Evidence, For and Against

This week, I did make some more progress on theories and evidence; I now have specific content for what happens in the draft scenario, and half of it is written up. I can see that this mechanic will be good discipline for people writing for the game.

In Kannagara, theories will define the world. The default assumption will be that the personae come up with true theories, but there will be rules for having the personae get the wrong end of the stick. (If I can manage it, there will also be rules for leaving things open, but I think that might prove to be impossible to run.) When the personae are wrong, the players define the world negatively, and most likely also determine which theory is true. Most setting fluff will, therefore, be in the form of theories that the personae could form.

The mechanics for theories involve gathering evidence, and then creating the theory. The evidence consists of specific, concrete things that the personae observe, and they should generally gather quite a bit before they come up with a theory. This means that an important part of the write-up of any theory is the evidence that the personae have for it.

This is good discipline because it enforces “show, don’t tell”. In Kannagara, you cannot just write that somewhere looks haunted. You have to give the specific observable facts that make the personae think that it is haunted. Further, it means that, for any theory, you have to give some thought to how the personae could figure it out. There are rules for making the jump from evidence to theory, so you do not need to fill in every step, but you have to have at least an outline of the steps. This is something that is often overlooked in roleplaying writing; the author knows the secret, and so just considers what happens when the players discover it, rather than concentrating on how they discover it.

If course, in Kannagara the author does not decide which theory is true. The players do that, in play. It would be bad practice to assume that the players will always reach a consensus on what the truth should be, so the rules need to make a decision.

This comes in two stages. First, the players can choose which evidence they discover, and each player can choose to discover evidence favourable to her own theory, and problematic for the other theory. If the players do not agree about the best theory, this will lead to ambiguous and confusing evidence, which is a good thing; real life is like that sometimes, and if the evidence found in the game were always clear and unambiguous, it would impair suspension of disbelief.

The next stage is the creation of theories. Each theory needs enough evidence to support it; there is a minimum amount of support a theory must have. However, the persona creating the theory also needs to incorporate the evidence against the theory. Incorporating this evidence means that the theory contains elements to explain it away. This does not support the theory, but if the persona does not incorporate that evidence, it weakens her theory. The amount of evidence a persona can incorporate depends on her knowledge of the field, so a more skilled persona can deal with a lot of negative evidence while still creating a strong theory.

The truth, then, is the strongest theory of those that have the minimum level of support. The evidence has an influence on that, but a very good theoretician could overcome a lot of negative evidence, as long as she had at least some positive evidence for her position.

Sometimes, of course, theories are wrong. Getting the theory wrong will be a form of complication, but complications are shaping up to be an important part of the game that need their own post.

A Bit About Theories

Things have been held up a bit by the need to work on other projects, but this week I’ve been able to make some more progress.

Today, I’ve been working on discovery. I’m now thinking of Kannagara as a roleplaying game of discovery, creation, and growth, so this is one of the three fundamental pillars of the game. As with the other parts of the game, the mechanics are likely to change from the first playtest draft, but the basic concept is the same. However, I am making changes even within the basic concept.

Because there is no gamemaster, and because all the players can read the whole of any scenario before they start playing, it is essential that the details of the background be determined in play. It must be impossible for the players to have their personae go straight to the answer, and the best way to make that impossible is to have them determine the answer in play.

This will work the same way as before: the personae will gather evidence, and then build theories on the basis of the evidence. Evidence that they do not choose to gather may not even exist. Some evidence could support more than one theory, although it might be better for one theory than for another. Other evidence might be strong evidence against one theory, without really supporting any rivals. The players would know in advance which evidence supports which theory, so they could choose to have their personae gather evidence that supports the theory they would like to be true.

If different players want different theories to be true, then they can discover different evidence. This will naturally simulate the reality that evidence is rarely clear and unambiguous. Evidence that clearly rules out a possible theory will be hard to discover, so that most players won’t want to do that. Each player can then try to support her favoured theory with the evidence. The theory that has the best support is the truth.

Within a scenario, this is relatively easy to do, although there are still a lot of details to work out. However, I would like this to work more generally. I would like to be able to provide theories and evidence in the supplements for Kannagara, so that players can choose evidence and theories from a supplement and put them together to build their own settings, rather than following a scenario. Of course, players can also create their own theories and evidence, but it looks like that will be a lot of work. If theories are modular, and can be put together in different ways, that will make things a lot easier for players. It will make things harder for me, but since I’m hoping to be paid for this, that’s not a bad thing. It means that players should be able to feel that they are getting value for money.

