A Long Relationship

I think a lot about why I like anime. What about it keeps me watching it so intently?I’m not really for the weird things that often creep out my cultural sensibilities, like weird fan-service or sometimes weird hyper-racist depictions (it doesn’t happen so often with what I like to watch, but that just makes it more violent and weird sometimes…).

I’m not really for the weird things that often creep out my cultural sensibilities, like weird fan-service or sometimes weird hyper-racist depictions (it doesn’t happen so often with what I like to watch, but that just makes it more violent and weird sometimes…).

When I think about why I like anime, I think I get a little weirded out because I loved anime when I was a child. The first time I saw Robotech and didn’t even know about anime (which I think they tried to first nickname ‘Japanimation’ to make it sound less foreign?) I was hooked. Most things I loved as a child I have either abandoned, evolved my tastes or cultivated an uneasy and lukewarm relation to.  My love for anime remains pretty intact though.

Certainly, it can’t be the filler that one must often contend with or people screaming for what feels like minutes. There are all these flaws and holes in most of the anime that I watch that could easily turn you off. They certainly drive my wife away, though my son loves it many of them.

A Physical Emotion: Hyperemotion

Breaking it down, why I am here for anime is that it’s storytelling deals in hyperemotion.  Hyperemotion is that range of intense feelings powerful enough to animate you, moving you out of your normal state of being so that you can change the world around you.  Hyperemotional storytelling can result in lots of screaming-while-you-punch cinematics, but it also results in moving scenes that touch your heart.
Hyperemotion creates a connection between your feeling as an audience member and the character you are watching.
When the story reaches its Hyperemotion apex, it has this chance to make you, the viewer, feel the emotion the protagonist feels. When Hyperemotion is skillfully done, you feel sometimes like you are smashing through that foe, that obstacle, that wall of physical or psychological force that steps in your way.
In Hyperemotion, you and the protagonist share fists, minds, and hearts.
Hyperemotion is built most effectively not by focusing on individual pains and actions, but rather by creating emotion “networks” within the story. The Hyperemotional network is the grid of emotional energy  expressed and delivered by a group of related characters. An emotional network builds better emotion because it can build tension in these networks before releasing them into a climactic burst of emotional and physical entity.

Actors and Feelers

Hyperemotional networks create this tension by creating two basic classes of characters: Actors and Feelers.
Feelers are those who are able to experience the world as it is.  They appreciate and exist best they can within the status quo. They can only experience and feel the world however; they cannot change it. For the audience, Feeelers are our true viewpoint into the world.  We can tell if the balance and harmony of the world is OK based on how we see the Feelers react. Feelers rely on Actors to change the world if it somehow becomes unsatisfactory.
Actors are those with the ability to change the world that they currently inhabit. They have sacrificed feeling for agency and power. While Actors have principles, they lack perception of the world as it is, meaning that they no longer appreciate it to anywhere near the level that feelers do.  Actors can only really truly feel through their relationships with Feelers. It is the relationship with Feelers that allow Actors to feel and eventually lead through Hyperemotional states.
To be direct: Feelers are what make life worth living for actors.  Feelers are the most important characters in just about any anime/manga story.   
I give two classes but understand that every character tends to exist on a spectrum between these Actor and Feeler.  Characters might have a 30/70 split of Actor/Feeler, or even 50/50. Each of these ratios of acting to feeling represents a major character archetype.
It is very rare when a character is 100% Actor or Feeler, and even those states tend to be transitional. We can think about when a character enters a “burst” state, where their emotions turn them into a being of total action for a temporary time. In “Burst” characters can use powers to change the state of the world.  They can tear down the walls or situation that troubles the feelers in their network.

The Krillin Effect

Did you ever ask yourself: “Why the FUCK is Krillin here?”  Dragon Ball Z quickly gets to a point where Krillin is out of his depth. Yet he remains a crucial part of just about every storyline. I think of this as “the Krillin Effect”.
Krillin is probably about 99/1 Feeler/Actor. Krillin does so little in the latter DBZ story. Not through lack of effort — he tries really hard! — but he lacks the capacity to do more than he does in the arena he is in. Krillin is a walking hostage, functioning as a portable plot device.  “Save Krillin!” is a pretty common subplot in DBZ. Krillin’s most important function, though, is that he reminds Goku what it is to be human.
I don’t know if you know this, but Goku is, by most relevant definitions of the word, a God. Goku can literally destroy planets. In the later DBZ, Goku is pretty much 1/99 Feeler/Actor. How does such a being even think about beings who don’t possess his power? Goku is married to a human, but even she is off the battlefield.  Her inability to act is at best background noise.  But Krillin is the in the moment reminder of humanity and it’s limitations. Krillin puts forth effort and falls short, feels fear and pain. Krillin thinks of consequences to the world around.  Krillin is of this world and inside it; Goku is merely tethered to this world.  Krillin is the most impactful part of Goku’s emotional network, focusing and channeling what the even more powerless humans in the generally unnamed and unseen cities would certainly be feeling.
There is a sense to me that Krillin would actually be humanity’s proxy in the world of DBZ.  He is our champion, but not representing our power.  He is the champion of our feelings and powerlessness in the context of Saiyans and other conquering gods.
Krillin has grown up with Goku (interesting to note that Krillin was much more of an actor in the original Dragon Ball) and the two have deep bonds. Their relationship is one of the clearest examples of the Hyperemotional network in action.
Goku has the power to save and change the world…but Krillin represents the reason he even wants to. One can argue that Goku couldn’t even relate to this world he repeatedly saves without Krillin and his network of friends who live inside it and share their jokes, pains, and fears with him.

