What Doesn’t Kill You…

The brilliant and gracious Jeremy Keller posted a bit today about how I broke his game-in-development, Apex Redacted I mean Technoir. He talked about how I balked at the intent of his mechanic, to emulate noir genre, by showing how the mechanic harmed my desire to emulate the source fiction. I said in the comments that I was merely paying forward the advice given to me very pointedly by Rob Donoghue.

Let’s turn my lunch hour into story hour, shall we?[1]

I did a playtest of Mythender at GenCon 2008 with Fred, Rob, and company. Two very useful bits of feedback came from that, one shining and one brutal:

  • Fred proved the idea behind the game was solid. He relished ending Cthulhu by using his character’s ability to incite love in the hears of others. He loved Cthulhu to death. Think How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Now make it about deicide. Yeah, that was hot.
  • Rob broke the every loving shit out of my mechanic. (Link to my talking about it in detail over two years ago.) And that’s what we’re going to look at today.

I mention Fred’s bit not only to say “look at my game, isn’t it the coolest idea evar?”[1] but to also say that if I didn’t have that counter-weight to Rob’s contribution, I would probably have been a bit crushed as a neophyte designer. Which would have been a shame, since Rob was doing that out of love.

The old Mythender system had you come up with four traits[3] about how you go around killing gods. You rated them from 2 to 4, or something like that. So you might have:

  • My hatred of the past [2]
  • Bloodtooth, the sword I forged from the first giant I slaughtered [3]
  • My spectral warhorse, made from the souls of all warhorses slain in battle. [3]
  • The song of Thunder, whose melody deafens gods [4]

(I’m intentionally using the new form of Weapons naming over the old trait ones, in case those who played earlier versions are wondering.)

The die mechanic remains the same as it’s always been: you roll X number of Storm dice and however many Thunder dice you have; successes (2-4) on Storm dice give you more Thunder dice, and successes on Thunder dice give you Lightning tokens that you use to inflict vicious wounds. The X originally came from the stat ranking.

My ingenious idea was “dude, I want to make people interested in using their worst stats alongside their best.” So every time you used a stat, you checked next to it. Once you checked them all, you erased those checkmarks and I gave you some currency you used to do more awesome shit mechanically (get extra dice, increase gains, etc.)

Because I presented the idea with that sort of wording to my home playtest group, they played along. They didn’t try to break that intent, to see what would happen.

Along Came Rob…

If Rob was a cruder man, I would say he fucked that intent in its goat-ass. But Rob’s a gentleman, so, uh, he gave it a stern talking to about its harlotry? (Yeah, I got nothin’)

Rob always used his higest trait. And he creamed the fuck out of my system by doing so. He didn’t care about the build-up reward. He wanted the most dice he could have at a given moment, regardless of future gains.

And he was doing better than the other players at gaining stuff to end Cthulhu.

(He also broke another rule he said sucked, where he couldn’t give his gains away. As in, he said “No, that rule’s lame” and handed players some of the mountain of dice he gained right in front of me. I was too shocked to protest. Later, I took that feedback to heart, but not in the way he did it. I owe us all talk about addition-based[4] design as a means of extending rulesets for special options, rather than cluttering a base set with all sorts of things you could do.)

I went home, glad there was a cool story told with my game but also shaken. I spent months avoiding working on Mythender, because I couldn’t bring myself to admit the game didn’t work.

Then I finally sucked it up and redesigned traits…which became Weapons. And I’m far, far happier with the result.

The lesson here that I learned from Rob, and that Jeremy learned from me:

Your genre-reinforcing mechanics don’t mean shit if they aren’t fun for the players.

Word is bond.

– Ryan

[1] A bit of bloggy advice: I’ve started taking to writing my blog posts the night before, and then just quickly reviewing them the next day before manually posting.

[2] Which is the game designer version of whipping out your johnson like it was a fucking winning lottery ticket. Or something.

[3] And I have a blog post brewing in my mind about how toxic that word is in RPGs today, in that it is a detriment to the design process. Also, four is too many, another blog post perhaps.

[4] Is that the term for the opposite of exception-based design?


3 Responses to What Doesn’t Kill You…

  1. Seth Ben-Ezra says:

    Every game designer needs someone to break his stuff for him. Crystal (my wife) does that for me. I hate it, and it’s totally necessary, and it’s part of why I love her.

  2. Rob Donoghue says:

    I had totally forgotten about the dice sharing thing, and am am both embarrassed and delighted.

    -Rob D.

  3. Your genre-reinforcing mechanics don’t mean shit if they aren’t fun for the players.

    This is both frightening and exciting as I craft the new mechanic for my vampire game meant to emulate the removal of the anchors to Humanity by the Beast as the Fall happens. They seem simple and brilliant in my mind, and I know they’re gonna torn down to bits once they’re out, but without that happening, I can’t get to the eventual right final form.