Game Designer Workshop Episode 8: Big Playtest, Big Problems

dronkeyRed Markets is now in campaign playtesting, so this episode covers what we’ve learned about the game since the campaign began. Hear about the enclave I helped create and what kind of jobs we’ve done. Issues that have arisen solely from campaign issues have appeared that were invisible during one shot playtesting.

Caleb would also like to give a shout to the Indie Syndicate podcast. Check our their Patreon.

Music: Halo from Admiral of the Red

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  1. Man, sorry to hear about the gall-bladder, Caleb.

    I love your discussion about the practicality of economic horror versus cosmic horror. The fact that you sink character creation/advancement points into gear which can be permanently destroyed seems absolutely key to generating that feeling. I can see getting “busted” so badly that you can’t afford to finance your career anymore as one of the main failure outcomes for a character. However, I can see a whole lot of players, like Ross, who won’t want to play out that process. Because frankly, going out of business (and maybe slowly starving to death along with your family) isn’t very narratively interesting. The crisis and failure that causes that spiral might be a good climax, but once the writing is on the wall the resultant inexorable slide is tedious. And players will probably have a much clearer sense of the futility of it than their characters would, since they can see the mechanics and do the math.

    So I think there should be an option to “kill off” a character by “going out of business” once that breaking-point is reached. To make it a more interesting story element, maybe you could reward the choice to “go out of business” with a final vignette of some sort, offering the character an opportunity to maybe salvage some meager continued existence for himself (or at least his dependents) inside the enclave. One last spotlight moment for the character, and one last set of meaningful choices and die rolls to just try to “hang on” at a subsistence level after abandoning the dream of retirement. With either success or failure, that could provide narrative closure for the character.

  2. @Ethan:
    “Because frankly, going out of business (and maybe slowly starving to death along with your family) isn’t very narratively interesting.”

    Having gone out of business once, I would disagree. It makes for a pretty good story to this day!

    (But I get you point as far as gaming is concerned :q)

  3. All you hear is ch-ch-ch-ah-ah-ah and buzzing bees as that dronekey comes for you in the night.

  4. what the hell, don’t die. not acceptable.

    four-story tower of trapped file cabinets oh no

  5. Sorry to hear about your troubles, Caleb. Hopefully things have stabilized.

    I am extremely glad to hear the core mechanics are working well; the extra layers can (and will) be fixed during more playtesting. Hell, most games are being fixed/updated well after being completed (or released as a product).

    And don’t worry about making quick start rules; 115 pages really isn’t that much for a typical tabletop gamer (for reference sake, FFG’s game End of the World: Zombie Apocalypse is 140ish pages for the complete game, which offers a more basic play experience than what you are aiming for).

    I do like the idea of an AP example play for playtesters; I agree that play examples are the best way to learn. The new Hackmaster does this extremely well, using Knights of the Dinner Table for its play examples. I’ve been playing with the idea of augmenting my upcoming D6xD6 material with embedded links to audio APs that match the written content, so that might be something to consider for the Red Markets PDF(s).

  6. I don’t know about “narratively interesting”, but scraping by with little chance of making it big just hits so close to home that it’s too far from escapism and more like, “aspects of my earlier life I don’t really want to relive”.

    It may be a great horror game in the true more realistic sense, but this kind of conflicts with a personal preference of mine with regard to the horror genre:

    I’m not actually a huge fan of fear and dread. They don’t make me enjoy media much. If I’m into a “horror” game or story, it’s either because it introduces unexpected or bizarre new elements to the world (not specifically horror at all), or contains a fundamental uncertainty which is difficult (impossible) to parse. So it’s less about the discomfort and more about investigation of some kind.

    With Cthulhu and similar, characters tend to go out with a bang. You might still be able to do something useful before the end, or at least see something interesting along the way. But a system where your options and vistas just keep getting more and more limited without any way to dramatically turn things around, sounds like the endgame of Monopoly: After a point you can see where it’s irreversibly going, but you have to play a drawn out game to get to the end point anyway.

    Maybe that’s the idea. Maybe economically poignant. But just not my bag.

    Regarding sanity vs. humanity: Call of Cthulhu and it’s ilk do go way over the top with this (fuzzy reasoning and kind of silly), since full on hallucinations, etc. do tend to favor biological predisposition.

    But that said, I think there should be a place in games of “cosmic” horror to represent:

    * Fight, Flight, Freeze – Seem to recall some witness during the Civil War commenting that men you might think tough under normal circumstances would unexpectedly blanch when actually exposed to battle. But also that how one reacted in one battle wouldn’t necessary predict how they would react in a later conflict.

