Posts Tagged ‘game design’

Wanted: Partner in crime

Fastaval now less than a week away. I am chief of the Info this year which means I have plenty to do answering emails, organizing and packing my own stuff (I’m leaving Monday to go set up for the con). With all this on my mind, there is one more thing I can’t help thinking about: whether I should write a scenario for Fastaval next year.

On one hand, I would really like to. I am thoroughly engrained in the organising side of Fastaval’s twin crews of the organisers and the creatives. But I feel that I should belong as much to the creative side of things, something my experience writing both my contribution to the Empire 40k and Antihero has underlined. On the other hand, I don’t think the way Antihero was created is the best way. Antihero was written in a sense of: “Oh, shoot – deadline’s around the corner!” Writing it was also in many ways a lonely process, as I am not currently in an environment where I often run into other role players, let alone people with an interest in scenario writing. That will, hopefully, change before the next scenario writing season comes around in earnest, but it has still helped me come to one important conclusion:

I want a co-writer.

I want to write my next scenario with somebody. Both as a measure to help the writing process along – I find it easier to do that kind of thing if I’m obligated to someone other than myself – and as a way to help me develop my understanding and style of roleplaying. In other words, I want someone who knows something about roleplaying and scenarios. Not neccesarily a veteran (though it could be), but someone with a perspective that complements my own – alike enough that we can agree on a vision, different enough that we will bring something different to the process. I want someone who wants me to challenge them as much as I want to be challenged by them.

So, what do I want to write? Good question. I guess I would like to write something different than both Under My Hive and Antihero. I might want to write a more classic kind of scenario. Both UMH and Antihero have been indie-like storytelling games with the GM in a very pulled-back, mediating kind of role. While that is the kind of game I often like to play, I also like many other kinds of game – like the more classic scenario with a strong GM and a story for the players to go through. I might like to try something along those lines. Maybe a scenario with very loose constraints and a lot of player interactivitiy. It might also be a GM-less thing. I haven’t played a lot of GM-less stuff, but both UMH and Antihero have had very weak GMs, and for Antihero, I considered whether the GM was actually necessary (there is actually a version provided in the scenario in which the GM plays a main character). So why not try to take the plunge, and do without a GM?

Another kind of scenario could be the retro scenario. It seems that dungeon revival is the hot retro fashion these days at Fastaval, with scenarios like Dungeon, Lydia’s Funeral and Kristian Bach Petersen’s Reservoir Elves, Magician: Impossible and Apocalypse Drow in the lead. Maybe it’s time to be avant-garde retro and make a bloodsucker revival that can show today’s kids that you don’t have to glimmer to sparkle. White Wolf just came out with the Vampire: the Masquerade 20th anniversary edition, and this year’s “Whole Con” is Dancing with the Clans, a game of Camarilla Disco. How about “Fear and Loathing in Lasombra” or some similar ironic nostalgia about the hottest games of the late ’90ies? I have a feeling that there is a Vampire/chick-flick crossover just waiting to happen – “Legally Brujah”?

I have also been doing a few “Fictioval” scenario previews that might be turned into actual scenarios. Like Kthulhu Kindergarden (kiddie investigators in an Arkham daycare facility). Or how about Love in the time of Chess, a sad game of chess prodigies using chess as a mechanic?

Continuing on the retro from before, it seems that half the blogging community has fond memories of Planescape. Maybe it would be an idea to bring Sigil to Fastaval. Giving the setting an indie motor and sending the players off to some corner of the Planes.

What to do?

So, if you might be interested in a partnership for next Fastaval, don’t be a stranger! Write me an email, or approach me at Fastaval, and let’s see if we can come up with an idea we can both agree on. It could be some of what I’ve mentioned above, some of what I have mentioned earlier on this blog, one of your ideas – or something we come up with together!

Advertisements

Antihero: Supporting characters as main character antitheses

A while ago, I wrote about my thoughts on the main characters of my antihero scenario. But what I really wanted, was to follow it up with this post, which explains my thoughts for some of the important secondary characters in the game. And at the end, I’d really like your thoughts.

