Wednesday, March 26

On Your True Self



     Dark Souls 2 is out.  I got it launch day, played it for a long time.  I don't want to talk about its quality now.  I'd like to talk about something more interesting, to me.  The approach the game takes to character creation fascinated me.  Games have attempted to seamlessly work this flow and tension breaking element smoothly into gameplay, and have all exceeded somewhat equally.  The interesting thing about Dark Souls 2, to me, is in how it frames this creation.  Rather than saying "Enter your name," the game asks you to "Try to remember your name:".
     For those of you unaware, characters in the Dark Souls games are afflicted by a curse which prevents them from truly dying, but leads to a slow descent into insanity in a process called hollowing.  "Who wants to live forever" indeed.
     At the beginning of Dark Souls 2, you play a short stint before character creation as a hooded figure who is at the edge of going hollow.  In short order you are allowed to choose your character, but when you're done the game asks "Is this your true self?"  This is the question that really gets me to stop, because it's a much more complicated question than it seems.
     Within the context of the game, perhaps this is your true self, implying your hooded, shambling hollowed avatar was simply a representation of what your character could think and feel about themselves.  Perhaps this is not your true self at all, but a self you construct upon reaching Drangleic, and the hollowed you has simply gone so far as to no longer know.  But here's the really interesting part:  This isn't YOUR true self.  This is an avatar you are going to play as for the remainder of the game.  You are sitting at home, with your own life, your own thoughts, conceits, worries, problems, and plans.  I am sure that this was not the devs' intention; choosing "no" lets you edit your character further.  But I'm not really here for their intentions, but what the finished product contains, and how it affects me, the player.
     Another, somewhat similar reading: This is not what you look like, not representative of your physical or mental prowess, or a being with your moral code.  But it IS a representation of yourself.  It is, if you wish it to be, who you see your true self as.  Games are often lauded and despise as self-insert fantasies, but fantasies tell us who we are.  They tell us what we want, and gives us the tools to see ourselves overcoming and continuing past the challenges that are sometimes too great to exist.  This character is not necessarily your true self, but maybe it can help you understand who you want your true self to be.
     That idea, to me, is very powerful, and one of the things which has really made me consider and understand all of the choices I make in any game I play.  No matter what choices you make, your actions serve as a reflection of your self, of who you are, and who you wish you could be.  When you kill an NPC, was it because you're trying to acquire their items, and didn't want to wade through the hassle of a quest line?  Do you obsessively pick up every item as a reflex, or does something in your head secretly hope for something you've never seen before?
     Think as you play.  Don't feel you need to judge yourself, or that there is some "correct" way to play that exists out there somewhere.  What I'm asking, what I'm hoping, is that you are aware.  That when you make a choice, you are present, that you examine your actions within a game and understand the person those actions reflect.  And ask: "Is this your true self?"

