Push and pull mechanics

A popular mechanic which crops up in a lot of excellent games is Conditions. A Condition is a problem that’s affecting your character, like “broken leg”, “on fire” or “suspected traitor”. The idea is that the GM will hit you with trouble when your Condition would be relevant, or penalise you when it would get in the way. But this doesn’t work as well as you might think.

The trouble is, Conditions hardly ever get used. Why? Because they require the GM to Push them into the game[*]. In other words, the GM has to remember that the Condition is in play and bring it to bear on the game’s fiction and/or mechanics. This requires the GM to divert their limited attention and make a decision. I found this out to my cost in recent playtests of Last Fleet, where a whole bunch of Condition-type mechanics just never seemed to bite.

There are various ways you can increase the salience of these GM-Push mechanics, to help avoid them disappearing into the general cacophony of demands on the GM’s attention. Taking a mechanic off the player’s character sheet and putting it onto the GM’s reference sheet where the GM can more easily see it, for instance. Or better yet, put it in big letters on a nice, visible index card that sits in plain sight right in front of the relevant player. But even so, that’s just greasing the GM’s cognitive wheels a little. You’re still putting the onus on the GM to turn those wheels.

But there’s two ways you can restructure your mechanics to make them work without needing a GM push:

  • Turn them into a Pull mechanic
  • Turn them into a Player-Push mechanic

Let’s start with Pull mechanics. A Pull mechanic is automatically activated in fixed circumstances, drastically reducing the cognitive demands of the mechanic. For example, where a Condition relating to an injury generates work for someone to apply it in the fiction, a simple Harm or Hit Points mechanic are much easier to track.

You might think that sounds kind of boring: am I really recommending Hit Points as a mechanic? Well, it needn’t be dull. The system of Marks in Night Witches is essentially a Hit Point system, but it’s one where every time you take damage, something interesting happens. It’s just that the interesting thing happens automatically. Whenever certain Moves are triggered, someone has to choose consequences which include taking a Mark, and when someone takes a Mark, the fictional or mechanical consequence is applied right away.

The other approach is to use Player-Push mechanics. The difference here is, you put the onus on the owning player to activate the relevant mechanic. A good example is the Conditions found in Masks: A New Generation. Although having the same name as the GM-Push mechanic mentioned above, these work differently. Each Condition is tied to a particular Move or Moves in the game, and creates an automatic penalty each and every time that Move is used. The penalty itself is a Pull mechanic: whenever you use those Moves, the penalty applies, so no thought or judgement required. But removing the Condition is a Player-Push mechanic: if a player wants to remove the “Angry” Condition, they have to break something important, which requires them to choose that action. Now a player character’s Anger can be applied to create interesting complications in scenes, but it’s up to the player to choose when instead of the GM. And there’s a clear incentive for them to do it, because as long as they’ve got that Condition they’re continuing to take the penalty.

Another nice thing about Player-Push mechanics, by the way, is that they hand more power and narrative control to the players. That’s usually a good thing in my view: it means they’re more engaged with the game, and it means that the trouble that is created is something they’re eager to get to grips with – after all they chose it.

You can even combine the two. An example is Pressure in my own WIP game Last Fleet. Pressure is used as a kind of Hit Point system, whenever a character takes harm but also when they take an emotional shock – a Pull mechanic that happens automatically when the rules say so. But players can also voluntarily Mark Pressure to get bonuses to rolls – a Player-Push mechanic that provides a clear incentive for the players to make trouble for themselves. Finally, when you get to 5 Pressure, you hit Breaking Point, forcing you to choose from a list of irrational or risky actions to take that will complicate your character’s life. Breaking Point is another Pull mechanic: it kicks in without any decision needing to be taken.

There’s definitely room for GM-Pull mechanics. In most games, part of the fun of being the GM is to exercise your attention and judgement to spot opportunities to make interesting stuff happen. You wouldn’t get to do that as much if only a mechanical trigger or player decision enabled you to do it. But, in the interests of lightening the burden on the GM and ensuring your mechanics actually come into play instead of sitting unused on someone’s character sheet, consider using Pull and Player-Push mechanics instead.

