Dan Reads Games

[Ingenero] Initial Thoughts

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This is the second post in my Dan Reads Games series, in which I give focused feedback attention to designers that ask for it. This time we have Steve Mathers’ Ingenero.

I first encountered this game in Steve’s thread on Story-Games where he was trying to attract playtesters. His description of the game seemed somewhat genertic, so y initial reaction to the game in the thread was: “What makes this game special?”. After skimming the rules, I refined that to: “Why would I play this game rather than something like Burning Wheel or FATE?” I’ve read the whole thing now, and I’m still not sure I know the answer. I don’t say that to be dismissive, but games like Burning Wheel are proven games with well-established player bases, so a game that’s competing for attention with games like that needs something to distinguish it. I also think that having a strong vision for what it should feel like to play the game will help in refining the design. Steve might have that in his head, but I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what he’s going for yet.

First, some editorial points about the writing and presentation: I’m picking up a lot of passive-voice style writing here, and it makes it hard to engage with the text. There are lots of “shoulds” and “cans”, and instructions are frequently described as “the players do X” instead of using imperatives like “do X”. The extensive use of bullet points in the beginning is pretty rough, too — when I’m reading a game I don’t want to be reminded of interminable meetings with terrible powerpoint presentations (bulleted lists are for occasional emphasis, not a primary form of communication). The speed at which readers can consume the text will have an impact on how well they can comprehend the rules. Talking about this stuff may seem nitpicky, but the readability of a game does matter. I’m not saying to go nuts with layout or illustrations is necessary (although a format with fewer words per line would also help), but some of these readability issues can be fixed without a huge investment. The big note at the bottom of page 2 was pretty galling, too:

If you are only going to read on section of this document carefully, …

I interpret this as a message to the reader: you are dumb if you read this whole document. It definitely put a sour taste in my mouth as I kept reading.

On page 3, we get the rule: “Players should always refer to all characters by character-name rather than “I”, “You”, or players’ names.” I’m not sure what this rule is for. It doesn’t seem like it’s an immersion cue, since ruling out “I” would work against immersion.

In Backgrounds, we come to the first area that I have big problems with mechanically. Backgrounds are player-authored traits that determine how many d10s a player rolls to accomplish something in a conflict situation (more dice is better). A player rolls dice from exactly one background per roll based on the background that “best suits the undertaking” (a GM decision?). What this means is that the breadth of a trait has a huge impact on character effectiveness. I worry quite a bit about how strong the temptation to write cheesy expansive backgrounds will be (using someone’s tolerance for cheesiness as a balancing factor is dangerous business in game design, since it encourages people to live at the cheesy edge…). I also worry that people who make arbitrary decisions at chargen that turn out to rarely come up in play will be very disappointed — there’s no mechanism in the game that feeds background choice into situation generation (except the GM’s sense of fairness). Having two backgrounds that turn out to overlap in a particular situation is probably going to suck, too: you only get to roll a small number of dice instead of the dice you could have rolled if you had combined them into a mega-background. (Player-authored traits are cool, but they are vulnerable to a variety of problems. I talked a bit about how I use them in my game in this Forge thread.) I get the impression that character effectiveness in challenges will have a big impact on whether characters achieve their goals, so I am concerned that an arbitrary decision about how to word backgrounds can have such a big effect on character effectiveness.

In discussion of the motivations, there’s an example of another issue I noticed cropping up a few times in the rules: “If circumstances occur where the player can demonstrate clearly that a character’s motivation should be changed or removed, they get 10 reward points”. This rule is written as if the players already know how to play the game. If I can demonstrate they should be changed, I get ten points. What are the criteria by which I would know that they “should be changed”? The rules don’t say. I can guess, but I shouldn’t have to (I would guess that it’s kind of like buying off Keys in The Shadow of Yesterday or dramatically working against a Belief in Burning Wheel or Mouse Guard). Similarly, there are a few places where the game tells me I should play it “like a traditional RPG”. I found that a bit off-putting — I’d much rather I just be told clearly and concisely how to play this game without any expectations of what other games I have or haven’t played.

On page 5 and 6, the rules for situation generation come across as weak to me (but, see below!). The strong “consensus” vibe of these rules makes me worry about a bland story-by-committee approach. Consensus has its uses in RPGs, but there’s a reason that games build asymmetric information and creative constraints into most of their procedures.

Signature Plays have some interesting stuff going on, we have the same breadth issue as backgrounds — it is clearly mechanically more beneficial to have a signature move that applies in more situations (which means people are going to feel dumb if they actually follow the advice in the text about hyper-specificity). The other danger of overly specific signature plays is that they are going to show up over and over and over again as players learn to position themselves so that they’ll be able to bring their big guns into play (I’ve seen this happen in Dogs in the Vineyard — when you have a DITV trait with lots of big dice, you’re tempted to find a way to use that trait in every conflict). Using the same signature play repeatedly will probably get tedious, especially if the signature play has a lot of specificity (just like seeing a really colorful trait get overused in DITV gets boring). Reducing the effectiveness of the 2nd, 3rd, etc., use of a signature play ought to limit the temptation to spam the signature play in a single contest, but the invocation of that rule turns on a judgment call (made by the GM?) about whether characters have been able to “critically observe the play in action”. Having character effectiveness balanced against judgment calls can introduce some unpleasant psychological effects (e.g. you can “go easy on” someone in a tough spot, but if they get out of it you will feel like they did it because of your generosity).