The Power of Community

So it is that the powerful and the “weak” often empower each other in Hyperemotional networks. In recognizing this, I realize that my main reason for watching anime for all these years is watching these imaginary communities come to life on screen. I still derive fascination at how these communities come together to empower individuals to transform the world in which they live.
When the storytelling brings us properly to physical and emotional transformation, there’s nothing quite like it.

Designer’s Lament: Radio Free Kaiju

Designer’s Lament: Radio Free Kaiju

I call this a lament, signaling that the feeling of regret and grief is somehow atypical. The truth is that lamentation is the normal state of the playtest and revision cycle in design. In my experience (and in my shallow anecdotal corroboration from other designers) lament happens every time someone experiences your design. There is always some way to communicate or incentivize more efficiently. For every person who “gets it”, there are many people who don’t get it.

Your job as a designer is to figure out who is not “getting it”, why they are not “getting it”, and then start making decisions about who you want to “get it”. You build an experience, be it a game or media, and your refinement always includes (even if you wrap it in other contexts) who gets left out. To make something for someone, it means it must not be for someone else.

But even when you see someone who you know you didn’t build for not get it, it evokes that pain, that sorrow that all designers must face and reckon with: the sorrow of the failed experience. Even though as game designers we know that failure is a vital part of play, it’s still that unreasonable trick of psychology that we sometimes expect our ideas to connect with playtesters on the first try.  It never, ever works out this way, but well…never give up hope, right?

I say “Designer’s Lament” and I mean it tongue-in-cheek; Please don’t worry for my well-being!  Think of the lament as a “mid-mortem” of lessons I am in the process of learning after I process play-test feedback.  I like reading game design post-mortems, but always found myself wanting to look at the design lessons learned mid-stream that got the design team to the release of the final experience. Those principles we develop in the middle of a project connect to but stand apart from the lessons and principles created after a final release. I always thought it would be great to have both so we could see not only the snapshots of thinking, but to capture the delta between them.

In that spirit, I want to share a few things I am learning as I process playtest feedback from Radio Free Kaiju this month.  The current draft is available to those in my Patreon, and I’m looking to have a PDF available for sale in the next few weeks.

Radio Free Kaiju is a post-apocalyptic storytelling toolbox. Kaiju have attacked and we were unable to repel the strongest of them. In battling the monsters, we used nuclear weapons and still could not vanquish them. So we’ve made the planet mostly unlivable for us on the surface, while the Kaiju roam free. Human underground enclaves communicate with each other over distances via radio, and foolhardy/brave people we call “Topsiders” will travel from settlement to settlement delivering goods and reports from above.

I said this about Radio Free Kaiju’s goals:

While the game will have some post-apocalyptic elements, what I’ve been working for in honing this idea is capturing a sense of wonder. I want to set up scenes and mood where you are doing something normal or tedious for your survival, and then the world injects with some large event. Obviously, with Kaiju this means you might be picking the trash while Godzilla appears fighting another monster just hundreds of feet from you.  But it can also be electric dust storms that scintillate with light; sudden breaks in the sun-blotted sky where you can feel the true heat and warmth of the sun of your skin; following a long-hidden path to and underground river with enough clean water to quench the thirst of an entire outpost.

If I had to boil it down further, I’d say that Radio Free Kaiju aims to be a radio drama and improv experience that evokes “grit and wonder”. Players will be literally world-building through play, and then using that world-building and improvisation to feed back into the giant twists the framework will introduce to them.

I’ve had a few playtests done by other people, and I’ll recount what I’ve learned so far:

To Be Different is To Be Explicit

I don’t generally like talking about how different what I’m doing is from everything else. But when you get to that point where you have to say “it’s like this, except not this, that…” repeatedly, it’s a good sign you need to define yourself in a different way. And different is OK. But being different means being explicit about what you’re doing because you don’t have many assumptions for your prospective audience to rest on. You also need to have that conversation early, in a form that can be easily relayed.

