Next Tuesday, June 20th, our game Damn the Man, Save the Music! launches on Kickstarter. Damn the Man has been in development for about two years, and it’s come a long way during that time.
Early versions of Damn the Man had a problem, and that was too much nostalgia trippin’ combined with too much showing off musical expertise. It was a really innocent player-level problem (everyone is excited about what they know and it’s fun to talk about favorite music videos), and I eventually found a fun solution: fake trends, fake music videos, fake band names.
It’s made the game so much more enjoyable, and it’s led to a lot of creativity and funny stumbling when someone can’t quite shake the name of a real person. Alanis Morissette becomes alternate 90s timeline Atlantis Moristand, and so on… Either way, it rebuts the idea that it matters that a particular Metallica album came out in 1988 instead of 1992. It doesn’t matter. Metallica is fiction in this world.
Of course, we can’t remove a game about 90s music entirely from the real world. I mean, maybe it’s possible… but that would make Damn the Man a worldbuilding exercise, where a major feature of the game is coming up with an alternate 90s that’s totally different from our own. I do kind of want to play that game, but for Damn the Man, that level of worldbuilding wasn’t a core design goal.
It’s a precarious balance, and the answer wasn’t purely social or purely mechanical. I tried a version of the game that addressed the issue on a purely social level—Don’t do this thing!—and it just didn’t work. Players got flustered when they slipped up, and I don’t want anyone to feel ashamed because they’re excited to talk about Nickelodeon commercials. I also tried a version that addressed the issue on a purely mechanical level, but I don’t think that even exists. Roleplaying games are by their very nature social, which makes them unpredictable. A rule that says “you’re encouraged to make up fake 90s bands” doesn’t mean a player won’t ask, “Hey… does this game take place in 1994 or 1997, because that distinction may change what I want my character to wear?” It’s an interesting question. Based on your gaming group and what you know about their interests and attention, it’s the job of a GM to decide how to answer that at the table.
There’s going to be some unavoidable nostalgia trippin’ for many folks who play this game. For a lot of people (myself included), that’s a major draw! Ultimately the answer involved leaning players toward making things up on the fly while also addressing player-level issues as the GM. “We don’t have to break the scene to look up the dates of Clinton’s impeachment trial. Let’s keep the camera rolling.”
With that, allow me to share a personal favorite 90s song…
I was probably a little young to appreciate this song when it was first released, so I’m guessing I didn’t see the video until the early 2000s. But in the Damn the Man timeline, that doesn’t matter! In my alternate timeline 90s, the Bee Song was the smash hit of 1994. It sparked a tap dancing revolution. To this day, you can still see the little nicks and dents of tap shoes marking the lacquered hallways of middle schools around the world.
If you’re interested in thinking more about nostalgia, we did a Games People Play episode all about the “nostalgia game” this time last year. The podcast is currently on hiatus, but this stands as one of my favorite episodes to date.
Good Dog, Bad Zombie is a cooperative game for three to five players. It can be described as Homeward Bound meets The Walking Dead. It’s a game about doing everything you can to build a place to call home. It’s a game about dogs rescuing humans. It’s a game about sticking together, through thick and thin. It’s a game about dogs fighting zombies. It’s adorable and horrifying, all at once.
As I develop the game, I’ll be making periodic updates about the game design process to share. I feel comfortable starting this effort now, as the core mechanics of the game have stabilized (hopefully, fingers crossed), though there will still be plenty of small and medium sized changes to make.
In Good Dog, Bad Zombie (GDBZ), players are chasing away zombies in twelve different locations (ranging from “the Kennel” to “the Spooky Swamp”) in order to save humans, and then bring them back to their home territory. (Kind of like Lassie, but with zombies instead of wells.) Each player is playing as one dog in the pack, and if the dogs bring home ten humans, the humans are able to build a new home – and the players win! However, if too many dogs and humans die (or “go to the farm,” as it’s called in GDBZ) and if there are too many zombie outbreaks, then the feral tracker will reach 10. Once this happens, the pack of dogs becomes feral and wild, and they no longer care about rescuing humans – and so the players lose.
In addition, players must interact with events. Some are good, like “SQUIRREL!”, while others are bad, like “A really, really loud thunderstorm.” These either have immediate effects or present decisions players must make as a team or individual. (There are some occasional longer story-prompt events as well that tell the overall story of the zombie apocalypse.)
Recently, I play tested the sixth iteration of Good Dog, Bad Zombie. Overall, it went really well. (The playtesters even asked to play another round after we finished the first one, which I feel is pretty much the best game design compliment possible.) At the same time, there was still room for considerable improvement. Here’s what I learned about what worked and what needed work.
