Entries in gaming (32)
I’m off camping this weekend with the Dying Kingdoms folks, so everyone be good until I get back.
And yes, I am running around in costume with a foam sword. I’m a nerd, and I don’t care who knows it.
UpdateFitness: Rest day (plus running around in costume with a foam sword)
Writing: 0 words, 278 average
“Who was where when?”
I’m sitting at the dining room table in my buddy Ken’s townhouse in Hyde Park, Chicago, Illinois. It’s August, 2009, between my sister’s wedding and GenCon. We’ve just finished setting up For The People, GMT’s card-driven game of the American Civil War. I’m the Union player. And as I’m looking down at the board, that’s what I’m asking myself.
I don’t claim to be an expert on the Civil War. Staring at that map, though, I realize that I have no idea how to even begin to emulate the historical strategy. I’ve got some names — Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Atlanta — and I can see where they are in space, but I have no idea when they are in time. The lines of advance, the critical operations: I have no idea how to get to Appomattox Courthouse. I know that Grant started in the west before he came east, that Sherman marched through Georgia at some point, and that’s about it.
It should come as no surprise that I did not fare very well in the game.1 That was the second event in a few months that reinforced how big the gaps in my knowledge about the geography of the Civil War was. The first was a Final Jeopardy answer on an episode of Teen Jeopardy that I happened to catch. It was something along the lines of “These two states contain the northernmost and southernmost Civil War battlefields maintained by the National Parks Service.” I’d been playing along and rocking the answers, but on this I was utterly lost. Even when the answer was revealed — “What are Pennsylvania and Mississippi?” — I had no idea what the battles were.2
The sudden, embarrassing awareness of those gaps pushed me to finally read the copy of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative that had been sitting on my shelf for years. As it turns out, that question — “Who was where when?” — was the one I most wanted the answer to. As I read, I discovered I needed to put things in space in order to orient them in time. Foote’s maps were good, but I wanted more. On Ken’s recommendation, I picked up a copy of The Official Military Atlas of the Civil War, a monstrous tome3 filled with period maps.4 I even ordered copies of Columbia Games’ Sam Grant and Bobby Lee just so I could place the brigades and divisions on the map and move them around as I read.
Fast forward to the end of February, 2010. I’m at my own dining room table, in Santa Barbara, California. Across from me is my friend David. Between us stretches that same game board. Only this time I look down at the tangle of river crossings and realize why Forts Henry and Donelson are so important. Further down the Mississippi is Island Ten. At the far end are Forts Philip and Jackson, guarding New Orleans from Union ships. Swinging east, there’s Missionary Ridge; I can’t get anywhere close to it now, but I know that unless I can march overland through Alabama instead, it will be a roadblock on my way into the heart of the Confederacy. And in Virginia there’s Harper’s Ferry, Manassas, the Shenandoah Valley — all those spaces where I will never be able to make substantial gains but will have to pour men into in order to keep from losing. Richmond seems almost within reach. Grant is over in Kentucky. If only I could bring him east…
As part of our Fourth Friday Challenge series, Becky asks: “Can you talk about an aspect of the Civil War that you have not covered previously in your blog? Anything you want — the emotional, historical, narrative, geographical, etc.” You can read her thoughts about General Grant over on her blog.
1 That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it was after midnight when we finished anyway.
3 Open, it’s two feet wide and a foot and half tall, and it weighs ten pounds. So when I say it’s monstrous, I’m not just whistling Dixie.
4 His undergraduate major was cartography, so I trust him in the matters even more than normal.
I’m extraordinarily humbled that the Italian edition of A Penny For My Thoughts is premiering this coming weekend at PLAY in Modena. As a lead up to this, Gioconomicon published an interview with metoday about it. Lest you think I speak Italian, here’s the original questions and answers:
- Tell us something about yourself: who are you and what do you do?
I’m a thirty-something software engineer living and working in Santa Barbara, California. In addition to playing RPGs and board games, I love to cook, I’ve taught wine tasting classes, I’m a cycling fan, I used to do triathlons, and I’m getting back into running after a prolonged absence. My wife and I love to travel, which upsets our cats.
- What’s your gamer history? How did you came to game design?
I started roleplaying with Red Box D&D, though I didn’t do a lot of playing in the early years. I read a lot gaming books, particularly the Dragonlance ones, but it wasn’t until after college that I started playing a lot. I was working at a software company when D&D 3e came out, so it was a great opportunity to get back into RPGs. From there I started going to conventions, working on the demo teams for Atlas Games and Steve Jackson Games.