A problem I’ve seen with RFK: I spend considerable time to explain what it wants to do and be as a work of social fiction but don’t have a bite-sized “elevator pitch” of expectations and play goals. When someone brings RFK to the table, the other people aren’t likely to read the book and even see those paragraphs.  The person bringing RFK to the group is the one who is likely going to facilitate (the game doesn’t centralize authority in a game master), so I need to explicitly call out what it is that I want people to understand.  Someone looking for a tactical Kaiju battle is going to be disappointed and I want to call that out; not to shame their desire (a tactical Kaiju battle game would be dope), but to make sure they aren’t trying to play something that I am not trying to give them.

In creative collaborative exercises, expectation is perhaps the most important aspect of player psychology to manage;  Players play towards their expectations. They can change their expectations mid-stream but that always comes with some displeasure and friction. If you can you must help players understand what the experience plans to do, so even if you fail to meet that plan through bad design, players evaluate it in that context.  When you don’t set expectations properly, players can get snagged up looking for things you never expected to give them.

Now, players can always get to confused expectations by refusing to honor what you state…it’s super frustrating when people do that and then evaluate you on their own misconceptions, but I can’t control that so I don’t try to.

More Preparation doesn’t Mean More Improv

Radio Free Kaiju has a pretty cool world-building section right at the beginning. This is actually the start of many of my design troubles with it right now!

Here is the thing: every thing you have someone do within an experience trains a person in what to expect in the future. We can set basic expectations up front, but we don’t just stop there. Every component of the experience should inform and lead up to its connected components.

But imagine coming into an experience where the group spends a lot of time creating a rich world from mostly scratch, but then asks you later to just “make up some stuff!” with loose guidance on how to use the detailed setting information it so meticulously guided you to build before. You’d feel some dissonance there, wouldn’t you?

But worse yet is this: doing a bunch of preparation at the start of the experience doesn’t prep you to do improvisational, on-the-spot play; it merely sets you up to expect that there will be more preparation work in the future.

To support improvisation in Radio Free Kaiju, I need to make the the world-building more evocative, and also “in-line” it into the Broadcast and Topsider scenes.  I also have found that improvisation is better when there are easy randomizers and seeds right at hand so players can “reach” for it when they are stuck. I don’t need to have them prepare a lot of material up front at all.


Too Much Structure can be Worse than no Structure

A feature I’m really proud of in Radio Free Kaiju is Channels:

Lastly, Radio Free Kaiju uses Channels to divide who tells what parts of the story.  Radio Free Kaiju uses no central referee/arbiter/director as an authority on the story being told, which can become confusing in practice. If we all have equal authority, how do we resolve disputes? How do we reconcile opposing visions for our story?  Channels  are a way of dividing who controls what part of a story. Each Channel is an area of dramatic concern in a scene.  The Danger Channel, for example, is concerned with non-Kaiju level dangers that the characters discover, while the Exploration Channel is concerned with discovery, finding useful items or making new discoveries about the world itself. Rather than giving each player characters, using Channels each player is responsible for the scene at a conceptual level, which the group can then play out.

Channels conceptually work really well, but the rules for using them are confusing.  One reason Channels confuse is that they insert themselves in the improvising with a relatively detailed set of rules. The depth of the Channel rules is even dissonant with the rest of the game. It makes the Topsider scenes feel very different from the Broadcast scenes and I want them to mesh better.

Putting too much structure in creative collaboration is actually worse than no structure because the human mind will try to create structure when there is no structure, but in the face of too much or too confusing structure, the human mind tends to shut down or tune out.  I’m trying to supplement and support creative thinking, not suppress it.  I know I want to keep Channels, but I also know that I need to remove the current rules and replace them with something less complex.

Moving On

The structure of Radio Free Kaiju will change in some very large ways, but I think these changes will support my goals and make it even more fun to play.  Even with its problems, I’ve seen people having fun with it and I know that I can take it to the next level. If you want to see what it looks like now, I’ll remind you about the Patreon (even $1 will get you access!) but otherwise I hope you’ll check it out in its final release!


Three Pillars: Culture, Play and Medium in Social Fiction

Three Pillars: Culture, Play and Medium in Social Fiction

We discussed what social fiction is, but what is it made from? What are the pillars of social fiction?

We start where we always must: the beginning. In any variation, social fiction starts with a group of people who wish to collaborate on creating a story. How they gather and what stories they tell are irrelevant. We want to frame the endeavor, the act of fulfilling this desire and the conceptual spaces and interactions that comprise it. The best way I know to frame space is to ask questions:

Who is playing? What do they want? What do they not want? How do they plan to interact? The answers to these questions describes culture, the norms and customs that define the conceptual, emotional, and political (yes politics! There’s always politics in groups) space where this activity takes place.

What is the process by which we create stories? How do players transition from imagine (“what-if”) to pretending/acting (“as-if”) to delivering feedback (“what happened?”)? These questions frame play. Play gets linked to many things but is best thought of as a process of actualized, manifested pretending in any context. Play is iterative and growth-oriented, linking all other elements described.