The flavor. People really seemed to enjoy the cards in the game, and the temporary “art” that is being used until custom art is produced. There’s a lot of humor in the game. The juxtaposition of adorableness and horror also played off each other nicely. There was a lot of laughter, awwws, and groans. People were pretty frequently shouting “YES!”, which felt good
Dogs getting adopted. There’s a mechanic in the game where after your dog rescues a human, the human adopts your dog. You discard your current dog and take a new one. People thought this was cute and also allowed them to see more dogs. (Seeing more dogs had been a request from a previous playtester.) But because most dogs have different abilities, it also made sure the game didn’t become stagnate.
Call of the pack. This is a mechanic that I came up with to try to emphasize participation even if it’s not your turn, while also de-emphasizing quarterbacking (one person telling everyone else what they should do). That’s a general thing that many cooperative games struggle with, and so I wanted GDBZ to address it head on. With call of the pack, if a player plays a card with a dog symbol on it that matches a card with a dog symbol you have, you can play that card with the matching symbol even if it’s not your turn. So basically the current player starts a call of the pack when they play a card, and any player with a matching symbol may respond to the call if they have a card with the matching symbol. This also allows for some fun combos. In previous playtests, I had players say this was an aspect that really kept them attentive and focused the whole game, and they liked being able to contribute on other player’s turns.
Helping each other. In GDBZ, there are some features that don’t give you the choice between helping yourself and helping everyone – you just have to help everyone. For example, there’s a mechanic called “Sniff” – it allows not only you to draw a new card, but all players to draw a new card. This emphasizes interactivity even when it’s not your turn.
Core System. Even though there were plenty of rough patches and things to fix, people commented that the gameplay was fairly smooth and easy enough to pick up, and that the core system of the game is solid. That’s a relief.
Chasing Away Zombies. In order to chase away zombies, you roll a custom “dog die.” Four sides have a paw. If you successfully roll a paw, you remove a zombie token from your area. However, one side of the die has a HIT, and another side has a DOUBLE HIT. If you roll a hit, your dog takes one wound and you don’t remove the zombie. If you roll a double hit, it’s the same but your dog takes two wounds. This means that the attempt to chase off a zombie is likely to go your way, but there’s the possibility that a zombie could harm you instead and you’ve lost one of the precious actions you get on your turn (measured by “sleepy tokens”). This can ruin the best laid plans. This balance seemed to go well and was fun.
What Needed Work and Possible Solutions To Try Out
Problem – too many dice. There were too many dice in this version of the game. The primary culprit was the fact that at the end of your turn, you had to roll two dice: one was to determine if you were drawing an event card or adding zombies to the board, and the other was determining what places you were adding zombies to if you were adding zombies. Two sides of this die said E (draw an event), three sides said Z1 (add one zombie to each place you’re adding zombies to), and one said Z2 (add two zombies to the places). Besides having too many dice to roll and pass around, that’s just a clunky and un-intuitive and confusing way of doing things. Solution to try out: Eliminate the zombie/event die, and just roll the number die at the end of your turn, and always just add one zombie to each Place that has the corresponding number. This means drawing event cards needs to be triggered by something else. (More on that below.)
Problem – Scaling of the game was a bit off, it needed more zombies! Once the players got the upper hand on the zombies, the game was pretty much on lockdown. And while it was still fun to play, their wasn’t much tension. This even happened when we played a second time, at a harder level setting. Solutions to try out: I actually think the above solution with altering the dice will help out with this problem too, as it’ll ensure that zombies are added to the board every turn, no matter what, instead of there being a 1 in 3 chance that it’ll happen. But also, I think reducing the number of zombies there are allowed to be on a space from four to three will be a big factor. Once a place is maxed out with zombies, any human on that place gets eaten, and there’s a zombie stampede – which means zombies spread out to all adjacent places. Only a couple stampedes happened in the last version of the game. With this new model, I think we’re more likely to see the spread of zombies. In addition, I’m scaling back some of the power of some of the dog’s cards, which will make it harder to remove zombies.