Now, the Antihero scenario has a main character – the Hero – and four secondary characters: the Sidekick, the Elder, the Villain and the Coveted. The main conflicts of the game build on these five, and each player will control one of them. But these are not the only characters. And this brings me to an idea that I want to incorporate into my scenario: that each main or secondary character has a supporting character who is his antithesis.

Lemme explain what I mean with antithesis. An antithesis

” is a counter-proposition and denotes a direct contrast to the original proposition.” [link]

Thus, the antithesis character is one who is a counter-proposition to a main/secondary character, and who by doing so makes that character more sharply defined.

For instance, the Coveted is not impressed with the hero’s appearance, and will not bend to his will. This makes him interested, and he must strive to win her. Her antithesis is a village girl, who falls head over heels for the hero, and is blinded by his flashing smile and his heroic exterior. Similarly, the Sidekick is not fooled by the hero’s appearance – he helped create it. He is old and cynical. His antithesis is a young boy, who looks up to him and wants to be him when he grows up. His heart would be crushed if he knew the truth about the Hero – and I predict it will be crushed when the hero’s bluff is called at some point during the scenario.

Now, the question is how to use these characters. Should a character control his antithesis himself, allowing him to sketch his own counter-proposition? Should it be controlled by the characters opponent (on the two axes I talked about last time), allowing him to help define the opponents position, and cause a bit of trouble for him? Should it be controlled by someone on the other axis? Or the GM, maybe? Maybe you’d want joint ownership – or maybe just a common pool of all of them, so that anyone can use any character?

I should note that “control” does not mean  “play.” Control is all about who has the right to define and use that character. Whose character-sheet is he on? That person might ask someone else to play him, but even then, they have final say in the matter.

I think I tend towards having joint ownership between the two people on the axis. The problem with that is that you can risk a fight over the characters – or can you? Is that even a problem? Maybe communal ownership would be better, allowing anyone to use them – with the risk that no one will.

I’m also debating whether to give the Hero one. He could have a failing local guy who thought he could be a hero, and who’s intimidated by the hero. On the other hand, he’s likely to get loads of screen time anyway – he doesn’t need help.

What do you think? What will work? Do you have experience with this kind of thing?

Rewarded Progress Game

So, today I want to talk about RPGs.

“What’s so unusual about that? You talk about Role-Playing Games all the time on here!”

No, no – I didn’t say Role-Playing Games. I said RPG’s.

See, the term RPG (or rpg) no longer refers to Role-Playing Games. Sure, it used to, and some people would still use the two interchangeably. Many Role-Playing Games have RPG elements, and some RPG’s have role-playing elements. But the two have become very, very different.

I believe this all started with computer “role-playing games.” I know some people who would deny that you can have a role-playing game in the computer; certain muds and  MMORPG’s have made good attempts at doing so. But one thing is certain: a computer is not good at understanding language and human thought. Thus, it cannot easily adapt the game’s story to the player’s response, something a human GM can do intuitively.

What it can do is react to logical, concrete things. Which option did the player choose? Which way did he go? How many enemies did he kill? So this is the kind of things a computer can comprehend, and thus, for which the player can expect a response.

This can be implemented in many ways. Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic and the other games in the Bioware family have done this exceedingly well, creating games that make you feel like there’s a reacting world there, creating a feeling of being an active participant in the unfolding story.

But most games don’t have the resources to do so. Instead they look to Role-Playing Games and they see the part of role-playing games that fit right into the computer paradigm: The numbers. Stats. The “character sheet.” Abilities, hit points, mana* and – XP.

* By the way, it seems to me that mana, while very popular in computer games, doesn’t appear in that many pen-and-paper games. Something I would guess has to do with the difficulty of managing too many large numbers.

The irony is that as role-playing has moved away from this kind of stats, they have become ubiquitous in computer games. Role-playing-like games like Diablo and the early MMORPG’s started the trend, but today it has spread to all manner of games. Particularly online, adding some sort of progress bar seems to be an easy way to prolong a game by making you repeat certain content in an attempt to achieve the numbers required to “grind” some more advanced content.