Monday, March 3

On Player Input: From the Start

     I firmly believe that the audience is part of the art. Considering demographics may sound like only encompasses marketability, but knowing an audience is an important part of interacting with and creating an experience for that audience. Games are an avenue not only for audience participation, but audience creation. This is most easily understood as it applies to tabletop games, or games without the strictness of implemented code. It's the duty of the Game Master to incorporate the player into the game, and I believe it should start before the first die is cast.
     I've been GMing two games that are coming to a close soon. One has been going on nearly three years, the other about two. Neither are perfect; I've made so many mistakes I long ago lost track of them all. Which is a shame, because learning from a mistake is its most important element. But let's start with the very first mistake I made, before I even met many of my players. That mistake was in making the game I wanted to make. I love my ideas, I love them so much. But everyone has ideas. So instead of beginning the game by selecting one person to have all the ideas, tabletops should really starting with a planning session, where every player can get involved. This may seem elementary, but I rarely see it happen in a useful way. Here are some important things I think need to be covered.
     Tone. Is the game going to be light-hearted with lots of jokes and laughter? Is it going to be set during an alternate Steampunk 1920's time? Is it going to be full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll? How are you going to deal with those things? I think that getting to an established tone, and making sure everyone's on a similar page will give you answers to many of the questions that are sure to come after.
     Censoring. What isn't okay in your game? A player wants to brutally mutilate a body, to describe it in gory detail. Maybe it's fine with you, but what about other players? Is sexual violence something that's going to be a part of your game? How graphic is it? It may seem silly at first, but it's important to sit down with your players and know what boundaries people just aren't comfortable with crossing. If you think they'll have trouble speaking up for fear of embarrassment, start it off yourself. What don't you want to see in your game? Further, if some things, like sex, are going to be in the game, how do you handle it? Best way I've seen is the characters get to the point right before sex, and we get a "fade to black" to represent whatever kind of shenanigans each players wants to think about, without pushing it in anyone's face or making it too awkward.
     Game System. I know this might seem weird to people who use one system for every game, but different games and players demand different game systems. I don't want to play Monsterhearts unless the game is about slightly supernatural young adult emotions and relationships. I don't think Dungeons and Dragons (any edition) is suitable for a soap-opera style drama set in early 2000's Beverly Hills. The games is at your command, and it can be a ton of fun to find a system that's right for your game.
     Character Creation. Everyone needs to be present for this. Pitching character backstories, concepts, classes, and abilities should be done together. This is going to do two wonderful things: characters can have synergy; not just with fighting styles and powers, but with motivation and goals. How many times have you adventured with a group of people that you character would never spend more than a minute with if they could avoid it? The whole "met in a bar" or "all in jail" are both wonderful at dividing the party right from the start. As an example: I ran a Cyberpunk game where all seven players (ugh) started off as criminals in jail. I told them to come up with their crime, and got everything from an angry daddy to child molester/murderer. Yeah. That sure was a ragtag bunch of scamps... End of the story, we played one session. And lastly, no secrets between players. Sure, the GM has to have secrets, but players needn't. Anyone capable of roleplaying should be able to divide what they know from what their character knows. Having no secrets allows other players to push a character's story forward, and still have fun and be invested in the ride. If only one player cares about a big reveal, then the reveal wasn't all that big.
     Storyline. This will come out of character creation in a big way, but the players all want to tell their character's story. If you can be there while everyone weaves their stories together (and you should encourage them to do so), then an overarching plot can easily come out of it. As a GM, you may have been told that the enjoyment of your players is the most important aspect, and that you should bend over backwards to please them. You want to make them happy. I don't agree. I think that the players and the GM should be engaged by what they play. I think they should be invested and excited, but they don't have to be laughing the whole game. Your story can have many interesting twists and turns, and the players will most often be the ones to give them to you.
     So take that as you will. I know I'm not perfect at this, but from here on, whenever I start playing a new game, it will be with all of my players, from the start.

Tuesday, May 21

On First Drafts

There is something about the world of game design and writing, and of course all artistic fields, that is terrifying.  When you first dragged crayon on paper and presented it to someone, hopefully they liked it.  As you grew, you found that it wasn't always the case.  Sometimes, people hate your work.  Not for reasons you could see coming, but ones they will be all too happy to tell you about.  I have a lot of fears and stresses in my life, and the fear that what I create is bad is probably near the top of the list.  That's why I haven't posted here in a long time.  I know that there are very few people who care, but I do, and that's really why I write this anyway.
I don't write often enough anymore, because I'm afraid of what will come of it.  I have so many nearly done projects that I no longer know what to do with, because I'm afraid of getting them to the end.  Right now, or should I say for the past months, I have been working on my own Tabletop RPG system.  It's alright, probably too much like RPGs I've played in the past, etc.  I have ample material to test with, and should've brought people together a long time ago to begin testing, but I didn't.  I should have, but I didn't.
I don’t do a lot of things I really, really should.  I should keep writing this blog.  I have no cause not to, really.  It helps me through things, and I feel like for a fair time there I had a real flow going, like I was starting to really see the benefits of my work.  But it fell apart, because one man told me it was a terrible idea.  Incidentally, I found him to be a terrible man.
So what am I here to talk about?  Passion, Process, and Fear.  I haven’t planned this article out, I’m just writing because that’s how I cope.  Come with me, if you wish.
When I say Passion, I mean the WANT.  The desire to be great.  To see your name in lights.  We all have that passion in some form or another.  Process is how we can channel that passion.  A way to take all the burning wants and loves inside of us and turn it into something tangible.  It’s hard to find a real process.  Hard to understand what makes a good process.  Some very convincing arguments have been made for a variety of processes.  Okay, so I have the Passion, I like to think.  What is my process?  Well, let’s start with what I have.

