Thursday, February 02, 2012


One of the major principles of good design is “Don’t design more than you have to.” Dieter Rams said something to this effect when he was setting out his ten Good Design points, and I definitely think it’s a good way to look at making something that works. Over-designing games can be as bad as under-designing them. So the first step in trying to build a system that is going to work for you, a system that will do the thing you want, is to define what it is you want the design to do. In our case today, we want to design a system that externalizes internal motivators, fears, anxieties, passions, thoughts. We want a system that will turn a nagging insecurity into a usable character, setting or plot point.

This comes in two parts, I think. First, to be able to build a character or setting or plot point from a psychological factor, we have to be able to identify those factors. This will, I think, be the harder point to address. The second is to use those factors to affect the game in a real, mechanical way. Honestly, there are so many systems kicking around for dramatic editing that I don’t think this will be at all a hassle, but I’ll talk about what’s been done before anyway. Neither of these is a comprehensive list of every role-playing game that has ever touched on these topics, mind, but are the games that I am aware of that will influence the implementation of the Classic Fantasy ideas.

Identifying Emotions

In most role-playing games, the emotional state of the player characters isn’t really all that important, and there are no mechanics really attached to them beyond the occasional status effect. In Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, emotions are only given the slightest of lipservice. Barbarians rage, Bards use their pretty words to sway their foes, and Enchanters use magic to ply the feelings of their playthings. Even in games that purport to be about emotions often fail to really take them into account mechanically. The World of Darkness books make mechanical notes for willpower and the character’s morality, but don’t really look at happiness, sorrow or fear in a real way (one of White Wolf’s major failings as I’m concerned). But for the vast majority of the role-playing games, emotions don’t matter mechanically. They’re something you can just sort of ignore. It is safe in most fantasy role-playing scenarios that your players will decide the emotional state of their characters for themselves.

For the purposes of classic fantasy, though, there is a clear and present need to mechanically represent a character’s emotions. Nothing exists apart from the protagonists’ emotional and psychological state in a classic fantasy setting, and that means we need to be able to reference those emotions in some meaningful way. To my knowledge, the best examples we have of an “emotion tracking” mechanic exists in the form of Sanity from Call of Cthulhu and it’s many, many offspring (morality in the World of Darkness, stress in Unknown Armies, etc). Optionally, there are a few games that leverage the emotions of the player characters as status effects (Mouse Guard is the only one that comes to mind, though certainly D&D mucks about with the interactions between emotions and status in examples like Rage for barbarians and the various magical abilities of bards). Both of these ideas are somewhat flawed for our purposes, but they’re a solid jumping off point, so let’s see what we can cannibalize.

Sanity and it’s various spin-offs have one thing in common that makes them unsuitable for a game like the one we’re designing right now: they are thresholds for badness. When your sanity gets low enough, you go completely batshit insane. Same is true of morality. Unknown Armies spruced it up some, giving you the ability to harden yourself to various forms of stress or find yourself spiraling into various forms of horrifying delusion. But these systems don’t really catalogue emotion as much as they provide us a way to conceptualize a character’s eventual fall from stressors that are not inherently physical.

To counter that, to make it an integral part of game play, I think it’s important that we establish that each track is a system towards increased authority. Whether you are exerting authority through joy or through sadness, through anticipation or surprise, your character’s emotional state will be taken into account through the course of a scene as a positive addition to it, not as a punishment for failing to meet some requirement of play. So, no matter how much you have invested in any given emotional track, your contribution to the setting, plot or characters will be important, and your authorship will matter.

Making Them Matter

So once we have an idea of how to mechanically represent a character’s emotions on a piece of 8.5x11, we have to figure out how those emotions are going to matter within the scheme of the design. How is the game going to use the emotions we determine via the scales?

One of the things I keep coming back to is the idea that the emotions are represented through character, setting or plot. This is going to be important, I think. Your characters emotions will likely need to manifest in one of these ways throughout a scene, and that means we’ll need rules for inventing elements of those three things on-the-fly (because your emotional state is always going to be different, we can’t really plan for a game of this sort). This is also suggesting – though not dictating – that the game should likely be GM-free, much like Insects of God. There isn’t a lot of room for a narrative that is centrally controlled; this is a type of story that wants to move around freely.

One of the best systems currently developed for coming up with random plot elements is found in the Burning Wheel system. In that system, when someone fails at something, they probably still succeed at whatever it was they were trying to do, but it comes at a price. You can either take a status effect (hungry, sick, injured, tired, angry) and deal with the effects of that, or you can take a Twist, which is a cute way of saying ‘Surprise me,’ to the Game Master. It’s a really neat mechanic, one that leads to a bunch of unique scenarios, and it provides a weirdly restricted level of authorship to the player choosing. Either you can get worse, or the plot can. Choose.

With something like this game, though, that choice can’t come balanced against the bad. We want the bad, but we also want good things to happen, because the happy things can be just as horrible and life-threatening as the not-so-happy things. These choices have to come as part of the natural play flow, creating non-player characters, set pieces and plot points out of nothing as a matter of the game’s course. This means that we need to reward behaviors that provide for interesting emotional situations, and game mechanics that involve shifting from one set of emotions to another, or moving more deeply into a given emotion, and the creation of NPCs, setting fixtures and plot have to be simple, seamless, and engaging. 

To me, this sounds like a diceless system, the sort of game where you shift resources back and forth across a set of constantly shifting pools to try and deal with the various onslaughts of bullshit that are coming at you from every direction. And strangely I’m seeing a more elegant version of one of my least favorite diceless games, the game Marvel Comics commissioned to simulate their heroic world. That system relied on pools of “stones” that could be shifted from resource to resource, or split into smaller disposable chunks to provide short-term bonuses. I’m seeing something similar for this, where we have permanent points that are shifted from emotion to emotion that can be discarded for a temporary bonus when absolutely needed in any given category.

Getting Into It

Tomorrow I’m going to talk a bit more about the nitty gritty bits of making the game work, but I think that this is a solid starting point. We have an idea of how to represent emotional states within the game, using points that aren’t unlike Call of Cthulhu’s Sanity system, and we have some ideas of how to implement those ideas into the game. We have a really simple idea of how that system is going to affect how the game plays and what points are focused on through play, and we have a really cursory idea of a system that could help us achieve that.

So join me tomorrow when I start punching characters in the feelings.

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