For the new playtest scenario, I am working on having at least two possible theories for personae to discover at an early stage, both to make the basic structure clear, and to give the players real choices. I have not quite got that fully worked out, however. I hope to be able to get the details sorted out next week.

Concrete Revisions

This week, I’ve started work on the new draft of the playtest scenario. Although the basic story is still the same, it’s going to be quite different in detail. For one thing, I’m over 3,000 words and I still haven’t got to the place where the previous version started. This is only to be expected, of course. One of the biggest criticisms of the last version was that it introduced too many ideas too quickly, and that people were expected to play personae before they knew anything about them. So this time, I’m taking things much more slowly, and introducing rule and background elements as close to one at a time as is possible. Obviously, because the whole system fits together, there are limits to how far I can do that, and some things do refer ahead.

One thing I’m noticing as I design this is how many conceptual parallels I can see with recent games. There are a things that resemble Conditions and Tilts from The God Machine Chronicle for the new World of Darkness, and things that resemble Aspects from Fate Core. I have things that are conceptually similar to moves from Apocalypse World or Dungeon World. I’m using cards and tokens to help with record keeping. There is no gamemaster.

This isn’t really surprising, as we are all working in the same environment, on the same problems. People should be expected to come up with similar solutions, particularly when they’ve read the other solutions and have them available. Of course, there are differences from all the previous versions, and they fit together to do something very different, but there’s clear continuity with recent game design trends.

Today’s breakthrough was part of persona creation. The mechanic lets the players define the persona’s personality, and gives clear mechanical consequences for it.

Each personality trait comes with four mechanical bits. One is an action that lets that persona gain musubi. Another is an action that other personae can do with that persona to gain musubi. The third defines a set of actions within which the persona can spend musubi on her own actions. (So, basically an Aspect from Fate.) The last one is a complication that can apply just to that persona. Three of them encourage that player to play along with the personality. One encourages other players to reinforce it. I’m looking forward to seeing how it works out.

Incidentally, in keeping with the general philosophy of Kannagara, all of the personality traits given as options are positive.

I think that the same mechanical structure should work for a lot of background traits, but background traits will also pull in abilities. Most likely, there will be minimum ability requirements to have a certain level of background. Since I haven’t written the part of the scenario that introduces abilities yet, I haven’t introduced this part of the background. Furthermore, since at least some of the possible backgrounds will be closely connected to Shinto, I need to introduce a lot more setting information before I can do that. Right now, however, things are progressing very well.

Fundamental Revisions

Today, I’ve made a start on the revisions to Kannagara based on the results of the first playtest. I’m looking at making quite a fundamental revision: I’m working on dropping the dice mechanic.

This is a bit painful, because I really like that dice mechanic. I think the probability distributions it gives have some very nice properties, and I think it would work very well for some games. However, I’m not convinced that it works well for Kannagara. I think it might create complexity in the wrong place. I’m not opposed to complexity in games, obviously, but it is important to make sure that the complexity is in the right place, supporting the mood and themes of the game rather than undermining them.

The only way to test this is to try putting the mechanics together without the dice mechanic. Fortunately, there was quite a lot of other mechanical structure in the first version of Kannagara, and I think I can keep nearly all of it. Gathering evidence, building theories based on the evidence, and creating things out of elements can all stay, as can different abilities. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m also looking at making heavy use of cards, and putting the various elements onto cards, so that players do not have to remember everything.

There was one big element that the dice mechanic brought to the game. That was the element of the unexpected. In my experience, this is an important part of the fun of roleplaying, and in a game with no GM the only way to introduce it is through randomisers. To retain this, I will still be using dice, but in a different way.

Whenever a persona gains kegare in the game, the player must roll a number of dice equal to the persona’s total kegare. If at least two of dice come up ‘1’, a complication arises. (Obviously, this means that a persona’s first point of kegare is safe.) Possible complications will be defined by the scenario, and by features of the persona. I think that a player will always be able to freely introduce a personal complication, but global complications will be a bit more involved. I think that they will come in ranks, and only a limited number will be available. The player can choose freely from the lowest available rank, but must have the agreement of all other players to choose from a higher rank. This is because the highest ranked complication will, in many cases, be the failure condition for the scenario. Choosing that early on would be what I believe is technically known as a “dick move”, but in my experience it is better for game rules to make it clear that you can’t do that. Of course, if that is the lowest available rank, then the player has to make the scenario fail, but that is a possible source of tension, and should only happen after a considerable amount of playing time.