What happens? Where does that information live? What is the artifact of the group’s play? These questions define medium, the record of the story we create. Stories exist to be consumed, no matter how the stories are created or told. Whether we consume our group stories into our memories or into word documents or Twitch streams, these stories are always going somewhere. Medium informs the shape, pace, and manner of play. Medium also influences culture.

Culture, play and medium interact in a specific way.

culture-play-mediumCulture and medium are connected through play. Those who play will decide what type of story they want to be telling, then iterate through imagining/pretended/feedback cycles. The  feedback we get from interactions (“what happened?”) are recorded to the medium we use.

Culture is where players live, medium is where fiction lives, and play is how players and fiction communicate.

Though they do not interact directly, culture influences medium with cultural imperatives. What our players want will affect what medium we use and how we use the medium. Medium influences culture with its own needs, creating customs and practices around the medium’s usage.

In the next few weeks I’ll discuss culture, play and medium separately and in-depth.

(Originally published in the newsletter Social Fictions)


What is Social Fiction?

What is Social Fiction?


Originally published in Social Fictions

A New Place You’ve Already Visited

I’ve said before that social fiction is something you already know. I say it because the roots are hard-coded into human existence. Humans are hard-wired for storytelling and narrative as deeply as they are hard-wired for social contact. Even if you’ve never played anything that looks like a tabletop RPG, you’ve still brainstormed with other people and discussed plans and futures with your friends. You’ve talked about the events in fictional worlds with those friends, right? Maybe talked about what you’d rather see instead of what they did?

Then you’re already there…but since you’re here, I want to talk about social fiction in depth.

Social fiction is the collaborative creation of stories via group communication mediums and techniques. 

Collaborative creation of stories“: in a group of two or more we play and dialogue with the intention of creating a story. Creation implies spontaneity and live-ness; we are not reading from a script and we prioritize playing in the moment over preparation or planning.  The fiction is the thing we as a group are making, and not any one person’s responsibility to create or set up.

“Group communication mediums and techniques“: describes the nature and methodology of our collaboration. Are we exchanging text over e-mail or chat?  Are we creating a forum thread? Are we talking face to face or online? These questions speak to medium, which creates the space for using techniques and processes. Techniques and process provide the structure for our collaboration, laying down ground rules and social contracts. This structure helps resist creative fatigue and provides direction to our play.

Why Social Fiction?

Why does this term need to exist?

Simply, this term is what I use because “role-playing games”,the activity it stands adjacent to,is overloaded. Say “RPG” and you’re talking about an MMO, a board/video game with a leveling system, or a game-emergent storytelling system that you play with dice. It means a lot of things to lots of people, and trying to add yet another context frustrates:

“I have this RPG called Community Radio.”
“Oh you program games?”
“No, it’s a tabletop RPG.”
“Like D&D?”
“What’s the combat system like?”
“There isn’t one.”
“Can I see a character sheet?”
“They don’t exist.”
“Who do you play as?”
“Any of the people who live in the town. You don’t play just one person.”

My rule is that when I spend more of my time describing what a thing is not than what it is, it’s time for a new term.

Social fiction isn’t a movement. It’s not a sub-culture or life-style. The cool kids may or may not be doing it, but that’s OK.

Social fiction isn’t a term created to “compete” with role-playing games. It doesn’t exist to proclaim itself a brand new thing that is an improvement over everything people are doing in the space of storytelling.

Social fiction is a lens. It is a way to look at the play and design of group storytelling that makes distinct trade-offs.

Social fiction exists to provide clarity to a range of activities that aren’t often described well, causing confusion and dissatisfaction. If I tell someone Community Radio is an RPG, that term evokes a set of expectations which create disappointment for them. It leaves me disappointed because I wasn’t trying to create what they expected in the first place. If I tell that person Community Radio is a framework for social fiction (I’m toying around with calling these “storyboxes”), at the very least she must ask “what’s social fiction?” That provides a chance to talk positively rather than start “it’s like an RPG except…”

What it is

Social fiction is authorial. Social fiction aims to let each player be an author on equivalent terms to all other players. This authorial control is shared across the group, so all players can contribute, but no player is “all powerful” in creation at all times.

Authorial also implies that players may have a many to one relationship to characters. Rather than having a set of characters strictly under the control of an individual player, characters enter the general pool for all the authors to work with. You can’t build good stories without good characters, but social fiction’s approach is to give everyone a chance to contribute to the overall care and feeding of all characters. Social fiction trades the immediacy and immersion of player “avatars” for deeper story control and contribution.

Social fiction eschews strategy. Centering creative reward mechanisms rather than game-based rewards and feedback, social fiction is built through consensus and improv rather than translating results from a game system. Social fiction might use randomization, but uses it to prompt responses and spark the imagination. Rather than ask “can I do it?” we ask “What happens next?”

Social fiction is about contribution, not the mastery of systems and competition. It seeks to maximize the authorial contribution of each player, and build structures that emphasize that.

