Formal Ferret Games

Gil Hova designs, publishes, and plays board games

Category: Announcements

Weird Stories is out now!

My storytelling game, Weird Stories, was released earlier this month at PAX Unplugged. It’s been a 2.5 year process getting this game out, and it was often a strange process, because I never believed I would or could make a game like this.

First, about the game: it’s a storytelling game in which weird things happen, but players will never be obligated to explain why they’re happening. Instead, everyone focuses on the impact of the weird things on the characters.

These are stories that I personally love. There’s something about them that’s deeply resonant with me. In fact, I get annoyed by stories where mysterious things happen at first, but halfway or two-thirds through, the author “switches on the lights” and tells us exactly who or what is behind everything, and why they’re doing it. This makes the last part of the story more of a straight action thriller. I’m sure other folks enjoy that, but I wish that the mystery remained throughout.

You can buy the game’s rulebook and cards on DriveThruRPG (sadly, DTRPG requires that you buy them in separate transactions). You can also try the game on Tabletopia or Tabletop Simulator.

About the game

Weird Stories is a one-shot zero-prep story game in which players tell stories about weird things happening, without explaining why. There are three Settings Packs that come with the game: Creaking Branches (an homage to Twin Peaks), Dark Ramble Manor (a creepy Victorian ghost story), and Happyland (a modern-day big-budget theme park where absolutely nothing ever goes wrong). If the game is successful, more Settings Packs will come out; I have at least 11 in various states of completion.

Players start the game by choosing a Settings Pack. Each Pack contains several pregenerated Characters and several Weirds (The Weird is the thing through which the weird stuff will come through each game). Players draw 3 random Weirds to the middle of the table and vote on which one they want to play with. They then draft a character from a pool of random Character Cards, and use Connection Cards that come with the game to work out how the Characters know each other as the game starts.

The game starts with an establishing scene. This scene is played straight; there is no Weird. One player is the Framing Player; it’s their job to frame the scene and suggest where the other players enter. The Framing Player also chooses when the scene ends.

They suggest, because in the game, each player has full responsibility over their character. If someone tries to punch their character, that player controlling that character decides if it lands and how much it hurts. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule; we’ll get to them in a moment.

Each player has an identical four-card hand that they can flash to the other players to communicate nonverbally. One card, Go, tells the other players that what’s happening is great, and should keep happening. Another card, Stop, tells the other players that the current scene is making them uncomfortable and they should find another way (in other words, it’s an X-Card). The third card, Suggest, indicates that the player would like to suggest something happen to another player’s character; however, these are only suggestions, as the player playing the Suggest Card doesn’t have agency over the other characters. And the fourth card, Close, suggests to the Framing Player that it’s time to bring the current scene to a close.

The four Control Cards.

The establishing scene is there to show how the Characters interact when things are “normal.” But after that, the players reveal 4 random Question Cards from the Act I Question Deck. The Framing Player rotates to the left; that player chooses a Question that the players will try to answer during the scene. Each Question grounds the action, forcing the players to tie the strange things happening back to the story.

A sample Question Card, with the question "What is something that one Character desperately does not want the other Characters to know?"
A sample Question Card.

But of course, this is Weird Stories, and weird things have to happen. That’s where The Weird, chosen by the players at the start of the game, comes in. The Framing Player is in charge of the Weird each scene. If they invoke the Weird, they have full agency over all characters in the game, superseding the players’ agency over their characters (although, of course, the Stop Card is there if things get uncomfortable, overriding everything else).

If the Framing Player has a hard time coming up with weird things, there is a prompt deck, split by Act, that they can draw from to inspire them.

Prompt Card, saying "Perspective - You can suddenly view the scene from a perspective you shouldn't be able to."
A prompt card.

One other important restriction on play is the No-Removal Rule: a player cannot remove a Character’s agency over the story. In other words, you can’t kill a Character off mid-story. You also can’t move them to a different location, or incapacitate them for a long time. (Of course, you can kill a Character mid-game; you just can’t kill them off. They will return next scene, at latest! The nature of that return is up to the players.)

The Framing Player can close the scene when it feels right, although the other players can suggest this by showing their Close cards. If the players have answered the scene’s Question, they flip over that Question Card.

If 3 Question Cards have not been flipped, players continue with the current Act. The role of Framing Player (and control of The Weird) passes clockwise. The new Framing Player chooses an available Question, and play continues.

If 3 Question Cards have been flipped, that’s the end of the Act! There’s a short intermission where the players get to check in and see if the story is proceeding satisfactorily.

The Intermission Card after Act I, asking questions like "Does the story need to be more grounded or heightened?"
The Intermission Card to be used after Act I.

The game ends at the end of the third Act. There’s a short Denouement scene to close things off, and then the players have told their Weird Story!

Designing the game

I’d always wanted to make a game in which players told these kinds of stories. But I’d never designed any kind of RPG before, story or otherwise. I’d played plenty of them – Fiasco, Microscope, InSpectres, Lady Blackbird, Apocalypse World, Spirit of the Century, The Quiet Year, and Hearts Blazing, to name a few. But I never thought I’d design one.

Also, to be honest, I always leaned towards story games. I can understand why folks like more tactical, map-and-dice RPGs, but I always started zoning out after the third or fourth round of combat. I’ve always been more interested in creating a story with my friends than embellishing a tactical wargame with narrative flair (nothing wrong with it, just not my jam).

So one evening, as I drove up to Granite Game Summit (a fantastic convention in New Hampshire), an idea about how to implement this game mechanically just popped into my head. And with that, I had the sinking feeling that all game designers know; it was now mine. I had to make this game.

I playtest the game for the first time in April 2019, with a small group of industry friends. The test was a bit rough, as these tests always are, but there was a lot of promise. The game worked very differently, though.

First off, each player had their own “Subject” that they controlled. Of course, the Singularities are what eventually became The Weird, and the first playtest showed that each player controlling their own Weird was too much.

Multiple Subjects/Weirds was an adjustment I made immediately after the first playtest. But I also had players create characters at the start of the game, with an interesting twist; character creation was shared. Players would write in a bit of the character’s information, and then pass the character sheet clockwise. They’d then put in a new bit on the character sheet they just received. That meant that players had a hand in creating most, if not all, of the Characters in the game.

Related to that change was that after each scene, the Characters themselves rotated between players! Each player would get to play each Character multiple times.

I was really attached to these mechanisms of rotating Character creation and play, and they hung around for over a year. I enjoyed the dynamics that came out of them; they let the players share in the character creation, and they provided enough distance between Character and player that players didn’t feel bad doing horrible things to the Characters. Weird Stories is, in the words of designer Raph D’Amico, a “play-to-lose” game, so doing horrible things to the Characters is vital to the game working!

