The power of asking

Over at Department V, Smiorgan writes about Everway’s three methods to decide a conflict: Karma, drama and llama.

Smiorgan discusses the issue of who decides what the plot should be (in order to rule in accordance with drama), and how randomness (fortune) can introduce something new and unpredictable.

I mostly want to talk about the latter here. It’s a ubiquitous way to keep the game unpredictable: Pick up some dice and let fate decide what happens. An observation I make is that this is very often restricted to determining “can I do X”, which is in itself only one of the interesting things one needs to decide during a roleplaying game, but that’s a topic for another day. What I want to talk about here is an alternative approach to introducing unpredictability – one which I am increasingly favouring in my game design.

Here I am going to refer to the method as asking. More broadly, it is about giving away decision-making power to someone else. You see, your decisions as GM (or a player, for that matter) may be based on drama or karma or something else entirely, but to you they can seem predictable. You have perhaps already thought about what the needs of the story are, or what the demands of the fictional situation are, so making that decision can seem predictable to you.

So an obvious way to get the sense of unpredictability for as many people as possible is to spread those decisions around. I’m not talking about discussion and consensus; in many ways that feels like the most predictable method of all for resolving things. I’m talking about varying who makes the decisions.

In a traditional GM-and-players game, you get this a bit. The GM takes decisions about the NPCs, the world, and often some conflict resolution. so they provide a sense of unpredictability to the other players. And it’s often remarked by GMs how the players’ surprising actions make the game exciting and unpredictable. But it’s clear that the GM has much broader scope for making decisions, and it is they who provide the chief source of unpredictability outside of the dice: the question is not “what will happen”, but “what will the GM decide”.

What I’m increasingly finding is that having all the players involved in those GM decisions, by making individual calls, creates a fantastic sense of unpredictability for everyone. No one person has their hand on the tiller, so the boat goes where it will.

I’ve called it asking, because a very straightforward way to make it happen is by asking questions to another player. Instead of it being either the dice or the GM who decides what happens next, it’s another person whose mind you can’t read. And even the person you ask, moments ago, didn’t know what the question would be or that they would be answering it.

Similarly though, rotating roles (as seen in Microscope and Lovecraftesque, for example) ensures that the story isn’t moving in a straight line. Each person guides it a bit, and no one person could have forseen where it would go. In effect, here, it’s the system doing the asking, but instead of always asking the same person, it’s a different person every time.

It’s important to emphasise this is about one person deciding. If you turn to group discussion for this, you quickly find that you’re relying on negotiation, social dynamics and (often) a rather turgid laying out of the reasons for and against each course of action. This is far from unpredictable.

This is also the method that lies behind improv-based approaches to GMless roleplaying. Each person leaps forward and inserts their ideas into the story higgledy piggledy, like having a jam session. But what improv approaches tend to leave space for a small number of people (maybe just one) to dominate the game, subtly or not-so-subtly steering things so that they are not so much a product of the group as the product of an organising committee. This is why games like Lovecraftesque and Microscope impose a no-discussion rule, forcing every player to contribute to the flow of the game.

So there you go – karma, drama, llama and banana, I guess.

Lovecraftesque competition

To celebrate the fact that Lovecraftesque is now a physical product you can hold in your hands, and since Halloween is coming up, we’re running a competition to design a scenario for the game. You don’t need to have read the game, you just need some creepy ideas and a little time.

Lovecraftesque scenarios are short – like, a couple of pages – and their role is to provide inspirational material linked by a common location and theme. They provide ingredients someone could use to make an eldritch horror tale, but the players choose which ingredients to use, they add ideas of their own, and build a story for themselves. You can find a bunch of examples from the kickstarter here.

You have until 11:59pm (UTC-11) on Monday the 7th November to submit your scenario(s) by commenting here with a link or emailling us at lovecraftesque at vapourspace dot net. Each person can submit up to three entries for consideration. The winner, chosen from among the entries by us, will receive a copy of Lovecraftesque softcover and cards for themselves or a friend (which we will ship to you wherever you are), and the runners-up will receive the PDF of the game (again, you can give to a friend instead).

We recommend that you follow these guidelines; we’ll accept variations but the scenario must be an inspirational set of ingredients, not a pre-cooked story or situation.

You retain your copyright over your entry/entries but unless you tell us not to we’ll publish your work on the Black Armada website for free download. We won’t use it any other way without your permission. We reserve the right not to publish anything which we deem distasteful or in breach of someone else’s intellectual property.