Social fiction is structure-ful. Social fiction seeks to have structure, but has few rules.  A rule describes what it is that you can or cannot do. A structure defines the boundary, and implies or describes what you should be trying to do.

The analogy I like to use is that providing structure is like saying “Be at my house tomorrow at 10:00 AM” but rules are “drive a car. Follow the speed limits and all the other rules of the road. Turn on this street, then drive 1.5 miles”.

When I tell you to be at my house, I’ve described the outline of what needs to be done, but I haven’t actually told you how to accomplish that. With no other guidance or constraints, you could take a plane, fly a helicopter, or walk. You could travel to another location beforehand and then drive over. You can hitchhike. I’ve told you where to go but I let you decide how to proceed. Once I give you rules, I am telling you how to accomplish tasks, but I’m not providing you with the context in which those tasks exist. Without the structure, you can take actions but you might feel odd not knowing where each instruction is taking you.

Rules and structure can complement each other but it’s important to understand each separately. Social fiction seeks to do this and also emphasize structure above rules.

Rather than rules, social fiction seeks to provide prompts and seeds to encourage spontaneous play within these structures.

Social-fiction is conversational. Omnipresent in the modern world, conversation is the prime medium of social fiction. Conversation happens face to face. Conversation happens on phones, in forums, on social media. When you break it down, social fiction is simply a structured group conversation. We set the goal of that conversation to be the creation of some story and narrative, and then the words we use contribute to a form of imaginative play.

Producing good social fiction, then, is a lot like having a good conversation. Are people expressing themselves? Is the end result of the conversation greater than the sum of its part? Did we find a good direction?

Where can I find it?

If you’ve played RPGs, you are likely already familiar withFiascoMicroscopePrimetime Adventures and more. Personally, when I think of these as frameworks for social fiction rather than “RPGs” it seems to fit better.

Digitally, Storium offers a great potential platform for social fiction. In addition, there are numerous forums for group storytelling that embody many of the elements and goals of social fiction.

Of course Thoughtcrime is creating social fiction.

Plenty of other examples of social fiction exist currently, but I do believe that by focusing on it specifically we can develop techniques and design that advance this style of storytelling even further. Hope to see you on that journey!


Designer’s Toolbox: NimbleNotes

Designer’s Toolbox: NimbleNotes

I’ve been using NimbleNotes recently to capture my design thoughts and inspirations. I really like it as it makes putting together a multimedia notebook really simple and easy.  I recorded this video to give you a tour of how I use it. It might be something that you like to use as well!

The Sky Belongs to the Monsters: Introducing Radio Free Kaiju

The Sky Belongs to the Monsters: Introducing Radio Free Kaiju


After I made Community Radio, I had the idea to do a series of “radio” games, each in different contexts and genres.  Where Community Radio is in a Nightvale-esque world,  Radio Free Kaiju is a world where giant Godzilla-sized monsters rose up and won.

In Radio Free Kaiju, giant mutant monsters forced us to tear apart our world with nuclear weaponry just to have some chance of surviving against them. We built outposts and cities underground to hide from the surviving Kaiju. Humanity hopes to rebuild, but each outpost has only some parts of the puzzle needed for that. One outpost may have a rare material to make a special new bomb while another outpost has the only scientist capable of designing a solution with it. With the internet destroyed, there are few ways to communicate with other outposts to assemble the means and methods for humanity’s resurgence.

Radio is our last hope.

Through radio we can guide in those brave enough to travel Topside, bringing valuable resources and information from outpost to outpost. With radio, humanity could unite against the Kaiju, and step into the sun once more.

Never have the airwaves been more important.


Radio Free Kaiju is a storytelling experience for 3-6 players in a Kaiju-ravaged earth. When playing it, some players will take the role of Broadcasters, detailing life in the outposts and setting up potential news of the world outside.  Some players will take the role of Topsiders, brave or foolhardy travelers who are nonetheless needed by the outposts for barter, salvage and exploration. Topsiders will describe their adventures as prompted by the news from Broadcasters and effected by random, sudden events.

While the game will have some post-apocalyptic elements, what I’ve been working for in honing this idea is capturing a sense of wonder. I want to set up scenes and mood where you are doing something normal or tedious for your survival, and then the world injects with some large event. Obviously, with Kaiju this means you might be picking the trash while Godzilla appears fighting another monster just hundreds of feet from you.  But it can also be electric dust storms that scintillate with light; sudden breaks in the sun-blotted sky where you can feel the true heat and warmth of the sun of your skin; following a long-hidden path to and underground river with enough clean water to quench the thirst of an entire outpost.

If I had to boil it down further, I’d say that Radio Free Kaiju aims to be a radio drama and improv experience that evokes “grit and wonder”. Players will be literally world-building through play, and then using that world-building and improvisation to feed back into the giant twists the framework will introduce to them.

