Game Master as parser

“Action Castle” is apparently a tabletop semi-RPG where the game-master pretends to be an IF parser. I found this narrative of play amusing and fascinating — especially because, when I was a young teenager, I would often play the parser this way for my own friends. (I always did allow the parser to understand all the commands, but there were annoying mazes and unfair plot arcs.)

The Game Design Question

I’ve used a variation of the following activity in a couple of different college classes (all of them courses in translation, pitched at a class of 30-40 students with no prior background in classics):

Divide into groups of five or six, and spend 30 minutes or so coming up with a core game design for a game based on some aspect of the Roman economy (or whatever — specific content varies). Name your game. Choose a group member to present a pitch for it to the rest of the class.

Students love this activity. They think I’m letting them play in class, practically giving them the day off. The discussions are riotous. Certain male students who tend to be otherwise pretty quiet in class actually sit up and talk. It usually starts off a little goofy, but they get interested in some specific questions about the game design, and pretty soon they’re paging back through their books to remind themselves about critical dates and data.

It takes a little care to frame the question, because there is always at least one group that will want to spend their time lovingly detailing the weapons that are going to go into their multiplayer XBox fighting extravaganza. (“Wait, who are we fighting?” “Um… there were pirates, right?” “Yeah, okay, let’s have pirates! And we’ll blow up their ships!”)

So I make sure that they understand I’m going to be asking certain kinds of things during the final pitch. For the Roman economy exercise, it was: What does the player have to do in this game? What does winning look like? How do the game challenges reflect (for example) the realities of Roman trade? What sources of information would you use to make the simulation more accurate? What aspects of the game would you have to make guesses about?

After the individual pitches, I let the class say which game ideas they liked best and why. Then we move into a full-class discussion of some issues that the process inevitably raises. In the course on Roman civilization and culture, we used the game project to talk about the problems of reconstructing processes and systems — how can we understand the Roman economy when we have such diverse and fragmentary evidence? What can we know or guess about the challenges of being successful under those long-past conditions? In a mythology class, where the challenge was to recast a classic myth of their choice, we used this as a segue into a discussion of how genre expectations, changing cultural norms, and changes of media affect what we value and emphasize in a story. (“Why did you choose to keep this in your story and leave that out? Which things did you drop because they don’t work in the modern era? Which did you leave out because they don’t work in a game? What did you add? Why? Now can you compare that process back to what Ovid was doing with the myths that had come down to him?” …and so on.)

The point of this exercise is not to come up with a good game. Most of the time the pitches sound unbalanced, broken, or deeply derivative of the gameplay of some existing franchise — a fact that students themselves admit, proposing board games like “Romanopoly”. It’s the process that counts: first getting them to engage in a more active form of review of facts and figures, and second giving them something concrete around which to start a discussion on, say, transmedial narratology. (I’m sure it would also be very interesting to expand this into a whole substantial workshop in which students carried through on the design of their game and actually refined and implemented something that did work — but I haven’t yet had a class where I wanted to devote that much time to the project. So for right now it is just a discussion trick.)

* Actually, the first time I did this, in a mythology class, I allowed them to think up an alternative presentation for any of the myths that we’d studied that day, in any medium. But almost all the groups, in both sections, went for some kind of gaming presentation, which reinforces my sense that the video game is the medium this age group is most critically involved with. The question of imagining a movie, novel, poem, or play around a given myth didn’t appeal nearly as much.

Gloom and other thoughts

This Christmas I received a copy of Gloom, which I’ve been curious to play since it was reviewed over at Play This Thing. The mechanics of the game exist to enable the players to tell increasingly implausible and horrific Gorey-style tales about their characters, until at last they are all dead.

As is usually the case with story-telling games, the results are more amusing than coherent. But there are a couple of mechanics I thought worked reasonably well.

Cards in Gloom are transparent plastic with text and numbers in specific areas. As you play, you stack cards representing plot events on your character; the cumulative effect of all these twists and turns is what you see when looking down through all of the stacked cards. Some events overlap others, wholly or partly blotting out their effects. From a story-simulation point of view this is a very coarse-grained kind of bookkeeping (right for a card game, but you’d expect subtler from anything implemented on a computer).

Some cards (in addition to bestowing positive or negative points) come with “story icons” — hearts for romance, coins for monetary adventures, etc. Some subsequent cards receive a bonus for being played on the correct story icon, or are restricted only to be played over a specific icon. This aids in the construction of semi-coherent stories, because you are more likely to play, say, “widowed at the wedding” on a character with some prior romantic events.

But the storytelling aspect is not really about plot as such. Most of the fun here comes from inhabiting the expectations of a particular genre, though — it’s not exactly a mockery or parody of Gorey as an invitation to wallow in a pseudo-Goreyverse for a while. This is not surprising — Second Person has some essays about storytelling boardgames that basically argue that they work best when they rely strongly on genre conventions. IF doesn’t really work on this level: if it did, a game wouldn’t be so much about being immersed in a story, making choices, solving challenges for the protagonist, or playing a role; it would be more about story organization, about choosing developments from outside the tale.

I did once try to construct a game that would be essentially on that level: you had a magical puppet theater, and you could pick objects and puppets and put them on the stage and then start them up; the next scene of the plot would be generated based on the current story state and the selection of characters and props you had chosen. But it was so boring that I gave up after not very long. I am not at all sure IF has the right granularity for that kind of game. Or maybe I just wasn’t thinking about the design right: I was trying to make the computer do the hard (but fun) part, while leaving the tedious management part to the player, which is exactly wrong. What if…


But Lulu dislikes older men.

Having stolen the keys to her aunt’s liquor cabinet, Lulu spends an evening becoming seriously intoxicated on single malt scotch.

In her drunken state, Lulu approaches Olerud in the back garden and insinuates herself into his arms.

Olerud is embarrassed: though he would like to respond passionately, he knows that Lulu is acting out of character because of drink. He pushes her away rudely and departs.

Lulu then wanders over to the rose bushes and is vilely ill.


Of course, a huge problem here would be communicating to the player the range of what can practically be done in this story. Lulu and Olerud exist in too much of a conceptual vacuum. There needs to be a genre with a highly conventional set of standard moves (e.g.: Zeus rapes someone, someone has a child, someone battles a nine-headed monster). There needs to be a clear set of rules for determining when an ending has been accomplished (e.g.: the protagonist founds a city, someone is turned into a tree). There needs to be some source of challenge; possibly in fact the game would provide a goal state explicitly and it would just be up to the player to achieve it (provide a foundation myth for the cult of Demeter; get Aeneas to found a city…).