Saturday, 16 January 2021

Journeylands Solo Play Report

Record of a solo playtest of Journeylands #1: Coral Canyons. 100% procedurally generated using the material and mechanics available in the zine.

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Set out at 5pm. Using the PsyNav for the first time is... weird, but I soon settle into it. I know where I need to go.

A couple of minutes of driving and I’m getting the hang of that too. Think I can go a little faster. Saw a rock that, uh... Well let’s just say I won’t forget its shape if i see it again. Will make a good landmark on my way back to Mack’s.

17:05, saw a whale! Just for a second. It came down, still too far above to touch but I could see it clearly.

Came across a stretch of soft coral reef. I’d heard about these things, they’ll sting you if you’re not careful. I... wasn’t careful. Was already going pretty fast so figured I could just breeze through and avoid the worst of it, but they zapped the SABA 2.0 and damaged her a little. If I come back this way I’ll try going slower. Or use the shield.

Don’t know why I’m in such a rush. Still got plenty of time. But wow it feels good to go fast. The sun shining, fish swimming...

17:12, I saw what looked like an old hut. Huh. Whizzed right by it, but it seemed empty. Good to know it’s there, I guess? Wonder who built it. If anyone lives there.

Woo! This thing can really go! I’m shooting through the canyons like a sailfish now. Just leapt a gorge or a ravine or something - didn’t look down, probably a good idea. Felt like i was flying as I went across it though. Time now is quarter past 5... making good tracks.

I can see why they call this the coral canyons. Just passed through all this pink-purple stuff, looked like rippling waves. Or brains, haha. Slowed down a bit to appreciate the views.

... And, the PsyNav started calmly humming at me. Sure enough, right up ahead was the junk collector I was looking for. It feels weird how accurate it is... But strangely peaceful as I reach my destination.

The collector doesn’t say much. I explain what Mack needs and he happily hands it over. I guess people just share here in the Journeylands.

Time now is about 17:18. Got a while before sunset.

I think I’ll take the long way back.

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Click here to be notified when Journeylands #1 launches on Kickstarter as part of ZineQuest 3.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

The Road to Journeylands

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you may remember Journeylands, my small ruleset about roadtripping a post-post-post-post apocalypse in custom vehicles.

It’s back, baby.

Art by Krzysztof Maziarz
Done for the original version of the game, way back when
Doesn’t fully work with the new version of the setting but I’ll probably still use it because LOOK AT IT

The new Journeylands will be a completely new system with accompanying anticanon setting, delivered in the form of a magazine. Each issue will be completely playable on its own, with a “vertical slice” of game materials, or you can of course combine, collect, mix and match and - hopefully - homebrew.

The new system is modular - each widget on your dashboard (read: each bit of the character sheet) is a diegetic part of your vehicle that can function independently. So these are rules and tools, mechanics that you can piece together into your own game. Every issue will have its own “finished” sheet, plus some extras to swap in and out. Then you can get another issue for more widgets, or make your own and share them.

While each widget is independent, they will of course interact in some ways and function differently depending on how they’re assembled as a whole! I hope this facilitates play through design and allows people to build games the way they want to play them. (Ha! I just tricked you into acknowledging and engaging with the GM’s role as game designer >:D)

Journeylands is also playable solo. Solo play differs pretty heavily to group play due to the absence of the classic GM role, but I hope it will be a welcome take on the ruleset for people who want to experience it that way. You can read the magazine, play a little game for yourself, have a nice time, lovely jubbly. I know last year made getting together for games hard for most of us, so hopefully this helps.



What else to say...?

Ah yes, Journeylands #1: Coral Canyons will launch on Kickstarter as part of ZineQuest 2021!

I don’t know if ZineQuest is happening this year, but, uh... well, it is now, I guess. The real ZineQuest is the friends we made along the way etc. I hope those of you who’re able to will stick around and back this project (and any other zines folks put out for ZineQuest!), and if you’re not that’s fine - share it with your friends and get excited anyway. I want to pay cool artists to make cool art. I might even contact writers I like to contribute for stretch goals if that doesn’t prove too scary for me 😬

Journeylands is a weird place that’s very personal for me. I’ve said before that I have an easier time writing J’lands content than for anything else - that’s because a lot of it is just natural, unfiltered “me”. It’s very silly, cool and hopeful. I hope it resonates with someone.

You can keep up to date with progress on the project, yell at me about it, and find out when it launches on Twitter. I’ve started a #TheRoadToJourneylands hashtag to talk about the game’s development. So, follow me for that. Or follow me and mute it, haha.

Here’s to 2021.

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

Movement Through Space



On a wee little break, such as it is, over the Christmas season, such as it is. But had this thought and felt like writing, so here you go. No idea if it’s worth reading, mind.

