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My First “Game:” Know Thyself

I was talking with one of my roommates earlier this week about how I got my start in games. Typically, I tell the story of being hired by Paul Tevis to work on A Penny For My Thoughts (which I’m still quite proud of, even if there are things I’d change today). But as with every story, there’s always something earlier you can point to—for this, it’s a game I hammered out in 2007 called “Know Thyself.”

There’s a competition that happens yearly in the indie RPG community called Game Chef, where a number of ingredients and constraints are listed, and you have a few days to make a game based on those ingredients and constraints. One ingredient list in 2007 had “Memory, Palace, Currency, Drug.” A Penny For My Thoughts came out of this Game Chef competition, and if you’re familiar with the game, you’ll see right away which ingredients Paul used.

I went with memory, palace, and currency, and made a fairly weak game. It had a map (“palace”), you had to fight to buy memories (currency), and your goal was to regain your identity (memory). It sucked, but there were some neat ideas—or so I thought.

There was this thing called the Ashcan Front in 2007, an experiment to make a booth at Gen Con specifically focused on selling “ashcans”—half-baked games that needed some playtesting—to people. I agreed to participate in this experiment[1]. (And later criticized it, which really says more about me and my needs than about a business/development model. But I’m jumping ahead.) That meant I had to get off my ass and make Know Thyself “ready” for Gen Con.

I learned so, so many things about game design and production in that summer. That’s when I learned the basics of InDesign, which continue to aid me, and in the failure of that game I learned numerous little lessons. I also learned about hand-producing cards, because I figured that my first game should use a completely custom deck of cards rather than, I don’t know, so dice or a standard Bicycle set.

The game I ended up making for Gen Con didn’t have the map element, and threw out a bunch of other cruft. In that, I refined the premise, which I thought was cool: Something happened that you want to undo, so you’re using a highly dangerous form of time-travel to right it. But in order for time-travel to change anything, the traveler can’t remember the past as it happened. So you wipe away your memories, knowing that they’ll come back once the timeline is “fixed.” There’s a catch: your mind itself rebels against this violation of identity, and fights with you to keep the timeline as it was so that it isn’t erased.

That seems like a cool premise. Also, I just now explained it better than in the 2007 book.

Paul also got his game ready for the Ashcan Front, so we were occasionally comparing notes about our games about amnesiacs. Eventually, after my third email and dozenth IM conversation, he said “Let’s make this official. What are your editing rates?”

That, and they say, was that. But I’m not just going to tell you a quick story out of context. Here’s Know Thyself:

I figured that some of you might like to see my first stab at a game—or, at least, my first published stab. This led to Mythender, in that as I was struggling to figure out what I was doing on this game, Leonard Balsera infamously told me to put Know Thyself down, and “make a game about killing orcs or something.” After Know Thyself, I felt like I was a complete failure, and if I hadn’t listened to Lenny, there wouldn’t be a Mythender, Dresden Files and Fate Core wouldn’t be nearly the same thing, and so on because I would have given up on game design.

Warning: This game is pretty much unplayable, hence the scare quotes in the title. There are a couple maybe-good ideas in here, all around a bunch of crap. Enjoy it (if you want) for what it is: a glimpse in the past and proof that it’s possible to be shit at something one year, and be micro-nerdfamous for it after a few years of dedication. I can’t say that I’m proud of the game’s design, but looking back on it as I write this, I guess I am proud of making something at all, and sticking with the craft even though I had this failure I could physically point to.

(Also, hyphenating “roleplaying” is a dumb style, past-me. You/I should be ashamed at ourselves.)

– Ryan

[1] Before I signed on, I interviewed the two people who put together the Ashcan Front as a way-early episode of Master Plan. There were some other podcast interviews around that time and a few months afterward, from Sons of Kyros and Theory from the Closet. And then I wrote a post on my defunct LiveJournal about how I ended up regretting the Ashcan Front and found it problematic. Ah, 2007, how you were weird.

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One Response to My First “Game:” Know Thyself

  1. Pedro says:

    Ryan, Know Thyself is a full repository of creativity. Probably, it’s not playable as it is, now. Nevertheless, it’s a resource of inspiration, the seed of a good system, in my opinion.