Reflective Games: The Dice of Destiny

reflective games

I have been drawing inspiration from performance studies and theatre for some time now in terms of game design. In particular, since I often ask inexpert players to come up and act without rehearsal, I have found myself interested in improvisation. I have a close friend, Jordan McRae, who runs a monthly tabletop RPG-themed improv show called “The Dice of Destiny” — it has been happening on the last Thursday of every month since August or September, and I have attended every show that I have been in town for. Importantly, this show incorporates game mechanics and improvisation together, with the outcomes of important player/improvisor actions being determined by a d20 roll. In a lot of ways, there many similarities between what I am designing and this show such as the in-character and interstitial scenes (character creation in Dice of Destiny, the mid-game intermission/check in) and the other improvisational aspects.

Last night, I went to see Jordan’s show, and afterward, discussed my current reflective games project with him — although it’s a larp, there are heavy improvisational elements. Jordan pointed out a missing piece in the design, which was how to ensure that players who have the odd genre out would deliberately try to raise the stakes in the scene and actively try to highlight their genre, instead of going along with the other players.

Jordan suggested adding a new dimension: there would be a public goal for the group, but the odd person out will also have a secret objective related to their genre that would actively encourage them to interact with the others in a genre-specific way.

I think that this will encourage interesting scenes. I’ll be working on programming an app to handle the game this week. Here’s the pseudocode/wishlist for what I’d like the app to be able to do:

1. Display an introduction to the game and the game rules.
2. Display instructions for gamemaster [i.e. responsible for texting/letting players secretly know the genres, responsible for describing elements in the scene, responsible for cutting when they feel it is appropriate] and players [act like yourself if you were in that genre with its horizon of expectations, work with other players’ ideas (yes, and…), try to accomplish your set task, answer questions between scenes].
3. Display a genre and a goal for the group chosen at random from a list.
4. Display a genre and a secret goal related to that genre for the odd person out, chosen from a list. Compare to see that the genres are not the same, and if they are, re-roll before displaying.
5. Display a question chosen at random from a list.
6. Have a button that the gamemaster presses to re-roll for a new scene and question.

Reflective Games: Genre and Ideology

reflective games

This week, I took some strides towards having something complete and playtestable for my latest larp. Since I want to preserve the process, I thought I would share my notes with you as well as the new insights I’ve had today into the design.

NOTES February 14th-15th 2018

“I have compressed disc in my back that I am getting treatment for, which has limited the amount of work I was able to do in the past little while. Last week I spent some time playing some games that I thought might have a reflective angle to them (What Remains of Edith Finch, Oxenfree, and Nicky Case’s simulation, the Evolution of Trust, which I highly recommend and I think belongs firmly on our list of reflective media — I also started playing Fallout 4, and am pretty disappointed by it so far.

I also spent some time thinking more about the larp I’m designing. Right now, I’m trying to work on what I might be able to say using the setup that I talked with you about last week, with movie genres setting the horizon of expectations, and one player belonging to a different genre that must nevertheless be integrated into the narrative. I think the setup is going to work well to create a productive pause that can lead to reflection but the question is, what do I want players to reflect about? One thought is that I may be able to guide the reflection through whatever goal or scenario the players are given to work out, where acting according to different movie genres will lead to different modes of thought and therefore different solutions. That would turn this larp into a system that could contain many possible areas of reflection, in the same way that /This Just In/ could possibly operate with different scenarios in an expanded version.”

NOTES February 19th-20th

* Every player assigned a movie genre
* 1 Player assigned a different genre
* All players have to use the “yes, and…” rule and incorporate each other’s behaviours as if they were normal
* They have to solve a problem together while staying in character as the “movie-genre” version of themselves

* changing a flat tire, doing a grocery run, deciding where to get food, preparing a birthday cake

This version of the game would not necessarily lead to reflections about critical subjects — but does a game have to be about a critical subject to get us to reflect?

I don’t think so, in terms of creating the moment of reflection, but it might be nice to target things a little more, in order to say, talk about problems in film? Representation in all spheres is a problem in Hollywood.

Is there a way to bridge in a discussion around stats/these issues? I think players that could spontaneously discuss such things would be rare, or I would be preaching to the choir. I think maybe the game needs to become more focused.”

At this point, I drew this mindmap:

Here are my notes from today, February 21st 2018:

“genres as frames of analysis

genres as ideology

*Ask them questions in between tasks a la In Tune
‘if your life as a genre, what genre would it be?’
‘how did the genre you were given affect your interpretation of events?’
Genres: a set of ‘rules’ and expectations
Ideologies: a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture, a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group or culture
change the ideology/genre, change the interpretation of events.”

So. This is what the game might look like. I’m not one hundred percent satisfied that this will be the best game ever, but would look something like this.

1. The Gamemaster loads a web app on their phone which gives them the genres to assign to players in secret via text message. The app also loads up the nature of the scene and the interstitial questions.

2. Players receive their genres via text message. The gamemaster describes the scenario and the starting scene setup with as little or as much colour as they want.

3. Players play through the scene in physical space. The Gamemaster provides improvised supporting detail as needed.

4. The Gamemaster decides when to cut the scene.

5. After the scene, the Gamemaster asks the interstitial question. [Not sure if players should just be allowed some time to reflect here or if there should be a discussion.]

6. The Gamemaster reloads the page for a new scene.

7. Play is of variable length — 3-5 scenes?

I’ve created a repository for the code here, but haven’t put anything in it yet. My goal is to have a working prototype of the game for next week.

