This is my first post in my Dan Reads Games series, in which I give focused feedback attention to game designers that ask for it. First up, we have William Duryea’s game Danse Macabre.

Let me preface my comments by saying that I’ll probably never play this game. I have issues with death that I don’t really want to explore deeply in a gaming context, and my taste in games tends to run to more structured systems as opposed to the heavily freeform. Nevertheless, I do think I have some things to say about this game, both in terms of craft as a designer, and as someone who is looking at the text without already knowing how to play. This post will largely be my first thoughts and impressions, roughly corresponding to a sequential pass through the text.

My first impression of the text is that a lot of it is written in a very academic style. This style of writing encourages the reader to be emotionally distanced from the subject — the exact opposite of what I think a roleplaying text ought to do, especially in the introduction. The intro should be either setting a mood or telling me about the game. When I start reading this version of Danse Macabre I feel like I’m reading an encyclopedia. There are some interesting images and ideas here, but they aren’t presented in a way that will make them feel compelling or engaging to me as a reader. The text isn’t building my excitement to play. Here’s an example from the text:

One motif common in many versions of the Danse Macabre is the depiction of individuals from a variety of different social ranks and statures joining in the dance with death. Kings, popes and emperors dance alongside peasants, children and craftsmen, and all dance with skeletons and corpses that are leading them toward the grave or the entrace to Hell. This was a reminder that death is not selective, and that anyone and everyone will eventually die, regardless of status or age or wealth.

Not terrible, but if we apply some judicious cuts to that paragraph:

Kings, popes and emperors dance alongside peasants, children and craftsmen and all dance with skeletons and corpses that are leading them toward the grave or the entrance to Hell. Death is not selective. Anyone and everyone will eventually die, regardless of status or age or wealth.

In my opinion that’s much more powerful writing.

There’s another element of voice or tone I wanted to call out, and that’s a prevalence of “weakening modifiers”. It’s common for William to tell me that I could or might do something when playing the game, rather than telling me what to do in a confident way. In an instructional text this makes the author seem timid and unreliable, which is the last thing the reader wants (imagine how it would feel if you were taking a skydiving class and your instructor peppered his speech with lots of “you could try” or “some people would” modifiers). As a reader of your game text I signed up to follow you on an exciting adventure into a new experience — I want you to be the leader. I know that tentativeness and passivity is something I occasionally struggle with in my own writing since in normal social interactions there’s a desire not to “tell people what to do”, and because when I’m designing a game I’m not confident it will work until I’ve tested it, so that tentativeness comes through in my text. I don’t know if that same thing is happening to William, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

The “What you’ll need” and “Setup” sections seem bizarrely focused on negative advice and alternatives to playing the game the way it’s designed. Dwelling on what doesn’t work and expecting that I’m not going to have the proper components to play bums me out on the game. It starts to give me the impression that the game is incredibly fragile, that I’m likely to screw it up, and I should just give up before I begin. I’d say the game should just confidently tell me what I need to play and move on. If there absolutely has to be a discussion of alternatives I’d say put it in an appendix or a sidebar. Putting all the caveats in the main text is sucking the energy out of it.

I call bullshit on the idea that the type of music doesn’t matter. I guarantee that I could find inappropriate music that would ruin the mood of the game. The designer of the game should be presenting himself as the subject-matter expert, not punting the decision of appropriate music to the reader. I can understand giving the reader space to contribute their own ideas, but the designer should be giving me some rock-solid can’t-miss music selections here if music is really an important part of the game.

I like the setting examples a lot. They’re very evocative. (One minor note: maybe call them “Janjaweed militia” to give a bit of micro-context to people who aren’t familiar with the term?) However, there’s a wishy-washiness to the explanation of the pros and cons of different settings that seems almost apologetic. I should be exiting setting selection with confidence that I’ll have some cool gaming, not with a vague sense that things might work out well if we’re lucky.

The rank distribution section is presented in a way that makes it seem more elaborate and complicated than it really needs to be. There has to be a simpler way of explaining such a simple procedure. It’s just randomly distributing unique roles, right?

I think William needs to decide if he wants to support a game with 6+ players or not. If he does, there should be roles for all the players. If he doesn’t there shouldn’t be a suggestion that I design the roles myself, at least not in the main text. It makes the game design seem tentative, like I’m going to have to finish designing the game myself before I play it. I don’t want to feel like I’m playing a half-assed game, but that’s what it feels like when the rules are saying, “well, maybe there should be a jester, too…”

Similar to the ranks, I like the temptations. The “lack of faith” sticks out as the only multi-word temptation, so I’d be looking for a way to harmonize that a bit better — either fit it into the pattern the others establish or change the others so there isn’t a strong pattern.