And the introduction of this grind is what definitively sets RPG’s apart from role-playing games. Grind shows the player that his actions have no effect on the world of the game. He is not part of an unfolding story, but is merely in a game of skill and numbers in a pretty packaging.

Another move away from role-playing is the detachment from a character. Many games have more than one character that the player controls, many others have an abstract, impersonal “commander” or similar, or simply ascribe certain stats to the “team.”

In short, these games have developed away from their role-playing heritage. Now, they are focused on capturing the player’s attention with many small rewards leading to new rewards to strive for. As opposed to many other games, these games usually have no discernible end, but keep you hooked to go on and on and on (World of Warcraft and Farmville are both good examples).

And so, these games can no-longer be termed “Role-Playing Games.” Instead, I would “retcon” the acronym, and call this type of game a “Rewarded Progress Games”. In this way, the “grinding” games can keep calling themselves “RPG’s,” and role-players will know that this kind of game has little in common with what we play, sitting ’round the table.

Textual qualities of a scenario

So. I decided that before I can write an article on how to read a scenario, I must make sure I know what kind of text a scenario is.

A linear representation of something non-linear that will unfold into something linear

A text can generally unfold into two dimensions: space and time. A temporally oriented text is, by it’s nature, linear: you cannot go back in time, you can only follow it along. As a matter of fact, this is often one of the desirable qualities of such a text: a piece of music progresses, and from the progression from one sound to another arises the song we like to listen to.

A spatially oriented text, on the other hand, will not be linear. Think of a painting or a sculpture: you can go back and forth, viewing the same part of the text again and again, and no part necessarily comes before another.

Many spatial text are oriented in a way to emulate linearity, though. Think of a book: You open at one end and read it from one corner to the one exactly opposite – but you might open it in the middle, and let your eyes go in circles around the page. You’d miss some of what the book is though: the book is meant to capture language, and language is temporal.

Right. That was very scholary. I’ll try to cut it out, and talk more about roleplaying games.

A roleplaying game is, by definition, temporal. You start when you sit down at the table, and end it when you get up again (LARP and semi-larp aside). This is part of the enjoyment: your story progresses in a linear fashion, with high points and low points. And part of the enjoyment is seeing it unfold, not knowing what comes next. In other words, a roleplaying game is a linear thing.

So is the scenario document. The game master will receive a document, consisting of pages of texts. These are ordered in a linear fashion, starting with part one.

But the scenario itself is NOT linear. It contains several separate elements, and you will often have to go back and forth between different of these elements. For example, let’s say there’s a description of a scene in the game. The scene contains an NPC; the NPC is described in the NPC section. This NPC will react in one way if the PC’s did one thing in another scene, and in another if they did something else; this scene is described elsewhere. And the PC’s are of course described in the character handout – most likely at the back of the document. Finally, if there is a conflict involved, there might be some rules for handling these, just as there may be general guidelines for how the GM should run the scenario.

In some ways, portraying a scenario as a regular old text with a beginning and an end is not the optimal way to present it – and the best way to read the text is certainly not from beginning to end. Instead, a scenario is a hypertext, each section referencing and drawing upon several others. And in the reading, the GM must create a mental image of the scenario, so that he can guide the players in the creation of the linear text that is the actual game.

I think this is important to stress to someone who is not used to reading scenario’s: that reading from beginning to end is not the way to go at it. Instead, your reading should be goal oriented, going back and forth in the order YOU need in order to get a good feel for how the game is supposed to work. Of course, this will probably start with the beginning, looking at the table of contents and the scenariowright’s introduction. But then, it might be wise to skip to the description of the characters – either the handouts, or the GM’s description of them.

Am I right? Do you read scenario’s from the beginning to the end?

Also, can any of you come up with an example of a roleplaying game that is NOT linear?

And is there a way to present a scenario in a form that is non-linear, while still being able to communicate an entire scenario in enough detail for someone to run it?

