Writing for unfamiliar design traditions

So I’m a classic design sort of player, GM and adventure writer and encouraged by a friend I decided to take a look and try my hand at the ongoing Trophy design contest. Having read the rules for Trophy and Trophy Gold (I understand Gold better) and mulled them for a day or two now I’m fascinated by my own confusion.

Not so much at the rules - it’s rules light after all, but at the unspoken assumptions of play. What’s expected of the GM and accepted by the players as within good play. The goals, the play ethics and design principles are all very different. The lack of maps or meaningful spatial elements for starters.

I don’t mention this to complain about Trophy or the design tradition it comes from, but to humbly acknowledge my own lack of understanding about it, and in that reflect on how little we know about the games other people play. I’m going to finish my Trophy submission (heck it’s almost done now), but I’m sure it’ll be a clumsy one simply because my natural concerns in adventure keys are space, time, lighting, and interrelation - which aren’t what the game is about. What I’m also realizing is that for the play styles I do understand it’s even more worthwhile to provide simple explanations to folks that are coming from something else. Not just about the procedural aspects of play but the whys behind them. Why is encumbrance important, why might you roll 3D6 stats in order, why is fudging die rolls to save PCs bad, why are maps important.

Has anyone else experienced this sort of bemused confusion trying to understand how a novel style of game is played? Not about the rules or mechanics but about the intent, play style and expectations for players/GMs?

9 Likes

Might be worth watching some Trophy AP on the Gauntlet YouTube channel to get a feel for the game in play.

1 Like

Absolutely helpful, though actual play doesn’t really make explicit the player assumptions and ethos. Actual play videos can certainly be a learning tool. I think in the case of things like Critical Roll and other entertainment actual plays it can do a great disservice as play style is bent towards the performative.

Again I’m more interested in my disconnect between playstyles and the pedogogical space it creates. I’m also intrigued by the question of to what degree play style prior to actual play vids was/is a product of specific tables v. written advice? Can one learn to play decent B/X from B2 and the examples in Moldvay or does it happen when you have a good GM during the summer of 6th grade?

3 Likes

I felt kind like the same. I am amazed by what trophy gold accomplishes on a meta level. It breaks down old school gaming to some essence, which I like. It brings a really nice twist on how to deal with creatures. It gives the GM a scalpel to cut out the skeleton of adventures or modules and getting you to the bare bones. Being familiar how games are run this is a great tool for preparing a game. You have the raw structure and could mix and match set pieces or even strip unnecessary parts out. If you know what you are doing, this is great.

OTOH if you have no idea of what you could do you are having a hard time. The kind of presentation of the adventure structure is a bit like giving someone the ingredients for a recipe but no steps for reproducing the experience.

If I cooked the meal, oftentimes reading the list of ingredients help me to remember how to do the meal, but having not done that meal before having the ingredients is a bit difficult to imagine where this is going to end. Say the recipe is about a soup, the ingredients do tell you nothing about texture and consistency - things you would get from a picture of the made dish.

Coming back to trophy: I felt some kind of irritation too looking at the adventure structure of Totsk. I knew this adventure beforehand and I knew its map. But having only read the trophy gold version I could not really imagine where this would be going.

I find the kind of deconstruction of an adventure really helpful. So I did a deconstruction by myself of the Labyrinth Lord adventure “Tomb of Sigyfel” which worked out really great.

BUT: I put the map alongside, because it helps me running the game. Without it felt incomplete.

About experiencing the “new”: At first I had a hard time getting my head around PbtA games. Not that they are hard to understand but I had to unlearn many things and preconceptions so to say what is a roleplaying game and how should it be run. What helped me was reading the rules, reading discussions about the rules, listening podcasts about the games (gauntlet does a really great job on that), listening to actual plays of the games and last but not least of course play them.

1 Like

This reminds me a bit how I’ve had these really incredible breakthroughs while playing some indie games. Swords Without Master comes to mind instantly. I’m in the middle of the game, when I go wow, I can actually do stuff. Just this sense that I’ve been broken free of the way I think about RPGs because I’m playing something that’s so radically different, to the point where I can look back and understand the unspoken constraints I was playing inside.

1 Like

I mean I think Trophy and Trophy Gold succeed to the degree they aren’t classic play. Trophy Gold appears to do a better job of the genre simulation of classic play, but at its heart its goals and playstyle are different. It reduces spatial and puzzle complexity to scene or vignette while raising the issue of character motivation and psychology to a mechanical (as much as anything in it is mechanical) issue. That Trophy Gold uses TotSK as it’s example should be a clear enough indicationvthat it’s not classic play oriented. This is not a critque, but Trophy is not classic gaming, doesn’t want to be and to say otherwise feels reductive of both traditions.

As an example.

In the Trophy sample incursion there’s a statement that at a GM appointed time the forest gets dark, and a PC will fall suffering injury. There are no meaningful mechanics in Trophy for injury beyond ruin (though horrors can kill), so this is purely a dramatic flourish or cue to the players that they cannot advance without solving the issue of darkness (sleep being expected, perhaps necessary result - with a creative group and GM other resukts might work). In a classic game these statements - just the idea that something automatically happens to a PC - would be the worst kind of GMing, scoffed at by the ethics of play.

