Here’s my quick round-up of notes from the GAMA trade show, which I attended a bit over a week ago.
Game Designer Track: Storytelling in Games with Jeff Tidball
Recommended: The Kobold Book of Board Game Design.
Board games have a 3-stage structure: Beginning, Middle, and Ending.
For purposes of discussion, we talk about “savvy players” here, because new players do not engage the game’s story in the same way. Frequently new players do not see the act structure because they don’t understand the objectives well enough yet.
Act I, the Beginning sets the stage for this conflict with these players. It should represent about 25% of the time spent in the game, and doesn’t include setting up the board. This is the process of drawing the battle lines and setting up the conflict. There are opportunities for setup here, and this stage ends when a savvy player can see what they must accomplish to push for victory.
Act II, the Middle is the struggle for victory. It represents about 50% of the time spent in the game. It is the dramatic tension and should alternate hope and fear. There should be opportunities to trade the lead position. Savvy players are not confused about what they’re trying to do, even if they aren’t always successful.
Act III, the End is the push for victory. This stage represents 25% of the game time, and it begins when it becomes obvious to savvy players that someone is within reach of victory. In this stage, one player will win unless other players do something to upset the victory. There might be multiple pushes for victory, but make sure there are not too many. The player with the upper hand when entering this phase should be the most likely, but not the inevitable winner. The gameplay might change in Act III, and if so, it’s okay if it’s not a surprise (such as in Kingmaker or Innovation).
Problems we discussed:
- Calvinball syndrome, when one player is not engaged in the conflict and gets their enjoyment out of their own criteria for fun. This is partly a social problem, and partly a problem where the player feels like they have already lost. If you always make it possible for the player to win, they will generally not do this.
- Kingmaker syndrome, where one or more players become the deciders for someone else. The way to fix this is to change the gameplay at the end of Act II so that no one can play Kingmaker. A hidden victory position also helps with Kingmakers, as it is not obvious who is winning.
Designing a Setting with Ken Hite
Ken’s “cheat code” is to start with Earth. Players need to be familiar enough to use the setting, and they already have everything you can probably imagine in some form on Earth. If you put it in context by using Earth as the shortcut, it works. Earth is more real and better playtested and weirder than anything you might invent. If you adapt it from Earth, it will still be unique.
Ask what is the conflict, the throughline of the story? That is going to be pointed to at every stage of your setting creation.
Resist having too many flavors. Start with one or two “things” and you can add a “spice” as long as it doesn’t drown out the rest of your flavors.
Know where your players will enter the story and interact with the setting. Where do “heroes” come from in my setting. Vs. Where do the players want them to come from? Give doorways for the heroes to come in, even from inaccessable places.
What’s the carrot? What’s the stick?
Restrict details at first. Limit to 3-5 factions that might be in play to start.
Always limit backstory. It confuses and annoys and is only relevant if the players might access it.
A game (RPG) is not one defined story. It is at least multiple heroes, maybe thousands of stories.
Balance change and constancy. Should the characters be able to change the setting? They might be limited to lower stakes or out for themselves.
A balancer moves in to keep the stakes low, like an emperor or something.
There are levers of power– something the heroes can somehow eventually get to have more power.
There is a cheat point, a runaround to the balancer, something that the players use to overcome it.
They change the world, but in their own image. The throughline is still there, but altered. You can modulate flavor, but not fundamentally change it.
At minimum for a setting:
- A central throughline/conflict
- A geographical “floor” beneath that conflict.
When to expand:
- When the audience demands it (and expand in the ways they call for)
- Build down, not out.
- All expansions point to the central conflict.
On Changing the World:
- How does it change?
- What method do the players use to change it?
- If moving towards apocalypse/renewal, provide the cheat codes; if the world is fragile, why didn’t it break before?
- Boring and overcomplicated
- Letting one part or flavor run wild
- Don’t be too easy… or too impossible.
- Scale the story: the players need to be meaningfully involved.
Money in Gaming with Mike Selinker
Mike asked us not to post our notes on this talk, since he spoke candidly and vividly and answered all the questions from the audience. Suffice to say, the tabletop game industry is not flush with a lot of cash, and publishers like to keep as much of it for themselves. There was little in this discussion that was new to any freelance author from the past 15 years.
Wizards of the Coast: WPN and Retailer Info
WPN has a new level called Advanced Plus for shops. You need to have 0 delinquent events, and all event types are covered. There’s also a quality agreement, and player reports.
Lots of discussion on making game shops welcoming, generally by being clean, well-lit, etc.
Women-only events for organized play are okay, as long as they are casual events (not tournaments).
I also talked to every game publisher I met at GAMA and learned which ones have some kind of organized play or demo program:
- Wizards of the Coast
- Mage Wars
- Studio 9
- Ziko Games
- Gen Du
- Ninja Divisions
- Cool Mini or Not
- Flying Buffalo
- Green Ronin
- Star City
- Victory Point
- Wild West Exodus
- Flying Frog
- Japanime Games
- Game Salute
- Golem Arcana