The order of presentation of the rules has some issues. Just after I read a bunch of text that’s filling my heading with evocative ideas that are likely to coalesce into character concepts I am told that they will be determined randomly? That leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I should have a better idea up front what will or won’t be under my authorial control so I don’t end up disappointed by having to throw ideas away for arbitrary reasons. (Also, a concrete example of how to eliminate some weakening modifiers: Change the examples from hypotheticals to concrete. Instead of “you might decide that you are playing a volunteer foreign aid worker”, it could be “John decides to play a volunteer foreign aid worker.”)

The biggest example of unnecessary wishy-washiness in the rules is in the “Filling the Envelopes” section. Come on, William, the Ace of Spades is the death card. Why are you explicitly giving me the option of making a thematically less appropriate choice? If I’m trying to follow your rules it’s because I want to trust you to tell me what the right rules are, so stop trying to push that back on me — giving me the impression that you won’t make these decisions makes me feel like I was dumb to trust you to tell me how to play the game.

The explanation of how to set up the music is a bit awkward to read, and putting it in the “Filling the Envelopes” section is an odd choice.

In “The Scenes”, the text should be telling me in a positive way what I should be doing, not what I shouldn’t be doing. Focusing attention on what shouldn’t be in the scenes can easily produce a “don’t think about white elephants” effect. If the opening scene is supposed to have a “day in the life” kind of feel, the game should tell me that. Maybe the game should have something like Zombie Cinema’s threat levels to guide play?

It’s a bit unclear in the initial explanation whether the only characters in the scenes are supposed to be the established PCs. This gets explained later when Supporting Character gets defined (which is done after it’s used several times — something that should be addressed), but I’m a bit adrift in the text until that gets locked down. Since the first scene is the most character-contrained (it must include exactly these N characters, no more and no less) I should probably have that explained to me up front.

The “may pass the envelopes during the first Life Scene if you want to” rule seems pretty lame to me. That feels like a decision the designer should be making, not left to the players. The envelope passing shouldn’t feel like an afterthought, it should be a weighty and ritualistic part of the game, if I’m reading the rest of the game correctly.

On page 8, I’m told that there’s a chance my character dies, but then the text goes through a bunch of stuff about scene order and so forth. My mind is still thinking “Whoa, my character just died! Tell me what I need to do to deal with that, not all this scene ordering bullshit!”. Similarly, the text makes a big deal about Death Scenes and I’m thinking, “Stop trying to sell me on Death Scenes being important, just tell me what they are already!”

It seems like there’s very little advice on how to actually play out these scenes, which is the meat of the game. How do I make sure the temptations make it into play? The only advice I see about them is that I’m not supposed to make a big deal out of them in the first Life Scene, but when I do my Death Scene the questions I get are going to be all about the kind of stuff my temptations are supposed to be about. What if they never came up during play? How long are the scenes supposed to be? How can I guarantee that my temptations get expressed if I have little influence over scene framing or the characters in a scene? Am I not supposed to be worrying about that? I’m a little concerned that Death’s questions are going to seem pretty disconnected from how I played my character, especially since the player playing Death isn’t guaranteed to personally witness all of my roleplaying. Maybe the fact that Death knows whose envelope has the death card changes that a bit, but it’s a bit hard to glean how that interaction will work from the rules. I wish there were some more ritualized things for Death to do during the Life Scenes. It seems like it would be thematically appropriate to play with some conspicuous/ignored aspects of death, but that’s kind of left up in the air. Maybe that’s supposed to happen organically? It’s hard to tell.

The rules for character death seem a bit fuzzy to me. The mechanics seem like play sort of stops and people mill round and fiddle with envelopes for a bit while things are resolved, and then play transitions to a Death Scene. That seems like it would zap momentum out of what was happening in the fiction at a time when something very dramatic (a character dying!) is happening. And how do the players deal with this going forward? Are we supposed to react the the death (likely the most significant thing that happens in the fiction in the first scene)? Pursue our own issues? Some combination? I guess I have some issues with the structure of the drama, because the significant event of people dying seems to happen on a “parallel track” to the normal in-game fiction, so I’m not sure exactly how they’re supposed to mesh together.

Since I’m not familiar with jeepform games I can’t say with any authority how Danse Macabre compares to those games. There are some interesting thematic things going on here (not things I’d want to play with, but I know there are people who would), but I’m not sure that they’re guaranteed to get developed in play. It seems like there ought to be more structural guarantees that the themes the game wants to be in play actually get into play.

So those are my first thoughts — some very editorial about the writing, some more structural about the design of the game. Hopefully William finds them interesting, and possibly they can be the starting point of a conversation between the two of us and anybody else who might be interested. (Also, I want to note to anybody reading, even when I phrase things like “do X”, or “it should by like Y”, I’m not trying to supplant the author’s role in the work, just offering my opinion.)

(I’m still figuring out exactly how this Dan Reads Games thing should work. For example, I struggled a bit with whether to treat William or the general blog reader as the audience. This post also came out as a sort of stream-of-consciousness laundry list of things that occurred to me as I read the text. I’m not sure that’s the most effective way to communicate, so I’m definitely open to feedback about my feedback, if people are so inclined.)