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Harae

Today, I have had time to work on the game, and it felt very productive. I did two main things.

First, I tweaked the mechanics in an attempt to deal with the problem of near-redundant statistics I noted a few weeks ago. I think this approach will work, and make the rules significantly simpler, but I need to let it sit for a while and come back to it.

Second, I started working on actual content for the game. I have started by working on the mechanics for harae. I have a good way to fit harae into the game: in order to perform a matsuri while they have kegare, the personae must perform a full harae. This fits with Shinto practice, but also means that there is a solid game reason for the activity. If the personae have no kegare, then the harae will be a purely formal part of the matsuri, background colour with no game mechanics. If, on the other hand, they do have kegare, then the harae serves a clear game-mechanical role, which is important.

Because harae is a ritual, there are two stages. First, the personae must create or discover the ritual, and next they must perform it. Today, I was working on the rules for creation. Part of this was entirely generic, within the ruleset, and that was a good thing, because this is the very first part I have written to be generic. I got the feeling that it is going to work, and that things are going to fit together. This is a very good thing, although that sort of feeling can, alas, be wrong.

The other part was more specific, incorporating aspects of real-world harae rituals into the game. And it was easy. There is an obvious place for them, with in-game meaning so that they are more than just colour. I started plugging them in, and this is the sort of mechanical fiddling that I enjoy doing. I do need to work on how to fit them in somewhere else as well, but this is a very good start. I think I need to include more detail than my first write-up has, but that’s something for second drafts.

Once the rules for creation are done, I think the rules for discovery will be very simple, because they will be essentially the same. In the game, it doesn’t matter whether the personae get something by creating it or discovering it, after all. They would use different abilities, and there will be conditions on discovery that do not apply to creation, but fundamentally they will be extremely similar.

Performance will be different, but it offers potential as the other place in which I can include real-world elements with game effects. I still need to work on that, but I hope that I will be able to do that next week.

It is a little annoying that my other work, the work that actually pays, is having a busy period right now, because I think I’ve just got Kannagara out of initial development, and into the stage where I can seriously get on with writing it.

Core Mechanics

Today, I think I completed the rules framework for the game. It is nothing like the rules I described earlier on this blog, but it all hangs together nicely, and will, I think, support the sort of game that I want to design.

I actually have a track record of designing in this way. First, I do a lot of work on a particular design, putting in a lot of detail and making it quite usable. Then I throw it away completely, and start again from scratch. I did this on my PhD dissertation, where I wrote one 80,000-word dissertation every year, and had no words in common between the first and the last. I don’t think I even had ideas in common, other than the topic of the dissertation. I also did it a couple of times for sub-systems of Ars Magica 5th Edition, and I’ve done it for other gaming things I’ve written. I think I have to conclude that this is just the way I work. I’m not sure that I’d recommend it to anyone else, however. First, you should try working styles that don’t involve chucking months’ worth of work away.

I’ve also realised how much more I have to do. If we compare to Ars Magica, the current state of the rules is as if I had the core rules for Ars Magica, for Abilities, Arts, and Laboratory work, but did not yet have the Ability list, Arts list, spells chapter, or much of the Laboratory chapter. Of course, the background chapters don’t exist yet either. If we compare it to writing a setting for Pathfinder, I’m currently some way before the point at which you start work, because I don’t have any character classes yet. (There are not going to be character classes in Kannagara, but I’m missing the equivalent things.)

The remaining work should, however, be the sort of rule tinkering that I really enjoy. As long as this set of rules don’t fall apart under pressure as well, things should start moving forward nicely. I do have a fair bit of confidence in the rules this time, though, because they worked in the simple playtest, and they can easily incorporate a whole bunch of things that I really wanted to include, but couldn’t see a way to handle before. I might even be able to work effectively with smaller chunks of time.

Of course, the progress here depends on time available. Designing Kannagara does not immediately pay, so it has to cede priority to things that do. In addition, last week I took the week off because my local jinja had asked me to write them an English pamphlet, and that had also been pushed back by other commitments for far too long. However, I thought that this was a reasonable trade-off; both activities are about presenting Shinto in English, and the pamphlet for the jinja will have a more immediate impact than Kannagara. The leaflet is basically done, now, so that should not be a distraction any more.

I’m really hoping that the next few weeks will be calm, and allow me time to work on this.

Increasing Diversity in Pen-and-Paper Roleplaying

At the time of writing, Andy Kitkowski at Kotodama Heavy Industries is running a Kickstarter for the English translation of Shinobgami, a Japanese role-playing game about ninja battles. (You still have time to back it!) In the description, he emphasises that he has recruited a very diverse array of authors, including many from outside the USA, to work on expanding the game. Given that I have previously complained about the interpretation of “diversity” as “multi-colored Americans”, you would think that I’d be over-joyed about this. However, it still made me a bit uncomfortable, and that led me to think about why.

When it comes to writing in the pen-and-paper RPG industry, I am in a privileged position. I have written for just about all of the major companies, been Line Editor for an important RPG (Ars Magica) for 14 years, and won both an ENnie and Origins Award. Nevertheless, I think my concern is based on my experience.

