By virtue of the magic circle, all games can be said to exist within a liminal space.  But liminality is a mental state, you have to have the buy-in of the player to get them into the space.  It requires that choice to transgress out of their normal space and into the new one.  Otherwise they are standing on the the border and never truly in both places.

I suspect different games will do this with varying efficacy. While we may take on a liminiality when playing any game, some games are much more successful at it.  Appointment-gaming games don’t feel strong in this area, although the person who obsesses about their FarmVille crops even when not in the game may feel differently than I do.   I think these days the games that make me feel most in a space are the RockBand style games.  I don’t just play the game, but become a rock star for a moment, being the idolized musician I never managed on the trombone.

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A liminal space is an other space, one which exists within the world, and separate from them.  I’m interested in these spaces and much of what I practice and am attracted to are about being in them.  In a pagan ritual, we “cast a circle” which creates a space in the world and separate from it.  We did something similar in the Methodist church I grew up in, starting the rituals with the lighting of candles, and by doing it the same way every time.  I’ve often done that in my BDSM practice as well, in order to get myself and my partner into the roles and head space we wanted to be in.

It creates a bubble of space where we exist differently.  Many times this space transgresses on normal reality, existing outside of society’s rules, yet we join a new society with it’s own rules.  We can argue about whether these spaces and societies are objectively real, or only exist in our minds (and I’ve had many of these conversations with Priests and Priestesses of my church), but I don’t think it  really matters. The important thing to me is how we feel in these spaces, who we are and who we become.

Transgression sets us apart from the world, and joining brings us into another place.  The easiest way to do this is to enter the magic circle of a game.  Games are particularly nice as the rules inside are usually quite defined, and often clear.  Certainly the ones inside video games are at least rigid.  This is comfortable in it’s own way, and when you can also step outside your role as a accountant or computer programmer, receptionist or clerk and be some sort of kickass somebody, that’s nice too.

To belabor my terminology, we’re transgressing our role in our society-sanctioned life and taking on an unsanctioned one inside a game.  In modern games (ones developed during the current generation of consoles) I think that there is a direct relationship between how unsanctioned that in-game role is and  how “hardcore” the game is considered.   I don’t think it’s causal, but rather a good bit of marketing.   A lot of the causal PC games that I’ve played — the ones with interspersed stories, anyway — the story is about success in a small business and/or romance.  There’s no world saving or conquering, and no real violence either.

But in the more hardcore styled games there is violence, world saving and conquering.  But what’s more is that the players’ role is much less heroic for all of that.  We have these disaffected anti-heroes set on a revenge plot against some large faceless enemy.  Our heroes are outcasts, opportunists, thieves and assassins.  I think this maps to the emotions the hardcore market is feeling about games.  They are starting to feel like outcasts — or want to feel that way, as it’s part of their identity.

In fact, I think games have a great opportunity here to let us feel what it’s like to be in an Other space, being something Other than what we have, by bringing us in and letting us join the liminal space.  Or, perhaps,  even by making it difficult to join that space where the game is trying to get across a feeling of difficulty or prejudice.  Obviously not all these ideas are going to fly in the AAA space, but I think we’re at a point where there are other options to the artist-game designer.

No post today, it’s just my way of making Thursdays a little worse.  Sorry about that.

I did put up a new post on the erotica blog, though, also about Thursdays.  It’s not safe for work, which is why it’s on the erotica blog.

Tomorrow we return to Liminality, Games, and other stuff what enters my mind and manages to escape.

Here’s a thought that occurred to me as I was writing yesterday’s post.

If Tetris came out today, it’d be a casual game.

So, why isn’t it considered a casual game? It’s success on the Game Boy was a lot like other Nintendo successes since then, many of which have garnered them derision for pandering to a larger market (do people complain to Coca-Cola when they come out with a new flavor or drink that might expand their market?) Well, I think the simple answer is that there was no need for differentiation.  People who owned Game Boys were gamers, and gamers were that transgressive group of enthusiasts who played and enjoyed video games.

People tend to stick with the hobbies they do in the teens and early twenties.  People who did model railroad in the early 70s still do model railroading today.  I saw it at origins once, there were three groups of gamers: miniature war gamers, pen and paper RPGers, and CCG (primarily Magic:The Gathering) players.  There was a noticeable age difference between each group.  These games have a set market and group, which is gradually aging, but it’s doing it all as a group.

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Transgression in its primary sense is the violation of a moral law or duty.  It can also be more generally defined as “the action of going beyond or overstepping some boundary or limit”, according to one of The Free Dictionary.com’s sources.  The primary sense, therefore, is a specific case where the boundaries and limits are imposed on us by society.