Like many of my releases, it will be compact but meant for a lot of interesting and emergent play.  I’m aiming to make it something that’s compelling with just 1 hour to play, but also something that can be deepened and expanded over time. I’ve talked about wanting shorter storytelling experiences, but what I really strive for is getting to the fun part of group storytelling faster. Setting a “playable with 1 hour” limit helps me to focus design to fit that constraint.  Once you’ve got a game that is good in a short time, you have a game that is good in a longer time as well. The trick from there is provide additional structure for “going long”.

It’s taken a while to get from the base concept of Radio Free Kaiju to here, but now that we are here I am excited to get something play-testable out the door this month and I hope you are excited as well!  You can get a playtestable form this week by signing up for my Patreon or you can wait patiently for the full PDF to be released.

When Darkness is Light: Rethinking System

When Darkness is Light: Rethinking System

Does an RPG needs stats?

Does it need dice?

Does it need conflict resolution?

Does it need quantitative character progression?

If a game has some or none of these things, can it be called a “true” RPG?

Normally, whether something is a “real” RPG is the most boring conversation I can think of happen.  Debating the reality of a method of creating fiction is banal in the best case scenario, but usually, such conversations are just gatekeeping in a flimsy disguise.  “You don’t play the way I lik, so your way is false.”  The most frequent scenario this conversation brings forth is one defending one’s thoughts and ideas of fun to a bunch off jerks, and rarely brings out interesting debate.

So, I guess I want to start this off by saying that I guess I’m not really trying to design an RPG anymore. The problem is that I come from RPGs as a consumer, player, and designer, and I don’t yet have language to call whatever it is I’m working towards something else. I think that anyone reading my blog is going to clearly see my origins, but may be unclear or even irritated or upset at where I plan to go. I love and respect my origins.  I love many old and modern RPGs still, but I don’t think it’s what I’m going to design anymore.  I am building the type of things that have other names.  I’ll name it later, but I want to talk about the whys of this change a bit. It will be easy for the usual suspects to take offense, but I really look at what I’m doing as a fork of the current model of RPGs, not a replacement.

I’ve spent the last year or so designing and pulling apart the threads of collaborative storytelling as I’ve experienced them.  I’ve found that when things are going right, system is almost un-needed, but when you really need it, system often muddles storytelling.  System –and by system I am talking about the way we convert meta-fictional decisions (what players do) into fictional outcomes by way of abstractions (stats,dice,conflict resolution) — only partially does in practice what in theory it should do all the time. What I’ve seen in myself and others is that we are often bending ourselves towards this system or that, stretching to incorporate new mindsets and rules and procedures for our storytelling to live in. We are always looking for a more elegant box for our imagination to exist inside. I appreciate constraints –it is the starting point from which creativity emerges — but I have wondered if our current model for systems is really providing the right constraints. I’ve seen perfectly good, dramatic moments come to abrupt halts as the table figures out how to quantitatively express the moment, or search for a rule that will capture it.

Here is one thing I believe: Humans are hard-wired for story.  When there is no narrative we create it.  Where there are voids, we create meaning. We are creatures with minds strong enough to not only create math and science, but also myth. Given the roots of the hobby in wargaming, I can see the push for elegant quantitative expression and fiction as emergent from game play, but what does it look like if we take another approach?  I feel that our current approach to system puts the onus on people to learn and master the system before they can tell the story, but I think that’s inverse to the truth of things. If humans are natural storytellers, should we not build systems to support that innate drive and ability? Should we not trust people to imagine and create, and only insert procedures and system when creative fatigue or disagreement settles in?

When I am ranting these days about how the pillars of RPG system design might be hindering our storytelling rather than helping it, I often recieve comments that amount too “how will we find our way to stories and imaginative play in the dark? The system is our light.” What if that light exists as a torch inside darkness?  What if the light simply helps us navigate the cave we are in? System  feels like a mechanism that humans learn to support, but what if we invert that and build systems that support us when stumble, and trust us the rest of the time?

I’m wondering what that looks like, and building towards that in my designs. As always, I reserve the right to fail or make a mess of things, but I reserve the right to try and to talk about it on the blog.

I Second that Emotion: Creating Fiction with Feeling

I Second that Emotion: Creating Fiction with Feeling

I think about why I play and design roleplaying games, and when I clear all lesser reasons out of the way, I’m left with this:

I play RPGs to feel.

Am I connecting to my own feelings? I may be, but i think it goes deeper. When I am playing an RPG, I am connecting to what other people feel.  It’s hard to accurately perceive one’s self, and almost as hard to perceive real people outside of oneself. It’s difficult to analyze the circumstances that you yourself occupy. I suspect that fiction makes the act of empathy easier but no less real. To create and inhabit fictional worlds and create these opportunities to safely but deeply see how another person might feel and deal with the world around them is a gift.