Lovecraftesque’s sinister influences

So I read on G Plus recently that nobody ever credits the designers who influence them. I don’t know if that’s true, but we’re really keen to acknowledge the debt Lovecraftesque owes to previous games.

[*turns to camera* Lovecraftesque! The GMless storytelling game of creeping cosmic horror. Back it now on kickstarter!]

There are three influences which really loomed large in our thinking.

  • The big one is Graham Walmsley’s Stealing Cthulhu. Graham forensically analyses the style, structure and atmosphere of Lovecraftian stories and how you can replicate them in a roleplaying game. Once we had read this, we couldn’t stop thinking about how you could make a game system which would do some of that work for you – which would feel just like a Lovecraft story.
  • Ben Robbins’ Microscope is another major influence. The game gives you the structure to create a shared world, while abolishing tedious discussion of what should happen next. In so doing, it ensures that all the players contribute to the story; that was inspirational. The “leaping to conclusions” rule in Lovecraftesque was influenced by our desire to  duplicate that discussion-free story creation.
  • Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco is obviously a very well-known indie game, and one of the first indie games that we played. The use of in-built story structure, guiding the story from initial scenes through the tilt and on to the ending and aftermath, stayed with us. The Journey into Darkness in Lovecraftesque is a direct descendant of the aftermath in Fiasco.

We’d also like to mention the indie design community, who have provided fertile territory to develop our design thinking in general. Members of that community have shaped our thinking around how games should strive not to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and, indeed, promote diversity and inclusivity. This was crucial in developing our desire to create a Lovecraft game with a specific design objective to tackle the issues of racism and mental illness. We wanted to include a list of community members who were particularly instrumental, but the truth is there are so many of you that the list became unwieldy. Even so, Anna Kreider and Chris Chinn deserve special mention.

The Lovecraftesque kickstarter is go!

Edit: The kickstarter is now closed. It funded at over 300%! Many thanks to everyone who backed it. Once the remaining writing, editing, layout, art and printing are done, we’ll send books to our backers and, eventually, they’ll be available to buy.

After 9 months of hard work, the Lovecraftesque kickstarter has just launched.

Sample interior art by Robin Scott
Sample interior art by Robin Scott

 

 

 

What is Lovecraftesque?

Lovecraftesque is a GMless storytelling game of brooding cosmic horror. You and your friends will each contribute strange clues to a slow-building mystery, culminating in a journey into darkness that ends in a climactic scene of horror. You will be surprised and creeped out by your friends’ contributions, but the game is designed so that it will feel like one person was GMing it, even though you never had to break the tension by pausing for discussion. In short, Lovecraftesque is the GMless, indie-style Lovecraft game you’ve been waiting for.

The game focuses on a single Witness, who is at the mercy of strange and terrifying events. Lovecraft’s stories rarely featured parties of investigators, and the hero rarely wins – that’s how our game works, too. You rotate responsibility for playing the Witness, but the role is much more about revealing their inner thoughts and fears than solving the mystery or beating up cultists.

When you play Lovecraftesque you’ll be creating your own mystery, and your own unique monsters that will feel like something out of Lovecraft’s notebook. There won’t be any Mi-Go or Deep Ones – you’ll get a completely fresh take on the genre.

Where can I find out more?

You can find out more about the game, including a stripped down version of the rules and samples of the art and layout, on the kickstarter page.

Lovecraftesque – Behind the Scenes of a Kickstarter

We’ve been hard at work prepping to kickstart Lovecraftesque.  Exciting times!

Although we’ve both been gaming and designing for a long time we’ve never undertaken a project to make our games available to other people for cold hard cash.  It has been an incredible experience and one we are still living moment by moment.

It even included an instructive interlude last week when this modest website got hacked.

We are about a week or so off our Kickstarter launch so now seems like a good time to do a quick update about where we are, some news about our layout artist and artist and some behind the scenes bits.

Firstly I want to share our cover art by Robin Scott which is gorgeous and better in every way than we could have imagined.

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Robin is an amazingly talented person bringing an incredible level of detail to her pieces.  That firelight on snow effect in the cover, want to know how that happens, how the shadows are just right…

Robin built a model!