This interests me because first, I’m a geek, and second I’m a member of many sub-groups which define themselves (or are externally defined) by how they transgress from society.   Geeks by nature seek edge conditions. It lets them know the space they live in and, well, the most interesting stuff is at the edges. As a programmer, I spend most of my time dealing with edge-cases, so finding the borders, and knowing where they are is important to me.  Also important is  knowing when to cross those borders and under what circumstances.  In other words, knowing when to transgress.

At some point my geekiness started getting applied to the social rules and norms around me.  I know that as a high school student, I devoured books in an effort to understand the social rules we live by.  I was too embarrassed to admit I might not know those rules, so I had to find them from a source where I wouldn’t be exposed to ridicule or shame.  As a result I taught myself some odd rules, between Tolkien and Heinlein, and everything in between.

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You have a bunch of players, and you’ve got a world you know they’ll enjoy playing in? Awesome!  And when they get there, they don’t care about any of that history or story, it’s just killing and loot, and you wonder why you bothered? Yeah, I get that.  When I feel that way, I start running modules.

But I don’t like it, and when I do get the players to interact with the world through their characters, everyone has more fun.  It’s the thing they remember when they talk about the campaign later. Few people remember battles — although they may remember the loot.  The battles where we still talk about them is when some interesting interpersonal or inter-character conflict happened.

A good villain will do this, if the players are invested. This requires threatening something they care about. Early in the game, that’s just them, which is why so many video games have betrayal/revenge plots.  (Not that they are all equally successful.)  Since we’re not making a video game, though, we have more options (perhaps video games could do this too, though.  The Sims does.)

With Amaranth, the players are going to be Heroes of Legend. They’re going to save the world. Yeah. Ho hum. Who cares about saving a world that only exists to be saved?    The character motivation is already there, but the players need the boost.  So what we’re going to do here is to threaten the p layers creations.  Not the GM supplied world they live in, but the one they helped create.

Phil Menard (aka ChattyDM) sparked this idea with his party creation session template. That linked up with some of the Mouseguard RPG bits I was reading, along with the My Life With Master game I’m running on Wave.  In all of these games, part of character creation is writing sentences about your character, and creating relationships with other players and NPCs in the world. The latter almost always means the players create the NPCs to have a relationship with them. Phil even has them create specific places in the world that are their favorites, and tensions with other players.

So I will be creating a similar questionnaire for my Amaranth game.  It’s started, but user feedback is welcome. It’s a wiki so make changes, or comment here your suggestions, I’d appreciate it.

Let me say up front, that I love designing worlds, particularly ones where I’m going to tell stories within them.  Usually that means game worlds.  My favorite game system of all time (that I never played) is Aria, which won’t let you create a character until you’ve created the world, his nation, his city, and his heritage group and profession.  So I’ve never managed it.  I always got stuck up in the details (incredibly interesting details) of world creation.

I used to be very much in the simulationist camp, which mean I built a logical world with people and pressures in it, and dumped the characters and/or players into it and let them see what happened.  It’s interesting, but the players always warped the world around them, which frustrated me as a simulationist.  They were part of it, not the point of it, right?  Well, no.

I mean, why does the world exist if not for the story teller, reader or player to enjoy it? Certainly a fleshed out world is more interesting, but much like a play, the only things that need to be right are the things that face the player.  Knowing more is good, as it gives you flavor and feel and intuition to tell more, but it doesn’t all have to be perfect or told.  Video games and taught me this: games like Zelda reflect their game design and mechanics in the world itself.

The world I am creating for this game will be different than those, it is created to be a place for the players to be heroes.  It will enable and challenge them to become heroes, and while it will have a history and (presumably) a future, it exists primarily as a place for the players to be and become awesome.  Just as Hyrule is largely that place for Link, so will Amaranth be for our players.

Hyrule is for a solitary hero, though, and Amaranth needs to be ready for a group.  It needs to reflect the game mechanics for the game we’re playing and our plot needs to allow us to get into Zelda-like cycles and fractals.

Zelda is largely focused on the number three (despite the later game’s use of the number 4), and that’s implicit in the Triforce.  Amaranth has the Tetraganon (which is both a Zelda reference and a play on the number 4).  Why the number 4?  Well, several game mechanic-y reasons.  D&D 3.x is designed around a four-person party.  There are four basic styles of class: fighter, rogue, wizard, and priest.  So Amaranth is divided into fours.

Zelda usually has a regular world, and a shadow world. Much of D&D has a “Shadow Plane”, so Amaranth will have one as well. We can add two more planes, one of spirit and one of material, to mirror the Astral and Ethereal plans from D&D.  This is somewhat important, as we want to enable a full palette of choices from the D&D books, and make sure spells work logically without doing a lot of modification to the rules of the game.