1) Passion
2) Final Product

That’s not really a process, is it?  It’s just the beginning and end of a process.  Well, I’ve read that defining a goal inherently defines a process by which one reaches that goal.  Okay.

1)      Passion
2)      Define Goal
3)      Define Process
4)      Final Product

That “Define Process” is still pretty useless, isn’t it?  Alright.  Let’s strip that away and make it more than it is.  What does defining the process mean?  Well, it means creating a list of smaller goals or milestones that represent steps to achieving the goal.  Alright then.

1) Passion
2) Define Goal
3) Breakdown Goal into Parts
4) Final Product

Alright, that’s a better phrasing, but it still isn’t our final product.  We need to put together the product, but again, that needs more definition.  I don’t think that the only thing I need to do is breakdown the overarching goal.  I need something more.  Okay, so why don’t we spend some time to review the goals and recognize the process we’re diving into.  Let’s make sure it’s what we want before we obey it.  Everything has a first draft.

1) Passion
2) Define Goal
3) Breakdown Goal into Parts
4) Review Plan
5) Final Product

So once everything looks alright, I guess I have to start following the plan.

1) Passion
2) Define Goal
3) Breakdown Goal into Parts
4) Review Plan
5) Follow Plan
6) Final Product

No, something inside me tells me it’s not that easy.  I’ve had lots of plans, hundreds of different kinds, likely.  None has consistently worked for me.  So “Follow Plan” isn’t enough.  There needs to be more.  And indeed, few plans ever go perfectly, end-to-end.  So adaptability is important as well.  So, I need something more.  I think we’ll take a step back and add a step.  This one is what I think will work best for me.

1) Passion
2) Define Goal
3) Breakdown Goal into Parts
4) Create Appreciable Milestones
5) Review Plan & Plan Bs
6) Follow Plan
7) Final Product

I need to know I’m progressing, and I need to be able to know where I am on a scale of doneness.  Wow, Word did not autocorrect doneness.  Apparently that’s a real word.  Neat. 
“Follow Plan,” I still don’t like that.  Why not?  Because it’s too general?  It’s not about whether I should follow the plan; it’s about how to make sure than I do.  Creating appreciable milestones is important, but I think reminders are what I need to create most.  So, in my case, I might create a physical checklist (I’m one of those curmodgeony [not a word, but doneness is?  Screw you, Word.] old fellows who likes physical copies of things he owns) that I can check off pieces by piece as I finish parts, and I need that thing in clear view, where I will see it all the time.  This does not mean I need to put it on my Xbox power button, but that it’s somewhere sensible and reasonable.  Preferably where I’ll be working.
So maybe not so much “Follow Plan” as:

1) Passion
2) Define Goal
3) Breakdown Goal into Parts
4) Create Appreciable Milestones
5) Review Plan & Plan Bs
6) Follow & Track Progress Clearly
7) Final Product

Well, like I said earlier, everything has first drafts.  I think, before everything goes out, I need to find a way to review everything.  Review how well the process worked, how the product fared, times that were easy, times that were tough, etc.

1) Passion
2) Define Goal
3) Breakdown Goal into Parts
4) Create Appreciable Milestones
5) Review Plan & Plan Bs
6) Follow & Track Progress Clearly
7) Grand Review
8) Final Product

That seem like it’s worth a shot.  So, for my next while, this will be my process.  Not great, I’m sure, but something.  A place from where to start.
I said I’d talk about Fear.  I did in short at the beginning of all this, and now I’ll close with it, because bookending is neat or something.
Like I said, I worry a lot.  I also get excited a lot.  That’s part of the Passion.  I’ll spend a couple days working my ass off on something and then drop it forever.  So, what I want to try to do to conquer my fear is to recognize it, to accept it, and to move forward with it.  Maybe it’ll twist my stomach into knots, but maybe that pain will keep me spry, ready to listen to others when they criticize or praise.  Regardless, I am going to test my first draft of the RPG named Bare Life.  I’m pretty sure a lot will have to change in the name of variation and good design, and though I’m afraid of those changes (and many others) I will do my absolute best to use my fear positively.
Here’s hoping it works.