The reason given for increasing the diversity of writers in TRPGs (table-top, as opposed to computers) is that it is good to increase the range of voices in the industry. Nobody is foolish enough to suggest that it will directly improve the overall social position of minorities; indeed, given that TRPG writing is socially and economically marginal, you could argue that minorities should be actively discouraged from getting involved, because it would only reinforce their marginality. However, being hired by a company run by white dudes does not, in fact, let you speak with your own voice in the industry.

This is true even if you are (like me) a white dude. Ten years ago, Green Ronin hired me to work on Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. It was something I’d wanted to do since I was a teenager, so I was very happy to get the job. However, as I worked on it, and read Blue Rose, which Green Ronin released around the same time, I realised that I would much rather have been working on the latter game. The darkness and cynical violence of WFRP was not really the sort of thing I wanted to write, and the much more optimistic and hopeful tone of Blue Rose suited me much better. Nevertheless, I had signed on to write WFRP, so that’s what I did, and it was a very good experience, as well as the realisation of a teenage dream.

Further, a little earlier I became Ars Magica Line Editor, something else I had dreamed of as a teenager. (I have a good record of my teenage dreams coming true; dream medium size!) You might think that, as Line Editor, I would be able to do exactly what I wanted with the game. That was certainly true to a much greater extent than with WFRP. Ars Magica is now a lot closer to the sort of game I really want to write than it was when I started, and it started pretty close. Even so, there is still a gap, and that is one reason why I am retiring as Ars Magica Line Editor, and working on Kannagara. The existence of the game’s history, and the requirements (minimal though they were) imposed by Atlas Games, meant that I couldn’t fully express what I wanted to say.

If this is true for me, someone who is almost as privileged as it is possible to be within the business (I’m only missing “American” to have the full set), then how much more true is it going to be of members of a group that has not had a significant presence in the past? They are presumably going to feel even less able than I was to challenge instructions from editors and publishers and take things in the direction they want.

In other words, if we really want to hear the voices of minorities in the TRPG industry, they need to be running their own companies.

Fortunately, this is a realistic approach. There does seem to be a tendency to assimilate the TRPG and CRPG worlds, but they are completely different. A member of a minority cannot simply found their own development house to produce the next Witcher. It is not practical. In TRPGs, however, anyone can found a publishing house, and put their work on DriveThru. That is enough to become what passes for a success in this business, if your work is good enough.

Thus, we should really be encouraging members of underrepresented groups to start their own companies, and helping them to do so. Hiring them to write our games doesn’t really solve the problem, and that’s what made me uncomfortable about Shinobigami.

However, that doesn’t mean my discomfort was justified. Writing TRPGs is not easy, and publishing them is even harder. Doing it successfully without any experience, or contacts, in the industry might actually be as hard as founding your own triple-A CRPG studio. As an initial stage, we should be helping people from outside the mainstream to get that experience, by hiring them to write our games. The experience of writing things that are not really what they want to say will no doubt help them to work out what they do want to say, just like it helped me. Thus, the conclusion of thinking things through is that Kotodama Heavy Industries is doing exactly the right thing. Translating foreign works is itself a very important way to increase the diversity of voices, and giving a wider range of people that first step up onto the ladder will work the same way in the long term.

Nevertheless, it is only a first step. If we start to think that this solves the problem, then I think we are making a serious mistake. What else should we do?

The first thing is that the industry should be supportive of new publishers. Fortunately, it is. I also see very little evidence of prejudice in the people who are supported, beyond the in-group tendency to support people who have contacts and a track record in the business. That, of course, is why it is important to increase the diversity of the people we are hiring. Furthermore, even if there are people in the industry with prejudices (which, statistically, is very likely), they are not in a position to deny access. A new publisher needs someone to help them, but does not need everyone to help them. Unless a campaign could be mounted to exclude them on the basis of their race, gender, or national origin, the existence of a handful of prejudiced people is unlikely to be an important, practical problem. And I cannot see such a campaign gaining any traction.

I do still have a reason for concern, though. People from historically excluded groups might be worried that they will face a campaign to exclude them because of what they want to say. Consider Tenra Bansho Zero, another Japanese game translated by Kotodama Heavy Industries. The portrayal of Shinto in TBZ is, of course, exaggerated and fictionalised, like everything else in the game. It is, however, an exaggerated and fictionalised version of a widespread misunderstanding of Shinto that its practitioners find deeply irritating, at best, and actively offensive, at worst. (I’m at the “deeply irritated” end of the scale.) This is an accurate translation of the portrayal in Japanese (actually, I’ve just checked the English translation to make sure it is the same, because I’ve only read the Japanese), and thus an accurate portrayal of the voice of the author, but there is a tendency in role-playing to criticise inaccurate and negative portrayals of religions that have not been historically dominant in Anglo-American culture, in quite vociferous terms.

