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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I don’t like making resolutions.  Resolutions always feel sort of wishy-washy and vague, and it’s either hard to do them, or hard to know whether or not you’ve done them. “Write more” as a resolution would make sense for me, but what does that mean, exactly?  Last year (I think it was in March) I made a list of everything I wanted to accomplish last year.

Now, since it got lost along with everything else, it’s hard to know how well I did, but I remember the big points. One of the items was to migrate Sarah, and while that was accomplished, it didn’t happen the way I wanted, obviously, but it did happen. Mail is now handled by Google, and the website by Powweb, so outages should largely be a thing of the past.  Ones I’m responsible for, anyway.  This year, I’d like to finish the recovery process, or triage it and call it done.  I’ve got the old hard drives that need recovery, and if that doesn’t work, I’ve got to manually fix the blog’s theme and a few other small things.

The other items were a bit more successful.

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In one week, I had three devices fail on me.  One was somewhat expected, and one was no surprise, the third destroyed my confidence.

My Xbox 360 red ringed on me. Again.  This  is the third one Tam and I have had, and is one of the newer models, with the fancy heat sink.  That was the one that wasn’t surprising. I mean, it’s an Xbox 360, right? They die.

For years now (more than a decade) I’ve been running mail and websites out of my home. It’s cheap, and I’ve got enough technical no-how to manage it. There are problems when power flickers or cable screws up.  Goddess knows that Time Warner was down two or three times a month (our current cable provider is much much stabler. And faster.)  The machine, which I named Sarah Bellum after the Power Puff Girls character, has been through a lot.  A five year old sprayed cleaner in her, and she got an upgraded mother board, and some new hard drives.  But she was getting old, and going down two or three times a week.

A couple of days after the 360 red ringed, Sarah B. refused to boot at all. She powers on, and then off. Nothing.  I’d already moved mail off of it — but hadn’t moved a couple of mail accounts (mine and one other person) actual mail off of it.  The websites and their mySQL databases were on the three hard drives.  But I’d bought a new machine that ran Ubuntu nicely, so I had a plan for that. I just hadn’t quite gotten to it fast enough.

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