Problem – Ambushes, a boring and clunky mechanic/gameplay feature from an old version of the game. In the very first version of Good Dog, Bad Zombie, the whole game was based around ambushes. You went into a place, you found a human that needed to be rescued, then you were ambushed – maybe by zombies, maybe by evil humans, maybe by a colony of feral cats, a zombie with no legs, and so on. This was a completely different game. But this mechanic was so important that dogs even had special stats based around ambushes. Slowly, as the game adapted, ambushes became less important, and they were even folded into the events deck. But still, they were there, and the dogs stats based around them were still there. But eventually this feature got stripped down so much that the ambushes just became boring cards that made you roll the dice a whole bunch of extra times. The difficult thing about just deleting the ambushes, though, was that they did serve one important role: giving dogs extra wounds and making it so you had to occasionally discard rescued humans you had (and send them to the farm). Solutions to try out: Delete the ambushes entirely, and then increase the difficulty of the event cards themselves, thereby transferring the role the ambushes served into the events. Also delete the Dog Stats that had to do with ambushes, therefore making the dog cards simpler, too (another pro!)
Problem – when to draw events. As mentioned above, drawing events was previously a part of rolling a zombie/event die at the end of the turn, which was way too clunky. It also turned out to be unreliable. Sometimes we were drawing way too many events and not adding enough zombies, sometimes we weren’t drawing enough events at all (and sometimes, too many of those events were ambushes, which wasn’t fun). Solutions to try out: Instead of rolling the die to see if you’re drawing an event, incorporate the events into the Places. A few places had “clearing this place of zombie” effects – namely, drawing a Reward card, healing all dogs (like at The Vet), and so on. So in dialogue with my playtesters, we determined that it’d be fun to actually make you draw event cards after you clear places of zombies. I did have to do some tweeking of the rules to make sure players couldn’t just avoid clearing spaces and therefore drawing events. But hopefully this will now turn into a strategic decision: do we unnecessarily leave zombies on the board, which is a risk, or do we draw an event, which is a different risk?
Problem – Dog Stats. Certain dogs were overpowered or underpowered. Certain dogs had too many abilities or not enough. And if one dog had two abilities, and the same number of actions as every other dog, well that the player playing as that dog was just going to have a lot more to do. Solutions to try out: Diversify the dogs a bit more. If one dog has a lot of abilities, scale down how many wounds they can have and the number of sleepy tokens (actions per turn) they can have.
Problem – Too many humans: The inverse of the zombies problem was the humans. Once you rescued a human, you rolled the die and added two new humans to the board. And remember, you need to save 10 humans to win the game. While this had a multiplying effect, I figured it’d actually make the game harder, because there would be more humans to be eaten by zombies, which would cause the zombies to spread and the feral tracker to move up. But because the zombies weren’t totally working out, there were just a ton of humans and it was way too easy to win. Solutions to try out: Make the game have more zombies (see above), and limit the number of humans there can be on the board at a time to five. Also, only make a Place able to have one human at a time. This means if another human would be added to, say, The Old Downtown Now Covered in Wreckage, but there’s a human already there, you just don’t add the human to that Place.
Problem – a lack of balance between abilities. There were way too many cards that allowed you to heal dogs (which made it so people never lost a dog), and not enough cards that allowed you to do some of the other game mechanics (like bark, bite, sniff, etc.). Some players ended up with just a huge amount of healing cards in their hands, which didn’t feel great. Solutions to try out: Pretty simple, just try to redistribute the number of abilities between the different cards and see if it feels any better gameplay wise.
Problem – discarding didn’t feel very fun. Even though players didn’t mind it, I didn’t like Events that made players discard cards. It just felt non-interactive; I don’t like taking away players opportunities to do things. The game should be able to punish players, but just like the mechanic of “skipping turns” – which is probably one of my least favorite of all time – I don’t like making the game harder by making it less playable.
Well, those are the highlights of many of the things that went well, in addition to the problems and the solutions I’ve brainstormed. Hopefully these work out! Find out next time on… Good Dog, Bad Zombie progress report!
Noirlandia is a game about dark cities and the dark mysteries they hold. Appropriately, the art in Noirlandia is often gritty and full of blurred lines. Here’s some of the concept art and experiments being made, some of which will be fleshed out and make it into the final game:
The art in Noirlandia focuses both on the people at the center of the mysteries and the cities where the mysteries are born. Games in Noirlandia take place in the worlds you dream up: they can be so close to our own with one big difference, or they can take place in a fantastical space opera or fantasy setting, like an island city on stilts.
At the core of every Noirlandia game is the story of a corrupt city, and how it corrupts the city’s people. There are suspects, victims, innocent bystanders, those who want to keep the mystery quiet, and people who will do anything to solve the case.
All of the art here are concept pieces and practices for the game’s final design. The art will be used throughout the Noirlandia book as well as leads that you will pin to the corkboard to track down clues and suspects. Want to see the final art? Then keep an eye out for Noirlandia’s Kickstarter that will be launching around April 19th!