As a coda to this, I took three distinct GM-Push mechanics in Last Fleet and converted them over to a mix of Pull and Player-Push mechanics. I’m really happy with how they bring into sharp focus elements that were previously relegated to a minor role or just plain didn’t work.

[*] Ok, to be fair, in a lot of games other players can activate Conditions too, using another player’s Condition against them. But the principle is the same – it requires someone else to think of the Condition and bring it into play.

Designer diary: Last Fleet

I’ve been getting quite a bit of feedback on my current WIP, Last Fleet. In case you’ve missed hearing about it, the game is about the last surviving members of the human race, fleeing across space from an implacable inhuman adversary. The players are brave pilots, officers, politicians and journalists, struggling to keep the fleet – and themselves – in one piece, under immense pressure.

As you might gather from the above, a key theme in Last Fleet is pressure. The core mechanics revolve around gaining and losing Pressure, which acts like hit points and mission/team pool all rolled into one. Crucially, players can gain +1 to any roll, after rolling the dice, by marking 1 Pressure. This means players tend to push their Pressure up of their own accord. Your Pressure track has room for five marks, after which you have to mark and perform a Breaking Point action whereby you do something risky or irrational. Eventually when you’ve marked them all, the (presumably) last Breaking Point action is to die.

Side note: if this sounds quite a bit like Night Witches system of Marks, that’s no coincidence. I’ve drawn inspiration from that. And as you’ll see, I think the lessons from playtesting are pushing the design to being more similar to Night Witches than it currently is.

A significant issue in playtesting has been getting the balance right between being under too much pressure versus not enough. There are lots of variables which can affect this:

  • How often the players make actions that allow them to erase Pressure (social stuff, mostly);
  • How much space the GM gives them to do that;
  • How much the players have to roll the dice;
  • How serious are the consequences the GM puts on the line;
  • How much players work together to min-max their rolls and apply maximum bonuses from assists; and (not forgetting)
  • How well the players roll.

So the system puts the players under pressure, but getting it at the exact right level to avoid either crushing them or leaving them feeling totally relaxed, seems to be a bit of an art. But I’m currently feeling that the system itself makes it too easy to reduce Pressure, while leaving the consequences of bad rolls insufficiently terrifying to prompt the players to increase their own Pressure all that much.

So where is that leading me to? Three (or maybe four) things:

  • I’m toughening up the consequences of bad rolls, including on a 7-9, to increase the stakes of failure. In turn that should mean players wanting to spend more Pressure.
  • I may reduce the overall statline of starting characters, which currently start with +2/+1/+0/+0/-1.
  • I’m reducing how much Pressure is erased when Pressure-reducing moves are taken.
  • I said maybe four. I’m considering whether players trust each other too much. The initial relationships set up tend to push things towards distrust and conflict, but I’m not sure if I’ve taken it far enough. Something to think about.

What’s interesting is that the stories people are coming back with from playtesting sound like exactly the sort of play I want to see – so while people may not feel sufficiently pressured, the game is fundamentally working ok. It needs tuning, perhaps even some significant redesign of individual components, but the overall shape of the design seems right.

If you’re interested in Last Fleet, get in touch! I’ll be doing more playtesting later in the year and I’m always keen to have more playtesters.

Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars – playtesting

I’ve just completed a full version of Flotsam for external playtesting!

Flotsam is a roleplaying game about outcasts, misfits and renegades living in the belly of a space station, in the shadow of a more prosperous society. The focus of the game is on interpersonal relationships and the day-to-day lives and struggles of a community that lacks the basic structures of civilisation.

System-wise, it was originally a Dream Askew hack, but has wandered a great deal from those roots. It owes quite a bit to Hillfolk and Archipelago, too. Everyone gets to act like a GM some of the time, controlling one aspect of the game setting and the threats it contains, and everyone gets to play a Primary character some of the time, exploring their life and relationships.

If you like the sound of that, and you think you might like to give the game a try, please get in touch by commenting here or emailling me at flotsam (at) vapourspace (dot) net.