As before, kegare will also increase the difficulty of matsuri, and I think it will have one further effect. I think that some actions will only be available to personae with less than a certain amount of kegare.

While working on this, I thought of a way to incorporate one of the more problematic traditional beliefs of Shinto, the belief that menstruation causes kegare. Players of female personae may declare that the persona is menstruating, and move any or all of the persona’s kegare onto the menstruation. That kegare then applies to matsuri, but to nothing else. It does not count against the limit for taking actions, nor does it provide dice to roll to see whether a complication arises. It does not count for harae, either; it cannot be removed by harae, and does not need to be for a harae to be effective in removing other kegare. The persona is effectively excluded from participating in matsuri, but can do things that create a lot of kegare without worrying. In longer scenarios, the condition goes away in a few days, like it does, and takes all its kegare with it. In sagas with strict timekeeping, the player then has to wait at least a couple of weeks of game time before using it again.

This may, in fact, be too good, in that it might mean that an all-female group would always succeed, but given the centrality of matsuri to the game I think it might be balanced. It is something for playtest, but possibly not the first playtest.

The other problem that came up in playtest, that of too much information too early, is very important. I’m addressing that by reorganising the scenario, but I’ve only just started on that, so I’ll go into detail next time, after a little more progress.

Persistence Ain’t All That

This post may come across as something of a rant, and possibly also as a humble brag. I have to concede that I’m ranting a bit, but I would like to emphasise that there is nothing humble about the bragging parts, and that I am entirely serious about the humble parts.

This rant was inspired by my misreading* of a guest post on Chuck Wendig’s blog by a (different) successful author. In it, she repeats the claim that persistence is essential, even the only essential thing, and illustrates it with her life story. It is true that persistence appears to have led her to success. There are a number of other famous examples of this available.

The overwhelming level of sample bias here robs the evidence of all meaning. What about all the persistent people who haven’t succeeded? Nobody listens to their stories, because they are nobodies. Why would you take life lessons from someone who has failed? Well, because if you only listen to people who have succeeded, you get a seriously distorted picture.

So, in full awareness that essentially no-one is going to read this, because I’m not famous enough, I’m going to tell the echoing ether that persistence isn’t enough, and isn’t even necessary.

Let’s take “not enough” first. I write and develop roleplaying games. I need to say that because hardly anybody has heard of me. I’ve been doing it professionally for 20 years; longer than Chris Pramas at Green Ronin, and a lot more people have heard of him. He even has a Wikipedia page.

I’ve not had a rejection letter for roleplaying games since I returned to them after deciding that they were not Satanic, around the age of 18. So, that thing about everyone having to collect piles of rejection letters? Not true. I’ve won an Origins Award and a gold ENnie award, helped out by the name recognition of Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein•Hagen, but for a product, Ars Magica Fifth Edition, that was essentially my work. The previous four editions, which were not my work, did not win. I’ve been developing Ars Magica for longer than anyone else, and I’m getting close to having done it for longer than everyone else who has had the job put together. John Nephew has not fired me. He’s even given me pay rises and bonuses from time to time.

I do not suck, at least not as a roleplaying game author and developer. Because I am not depressed, I know that I do not suck. I do not suck, and I have kept this up for 20 years. Talent and persistence, getting published, I must have succeeded, right?

Wrong. Obviously, I don’t make a decent amount of money from roleplaying. Nobody makes a decent amount of money from roleplaying (except Robin Laws). But further than that, I have almost no name recognition. I’m working on a new roleplaying game, Kannagara, but does the fact that I am working on a new roleplaying game create any buzz anywhere? No. Now, we aren’t talking about fame. While people in the industry will recognise the names I’ve been dropping, I suspect that only the most dedicated roleplaying fans would do so in general. That’s the level I’m aiming at, and haven’t reached.

So yeah, persistence doesn’t always work.

I’ve also written a novel, and tried the online crowdfunding model. That was Tamao. That didn’t work, either. People I didn’t know did send me money. One guy even sent me $25 a couple of years after I’d finished, when it was obvious he wasn’t going to get any more story out of it. So, it doesn’t suck. Strangers don’t send you money because you wrote something that sucked. And I finished it. Wrote the whole thing in a year. That’s persistence.

No success yet.

Then there’s my blog. Not this one. I’m not so brazen as to claim persistence here, but my Japanese one. Every day, for nearly eight years. Recently, at least 1,000 characters (roughly 500 words equivalent) every day. Frequent and regular updates with new material, sustained over a long period of time. That’s how you make a successful blog, right? I’m averaging about 100 views per day, and no comments. That’s not a successful blog.