There are four Goddesses/Great Spirits, which represent four virtues (Strength, Courage, Wisdom, and Wit).  Those don’t map directly onto the character classes, but that’s a good thing.  The Kingdom of Amranth is divided into four duchys, the city into four quarters.

Also, standard D&D has 20 levels, so the party should gain a certain number of levels per area, as they work through the whole story, capping out at 20 when they enter the Shadow realm and defeat the final enemy. Or enemies. There might be 4.

Four is a good working point, and gives a feel for how big things will be and what the cycles will be that we’ll use.  I don’t want to go into too much detail, things will change as I move forward on the world design.  But there are guidelines here, and that helps.  I’m documenting it all on our wiki.  A good place to start is with the Amaranth page itself, which uses another bit of influence, the Aesop’s fable of the Amaranth and the Rose, which gives me a bit more theme to work with.

I’ll write more about Amaranth as the design fleshes out some, and as I can write things that aren’t integral to my plot ideas.  That’s not a huge concern, as the cycles and fractals will give the players a feel for the shape and size of the plot, and it’s rhythm.  The next part is how to make the players care about and feel a part of the world.

So, yesterday I listed a bunch of limitations that my game has to contend with:

  • Looting required
  • Simple system or one people are familiar with
  • Generally short attention spans
  • Almost certain attendance issues
  • Needs some role playing for the GM

To which I need to add one more limitation that I’d forgotten about:

  • Fantasy setting

I also said that I found my answers with a Zelda game, specifically Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. Although, I’ll admit Phantom Hourglass also informs my thoughts (but it strongly informs Spirit Tracks, so I guess that’s okay.)  “Wait,” you say? “I thought you said video games were largely soulless, and you’re going to them for inspiration?  How doest that work?”

Hopefully really well.  Well better than D&D 4e managed it anyway.  It doesn’t fix all of my issues, but it gives me some very strong design guidelines that fit well with a good portion of my limitations.  This is pretty easy to demonstrate.

Zelda is a fantasy setting (despite the existence of Trains) with some looting — certainly there are treasure chests and pots to break all around, and they drop health and any of the consumables Link uses.  Perhaps most importantly, it’s a DS game.  That means it’s designed to be eaten in bite-sized chunks, perfect for short attention spans or the time you have to play a portable game.  It also has a structure that’s fairly tried and true, and you can leave it alone for days or weeks, and come back to it, still reasonably certain what has to be done next.

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I suppose in some ways this post will be obvious common sense.  That begs the question of why I should write about it at all, but I think it took me a while to really understand it myself, so maybe this will be useful to someone else as well.  As I described yesterday, I have the dual problems of wanting to play pen and paper games and a group that doesn’t precisely meet my needs for type of game. I’d love to play a more role-played, less combat-centered game, but my group wants to get loot and that moves you into the kill/loot/sell cycle.

A lot of people will tell you that if the group and GM aren’t in sync, or if there’s a player problem then you get rid of the player.  I’ve done this — in high school — but I can’t do it now.  My wives are two of my players; another is Girl’s husband, and still another is their daughter, my GoddessDaughter. I only have two choices: accomodate them, or not play.

I suspect that’s why I’ve been hesitant to game again.  The last time we gamed, playing D&D 4e was pretty awful — for me as a GM and for my players, as well.  It was even more about battles and the looting has become more like shopping, as you have a list of things the players want and you place them there to find when they kill the monster. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and the combat really doesn’t support the attention span of my group.  Or keep me interested.

That’s when I realized I was going about it wrong.

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My gamer roots are with pen and paper games.  Oh, my family played the classic board games: Monopoly, Life, Connect Four. We later got Stratego and Risk and some more esoteric things — but that was after the pen and paper revolution. We played a lot of card games — Bridge was my father’s favorite, although Mom and I struggled to keep up with him and his mother.  But there was just something about pen and paper games that got to me, and to my friends.

D&D was first, with the red box.  We quickly switched to Traveller, because one of our players (the one with the best play space, at the time) was the son of a Southern Baptist minister and spells and demons were not okay, but lasers and aliens somehow were.  We never told Blair’s dad about his Ultima game collection.

My computer was an Apple][c (unlike my friends Commodores), and I didn’t really have any games on it — Temple of Apshai Trilogy, which someone had copied for me and for which I had no books nor idea of how to play.  I had a copy of some baseball game where I always struck out, and I had Bureacracy which was freaking hard and I never beat.  Not that I didn’t use it to game, no my AppleWorks MegaTraveller ship building spreadsheet was a thing of legend.

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