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Secondly I want to give a heartfelt thanks to our layout artist Nathan Paoletta.  Not only has he done a great job on our sample pages but he has been exceptionally generous in sharing his knowledge about kickstarting generally and various printing options.  We have learned a great deal just from him and I hope we get the chance to give back to newbie game designers in the same way. Here is a sneaky peak of his layout.

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We are so excited that this is the level of detail and finesse going into the artwork for our game.  Also you have no idea how grown up it feels to commission art… serious proper adulting happening over here.

Next is a couple of photos we took at our video shoot. We are lucky enough to have a great video guy for a friend who helped us sort it out.  We cleared out our dining room for a morning to set everything up and had to hang a makeshift ‘autocue’ off the camera rig with a coat hanger.

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Lastly, if you’ve ever met me in real life, no doubt you will watch the video surprised at how tall I’ve grown.

Such is the trickery of video…

 

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Kickstarting has been a totally different experience to simply writing and playing games.  There are finances to work out (so many hidden costs and risks to factor in – Kickstarter fees, shipping, Kickstarter processing fees, international shipping, EU VAT, US Sales Tax and even currency fluctuations). There is a video to shoot, art direction to provide, layout proofs to review, stretch goal writers to approach (we have a total dream team lined up, I can’t wait to tell you about it!) project plans to create and enact and then the thorny problem of how to get the word out there and hope that enough kind people have it in their hearts to back us!

It has dawned on me that running a Kickstarter (even an unsuccessful one) requires you to get familiar with a whole load of new skills which go well beyond writing, playing and running games.  Obviously I really hope we fund, but even if we don’t I feel like our skills have taken this amazing leap forward.  Either way my respect for people who do crowd funding projects is immense, these people aren’t just game designers, they are totally multi-talented, and in ways I probably have yet to discover.

We’ll be announcing the Kickstarter launch really soon so check back on the blog or follow us on G+ to find out when.

Playtesting: some reflections

Lovecraftesque playtests

I’ve collated the information from the first Lovecraftesque external playtest and I thought it might be useful to discuss it here. I’m not going to talk about our game, instead I’ll be talking about the playtest in more general terms, in the hopes of deriving some more general lessons about playtesting.

Recruitment

We advertised the playtest through our website, Black Armada, and through G Plus, Twitter and Facebook. We put the files in a public drop box but only provided the link on request to people who expressed an interest in playtesting.

We received 31 expressions of interest. 29 of these were from people who appeared to be men, 2 from women. 6 were from people who we know quite well in real life, and another 3 from people we’ve met a few times in the flesh. The rest were from comparative strangers.

We allowed six weeks for playtesting from the day we announced it. We sent a reminder out at the midway point to anyone who we hadn’t interacted with for at least a week, and another one a few days before the deadline.

Of 31 expressions of interest, 19% sent in a report.

We received 6 playtest reports within the playtest period – just under a 20% response rate. All of these were submitted by men. 2 came from friends, 4 from comparative strangers. Between these we got 22 session-hours of playtesting, or 72 person-hours.

It seems to me that we were fairly fortunate to get as many as we did. In previous playlists using a similar method I only had a 10% response rate, from a smaller number of expressions of interest. The improved success comes, I think, from a combination of us being better connected within the indie roleplaying community than I was back then, and having a game pitch that was always likely to be a bit more popular.

Method

None of the playtesters received any guidance from us or clarification. They were given a set of detailed questions covering 10 aspects of the game, which were rather bossily labelled “READ THIS FIRST”, in addition to the rulebook and some supporting materials.

None of the playtests involved us, either as a participant or a witness.

Results

All six playtest reports responded to the questions we asked fairly assiduously. I wouldn’t say they were all completely comprehensive, but none of them ignored the structured questions, and all responded to most of the points we wanted covered. One came with a blow-by-blow actual play report (which was quite valuable beyond what our questions elicited).

I shall now provide a breakdown of the issues identified by the playtest. (Either identified by the playtesters themselves or apparent from their report whether they themselves realised it or not.) I have classified them as follows:

  • A critical issue is one which would make the game unplayable.
  • A serious issue is one which would make the game not fun or prevent the design goals of the game from being realised. If even one group identified a serious issue, I’d count it.
  • A major issue is one which makes the game very clunky or interferes with realising the design goals of the game.
  • A minor issue is one which doesn’t interfere with the design goals or make the game avery clunky, but rather is a matter of polish. Minor rules clarifications also fall into this category.