Designer Diary: Space Askew

I’ve long had an interest in designing a Dream Askew hack, thanks to very positive experiences playing the game tempered by some issues that I wanted to address. I’ve been tinkering around with this concept for quite a while, and finally managed to get a working prototype to a playtest this weekend.

The game is currently a fairly thinly reskinned version of the original, since I want to concentrate on streamlining and reworking the design framework. But I didn’t want to just copy Avery’s game, so I’ve changed the setting. Space Askew is set in the belly of a space station, where outcasts and misfits live in the shadows below a more prosperous settlement.

What’s changed?

  • I felt that DA would benefit from some more in the way of relationship-building in setup. I’ve added a set of Hx-style relationship seeds to choose from, and some Hillfolk-style unrequited desires. In both cases the process involves choosing something yourself, then asking another player a question, the answer to which provides a completed background element.
  • I wanted a clearer and more intuitive set of MCing guidelines for running the Situations. I’ve brought the MCing system a bit more back towards the way Apocalypse World works, supplementing each Situation’s Principles and Moves with a set of general Principles and Moves, and giving clear guidance for when an MC makes Moves. The Principles are a bit different from AW’s, focused more on small-scale interpersonal drama than constantly shifting external threats.
  • I’ve placed question-asking at the heart of the system. When you want to create a bit of content for the world (a character, a location, a piece of technology, a rumour…) you don’t create it yourself; you ask someone else about it. This is true in setup and during play.
  • I’ve created a more developed process for deciding what scenes should focus on, and for deciding who is MCing at any given time.
  • I added a very simple harm system. Whenever someone tries to inflict harm on another character, they say what they’re doing in the fiction, then ask someone else what the outcome is. I want harm to be kept simple and fiction-based, and I want the decision to inflict harm to recognise that, once the bullets start to fly, you can’t entirely control the resulting pain and injury.
  • I’ve switched the psychic maelstrom to a Battlestar Galactica-esque set of gods who you make sacrifices to and petition for aid.
  • I’ve added a new skin called The Foundling, who was once part of a networked hive mind connected to a parent AI and has somehow become separated from the parent. They’re a bit like the Hollow in Monsterhearts, lacking a clear identity and anxious to understand humanity.

How did the playtest go?

  • Character gen was fantastic. Beyond my wildest dreams, really. It took 45 minutes and yielded well-realised characters with charged relationships but plenty of undefined space to explore in play.
  • The play itself went well, but I think that was more a testament to the quality of my players than the system I wrote. I suspect people were relying on their own habits of running fairly systemless games rather than my rules. (The excellent setup will have helped, of course.)
  • This was partly the result of my failure to effectively teach the rules, and I’m clear that the game needs a Lovecraftesque-style teaching guide that guides you through the rules systematically.
  • It was also partly the result of information overload. I should have realised this would be a problem, because I think DA was already pretty hard work and Space Askew added a bunch of extra stuff.
  • I hadn’t fully appreciated how Play to find out and Ask questions aren’t particularly obvious or intuitive ways to play. As the only person who had read the rules outside the playsheets, I needed to do more to explain this (and the teacing guide would need to include this).

So what am I doing next?

  • I’ve already begun work to streamline the amount of information in the game, reducing the number of Principles and Moves to a manageable level, and focusing on what is really core to the game.
  • I’m going to write a teaching guide which ensures certain rules that aren’t on the playsheets gets mentioned, that key principles are explained in more detail, and that character gen is more structured.
  • I’m going to turn the Situation sheets into something a bit more resembling a character sheet, complete with setup questions.

Watch this space!

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.

Lovecraftesque update

For those who have been following this project, we’ve just been through another round of playtesting (some internal, some external) using updated rules.

This was a bit of an odd playtest in a way. The rules updates we had made had their intended effect, the game seemed much improved, and overall we seem pretty much bang on in terms of realising our design goals while keeping the game fun to play. But we had two pieces of fairly broad-brush negative feedback which shook our faith a little and made us re-evaluate where we were. The bottom line is that after some soul-searching we concluded that we should not panic over two bits of feedback, when most of our feedback is so positive – but this feedback nevertheless led us to make some further changes.

