Indie thoughts in an online RPG

Yesterday, I stumbled upon the Twitter game, Echo Bazaar, a dark, Victorian/steampunk, browserbased RPG. While the game itself seems to have many admirable, I want to draw your attention to a series of posts describing the narrative structures used in the design. Here is the first of three posts; there is a link to the next at the bottom of the post.

I think there are several interesting things going on here. I’ll go through some of them here, in no particular order.
  • I like the concept, from the third post, of “Fires in the Desert.” I am currently working on applying Umberto Eco’s ideas on reader co-creation of a text to the medium of radio. And as far as I can see, it’s the same thing going on here: instead of laying out a complete, very  story, they’re consciously giving the player an incomplete picture, leaving them to fill out the picture for themselves. This, I think, will work very well with this kind of very puzzling game; it is also something all storytelling should do: consciously refraining from completeness to make readers/players/viewers invest their own imagination in the narrative.
  • Everything about your character is described as “qualities.” Your character has four stats (Dangerous, Watchful, Persuasive and Shadowy), four types of “Menace” (damage – Wound, Nightmare, Scandal and Suspicion), a number of Contacts, story traits (including things like Recurring Dreams, Heartless, Finding the Wretched Prodigal, etc.), one of four Ambitions plus a number of items. But behind the scenes, all of these are “Qualities.” And all except for items appear to operate in the same way. To me, what they have done is convert everything about a charater to something akin to Aspects from Fate, but attach a numeric value to it, to express how MUCH you are something. 
  • This means that they’ve moved beyond the very one-dimensional development of characters in  regular RPG’s. An ordinary character has XP that should go up and HP that should be kept up. Here, everything advances your story. If you become more Dangerous, there are more things for you to do. Better connected with the Church? More Branches open. Become Insane? You get to explore the sanatorium. Die…
  • They describe three types of what they call “Pattern Language.” Mark of Cain seems mostly relevant in a computer game: once a storyline is completed, you get a quality that means you won’t get it again. The other two are far more interesting. Faust’s Teaparty takes the Faustian deal (get something good if you loose something good), splits it and adds a dash of Prisoners Dilemma: Invite someone to do something where you’ll both benefit, or both not benefit. As far as I can see it’s the same thing that’s going on with helping people out in Munchkin. Finally, The Midnight Staircase gives the player the option between continuing to “grind,” waiting for better prizes, or to cash in now. So when will the extra time spent be worth it? When does time extra time spent break even with improvement of prize? The example is that of preparing a burglary: the more you prepare, the better a target you can hit. One might consider introducing an element of risk to waiting: they’ll move the prize, you’ll be discovered, you’ll run out of cash on hand…
I can’t shake the feeling that there are some golden nuggets for running a campaign in there. Nothing revolutionizing – but a way of making us aware of some things we may have forgotten along the way.

One response to this post.

  1. I really didn’t understand much of your retelling of the concepts, I had to go to the source to learn what it all was about. But, you got your hands on some nice stuff here, it’s very interesting to see storygame concepts in a computergame context, but they are less innovative when you take away the silly names.

    Fires in the Desert is Story After: The idea that the mind will create a narrative out of discrete elements if at all possible, even if no such thing exists.

    I think it is wrong to compare Qualities to Aspects, in that the strength of the Aspect concept is that it is the same value no matter what. It would be better to go with Traits, like in Dogs, which have a numerical value attached. But honestly, its just a stat or a counter, nothing new.

    Mark of Cain is again just a silly name, but I agree that Faust’s Teaparty is a nice combination of the usual stat tradeoff and prisoners dilemma, that’s a solid idea.

    If you add your element of risk to the Midnight Staircase/Grind you end up with a classic case of Push Your Luck gameplay, that’s always fun.

    Still, it’s awesome to see a line go from storygames and the traditionally linear computergaming, if I tweeted I would give it a try. And if you find some inspiration in the new labels, that’s a good thing.


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