But eventually, I got too many complaints from players that the mechanism was distracting from play. In theory, I didn’t mind players feeling a bit disoriented and ungrounded; but in practice, it wasn’t serving the game. So I sadly removed it from the game, and things got much better from there.

The Prompt Cards were originally Effect Cards that players had in hand, and played on other people. But I found that having these cards in hand meant that players would play them on each other constantly, which pushed the story into nonsense-ville very quickly.

In fact, this was something I would struggle with for much of the game’s design process: how to encourage players to make weird things happen in the story, while still keeping the story grounded and interesting? For a long time, the story that came out of the game was almost cartoonish, if players weren’t consciously working past the game’s incentives to heighten things, and deliberately attempting to ground the story instead.

This is, of course, where the Questions came in. At first, these were 10 questions, revealed one-at-a time. But players wanted a bit more control over the narrative, so I split the action into 3 acts, and came up with a bunch of Questions that they could choose from at the start of a scene.

The last change that really made an impact were the Settings Packs. Originally, players always created everything at the start of the game: they came up with the setting, the Weird, and the Characters. Like character generation in most games, this took a large amount of time and energy.

I wondered what the game would be like with pregens. Excellent, it turned out! Players got to the gameplay more quickly, did not need as much guidance during setup, and felt like they were focusing their attention on the more exciting things, like making weird things happen.

It was a good RPG design lesson; there’s a limit to the amount of cognitive load players can handle. It’s not a hard limit, where players will pack up the game once you exceed a precisely-defined value; it’s squishier than that. At a certain point, players will find the process more laborious than interesting, and as a game designer, we have to find exactly when we want players to do the work and when we can abstract things away for them.

Overall, making this game was a wonderful change after making crunchier games like High Rise. Making a board game is so didactic; it’s me telling players that they must do these things to have a good time. But RPG rules feel far more lax; I feel like I’m whispering softly in a player’s ear that if they do this thing, they’ll probably enjoy it.

I’m also indebted to the folks who helped with the game visuals. The striking front cover is courtesy of artist Ibon Adarne, the back cover is from painter Aron Wiesenfeld. Travis Kinchy, who did all the illustrations for The Networks series of games, handled all the other drawings. And Amber Seger is responsible for graphic design of the front and back cover and the cards.

Will I ever design another RPG? Who knows? But Weird Stories was a blast, and I hope you get to try it soon!

What I hope to see in future virtual game conventions

Image credit: WikiMedia user Piotrus, GFDL & CC-BY-SA-2.5

I’ve just wrapped up my second virtual tabletop game convention, Gen Con Online. I’ve already done Virtual Gaming Con a few weeks ago. I was also involved in the planning of Origins Online before that show went pear-shaped. With that experience under my belt, I wanted to share some thoughts about how those went, and how I would love to see virtual game conventions change over the next few months.

First, I want to get a couple of things out of the way. Putting on a convention, virtual or physical, is an incredible amount of work. Once Origins went poof, VGC had the challenge of making a first-of-its-kind tabletop gaming convention with no real template to work from. Gen Con could use VGC’s precedents, but had to deliver an experience that would measure up to what con-goers are used to seeing in-person in Indianapolis every summer.

Also, every interaction I had with Gen Con staff was overwhelmingly positive. The Gen Con folks care deeply about their convention, and it showed in everything they did. I appreciate their patience, thoughtfulness, and grace in everything they did.

So I want to make it clear that in no way am I trying to say how either Gen Con or VGC erred, or screwed up, or did anything other than put tremendous thought, labor, and love into their virtual conventions. Putting on a physical show similar to what you did last year is already a tremendous amount of work. Putting on a virtual show with no real prior precedent just adds to the pressure.

Instead, this is a Monday morning quarterback, 20/20 hindsight kind of post. The stuff I’m going to point out here isn’t obvious stuff that people should have known before the show; it’s subtle, emergent stuff that only comes out after the hard work of putting the show on is done. Writing this article is far easier than running a convention.

Second, I know there are a bunch of folks who dislike virtual conventions. But the reality of the matter is that for the next year or so, virtual conventions will be all that we can do. Few things in the gaming world are more irresponsible than holding an in-person convention right now.

Not to mention, virtual conventions have some significant benefits over in-person conventions. They are far more accessible; many folks cannot attend physical conventions because of money issues, because they can’t get time off of work, or because it means they wouldn’t be able to take care of a sick or young family member. Also, there are people in parts of the world that don’t get large, Gen Con-sized conventions, so a virtual convention, where time zones and technology are their only barriers, is a fantastic solution.

So what can we do to make virtual gaming conventions better?

VGC, Gen Con, and Origins all had a similar setup. They were split into three parts:

  • A central hub, implemented in Discord, where people would gather to play games. (Gen Con handled this a bit differently; details below)
  • A seminar/panel track, with public panels implemented on Twitch, and private panels implemented on Zoom.
  • A vendor hall, implemented as a web-based interactive map that users could click on to get static information and links to web pages and informative videos. (VGC handled this differently; details below.)

The necessity of centralization

This gets to my biggest issue with virtual conventions, as they’re implemented right now: they are too decentralized. A convention is, at its lexical and literal heart, a place where people convene. It’s a place where we serendipitously bump into people we haven’t seen in years. It’s a place where we meet old friends and make new friends, where we go out to dinner at local restaurants to catch up and talk about stuff.

None of that stuff is possible at a virtual convention right now.

We joke that conventions are a place where we see a friend in passing, shout “hello” and “I’ll talk to you later” at each other, and never see each other again. But even that experience is missing.

In our annual Ludology Live episode at Gen Con (which we streamed on Twitch this year), Emma, Scott, and I mentioned how we were missing the delight of previous conventions. Walking the vendor hall, seeing eye-popping booths (like Big Potato’s Blockbuster booth from Gen Con last year, or the Exploding Kittens human-powered vending machine), passing cosplayers showing off the spectacular costumes they’ve been working on all year, watching the hot new game that people have been whispering about excitedly. All those moments are delightful, and you only get them through a centralized experience.

Centralizing the vendor hall

Having seen Origins’ plan for online vendor hall, looking at SPIEL’s plan for their vendor hall, and trying out Gen Con’s vendor hall, I have to say: a browseable web experience is no substitute for a real vendor hall.

Browsing a web page with icons, static links, and videos is like browsing a catalog. It’s a passive, solitary experience. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but in the context of a convention, it is a poor substitute for the real thing.

Furthermore, as a publisher, I wasn’t able to get a booth for the show this year. That was a bit of a bummer at first, but once I saw the “Looking Glass” web page, which was the stand-in for the vendor hall… I felt oddly relieved.

Like I mentioned above, I didn’t have too many problems with the implementation of this in and of itself. Other people have commented on how they don’t like the visual design (I heard the name “fart cloud” used more than once), but my problems weren’t there.