The big one was that the game was too complex. Of course, as an indie/story game-style game, it is a *lot* less complex than your average traditional RPG. At the same time, it is probably significantly above average complexity compared to its peers. More importantly, after reviewing the game we concluded that there were elements of complexity that could be removed quite easily, without changing the play experience. A no brainer, really.

This has led to a number of changes:

  • Progress through the parts of the game is now driven by scenes played rather than clues revealed, which seems simpler and more intuitive.
  • We’ve ditched the idea of separate reprisals scenes (and the reprisals track), and merged reprisals into our card system.
  • We’ve ditched the decreasing narrative distance rules and, again, merged them into the card system. By default you can only introduce rationally explicable clues throughout the game.
  • The revamped cards allow you to introduce a thematic element (e.g. a cult) and enable thematically appropriate rationality-breaking clues or reprisals (e.g. the cult threaten or attack you).
  • We’ve simplified the journey into darkness so you can pretty much choose whatever role you like on each step rather than having to switch back and forth between roles.

The gameplay is more-or-less unchanged, but the burden of explaining the rules has been significantly reduced. The cost is that the cards are much more important – we need to playtest that before we’re sure if they work the way we want them to.

The other issue we picked up was around tone. The default tone of the game is very much slow-building, brooding horror, with a protagonist who is at the mercy of events and probably doomed to meet an unpleasant end. But there’s nothing to stop the game from being a bit more heroic in feel. You could even run it for laughs, deliberately parodying the style. We’ve introduced a stage where this choice is explicitly discussed. This is less because we think these other options will be chosen, and more to make sure that whatever choice is made, everyone has explicitly agreed to it. We think this will reduce the risk of divergence of styles causing grief in play.

We’ve also hit the start button on a couple of art pieces (we’ll only commission the rest if/when the kickstarter is successful) and some sample layout options (again, we’ll pay for the book to be laid out if we get the funds). Discussing ideas with our artist and layer-outerer (?) has really got us excited, and we saw some early sketches this weekend which look really awesome. We’re beginning to talk to printers and flesh out our ideas for kickstarter reward levels and stretch goals for the kickstarter. We’re still a little ways off launching the campaign, but it’s beginning to come together.

Watch this space.

Lovecraftesque – actual play report

Actual Play report of Lovecraftesque

As played at Seven Hills in April 2015

Players: Josh, Fergus and Ric

[In the setup we agree the basic parameters for the game, in open discussion – the only time that discussion is permitted.] We decided to set the game in the Himalayas. Off the back of that, we decided to make our Witness an explorer. We wanted a classic Lovecraftian game, so we decided on 1890s for the era. His reason for being in the Himalayas seemed pretty obvious, so we just needed a personality trait (we went for arrogant) and a source of strength (we decided he was driven by the need to prove himself to an explorer’s club back in London). Finally, we needed a name (this always seems to come last!) and we decide on Sir Arthur Worthington.

[Fergus had an idea for a starting clue, so we started the first scene with him as Narrator, Ric as Witness.] We began with Sir Arthur, already high in the Himalayas, trudging through thick snow with a retinue of sherpas carrying his equipment and supplies. A blizzard blows in, and Sir Arthur can barely see past the end of his nose. [Fergus comments: Already the power of having a Watcher was beginning to show as Josh brought the hostility of the environment to life, describing numbing extremities and the suffocating thin air.] Sir Arthur follows what little he can see of the path, to a large, blocky building of black stone, clinging to the edge of a precipice. He has lost the sherpas, and it’s only getting colder, so with trepidation Sir Arthur goes inside. Within he finds a dark room lit by yak fat candles, and filled with saffron-robed monks. The walls are carved with scenes of monsters. One of the monks greets him silently as he enters, and beckons him to follow. The monk leads him to what can best be described as an audience chamber, where a saffron-robed boy is waiting on a dais, backed by more carvings of strange demonic monsters. The boy explains that they have been expecting him, that there is a prophecy that foretold the coming of “Siratha”. He will save the world from a great evil. [This was the first clue.] Baffled, Sir Arthur agrees to the monk’s suggestion that he should rest now, and goes to sleep on a simple bed within the monastery.

