, “Wow, that Lin Chong is something else!”

EDIT: That last paragraph is not meant as a criticism of 1001 Nights, though I realize it could be read that way. Textual fidelity was not one of Meg’s goals for the game, which was a bit disappointing for me when I found that out, but it’s not a fair measurement to judge her game by, because it is quite excellent at fulfilling her own goals. Once I got over myself, I was able to enjoy 1001 Nights for what it is, instead of what I had hoped it would be. Above, I was simply talking about Water Margin in comparison to other games that aim to emulate a specific text (Star Wars, and, um… The Kevin & Kell Roleplaying Game), but end up creating something somewhat like it instead.

4 Responses to “High Fidelity”

  1. Jmstar Says:

    Oh hey, I’m all for examining assumptions but I think you read me wrong. I was commenting on the physical layout, organizational and informational approach rather than the textual content. So when you switched from a header reading “Crazy Dude Does Some Stuff” to “Chapters 20-35”, I found that jarring as a potential player. Because I don’t think I need to care about what happened in which chapter (correct me if I’m wrong) – I’m making it my own so that is irrelevant to me, right? But “Crazy Dude Does Some Stuff” mirrors “God Kings of War” in a satisfying, evocative, genuinely useful way. “Chapters 20-35” tells me nothing, despite the textual fidelity of the items beneath it.

  2. Jmstar Says:

    Finding a way to honor your source material and providing the tools to allow your players to do the same and have fun at the same time is a huge challenge. A body of literature seems much more challenging than history. Even with history, all I’ve been able to do is say “here’s some stuff; make it your own.”

  3. I don’t know how killing works in In a Wicked Age, but I assume it’s not suitable to the thematic needs you describe here?

    Even so, it wouldn’t be hard to put a set of conscious decision locks on the conflict-behavior of the bravos and/or antagonistic characters. Ritual question-and-answer phrases or something. “This character doesn’t like you.” “Despite that, I continue to engage with him.” “Now he’s working against you.” “I accept that risk, I need to convince him of X.” “Now he’s doing bad stuff X.” “Screw it, I’m killing him.”

    Hopefully, you could come up with something more sophisticated. Divide conflict into Dogs-like levels (Words, fists, mortal combat) and require some in-character justification for it (just not a great guy, annoyed by the character or something else, subject to a powerful desire).

    It will be very strange for me to see this game. My only exposure to the text was through the Suikoden games and Tsai Chi Chung’s series of comedic four-panel comic strips.

  4. Jason, skipping your first comment because we clarified it in the other thread. Yeah, I think I’m cheating a bit by creating most of the main characters in advance, which allows me to prep more background and tools before saying “make it your own.” The making of ownness is still really important, though, and I’d hate to do without it.

    Nicolas, Wicked Age handles PC death in a way that works pretty well. It’s NPC death that needs to change a bit, because the NPCs in Wicked Age are available as disposable fodder if need be. They are tools for the PCs to manipulate against each other, in many cases, and, which that also applies to the way bravos use other characters… there is a logic to the way in which bravos treat other people that I’m still working to articulate. Something like what you’re talking about might be what I end up with.

    Hopefully playing the game will make stuff like Suikoden make more sense (never played it myself, though I like the 8-bit illutrations of the characters in the early versions).

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