    * PTSD – Lasting psychological impact of hyperstimulating situaitons.

    * Anomie – The PC’s new situation is so different from regular humanity that the individual trying to reconcile the mundane world with the newly discovered reality becomes pathologically out of sync with social norms.

    * Fugue State – Of course much rarer in reality. But they seem often to be triggered by stressful episodes (hadn’t read anything about predisposition so much), and might make sense in situations where reality is in question.

  7. Also sorry to hear about the health woes.

    I do think Ross and Peter Kisner are maybe talking about that feeling of futility. I think that’s a powerful theme to work with, and it has interesting parallels between the zombie aspect and the economic aspect. Both of those present a situation where you have to sit back and think, “What if … things just never get better?”

    It does run the risk of players disengaging from their characters, but I’ve seen that argument for all sorts of games, including CoC. While that’s true for a subset of players, others revel in it – sort of the Dark Souls or Warhammer Fantasy effect.

    A perceived out like the “going out of business” that Ethan C mentions or some way to win the metaphorical lottery would go a long way towards keeping that hope alive. Even if it’s a false hope in fact.

    I don’t fully agree with your assertion that CoC can become power fantasy wish fulfillment. At least, I don’t think that happens in every case but I see how pulp games can go that way. And with the increasing popularity of Cthulhu! everything that’s become more common.

    I think a lot of more recent games do work the writer/designer’s views on running games into the text. After watching Fury Road I was re-reading Apocalypse World and a huge chunk of that book is about examples and even the thought process that Vincent Baker goes through while running the game. It’s extremely helpful and Dungeon World could honestly have used a little more of that. I’d estimate that maybe 1/3 of the book is actually examples and cleverly worked in comments on how this game is actually meant to go.

  8. I really liked the analysis of cosmic horror versus economic horror. poverty is real nihilism–nothing you do matters, you can’t escape, action is meaningless, struggle is vain. at least cosmic horror promises relief, or temporary victories in the pulpier moods.

  9. Best of luck for both Caleb & Ross through all the levels of crazy going on.

    While thinking about it & in love with the design plus open endedness of No Security (with system), it seems something similar to No Security would be a better intermission project for Caleb to work on but not sure myself how much work was in getting the framework done on it. Still seems lighter to work on than Red Markets if wanting to get a break from current projects.

    My thought on Red Markets with negotiation would be depending on the NPC you’re talking to, you get as a player a pool of dice or skills for negotiation based on what the NPC likes. This way if you have the NPC with different hobbies, you can use your dice pool/skills for pushing to the certain hobbies. So it’s a lot like persuasion but more like using favors or knowledge of particular skills to persuade that way. Not sure if you tried something like this or if it would work but just my game design thoughts on the subject.

  10. I wanna give a shout out for that art. I love the robot donkey picture.

    Coming back to the issue of slow failure and bankruptcy, I think there are ways to make it narratively rewarding without making recovery and progression any easier. My idea is to give the player some choice about what to do once their character has gone into the spiral. They could try to keep limping along trying for a recovery if that’s what they find interesting. But if not, they could declare “bankruptcy” to trigger a narrative climax, either an all-or-nothing final risk to get back on track or die trying (the payoff wouldn’t be retirement, but just getting back to having enough capital to be viable), or else a story about their post-taker life. Maybe they become someone else’s dependent. Maybe they find some small way to eke by in the Loss, becoming a contact or resource for somebody else. Or maybe they eat a bullet and donate their remaining assets to their friends (and maybe pass on their own dependents, too).

    However the player chooses, it has the benefit of letting the player move on from their character’s story, while acknowledging the bleakness of that character’s fate.

  11. Sorry to hear about your gall bladder, glad you are better. Very glad.

    I wanted to chime in that there is a very good reason not to repeat rules in a rule book. First of all the book is a reference book and is not really supposed to narratively flow, which I’m sure you get, but the real reason is that you don’t want to introduce confusion and conflicting rules. If you have the same rule different places, you might forget to update all of the places when the rule changes and the game breaks.

    I really can’t wait to see the game, if I were going to GenCon, I would be interested in buying a draft copy and subjecting my longtime players to it. But I’m not going, so I’ll just have to wait.

  12. Hey Caleb,

    I feel for you on your progress with Red Markets. I have had very similar experience with Free Spacer, except I’ve been working on it for a lot longer. Hearing you work through it has made it seem like I’m not the only one doing this.

    Keep at it, I am. Back to the RPG Mines!

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