Designer Diary: When the Dark is Gone.

For some weeks I have been writing a new game called “When the Dark is Gone”. It is an ambitious and unconventional approach to gaming (if I do say so myself) but I *am* standing on the shoulders of giants in writing it.

WTDIG is my response to games such as Fiasco, Durance, The Trouble with Rose and others. These are all very good prep-less and GM-less games. They have some huge benefits over a more traditional style of role-playing and the biggest is that in my busy adult life I have less time to prep games. These games offer me the chance to role-play on short notice when I haven’t have time to prep.

Genius.

I also find the GM-less style both challenging and intriguing. Once you have overcome the shock of shared creation, there are many benefits and the stories that emerge are often more interesting due to the greater creativity resource. I have enjoyed them all a great deal, but in all I have found I am missing something.

What am I missing?…a good cry.

What I mean is that whilst these games have been fun and entertaining stories were told – none of them touched me emotionally. There was little to no character investment and indeed this investment is actively discouraged in most cases.

First I thought that emotional role-playing wasn’t possible in a prep-less setting. Perhaps genuinely touching games, games which can make you cry, can only happen with prep.

Well – I love a challenge ūüôā

Goal number one: create a prep-less game which is emotionally charged, with full immersion and where people are completely invested in their characters.

But that wasn’t enough for me. I’d been watching with interest how people were designing ways of determining Out Of Character conflicts or assigning elements of story control to different people at different times. But I was looking for a fully immersive character experience; any pause to make an OOC comment (even discussing the direction of a scene) would break what I was looking for.

So, how do you resolve conflicting views about where the story goes in a game where no-one breaks character?‚ĶThe secret‚Ķyou don’t.

Goal number two: design a game where there is no need for a mechanism to resolve conflicts either in or out of character.

Stay tuned for my solution…

[The beta version of the game is released here but I’ll have some more Designer Diaries going up to document my design process in the coming weeks. There will be lots more play testing and refining happening before I release the final version.

If you want to play test it drop me a line here i’d love to hear from you.]

 

Johari’s window

Ok, apologies in advance to management experts, because I am about to abuse a well-loved management metaphor until it is hardly recognisable anymore.

Johari’s window is a neat metaphor for learning and feedback. Picture a window divided into four quadrants. The top-left quadrant is things that I know about me, that you also know – public knowledge about me. The bottom left is stuff¬† I know about myself that you don’t know – my secrets, things I could reveal to you in future. The top right quadrant covers information about me that you know but that I am unaware of – this is important for management theory because it’s the space in which feedback can happen. The bottom right isn’t seen as especially important for management theory and it isn’t important for this post either. It’s the domain of things about me that nobody knows. Maybe there some great insight that can be gleaned there, but if there is, I (rather appropriately) don’t know what it is.


Image by Brent O'Connor

Incidentally, I have no idea who Johari is either. Whatever. [Edit: Googling around, because I just *had* to know, I see it’s actually called “A Johari Window”, so probably Johari is some kind of acronym and not a person at all. I shall persist in imagining I never discovered this.]

So, what does all this have to do with gaming? The answer is that you can use it for character generation. When you create your character, draw a window and write stuff in each quandrant.

The¬† bottom-left and top-right corners are for unresolved questions about your character. Who was that masked man? Who killed your father? What is the meaning of your birthmark? Why can’t you remember anything from the night of the 21st, and what happened on that night? Are you going to save humanity, or destroy it? But which quadrant you put each question in tells you whether this is a Dark Secret type of question – one you’re handing to the GM to answer, which might have an answer that you don’t like (top right quadrant), or one you’re going to answer yourself, at a dramatically appropriate time (bottom left quadrant). I suggest that by using Johari’s window, we can signal to the GM what questions are for her to answer, and which questions we want to keep for ourselves. Maybe you could even put some questions in the bottom right – these would be open to anyone to try and answer.