Autoethnography: Personal Memory Data Collection – Exercise 5.6 Artefacts of Play

adventures in gaming, autoethnography, dissertation

Using Exercise 5.6 from Heewon Chang’s Autoethnography as Method (“List five artifacts, in order of importance, that represent your culture and briefly describe what each artifact represents. Select one and expound on the cultural meaning of this article in your life.”) as a prompt, I’m going to use these artefacts to talk about my history with artefacts of play and artefacts of design.

In trying to write these lists, I’m aware of the difficulty of the word “importance” — my play and design practices have existed for a long time now, and it’s difficult to know what to give weight to. On the one hand, I could list “firsts” — but are the first games I played actually any more important for being first? There’s also games that I played often or repeatedly, not necessarily because they were particularly good or important games to me, but because they were there. In some cases, I just “remember” certain artefacts vividly — is the fact that they are memorable important? At any rate, I’ve done my best to make these lists without worrying too much about whether I’ve got all the most important ones down, and with a multi-faceted understanding of what the term “important” might mean.

Here’s the first list, five artefacts of play. Writing about myself in great detail is less easy than I thought it would be!


* My mother’s brown silk skirt: I used to borrow this skirt constantly to wear it as a cape, or to pretend to be a two-headed monster with a friend. Dress-up and imagination-based games were very important to me as a child. I loved to play pretend. Nowadays, I still enjoy making costumes and cosplaying, and making objects, and I play tabletop RPGs all the time.

* My brother’s PlayStation 2: Many of the early gaming experiences that I remember were with the SNES and then the original PlayStation. I remember having a very limited set of games, which meant that I had to replay or watch my brother replay the same games over and over again. When our household finally got a PlayStation 2, I also got my own memory card, which was important because it was mine to save what I wanted on it. I remember the saved game icons, like the badges that I had earned as a Scout, lined up in rows. What’s important about the PlayStation 2 is that when we finally got one, I was old enough to buy games for myself, if I saved up enough money. The first game I remember buying for myself was Final Fantasy VII, years after it came out. Things are a little fuzzy — it’s hard to remember what I played first. I remember playing the Monster Rancher series, where game discs and others were special artefacts that could gain me unusual fantastic creatures…or often just boring old “Mochi”, the game’s mascot, designed to look like a Japanese treat that I didn’t try until I was an adult.

Even later, I often replayed the same games again and again because I couldn’t afford new ones. One of the games I remember renting most often was Wild Arms, a JRPG with puzzle elements where different characters had different special abilities that could solve puzzles in the dungeons. It was a compelling little game, but the copies that I had access to — one borrowed from a friend of my brother’s, and one rented from Game Zone, my rental spot of choice, always froze at the same point in the game when I played it on our PlayStation. The PlayStation 2 was better able to handle any scratches or flaws on discs, and so I was able to play past that point in the game on the rented disc. I remember longing to own a copy, and finally got one as a gift a few years ago.

I spent a lot of time on that PlayStation 2.

* JRPGs: My games of choice as a child were JRPGs. I especially played the Final Fantasy series, because they had a good reputation and I had limited disposable income, which made it harder to take chances on games. Lately, I have been replaying certain “classic” games that I own copies of with my spouse, including Final Fantasy X, Chrono Trigger, and Chrono Cross. Small moments in the play call to mind my childhood and my earlier formative game-playing experiences. I remember that I played Chrono Cross before I ever played Chrono Trigger, meaning that some references in the game to the other series were totally lost on me the first time around. I remember that one of my best friends’ brothers introduced me to Chrono Trigger, saying how he could choose to do the final boss battle right now, at any time, but that he would get his butt kicked if he did. At the time, I was intrigued, but had no idea who Lavos was.

* A Football: My dad was part of an amateur touch-football league for something like fifteen years. When I was about five years old, my brother started to play football with a local tackle football league. Every game, I would ask the coaches if I could play, and they would tell me “come back when you’re seven.” So I did, and from the ages of seven to twelve, I played in a boys’ tackle football league. I played snapper, offensive line, defensive line, defensive back, tight end, and specialty teams. At that age, I had hit a growth spurt before the other kids on my team, and I was pretty strong and coordinated. I learned a lot from this experience, about what it meant to be a “girl” in a patriarchy, about cooperation and being a part of a team, and about persistance. I also learned that I loved to tackle things and play in the mud. Rainy practices were the best practices. In addition to our taste in books and games, football is something that I share with my brother and father.

* My First Set of Dice: I started playing Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Edition when I was seventeen years old, and I still have the first set of dice that I bought. They are simple, black and white dice. When my spouse tried to test their balance using the old heavily-salted water technique, they wouldn’t float. Over the years, I’ve garnered a reputation for being unnaturally lucky with dice — and not just these ones. I don’t roll a twenty every time, but my character stats, now always rolled under close observation, are always a bit better than normal, and I have been known to come through dramatically in a pinch when playing Battlestar Galactica and piloting. For the past few years, I have played a tabletop roleplaying game once a week (barring any unforeseen scheduling issues) with the same group of people. I’ve played multiple campaigns of Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Hunter: The Vigil, Ogg, Chaosium, Fate SRD, Fate Accelerated, Honey Heist, Fiasco!, Microscope, Kingdom, The Quiet Year, and many a random one-shot. Even when I’m at my most busy and can’t seem to make any time for leisure, I am usually still attending my weekly game night. So, tabletop games, and my dice, are constant companions of play for me.