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The night was cold, the fireplace was roaring, and we were gnawing on the delicious ratatouille and fresh baked bread our host Leslie had made. We warded off the three adorable pups as we idly chatted and a few people lazily looked over the Monsterhearts skins. It finally happened, my lady and genderqueer friends convinced me to run them a Monsterhearts campaign. I’ve run this game about a billion times for friends and at game conventions and I’m even (abashedly) in a link on the Monsterhearts site that leads to a youtube game I ran a few years ago. So its easy for me to run it, even a few wines in. This time though, I wanted to try something a little different than my usual fare, since it was potentially a campaign instead of a one-shot. It turned out really successful! Here’s what I did.Prep Work
I did some real basic prep work, cause I don’t like doing prep work. I’m an adult – ain’t nobody got time to stat NPCs. Just in general I’m also not a fan of “lonely fun”, basically spending time on my own with game stuff (unless it’s design, then I’m all in). The fun in game play, for me, is the collaborative stuff. To prep for this game of Monsterhearts, I made a series of lists I was going to share with my friends when we got together. I made lists loosely named “Inspirations”,”What I want to see”, and “Locations”. So kinda like this:
- Suspiria: ballet school? something trippy
- Ouran Host Club: all the characters are part of a school club?
- Hemlock Grove: good trash, small town-ish
What I Want to See
- dopplegangers, demons, people talking backwards, vampires, evil mermaids, scary cell phones, drugs, etc…
- rooftops, pool, graveyard, ghost towns, bathrooms, lake, forest, cornfield, tunnel, etc…
I brought this list to game night with a general idea of the order of how I wanted to do things. Propose the inspirations first, then do character creation with everyone, then go through the “What I want to see” and “Locations” sections with everyone, then build some villains, then play a few intro scenes! Everyone loved the idea of the ballet school so we went with it, although we did consider just a normal dance school for a little while. Another player, C, even added a few more inspirational media to ballet list: Black Swan, Center Stage, and First Position.
This collaborative discussion of “I want this in the game” and also “I think I’d like to see it this way instead” and “can we maybe add this too?” are not only essential for MY fun, but essential to allowing creative input to the game we’re all about to play. The more people have input into what they’re about to do, the more agency they have, and the more agency people have, the more likely they feel the game belongs to them too!The GM is a Player Too
This note is super important. REMEMBER, THE GM IS A PLAYER TOO. Definitely highlight the players and try to create as much fun for them as possible, but if you’re the GM, don’t forget your own fun. You’re playing this game too! Make sure to include things that are fun for you, or even ask for your own fun, or x-card out things you don’t want in the game as well. Don’t go too far on the servant side or too far on the dictator side of GMing… find somewhere more along the lines of collaborator. I find that when I conceptualize myself as a player having fun too, I more easily scale how much work I’m willing/able to do for the game and players. If I’m having fun, I usually have more creative energy! I find that when I conceptualize myself as a player having fun too, I more easily scale how much work I’m willing/able to do for the game and players. If I’m having fun, I usually have more creative energy!Being Transparent
There’s a few things I do to maintain a level of transparency with the group. I find that when I lay out my agenda for the evening people are more prepared mentally for what’s about to go down. They’ll know, ok, we’re going to do character creation next, and I can take a break after themes and locations, and can ask “oh I can only stay this long can we fit all that in by ten”? Additionally, they know I’m organized cause I’ve thought what order everything should go in! Trust and efficiency go up among everyone.
I’m also real transparent with my goals for the game! I share most of my ideas, like “I want vampires cause they’re awesome and scary and I’m vampire trash!” so it’s totally clear what my agenda is and nobody needs to guess. Then, when I’m running the game, I can decide when, where, and how to place those vampires, but everyone knows there’s vampires coming. It creates a fun sense of anticipation, while also being clear that nothing untoward is coming that someone wasn’t expecting. It also allows me to still be creative and free-form, adding the vampires where I like! Maybe they’re the villains, but oh wait, we have a werewolf character now, and everyone knows how werewolves and vampires feel about each other.Checking-In About Content
After character creation, I shared the lists of “What I want to see” and “locations” with everyone, so that we were able as a group to determine what’s cool, what we all want, and what we’d rather leave out. These were ideas I kinda whipped out as a starting point. I can, as the GM, say where I’d like to start, and then the players can add or delete some of my ideas. So I’m kinda providing a rough draft of the game, like, “how do you like the way this looks”, and then the players can tweak and give me feedback on those ideas.