In 2004 I attended GenCon for the first time. That was the year My Life with Master won the Diana Jones Award. I’d been a semi-regular reader on the Forge for a few months, so I bought MLwM and a bunch of other games at the Forge booth. That was really the gateway to game design for me.
- Why did you write this game?
A Penny For My Thoughts was originally designed for the Game Chef 2007 competition. I hadn’t done Game Chef before; the timing and my enthusiasm for it just happened to coincide that year. I was actually on a ski trip with my wife’s company when the ingredient lists were announced and I didn’t have Internet access, so I had to call my friend Josh Roby (designer of Full Light, Full Steam; Sons of Liberty; and a primary contributor to the Smallville RPG) and have him read them to me. Many of the initial concepts were worked out in the back of a bus heading up to the ski resort.
- Why did you choose to write the game as an “in-world” artifact? What challenges came from this decision? What rewards?
The root was probably a playtest for Ben Lehman’s The Drifter’s Escape that I was involved in. My friend Roy said that what he liked about that game was the sort of choices he had to make as a player were exactly the sort of choices his character had to make. I liked that idea, and I wanted to do the same sort of thing in Penny. Once I made the decision to make the procedures something that the characters in the fiction would be doing, it seemed natural to make the book an in-world artifact.
Executing it was tricky. The best choice that I made was to use Dr. Tompkins as my mouthpiece. By creating a character to write through in the active voice — rather than write a generic manual with unclear authorship — I made a lot of my job easier. There were, of course, things that I couldn’t have Tompkins talk about, so I compromised and put those in the last chapter. I think the book benefited from that decision; it’s much more compelling and sinister than it would be otherwise.
- How did you develop the internal currency?
One of the ingredients from Game Chef was “currency” (the other two I used were “memory” and “drug”), so I knew I was going to have to use it somehow. The title was actually one of the first things that came to me (playing on the English expression “a penny for your thoughts”), which sparked the idea of using pennies.
Conceptually, I was thinking a lot about how the Fan Mail mechanic in Primetime Adventures makes other players’ approval of your actions concrete. I was also thinking about a game of The Mountain Witch we’d played recently. We’d used poker chips to represent Trust in the game, and when players wanted to increase their Trust in each other, I made them physically hand over the chip. I was interested in design something where most of the mechanics involved appealing to the interests of the other players, and the pennies provided a way to make that real.
- Who did you write this game for?
I wrote it for myself. Game Chef was an experiment; I just wanted to try out some ideas. I got enough positive feedback from that process that I decided to try publishing it. Getting the book into print was another experiment. I learned a lot about designing, about writing, about publishing, and about myself, which was my real goal.
- How was your development process? Has playtesting changed some fundamental part of the game?
It was long, mostly because I wrote slowly and I procrastinated a lot. The fundamental mechanics didn’t change during development, so they’re almost exactly the same as the Game Chef version. What playtesting did point out was a need to get people on the same page when starting out. Some playtests had a problem with everyone coming in with different and contradictory ideas about what sort of world they were in. That’s where the Facts & Reassurances document came from. It was a way to establish a few ground rules to keep things coherent. Of course, once my editor — Ryan Macklin — and I decided to add that element, we realized we could use it to do alternate settings. It let us turn a weakness into a strength, which made me quite happy.
Ten years ago I read something from Neil Gaiman that stuck with me. I’ve lost the exact quote, but it goes something like this: “Lots of people say they would like to write a book. That’s not true. They would like to have written a book. They don’t like the writing part.”
An important idea I’ve discovered in my exploration of coaching revolves around fulfillment.1 Fulfillment is not about someday. Fulfillment is about every day. It’s not about the thing that you one day want to have. It’s about the things that you do and feel today. It’s about the doing, not the having done.
Game design is on the list of things that I’m not doing today. A big reason is that I’m also not doing those activities which support game design: playing regularly and talking with other designers. I get my best results when things I’m doing reinforce each other, when they knit together into a web of ideas that cross-pollinate. Right now, though, game design would be an isolated part of my project list.
I’m not saying I’ll never come back to it, but today, designing games isn’t a priority for me. It’s not for lack of interest; I’ve got at least two designs I’ve started that I would love to finish. Right now, though, there are are other things that I’m doing that are more fulfilling. And I accept that my capacity is limited. So I’m going to do those other things instead.
1 This is from the Co-Active Coaching model, which has a lot of currency with me right now.