The same situation/challenge could of course occur, but the system would be different. Movement rates reduced for darkness and a 2 in 6 chance that the party will be lost, leaving the hex through a random side. A Dex check vs. falling and injury, say 1hp (+1 for those in heavy armor) - something like that. Precautions (magical light, a skill in blindfighting, an owl familiar, oil lamps, or even roping the band together) would have an effect and could mitigate the penalties and avoid sleep in the haunted forest. The play ethics are entity different, the purpose of mechanics entirely different and the GM role entirely different. From this the experience and goals of play are entirely different.

Of course there are commonalities - both are TTRPGs about fantasy adventure, but I want to avoid the hubristic posture that running B2 with Trophy vs. 1981 Moldvay creates remotely similar games.

2 Likes

Simply put, because RPGs are social contracts and have large unwritten possibility space for what a character is allowed to do, or what a GM is encouraged to do. Each RPG game is a culture more than a set of known rules. Your basically from navigating the social norms of a different culture.

The easiest way to write for another culture, beyond immersion in that culture until you adjust to the norms, is to identify the major themes that culture values and write things that resonate with those themes. For Trophy, the codex issues detailing the systems do a pretty clear job saying what the designer feels is important and why in their system. Base Trophy has a sense of clear fatalism, playing to lose in a compelling fashion - hoping to see further into the darkness before it swallows you. Trophy: Gold digs deeper into suspense and tension, playing to win but knowing you’re just a roll away from death… Wondering when it’s going to come claim you.

10 Likes

Very well put, @DanFelder.

1 Like

Interesting question. I have started to play and run more PbtA games over the last few years, beyond simply collecting them for fun, and I often wonder if I am approaching them correctly. I’ve ran two games of Zombie World, and like you find I am often obsessed with drawing out maps and figuring out a rough layout of things, when I suspect another (better approach) for these sorts of games is to let the specifics be dictated by complications produced via die rolls. Or maybe not! I suspect you need to really play and be around people into this stuff to really get it it. Or read a lot of blog posts. It is very much a play culture thing, and I don’t think books always capture that stuff well.

I am looking forward to your incursion. I feel like I should try and write one too.

4 Likes

I think Trophy Gold is OSR in that sense that it embraces the renaissance spirit of going back studying the roots of the movement but not to reproduce the past but to transcend it creating something new. So I totally agree on your point about Trophy not being classic gaming.

Regarding your point of “worst kind of GMing”:
If you look at it from the perspective of classic gaming many things look railroady like you said things are just happening. But if you look closer the player agency is mostly preserved. At the beginning of Ring2 someone should fall or almost fall. This is not about injuring the PC and undermining its autonomy it’s about setting the scene. Like if you are watching a movie: Today we are used to cuts and changings in space and time. And if the actors do a great job you have not the feeling of actors going from scene to scene like pearls on a necklace. Setting the scenes and ending the scenes happens on an extradiagetic level (outside the story). Just like in a movie when it is suddenly night. But how you feel as the audience depends on how conclusive it is done. It might feel from an intradiagetic point of view unrealistic if someone just falls. But in context of having a cutscene where the camera reenters just at the moment when someone falls it doesn’t feel unrealistic: We as an audience do not know exactly what happened in between the cutscene.
It might seem like a gambler’s trick (perhaps it is), but is only a small cut into player agency. This is kind part of the extradiegetic agreement of the players of the game. You agree to skip over parts of the story and more: even skip extradiegetic parts (mechanics) in ending the current scene and setting the next. This is part of the “Trophy” game experience. This kind of railroading doesn’t hurt as long as it is restricted to “setting the scene”.

A more soft variant would be not to start a scene with the event of someone falling but as a hint to the director (GM) it would be totally sound when someone falls, so he should be on the lookout for a possibility to make that happen within the story.

To make a long story short, I understand that one might be baffled of how this all works and whether and how it does work out because there is a lot of history between the “classic” game and games today. To a certain degree I am too baffled, because I knew how we played in the late 80ies/early 90ies and had a break from 1999 till end of 2018. And I am on some kind of roller-coaster ride consuming the history between and reflect my own experience back in the days and the first bunch of games actually played this year (Trophy was one of it) and working out what my desired gaming experience should be.

P. S.: Regarding your headline of “Writing for unfamiliar design traditions” it might help to reflect on “narration” or “narrative elements” in media like Netflix, YouTube or even Snapchat (there are interesting narrative microformats) and experiment on what works in a roleplaying game and what not.