Instead, my biggest issue was that, if I had a 10×10 booth at the show, that would have translated to an avatar in this map roughly the size of my smallest toenail. I have publisher friends who have felt in the past that Gen Con takes their small exhibitors for granted, and if I didn’t know otherwise, this would fall right in line with that pattern.

When I saw this map, I felt relief that I didn’t have to spend any time on a presence on a digital map that I’d need calipers to measure. If I’m Gen Con and I’m reading about a potential exhibitor’s reaction to seeing the map they’re not on, relief is not how I’d want them to feel. Instead, I’d want them to feel regret, jealousy, and a determination to be there next year.

Keep in mind, SPIEL will be charging 600€ for the smallest “booth” in their online map. I was already disinclined to pay for this before Gen Con, and even though SPIEL will likely be better about making their smallest exhibitors visible, I don’t see any way that I’m making that 600€ back, in any way.

This is because, as I wrote before, browsing this map is a passive experience. It’s not really interactive from a personal sense. You’re not getting face time with anyone, nor are you meeting anyone new.

Also, take a look at the avatars in the screen, and compare it to the experience you get walking by the Exploding Kittens booth:

There’s no sense of delight with an online map of vendors. It’s such a constrained system. The experience is more of browsing a catalog. And again, I don’t think that’s a bad thing on its own, but as a substitute for a vendor hall, I think it turns into a source of disappointment.

What I’d like to see instead is what VGC did: fold the vendor hall into the main gaming experience. Namely, instead of buying a booth, each vendor buys their own set of voice and text channels in the convention’s Discord server. Con-goers can drop into these to talk to booth staff, and to get demos of their games.

One criticism of VGC was that it had an enormous amount of voice and text channels, almost overwhelming the attendees. I can understand this criticism, and I wonder if putting channels into more categories (like every 10 tables gets its own category) would be a way to make this more intimidating, especially if we could convince attendees to collapse all categories (hiding tables) they weren’t interested in.

A more radical solution would be to implement the vendor hall as its own Discord server. This might have the effect of splitting the show and decentralizing it again. But with proper messaging and branding, it might work.

Discord has an excellent screen-sharing feature which I think works very well here; the booth staff shares their game window, so people dropping by the “booth” (voice channel) get to watch and listen to the game being played without needing to open a program or go to a web page. At VGC, we sometimes had 5 people watching our game of High Rise at some points. It was a really lovely way to handle a demo.

One thing conventions would need to be cognizant of is of publishers routing attendees to their own Discord servers. I think this hurts our convention paradigm, as it pulls people out of the “building,” as it were. Gen Con had a bot that aggressively removed links to other Discord servers (and publishers would be warned ahead of time that they would face disciplinary action for pulling people into external servers for con demos). While I have some thoughts about that, in this context, I think it would be a reasonable way to work.

Centralizing the seminar experience

Many conventions have a track of panels and seminars. Virtual conventions have utilized a couple of solutions: Twitch for large-scale, public events, and Zoom for small-scale private events. For this article, I’ll stick with Twitch as my example of a livestream platform, but YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter all have livestream functionality that are now reasonable competitors.

Modern livestreaming is amazing technology, and it lets us connect in ways we’ve never been able to before. And the nice thing about streaming during a convention is the sheer, overwhelming quantity of streams coming at us. A lot of these streams are very well-produced, as well; these days, anyone with a free copy of OBS, a good webcam, and good lighting can make something that looks amazing for everyone.

Twitch is also made really well for seminars or panels, as it’s designed to amplify mainly the voices of the principals. Viewers can interact via a chat, but their visibility is far lesser, which is an excellent way to implement a talk.

Zoom is a little trickier. It was designed as meeting software, so at its root, all participants are equal. Meeting organizers can mass-mute the audience, which makes it a bit better. But it doesn’t scale nearly as well as Twitch.

This gets to the thorny issue of paid, ticketed events, which is how Gen Con handles many of its events. I bought a $12 ticket to an event that was effectively the screening of a film. This was done in Zoom to keep it private, and so only the ticketholders could watch (and assuming the participants did not share the Zoom link with others).

Unfortunately, Zoom was not designed with this use case in mind. Video playback was inconsistent; it frequently dropped frames or resolution fidelity, making on-screen text impossible to read. This isn’t really noticeable during a meeting, but it’s hard to deal with for a film.

This event would have been far better in Twitch, except that Twitch is, by its own nature, public. This particular event required a payment to cover the costs of the production, so I don’t think going free is a reasonable suggestion here. I wonder if the best answer here is to use Twitch’s built-in monetization function; for example, make the ticket free, but require viewers to subscribe to the channel. The issue here is that the channel receives very little of the subscription money, but if the numbers can work out somehow, this could be a better way to handle paid events.

This is something I’ve found in general, when trying to work a platform into a process. Some platforms are designed with a specific paradigm in mind. If you approach these platforms with another paradigm (for example, trying to apply a convention panel paradigm to Twitch), you could find yourself swimming upstream.

Instead, exploring the features of the platforms and adapting your paradigm to better use those features is often a far better way to adapt a platform into a process.

The other issue I have with livestreaming on Twitch as part of the event is that it adds to the decentralized, non-convening, and isolated feel of the show. I have to leave one paradigm (Discord) to watch events in a different paradigm (Twitch). This makes me feel like I’m switching between two different events.

I think the way around this is to host the streamed events the week before the gaming events. How exciting would it be to have a week of special Gen Con streams the week before the show? You’d put the focus of the whole event on Twitch, so everyone would share the same single paradigm. You’d build up excitement for the hot new games, so when the weekend rolled around, players would be excited to try the games for themselves (well, the virtual versions of the games, anyway).

Centralizing the gaming experience

The final piece of the puzzle is the central hub of the convention. Cons have been using Discord servers for this, and I think this is a decent way to go. Discord’s voice chat features are almost effortless to use (especially when using the downloadable client, not the web page), and its structure makes moderation relatively easy to use.

The big thing is that the whole convention must be in the same Discord server. This is vital for the convention to work – it’s what makes the convention feel like “convening,” instead of just a place to organize games.

I think this is where the Gen Con experience didn’t work great for me. Gen Con forbade gaming on their Discord server (with one exception, which I’ll get to). Instead, everyone who ran an event was responsible for running it on their own platform – Discord, Skype, Tabletop Simulator built-in chat, etc.

This meant that as you moved from text channel to another in Gen Con’s Discord, you saw… no gaming. People talking about games, maybe planning games, asking for help with games, but no gaming.

This is so far removed from the in-person Gen Con experience, it’s almost breathtaking. Gen Con is predicated on gaming. Gen Con Online kept gaming very far out of sight, almost as if it was a shameful, unsavory thing.