[The next scene is Ric’s to narrate, with me (Josh) playing Sir Arthur.] Sir Arthur wakes up to find the monastery empty. Nobody seems to be around – the monks are gone. Wondering if he has dreamed the whole thing, or lost his mind, he wanders through the monastery, trying to retrace his steps to the exit. En route, he stops to look at those carvings he saw before. He stares in disbelief as he recognises a perfect likeness of his own face amongst the carvings on the wall. [Second clue.] Although Sir Arthur has barely exchanged words with anyone, we have discovered more about him from his inner reflections.

[Next up, I’m the Narrator, Fergus is Witness.] Sir Arthur Worthington makes his way up the mountainside. He has lost his sherpas, and the monks are all gone. He has no supplies. He has little hope, really, but his desire to prove himself drives him on. As he trudges up the path, he spots a small building – a hut – crouching in the snow. Within, he finds a comfortable little home, complete with fireplace, bed, a rather nice desk. This will make a good place to camp for the night. Idly flicking through one of the books he finds on a shelf, he is baffled to see that it is entitled “Ye Journale of A Worthington”. Within are various coded writings, together with the occasional unencoded note such as “Tried it again today without success. Perhaps tomorrow.” [Third Clue.] He tosses the book on the fire, but as it burns, a terrible, fiery symbol appears, crystal clear within the flames. [Fourth Clue, created using a card – “reveal a Clue that has no rational explanation”.]

[Fergus is Narrator next, Ric is Witness. Fergus chooses a Reprisals scene.] Sir Arthur wakes up in the hut. He still has no food, no hope, no ideas. He opens another of the books – unbelievably, it’s the same Journal from before. He opens another – the same. They’re all the same. [This is a re-use of an existing clue, so doesn’t count as the clue for the scene.] Setting out into the snow, he spots a couple of scavenger birds flying in the distance, periodically descending to the ground. Realising that there may be food where those birds are landing, he heads in that direction. When he arrives, he finds one of his sherpas. He has been brutally killed. He appears to have been hit with something – a massive impact – and his face is a mask of terror. Most disturbing of all, his entrails have been torn out and arranged in the pattern of the symbol Sir Arthur saw in the fire. [Again, this is clue re-use.] A trail in the snow reveals where his body was – presumably – dragged to this spot.

[Ric is Narrator, I’m Witness.] Sir Arthur is filled with horror at the sherpa’s fate, but pushes his fear down. He knows he will surely starve if he can’t find food. It is possible – just possible – that the other sherpas are at the end of that trail. So he has little choice: he follows the trail. At the end, he finds a cave in the ice. Inside, he finds a package of perfectly butchered meat, no bones within. [Fifth Clue. This triggers the end of part 1, which means all new Clues from now on must have no rational explanation.] Returning with haste to the hut, and desperately trying not to think about what might have butchered the meat, or what (or who… please say not who) the meat might have come from, he cooks the meat and eats it.

[Ric Narrator, I’m Witness. Another Reprisals scene, this time played with a card.] The next morning, he awakens to find that the hut has been ransacked torn apart. The desk, smashed to matchwood. His remaining equipment, gone. The books, torn to shreds. And over the fireplace, daubed in blood, the symbol from the fire. [Another clue re-use.]

[Me Narrator, Fergus Witness.] Emerging into the snow, Sir Arthur finds that there’s a trail heading away from the hut. Looking at it closely, the trail seems to be made up of countless clawed footprints. No living animal could have made these prints. But a thick fog cloaks the mountainside, and though he hears a terrible, cracking, bubbling noise from deep within the fog, he does not dare to pursue it. [Clue 6.]

[Fergus Narrator, Ric Witness. Once again, a card is played, this time “Change Location”.] Once the fog has cleared, Sir Arthur goes looking for his stuff and spots some of it, scattered down a sheer slope near the hut. Clambering down to retrieve his stuff, he discovers a deep, dark cave.