Danger Patrol: Thwarting Crushtjov

Last Thursday, I tried out the beta version of Danger Patrol. The game went well, but there are some kinks. I’ll start with a brief recap, then I’ll present some of my issues with the game. At the end, I’ll say a little about my overall attitude to the game.

Danger Patrol is a pastiche of old tv-shows like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. You play the heroes of the Danger Patrol, defending Rocket City from all manner of villains who want to destroy, conquer or enslave the proud city.

How the game went

We were three people playing : apart from me we were Mads and one of his regular players, Sander.

They made an Atomic Agent and a Psychic Commando – two of the many peculiar combo’s the game allow for.

I for my part took the easy way out, and took the setup that is used as an example: Scarlet Apes attack Rocket City’s rocket car traffic. We had an action packed first scene, with our two heroes zooming up and down, saving people from plummeting rocket cars, slaloming between clotheslines and using holograms and psychic projections to stop the disaster from happening.

After that, we took some brief interlude scenes. I don’t quite remember them, but I think one took place at the monkey cage, with the mayor coming to greet the heroes.

Then, on to investigate this crime. One of them stayed at the cage, trying to find out who had let the apes out of their cage, the other trying to find out who would benefit, a trail leading to the mayor – who turned out to be a traitor, and fled down a secret staircase. Meanwhile, the other hero found a trail leading to a warehouse. And lo and behold – this was were the mayor was running to!

In the warehouse was a number of Crimson Republic guards alongside their leader, General Crushtjov, the nemesis of the players. Also in there was a Mysterious Character, the mercenary villain who’d commanded the apes to attack! The mayor bust ind, and panicked explained that he was found out. But the General laughed – they were ready to launch the Red Comet upon Rocket City!

The players came up with an ingenious plan:  Sander, the Psychic Commando, would throw in a smoke grenade. Meanwhile, Mads, the Atomic Agent, would sneak up upon one of the guards, take him out and put on his uniform.

The minute the smoke grenade went off, the general started to prepare a Rocket Ship for departure. The Mysterious Figure summoned more apes, and the mayor panicked. This action scene was more combat oriented, but equally intense, than the first. Mads was surrounded by burning Gasolineum from barrels thrown by the apes, but used a burst from his rocket pack to get out – thus blowing fire straight down into the puddle of highly volatile, burning liquid! It all ended when Mads, somehow assisted by Sander, blasted over the head of the Mysterious figure, and destroyed the engine of the General’s Rocket Ship, just as he was taking off, making him crash a short way away.

All in all, we had good fun. There were a lot of funny things going on, a lot of which I’ve unfortunately forgotten now. The system, however, is clearly a work in progress.

The issues I had with the system

The first kink was making good “Last time on” sequences. This was mostly my fault for not explaining it properly. One player started describing the entire plot of the last episode, instead of just describing a short scene of something he wanted in this episode. Also, being only two players in the game, I didn’t get a lot to work with in these scenes.

The combat system mostly worked fine. Most of it was quick, and very action oriented. The role of the action map, however, seems poorly thought out: the impression is of something very loose, but some rules seem to demand more exact maps, to know what would have to pass to get somewhere. Also, the telekinesis power requires the map to be much more than a guideline. Giving the players access to the map may not be the best idea – it’s the purview of the GM, and giving the player a power that allows him to change the position of things on the map seems to require that the GM decides what can be moved and what can’t.

There is also the issue of threats and threat actions. Now, being two players no doubt played a significant role in this – but it often seemed like I had a whole host of Threats that should be activated because the players hadn’t done anything about them. In the game, the Threats act according to a Threat table. There are two instances in which you consult this chart: if the player rolled ‘dangers’ (failed dice) you’d add them together and look up that level. If the players haven’t rolled against the threat, you look up its level +1 in the chart. Having quite a few threats, I did this quite often. Now, the only thing the lowest level of threat can do if there isn’t a player within its reach, is to store up a so-called “danger die” that would be rolled the next time a PC rolled against it, but counted only  if it was a ‘Danger’.  At one point, half the threats had red (danger) dice waiting for the players when they came to deal with them. Other threats would instead warrant the creation of a new threat. Unfortunately, I ran out of ideas way before I ran out of opportunities to make new threats. I think it would make much better sense to make a Threat Menu with many options that could be combined for different levels, making it easier to mix up danger actions.

