Archive for April, 2013

Push: New Thinking About Roleplaying

April 9, 2013



Push: New Thinking About Roleplaying, Volume 1 (July 2006) was the first and only published volume of what was originally intended to be an annual journal of analysis and experimental games.

It was published just before GenCon 2006, which was the first time I met the folks from The Forge in person, though I had interacted online with that design community since 2002. To make it to GenCon with my box of 50 Lulu-printed books, I drove my 1991 Plymouth Acclaim from Boston to Indianapolis, camping along the way with Thomas Robertson and Shreyas Sampat. I’d never met Thomas in person, but had slept on Shreyas’s floor in Jersey one night when I was moving up to Boston. During our GenCon roadtrip, we decided to stop in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and had an insane time trying to get back into the U.S., partially because Thomas only had a provisional driver’s license printed on a piece of cardboard.

The volume took nearly two years to put together, which was way longer than I originally expected. I began soliciting for drafts and concepts in late summer 2004, right after I graduated from college, and organized a secret “Push Editorial Board” forum on The Forge in October of that same year. The journal was originally going to be called “Magic Missile” (a name that later was revived for an ill-fated edited volume organized by myself and Ryan Macklin), but I changed it—due to probably groundless IP worries—to match the title of my short-lived second column on RPGnet, which they have apparently deleted (my first column, The Fine Art of Roleplaying, is still available).

The contents of volume 1, included:

Cover by Clio Chiang

My brother, who works in indie comics, asked Clio about this cover some years later, and said she claimed not to remember it! Oh well. I had encountered her work in the first volume of Kazu Kibuishi’s Flight anthology, in which a bunch of young Canadian art school grads brought an anime and web comics sensibility to short-form print comics and basic blew the minds of everybody in the industry. I emailed Clio about the project and, to my complete surprise, she said yes.

The piece itself illustrates a scene from my main contribution to Push, an experimental game called “Waiting for the Queen / Tea at Midnight,” which was itself inspired by a fairly long-running collaborative YA fiction thing—named The Ashes of Shaolin—that Thomas, Shreyas, Joshua Kashinsky, and myself worked on in 2004-2005. It was a weird request but Clio did an amazing job. I especially love the effect she created with the snow.

I remember thinking at the time how refreshingly different it was for the cover of a game-related publication: it was a dramatic action shot, but there was no threat of violence, just a dropped bucket. The characters and setting were Asian, but that wasn’t really a point of emphasis; that’s just what they were.

Introduction by Jonathan Walton

This piece seems a bit naively enthusiastic in retrospect, perhaps, but not too embarrassing. I mention that my main inspirations for Push were: (1) McSweeney’s, which was a relatively new publication then; (2) Flight, which I just described; (3) Beyond Role and Play, the 2004 Nordic convention book, which I ordered in a batch of 4-6 copies for distribution to U.S. indie games folks; and (4) Matt Snyder’s indie roleplaying zine, Daedalus (there were several more issues than what’s linked here). Without those, Push probably wouldn’t have happened.

1. Collaborative Roleplaying: Reframing the Game by Emily Care Boss

It’s both amazing and unfortunate that this may still be one of the best introductions to GM-less / GM-ful play available. Emily really knocked this one out of the park. Sure, some of it could be updated now to reflect the massive changes that have taken place in game design between 2004 (when it was originally conceived) and, say, the publication of Microscope and The Quiet Year. But Emily brilliantly grounded this article in the idea that collaborative play wasn’t anything especially new, even back in 2006, but that people had been playing in those styles for years.

2. Immersive Story Methods for Tabletop Play by John H. Kim

One of the things I really appreciate about John’s articles, and this one is no exception, is that he often structures them around relatively detailed and lengthy discussions of the actual play experiences that have led him to certain conclusions or ideas. When I think about this article, the things that sticks out most clearly in my mind are the examples drawn from his “Water-Uphill World” campaign. These are such strong images and do a great job of providing concrete illustrations of what are otherwise relatively abstract concepts. How cool is it that learning magic is an actual maze?

3. Mridangam by Shreyas Sampat

Both the games in this anthology ended up being more conceptual-art pieces than things that saw a lot of play, which is unfortunate but maybe predictable, given how experimental and unplaytested they both were. Still, Shreyas’s game was especially ambitious and boundary-pushing, and some of the ideas contained in this game later saw a fuller expression in the knife ritual of Mist-Robed Gate (2008). So many neat things happening here: an alternative history of roleplaying games, gesture-based resolution, using temples as play spaces, etc.

4. Against the Geek, Choice by Eero Tuovinen

Eero is obviously a genius. If you haven’t read his recent posts on old school D&D, you are really missing out, whether you like that style of play or not. In this piece, Eero talks about why translating My Life with Master into Finnish—when most gamers in Finland speak and play games in English—was a somewhat radical and political act. Along the way he discusses the tabletop scene in Finland, something that is often overlooked by foreign (and domestic?) audiences due to the ongoing focus on larp in the Nordic countries, and presciently criticizes the dangers of a monolithic “geek culture.”