Take care of yourselves and the people close to you, and I’ll see you in the New Year to do this all over again.

X

I tend to think of a game as a space, not literally. Something like: “A game is a theoretical space defined by its participants’ interactions with and around a set of rules while mitigating or subverting relevant consequences and obligations present for those actions outside the space, with the aim of facilitating exploratory experiences within participants, activated or driven by their chosen interactions.” Or whatever.

But most games that aren’t ttrpgs utilise physical space or representations of such in a much more direct way than this hobby does. That’s what I’m on about here - actual space. Or virtual space. The realm that gameplay happens in.

Sports have courts and fields, adventure playgrounds are the space, and other games become the physical space they take place in - hide and seek, tag, climbing a tree, etc. Even board games do more than most ttrpgs by having a board, or at least expecting a “play space” such as a table to house their components.

Video games take this one step further by representing physical space digitally, then allowing movement through that space vicariously through an avatar. Movement mechanics help define the space and vice versa - Mario being my go-to example for most things as his game design is widely and simply understood. But see how the way a PC/avatar can move in other games like Zelda BotW, Gravity Rush, Splatoon, and even the cursor in RTS games affects gameplay, and defines and is in turn defined by the space through which they move. And if you think I’ve used the word space too many times already, buckle up.

Ttrpgs don’t use or need space this way, being played through conversation. Any space - actual play space - is, generally, imagined.

Our relevant sphere, adventure games, has several approaches to this. Our go-to, and still a classic, is the dungeon map. The mechanics to move through these spaces are divorced from the maps themselves though - enough conversation, the medium’s proprietary core mechanic, can take the place of any physical map or drawing. More rigid mechanics such as movement speeds, encumbrance, etc, define and map the space in game terms like echolocation, through the avatar’s interactions, also giving the avatar its necessary movement mechanics through abstraction. Even if we were to put actual miniatures on a nice piece of gaming terrain, we would still be representing the game state rather than enacting or enforcing it, like a little real-time puppet show.

So then, the typical adventure game response to this lack of definition in the play space is to rigidly define necessary parameters and limitations that directly impact play, and leave the rest to oracles and the GM role. The rules, along with the social contract and play culture produce verisimilitude, the narrative equivalent of reliability for our fictional equivalent of a literal space.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with all this, in fact it all works remarkably well for half-century-old design. But it’s only one approach.

Another fairly typical game response in this space is to accept the lack of realised play space as a limit of the medium and design around it, whether through abstracting concepts of space and movement partially or entirely, or by rendering them irrelevant to play states through design. Some games might use range bands in place of literal measurements of fictional space; some might simply declare that you are wherever it seems like you should be. These rely more heavily on the social contract and are common in “story” games, in which oracles such as genre convention may be used in conjunction with GM fiat or group consensus. (Given the free form nature of the medium, these tools are of course available in any game.)

If we are designing an adventure game, however, and space needs to be both important to play and theoretically limitless in its specificity, defining that space is imperative. Some abstraction will always be necessary to avoid some Borgesian simulationist nightmare, and so it is then the nature of that abstraction that will define our game space, the nature of movement through it, and our gameplay.

The issue, then, is in designing around the implementation of space through abstraction, much as many games design around the removal of space through abstraction. This has lead to clunky, bloated or misguided design implementations in the past - see Why Your Travel Rules Suck, one of the earlier things I wrote on here. Simply put, gameplay must be centred around movement in order to justify/necessitate mechanical abstraction of space.

Video games - those mentioned above being shining examples - have this down pat. The nature of video game development and structures inherent in the medium obviously contribute to this, but there’s no reason relevant lessons can’t be taken and imported.

Dungeon crawls centre movement nicely - though many find the mechanics antiquated in places and the specific procedures for crawl play have been lost, skewed or lazily implemented in many places outside the tiny hobbyist sphere. Beyond the classics, new ways of abstracting space and movement into the medium have been widely unexplored, without of course borrowing mechanics wholesale from wargaming and board games.

I’m not sure where I’m going with all this (ha). Just... the space (and here i do mean not-literal-or-virtual space, but the design space) is out there. A new mechanic or perspective is waiting.

(As with the last post, don’t worry, I’m working on it :P)

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

How Can Games Teach Themselves?

 First I’m going to define the different ways i think a game can “teach itself”, then I’ll look at how and if and why these are/can/should be used in the ttrpg space.

These categories are broad abstractions for my own benefit, obviously at the end of the day it’s all semantics and I’m not a theorist! (Thank god.) There are overlaps and I don’t think any game can be said to belong to just one category, in fact almost all belong to 2 or more - an argument could probably be made that they all apply to all games in some way but that’s not the point here. I’m also just talking about learning here as in the base level of knowledge needed to then go on and play/replicate the basic game state, not mastery or levels of good/“bad” play.