Don’t get me wrong – I like the fact that threats don’t act on their own, but instead react to players. It’s a good way of spotlighting what the players are doing. It just needs some tweaking.

Throughout the game, I had difficulty gauging the balancing of player resources. Players have a number of resources: danger, damage and [+]’es (aspects that can be tagged for bonus dice). Some of these can be regained during Interludes. But my players seemed to be using a lot of these – enough that it looked like they’d run out before the end of the game.

This led me to go against what I believed was the rules’ intention on Interludes. The game doesn’t state this explicitly, but it indicates that there is supposed to be one interlude after each action scene. This makes sense – if you have five players, having five interludes would be excessive. On the other hand, I had two players, who were running low on resources after the first Action Scene. Thus, I let them have an Interlude each.

Now, Suspense Scenes. Suspense scenes are supposed to be investigation scenes of a sort, fighting questions as if they were threats. This indicated that they would work like action scenes. However – I already said my players were burning through their resources. If they had to use them on Suspense as well? They’d run out immediately. Besides, it says in the rules that threats generated here should be saved for later Action Scenes. Thus,  it makes sense that they shouldn’t get danger, and especially not damage, through these scenes. What then? If they haven’t got the [+]es to get bonus dice, and they don’t really need danger dice (they could get them, I guess, but I’m not sure it makes sense for them to endanger themselves like that in the suspense scenes that serve to pave the way for action scenes.

I feel like there must be something I’m missing (and it has been a week, so I might have forgotten important things here). But in my opinion, Suspense scenes are the single weakest point in the game as it stands – they don’t make sense. As I recall, they aren’t very well described, either – they are probably still being thought out, as opposed to Action Scenes, which seem to have been well planned.

All in all…

I like this game. It’s unfinished – this can clearly be seen in the game document, which has “notes to the author” instead of finished content in several places. But I can see its potential. I want to try the next edition of the game – and eventually the finished thing. It may be a work in progress – but it’s a work I really want to see progress.

Reading Group: Unik

I had decided that I didn’t have time to do a reading group review this month – then I started reading the scenario, and decided I might not HAVE the time, but that I wanted to MAKE the time.

Because Unik is rather quite unlike any of the other scenarios we’ve looked at in the Reading Group. Locked Doors may have left the resolution of the game firmly in the hands of the players, and the Mirrored Reality may have been purposefully unspecific in its instructions to the GM – but both are firmly in the business of telling a story – a specific story concerning some specific characters in a specific location.

Unik is also in the storytelling business – but it doesn’t tell a specific story, it contains no set locations, and its characters are archetypes and functions within a greater, archetypical story: the story of lovers that meet, fall in love, only to fall apart and start the cycle all over again (there, I gave the ending away). All the specifics are invented by the players during play.

In fact,Unik reminds me more of a storytelling Indie game than a scenario – a story game with individual characters and a firm framework to govern collective storytelling (I imagine Polaris or maybe Shock or In A Wicked Age to work like this).

Oh, I’d better remember to say that Unik was written by Klaus Meier Olsen, and won the Jury Special Price at Fastaval in 2005.

Unique Toolbox

Superficially, Unik contains at last some of the trappings we expect from a scenario: a number of scenes in order and a group of characters. But the characters rotate and mutate, and the players set the scenes rather than the GM or even the gamewright. In many ways, the “scenario” is more like a tool box that will allow players and GM to create a story of a certain kind

Characters are divided up in two parts that are brought together to form a starting point for what you are going to play. On one hand, each player has an archetype, defining an approach to love and relationships: the Hunter, the Beast, the Ascetic and the Profet. On the other hand, there are four Positions that move from player to player from scene to scene. The Positions define what function or role you will have in the scene – either Lover, Beloved, Friend or Enemy.