5. Waiting for the Queen / Tea at Midnight by Jonathan Walton

I’ve already discussed the collaborative fiction that gave rise to the subject matter here. Mechanically, I attempted to draw on the same old school text-adventure games that Jared Sorensen drew on for Action Castle and the other Parsely games, though Jared’s stuff is an independent and ultimately more successful development of similar ideas. Conceptually, it is kin to other two-player games, from Breaking the Ice to Murderous Ghosts, in terms of focusing closely on the back-and-forth between the players, something I explored earlier that year in Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan (2006). Finally, the distinction between “action” and “expression” here is still interesting.

Commentary by Victor Gijsbers, Jessica Hammer, Brand Robins, Annie Rush, Paul Tevis, and Moyra Turkington

One of the smartest things I did, inspired by the sidebar micro-fiction in the second edition of Nobilis, was to recruit some really brilliant folks to serve as commentators on the entire book. Some of the comments were funny, some were thoughtful, others were just strange, but it all added immensely to the reading experience and gives a hint of what the indie game community is like at its best: productive, enjoyable, friendly, creative, and loving.

I had followed Victor’s blog, The Gaming Philosopher, for a while and really liked the way his brain worked. Jess was and is still a shining star that we are lucky to have in our medium. In fact, she just announced today that she’s taken a position teaching game design at Carnegie Mellon. Brand is a long-time freelancer, but we don’t hold that against him. Annie, who was simultaneously releasing games through Wicked Dead Brewing Company with Jared and John Wick, drew these terrific and very cute illustrations as a way of commenting. Paul Tevis was in the midst of running the greatest RPG podcast of all time—Have Games, Will Travel—which should be kept in a capsule for aliens to find. And Mo was writing Sin Aesthetics, the coolest RPG blog ever (yes, including, Anyway), and I hadn’t yet totally made a fool of myself by gushing about it to everyone.


That’s a good question. It had a lot going for it.

First of all, there was an amazing cover by Bethany Culp, based on an experimental game by Eero. Bethany actually built a model of a crazy owl-headed monster in a monastery, and then photographed it.

Second, we also had articles on different aspects of roleplaying submitted by Tim Kleinart (The Mountain Witch), Jason Morningstar (The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach), and Bill White (Ganakagok), among others.

Looking back, though, I think the thing that ultimately killed it was that some other pieces—the ones I was personally most excited about—ended up being vaporware or just taking so long to put together that it sapped all the momentum that I had. Among these were an overview of Nordic larp, two different articles on online freeform, a history of pre-D&D roleplaying, and a piece on the roleplaying scene in China. Additionally, the second volume wasn’t happening any quicker than the first, and I really didn’t want to spend another two years putting it together.

After a while, progress ground to a halt, though it took me a long time to admit the second issue just wasn’t going to happen. I felt really bad—having accepted articles from folks like Tim, Jason, and Bill—for nothing to come of it. In retrospect, it would have been smarter just to make that call earlier, when the authors still might have been able to do something else with them, rather than have the project linger on until everybody had pretty much moved on to other things. The death of volume 2 also partially killed my enthusiasm for selling and promoting volume 1 (the other part was killed by taxes and bookkeeping, since I was splitting all profits with the contributors), so I eventually just made it free to download, with the permission of the original authors.

In any event, I learned a lot from the process, and I hope it’s still interesting, both for its content and as a record of a moment in time when anything seemed possible (just like it seems now!).

Sojourner: a short game inspired by Journey

April 3, 2013

NOTE: I wrote this game in January 2012, based on the early videos for Journey. I meant to update and expand it once I actually got to play the game, but that still hasn’t happened. In any event, now that Journey has won a bunch of awards, I thought people might be interested. I may work on it again at some point (and it would probably be way different) once I actually get access to a PS3 and have the chance to play Journey. But now it’s like some weird outsider/dream thing, based on a limited understanding of what the game is about.

The super cool folks at thatgamecompany are preparing to release a new game called Journey. Alongside the games by Team Ico, this is one of those titles that — all by itself — justifies owning a PS3. I can’t wait to get a chance to actually play it and have been ravenously devouring video in the meantime.

While these screenshots are stunning, they don’t do justice to the experience of the game. I suggest checking out some Youtube videos of the demo version (Part 1, Part 2) to get a better feel for what these folks have achieved. I can’t say enough good things about the stark simplicity and emotional depth that they’ve conjured together.