5 Likes

Have you tried running without an actual map/rough sketch? I have to admit feeling insecure without; although I imagine for playing Trophy I wouldn’t need one, but for a dungeon in Dungeon World I would be nervous(?) like climbing without lifeline. :flushed:

Don’t want to derail too much, but it is something I am thinking about more recently. I think if you have a rough idea of what’s up, then you could use complications to inform the actual environment based on the current fiction and what seems interesting. :man_shrugging:t5:

I do think for Trophy in particular you could write an incursion with a limited understanding of how the game works because the incursions are so structured. That might be an interesting experiment in and of itself.

1 Like

Again the point is not that the design decisions “someone falls” or whatnot is or isn’t good or bad, but precisely that it is a very different emphasis on what’s important in play. Indeed, the entire story game sphere seems focused on the creation of narrative, especially narrative as genre emulation. This makes for a particular interest in filmic or novelistic narrative structures as you mention.

Classic play, at least in the sense I use the term, does not do this (though many authors, even early ones like the Hickmans, try and contemporary trad play suffers from over reliance on scenes and paths). The classic play structure is unconcerned with narrative beats, or expects they will derive organically from resource depletion, risk and reward. Risk v. reward and simulationism replace narrative tension and genre emulation. A different role exists for the GM - arbitrator v. storyteller.

All this is of course to the good in both cases - I know you can run classic games to get the specific play experience they promise and I know you can run story games to get the play experience they promise. They are different experoences. Simply put, of course you can run OD&D without a map, improvisationally, but in all likelihood it will be a bad session because you are depriving yourself of the tools to do so well: spatial orientation, factions, timekeeping, resource managment, and secret discovery to a greater or lesser degree. Someone will of course say “Yes but I’ve done it” or “This product does different” and all that’s true, but just like the existence of BMX tricks or cyclocross don’t make road races any less a part of cycling these don’t disprove the mechanical/design and ethics underpinning of classic TTRPG play.

So my point is still: classic play and story games (like Trophy) require different approaches to play, to GMing and to design. It’s this last one I’m currently contemplating. I’m enjoying writing for, and find the differences interesting because the nature of play seems to come from those differences. The differences depend on largely unwritten asdumptions and ferreting those out is also interesting.

3 Likes

That’s the interesting thing. What are the ethics of play, what are the design principles, how do the mechanics support them and are there hidden mechanics that create specific decision trees or cycles?

Given that one of my current projects is trying to write up discussions of these sorts of questions for dungeon crawl games and figure out how to tweak 5e to facilitate dungeon crawl play, I am curious about other play traditions as well.

Obviously even within classic play there are multiple play procedures. Wilderness travel is entire different then location exploration for example. In story/PbtA games I see a smaller scope (the goal begin a specific game experience, not a simulation of a world) but a similar lack of detailed instruction beyond when to roll die X. Can a primer of values and goals that really gets one into the mindset of a game exist? Can one write one?

1 Like

What I find interesting is, that the points you bring up are currently the points I am contemplating too. I am moving backwards in time so to say, began lately rereading my old DnD 2e books - the starting point in my DnD career (I was socialized in germany where DnD wasn’t as big as e.g. in the states - we had a local flavored game rooted in licensing struggles for a german translation of DnD and ending in designing a different game, which became more popular at the time). My knowledge of 1e or even ODD is second hand, i.e through listening podcasts or reading what people blog about the game. Currently I am thinking of buying 0e via DrivethruRPG - more for curiosity than with the intention of actually playing it. And one leading question is »What was the game about in the first place?« Even when I started “the game” many people playing it had already a history with it - or its predecessors.

You are totally right in that it should not be read as “good” or “bad” - and I hope, I did not sound like I pointed in that direction or understood what you have said in a sense of you valuing one over the other; if so I beg your pardon, since it was not my intention. What I intended to do was choosing a comparative approach of looking through two different coloured glasses so to say.

1 Like

Oh no, I was just trying to make clear my position that the play styles are different. I thought you may have read an intent to criticize Trophy’s approach to events. So much of the PbtA and classic game discourse seems to have been poisoned by certain personalities over the past years and I don’t want to be part of that. It seems especially bizarre given both communities are quite small, have similar attitudes toward DIY creation and somewhat similar play goals. Really we should be sniping at Pathfinder, 5E and contemporary trad play (sarcasm … we must have enemies to be a fandom, right?).

I’ve played a lot of 0D&D, it’s my favorite system - at least my house ruled version is. Understanding the LBBs though is weird. I think 1981’s Moldvay Basic book is still the best intro to the playstyle and many of the procedures, but once you have the pre-3e D&D procedure down trying to reconstruct 0D&D is a fascinating project. It has some wonderful (accidental maybe) synnergies and design choices: a hard AC cap, d6 HD and Damage dice, and very spare but sufficient monster selection that create an amazing system for tense exploration games (it has almost no exploration rules though - just combat - you have to build them mostly) and flat power curve. All is fascinating until you add in Blackmoor.

Check out Necropraxis the blog (early posts on Pahvelorn especially) for some great insights into 0D&D.

I’d also add currently Mazarin’s Garden blog has some great discussions on the ethos of classic play.

5 Likes

Thank you very much!

What I read lately and found amazing - or at least interesting

1 Like