Furthermore, Gen Con was very strict about not allowing people to post links to external Discords. I had recommended that above, but with the assumption that all gaming for the convention would happen within the Discord server. Since this wasn’t the case with Gen Con, there was no way to really see where the gaming was happening. It was hidden in various remote Discords, none of which were easily available to the passers-by.

Even worse, as a publisher, if I mention a game on a stream, I want to be able to show it off. One of the sour notes of the conventions was when I demoed High Rise on the BGG stream, and then attempted to post a link to my Discord so that players could come by and ask for a demo. However, Gen Con’s Twitch streams do not allow non-mods to post links, and I wasn’t even able to whisper (direct-message) the URL to a moderator.

No problem, I thought, I’ll just post my link in the Gen Con Discord. And this is how I found out about Gen Con’s aggressive ban on external Discord invites.

We eventually communicated the URL to the Twitch moderators, and the Gen Con staff (who were extremely helpful and responsive through the whole show) decided afterwards to allow people to post links on the streaming channels.

But this incident speaks to how Gen Con’s setup puts barriers up against the very thing it’s supposed to facilitate: setting up games with people. We are not allowed to play games in the server (other than the open gaming area, but that had some weirdness – see below), but we’re also not allowed to post links to places where people can play games. It felt strange, like we were not supposed to do the very thing we’re there to do.

One of my favorite things to do at conventions is to walk the floor and look at what everyone is playing. That was impossible at this year’s Gen Con. The gaming was hidden behind a locked door. That felt isolating and lonely.

I mentioned an exception to the ban on gaming in the Gen Con Discord. Here it is: Gen Con did allow for open gaming. It was a little complicated to use; you needed to go to a specific channel and assign yourself the !player role. Doing that gave you access to the open gaming voice channels, and would allow other people to tag you as they looked for games.

If you had asked me before the show what I thought of this, I would have said, “That sounds reasonable, and it’s Gen Con, so those tables will likely be full all the time.” Wrong! I checked on those voice channels repeatedly, and they were always empty. Like a ghost town. I tried to join a game once; I had a pleasant conversation with another gamer as we waited for a third for a game that required three players.

We waited for 30 minutes. No one came, other than one person who joined us, and then immediately left. Strange.

The failure of the open gaming tables baffles me. Perhaps people found the role self-assignments confusing? Or perhaps the con’s decentralized nature meant that people just assumed they’d be playing games on external servers?

Without the critical mass of gamers, there was no open gaming. I saw some publishers trying to get players to play games on the open gaming channels, but they never seemed to go off. It seems that if you weren’t playing a scheduled game, you weren’t playing a game. That seems wrong to me, almost the opposite of what a convention should be.

What could be

It’s hard to talk about the potential of online conventions without getting into wild imaginings of the ultimate virtual convention. This would be a show that would be held entirely in a VR space, like Second Life. For example, you’d model the Indiana Convention Center in VR, and the players would all dress themselves in custom avatars and walk from place to place in the show. Panels could be represented by one avatar chatting in a special room with special voice privileges, and the vendor room would feature graphics that each exhibitor would come up with themselves.

This approach would have so many benefits: it would restore delight to the convention. It would allow for a form of cosplay – not anything like the real thing, of course, but people could freely imagine their visual appearance, and that’s part of the spectacle of the show. And mostly, it would feel like people “convening.” It would be a convention, in the literal sense of the word.

The reason we don’t see this, of course, is because of the technical issues. This space would be tricky to implement, even without the needs of panels and the vendor hall. Making it accessible to vision-impaired people would be a challenge. And making it friendly to people who are not technically inclined (remember, most people who aren’t used to video games struggle with standard console controllers) would be a formidable challenge; it’s hard enough to make it work for programmers!

This is why I’m advocating for a Discord-based solution. Discord presents a way that players can interact with each other via text and voice, and it’s fairly simple to pick up. Maybe someday we’ll have a VR-based solution that would be realistic for a virtual convention, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

To sum up

Overall, I would like to see these changes to online conventions:

  1. Run the convention within a single Discord server.
  2. Run all panels and seminars on Twitch the week before the convention.
  3. Implement the vendor hall as a series of voice and text channels that vendors would purchase.
  4. Keep all gaming within the same Discord server. Do not allow invites to external servers.

Online conventions are still such a new thing, and who knows? Maybe I’ll change my mind in the next few months. But I’d love to see these changes implemented. And I’d love to know what you think!

Announcing a new tool for gaming: Check-In Cards

I’ve been spending the past few months working on a few secret projects, and today is the day I finally unveil one of them!

The weird thing is: this is not really a game.

Check-In Cards is a tool you’ll use before you start playing a game to check in with the other players. It’s especially useful around strangers, or people you’ve never played with before, but it can come in handy with your regular gaming group as well.

Here’s how it works. Everyone takes four cards. One half of each card shows an Energy level, and the other half shows an Intensity level.

Everyone rotates their cards so the Energy half is on top, and then everyone plays a card that indicates how much energy they are feeling as a person at that moment.

If anyone plays a low-energy card, check in with them! See if they’re okay playing the next game. They might need a break, or a snack.

If everyone’s energy levels are okay, then rotate your cards to the Intensity side, and play a card that corresponds to how intensely you want to play the next game. An intensity level of 1 means that you don’t care if you win (like a party game), and/or that you don’t want the game to be emotionally impactful. An intensity level of 4 means that you’re very invested in winning this game (like a tournament), and/or that you want the feelings from the game to linger long after the game is over.

If there are any differences of 2 or more in the cards played, then you should all agree to an intensity level that everyone is okay playing with. Some players may need to get slightly more invested in the game, while other players may need to play less competitively or emotionally.

I’ve tested Check-In Cards with both RPGs and board games, and I’m happy to say it works equally well in either respect. The definition of “intensity” changes a bit from one style of game to another, but the general idea still holds.

Check-In Cards is designed to surface differences in play within the same play group. However, it’s not designed to solve them. Only a group that checks in with each other and discusses how they’re feeling can really answer these problems.

I don’t expect people to use Check-In Cards before every game. My goal is to formalize a check-in procedure before playing something, and to get into the habit of getting in touch with yourself to figure out how you feel and what you want from the game.

I also want to socialize the idea that not everyone wants to play the same game the same way, and to let people know that it’s okay to agree on a play style before starting on a game.

Finally, playing a card is much easier than breaking the flow of a game night by saying you’re tired or hungry, especially in a new group. Check-In Cards gives you permission to not feel 100%, and to communicate how you feel to everyone else.

None of the cards are “wrong” to play, as long as you’re playing them honestly. A card showing you’re out of energy is good and valid, as are the Intensity 1 or 4 cards, or any other cards. The important thing is that everyone knows how everyone else feels, and can make accommodations for them.