Games teach themselves in these four ways. (I thought of a fifth but I seem to have forgotten it.) Mostly 2 or more at a time.

Culture: The knowledge needed to play is in the ether. This is the reserve of games so simple they can’t be played “wrong” (a baby can play with a ball or blocks without instruction), or more frequently games in which the rules have achieved wider cultural understanding. Nobody reads the instructions for tic-tac-toe or tag. You might buy a chess set, but you almost certainly didn’t learn from the manual. Nobody has ever published rules for hangman.

Video games encroach on this space in some ways too (you learn how to use a D-pad probably on your own, then learn how that controller affects each game in turn, again normally through cultural understanding. Ttrpgs are moving into this space too, and in some ways have always been there (you might not inherently know about attack bonuses and AC, but you know about water displacement and what types of materials are flammable, and that knowledge can be used to play a dungeon crawl game).

Of course, these games are not learned innately as with a ball, and necessitate a combination of cultural knowledge w/ the second on our list -

Teacher: Someone teaches you how to play the game. Playground games are most common, but board games also fit this space - someone learns via another method, then imparts that knowledge via this one. You probably didn’t learn monopoly from a rule book, for instance.

This is maybe the best, most effective, and most direct method. We have schools and teachers because we believe this method works. The main advantage is tailored, personal instruction - correcting mistakes as you learn, the teacher intuiting emotions, trying different methods, etc. A Teacher can use all the other methods as tools.

Text: A rulebook. Instructional videos also count, though they feel more like Teacher - watching actual plays is maybe the biggest overlap between these. Tutorial modes or hint boxes in video games are Text as they are non-diegetic to gameplay.

Maybe the worst method. Requires the person without knowledge to intuit and interpret instructions from one medium into the new, unfamiliar game medium.

Play: Continued play will always teach further, but this is about feedback from the act of play imparting initial and fundamental lessons on itself. Sit on a bike and pedal (teacher), then I’ll let go, see if you can stay on (play). Learn how the controller works (culture, sometimes teacher or text), then see if you can beat the level (play).

Most video game types have moved partially or completely into this space, or never left it - tutorials are out of favour, if the level design itself can impart the same lessons. Mario 1-1 is the classic example - no text, no teacher (unless external), no culture (at time of release - we now all know to jump on turtles and eat mushrooms).


Ok, so,

Ttrpgs leave the designer’s hands as Text, as if that’s enough, but in practice they almost always require a combination of the other three to actually be taught. These are generally external though - from sources other than the designer or the book itself. The GM, mostly, in the Teacher role.

We can use the other three more effectively, maybe.

Culture: OSR/adventure games lean into this by assuming a common design and even mechanical language. The Text can go further - use terms intuitively and without jargon, for instance, relying on the reader’s existing cultural understanding. Use terms from other games, wider cultural knowledge of game space, place the game within existing frameworks.

Teacher: Videos and actual plays are being used already as mentioned. Footage of someone else being taught could provide some of the same lessons as being taught directly. This is not nothing, but is still external to the text.

Hard to do it internally. Ideally the text should be clear enough and overall flow in the manner of a lesson, such that it acts as its own teacher - take ideas from lesson structure, essay/argument writing, to impart ideas, eg laying groundwork first, “testing” knowledge gained at key points? Which then kind of becomes -

Play: This is the one I’m most interested to explore. Some board games are teaching themselves - “set up the blue pieces this way, then do this,” then, “congratulations, you just played a turn” is normally the method, or thereabouts.

Could we make a text that it is impossible to interact with without playing, as with a video game? Or, signposted to encourage play, in steps, while reading? So, you can’t read the character creation chapter as written without ending up having made a character? Mothership’s character sheet has the character creation rules and a flowchart on it, this is maybe the most encouragement a non-interactive text can give.

Can we break up rules with interactive elements? We just taught you how attack rolls work - oh no, here’s a monster, quickly kill it before turning to the next page. Modular and simple rulesets obviously fit this particularly well. Can we get the reader to use each rule after it’s been taught, then find they’ve played the game in one way or another by the time they finish the book?

Or, in games whose play necessitates a GM type figure to “run”/facilitate play, can we provide teaching materials? Better than an abstract GM’s guide, but a lesson plan or checklist - not one that results in a tutorial, those suck, but one that necessitates interaction through play on behalf of the players? Tomb of the Serpent Kings is a “teaching dungeon”, but could it teach which die is which and how to add a to-hit bonus? Could character creation be a dungeon?


- of course this all has the caveat that it is harder to play a ttrpg “wrong” than, say, a board game, because the table interpreting and using the rules as and how they prefer is central to the medium and most often a deliberate design choice. So with that in mind, maybe encouraging that experimentation can be done through play? Could a game be written such that you can’t finish the book without hacking it?  (Yes, almost all games already do this by their nature - but sometimes indirectly or without clear signposting.)