The internet and mobile platforms have given rise to many new kinds of games. At the same time, they’ve also helped older types of games find new life, thanks to the creativity of game designers and the enthusiasm of players. And interactive fiction (IF) is one of those more classical types of games currently going through a renaissance. Like me, you might remember the choose-your-own adventure Goosebumps and Animorphs books from your youth; but I can promise you that just like me, interactive fiction is now all grown up. (Although I don’t think interactive fiction has rent to pay…) Of course, there has actually always been people across age ranges playing interactive fiction games, it’s just that now the digital age has helped these gamers develop a new voice and a new community, appealing to people on desktop, web browser, and mobile platforms across the globe.
Brian: What are text-based and interactive fiction games? And how did you get into them?
Rebecca: Text-based games, aka interactive fiction, are digital games built around words. Which is a hugely general description, because there’s a huge variety of text-based games out there!
Some are word-based puzzle games, where your goal is to find the right combination of commands to solve a problem. That’s the style of text-based games that’s been around the longest, but there are a lot of other styles out there now. Some are essentially novels where the reader plays the main character, deciding how to react to events and characters and choosing where the story goes next. Some are immersive and impressionistic, where the experience of interacting with words on the screen creates an emotional experience.
I found my way into text-based games through – appropriately enough – several paths. One was through choose-a-path books, which I devoured as a kid. My favorites were the Time Machine series – they fed my love of history as well as my love of immersive stories. I also played in some old-school text-based online RPGs – MUDs, MOOs, that sort of thing. Some were freeform text-based roleplay; others were basically multiplayer versions of the earliest IF games in which you you’d type commands like ‘go north’ and ‘get torch’ to navigate your way through the game.
As for my entry into writing and editing text-based IF professionally, that was a very happy coincidence. Choice of Games was founded by two of my friends from college, Dan Fabulich and Adam Strong-Morse. I’d been playing and enjoying their games for years – and then they happened to be looking for a new editor at the same time that I was looking for a new job. That was in the summer of 2013, and I’ve worked for them ever since.
Brian: It seems as if text-based games and interactive fiction have been going through a reemergence. Why is that? Did they ever go away?
Rebecca:They never went away! For a long time, there has been a small but continuous and very dedicated community of people who play, write, and love IF games.
But you’re totally right that the last few years have seen a lot of growth and expansion in the IF community. It’s partly due to the increased ease of communication that social media has brought: it’s now easier than ever before for IF players to find each other, and for IF writers to spread awareness of their work. It’s also partly due to the development of new tools for writing IF, like ChoiceScript and Twine, that are free and very simple to learn. So people who want to make games in general find that the easiest path into that is to write text-based interactive fiction: there’s a relatively low learning curve, and no need to learn (or pay for!) complicated graphics rendering software. People who never had the opportunity to create games before are now able to, and that’s a wonderful thing for everyone concerned.
Plus, there have been a few really prominent IF titles in the last few years – 80 Days probably being the biggest – that have drawn new players and writers into the field.
So now there are more opportunities for people to write games, which means that there are many more kinds of IF being written, which means that there’s a higher chance that any given person can find a game that they’ll love to play.
Mainstream videogames have also recognized that a lot of players like a really strong story to their game, and choices that really matter. The popularity of Telltale’s games, for instance, shows that there’s a hunger for a player-driven narrative.
And, finally, the rise of transmedia and augmented reality games plays into the resurgence of IF as well – games like Lifeline where the player’s text-based communication is the game. It’s all part of the same impulse to put the player at the center of a very complex story.
Brian: On the Choice of Games website, there’s a lot of discussion of interactive fiction in the video game era. Do you also see any similarities between text-based games and tabletop RPGs?
Rebecca: Absolutely! GMing a tabletop RPG turned out to be my best preparation for writing IF. It got me used to thinking about stories that didn’t necessarily proceed in a linear fashion and could have multiple different endings based on other people’s actions. And what’s more, it taught me that I love telling that kind of story. I love that in both tabletop RPGs and text-based IF (at least, in the kind of text-based IF that I’m writing in ChoiceScript) the full story doesn’t even exist until the author and player cooperate to create it.
It also got me used to thinking about creating a story with only words – the kind of audacity of narrative that you need to create an exciting game. Unlike LARP or theater or conventional video games, in a tabletop RPG and text-based IF, you’re not limited by any technical constraints in what you can depict. Do you want a thousand-person crowd scene, or a giant spaceship battle, or a main character who can shapeshift? You can have it; all you need to do is describe it. It’s wonderfully liberating as a creator to have that kind of flexibility.
Brian: Do you have any advice for people who might be interested in getting into text-based games for the first time?
