So You Want to Write IF: A Party Game for LudoLunch

LudoLunch was a game designers’ picnic lunch held in Christchurch Meadow yesterday by Simon Roth, Nia Wearn, and compatriots. (Edited to add Nia — apologies for leaving her out initially, as I hadn’t realized she was co-organizer here.)

Simon asked if I would talk about interactive fiction, and it only really hit me after I accepted that the parameters of a family picnic ruled out most of the kinds of intro IF talk I usually give. We wouldn’t have computers or projection screens or wifi, so I couldn’t teach Twine or inklewriter or Inform. I couldn’t run Lost Pig or Aisle, or do a slideshow overview of recent or canonical IF. Even some non-techy options were out too: it can be fun playing through good paper CYOA books in a small group, taking turns reading passages aloud, but that’s more a 2-6 person activity, and ideally done someplace quiet enough that no one has to shout. Besides, I wanted to communicate something about the diversity of current IF and the appeal of creating it. This was a dev crowd, after all.

Finally, this was a family event including small kids, which meant a) attention spans were likely to be shorter and b) it wasn’t the ideal place to do a presentation on, say, Horse Master, or queer sexualities in interactive fiction, or IF explorations of the problems with late-stage capitalism.

Below is what I came up with: a casual party game meant to give a partial taste of what IF writing involves, and hint at the diversity of IF games out there in the world, while being as flexible as possible about the audience size and composition.

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Tabletop Storygames: Microscope Union

I’ve written before about the storygame Microscope, in which players collaboratively generate the timeline for a fictional place or institution. Microscope Union is a spinoff of that, focusing on the development of a single family tree.

You start by naming a person who did something — it should probably be something extraordinary, but you can decide what extraordinary means to you — and some traits that allowed them to do this. Then you work backwards, filling in details about previous generations (back to the great-grandparents), and showing where those traits came from. Each phase of the game, you select one “union” to focus on. (You can also choose to have parents/grandparents not be biological parents per se, but be key influencers of the child’s life — we went this route a couple of times.)

The resulting play experience feels more coherent and directed than standard Microscope: because new people and events fit into a defined graph, it’s easier to remember who’s who, and easier to reason about causation. By the time we finished the game (two sessions of about 2-3 hours each), I felt like I had a pretty good idea of the driving forces in the final protagonist’s life.

I also liked that we wound up roleplaying the same characters in the context of their relationships with their parents, their spouses/romantic partners, and their children: this gave us a reason to explore some depths and idiosyncrasies that don’t always come out in RPGs.

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At IndieCade I had a chance to play Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat’s Deadbolt.

It’s a game about the truth: specifically, saying something true about yourself or about someone else in the circle. It’s not a role-playing game, because you are not telling a story or performing a character. The whole point is to speak from your own experience. The rules are simple: you have three rounds, and each round you say something truthful to someone else in the circle, based on prompts you’ve drawn from an envelope. The prompts control both what you say and to whom you say it. (There’s a more detailed description of the rules over here, together with pictures of the artifacts of play, which is helpful because I don’t have any pictures and probably wouldn’t have thought to take any.) If your listener is moved by what you have said, they can give you a token to represent this.

If this sounds trivial or easy, it’s not, and that’s because the prompts ask for things like “describe something you deeply regret doing”. If you’re going to play in good faith, you have to be willing to answer that kind of question honestly.

At the same time, the rules are written with a good deal of sensitivity. You have to answer the questions; you’re not told how much detail you have to go into, or what words you have to use, or how long you have to speak. You don’t even have to say what the question is that you’re answering. Sometimes people answered with a paragraph of explanation, and sometimes with a single phrase.

It’s not a game that brutalizes boundaries or forces confessions you’re not up for. On the contrary, it’s an opportunity (or at least, I found it to be one). The rules create a space in which it is permissible to speak about things that might normally be kept silent. I’m often conscious that telling someone something personal not only makes me vulnerable — that’s my risk to take — but also can be demanding on them, can seem like a bid for sympathy or reassurance; can even be an act of manipulation in the wrong context. But in Deadbolt your fellow players have consented to this and indicated their willingness to hear what you have to say.

Despite the description I just gave, the dominant sound of Deadbolt was silence. Someone would draw a prompt about what to say, and another prompt about whom to speak to. Then they’d sit there. Thinking; gathering courage. Sometimes they teared up. Then they would speak. This drove home to me something I’ve often observed in intense conversations in life, that sometimes getting to a hard truth is about being willing to wait, as a listener; willing to shut up not only when the other person is speaking, but when they’re getting ready to speak, when they’re still gathering their thoughts and finding courage. One of the rules of Deadbolt is that no one else can speak during your round, and that’s really important, because it creates the silence that comes before the truth.