But I’ve not given up. I still do it every day. It has been great Japanese practice. Lots of persistence here.

No success, though.

On the other hand, let’s consider an area where I wasn’t persistent. Philosophy. I got a PhD in philosophy from Cambridge 15 years ago. So, yes, I was persistent enough to finish a dissertation. I then spent five years trying to get a job in philosophy. Failed.

So I chucked it in and came to Japan.

A couple of years ago, I was offered a job, which I’m still doing, based on having that PhD. The content of my work has steadily got closer to the content of my dissertation, to the point that, this year, I will be directly applying my PhD to my work, in the private sector. The job doesn’t currently pay brilliantly (start up), but it pays a lot more than minimum wage. And a lot more than roleplaying games, novels, or blogs — at least for me.

This means that the area where I wasn’t persistent, the area that I abandoned pretty much completely for eight years, is the area where I currently seem to have the most success. It has at least as much promise for future success as any of the others as well.

Persistence: not needed, and not enough. Rather overrated, all round.

When you are struggling with something you want to do, but are not succeeding at, the big question can be framed as “Which story am I starring in?”. Are you starring in a story of someone who holds on to their dream, struggles through the difficult years of no recognition and piles of rejection slips, before finally succeeding? Or are you starring in a story of someone who wastes his life producing things that no-one wants to read, dying with piles of manuscripts that do not become interesting even posthumously?

Obviously, if you’re in the first story, you should not give up. Keep pushing! Keep writing! Persistence!

If you’re in the second story, you should quit now. Do something more productive with your life. Everyone has something to offer to the world. In your case, this isn’t it. Abandon the illusion that is holding you back, and find your calling!

So, which story are you in? It’s really, really hard to tell. In fact, I suspect it’s impossible to tell. That makes it unfortunate that the two stories recommend diametrically opposed courses of action.

This is why living a good life is hard. The decisions are not easy. There are no universal prescriptions that will always lead you to the right decision. Sometimes, you should give up. Sometimes, giving up will actually lead to success in the area where you gave up. And sometimes you shouldn’t. Sometimes you should be persistent.

Sometimes you should do what you love. Sometimes you should recognise reality and do what is necessary to live. Sometimes your family should come first, and sometimes you should prioritise work for a while to make sure that your family has a home and food. Sometimes you should stand up for what you believe, and sometimes you should keep your head down and wait for the persecution to pass.

There are no easy answers, and most people never get to know whether they made the right decisions. So, if you are a struggling writer, you have to decide for yourself whether you should give up. I’m not going to recommend either option. Giving up worked for me; persisting worked for other people.

I’m afraid you have to run your own life.

* The original post was by Kameron Hurley, and it turns out that her point was that she had redefined “success” in terms of persisting, so that the lack of other kinds of success wouldn’t put her off. Since that is what I have done for my Japanese blog, I think it’s perfectly reasonable. The post above still stands, however. Back

Mimusubi in 2013

Following in the footsteps of people like Fred Hicks at Evil Hat, I’m going to post about the business side of Mimusubi, with actual numbers. I can be open about this, at least for now, because I have a lot of things going on apart from Mimusubi, so these posts will tell you very little about my personal financial situation.

The summary is: lots of red ink.

This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, I haven’t sold anything, and I have had expenses. So, here’s the breakdown.

Internet Presence: ¥18,780
Advertising: ¥55,015
Labour: ¥214,500

Internet Presence is basically the hosting fees for this site. Yes, it’s higher than it could be, but I want the site to be on a reliable server that will scale, and I can afford it from my other income.

Advertising hasn’t happened yet. I got in on a couple of Kickstarters, one with someone I know directly, and one with someone I know indirectly, and paid for levels that will have them advertising Kannagara some time this year. So I need to get it moving. This will involve convention demos in the US, something I have trouble doing personally, and provide a channel for marketing to people interested in RPGs and Japan. I have no idea whether they will actually pan out, but they both provide something strategically useful.

Labour is paying me for the time I have put into the project. I’ve figured the hourly rate as the rate that I could choose to get paid if I dropped Kannagara as a project, so that it accurately represents my opportunity cost. As this isn’t an out-of-pocket expense, the number is a bit notional, but Mimusubi won’t be really profitable until it has paid for all of my work, as well as anyone else’s.