Rebecca: Play a lot of different kinds of games! As with tabletop RPGs or board games, IF can’t be defined as a single thing anymore – which is wonderful! It’s great for players, makers, and the genre as a whole.
So, play some ChoiceScript, some Twine, some parser, some inkle, some Storynexus. Each format will feel very different from the others, and each format will have a lot of variation within it. If you love puzzles, you’ll find them; if you love games with more atmosphere than plot, you’ll find them; if you love complex stories, you’ll find them. If you only have a few minutes to play you can find short games; if you want to lose yourself in a game for hours on end you can find long complex games. Whatever genre you enjoy reading – sci-fi, fantasy, romance, mystery, horror, literary fiction – you’ll find that in IF too.
Brian: What’s the writing, editing, and playtesting process like for your games?
Rebecca: The production process for Choice of Games is a cross between writing a novel and developing a videogame.
It takes about 12-18 months for a game to go from concept to release. We start with a detailed outline that covers both story and game mechanics: what stats the game will track, how the story proceeds differently depending on different player choices, what all the possible endings can be.
That double vision continues throughout the writing process: we constantly pay attention to both narrative and logistics. First, we have to make sure that each potential path through the story makes sense both logically and emotionally. Do the scenes show up in the right order? Does any important information get skipped if the player chooses Option X instead of Option Y? Does each plot progress in a way that makes sense? What is the logical end point of each potential path that the player can take through the story? Do all of those endings feel satisfying?
At the same time, we have to think about mechanics. A core aspect of Choice of Games’ design philosophy is that there are no “right” or “wrong” options. Rather, all options should be equally interesting, and even if the character fails to achieve their goal, the failure should be just as interesting as the success. So we have to make sure that no path through the story is easier or harder than the others, and that no option gives disproportionate benefits or penalties.
Each author has a different method for keeping track of all of the possibilities and contingencies. Some use spreadsheets to make sure that they’re keeping all of the stats balanced; some make flowcharts to track each potential path through the plot. Some make extensive outlines – Max Gladstone, author of Choice of the Deathless, is also a novelist, and he has a great essay about his outlining process for writing a ChoiceScript game and how it differs from and informs his writing process for linear novels.
Once the first draft of a game is done, we have at least a month of beta and continuity testing. We’ve got a crew of regular testers who have exceptional eyes for detail. Every game has dozens if not hundreds of choices, so every playthrough reveals a different combinations of scenes and choices. We have to make sure that every playthrough makes narrative sense. On top of that, we have to make sure that all the code works: not just that there are no bugs, but that all of the stat tests are calibrated properly so that the game isn’t too easy or too hard. We work really hard to make sure that the story flows properly and the game’s responses feel natural.
But sometimes bugs can creep in. For example, my own game, Psy High, had a lot of complicated teen-romance shenanigans, so the continuity was really difficult to iron out. Just one true/false flag getting set wrong in one place could result in confusion for the rest of the game, and hilariously sad error messages from users during beta testing: “I told Alison I loved her, but then on the way to the prom she said that we were just friends! What did I do wrong?”
Brian: Where do you see text-based and interactive fiction games going in the next five years?
Rebecca: I think that the transmedia/augmented reality trend will continue to grow in popularity, as new types of technology get developed and incorporated into games, and as game creators find new ways to use existing technology to tell new kinds of stories. There will be more multiplayer and massively multiplayer IF games, both cooperative and competitive, that will likewise take advantage of new devices.
Relatedly, I think that the lines between game genres will blur even more. Some mainstream videogames will incorporate more aspects of text-based IF: they will strengthen their storylines, make their plots more choice-driven, and increase the amount of text and dialogue that the player sees. Conversely, IF will, thanks to the development of new tools, incorporate more non-text elements such as sound and video.
If there’s anything that the past few years have shown, it’s that people are hungry for games that have a strong story. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the next few years will bring to help them find those stories.
How do you choose a system for your game that best supports the story you want to tell?
When we first designed the mechanics for Questlandia, I’d been playing around with a bunch of existing systems, and none of them were doing quite what I wanted. When I expressed my frustration to my partner Evan (who co-designed the game), he said, “What do you want the story to feel like? Start with feel and go from there.”
I realized that I’d been working backwards. I’d started with dice hoping to stumble on the right feel for the game, instead of starting with feelings, and letting feeling and tone guide me to the right system. I stopped thinking about dice, and took a step back to list out some “feely” things I was hoping for:
Shared ownership over world creation.
No straight losses. Similarly, no attempting the same thing twice in the same way.
Even on a loss, it might be possible for a character to accomplish their goal—but at a high price.
No straight successes. Something awful or unexpected will always happen.