So, do the specific characters you make follow the Positions or stay with the archetypes? Funny you should ask – because it is not clearly stated in the game text. Two things are stated explicitly: First of all, the Positions remember what has happened to them earlier. This would indicate that the character follows the position. On the other hand, the text mentions that changing environment from scene to scene is entirely possible, having one scene in revolutionary America and the next in Ancient Greece.

I think it is done this way to allow the players to make the story they want to make, instead of a rigid game getting in the way of good storytelling. It is like a good writing prompt: it will provide structure to fuel your imagination, and not get in the way of it.

Alongside the characters, there are 13 scenes. Together, they form the story arc of a particular kind of love story, going from the initial meeting to the break and potential reconciliation. Each scene has a title that should be written on the blackboard in order to remind everyone what we are doing at the moment, a section that should be read aloud, a “GM only” section concerning the purpose of this scene and, finally, a number of suggestions about how this scene could look.

Finally, the text contains a section on three tools the GM can use to keep the game under control – he can Ask the players questions about the game world (“What does it look like?” “What is he doing now?” and so on and so forth); he can Instruct the players, thus dictating how the players should play things; finally, he can Narrate, taking active part in the storytelling and potentially creating a Narrator as a fifth (rather peculiar) character in the game.

Scene before?

The game is a very easy read, and enjoyable as well. It is built around a simple idea, using a great number of literary concepts without any remorse to create a potentially powerful tool for storytelling. I am particularly fond of the way the game is fixed very firmly around a number of archetypes and archetypical story structures.

There are issues with it as well, however. The number of scenes seems rather large, and they are very fixed in their place in the structure, without giving good guidance to the GM about making the scene do what it’s supposed to do. Several scenes underline the importance of the Lover and Beloved not breaking up yet – why not let them, skipping scenes if this would serve the story better.

Also, the game seems to have a very fixed idea about what a relationship is, and how they develop. It is not for me to say how accurate that idea is – but what if the players do not agree with this idea? A gamewright should of course be allowed to tell the story they want to tell – just as a writer, a painter or a movie director. And if you write a very specific game with fleshed out story, characters and location, you can allow yourself great control over the development of the story. However, the more of the story you want the players to provide, the more space you should provide for the players to shape the story after their own mind. Now, I can see how each scene in Unik has a function in the story arc – but it might have been a good idea to allow for some flexibility, in case a story develops in a very different way from the standard layed out by the game.

Arrogance and schoolmasters

As much as I enjoyed reading the game, there are a couple of places that made me wince. The worst is this:

“Desværre er spillere ofte forbløffende inkompetente, så de kan sandsynligvis ikke håndtere det ansvar, scenariet giver dem”

[“Unfortunately, players are often astoundingly incompetent, and so, they probably can’t handle the responsibility the scenario gives them”]

Now, I shall freely admit that I have often had the urge to yell loudly at players, at Fastaval or otherwise. But equally often, I have raged against gamewrights who believe that their text is blatantly simplistic and self-explanatory and that all the GM’s reading their game will think (and GM) like they do, when their text is really an obscure mess, understandable only by themselves and the close circle of their friends who think like they do.

In any case, no matter your feeling towards the people (“cretins”) who is going to play (“ruin”) your scenario (“masterpiece”), expressing such arrogance is not going to win you any friends. And it is NOT going to help your scenario being run smoothly if you start out predisposing your GM against your players. In fact, with all the focus this game gives to making the GM a facilitator of player creating, it seems downright counterproductive.

On that note, I’ll turn to the other quote I want to mention here:

“Så vær ikke bange for at irettesætte dine spillere, hvis de ikke udfører deres funktion [som dikteret af deres Position]  godt nok. I sidste ende er det til alles bedste.”

[“So don’t be afraid to reprimand your players if they don’t perform their function [as dictated by their Position] well enough. In the end, it is the best for everybody”]

NO, NO, NO! This is probably one of the worst pieces of advice I have heard concerning how to get people to contribute and open up to common storytelling. Kids, don’t do this at home. If you start rebuking your players you risk them being a) mad at you for challenging their ability to play their character (in particular if they feel superior/equal to you), b) sulky and uncooperative (if they feel almost equal to you), or c) afraid to contribute to the story (if they feel inexperienced or insecure in their own abilities). None of these are desireable in a game – especially not when you can’t play around a noncooperative player, as in this game, where everybody will be playing a main character approximately two scenes out of four.

