4 New, Useful Things

February 9, 2009

Rob Donoghue posted a list of 10 Useful Pieces of Gaming Technology, which is a mix of indie design techniques of the past 10 years and more mainstream stuff, including pretty limited things like “weighted skill pricing.” Since Shreyas has been pushing for me to write more about my approach to structured freeform, here’s my list of useful things, to serve as an outline of what I want to write about later. These are drawn primarily from my experiences working on the Good Ship Revenge, the Avatar game, Exalted hack, Mwaantaangaand, and Transantiago.

1. Theme Maps

Here are some theme maps that I’ve created for various games:

The Broken Wheel from the Good Ship Revenge
The Dharmachakra from the Avatar game
The Undying Bell Chakram from the Exalted hack
The World Encompassing Spider Pattern from the Exalted hack
Emily Care talks about the map we improvised at GenCon
The Yowa Diagram from Mwaantaangaand
Original Metro Creation Diagram from Transantiago
The Transantiago Metro from Transantiago

Theme maps are similar to relationship maps in many ways; they set up the initial connections between various themes that you want to emerge during play. However, unlike the way relationship maps are typically used in play, I use theme maps as boards on which to move tokens around. The tokens generally represent specific characters and the association of characters and themes generated by the board and moving pieces is used to determine what the next scene should be about or track progress on dealing with various themes.

Put another way, theme maps operate very much like oracles that are consulted constantly during the game, instead of just at the beginning of play. Like oracles, they piece out bits of setting and theme for the players to deal with right then, as they come up, instead of requiring players to consider the long list of things that they eventually want to deal with and decide which one to handle next.

As I use them, very few strategic or tactical choices that are required to move around a theme map. You do not need to plot your character’s movement several moves in advance, but instead deal simply with the options facing them in a particular scene or single move. You instead explore where your character ends up over the course of several moves and all moves result in interesting places to be.

2. Evolving Traits

Evolving traits are inspired by Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday and the way traits change in Dogs in the Vineyard. Basically, traits need to have a way of transforming into new traits such that the new trait comments on the old trait. Traits don’t become better, they become different, illustrating how the character or situation or place has changed. This seems like a simple thing, but it is really potent. (NOTE: Folks are calling this “liquidity” in the comments section of Rob’s post.)

3. Multiple Tracks of Progression

Characters (and situations and settings) are complex things and need to be developing in several different directions simultaneously. These can be arranged hierarchically (as they are in the Avatar game) — where a significant progression on a fast, easy track leads to a slight progression on a slow, difficult track — or it a serious of different but related spheres that don’t necessarily have a strict correlation to each other.

The description of this one is short, not because it’s simple, but because it’s probably the most difficult of all of these. Figuring out how many different tracks of progression to have and how they should relate to one another is the main reason I haven’t finished any of these games, really. (Well, except for the ones that only have a single track of progression, like Transantiago; that one I haven’t finished because I’ve been buried in other things.)

4. Mandatory Descriptors

Ironically, traits in roleplaying generally have their potency measured in numbers (or die sizes, etc.) when the chief medium of play is description. Fudge-style adjectives move away from this slightly, but the hierarchical ranking of generic Fudge descriptors (Good, Terrific, Poor, etc.) is less interesting than other possibilities, I think. One alternative is to give potency to in-game entities (characters, NPCs, monsters, places, important scenes, etc.) by allowing them to affect the way things are described when they are present in a scene.

For example, say a monster has the description “I await in darkness to bring great slaughter on my foes.” That is really strong, dramatic stuff but, in normal play, it’s unlikely the monster would have the kind of impact that the description suggests. That’s just bravado written on the monster’s behalf by the game writers, when the beast is really a paper tiger. Normally, the monster might lurk in the shadows (“awaiting in darkness”) but it’s unlikely to actually be allowed to “bring great slaughter.”

But what if game entities like monsters (or player characters) are allowed to directly impact descriptions of play based on the traits and descriptions that are associated with them. What if, when the monster appeared, the player responsible for the monster could describe a great slaughter (because the description gave them that authority) or demand that the opposing players describe a great slaughter happening to their own characters? Then that monster is not full of bravado but is truly the horrible menace suggested by the description. It is capable of doing what its description says it can.

12 Responses to “4 New, Useful Things”

  1. Willem Says:

    I don’t have enough superlatives in my vocabulary to adequately describe my feelings about these 4 things, and all those beautiful maps –

    Please finish your games, sir!

  2. dscleaver Says:

    I love the last one, and your description of theme maps… makes me want to take a closer look for my own designs.


  3. Thanks folks! I keep kicking myself that I haven’t finished a game that demonstrates all this stuff yet. It would be really useful to hand to people, as well as being fun to play!


  4. Tell me more about theme maps. Or, maybe you can just point me in the general direction of an example? I’m not sure I grok it just yet.

  5. Jmstar Says:

    How about a Rob Donogue-style shout-out to playable games that already do the things you’ve enumerated here?


  6. Are you thinking about Grey Ranks in regards to #1, Jason? I mentioned some for #2. Bliss Stage and some of the other MLWM descendants comes to mind for #3, but I think there’s still a ton of work to be done there. I can’t really think of any games that do #4.

  7. Jmstar Says:

    Grey Ranks and Dirty Secrets, perhaps.


  8. Jason G: Should have more stuff on theme maps eventually.

    Jason M: Unfortunately I don’t own either of those or have any experience playing them. This is another one of those cases where the content of those games — which isn’t really where my interests are — has prevented me from learning about stuff that’s mechanically similar to stuff I’m doing. I’ll have to rectify that.

  9. Jmstar Says:

    I was wondering! GR hits 2 and 3 as well, which isn’t a huge surprise since I think we share a lot of head-space. Dirty Secrets hits 1 and 2. I can’t think of anything that hits 4, although it’s also an interest of mine. Will you be at Dreamation?


  10. I hope so! Have to get this paper finished for work first!

  11. Alex D Says:

    Couldn’t Misspent Youth be a good (if limited) example of #2?
    Pretty much every trait has (potential) change built into it…

    What about a game, when you select a trait, you also select two potentially transformed traits for it… then, as you play, you build towards one or both. Eventually you’d choose a specific one, buy it, and transform the trait.

    Then pick two potential traits for the new one and start all over.
    This strikes me as #2, but maybe with some #3 built in?


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