I, for example, am hilariously terrified of dolls and clowns. Sometimes I like being scared by them! But most of the time I’d just rather not engage. So I vetoed those in our game. Some of the other players decided to veto cornfields cause we wanted a forest, and other things in the setting because we decided we’d like it to be on a mountaintop. So with these lists established, I easily checked-in with my players about the kind of content they were comfortable with, and also what else they’d like to see added. Someone added a field of beautiful flowers, for example, and it wasn’t on my list.
So it worked out really well! We played a few scenes, and we all had these lists to pull inspiration from if we needed a location, or if I needed inspiration for a GM move. Although we totally forgot to create villains, but we’ll be doing that next session. Collaboratively creating villains is so fun, everyone basically has input into what they want to be up against in the game fiction. Super fun. Do you use lists like this in your game prep as well? What ways do you work toward group consent of content in your games?
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So obviously, the pendulum of progress stopped swinging on my game. As much as I tried to prevent it, pressing obligations just wouldn’t take a back seat (nor would the burglars who, a few weeks ago, stole 90% of my wardrobe and who last week stole my monitor). So after a string of hectic weekends and even crazier weeks, this weekend has been pretty wide open for doing whatever I want to do. And not a moment too soon!
So after doing all the other things I try to do with my weekends, I finally loaded up the ol’ Inform 7 IDE and started working on my game. To get me back in the swing of things, so to speak, I started reading through what I’d already written. It was an interesting experience.
Strangely, what impressed me most was stuff I had done that I have since forgotten I learned how to do. Silly little things, like actions I defined that actually worked, that had I tried to write them today, probably would have had me stumped for a while. Go me! Except, erm, I seem to have forgotten more than I’ve retained.
I also realized the importance of commenting my own code. For instance, there’s this snippet:
A thing can be attached or unattached. A thing is usually unattached. A thing that is a part of something is attached.
The problem is, I have no idea why I put it in there – it doesn’t seem relevant to anything already in the game, so I can only imagine that I had some stroke of genius that told me I was going to need it “shortly” (I probably figured I’d be writing the code the next night). So now, there’s that lonely little line, just waiting for its purpose. I’m sure I’ll come across it some day; for now, I’ve stuck in a comment to remind myself to stick in a comment when I do remember.
It reminds me of all the writing I did when I was younger. I was just bursting with creativity when I was a kid, constantly writing the first few pages of what I was sure was going to be a killer story. And then I’d misplace the notebook or get sidetracked by something else, or do any of the million other things that my easily distracted self tends to do. Some time later, I’d come across the notebook, read the stuff I’d written and think, “Wow, this is great stuff! Now… where was I going with it?” And I’d never remember, or I’d remember and re-forget. Either way, in my mother’s attic there are piles and piles of notebooks with half-formed thoughts that teem with potential never to be fulfilled.
This situation – that of wanting to resume progress but fumbling to pick up the threads of where I left off – has me scouring my memory for a term I read in Jack London’s Call of the Wild. There was a part in the book where Buck’s owner (it’s late, his name has escaped me) has been challenged to some sort of competition to see if Buck can get the sled moving from a dead stop. I seem to remember that the runners were frozen to the ground. I thought the term was “fast break” or “break fast” or something to that effect, but diligent (does 45 seconds count as diligent?) searching has not confirmed this or provided me with the right term. Anyway, that’s how it feels tonight – I feel as if I’m trying to heave a frozen sled free from its moorings.
The upside is, I am still pleased with what I have so far. That’s good because it means I’m very likely to continue, rather than scrap it altogether and pretend that I’ll come up with a new idea tomorrow. In the meantime, I’ll be looking for some SnoMelt and a trusty St. Bernard to get things moving again.
So I didn’t get as much coding done over the weekend as I had hoped, mainly because the telephone company *finally* installed my DSL line, which meant I was up til 5:30 Saturday am catching up on the new episodes of Lost. That, in turn, meant that most of the weekend was spent wishing I hadn’t stayed up until such an ungodly hour, and concentration just wasn’t in the cards.
However, I did get some stuff done, which is good. Even the tiniest bit of progress counts as momentum, which is crucial for me. If the pendulum stops swinging, it will be very hard for me to get it moving again.