It may or may not be odd to think of empathy as a core by product of RPG play, but it’s where I’m at. It is totally possible to play a tabletop RPG in a way where empathy doesn’t enter your brain –you can run through the killing fields with your mind unfettered by empathy or compassion — but  honestly I feel that such play is running away from what is great about RPG play.

Remember when you didn’t know the rules properly for whatever game you started with but you still managed for a few moments to imagine what this fictional person who you described with numbers and words on paper might experience?  I can still remember being 11 years old and thinking to myself “how would this fighter feel if there were all these kobolds around and I had 1 hp?” What would I be doing? I’d run probably.  I’d want to live and adventure another day.  But what if I wasn’t me? What if honor demanded I stay my ground?  What if my best friend was on the ground beside me? What then?

Though I don’t find myself in these “slay the demi-human” situations anymore, I appreciate those early exercises of wearing the shoes of fictional people. I don’t have much nostalgia for the content of the games of my youth, but those feelings I can access so easily.  Joy, terror, triumph, delight, all readily accessed through the filters of fictional people. When I’m designing games now, several decades removed from those formative experiences, I still call back to those emotions when I’m stumped. How did I feel? Beyond any emotions, I  felt connected. Yes, to a fictional person, but it shouldn’t take me to tell you that fiction is real in its way.

At your table and in your game design, how would it affect your experience if you viewed the prime output of RPG systems as emotions instead of outcomes? Could that deepen your experience with an RPG?

Tough but Funny: Tone and the Art of Resilience

Tough but Funny: Tone and the Art of Resilience

I am thinking about Five Fires and another interesting game that I'm working on and the matter of tone keeps coming up. There is simply so much grim dark content out there these days, and while the quality on many products is good, I want the games I'm working on to have an upbeat tone and nature. Five Fires, while it certainly can touch on crime and corruption and poverty, is also meant to be celebratory in a sense. I don't want a game worn with platitudes and empty cheering and cheerleading, though, so how do I get there? How do I build a fictional space that is upbeat and positive without being saccharine or stale?

It occurs to me that the tone of a piece of media is often determined by the resiliency of its protagonists. Resilience, as I use it here, is the capacity of fictional characters to "snap back" to their basic frame of mind and attitude after experiencing dramatic stress and/or trauma. This resiliency can encompass physical resilience but is more a measure of mental resilience.

Resilience affects tone because it is in resilience that audiences can find safety and comfort, even humor, in the face of repeated conflict and stress. As a fiction trends towards high resilience, it trends naturally towards more humor and comedy. At the far end we have animated comedies like Looney Tunes, Family Guy, and Archer. The characters undergo major mental and physical stress but are often back to normal in both body and mind by the next scene. Even Archer, which often uses permanence of stress to create long running gags throughout one or more seasons, allows the characters affected to be functional and sources of humor in other ways.

Looney Tunes operate with characters possessing such absurd resilience that we almost forced to laugh at the violence they suffer on screen. Wile E. Coyote isn't ever permanently hurt by his backfiring schemes, so it is then amusing to see them backfire. But imagine the feel of the same backfiring scheme if we then followed him to the hospital as he fought for dear life, each episode a chronicle of his former life and battle to continue living. It represents a deep shift in tone, and is most likely not upbeat or humorous at all.

When the audience knows characters will be essentially OK after stress, we introduce levity into the scene without even having to make site gags or explicitly humorous conventions. By establishing that our characters can essentially survive what they encounter, we signal for our audiences to relax –their favorite character is going to survive, so just enjoy the show and the ups and downs that come.

When we approach darker, grittier, "realistic" works, what we find is, although the characters are tough, although they are often stoic and capable of masking their emotions and going through extreme pain and anguish, the actual construct of their character is not resilient from our perspective. The characters in these works are likely to change permanently from their trials and tribulations. There won't be any snapping back for these characters to some platonic ideal of their character.

We don't often laugh when one of these characters is hurt because we know the hurt will stay. The longer and more severe the consequences of our fictional space, the less humor we embed naturally in that space. Characters who are moved and effected by stress move us in many ways but not often towards laughter.

Drama and consequences are great! I really love shows that explore the lives of their fictional characters in the midst of their triumphs and failures. I'll always be a fan of Breaking Bad, for instance. But you'll notice that the show starts with a death sentence and moves towards that the whole time. Walt is tough and resourceful but he is no Wile E. Coyote: Walter White is a completely different person at the end of the show then when he starts. Stress alters him and changes him. He carries everything with him. And while he can survive and get out of the worst situations, we don't often laugh at his plight because the character's structure is not resilient enough to "snap back" after each incident.

While Breaking Bad certainly has moments of humor, the overall arc of the show is towards drama and consequence. It's always good to break up the mood of a fictional space by making detours and journeys into different tones and feelings. A show that demonstrates great range while maintaining a generally upbeat natures is Cowboy Bebop.