Now, I do admit that I am reading this advice like the devil reads the bible, and that it might be appropriate to point out if a player is not living up to the Position he’s playing – it is easy to being confused at the changing Positions, and start just playing your Archetype. My issue is simply with the tone of the advice – especially since some GM’s are blathering idiots who will take advice like that seriously.

Shall I compare thee to a Unik day

Arrogance aside, this game is, by the read of it, a gem. If nothing else, it’s worth reading through for inspiration, both for writers of Danish style scenarios and “Indie”-style gamewrights. Playing this would probably be a grand, if possibly a bit surreal, experience. It also exposes players to the important role played by archetypes and schematic stories in human thought.

It is also an interesting study in player-GM relationships, casting all the players as semi-GM’s, instead asking the GM to moderate this “GMs’ conference.” Not that it is unique – many other (newer) games, Indie games in particular, have a similar distribution of narrative power.

Unik may not be as unique as when it came out. But it is still solid craftsmanship, still well worth playing, or reading, for that matter. Besides, it is one of the relatively rare scenarios that can be replayed or even read, then played, without it taking anything away from the enjoyment

What can we learn?

  • Make sure the freedom of the players matches the expectations placed on the players.
  • Don’t predispose your GMs against their players – especially not when you need them to work together so closely.
  • Simplicity and brevity are no crimes, as long as you tell your players and GMs all they need.

Who should play this?

  • The players should not expect to be fed a great story. Rather, they should be keen on taking equal part in the storytelling, not being afraid to get in there and define the game we’re playing
  • As the players take more control over the story, so the GM retires. The GM who runs this should not be a control freak, yearning to perform and entertain the players. Rather, he should be content to oversee the players’ game, jumping in only when necessary.

Also read Morten’s, Johs,’ Thais’ and Simon’s reviews

The Telltale Hothead – or the commitment of episodic games

At the moment, I’m following episodic games from two developers: From  Telltale Games (TTG) it’s Sam&Max, Wallace & Gromit and soon Monkey Island (Yay!)(I have also bought SBCG4AP, but I’m not enjoying it). From Hothead, it’s Penny Arcade Adventures, based off a Cthulhu-noir version of the fictional versions of the two creators of the webcomic/blog Penny Arcade.

But while both make great games, it would seem that there is a fundamental principle of episodic games that Telltale has understood, while Hothead hasn’t.

Where the Telltale hearts are

Episodic gaming as a viable format (as opposed to a genre) was, more or less, invented by Telltale. True, there may have been attempts before exiled geniouses from LucasArts released the first game based off the comic Bone. But it wasn’t until Telltale started releasing their episodic games that the format could be taken seriously as a finansially sound way of delivering games to consumers.

To be quite honest, Bone isn’t even a true episodic game – at least not yet. Only two episodes have been released, and even though I haven’t heard TTG declare it officially “dead,” they seem to have moved on to other projects.

Rather, the true birth of the episodic format was Sam&Max – Episode 1 (they tried rebranding it as one game with the title “Save the world,” but I couldn’t even find that name on their own site). The first of the six episodes was released in October 2006, then the rest of the episodes were released with approximately monthly intervals until April 2007.

Since then, TTG have released three-and-a-half seasons of episodic games: Sam&Max season 1 and 2, Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People (SBCG4AP) and Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures (episode three of four will be out Tuesday). Common to all of them are:

  1. All games are released with more or less a monthly interval
  2. There is a lot of recycling of settings and characters, with some changes.
  3. The stories within a season have a common structure. This is most evident (to the point where it was slightly annoying) in S&M:1 – in the other games, there has been more variation in the plot structures. Still, though…
  4. Certain themes and storylines have run through every episode, while still giving each episode its own unique story – in other words, you can play any episode and enjoy it, even if you’ll get more out of playing them in order. In this way, the games are similar to a tv-series: you can watch one episode of “Buffy” or “Sex & The City” and enjoy it, even if the big picture is only revealed when you watch many episodes in order.
  5. You can buy one game at a time, or all of them at once (in advance) and receive a discount.