I’ve obviously had to exercise judgement as to whether an issue identified by a group is attributable to the design, and whether there’s anything that can be done in the design to ameliorate the issue. In one or two cases, because different groups reported radically different observations, I haven’t recorded an issue, but will instead watch for these recurring in the next round of playtesting.

Here’s what our groups found:

  • Critical issues – 0 (phew!)
  • Serious issues – 1
  • Major issues – 2
  • Minor issues – 16

50% of our groups caught all three major or serious issues, but 33% only caught one and 17% didn't catch any.

A note here about consistency: not all our issues were detected by all of our groups. Two groups (one of which played twice) did not pick up the serious issue identified above, and the two major issues were each picked up by only three of the six groups (arguably one of them was detectable in a fourth group, but I think we might have dismissed it based on their evidence alone, as it didn’t look that serious). More importantly, these were clustered: 3 groups caught all the serious and major issues, 3 groups missed at least two of these issues.

I want to be clear, by the way, that I don’t consider the above to be a poor reflection on any of our groups. I suspect the ones that missed issues did so because they were more familiar with the style of game or the genre. Some of our clearest and most helpful feedback came from groups that didn’t catch a lot of the bigger issues, but did notice many smaller ones. All the feedback was immensely useful.

The above suggests to me that you want at least three groups to test a game to be reasonably confident of picking up on major and serious issues. With fewer, you might get them, or you might be unlucky. (Of course in our case, we would need four groups to guarantee catching them all.)

By the way, I haven’t analysed the minor issues, but my impression is that they were sprinkled liberally through all six groups. I doubt if there’s a single group that didn’t pick up some minor issues missed by the rest.

Conclusions

The top line conclusion is that you need to playtest, and not just with one or two groups. The comparison with the playtesting on my previous game is instructive. I only had one response, which added a little to my own efforts at playtesting. But clearly, my analysis above means that there is a high risk of failing to catch even quite serious issues with such a low level of response. There would be innumerable smaller issues that will have slipped the net.

Getting playtesters isn’t at all easy. I think we were fortunate this time around. Our voices carry a bit further as a result of a few years circulating in the online indie gaming community. We got support from a couple of people with a very wide reach, and although it’s hard to say how much impact this had, I would guess a lot. And our game concept was more grabby – though whether we would have been taken as seriously if we’d proposed such a concept three years ago, I can’t say.

One thing I would observe is that it’s a lot easier to make playtests happen if you offer to organise them yourself. That’s pretty obvious, but it is worth saying anyway. You can tackle the tendency for the game to get cancelled by providing a venue, making sure you pick people you can rely on and above all not dropping out yourself. And you can make sure decent notes are taken and guarantee to take them away with you. It’s more effort, and if you want it to have the same value as an external test you’ll have to be disciplined about not facilitating the game itself, but it dramatically increases your sample size, which reduces the chances of missing a given issue.

Do you hate Call of Cthulhu?

If so, you may have assumed our new game Lovecraftesque, currently playtesting, isn’t for you. I’d like to persuade you that it is.

Lovecraftesque is about collaboratively creating a slow-building, brooding horror, piece by piece. It is not a traditional investigative game. It does not focus on cracking the plot or saving the world. Instead, the focus is on building atmosphere and tension, creating a slow-burn horror.

Lovecraftesque lets you create your own horrific monsters and dark revelations of bleak, cosmic doom. You won’t be chucking around copies of the Necronomicon, fighting Migo or having dreams of Cthulhu. I mean, you can do that if you’re all absolutely committed to that, but that’s not what the game is for. The game is designed to let you put together your own horrific vision.

If you’ve played and enjoyed Microscope, you may get something out of Lovecraftesque. The players each create strange clues that hint at the nature of the horror to come, but without discussion or debate, and without needing to cleave to some pre-decided plot, so that the Final Horror is built up from disparate ideas, and beyond any one person’s control.

Because the game is all about creating horror, not about investigation, you only get one Protagonist to play with, and you take turns playing them. Everyone else gets to have fun intriguing, tormenting and terrifying the Protagonist until, ultimately, they come face to face with the Final Horror. And because the game isn’t about saving the world, it assumes that the Protagonist won’t do that – and instead of seeing how the Protagonist heroically wins the day, at the end we focus on showing how inscrutable and ultimately unassailable the horror really is.

If you’ve played Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, or similar games, we think you’ll find Lovecraftesque is a fresh and interesting take on the subject matter. But if you like horror and hate cthulhu, we think this game will give you something very different to the traditional Lovecraftian roleplaying experience.