So, I’ve been going for a year, more or less, and I have lost ¥288,295, or around $3,000, depending on where the exchange rate is. The investment is still quite small, but I haven’t finished developing the game yet.

Playtest Results

Over the new year, I arranged for two playtest sessions of Kannagara. I was involved in one, but not the other, which was deliberate. For the game in which I was involved, I could see how things went for myself, and have a direct sense of the dynamics, but I also, inevitably, guided the game in the way it was supposed to work. For the other game, I only have a written report, but I do find out how the game goes without the designer helping out.

Unsurprisingly, it goes better when the designer is present.

The other thing that became clear was that the first draft does not work.

This is not really surprising. Kannagara is quite different from existing role-playing games, particularly from the ones I have most experience of writing, so I don’t have any close precedents to rely on. Even when one does, when writing an Ars Magica book, for example, the first attempt does not always work. I am not, therefore, very disappointed with the playtest result. It would have been nice if everything had worked first time, but it would also be nice to win the lottery; I don’t make plans on the basis of either happening.

The main problem is information overload. The players felt that there were too many new words, and new ideas, coming at them too quickly, and they had trouble keeping track of where they and their personae were up to.

I was aware in advance that this was likely to be a problem, but obviously did not do enough to address it. I want to avoid requiring people to read a thick book before they can start playing, but I also want to introduce a setting that is unfamiliar to most Westerners. That was never going to be an easy task, and I haven’t succeeded yet.

As I still want to avoid putting a huge book in front of new players, the only way to solve this is to restructure the initial scenarios so that information and background are introduced more slowly.

That will also be connected to a couple of other problems that arose. Because the personae are created in play, some people complained that they didn’t know enough about their personae to roleplay, while others said that they didn’t initially realise that the options available to the personae were presented by the rules. These are connected, of course: because the players do not know enough about their personae or the setting to make sensible decisions, the rules tell them what those sensible options are. I think I need to make this more explicit. Players will become able to make their decisions completely freely (based on what the personae know) after they have played through enough scenarios to understand the world and their personae, but in the initial scenarios they are still learning the game and the setting. Of course, players could read all the background material first and start off with a wide range of choices. That will be an option when I have the full thing written.

One other thing that came up from both groups was that they thought cards would be very useful. There are a lot of elements of the game that could be printed on cards, and arranged to help the players keep track of what they have created so far, and both groups thought that this would be a good idea. Since I have been wondering whether I should use cards since extremely early in the development process, the next draft will.

However, it will not be a card game. It will be a roleplaying game in which the cards do some of the record keeping for you. They may end up doing quite a lot of the record keeping for you; I’ll have to see how development goes. This is not completely new; Everway had something similar years ago, and Shadowrun seems to be doing almost exactly that with its gun cards now.

The bright side of the playtest is that I got very positive feedback about the basic ideas behind the game. It is true that I was playing with friends, or having friends do it, but about half of the playtesters have professional RPG writing credits, and are not going to encourage me to waste my time. The executive summary of the playtest report would be this:

It needs serious revision, but please do revise it.

So, that is what I will get started on now.

Playtest Scenario Finished

Today, I finished the first draft of the first playtest scenario. The next step is to try playing it, to see whether it works. This very first playtest will be very limited in numbers, because the game might well not work at all, and I will use the feedback from it to revise and improve the rules of the game. The scenario itself will probably also need some revision, but at this point I’m more concerned about getting the rules of the game right.

This is an important milestone. I just hope that the game isn’t so bad that it’s also the end of the journey.

Good Progress

Today, I’ve made good progress on Kannagara. The first playtest scenario is nearly finished in first draft. I think I need another day to get it done, which augurs well for it being completed within the year. Then I will try to recruit some people to actually try it, to find out whether it is at all playable.

One thing that I’m a bit concerned about is that the freedom of the players to decide what their environment is like is a bit limited in this draft. On the other hand, I dropped that because I decided that it was a good idea to try to get the basic structure working first, and then add the more elaborate things afterwards. The final introductory scenario may well include more opportunity to change things than this one.

(No) Progress Report

There have been no updates to the blog for the last couple of weeks because I’ve not made any progress on the game. My family all came to Japan for my daughter’s Shichigosan ceremony, so I haven’t had any time to work on this project. Shichigosan is a Shinto ceremony, so it is, at least, a thematically appropriate distraction.

Today, I’ve looked over the files again, reminded myself of where I was up to, and, I think, got myself into a good position to do more work on the game later this week. Still, for now there has been no concrete progress.