If you’ve played Questlandia, you’ve hopefully seen the mechanics reflect that emotional experience.You’ll often come away from a scene with one or two victories. However, no matter how awesome things go, the opposition dice will always push through at least one negative result.
“I say successful in that I achieved my objective. It was less successful in that I inadvertently introduced my arch-nemesis to the girl of my dreams, and now he’s taking her out on dates, and they’re probably going to french kiss or something.”
So, you obtained the wonderflonium and can finally construct your freeze ray? That’s great, but…
It’s not a perfect system, but it matches the tone of the game, and I’m still pretty happy with it!
Hacking Questlandia for Sentencing Day
When Brian Van Slyke and I first began working on Sentencing Day, a game that explores an extreme version of the school-to-prison pipeline, we started with a hacked version of Questlandia’s system, which made a lot of sense for a few reasons:
It’s a system I know intimately and feel comfortable hacking.
It allows for no straight successes. Something bad will always happen.
It features dramatic escalation followed by collapse, which seemed perfect for setting a corrupt prison conspiracy in motion—and watching a bunch of teenagers bring it to the ground.
We did a few playtests using Questlandia’s core resolution system. The first was super fun, the second was good but bumpy, and the final playtest was awkward and awful. Based on those playtests, this is where I saw Questlandia’s system failing:
Wrong pace for campaign. The system was designed for a one or two-shot game. Sentencing Day is begging to be a campaign game, and the action was rising too quickly.
Slow resolution. Questlandia’s resolution system is slow. This is fine for a one-shot but gets tiring over time.
Conflict resolution. Questlandia uses a system that resolves big conflicts. Sentencing Day is a game of small conflicts that scale as you learn more about your world. In Sentencing Day, you don’t always need to learn multiple outcomes as a result of this scene. Did you agree to pay for the keg, or didn’t you? That’s all we need to know.
Guided facilitation. GMless wasn’t working. It’s a game that requires deep character immersion and, I think, a lot of external social guidance. Players were jumping straight from the role of panicked D-student to fascist security guard and various other NPCs. It was jarring and hard to fully embody characters.
Sentencing Day deals with specific real-world social issues directly, while Questlandia lets the players invent the social ills of their world. Those social issues often run parallel to ours, but exploring systemic racism in an amoeba city in the clouds is easier than confronting racism in our own culture. Playing a racist amoeba is easier than playing a racist you, and this game can’t push people to go there without a GM. Even if it could push players to go there alone, I’d want a facilitator at the table to separate racist in-game characters from racist players. Yeah, it sucks. But it happens.
Hacking Apocalypse World for Sentencing Day
After doing a few playtests using Questlandia’s core system, it was time to try something new. I’d just finished a campaign of Monsterhearts, a game powered by the Apocalypse World system, and I was appreciating some of the things that system did. Some of my favorite parts, that I felt like Sentencing Day could really benefit from:
Stat categories tailored for the fiction of the world, and not too many of them! The stats, and the basic moves paired with those stats, tell you about the types of things this game encourages you to do. Monsterhearts is bubbling over with teenage sexuality and angst, and the stats and moves support those themes. In Night Witches, an Apocalypse-powered game about Soviet airwomen in WWII, you’re working with stats like Guts, Luck, and Medals. Those, along with your Skill stat, encourage players to attempt risky maneuvers in the name of their country—and sometimes in the name of love.
Special character moves. Special character moves build on and personalize the basic moves. In Monsterhearts, the werewolf has an advanced move called Spirit Armor, which reduces harm when basked in moonlight. The witch has an advanced move called Transgressive Magic, which lets you add +1 to spell casting when your ritual transgresses the community’s sexual or moral standards. The bonuses you get for using these moves encourage you to engage with them, and by engaging with these moves, the fiction bends to the whim of the game.
When we decided to try an Apocalypse-powered version of Sentencing Day, we started by brainstorming moves we’d feel excited to see in the game. After writing down a long list of moves that matched our characters and our world, we grouped the moves into a few different categories. Those broad categories eventually turned into our stats, each stat category received a few basic moves, and anything that didn’t fit got axed or became a special, character-specific move.
We then ran several different playtests of the game—all of which went better than the first Questlandia-powered playtests. But, even as a huge fan of Apocalypse-powered games, I could see that these playtests weren’t creating the types of stories we really wanted to tell.
So, what was it about PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) that didn’t sit well with Sentencing Day?
The stats and moves on each player’s character sheet spelled out what kind of actions could potentially happen in this game, and the type of person your character could potentially become. That was perfect in Monsterhearts, so why wasn’t it working for us?