Find out more about the playtest here.

Lovecraftesque – playtest now open

The first draft of the Lovecraftesque rules is now complete, and we’re looking for playtesters to try it out.

A reminder: The game is all about creating your own story of brooding horror in the mould of Lovecraft, but without using any of Lovecraft’s material. It’s a GMless game, in which you spend most of your time as a narrator whose role is to intrigue, torment and terrify the Protagonist. You and the other players create strange clues for the Protagonist to investigate and, ultimately, draw them together into a compelling Final Horror to drive the Protagonist to despair or insanity.

The game takes about 3-4 hours, and requires 2-5 people to play.

If you would like to playtest the game, leave a comment here or email me at lovecraftesque at vapourspace dot net. We’re looking for feedback by Saturday 14th March – if you can’t play before then we’d still love to hear from you, but we’ll be moving forward with the next stage of the project after that.

Admiral Frax adds “I’d really value hearing from people who don’t know any Lovecraft.  The game should be set up so it is equally enjoyable with or without knowledge and I’d really like to know if that holds true.” Good point.

Lovecraftesque – who watches the watchers?

Since the last post we’ve been hard at work nailing down the few remaining details of Lovecraftesque that weren’t already nailed down. We’ve conducted an informal playtest that went well (though we didn’t have time in the end to try out the Journey into Darkness or Final Horror, which are two parts of the game I’m excited to see in action). And I’ve been beavering away turning our notes into a proper set of instructions so other people can playtest the game too. Plus we asked people on our G+ feeds who would do good art for this game, which yielded some really excellent suggestions. It’s been a busy week.

Anyway, a bit more detail about the game is in order. One of the things that’s unusual about the game is that there’s (normally) only one Protagonist. This mirrors Lovecraft’s fiction, but there’s also a very good reason for it – it creates a sense of isolation and helplessness that just isn’t there when you have a party of competent people supporting each other. A consequence of this is that at any given time only one person is playing the Protagonist, which created some interesting design challenges for us. These design challenges have created an aspect of the game I’m really keen on – the Watchers.

We toyed with having a completely shared approach to GMing, like (say) Fiasco, but we wanted to provide a bit more structure to help players to know who is responsible for driving the story forward, when it’s ok to contribute, and so forth. So we’ve kept the traditional GM role in the form of the Narrator (albeit rotating amongst the group) but supplemented it with the Watchers. The Watchers are able to intervene in the current scene by spending tokens to introduce fixed effects – most commonly clues, but also other things, like suddenly turning an investigation scene into a reprisals scene. Just as important, they are allowed and encouraged to elaborate on the Narrator’s description of the environment and NPCs.

This produces a powerful sense of atmosphere, in which every aspect of the scene is dripping with vague unpleasantness and tiny details the Narrator added for colour become amplified.

Narrator: “There’s a clock on the wall”

Watcher 1: “It has a loud, intrusive tick-tock noise”

Watcher 2: “The ticking is incessant. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. You find it hard to sleep.”

This mechanism is placed right at the centre of things during the Journey into Darkness – more on that later.

Each of the roles (Narrator, Protagonist, Watcher) is summarised on a cue card.
Each of the roles (Narrator, Protagonist, Watcher) is summarised on a cue card.

Introducing Lovecraftesque

[Edited to add: Lovecraftesque was successfully kickstarted in 2015 and you can now buy it here]

Admiral Frax and I have been working on a new story game. It is a game of cosmic horror in an uncaring universe, for 2 or more players. It is called Lovecraftesque.

What’s different about this game?

  • This GMful game will see each of the players contribute clues which build up to a cosmic horror of your own devising. You won’t encounter Cthulhu, deep ones, mi-go or any of Lovecraft’s creations, but something fresh that feels like it came straight out of a Lovecraft story.
  • You spend most of your time as a narrator whose role is to torment and frighten the protagonist of your tale. There’s no party of investigators, and the protagonist may be more interested in running away than uncovering what’s going on.
  • The game owes a heavy debt to Graham Walmsley’s Stealing Cthulhu – it codifies and mechanises the ideas in that book, creating a story along Lovecraftian lines while leaving you flexibility to deviate from the formula when you need to.

Here’s a little teaser of the game structure – more on the way.

Screenshot 2015-01-03 11.35.37