In any event, I contacted thatgamecompany on Twitter in November 2011 and asked if I could make “an indie experimental analog tabletop game” inspired by their work. They acknowledged that Sony actually owns the rights, due to their 3-game deal (for Flow, Flower, Journey) but said “if you don’t sell it, you can still make it!” Yay for the collaborative, mutually-supportive indie games spirit, which is so evident in indie tabletop games as well.

Here’s my sketch of the game, which will be updated and developed further in the future, especially once I actually get the chance to try it out with a friend or two. But it should be playable and fun as-is. Let me know if you play it!


This draft is inspired in part by D. Vincent Baker’s excellent games Apocalypse World and Murderous Ghosts, conversations and 1-on-1 play with John Harper, and, of course, videos and stills from thatgamecompany’s Journey. Some aspects are eerily reminiscent of Caravan by Emily Care Boss, though I encountered that game later. Several concepts and mechanics are drawn from a couple of my unfinished design projects, Fingers on the Firmament and Super Suit.


This game begins with just two players: one playing the sojourner and the other playing the journey. During the course of play, you may be temporarily joined by additional players playing other sojourners, but they are free to wander in and out of the game as they please.

One important part of play is creating a map of your journey. Standard-size computer paper works fine for this, along with pencils or other drawing tools. You will also need two dice (the six-sided kind) and may also find it helpful to have a token or pawn to mark the current location of the sojourner on the map.

The Invocations

If you are the journey player, begin by reading this passage aloud…

An ocean of sand stretches out in every direction, its dunes rippled by the desert winds. Far in the distance, the sacred mountain looms immense and silent, a beacon of light shining brightly from the highest peak. Will you reach the summit? What might you find there?

If you are the sojourner player, respond by reading this passage aloud…

I walk steadily through the sands, my red cloak rustling against the breeze. I am human but with a bird’s nature, voiceless except for my song, which has no words; faceless and yet striking and beautiful. There are not many of us left, but we are on a journey back home, whether we know it or not. Will I make it there? Are we even welcome? And will the others join my pilgrimage or heed their own hearts?

The Sacred Mountain

Take two sheets of paper: one will eventually become a map of the starting region (the necropolis, see below) and the other will become a map of the sacred mountain, far in the distance.

Begin with the map of the mountain. The journey player should sketch out its basic shape and most prominent features, but strictly limit themselves to aspects that the sojourner can see clearly from their distant location. The sojourner player can assist by asking some questions about what they can see or suggesting features of the mountain that they can barely make out. Are these mirages, strangely-shaped shadows, or the truth? That will only be discovered as the sojourner proceeds closer and the mountain becomes clearer. Consequently, try to limit yourselves as much as possible, only indicating 2-3 vague features at this stage. However, be sure to clearly indicate which point is the summit, where the beacon of light ascends into the sky.

Region One: The Necropolis

The sojourner player should then draw the glyph that identifies them, their “name” of sorts, using it to mark their starting location on one edge of the other blank sheet of paper.

Next, the journey player should describe and sketch out a map of the first region the sojourner encounters, which can take up some or all of this sheet of paper. While the regions encountered later in the game will be different for every group of players, the first region is always the same: a desert necropolis of scattered ruins and countless grave markers.

The journey player need not draw the entire region in great detail, at least not all at once. Instead, they should sketch out the major features that would be immediately noticed by a lone figure stumbling upon them after emerging from an ocean of sand: the largest ruins, rather than every block of stone or half-destroyed pillar, and even then just the basic shape of the most significant structures; major features of the landscape like sizable hills and valleys, rocky outcroppings, and waterfalls of sand; and certainly the larger fields of grave markers, some of which have red ribbons fluttering from them. You will add more detail to this map as the sojourner explores the region more fully.

Critically, all regions in the game—including the first—are empty of living things, including other people, unless the sojourner or journey player invoke the rules for encountering another sojourner.

Exploring a Region

When exploring a region of the map, the sojourner player describes where the sojourner walks and what they do, but can’t describe what they say (since they have no voice, just a wordless song) or what they feel. As the explore the region, they can ask the journey player questions about what they see, hear, or otherwise experience and the journey player responds, drawing additional details and features on the map or simply describing things that are too small or complicated to illustrate.

The Core Moves

There are several things that the sojourner player can do which break up the normal pattern of play described above. These things are called the “core moves” and generally work to push the game forward towards its ultimate resolution. However, it’s important to remember that move-less play—exploring and asking questions about what you experience—is critical for getting to the point where it makes sense to use a core move. It sometimes makes sense to “chain” a series of moves together, but the game should not always be a series of moves, but vary between making moves and exploring/questioning.

All of the core moves involve the sojourner player doing something and the journey player making a judgment call about whether or not the sojourner’s actions initiate one of these moves. If so, follow the instructions for that move; if not, continue to explore and question until the conditions for one of the moves is met. If things become confusing or don’t seem to be going anywhere, stop playing and talk about it.