About the look and idea

I’m so happy with how Check-In Cards looks! That’s all courtesy of illustrator Rachel Kremer from the webcomic Semi-Coop, and graphic designer Scott Hartman, who did graphic design for Bad Medicine and Wordsy, as well as creating the now-iconic Formal Ferret logo.

I came up with the idea for this tool back in October of 2019, on my way home from the Spiel show in Essen. I was influenced by two things: a conversation my friend Bebo had on a podcast in which she suggested a set of cards people could use to indicate how they feel before starting a game, and the “check-in” process from the excellent (and sadly defunct) podcast Greatway Games, where Erin, Adrienne, and Nicole would check in with each other at the start of each episode to see how they feel.

I’ve been testing this tool for half a year since then, and I’ve gotten some amazing results. One player watched a late-night RPG session, and admitted that he would have left 5 minutes into the game; but his playing the “Empty” energy card gave him permission to be tired at the table, and he stuck around for close to an hour instead.

Some people insist they will only ever play Intensity level 4, which is fine, as long as the rest of the group is fine with it! The idea is to surface these play styles and make them explicit before the game even starts.

How to get Check-In Cards

Check-In Cards is currently available through Drive-Thru Cards. You can get it as a PDF, or as physical cards. Note that the physical cards may take a few weeks to arrive, as COVID-19 is slowing down DTC’s production.

If you are in the UK or the EU and you want physical cards, you can order them from Ivory, a UK-based print-on-demand service.

I hope this tool will help you communicate with your fellow game players! I mentioned a lot of ways that Check-In Cards helps your play with strangers, but it should go without saying: at the time of this writing, you should not be playing Check-In Cards, and you should not be playing any game, with any strangers in-person, until there’s scientific and medical consensus that public gatherings are safe again.

Wishing health, happiness, safety, and peace to all my Formal Ferret friends, fans, and followers!

The next 2 games from Formal Ferret: The Rival Networks and Weird Stories

With High Rise going to the printer soon, I’m back to the design stage with a couple of new projects. I’ve been hinting at them for a while, so it’s exciting to finally get a chance to formally unveil them!

DISCLAIMER: I’m about to discuss some working details of two prototypes whose designs are very much works-in-progress. So these details might be volatile, and subject to change in the future. I think they’re solid enough that they won’t change too much, but I can’t guarantee that anything I mention here won’t be different by the time you try it!

The Rival Networks

 First off, we have The Rival Networks, which I’m working on with co-designer JR Honeycutt (UPDATE AS OF NOVEMBER 15, 2019: I’ve asked JR to leave this project. I stand against sexual harassment and abuse). This is a scaled-down 2-player version of The Networks that is playable in about 15 minutes. We’re aiming for about a $20 price point.

This is the first Formal Ferret game that I’m not designing alone! The game was JR’s idea, and he and I have been chipping away at it for about a year on and off.

Like the original Networks game, you’re trying to score the most Viewers by drafting Shows. When you draft a Show, you’ll immediately put it on one of your three timeslots with optional Stars. If your Show matches its timeslot, you’ll get a 1-Viewer “Hot” bonus. You’ll immediately score Viewers for that Show.

When you get a Show, you might also get a Star at the same time. Your Stars will add Viewers to your Shows, but each Star is limited to 1-2 Genres they can participate in, and you can only put a Star on a Show with a matching Genre. You immediately score Viewers for Stars you put on Shows.

There’s an End-of-Season card that comes out from the deck of Shows after each player has taken 2 turns. If you take the End-Of-Season card, you’ll trigger the end of the Season. At this point, you’ll compare the Shows at each timeslot. If your Show gets more Viewers than your opponent’s, you’ll get bonus Viewers. You’ll both remove your Hot tokens from your Shows, and whichever Show won its timeslot gets a “Cold” token on it; it’s now worth 2 fewer Viewers if it survives to the end of next season.

Just like the base game, if you ever get 3 Shows of the same Genre, you get a Genre Bonus. In this version of the game, the bonus is different based on which Genre you got the bonus in. This leads to different strategies and varied play in each game.

The game ends after 3 Seasons. The player with the most Viewers wins.

The Rival Networks will have a small expansion that will likely be released at the same time. This expansion brings in Ads, Network Cards, and Executives. Just like the Networks: Executives expansion, these Executives will give you a special ongoing power for the whole game. Also, every time you get a Star, you’ll get an Ad, which is worth a certain amount of money. You can spend Ads on Network Cards, which will get you a strong one-time power.

This small expansion will add additional depth to the game. You’ll only see a few Network Cards and Executives each game, so it will add a bunch of extra variance.

I’m not 100% sure of the timeline of the game yet. I’d love to Kickstart it by early next year, but I can’t promise you that it’ll be my next Kickstarter project. I’ll know more by the end of the year!

What excites me about The Rival Networks is its potential to introduce the family of Networks games to people who may be intimidated by the base game’s complexity. For a hobbyist board gamer, The Networks is an approachable middleweight game. But The Rival Networks is much easier to teach and play, and will have a lower price. This will make it attractive to folks outside the board game hobby, and hopefully get them more into board games in general!

Weird Stories

I’m just as excited about Weird Stories, which presents a departure for me; it’s my first roleplaying game!

Weird Stories is a light storytelling RPG for 2-4 players, with a depth and complexity similar to Fiasco and Microscope, two games I adore. The game will let players tell stories similar to the books of Haruki Murkami or Jeff VanDeMeer, the films of David Lynch, or the TV series Lost. In other words, you’ll be going through a mysterious story without ever fully understanding what’s fully going on. By the end of the story, your characters will meet their destinies, but you still won’t have a full explanation of – or even words to describe – what happened.

I love these kinds of stories, and I’ve been wanting to make a game about them for a while. I think these stories have a way of swerving around my frontal lobes and digging straight into my subconscious. After a few playtests, I can tell Weird Stories can be surreal, creepy, dreamlike, allegorical, and skin-crawling, sometimes all at the same time. But the stories you’ll make with it will always be varied and memorable.

Here’s how it works. Each player will create a “Singularity” – a mysterious thing that appears to be a location or an object. You’ll have full storytelling control over anything that happens to your Singularity during the story.

There will also be one human Character in the story for each player in the game. However, no single player controls a Character for the full game. Instead, you’ll assign Characters to different players at the start of each scene, and share control of them throughout the game.

At the start of each Scene, you’ll have one Guide; that role will rotate to the next player at the start of each scene. Starting with the Guide, the players will all choose a Character or Singularity to include in the scene.  Then, the Guide will establish the scene, and the players will begin the scene. (There’s a few more things that happen there, but that’s the general gist.)