On page 14, we get an example Story Phase. Yes! Yes, Yes, Yes! I have been pretty rough on the game up to now, but this is something done well. It shows me how to play the game! Woohoo! I noticed here, in the actual example, that the Story Phase is nothing like I imagined it would be when I read the rules for it. I see a GM with a very strong hand on the tiller, guiding the players to make some very specific decisions, setting up a vague situation which the GM is planning to fill in with details once the challenge starts. The example reads to me like a fun game. I wonder if Steve is actually translating the “how to GM” rules that he’s implicitly expecting people to use into the actual rules of the game. This is usually a pretty tricky thing to do — lots of GMing techniques are done instinctively by “good GMs”, so it doesn’t even occur to them that they need to explain how to do them. I find that games that give procedures and guidance for these sorts of things to be stronger games.

When the game got to the GMing section, I was a little disappointed to see how much of the game turns on arbitrary GM decisions. How much do you need to do to achieve a goal? Enough to satisfy the GMs aesthetic judgment that you’ve done enough to deserve to get it. How much opposition do you face? Whatever the GM thinks is appropriate. This is pretty much standard “trad game” GMing, but I personally dislike it. When the players’ success or failure is essentially determined by my arbitrary GM decisions I can’t be happy for them when they succeed (because I was the one who gave them the success) and I can’t sympathize with them when they fail (because I’m the jerk who decided that they should fail). The game seems to go through a lot of trouble to convince the players that their goals are real and important to the game, so I was a bit disappointed about the fuzziness that the rules insert into achieving the goals. When I first started GMing Mouse Guard, I decided to dynamically choose the opposition as we went. It sucked — the players’ successes felt like charity. When I switched to prepping the sessions beforehand, with a hard and fast rule for myself about not backing off even if they were having trouble, the game became incredibly fun. When they succeeded at the missions it was awesome. When they failed it was tragic. Removing my judgement calls from their success or failure meant that they owned their own success or failure, and let me appreciate their contributions instead of just putting on “the GM show” for the session. There are several alternate approaches to removing dynamic judgment calls from the process (e.g. decide during prep, use mechanical budgets, etc.), so I hope Steve at least considers using some of them (unless this “judgment call” feeling is what he’s shooting for in the design).

So those are my initial thoughts. I wish they weren’t so negative, but as I said originally, when I’m asked my opinion I feel compelled to be honest (and I hope Steve isn’t completely surprised by my take on the game). Hopefully Steve will find something valuable here, and won’t feel like I’m just beating up on him or his game. I might have some more nuanced opinions about some subtler issues in a later post, but I wanted to give my initial impressions while they were still fresh in my mind.

 

[Danse Macabre] Initial Thoughts

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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.)

Dan Reads Games

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Sage LaTorra has a new blog post about his plan to start helping game designers by giving them focused feedback. Developing a better feedback community for RPG designers is something I’ve been concerned about for a while (partially for selfish reasons — I feel I need better feedback for my game), so I’m going to try to jump on Sage’s bandwagon and hope others follow suit, too.

Here’s the deal:

Designers, ask me for feedback on your game (either via e-mail, blog comments, or on any of the forums I frequent). I pick at least one of those games to give focused feedback on. I’ll post my thoughts about it here on my blog (I’ll admit I don’t get a ton of traffic…) and/or on places like The Forge or Praxis when public comments are appropriate, or via e-mail for a more private comment (or we could even take it to Skype). Hopefully these will be starting points for engaged conversation — I believe that a big part of the benefit of getting feedback about a design is that the process of talking about your own work helps you think about it, so I’d like to avoid fire-and-forget critiquing. If I’m excited about the game and can get other people on board I may even playtest it, and possibly record that playtest and post it to my AP podcast Designer vs. Reality where I try to showcase games being playtested (so far it’s mostly just my game, but I’m hoping to change that).

Some things you should know about me:

  • I am honest. I try not to be a jerk, but when people ask for my opinions I find it difficult to lie.
  • I am a perfectionist: with any activity my attention is quickly focused on what problems need to be solved, so I will occasionally err by failing to give proper praise to positive things. For many years I worked as an engineer finding bugs in microprocessor designs before they were manufactured. By both personality and training my inclination toward things I care about is to make them the best they can be by fixing problems with them. This can come across as “negativity”.
  • I don’t have a big name in the RPG scene (yet)
  • I haven’t published any games (yet)
  • My personal preference in games is toward interesting mechanics or design innovation. I’m not saying that games that don’t have those things aren’t good games, just that they’re unlikely to be my cup of tea.
  • Most of my gaming is done over Skype.
  • I think I’m a reasonably good writer and would make a good editor, but I haven’t done either one professionally.

If that hasn’t scared you off yet, here are some things you need to be sure of before asking me to look at your game:

  • The game needs to be as good as you can make it right now. That doesn’t mean it needs to be at a publishable level, but it does mean you need to have all of your thoughts down in text. I don’t want to invest intellectually or emotionally in something only to hear that I was giving you feedback on something obsolete that doesn’t match how the game works in your head.
  • You need to be serious about taking the game as far as it can go. I don’t want to get excited about something only to have the designer lose interest.

Sound like a good deal? Then let me know where I can find your game, and if it seems interesting I’ll start reading.

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