Sentencing Day tells a story about a group of teenagers slowly coming to terms with how messed up their world is and then quickly deciding to act on it, when there’s almost no time left! That kind of story relies on a few mechanics:
Small, subtle moves at first. Characters should be sneaking, peeking, researching, stumbling on information accidentally, and generally falling in line while frantically trying to figure out what to do with the information they’ve learned.
In PbtA, both characters might have a basic move under their Nerve stat called Lash Out. One thing that we were seeing in playtests, that was impacting both the pace of the game and the feel of the story, was that players were using moves like Lash Out way too early for their character. If you’ve spent your entire life getting stomped on by your society, you are absolutely going to lash out by the end of this game. And when you do lash out, it will be glorious. But you can’t lash out yet—it’s not time! But it’s not fair to say that if the move is right there on someone’s character sheet.
A strong, guided sense of pace. In a few weeks, every character in this game will be sent to jail. In the meantime, we’ve got to make sure this mystery unfolds to the beat of a satisfying rhythm. Uncover the conspiracy too soon and the answers feel unsatisfying. Uncover it too late and your work feels futile.
Systemic unfairness. I need a game that says, “Some characters can always succeed at this thing, and some characters can almost never, ever succeed at this thing.” If a D student pulls out a gun in school, they’ll be facing life in prison. If an A student pulls out a gun in school, they’ll get a slap on the wrist for a bad case of affluenza. We don’t want a game that even hints at the idea that both of these characters can accomplish things in the same way.
Player character versus player character. Okay, so the A student can bring a gun to school. That’s fine, but it’s also kind of predictable and boring. I want the A student to be a tool of the establishment. I don’t want them to be the first person to lash out against it. If they do lash out, I want them lashing out against the wrong person—like the D student, whom society has told them is holding them and everyone else back from success!
And I want the D student to be hopelessly lashing out, trying to fight the establishment in all the wrong ways because this world will punish them no matter what.
I want to pit PCs against each other in a way that feels satisfying for everyone at the table, and I want players to be able to deeply separate the initial cluelessness of their characters from the final story arc of their characters.
Despite the fact that this new version of Sentencing Day didn’t work as I’d hoped, I’m glad we tried an Apocalypse-powered version of the game! It allowed us to send out a solid playable draft, to answer a lot of questions about the world, and to identify places where the story was really singing—and places where the system was holding the story back.
Could the game be made to work as a PbtA hack? Of course! But why fight against the narrative limitations of a system when you can find one that really sings? We’ll be throwing out a lot in this next revision, but there are a number of PbtA things I think we’ll keep:
Conditions. Conditions are great! A list of predetermined conditions doesn’t feel right for this game, but I think characters should gain positive and negative conditions as a result of their scenes. Conditions for all!
Special character moves. Advanced moves, custom moves, special moves, whatever you want to call them. These custom character moves won’t be used in conjunction with 2d6s, but they’re helpful for quickly getting to know your character, and they allow different characters to do different things!
Now that we’ve had a chance to playtest the game in two different systems, I feel like I have a better idea than ever what type of system is needed to tell this story. Whatever that system is, I hope it:
Establishes a pace that lets a mystery unfold slowly at first, and then quickly as Sentencing Day approaches.
Doesn’t simply give consequences for, say, punching a teacher, but communicates that even trying to punch a teacher breaks with the fiction of this world.
Uses dice as bargaining resources, and everyone starts out with access to different resources.
Has success and failure outcomes that yield unique and unpredictable results.
Rather than rolling two dice in every conflict, I can imagine characters making ethical compromises and answering challenging questions to bargain for the dice they need. I can also imagine returning to a system that grants the opposition a big pile o’ dice. Being able to visualize your resources stacked against the resources of those in power feels right for this game.
And to drive home the point that you can’t just lash out and punch a teacher in the face in your first scene, I want there to be high rewards for waiting. Players should feel like they’re painfully biding their time, uncovering secrets and nurturing their own source of power before finally giving the establishment a big “fuck you.”
Whatever system we come up with will be a loving hybrid of the things we feel excited about from the games we adore. I’m not sure exactly what that will look like, but I’ll know it when I see it.
As game creators, we want as many people as possible to roll the dice and take a chance with our game. And as game players, we know that terrible feeling of sitting down with a rulebook and scrunching up our foreheads in frustration as the words on the page refuse to make sense.