During a scene, any player has full narrative agency over the Character or Singularity they are controlling. If a Character interacts with a Singularity, then the Singularity has full narrative agency.

The game comes with a set number of Effect Cards; each player gets 2 to start the game. The Effect Cards all feature a weird event that can happen in the game. Anyone controlling a Singularity can play an Effect Card and explain how it changes the scene.

Anytime someone plays an Effect Card, the game’s Weirdness Level increases. If the Weirdness hits a certain threshold, then before the next scene, all players can reveal an Effect Card simultaneously and have them twist the story in some interesting way.

The game ends when the Weirdness Level hits a certain threshold. At the end of that scene, you’ll go through a denouement where you’ll summarize the remaining open questions that each character has. There’s no winner or loser; you’re just trying to tell a ripping story.

I’m not certain of the timeline of this game either. There might be a Kickstarter in its future, but I’ll probably release it as a PDF/POD game before then.

When can I try these games?

I’ll be at Geekway to the West, UK Games Expo, and Origins. I’ll set up a signup form for Weird Stories tests at Geekway in a few days; you can sign up for my newsletter or follow me on Twitter or Facebook to learn when those slots open up. The Rival Networks is quick enough that we can probably schedule ad-hoc tests for it.

I’ll do something similar for UKGE and Origins, but I won’t be showing either game at my booth there; that’s for my published and soon-to-be-published games! Instead, I will probably schedule time to test them when I’m away from the booth. Of course, with both games still actively being designed, I can’t promise they’ll be in perfect shape when you see them. But they’re doing well enough that I’m excited to announce them.

I hope to show them to you soon!

No, victory points don’t suck

UPDATE: I’ve updated this article since it was first published, to correct two stupid mistakes.

The first stupid mistake is that I misspelled Scott’s name throughout. It’s Westerfeld, not Westerfield. Darn my old eyes!

The second stupid mistake is that I had thought the Ludology vs. Narratology debate fizzled after a few years. But friends told me my understanding is incorrect. So I’ve updated the text to reflect that.

One more clarification: I don’t want this post to sound like I’m gatekeeping. While I make the point that game designers are best qualified to talk about game design in a seminar like this, I feel that a) anyone can be a game designer, so long as they design games (at any stage of completion), and b) there’s nothing wrong with non-designer critics discussing games, so long as they don’t start giving seminars about the “right” way to design games from a designer’s perspective.

To that last point, I’ve told a couple of people that it’s taken me over a decade of design work to learn all the things I know now about game design from a designer’s perspective, and I’m still learning every day. So I don’t think it’s helpful for non-designers to tell us designers how to approach our games from a nuts-and-bolts mechanical perspective. Again, criticism from non-designers about the experience of playing games or of specific mechanisms is really valuable, but when it starts to get into the nitty-gritty of design detail, that’s probably best handled by an expert.

Here’s the article!

Hi, my name is Gil Hova. Thank you for inviting me to talk at this writer’s convention. Now, I’m not a writer. I’m a game designer. But I read a lot of books. I’ve been reading my whole life! And I went to college for creative writing, but I dropped out before getting my degree.

Anyway, I want to tell you about writing. I hate stories that make me feel bad. When I read stories, I want to feel good. So I think all you writers should stop writing stories that make me feel bad. I think that’s terrible writing. 

Please stop making terrible stories that make me feel bad and write better stories that make me feel good.

Thank you for coming to my talk!

Okay, the above talk is pretty silly, for a number of reasons. It’s an obvious straw man, of course, and it doesn’t capture much nuance of what I’m about to discuss. But it’s what’s on my mind right now.

You see, there is a video of a talk by Scott Westerfeld at SHUX ’18 entitled Victory Points Suck. In it, he discusses why he doesn’t enjoy games with victory points. I’ve watched his talk, and I have quite a few thoughts.

Westerfeld’s premise is that victory points (VPs) sap enjoyment of a game by introducing tedious accounting into what should be a riveting climax. A lot of folks have made this talk viral recently, and I’m concerned. While I agree with much of Westerfeld’s talk, I think he takes things too far and misses a lot of detail, especially from a designer’s perspective.

Westerfeld disclaims at the start of his talk that he’s not a game designer, but a writer. His talk is very firmly from a writer’s perspective. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing, except he’s giving game design advice in absolutes.

As a game designer, I’d never think to give writing advice, especially in absolutes! So I figure I should provide a rebuttal to Westerfield’s talk from someone who can speak about VPs from a design point of view.

There’s a lot about Westerfeld’s talk that I agree with. VPs can be boring and abstracted. If you’re someone who prefers games with a strong narrative appeal, you’ll find them tedious and anticlimactic. They can be too incremental, too granular.

And I’ll admit that I have a horse in this race: Almost all the games I have ever designed use VPs. And a lot of games I love also use VPs. I don’t think it’s the only way to make games, and I’m sure there are games in my future that won’t have VP. But I’m fine with VPs in the games I play and design.

And I mean no ill will towards Westerfeld, who seems to be a passionate game fan who has his share of knowledge. He’s an excellent speaker, and although I sadly haven’t read any of his books yet, I would expect him to be an outstanding writer.

My issue is that I think Westerfeld went too far. He titles the talk “Victory Points Suck.” He’s not saying he dislikes games with VP. He says that games with VP are objectively flawed. He says VP are “a kind of madness.” He feels that VP are poor game design.

Now: I know a few designers who specifically avoid VP in games they design. They agree with the premise that VP can pull players away from a game’s visceral appeal.

But I know these designers will not tell you that you should slam VP into a car trunk and drive the car off a pier. They know that the world of board games are vast, and there are many ways to enjoy them. They even enjoy games with VP. To didactically announce that one engine that powers board games is bad – not flawed, or with limitations, but objectively bad – is absolutely absurd.

Yet that’s the point that Westerfeld keeps driving home. And I have a lot of problems with it.

Orthogames, Part I

Most board games are orthogames – they are games with an objective, clearly-defined outcome. Orthogames have winners and losers.

Westerfeld rails against victory conditions towards the end of his talk, talking about the absurdity of the concept of victory. “There are no victories in life,” he says. That’s absolutely correct!

You know what I don’t like? Musicals. I generally don’t enjoy the music in most musicals, and there’s the whole idea of people going about their business, and suddenly bursting into song. I mean, that’s not realistic, right? Just as Westerfield points out that there are no victories in life, people also do not randomly burst into song in public. (Well, most people don’t.)

But of course, a lot of people I’m close to in my life are huge fans of musicals, and so my view on them has softened over the years. Because musical fans enjoy the artifice. They enjoy the music, and they accept the premise that these characters do randomly burst into song. They have accepted the contract of the form of the musical; that characters will sing their feelings, often in a lovely way.