So the other day, as I was going over the blog (which really is as much a tool for me as it is a way for me to share my thoughts with others), I realized I had overlooked a very basic thing when coding the whole “automatically return the frog to the fuschia” bit…
As the code stood, if the player managed to carry the frog to another room before searching it, the frog would get magically returned to the fuschia. This was fairly simple to resolve, in the end – I just coded it so that the game moves (and reports) the frog back to fuschia before leaving the room. I also decided to add in a different way of getting the key out of the frog – in essence, rewarding different approaches to the same problem with success.
Which brings me to the main thrust of today’s post. I have such exacting standards for the games I play. I love thorough implementation. My favorite games are those that build me a cool gameworld and let me tinker and explore, poking at the shadows and pulling on the edges to see how well it holds up. A sign of a good game is one that I will reopen not to actually play through again, but to just wander around the world, taking in my surroundings. I’ve long lamented the fact that relatively few games make this a rewarding experience – even in the best games, even slight digging tends to turn up empty, unimplemented spots.
What I am coming to appreciate is just how much work is involved in the kind of implementation I look for. Every time I pass through a room’s description, or add in scenery objects, I realize just how easy it is to find things to drill down into. Where there’s a hanging plant, there’s a pot, dirt, leaves, stems, wires to hang from, hooks to hang on, etc. Obviously, unless I had all the time in the world, I couldn’t implement each of these separately, so I take what I believe to be the accepted approach and have all of the refer to the same thing. Which, in my opinion, is fine. I don’t mind if a game has the same responses for the stems as it does for the plant as a whole, as long as it has some sort of relevant response. Even so, this takes a lot of work. It might be the obsessive part of me, but I can’t help but think “What else would a person think of when looking at a hanging plant?”
Or, as I’ve come to think of it: WWBTD?What Would Beta Testers Do?
I’ve taken to looking at a “fully” implemented room and wondering what a player might reasonably (and in some cases unreasonably) be expected to do. This is a bit of a challenging process for me – I already know how my mind works, so trying to step outside of my viewpoint and see it from a blind eye is hard. I should stop for a second to note that I fully intend to have my game beta tested once it reaches that point, but the fewer obvious things there are for testers to trip over, the more time and energy they’ll have for really digging in and trying to expose the weaknesses I can’t think of.
I’ve found one resource that is both entertaining and highly informative to me: ClubFloyd transcripts. ClubFloyd, for the uninitiated (a group among which I count myself, of course) is a sort of cooperative gaming experience — if anyone who knows better reads this and cares to correct what may well be a horrible description, by all means!– where people get together on the IFMud and play through an IF title. The transcripts are both amusing and revealing. I recently read the Lost Pig transcript and it was quite interesting. The things people will attempt to do are both astonishing and eye-opening. In the case of Lost Pig (which, fortunately, I had already played before reading the transcript), what was even more amazing was the depth of the game itself. I mean, people were doing some crazy ass stuff – eating the pole, lighting pants on fire, and so on. And it *worked*. Not only did it work, it was reversible. You obviously need the pole, so there’s a way to get it back if, in a fit of orc-like passion, you decide to shove it in down Grunk’s throat.
Anyway, my point is, the transcripts gave me a unique perspective on the things people will try, whether in an effort to actually play the game, to amuse themselves, or to amuse others. Definitely good stuff to keep in mind when trying to decide, say, the different ways people will try to interact with my little porcelain frog.Other Stuff I Accomplished
So I coded in an alternate way to deal with the frog that didn’t conflict with the “standard” approach. I also implemented a few more scenery objects. Over the course of the next few days, I’m going to try to at least finish the descriptions of the remaining rooms so that I can wander around a bit and start really getting to the meat of it all. I also want to work on revising the intro text a bit. In an effort to avoid the infodumps that I so passionately hate, I think I went a little too far and came away with something a bit too terse and uninformative. But that’s the really fun part of all of this – writing and re-writing, polishing the prose and making it all come together.
Whattaya know. Midnight again. I think I’m picking up on a trend here.
Grrr… I’ve been so bogged down in work and client emergencies that progress on the game is at a temporary (no, really! Only temporary) standstill. I’ve managed to flesh out a few more room and scenery descriptions, but have not accomplished anything noteworthy in a few days. Hopefully after this week most of the fires on the work front will be extinguished, and I’ll have time to dive into the game this weekend.
(She says to no one, since there’s been one hit on this blog since… it started.)