I was a tiny bit apprehensive about playing something like this in a circle that included some people I didn’t know. Even tabletop storygames create vulnerability in a way that makes it hugely important to trust the rest of the group. But the rules of Deadbolt are sufficiently constrained that they make this easier. Also, the people I was playing with were awesome.

It was intense. I’m really glad I got a chance to play.

Assorted Interesting Projects

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Tim Fowers — for whom I worked on Clockwords back in the day, and who has produced several other board and computer games — is doing a deck-building word game called Paperback. It looks like a terrifying collision of Scrabble and Dominion.

Coin Opera 2 is a book of poems about computer games, poems that emulate formal features of computer games. There is even a two-player poem. (I have no idea what that looks like in practice: chorus vs chorus leader? But it’s intriguing.)

Skullduggery is a twist on storytelling RPGs of the kind I sometimes talk about here, only (a) competitive and (b) oriented towards villainy. (Actually, some storytelling RPGs are already oriented towards villainy or at least petty crime, but usually not to quite the same degree…)

Now in its final hours, the Boss Fight Books series takes on classic video games one at a time. I’m especially pleased to see that Anna Anthropy is writing for this series.

Kickstarter politics comments after the jump.

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Tabletop Storygames: The Quiet Year


The Quiet Year is a story game about one year in the life of a threatened community. The War with the Jackals (not explained) is just over. The Frost Shepherds (also not explained) will turn up in a year, though the inhabitants of the town don’t know that.

In the meantime, there are up to 52 turns (one for each week of the year), and a deck of cards is used as a randomizer to determine what sorts of things might happen during those weeks. Each turn, a player draws the next card, follows instructions from a chart about what that card means for the community, and then takes one of three actions: proposing a communal discussion about a particular issue; discovering something new in or around the community (which means drawing it on the map); or starting a project (also drawn on the map, but set to conclude several turns later). By the time play is over and the last card is drawn, the map is large and complex and bears signs of many events that have happened to the community.

Our story told of a group divided by religious disagreements, threats from outsiders, limited resources (especially iron, which we didn’t have much of until late in the story), and a certain amount of archaeological curiosity.

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Tabletop Storygames: Polaris

Screen Shot 2013-05-02 at 11.38.30 PMPolaris is a tabletop RPG in which you know from the start that all the protagonists are doomed, and their civilization is doomed, and everything is ruined and is going to end in flames. This is exactly what happened in our recent session. I also can’t remember an RPG session in which I’ve laughed so much. It was great.

Okay, back up. Polaris is framed on the website linked above as a game to take 12+ hours. We needed to compress it into an evening’s play, so instead of having each player be a protagonist, we instead set it up to be about two protagonists and two players who were playing antagonist roles. Each of the protagonists was the knight of a civilization that had already partially fallen to The Mistaken; the latter, in our game, were a kind of body-jumping demon eager to bring about the end of time.

The mechanic enforces the idea of character corruption while leaving a lot of room to work out how this happens. In each scene, a protagonist is confronted by one or more characters played by the antagonist-player. These may be enemies, but it’s often more effective for them to be a friend trying to dissuade the protagonist from doing his knightly duty, or a family member asking for personal rather than public loyalty, or something of that nature — characters who have the ability to sway the knight through persuasion or deception or simply by presenting a conflict of priorities, rather than by direct opposition. The scene escalates into conflict, at which the protagonist and antagonist engage in a kind of narrative bidding process, which for us went something like this:

Protagonist: I lunge at Musca with my sword and run her through.
Antagonist: …but only if, when you kill her, you also destroy the sacred crown you’d come to seek.
Protagonist: …but only if, even though the crown is broken, there are shards I can take home with me.

There are also mechanics for rolling back part of the negotiation if you don’t like where it’s gone, also using key phrases (“You ask far too much”), but we didn’t invoke those as much. Things specified in the conflict stage can get quite large in scope; at one point a negotiation wound up narrating how the character would die, who would survive afterwards, and about five years of subsequent civil war and chaos. The entire extinction of the Polaris people was put on the table, but ultimately bargained down to a deal where they just had to leave the north pole and go to live in warmer, less happy climates.

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