The top-left corner of the window has a use, too. Put things in there that are known at the start of the game. (Known to you as players, that is – maybe not to your characters.) By putting stuff in there you’re saying to the GM “this stuff is off limits”. If I say that my character is the son of a noble jedi knight, and put that in the top left corner, then the GM should not reveal partway in that the knight in question is actually Darth Vader. That would have been a cool plotline, but by putting my heritage in the top left I’m telling the GM to stay away from it. Break the top-left window pane at your peril.

The Trouble with Rose (a walkthrough)

The Trouble with Rose is a GMless, prepless, indie roleplaying game by Todd Zircher. It is in the style of a parlour game and falls in a similar category as Fiasco and Durance as games which divide the control of the narratives between all the players.

I first found it via the Story Games Forum and found the idea and Shakesperian flavour very hard to resist.  As I said, it is a similar style game to Fiasco but without the explicit car crash atmosphere, and so is better suited to my tastes.

The premise is short and sweet.  There is a person called Rose, they are in trouble.  You are playing their friends and family and your job is to build up a story about Rose; why s/he/it is in trouble and what happens next.   The simplicity of the scenario means it is easily adaptable to different genres and styles (there are a large number of playsets supporting the basic system). Rose could be a Fairy Princess, an AI deep in the Net, a schoolgirl, a pirate ship or as Todd suggests, Plutonium Rose, a rock star on the run from his groupies and the Mob.

 

The system is fairly simple, once a scenario has been agreed the players choose a character each, writing down six character attributes, 2 of which are in some way negative. ¬†Some of our attributes were “own’s most of MadeUpShire” and the servant girl’s “total belief in the class system” but you might want to go for something simpler like “crack shot” or “very agile”. You then randomly choose 5 dominoes. ¬†Each domino has 2 sides with 2 numbers on it (blank – 6), you take it in turns to direct a scene with your character in and choose a domino to represent the character attributes you will be displaying in the scene. ¬†Blanks are wildcards and automatic failures, a double blank is played in the last round and always means that character will be removed completely from the action e.g. death. ¬† You go round the table directing scenes 5 times. Lastly everyone draws a playing card which represents your character’s hidden agenda.

Things that worked well

The dominoes provided a good amount of story scaffolding and we made good use of a reflection period after each directed scene to tie up loose ends, discuss where the story was going and evaluate our progress. ¬†Because of this there weren’t too many awkward moments where people go dry and the flow of the narrative fails.

 

Things that worked less well

We all felt a little pressured to bring in large amounts of other characters and NPCs into each scene.  This was to ensure we were giving each other enough to do.  However this meant we occasionally tied the plot in knots and strained the story. In future I would make more use of cut scenes, short flashbacks and internal monologues to flesh out characters and individual relationships, rather than making sure each person is talking in each scene.

Things we did differently

In the original game there is a means to judge each other’s role-playing prowess and award points on how well you brought your character attributes into the scene. ¬†The person with the most points got to narrate the Epilogue. We agreed at the start that we didn’t feel this added anything to the game and that there were better ways to encourage and reward the same behaviour. ¬†We ditched this aspect and I felt that was the right decision.

Secondly, whilst the game was GMless I feel (in all these types of game) that someone must take mental responsibility for managing the game and making sure things happen. ¬†I made sure we had dominoes and copies of the system. ¬†I guided everyone through character generation and actively facilitated the session, providing suggesting and prompts and encouraging others to do the same. ¬†I’ll write more on managing GMless games later though – that is a whole topic on its own.

 

You may be wondering who our Rose was…she was the Scarlet Primrose, rakish hero to the French Aristocracy having rescued many of them from the Guillotine in the years after the French Revolution.  Half our characters were her family who believed her to be a ditzy dilletante, the other half were from her network of undercover contacts Рmuch amusement and drama ensued when her two worlds collided.

