Thursday, July 12, 2012

Like a circle, like a spiral

So plot then, this might be a cop out post but compare this
with this
with this, and this
and you get this, this, and
So the windmills of my mind are grinding slowly but they are grinding exceedingly small. What I do apparently is to writing as farming is to cooking.  Mitch Hedberg has a good bit about it. Something that the Extra Credits guys and the Hulk missed about designing narrative for games is that for games you should not be designing narratives. You should be designing the tools you use to make narratives. The best example of this that I have found lies in third edition dungeons and dragons. (or 3.5 or pathfinder, to a lesser extent fourth but its still there at all).
Your  potential choices at the beginning of a game are infinite. you're first level and you can go anywhere and there's not going to be much difference between you and the various ncps in capacity and most of the pcs can basically do each other's jobs, albeit badly. Most of what you do is a grind or a bit of fine point accounting and deciding the minutia of day to day life. Nothing tells you you have to leave home but over time if you have built an area that works the experience mechanic is such that you will rapidly challenge, then defeat then master anything in your starting comfortable area. It turns out, at this time you have received some sort of special abilities that have speciated and separated you from your partymates and no one would mistake you for anything but the most stalwart of npc classes. Even if you stay in your home area physically the scope of the effects of your actions move beyond the small area in which you start and you begin affecting the course of towns. As this continues, you get to the real meat grinder, death comes easily and often but resurrection is possible and expensive. Successful parties develop problem solving strategies, hone their skills in and out of character to maximise for the ability to work their will in the world. Then you hit the next threshold from 15 to 20 where death has no sting and you are, not at all metaphorically, the master of many worlds. Your ability to go to or pull resources from other planes really comes into its own, you can consult gods without much trouble and you have either reconciled with the local power structure or you are the local power structure wherever you may be. Once again all of this is implicit in the mechanics. It doesn't matter if you're running ballroom dancing contests or Conan rip offs or Tolkein rip offs. If you are using d20 or its descendants and their core rules mechanics this is what will happen. s for the parts where players decide t then go home or do other things afterward, who can say? What does happen, however is the power curve flattens, the fantastic becomes mundane and the players, as a rule, stop questing because wherever they are is irrelevant, they are home wherever they want to be and most of what you do is a grind or a bit of fine point accounting and deciding the minutia of day to day life.  So at least as far as the mechanics are concerned a journey home or something like it has been achieved.
Yahtzee, Portnow. etc all talk about building story into the mechanics but there is precious little about how that is done. I am not sure if I can manage it but I will try over the next few weeks. It basically goes something like this. Watch the real world and listen to the stories and narratives people put around real world events when they happen. watch movies yourself then listen to other people when they describe movies. The Hulk has a good bit about concrete details somewhere, I forget the concrete details.
I will need to tighten this up later, but step two goes something like this, after getting a good feel for how people will report an event after the fact, take a good look at mechanics, look at what they mean, try playing games re-fluffed. For example call the cleave feat something else like, very good follow through or battle pirouette. Something that helped me was studying a little bit of real world physics and then physically doing high school type kinematic experiments. then trying to picture what would happen in the game world if the game rules replaced the standard force equations.  Try playing your game with all of the contextual speech removed, like having fireball called power 3 and enervate called power 4, dwarf as race 1, halfling as race 2 and removing any words that don't have a game effect like dwarves being shorter than humans, effectively they are not. Just play through a session or two with this disconnect. See what stories you end up making about the noble and valiant 2s vs the brawny and brutish 1s.  these are the stories your mechanics build. If they don't match up with your fluff, you need  to change the mechanics more or re-fluff your  system.
If you do this sort of thing for long enough you will get a feel for which mechanics map to which narrative devices under which circumstances  and which ones the players will pick up and use. Now you know what to include or keep out of your game based on the kind of experience you want the player to have. To once again put out the food metaphor, game design is like Iron chef, you now know what ingredients to prepare and leave out so that your players (who are the actual cooks) can make a worthy meal you will all share. You are the chairman, once you have set the kitchen in motion all you can or should do is ask how they are doing and what they plan. If you have set up the kitchens right, not only will your players surprise you every time but their surprised won't derail or destroy the game, you will reach a sublime mix of emergence and predictability, because no matter how good a storyteller you are you are likely not as good as reality for coming up with interesting twists.

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