Now imagine a Japanese author who wants to publish a TRPG set in African-American culture. (This is not, in fact, wildly implausible, as I understand it.) Those of us who read both English and Japanese, and are familiar with both Japanese and US culture, know that there is a pleasing symmetry between US portrayals of Japan and Japanese portrayals of the US. The chances that a Japanese TRPG portraying African-American culture would strike African-Americans as a nuanced and accurate depiction are slim to none.

We can consider an even more extreme case. Suppose that a Somalian author writes a game that reinforces traditional gender roles, portrays homosexuality as wrong, and gives mechanical penalties to female characters who have not been subjected to FGM.

In these cases, I think that a campaign could, and probably would, be mounted to exclude these voices on the grounds that “we” (members of the dominant culture) do not like or agree with what they are saying. This campaign would include calls for boycotts, and for the permanent ostracism of the authors, as well as personal attacks on the authors.

Now, people might object that, of course, it’s only when WhiCH (white, cis, heterosexual) men say that sort of thing that we need to get angry, but I don’t think they will. Even so, that is beside the point. Anyone who knows enough about the TRPG industry to have a realistic chance of being a successful publisher also knows about this tendency. They know that its targets are a little hard to predict, but that there are particular groups whom it is very risky to portray in a way that they do not like, and that writing about anything other than what this public regards as “your” culture is dangerous. These people, whom we want to bring new and different voices to our industry, do not have the backing and confidence to take on such a backlash, by definition. If someone has enough confidence to take on a large scale internet backlash, they have enough confidence to break into TRPGs without any help from anyone, with trial and error and sheer dogged persistence. The people whom we ought to be supporting will be intimidated by the possibility of such a reaction to their work.

Right now, I think this is the biggest obstacle to increasing the diversity of voices in TRPGs. A diversity of voices will, naturally, want to say a diversity of things and take diverse positions, but there is a strong movement to only accept new voices if they say what “we” think they should be saying. There are other obstacles, but a wide range of people are working hard to reduce them. On the other hand, it seems to me that many people are actively working to make this obstacle bigger.

There is room for a debate here. Maybe diversity is less important than ensuring ideological correctness. As you might guess from the way I chose to phrase that, I don’t think so. I think that we should be working to make the hobby more tolerant of a diversity of opinions, including opinions that we, personally, find unpleasant and offensive, because people from other cultures are extremely unlikely to share all of our opinions on anything. I do not think that it is obvious how we should respond when we strongly disagree, but I do think it is obvious that we should not respond by threatening boycotts and attempting to exclude people from the market.

My conclusion, then, is that I was wrong to feel uncomfortable about what Kotodama Heavy Industries is doing. It is an essential step in opening up the TRPG hobby and industry to genuinely diverse voices, and when that step has been taken, I think that we already see a lot of the support necessary to make that diversity a reality. However, if we want the hobby to be genuinely inclusive, we need to find a better way to deal with people with whom we strongly disagree.

“Playtest” Results

This blog has been quiet for a bit, because development of Kannagara has been on hiatus while various life things happened. However, they’re over now, and I’ve moved this game to a higher priority. Today, I ran the first mini-playtest of the new version.

In a sense, it wasn’t a real playtest, because I was the only player. Because Kannagara is designed to have no gamemaster, it ought to work perfectly well for solo play, which means that I can do preliminary testing by myself. It will still need proper testing with other people, of course. However, to do that, I would need rules and content that was written up to be fully understandable by other people, with explanations of what is going on.

At the moment, I don’t have that. I do have a full set of rules, and I wrote up all the content I needed to run a single “situation”, the Kannagara equivalent of an encounter. (“Encounter” is a bad name for them in Kannagara, because in most cases the personae do not encounter anyone or anything.) Then I ran through it.

It worked.

There were plenty of minor moments of tension when rolling dice, and some of the mechanics worked well. Then there was a good section of making meaningful choices, and a climactic moment of tension (when I rolled very well. I win!). I think the basic mechanics are sound, finally.

That’s not to say that they are perfect, because I noticed a few flaws. One was to do with the consequences, and I think it will be fairly straightforward to fix. The others may take a bit more effort.

The biggest was that the first part of the situation did not, in the end, involve any meaningful choices. In part, that was because of the solo-player set up; with multiple players, it would make sense for particular personae to take particular actions, which would add a bit more choice. However, even there, the choices would mostly be obvious given the persona’s game statistics, so while it would distinguish the personae, it would not give each individual player meaningful choices to make.
I think I may be able to combine a fix for the absence of choices with a fix for the problem with the consequences. Let me explain the structure of a situation in general terms.

In the first stage, the players generate their options. This involves dice. In the second stage, they use their options to set up the possible outcomes. Finally, they roll a die to see what the actual outcome is. This final die roll is the climactic moment of tension in the situation, and always will be; the rules guarantee a wide range of possible outcomes, while also guaranteeing that the outcome cannot stop the story moving forward.

Part of the problem with consequences is that the outcomes ended up too purely good or too purely bad. Mixtures are more interesting, from a gaming perspective. I didn’t end up with a bland middle possibility, which is good, and I don’t think that’s possible, but I’d still like more good at the bottom and more bad at the top. I think there is a change I can make to the generation of options that will have that effect. The next step in development will be to try to make that change work.