Likeways, when people sit down to play an orthogame, they are accepting the artifice of the game ending in victories and losses. Sometimes the whole table wins or loses as a group; other times, there’s one winner; and in a few games, there’s one loser. That’s what we’re signing up for; it’s what we expect.

Westerfeld discusses his experience in a game of Root, in which he, as the Vagabond, formed an alliance with the Cats. He was dismayed when he found that, in order to win, he had to betray the Cats. Part of his disappointment stemmed from his struggles to contextualize this betrayal into a coherent narrative.

I’m a little surprised by this, as to me, the narrative is pretty familiar: there is room for only one tail on the throne, which makes late-game betrayal inevitable. Surely there’s room in your story for some dramatic political intrigue?

The larger issue is that Westerfeld is a player who derives enormous pleasure from figuring out emergent narrative from a story. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s a popular way to enjoy a game.

But the problem is, in the context of Westerfeld’s talk, it’s the only way to enjoy a game. And just as it would be absurd of me to stand in front of a bunch of writers and tell them that the kinds of stories I enjoy are the only kinds they should write, it’s absurd for someone to tell me that the way they enjoy games is the only proper way to enjoy a game.

Objective flaw vs. subjective tastes

As I mentioned before, games are vast, and there are many ways to enjoy them. And the gamer who “rigorously calculates player optimization” is indeed enjoying the game! There is a joy in losing yourself to the abstracted pulleys and gears of an efficiency game. It’s not for everyone, but it’s also not for no one.

The experience that Root provided is the experience it was supposed to provide. As a game that allows alliances but only permits one winner, it expects alliances to break. It is modeled after counter-insurgency games. It’s meant to be political.

It’s okay to not like Root. It’s not okay to frame your dislike of the game’s deliberate construction as an objective fault of the game.

To me, this reveals an enormous truth about working in a creative field like games. It is vital to be able to tell the difference between a game that needs improvement and a game that’s not to one’s taste.

That’s a really important sentence, so let me repeat it in boldface.

It is vital to be able to tell the difference between a game that needs improvement and a game that’s not to one’s taste.

This is not an easy skill to acquire. It takes a long time to get the hang of. For me, it took years, and I still don’t think I’m 100% there. But I would never go onstage to tell people to present my preferred play style as the only objective truth.

Ludology vs. Narratology

I really like Quantic Foundry’s player psychographic profile. They divide 12 motiviations into 6 different categories. One of these categories, Immersion, contains Fantasy and Story, which seems to be Westerfeld’s jam (as well as a ton of other gamers!). But also there is the category of Mastery, which contains Challenge and Strategy. Also there is Achievement, which contains Power and Completion.

Challenge and Strategy are things that exist in games that do not exist in other kinds of media. They only exist through interaction. You don’t find Challenge or Strategy in a book. You don’t really find the same kind of Power or Completion in a book either (although finishing a really long, dense book does offer both Power and Completion for the reader, I don’t think it maps well for our example!).

Games are not books. Games are not movies. They work differently. They do different things. I wrote about this when I discussed the ill-fated public Monopoly board in my town. There are going to be some features of books and movies that you can bring over to games, but there a lot of rules that won’t apply either.

This is the old Ludology vs. Narratology argument. Should we look at games with the same tools that we use to study other forms of media and art? Should we invent new ways to look at them?

I don’t think it’s useless to study games with the same tools that we use to study other media. But we should do so with the knowledge that those perspectives are going to be limited at times. Games are a new form of media. At some point, we will need to use different lenses to better understand them.

Interactivity and opacity

In his talk, Westerfeld uses an example of two fictional people, Mario and Lei-Win (I hope I’m spelling her name correctly) who compete to make the most money over their lifetimes. He goes through the story, describing how boring the accounting at the end is. And again, it’s a point with merit.

The problem with this analogy is that he’s forgetting that games are an interactive medium. The audience of the game is not us; the audience is Mario and Lei-Win. Whether it’s exciting for us is irrelevant (spectator sports aside; most commercial games are not designed to be watched by an audience, for better or worse). The important thing is that it’s exciting for them.

And he assumes it’s not… but is it? Are you sure? He goes through the example of a basketball game where the score is kept hidden and only revealed at the end… forgetting that there are sports like figure skating where the tension of waiting for the judge’s score is a central part of the experience.

Opacity and scoring revealed at the end can be interesting and fun. But it’s going to be interesting in a different way than another kind of scoring. Just like how you don’t go into figure skating expecting to see brutal body checking, you aren’t going to play Gaia Project for the riveting narrative. You play it for the deep, fascinating decisions you’ll have to make.

This gets us back to subjectivity. Perhaps you don’t like figure skating. Perhaps you look askance at any sport with judging. Perhaps you don’t enjoy it. That’s understandable. But to tell millions of figure skating fans around the world that their tastes are objectively wrong is a stupid thing to do. Remember:

It is vital to be able to tell the difference between a game that needs improvement and a game that’s not to one’s taste.

The game arc

Westerfeld goes on to reframe the story as Mario and Lei-Win racing to Mars. His point is that by reframing their contest as a race to a single condition (getting to Mars) instead of achieving the highest score (most money), he’s able to tell a more dramatic story.

And there’s a strong truth to this. Westerfeld is 100% right in that a game that frames victory as a condition that can be achieved, rather than points gained in a granular, incremental fashion, usually tells a more vibrant and visceral story.

But again, there are problems. Because there’s a reason many games use VP instead of wholesale conditions.

Once you frame victory as a condition instead of granular points, there are a lot of gameplay elements that become a lot harder. For example, multiple paths to victory are much easier to implement with VP than without. I’m not saying that they’re easy to implement with VP, or impossible to implement without. But it’s much easier for players to explore different strategic paths if they’re chasing VP, rather than at some point merging paths in order to collect the same MacGuffin.

Note that term “strategic paths.” Again, we’re focusing on a type of game here. Lots of games don’t tell traditional stories; instead, they invite players into different ways of interacting with their systems. It doesn’t follow the typical flow of action rising to a climax, like a novel does. That’s because it’s a game, and not a novel.

Instead of focusing on making a story arc, the game’s designer is focusing on a “game arc”: focusing on an opening with meaningful choices with immediate impacts, a midgame with lots of territory to explore, and an endgame that provides enough tension that players care about winning.

Games are not novels. They share some characteristics, but we shouldn’t expect them to follow the same rules.

Tweaking balance in a game is a lot more challenging without VP. Balance isn’t as important in some kinds of games (recall Peter Olatka’s infamous rallying cry in his Ludology interview: “Balance is for weenies”), but it’s essential in a skill-based game that features mastery of the game system as a core appeal.