[Ric Narrator, I’m Witness.] Heading into the cave, Sir Arthur comes upon the monk he met at the beginning of our story. Enigmatic to the last, the waiting monk gestures him to follow deeper into the cave. Sir Arthur follows, and after a time emerges through a carved stone doorway into an underground room, where the saffron-robed boy awaits, this time wearing a golden mask. The boy removes his mask to reveal Sir Arthur’s own face staring back at him. [Clue 7.] Sir Arthur screams the scream of the unhinged.

[I’m Narrator, Ric is Witness.] Sir Arthur is numb with terror, but continues into the depths of the cave. He passes through another arch, carved with the same monsters he saw in the monastery. He finds himself at the top of a deep shaft, with winding stone steps carved into the side, descending deep into the earth. But it is what is carved into the walls that horrifies him: a written history of previous pilgrims to this mountain, horribly reminiscent of dreams that Sir Arthur has had long before his journey to the Himalayas. Or thought he had. Were they dreams? [Clue 8.]

[With the 8th Clue, part 2 ends. It could have ended earlier, if the Witness had decided to voluntarily initiate the Journey into Darkness, but he didn’t. Fergus is therefore Narrator for a Force Majeure scene, which proves rather simple.] Sir Arthur stands at the top of the winding steps, and knows he must go no further, his innate determination rising within himself. But then he feels a shove at his back, as the saffron-robed monk pushes him over the edge, and he falls, down into the darkness.

[We now begin the Journey into Darkness. Since I can’t remember each individual step of the Journey, I’ve written it as a single scene, though different parts were narrated by different people.] Sir Arthur comes to at the bottom of the shaft. He lights a torch, and looks around. To his horror, he sees that the carvings that had described his dreams continue even down here. But now they are describing the events of the last few days. [Clue re-use.] There is a further staircase leading down into greater darkness. Sir Arthur follows it, plunging further down into the earth. He is feeling a mix of terror and exaltation now. He feels that this is his destiny. He was born to fulfil this destiny, and the fools at the explorer’s club will regret laughing at him. He finds himself at an altar, where a copy of the Journale of A Worthington sits waiting for him. But now he can understand the coded text. He reads it – it is a ritual, which he begins, chanting wildly. There is a little bowl of flesh. He eats it. A portal opens, and he steps through.

[With the Journey over, we briefly conferred over who should do the Final Horror. As it happens, two of us had an idea, but Fergus said that his was perhaps a little too optimistic an outcome to the story, so I stepped forward to narrate the Final Horror, with Ric as Witness, for all the good it did him.] Sir Arthur emerged onto a cold mountain peak. Before him was a great cauldron of blood. The saffron-robed monk was there, and gestured to the cauldron. Knowing now that his destiny would be fulfilled, Sir Arthur drank from the cauldron, deeply. But now he felt strange. His limbs began to change. His voice was changing, his hands warping into tentacles. He tried to scream, but in place of his voice was a terrible, cracking, bubbling noise. The saffron robed monk places a golden chain about his neck, and leads him down to join the other monstrous creatures, his predecessors on the mountain.

[The Epilogue rotates the roles so that someone not involved in the Final Horror gets to be Narrator. That’s Fergus, so he narrates what becomes of the Final Horror, and Ric gets to narrate the fate of the Witness (in this case, his descendant.] In the Epilogue, Sir Arthur’s son grows up and becomes a geologist. He, too, decides to journey to the Himalayas. We ended with the monster that was Sir Arthur watching, wordlessly, as his son arrived to enact the ritual.

Lovecraftesque: playtest

After half a dozen external playtests and a similar number we ran ourselves, we’ve been beavering away on an updated version of Lovecraftesque. We’re now opening it up for a second round of external playtesting.

What’s the game about? You create 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.

What’s changed since the first playtest?

  • We’ve ripped up the token mechanics. They were clunky, and they were getting in the way of engaging with the game.
  • You’ll receive one or two cards at random at the start of the game, which make each story unique and a little unpredictable.
  • We’ve introduced the “leap to conclusions” rule, which keeps things coherent while leaving everyone plenty of room to influence the story and be surprised by what the other players contribute.
  • We’ve created a teaching guide which makes it quicker and easier to teach the game to new players, and which gives a great summary of Lovecraft’s style and themes for players who aren’t familiar with his work.
  • Plus loads of other, smaller tweaks designed to make the game easier to play or deepen the atmosphere.