In case you haven't seen it, Cowboy Bebop follows a group of intra-stellar bounty hunters and their (mis)adventures. It's one of the most brilliant anime ever made on multiple levels. It's tremendously upbeat, even when they are showing us elements of horror and drama. But yet, it's not a comedy, though it has a lot of funny moments. How is it so upbeat?

The characters are all very resilient (you saw this coming, right?). It's not that the characters don't have problems. In fact, some of the characters have big problems. But the show gives us the impression that even when the worst happens, even when the characters are at their lowest, they'll have the ability to not only survive, but be very close to a version of who we knew them to be before the trauma. Now that we as an audience don't have to worry too much about the characters, we are free to get in the rollercoaster and enjoy the ride.

What I'm attempting to assert though is that controlling the overall tone and mood of your fictional space is really a question of how you treat your characters when they are stressed. When you want to inject humor into a fictional scene, think less about and gags or jokes and first look at creating a scene that your characters can recover from easily or a scene where the consequences are light. Conversely, if you want to heighten drama, make sure to create scenes that will bend a character. The more serious the bend, the more serious the drama.

Once you approach tone from the character-centric perspective, it will provide a more solid base for any other mechanics or storytelling you want to do.

New Rules of Fantasy: The Tyranny and Power of Defaulting

New Rules of Fantasy: The Tyranny and Power of Defaulting

A warrior leaps at his opponent, ready to strike a lethal strike…

Stop for a moment. When I said, warrior, what did you picture? What was the color of the warrior’s skin?

It’s OK to say white. If it was something else, that’s OK too (and congratulations for building a different default image!) Many people are going to say this. Why? Because white is the default person in our fantasy (often male too). Some people get defensive when you even bring this up, saying that one is “racist” for discussing race, but the only reason that these folks don’t need to discuss race in the first place is that “white” is the accepted default. If I don’t say anything, the majority of people will assume I speak about someone white. See the trick there? To talk about any other ethnicity is to be forced “to bring up race” and “be different”. I’m forced to be other even if I am describing myself and my life because I have to describe my difference from the accepted norms.

And yeah, it sort of sucks and is problematic in a variety of ways in and out of gaming, but what I want to talk about it is how defaulting from my understanding works and most importantly how we can use it to make gaming more interesting.

To start, let me dispel the notion right off hand that a thing you don’t talk about is a thing that you can effectively change. One is not going to diversify one’s fiction by “just not talking” about race. Ignoring it means we go to the default. And the default is not yet diversity. We apply conscious commitment and effort to change things, not a stifling silence and inability to discuss them.

Defaulting is the creation of assumptions within a culture that establish a baseline identity and context for discussion and action. It can be bad when used to cancel or negate other identities, or to encode hate implicitly in one’s speech. Can defaulting ever be good though?

I say yes. The power in defaulting, and why it is so powerful and why people just want to use it, is that it provides a shortcut. It is simply easier to say “I’m American” than it is to say “I’m African-American”. And definitely easy to hold one model in your head than it is to hold multiple models at a time. Context-switching is a real thing. People save time and energy when they default. You build one model of the world with your defaults, saving time, energy and effort.

Defaulting seems to fight diversity. But what if you apply conscious efforts to build different models? In real life, one’s defaults are heavily influenced by locality and experience. In a fantasy world we have a lot more control. Instead of applying a blanket default of eurocentric ideals and appearance, let’s get specific and explicit. Then let’s create smaller defaults for regions that characters go to.

What would our games be like if we were explicit about skin color? If you said that a character was white instead of not saying it (and simply assuming it)? “The typical person in the village has ruddy skin” establishes a default in a specific place, but being explicit about color has some unusual but beneficial effects.

First, yay we can create a platform to discuss ethnicity and race without weird fantasy stand-ins! Being explicit about everyone’s race seems like the opposite of comfortable, but in my experience being direct about descriptions in this way is fine and actually starts to rev up people’s imaginations. You create diversity implicitly when you actually put different types of people or the possibility for different types of people in your game.

If we don’t ever bring up skin color, everybody assumes it’s not a particularly important thing and leaves it on the table. If we “pick it up”, other people observe that and now see that as something that they can play with too.

Next, we add more texture to our backdrops. When players switch reason, we are going to change the model. We are going to describe more to them than race of course, but we are going to create a brief model of what people are like in an area. You can use Gameable Culture as a guide to do this. We are going to use our player’s attraction to shortcuts to give them different looks. We aren’t going to shift the model every second, but as they move through regions they will have different defaults given to them. They will see the differences in culture and appearances in different places that they travel if we impart that information well. Every important region in our game has it’s own baseline of how people look and act. By giving players a slice of that when they travel, we create a richer set of experience and bring our worlds more to life.

Defaulting can be used to oppress and silence, but if we embrace it and use it consciously, we can charge up our worlds of imagination. I mention race and ethnicity here, but you can use this model for any particular thing you care about with positive results.