-


Anyway, I hate theory without practice with a deep, unbridled passion, so don’t worry this isn’t just abstract thought. It’s all me trying to codify thoughts I’ve already had while making something I’m working on. You’ll see my interpretations of these ideas and be able to judge whether they work or not when that thing comes out.

(Side note, is zine quest happening next year? Do we know? This was around the time last year people started planning for it)

Monday, 9 November 2020

November Update

 Hey all!

Jack Rabbit JAM: Battle Roulette unfortunately had an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign last month. I learnt a lot from what went wrong and am absolutely planning to get the game finished some way, some how, but it still sucks. So, uh, stay tuned!

Because of the KS, and the govt here’s decision to suddenly go back into lockdown - plus their terrible financial aid services which I am currently subject to, having lost my day job due to the last lockdown - money is very tight for me this month. I’m also unlikely to do much gaming, being trapped indoors. So basically, tl;dr, don’t expect many posts here for a while.

Sorry about all that! If you’re looking for game stuff my store is always open - there’s free bits there as well as some stuff you can pay me for if you’re able to.

That’s all for now, I guess! We’ll see how things turn out. Stay safe everyone!

Tuesday, 20 October 2020

The Ancient Rule of Cool

The “rule of cool” is a phrase some Online RPG People use, referring to the idea that if a player comes up with something interesting and fun, it should go into the game without question (i.e. without rolling dice).

The idea that people should put things they like into their game is so banal and tautological that it barely warrants repeating, which is of course why the internet repeats it constantly. Also because it rhymes.

But! Since you lot love people telling you what you can and can’t do so much, I have delved into the musty dragon-hoards of academia, studied the ancient and sacred roleplaying texts and found that the original rule of cool actually refers to the entire act of GMing - it is not a mindless mantra after all, but a proper Rule by which games may be governed.

(Which is to say that, as with any Rule in an RPG, it should be largely ignored until deemed necessary, like baking soda or a pneumatic drill. But don’t tell the nerds about all that, you’ll frighten them.)

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The true, actual, Ancient Rule of Cool is as follows:

The GM first sets up a fictional situation. There may be cool things already happening. The other players have characters who find themselves in that situation. The game is those players suggesting cool things for their characters to do and the GM responding. Repeat.

Sidenote A: characters should therefore be constructed with the potential to do cool things through play. This takes precedence over a character being cool (optional, largely subjective) or, crucially, characters being able to do cool things separate from play - play in an RPG being the conversation and imagination provided by players. A character with a rope, torch and flask of oil has play potential. A list of die-roll responses to obstacles in the game state exists separate from play.

The GM then rates all player suggestions by the Rule of Cool.

If an idea is Not Cool at All, the GM’s response is No. The idea is not added to the fiction/ game state.

Sidenote B: This largely occurs only as a result of simple miscommunication, but if malice is involved the player is ejected from the game (note: this is a people problem, not a game problem, and therefore warrants no further discussion here).

If an idea is Not Cool Enough, the GM’s response is Yes, And. The table comes up with ways to make the suggested action and its consequences cooler before it is added to the fiction/game state.

If an idea is Cool, the GM’s response is Yes. The idea is added to the fiction/game state.

If an idea is Too Cool [for School], the GM’s response is Yes, But. The idea is added to the game only upon the players achieving certain prerequisites. (Eg: a player wants to ride a laser dragon into battle. The prerequisite might be journeying to a far corner of the world to steal a dragon’s egg.)

Roll dice if you get stuck or don’t want to make a decision.

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Now then, that’s enough academia from me, I’m off to actually play some games. Why quibble over coastlines with cartographers when you could be having fun at the beach?

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Jack Rabbit JAM: Battle Roulette

Hey folks,

Paradice Arcade is my side project for making non-RPG tabletop games. Each minigame costs just £2 for a digital download with gorgeous art from a variety of talented collaborators, and only needs two ordinary dice and some spare coins to play. No crafting, no components.

The Kickstarter for our latest minigame, Jack Rabbit JAM: Battle Roulette just went live! I’ve got an incredible team on this one, and have been working on the project on and off for well over a year now, in between everything else I’ve got going on. I’m super happy with the mechanics and the art we’ve got so far, so I thought a KS would be perfect to finally get this thing finished and in your hands, ready to play.

You can support the KS for as little as £2, getting you the game at launch!

I know this is a little different to what most folks come here for, but if you like my stuff at all then this is the best way to support me right now. Backing the project helps pay me to finish development on this game, but could also free me up to get cracking on some other games too. If the game’s not your thing or you can’t spare the money right now, consider sharing it with your friends!

Thanks x