Mathematically modeling the game is much easier with VP. Does that sentence seem boring and soulless to a non-game designer? Well, for some kinds of games, it’s how the sausage gets made. This detail may seem uninteresting to someone who’s never made a game. But it can be the thing that takes your game design from good to great. And it’s why, when you want to have a talk about game design, it’s best to have it done by a game designer.

Writers vs. Game Designers

I know that it’s a fashionable thing right now to look at game design as storytelling, and to look at game design as a way of telling stories.

But there’s no way around it: It’s not a game designer’s job to tell a story. Well, not directly, anyway. Rather, it’s a game designer’s job to create a system capable of telling stories that are always compelling, but not always the same.

Westerfeld’s revised story went into great detail and featured a dramatic ending. Which was fine! But… he didn’t describe a game. He described a story. A single story.

Here are other possible outcomes of Westerfeld’s revised story:

  • Mario’s rocket explodes on the launch pad during takeoff. Lei-Win cruises to victory.
  • Lei-Win struggles to build rockets that pass their firing test. Mario gets to Mars before she even takes off.
  • Lei-Win sells her rocket company to a private firm. They get to Mars before Mario does. Both sides claim victory. They wind up in court, and settle for an undisclosed amount of money.

None of these stories are as compelling as Westerfield’s story. But the issue is, as a writer, Westerfeld’s job is to look through all the possible stories, find the best one, and refine it until it’s as good as possible.

A game designer has a different task: we must focus on building an engine that is capable of generating Westerfield’s story, but also a bunch of other stories that are just as compelling, if not more (and hopefully better than the three I came up with).

I’m not going to say it’s a harder job; both have their challenges! But it is a different job. It requires different techniques, and what works for one job will not necessarily work for another.

Orthogames, Part II

I want to come back to orthogames for a moment. In his talk, Westerfeld discussed a game about rescuing hostages. He discussed how absurd it would be if his opponent realized victory was imminent, and stopped rescuing hostages, knowing victory was clinched.

It’s an excellent point. This is a thing about orthogames: they’re about winning. The whole meaning of an orthogame is about winning.

That’s why it’s so hard to make an orthogame that’s about anything but winning. There are some orthogames about touchy subjects, but the designer has to make sure the win condition lines up perfectly with the game’s theme. In Freedom: The Underground Railroad, victory is tied to freeing slaves. In The Grizzled, victory is tied to surviving World War I.

You’ll notice both are cooperative games; competitive games are even harder to inject any meaning into the game that’s not related to winning the game.

For example, if you have a 2-player competitive game about rescuing hostages, you’re absolutely going to run into issues where a player may no longer be incentivized to rescue hostages once their victory is assured. Just like how in Pandemic, players often ignore massive outbreaks at the end of the game to focus on a cure.

You can win a game of Terraforming Mars through a mix of heating the planet and planting enough forests. But your story at the end of the game isn’t how Mars is now habitable; your story is that you won through this specific strategy.

And that’s okay! That is the story the game wants to tell. This is a perfectly acceptable story for an orthogame to tell. For the game’s enormous following, there’s no need to go into any further narrative detail. The story is in who outplayed whom.

Consider an Overwatch league match. We don’t care so much about the dramatic fallout of a meeting between Mei and Reaper, or that the next map features a gorgeous sunset. We care more that New York was able to win two straight maps against Philadelphia, that (hypothetically) both teams have dropped DPS and are going full GOATS, and wondering if the third map’s location and setup favors one team versus another.

This doesn’t seem to be the kind of story Westerfeld enjoys in a game. I can appreciate that, and I can appreciate his craving for games that tell better, more refined, more thematic stories. This is not an unreasonable request.

But I think it is unreasonable to insist that orthogames are flawed for not telling stories the same way a novel does. If your cars keep sinking into a river, you shouldn’t buy another car; you should buy a boat instead.

Likewise, if you want your games to tell better stories, look beyond orthogames! Westerfeld mentioned D&D as a non-orthogame. Great example! Most RPGs aren’t orthogames. Play Apocalypse World. Play Pathfinder. Play Burning Wheel. Play Fiasco. Play Monsterhearts. All of these games allow players to craft amazing stories, and they never force a player into sacrificing their story to optimize their VP.

But let people who like orthogames enjoy them! We find different meaning in them than you, and that’s not a bad thing.

In praise of experts

And there’s one last part of the talk that bugs me. It might sound self-serving, but here it is:

Why on earth is a person who doesn’t design games giving game design advice? Especially in such stark, absolutist terms?

Yes, Westerfeld has played a lot of games. That’s not without merit. But just as that loud dude in your game group picks apart the flaws in various games but never seems to suggest a way to fix them, it’s a limited viewpoint, and I find it hard to justify prioritizing it over someone who has actually designed a game.

At one point, Westerfeld proposes tweaking Champions of Midgard so that it tells a better story by not relying on VP. His suggestion, in which players win by defeating a big monster at the end, is baffling to me. He wants to design a completely different game! Every sentence of his “fix” pulled the game further and further away from what it was designed to do.

Again, remember that games are not designed to tell one story, but many. Also, as I’ve said in the past: just as literature is creative writing, games are creative incentivization. When you change the incentive structure by replacing many ways to gain VP with one monster to kill, you are completely changing the game. It’s as if I suggested that Westerfeld update his books to only have attractive people, because the ugly people make me feel bad. It is a completely different experience.

And I think that’s what gets under my skin. Once you’ve designed a game, you know the feeling of a non-designer (or even another designer) making a series of suggestions to your game that amount to them wanting you to make a game that’s completely different than the one you want to make. These can seem like a series of small tweaks to them, but after months of playtesting, you know that those changes will make the game a completely different experience, and one that bears no resemblance to the game you want to make.

And that’s the feeling I got when watching this talk. Here was someone making suggestions to change a game with seemingly no real idea how deep its its implications go. His suggestions to change Midgard betrayed the fact that he wanted to play a different game. And his suggestions to “fix” games in general by removing VP betrayed the fact that he doesn’t really understand how other people enjoy games.

To be frank, we live in a world where to be an “expert” at something is to be viewed with suspicion. We have government panels on science headed by non-scientists. We have people who have spent their entire lives studying climate shouted down on pseudo-news channels by people who don’t know the first thing about climate. Isaac Asimov warned us of a future where “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

But we still celebrate the outsider, the disruptor, the non-expert who walks into a room of experts and tells them what they’ve been doing wrong all this time. It makes for an excellent story.

In reality, the outsider is almost always wrong.

And again, I mean no disrespect to Westerfeld. I don’t disagree with his direction as much as I disagree with his velocity. But this subject required nuance and precision. By leading with a clickbait title and being absolutist, he took what should have been a valid point and smooshed it against a wall.

So I wish to close this enormous essay with a plea to conventions everywhere, and to SHUX in particular:

If you’re going to have a seminar about game design, would it be too much to ask to let a game designer handle it?