These are of course very different in cause and effect. Number 2 and 3 are mostly done to ease production – making 3D characters and locations is a costly and time consuming affair, just as writing a complete script is easier if you have a mold to make them by. Many tv-series seem to do this as well. The fourth is the artistic one, the one that makes it feel like a season, instead of just a collection of very similar games. And number 5 is both a way of making sure the cash is rolling in, and a way of making it accessible to people – they don’t need to find their credit card once a month, but receive a link directly to the download.

The one I want to focus on here, is number one. I remember one of the Telltale developers saying, that they belived, an episodic game was only episodic if it had a very rapid rate of release. Once a month seems reasonable; more often seems suicidal, while more rarely will mean that people forget the last game, and lose the anticipatory drive that makes the game “live.” Besides, if you want people to pay in advance, you gotta make sure they can see the goal ahead.

What the Hothead didn’t consider

Just like Telltale, Hothead had a great starting point for their venture into episodic gaming: The Penny Arcade brand, along with Tycho and Gabe’s creative drive, which has proven to be considerable, including fruit-molesting robots, a demon-and-cat versing duo, a series of fictional (as in, not-existing) fantasy novels with a considerable, real, fan-core, and the Carboard Tube Samurai. And with great brands come great responsibilities – if they succeed, they can reap the benefits manyfold, but if they fail, they will go down hard.

And they have been nothing if not abitious. Where TTG made a conservative (but in their case, excellent) choice of making adventure games, based on their own engine, with only a few mini games thrown in, Hothead chose to make an action-adventure with a very innovative combat system, combining semi-turnbased combat with many little minigames, together making combat a delicious middle road between turn-based and button mashing.

They also made a great story with many different characters, and mostly new settings in each game. The story, on the other hand, is very connected, and we are clearly getting one chapter in a continuing saga each time. The story is, mind you, very well worked out, beutifully recreating Tycho and Gabe’s usual blend of “realness” and far out, surreal crazyness (the first game features a urinologist (urinology as in “the lore of urine”) beset by hoboes and a cult of mimes, worshipping a Cthuluesque mime god).

I loved the first two games in the series, but now, it’s annoying me. Why? Because I was told it was episodic, and now I find out, it’s not.

The first game was released in May last year. The second was released five months later, in October. That is a long game for an episodic game – but I accepted it because of the huge amount of new material, and the promise that one game would be released every six months.

That promise has not been delivered on – and it seems unlikely that the third episode will be out anytime soon. A Hothead representative wrote on the PA forum:

Last year we were pretty singularly focused on getting Episode One and Two out. This year sees a whole bunch more on our plate: we’re in full swing on DeathSpank and are working on getting Swarm off the ground as well. And we spent a bunch of time hiring a new boss!

In other words, they are not releasing the next episode, because they are too busy working on other games. Clearly, to Hothead, PA Adventures are a series of four connected games, to be developed and released independently.

The fall of the Arcade of Pennies

And thus, Hothead fell short. They didn’t deliver the episodic game they promised.

Telltale Games knew from the start that an episodic game has not been released until the last episode is out. Hothead, on the other hand, thought that “episodic” mean cutting the game into bite sized chunks, allowing you to cash in earlier, and to learn from the first episodes so that you may improve in the second. But while those things are true, it also means a release streaching out many months and a tight deadline with little room for testing and resting. Once you release the first episode, you gotta deliver – every month on the clock.

This doesn’t mean that I have decided not to get the last two episodes of  Penny Arcade adventures. What it does mean is that my enthusiasm for the game has diminished considerably, and thus, the amount of viral marketing I can deliver. And it means that I will be more sceptical towards other titles from Hothead.

On the other hand, Telltale can release almost anything, and I’ll try it. They have been loyal to me – now I’m loyal to them.

—-

For another take on episodic games, go watch Zero Punctuation’s review of The Orange Box.