So I sat down with Joshua Yearsley, an editor specializing in games and scientific literature, to discuss best practices for writing your rulebook – as well as finding and working with a professional editor to help make your game shine. Joshua’s roleplaying game credits include most of the Fate Worlds of Adventure line by Evil Hat Productions, as well as Vow of Honor and Hunt the Wicked by Sigil Stone Publishing. A couple board games he’s worked on are Lagoon: Land of the Druids by 3 Hares Games and Space Cadets: Away Missions by Stronghold Games. At Make Big Things, we also had the pleasure of working with Joshua on our game 14 Days.
Brian: Let’s start with the basics. How would you describe the role and importance of a game editor in making a polished version of a product that’s ready for sale?
Joshua: Ever read a bad rulebook? That’s what happens without an editor.
To be a little less brash, what an editor offers is a fresh, professional set of eyes. If you’ve been designing a game for months or years, revising the text all the while, it’ll be really difficult for you to look at it through your players’ eyes, which makes it hard to write clear rules. This is what Stephen Pinker, author of The Sense of Style, calls “The Curse of Knowledge.”
Editors don’t just look for typos and grammar errors. We also make sure your rules text is as clear, concise, and unambiguous as possible. This has many benefits: it reduces your players’ frustration when learning and referencing rules, it makes sure your players are actually playing the game you intended, and it makes your game more accessible and more marketable to new players who might be new to the gaming world.
Even better, editing can save you money. Graphic design is expensive, often much more expensive than editing, and time spent on editing reduces time spent on graphic design. For especially large games, editing might even reduce your word count enough to reduce the number of pages you need to print, reducing your manufacturing costs.
Brian: What should someone look for when they want to find an editor for their game?
Joshua: First, look in their credits for the rulebooks they’ve edited and download them. If you like what you see, chances are you’ve found someone worth your while. This isn’t always reliable, because the editor doesn’t have absolute control of the end result, but it’s a start.
Once you’ve found some options, ask them what specific services they offer, such as structural editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. If they’re cagey about any of it, they probably don’t know what they’re doing. A good editor should be able to explain those types of editing and how they do or don’t integrate them into their editing process.
Brian: What should independent game designers do to make working with their editor a positive experience?
Joshua: Get a good idea of what your editor is responsible for. If you want your editor to do proofreading, make sure they’ll do proofreading. If you want copy editing, make sure they’ll do copy editing. Editing is a broad profession that covers all kinds of services. There’s a great summary of the various types of editing here.
When you’re ready to start editing, make sure the rulebook is completely done before you hand it off to the editor. The more changes you have to make after the rulebook gets edited, the less useful your editor is going to be. Also, if you already have a graphic designer lined up, connect them with your editor so the editor can discuss how they can help make the designer’s job easier in their editing.
Brian: What are some key tips for writing good game rules?
Joshua: First, don’t be too specific. This may sound counterintuitive, but consider the following statement: “If no other players placed tokens this turn, leave your token in the same region, on the same town.” The explanation “in the same region, on the same town…” sounds exact, but it takes more effort to digest and, if you leave out any other specifics relevant to the token, might confuse your reader. Better would be to just state “…leave your token in its place.” or “…leave your token where it is.” Say exactly what you mean; no more, no less.
Second, use concrete language. If you’re introducing a part of the board, for example, talk about what it is physically. This is bad: Rivers are impassible. This is better: Rivers, the blue lines separating regions, are impassible. If it’s appropriate, supplement that text with an image nearby showing what you’re talking about.
Brian: What are some of the most common “big” mistakes you encounter?
Joshua: Bad rulebooks seem to be the result of many small mistakes rather than a few big ones. That’s why good rulebooks are so hard to make. That said, there are a few big problems to look out for.
A big rulebook needs a workable index. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Many editors, but not all, will be able to make one.
Also, it’s really easy to overuse text styling such as italics and bolding. A bold term might draw your reader’s eye, but if you bold half of the things on the page, it turns into a liability. And yes, I’ve seen rulebooks that have half the page bolded.
Brian: Has the rise of Kickstarter-backed games impacted the game editing industry at all?
Joshua: Absolutely. In fact, at least in the board game world, it didn’t exist in any real sense before crowdfunding. You had the big, big publishers like Hasbro or Wizards of the Coast, who would have editors on staff, while small, independent publishers often didn’t have the pre-publishing resources to sink into hiring an editor. Now there’s some money to go around that smaller teams can use to make games with a lot of polish.
Brian: How does your experience being a game-player impact how you edit games?
Joshua: What an interesting question! I’m not sure that being a game-player changes how I edit games too much, but what does is my experience in teaching games to people and in reading lots and lots of rulebooks. Some of my editing habits are influenced by what I’ve seen to work in teaching games aloud: show what you’re talking about, explain early about how to win, use examples, be sparing in specificities at the beginning, and many other things. Many things, big and small.