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.
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.
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.
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 Reinâ€¢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 â€” 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