If you’d like to take part in the playtest, please leave a comment here or email lovecraftesque at vapourspace dot net and we will send you the playtest files.

Lovecraftesque update

So, as you might have noticed from my earlier post about playtesting, the first round of Lovecraftesque playtesting is over. We picked up a lot of issues – a few quite major, most not so. We’ve moved quickly to make some changes and additions to tackle the former, in order to get some rapid feedback from some playtests we’ve already got lined up. So: here is a summary of some top-level issues we encountered and what we’re doing about them, with the caveat that this is only a first cut and we reserve the right to have a total rethink in the coming weeks.

1. Not Lovecraftian enough.

Man, this was a real disappointment to hear. The structure of the Lovecraftian tale is clearly in our game, but in terms of realising the alien, uncaring universe of Lovecraft – we didn’t do so well. Admittedly, this was most visible in groups who were not familiar with Lovecraft, but even some experienced players found that just following the rules wasn’t enough to make the game feel like Lovecraft. (Although one group said it was about as Lovecraftian as most Call of Cthulhu, which is either a backhanded compliment or damning with faint praise… but better than we’d feared.)

The main change we’ve made is to provide a style guide to Lovecraft, covering the themes, paraphernalia and language used by Lovecraft. This is supported by other changes which I’ll describe in a moment. It remains to be seen whether knowing the themes and having them at the forefront of one’s mind will be enough to make the game feel like Lovecraft – we should know pretty quickly after the next few playtest reports come in.

We’re also thinking about introducing a requirement to choose a theme for the story, from a list we’ll provide. But that’s something we need to think about over a slightly longer time period – it hasn’t gone into the game yet.

2. Hard to teach, hard to learn

This was also a bit of a disappointment, if I’m honest. I have to explain complicated concepts for a living, so I thought I’d do pretty well at this. I think most of my playtesters managed ok at learning the game. Those that didn’t, were new to indie-style games, which may account for the problem. The teaching of the game, however, seems to have been more laborious than it needs to be.

We’ve created a teaching guide to tackle the latter problem. It’s pretty clear that, since this is a game that has a number of stages that work quite differently to each other, the best way to do this is to teach the game as you play it, not attempt to explain it all at once. That’s what we’ve done – create a guide which you read out at key junctures to explain the key concepts (at the start) and how the basic procedures differ as the game evolves (when the changes happen). The guide also includes a potted summary of the Lovecraft style guide, so that it isn’t just the facilitator who benefits from that. The whole thing would take about 15-20 minutes to read out if you literally just monologued it, but it’s broken into chunks, so hopefully the job of teaching is a bit less strenuous.

We’re going to have to think about whether the rules are just too complicated, or the rules guide not structured in the right way. That’s something we’ll get to in a later iteration.

3. The Final Horror

Quite a few groups found that it was a real challenge to weave together all the clues they had seeded through the story into a single compelling Final Horror. They ended up either ignoring some clues, or laboriously explaining through exposition how they fit in, or having a lengthy discussion as a group which obviously breaks the tension.

We’ve introduced a new rule to address this. In the new version, after every scene there’s a pause in which everyone individually writes down what they think is going on. Obviously nobody really knows – but the rules say you have to leap to a conclusion. The idea is that you’ll then use that premature conclusion to guide what you narrate in the next scene. Since the other players will surprise you, your ideas will change every scene – but because nobody is just firing off ideas into the void, the story will be a bit more coherent. More importantly, when the Final Horror comes, nobody is starting from a blank slate.

Other stuff

These weren’t the only issues our playtest uncovered! But they’re the biggest – we think the rest will be relatively easy to crack. We’ll be going over these, and thinking more broadly (and maybe more deeply) about the game’s overall design, over the next few weeks, with a view to commencing a fresh playtest on a completely revised version of the game.

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.