I really enjoyed this game, it was great fun and we created a story which was engaging and interesting.  I still love the idea of entirely prepless games and GMless games and I think the Trouble with Rose is more the style of GMless game I want to play.  Best of all it has inspired me to write my own version of a GMless game.  So a big thank you and thumbs up to Todd Z.

Oh, I didn’t mention the best bit‚Ķit is free‚Ķgo here to get your copy.

Speaking out

I have been roleplaying since I was ten years old – that’s over twenty years – and it has formed the core of my spare time and social life for most of that time.

It all started when a guy named Peter moved into my neighbourhood and brought Dungeons and Dragons with him. Yes, Dungeons and Dragons – much mocked, little understood. It was great. My limited social circle were basically only interested in football at that point. And I. Hate. Football. Suddenly we had a regular social activity that I actually enjoyed. Together we beat up carrion crawlers, troglodytes, dragons – whatever random monster of the week came up. It wasn’t really much more than a board game at that point, but it captured my imagination.

Since then I branched out, always creeping closer and closer to the kind of gaming I wanted to do, the kind that was about characters and epic stories, the kind that matched the exciting descriptions you heard about in the marketing blurb for virtually any rpg you might happen to read, but which were a million miles away from the games I played as a ten-year-old. Don’t get me wrong: I like beating up a dragon as much as the next nerd, but it wasn’t what I wanted the core of my gaming to be. Still, it was the thing that brought me and my small circle of friends together in secondary school (which I hated, and which roleplaying made bearable). Oddly enough, I didn’t do much *actual roleplaying* during this time. I devoured dozens of massive textbooklike roleplaying books, learning arcane trivia like what “SCUBA” stands for and the furthest distance anyone has fallen and survived.

It was when I got to university that the hobby really exploded for me. I joined the Oxford University roleplaying games society, and was united with dozens of fellow gamers, all bright, enthusiastic and energetic. They ran games. A lot. I found myself trying out LRP – stood up, in a room full of strangers, physically pretending to be my character. Really it wasn’t any different from an amateur dramatics night, I suppose, but it was very exciting for me. At OU RPGsoc I ran the first proper campaign (in the sense of one that ran for more than a handful of sessions) of my career thus far, a game about an attempt at space colonisation gone horribly wrong. I learned how to manage difficult players, how to manage a team of referees, and I saw some fantastic roleplaying.

I have dozens of friend from OU RPGsoc who I am still close to. It gave me the foundation of the next ten years of roleplaying. Because of it, I had the confidence to show up in London and recruit about a dozen complete strangers to play in First Born, an epic fantasy game. It’s funny, but I don’t think I appreciated at the time what a big thing that was. Thanks to First Born I met dozens more roleplayers, and was introduced to their strange world of 24-hour roleplaying. (Think Blair Witch Project… on second thoughts, don’t. Ask me if you’re interested.)

These days I don’t have time to run LRP events for dozens of players, as much as the idea frequently tempts me. But my entire social circle, more or less, is made up of roleplayers, and an awful lot of time I spend with them is spent playing a fictional character of one kind or another. And it is still the most fun you can have for the cost of a train fare and some snack food.

Strangely enough, my work colleagues are not aware of my hobby. For whatever reason, I have felt that talking about it with them would be A Bad Plan. Every time I go roleplaying I tell them I’m just hanging out with friends, not really doing anything. They must think I have the most boring life ever. I occasionally tell my fellow gamers that I can’t “come out” because I’m a manager and it would undermine my authority if people felt I had a nerdy hobby. Whatever, it’s probably just an excuse. I’m pretty jealous of Admiral Frax, who told her colleagues when she joined her company and has never looked back. If I told people now it would just look weird that I never mentioned it before.

Anyway. Thankyou roleplaying, you’ve been a positive presence in my life all this time and still carry on giving. And by the way, thanks to all the fabulous roleplayers I know, who have made it all so much fun.

This has been my contribution to speak out with your geek out. A day late. Meh, whatever.