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The Power of Names & Icons

I tweeted yesterday that, with respect to its design, Apocalypse World is like an onion: there are many layers, and when you peel one back there’s more. (Sometimes there are alsy tears? The analogy is getting away from me now.)

One of the early layers is that it’s a refinement of Otherkind Dice, and that alone is worth a lot of thought. But yesterday I was struck by another piece of the design, one that might solve a problem I was having with a game I worked on a couple years back: iconic characters and name lists.

Inspired by a number of bits, I started working on a two-player story game (called Teardrop in the Sand) intended to be played on a long car ride — I was going to be in a car with a good friend for five hours on the way to the Nerdly Beach Party, and my friend & I love taking that time to brainstorm and discuss games. He’d drive and I’d write, so I drafted a mechanic with a deck of cards to make it so only one person needed to physically handle the system.

Anyway, we made four characters specifically intended for the game. And having thoughts about Montsegur 1244 in our minds, we figured the characters we made would be the ones specifically for the game — you wouldn’t make your own, but play a game with these characters and take stories in a different direction. The intent was to create an environment where you could discuss how your take on one character was different from another’s, like we did with M1244 (and similar to talking about how you did something in a classic D&D adventure different from another group that played the same adventure).

It was good the first time, on that long car ride, though the mechanics were rough. I decided to try the game a second time with another friend, and with those characters already made, and it struggled more. The mechanics were a bit better, but the passion was gone. I shelved the game, as one tends to when an immediate answer isn’t there and there’s a mountain of other, pressing work that needs doing.

Later, I would get more and more time playing Apocalypse World. I would play many one-shots, since that’s all we would get to do, so I would keep creating characters. And I would have conversations about “my Brainer” or “my Savvyhead” comparing that to someone else’s Brainer, Savvyhead, etc.[1] Yesterday, I realized that’s what I was going for with my game, but I was looking at the wrong thing.

Montsegur 1244 is about relationships, so having the characters named and the open-ended questions works for that. You don’t talk about “your Phillipa” as much as you do about her connection to someone else’s Pierre Roger or Esclarmonde. So, the names work. (There’s more to talk about on that, but I would belabor the point.)

However,Teardrop in the Sand wasn’t about those relationships, because of the tight dynamic. It was about a magical elven Arabian Nights-inspired world and struggling to forge your way to power or freedom. And what that needs is character ownership, to an extent. By me saying “here are four characters, with names, looks, etc.,” I will intrigue some people, but I am not offering opportunity for hooking into the character enough to want to struggle against the world. At least, that’s what I found. However, the culture is alien to the reader, so I was trying to pepper the mind with ideas.

Re-enter Apocalypse World: when you pick a character, you’re choosing an icon. Then you’re picking names, looks, etc. from a list. Those lists are important details of setting — this is a world where a Driver might be called:

Lauren, Audrey, Farley, Sammy, Katherine, Marilyn, James, Bridget, Paul, Annette, Marlene, Frankie, Marlon, Kim, Errol, or Humphrey.

Phoenix, Mustang, Impala, Suv, Cougar, Cobra, Dart, Gremlin, Grand Cherokee, Jag, or Beemer.

Those names communicate an idea in the mind, though different ideas to different minds. Then there’re the looks, where you pick one from each line:

Man, woman, ambiguous, or transgressing.

Vintage wear, casual wear, utility wear, leather wear, or showy scrounge wear.

Handsome face, gorgeous face, stern face, fine-boned face, worn face, or crooked face.

Cool eyes, hooded eyes, hard eyes, sad eyes, cold eyes, or pale eyes.

Slim body, pudgy body, stocky body, solid body, tall body, or strong body.

And so on with gear, etc. I (and half of indieland) have been playing with this format since Vincent’s demonstrated how to use it effectively. What it does, beyond making creation quick and introducing new character ideas you might not have had (which are not small things, even if I’m briefly passing them by), is creating ownership. Creating more investment than being handed a full character.

At some mythical point when I have time, I’ll be revisiting Teardrop in the Sand with these thoughts in mind and maybe posting the game up. But for now, I needed to talk about how the power of an icon is about a collection of thoughts, where you choose things to refine that into your expression of that icon through tangible choices of names, looks, stuff, etc.

– Ryan

[1] Seriously, you don’t want to fuck with my Angel. She’s unhinged and the center of a Hocus’ cult, so she thinks she’s an actual angel. And for all we fucking know, she’s right.

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5 Responses to The Power of Names & Icons

  1. JDCorley says:

    I’ve seen a lot of people complain about the name selection in Apocalypse World, when really it’s one of the more solid rules in the book. How many times have you thought long and hard about your character’s name, picking exactly the right one and trying to think about family and cultural ties and the time period and and and the person next to you just says “I don’t know, Steve or whatever, let’s get started.” You are going to be saying and hearing that character name A LOT for the remainder of the campaign. Making it a good one should be a high priority, and it’s not easy.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Heh, yeah. Well, I wouldn’t consider those people complaining to see the point of the design. I talked about this in general when I talked about the magic of implied setting. Those names are also implied setting.

      (Also, you can always not choose those, which has other meaning, and you’re still informed by that list.)

      – Ryan

  2. Benoit says:

    I know this wasn’t the point of the article but…
    Teardrop In The Sand sounds really cool. What a great niche – an RPG for a long car ride. Color me intrigued.
    May I challenge you to finish it for NaGaDeMon?
    Yes, my motives are selfish. Still, something I can play with my kids on a long car ride instead of popping in a movie….

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      No. :) This is my job. Time for side projects that don’t pay* are limited, and when that happens, I work on what I’m interested in that moment. Which means I don’t do game design contests anymore.

      I may finish it, at some point. Clearly, it’s still on my mind.

      – Ryan

      *And “might pay once it’s done” falls in that category because that’s speculation work.

  3. JDCorley says:

    Game design contests are all bad anyway. Like what the world needs is more half baked game ideas.