The core moves are as follows:

When the sojourner resumes their journey towards the sacred peak:

  • the journey player describes and illustrates ruins which appear out of the dusty air or catch your attention; these ruins are not always directly in front of you, but may be off to the side or far in the distance; if the ruins are already on the map, illustrate or describe them in greater detail.
  • the journey player rolls 1 die or selects a result from the following list, describing the ruin to match but adding their own details and bringing it to life:
    1. this is a partially buried block of stone.
    2. this is a fragment of ancient architecture.
    3. this contains a stele or statue.
    4. this is a lesser ruin, containing some secret.
    5. this is a lesser ruin, but impossible to reach from the ground.
    6. this is a greater ruin, but impossible to reach from the ground.

When the sojourner searches for something moving amidst the ruins, roll 2 dice:

  • On a 5 or less: you find nothing but swirling sand.
  • On a 6-8: you find red ribbons floating in the air.
  • On a 9 or greater: you find silver cloth. Add +1 to the length of your tassel. If you have no tassel yet, your cloak grows a long tassel from the hood, which begins at length 1.

When the sojourner interacts with swirling ribbons:

  • they gain a number of “float” tokens equal to the length of their tassel.
  • when the sojourner wishes to use their cloak to float through the air, roll 2 dice and add the number of float tokens they choose to spend:
    • On a 6 or less: the sojourner can float to any adjacent ruin.
    • On a 7-9: the sojourner can float to any ruin currently on the map.
    • On a 10+: as below or the sojourner can reach a previously unreachable lesser ruin.

When you awaken a lesser ruin, roll to determine the results:

  • ribbons emerge, which recharge your ability to float
  • ribbons emerge in great numbers and form a bridge to an unreachable place (you may have to do this several times to reach all the way to where you desire to go)
  • ribbons emerge in great numbers and carry you to an unreachable place
  • kites emerge, leading the way to the hidden places

When you awaken a greater ruin, all of these:

  • a ghostly figure appears
  • they tell you a story in pictographs, describing what happened here in 2-5 images
  • they add the pattern of this region to your cloak
  • they open a path to the next region on your journey

Sidenote on awakening ruins and what that might involve, being a fan of the player, and going with whatever they decide to do. The job of the journey player is to describe the things the sojourner encounters on their journey, not place difficult obstacles in front of them. Then again, not everything works on the first try. Find a balance that feels right.

When you see another sojourner, traveling in this direction:

  • go ask a stranger some questions
  • their answers generate the behavior of the other sojourner
  • if the stranger blows you off, the other sojourner just ignores you and walks off
  • if the stranger is interested and wants to know more about the game, they are welcome to join in for as long as they want, using the same rules as the sojourner player

Subsequent Regions

When the sojourner enters a new region:

  • features of the sacred mountain become clearer, as it becomes larger and closer in the distance
  • the journey player should describe and sketch out the new landscape, as they did for the necropolis
  • examples of new regions include the following (feel free to choose from this list or invent your own, based on what the sojourner has learned about these lands): the sanctum, the road, the shrine, the fortress, the village, the dry lakebed, the storehouse, the fields, the market, the city, the crossroads, the school, the caverns, the aquaduct, the tower, the quarry, the craftworks, the monastery.
  • certain ruins are difficult to reach without floating, and may require more floating power than the sojourner currently has
  • certain greater ruins are truly impossible to reach, at least at present, due to being high in the air, on the far side of a vast chasm, or something other means
  • certain greater ruins may even require more than one sojourner to awaken, though never the ruins required for moving to the next region on the way to the sacred mountain; these ruins have affects that are distinct from the other ruins in the game, though they should have a similar vibe; perhaps they reveal hidden areas or even a completely new region, perhaps they adjust certain features of the landscape, or perhaps they uncover additional information that isn’t critical but provides additional context

Final Region: The Sacred Mountain

Eventually, of course, the sojourner will reach the sacred mountain itself. At that point, take the map you have gradually created of the mountain and use it as the map of the final region. If your map of the mountain has grown especially complex, it may even make sense to take out some blank sheets of paper and break it down into a few smaller regions, copying over the features and ruins from your existing map.

The ruins and other features of the sacred mountain are handled the same as those in previously encountered regions, but feel free to change or add to the results of certain encounters, based on what the sojourner has learned over the course of play. The final move of the game works as follows:

When the sojourner has reached the end of their journey (they decide): the sojourner player should take a few minutes and describe an epilogue for the game. Does the sojourner stay there? Do they depart for somewhere else? Both of those questions many not even makes sense anymore, depending on what the final segments of your journey are like. In response, the journey player describes what the sojourner sees in their last surveying glance across the landscape, from the desert necropolis to the summit of the sacred mountain, noting how the landscape has changed due to the journey.