Justin Achilli

Working on a New Card Game

This past weekend, I began work on a new game. With Anarchs Unbound winding down (just about ready for the editor!), I wanted to switch gears and move toward a smaller, more concise type of game that emphasized short play sessions rather than slotting into a larger RPG-style campaign model. Card games are perfect for this sort of thing and they’re also good player values. You can buy the card game once and have infinite hours of play from it. With that in mind, I dove into a new card game design.

Going into the design, I knew I wanted a few specific behaviors, and those helped me define the experience as a multiplayer card format. In particular, I wanted:

Multiple choices for actions on a single turn: Many card and board games restrict the type of action a player makes, but I wanted a more Magic-styled “here’s what you can do this turn — pick one” sort of approach. This works well for card games, as it makes the sequence in which you play from your hand of cards interesting, with the hand becoming a sort of micro-economy of actions.

Table talk: Man, I love table talk. The art of the deal, running a hustle at the table, and convincing a friend of a specific course of action and then being able to honor that tandem or betray the alliance is fun stuff.

Imperfect information: Games thrive, I think, when players have enough information to inform their decisions, but when they have to discern some of the secrets other players may be hiding. Poker and Magic are good examples of this, as you have to tailor your strategy not only to accommodate the cards you know you have, but also the cards you think your opponent has. And then, when additional players enter the mix — when it’s more than just a one-on-one experience — it really blossoms into intrigue. Lots of critical thought.

Simple systems: Multiplayer games work well when the participants have several courses of action, each of which is straightforward, and the permutations of those actions offer a variety of outcomes. I didn’t want a complex system that pulled the player into its depths and effected a race to complete, I wanted a breadth of possibilities that could play out differently based on player inputs. The critical thought for the imperfect information shouldn’t become overwhelming in its technicality in this case.

Lead with rules rather than setting: Pretty straightforward on this one. I wanted a fluid system structure up front, rather than having an abstracted narrative that I needed to design to fill. I can fill in the narrative later, if I decide I even need one.

I think that you think that I think that you think I have an ace. Now what should I do?

I think that you think that I think that you think I have an ace. Now what should I do? P.S. I’m James Bond.

With all of these combined, I built a playable prototype of a sort of political game. Each player has the ability to put a negative card on himself or any other player, which is the base interaction. The player also has the ability to hide cards in play in front of him, broadening the imperfect information aspect. Different cards allow players to move those allocations of negative cards, bolster them, protect them, etc. So, on your turn, you may want to play a negative card, play a positive card, hide a positive card, bluff and hide a negative card, or play a negative card on yourself to subvert the standard course. It makes for a sort of protracted social yomi that works well around the table.

As to physically printing the game, I’m looking into DriveThruCards, which both Gareth and Bates recommended. I’ll also put up the rules and prototype card sets here soon, in case you’d like to give it a shot.

Gamer Challenge: Sharity Drive Results

The Sharity fundraiser and tournament concluded last week, with some excellent results, thanks in part to those of you who took up the Gamer Challenge. Red Storm raised $2759.31 in contributions to fight hunger in our community. Stickers have hopefully arrived for all backers by this point, too, and I’ve seen a few on Twitter.

Interesting bullet-point details include:

• We collected 882 pounds of food for the North Carolina Food Bank

• Cash donations gathered over the course of the fundraiser will provide over 12,000 meals to hungry families

• Because we had our proceeds turned in before the end of the month, the NC Food Bank will match our entire contribution, effectively doubling the contribution

• We more than doubled every previous Sharity contribution Red Storm has made in years prior

A huge, heartfelt THANK YOU to everyone who helped push us to those amazing heights — you’ve made a change for the better in many people’s lives.

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Six Spears and the Spire

A map is like a good line-art illustration, worth the proverbial thousand words. On the best maps, you can simply take a look at them and immediately have ideas for stories or games that can take place inside them.

Yesterday I went through a folder of old game stuff and found the one below. I can’t remember who did the original illustration (I TinEye’d and everything), but I obviously loved it so much I swiped it and dropped a handful of my own campaign details on it. This was from a game back in 2006, I think, which didn’t quite take off because I was living in Texas and my players were in Atlanta. It was an attempt at play-by-post but almost immediately collapsed under the weight of six adults’ schedules. If only roll20 existed back then. Hell, we hosted this thing on LiveJournal, that’s how long ago it was.

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The campaign itself was fun, I thought. Two big city-states at war, with the players serving as mercenaries taking whichever side they wished, with a great deal of urban conflict and political scheming above the players’ level but visible to them. Ptolus was one of the cities and the other was Ceyrun (which was the City-State of the Invincible Overlord under a different name). The home city was Belluna, a Venetian-styled canal city that was small but wealthy, and where I had run a previous campaign for the players. (I’ve doing something with Belluna right now, actually, but it’s in the queue behind another project or two.) But the point, of course, is that I saw the map, it gave me an idea, and a campaign emerged from it. All creativity requires is that single spark, and then… genesis!

Click here for the campaign character creation and background doc.

Anarchs Unbound: Redlines and Rewrites

If you’re into Vampire, I’ve recently put up some redlined material from the forthcoming Anarchs Unbound book. A blog entry discussing the redlining process and the general production pipeline is here.

If you’re not into Vampire, perhaps you’ll enjoy this music video. It’s the song that will play at my funeral.

Gamer Challenge: Charity Food Drive

We’re running a charity drive at Red Storm Entertainment. One of the teams has a setup by which you can take out a “hit” on a coworker. One of the teams accepts traitors from the other teams and collects their contributions. Another team offers cupcakes for contributions.

So far, my team hasn’t done anything. Well, it’s time for that to change, buddy boy.

The beneficiary is the NC Food Bank (the Durham branch), which usually has enough stock to help hungry families during the holidays, but which runs a little low during the first three months of the year. The NC Food Bank has a relationship with food providers, so money is actually a better donation than actual goods — each dollar provides five meals to hungry individuals, and 97 percent of each dollar given goes to the final recipients, as opposed to paying for infrastructure for the charity itself.

I thought about writing a check, but I think the power of crowdsourcing and social media can turn an initial investment into a much greater contribution. Here’s my plan:

I’m printing 50 stickers (see below). I’ll trade you one sticker for one Paypal contribution, with the simple  stipulation that your contribution is $2.00 or more (because giving negative money to a charity is not so great). Alternatively, you can choose to simply contribute and specify in your Paypal comments that you don’t wish to receive the sticker.

One of these can be yours! Just click the donate button below and let me translate your kindness into food bank dollars.

I proofed the stickers this morning and they’re scheduled to arrive on the 28th of January, so I’ll send them out as soon as I get them. Once I’ve sold the allotment of stickers I’ll do a follow-up post to show you where the money went and the grand total we collected. If you’d be so kind, please also pass this on to gamer friends who might have an interest in helping me and Red Storm stock the pantries for less fortunate families. Thanks!

UPDATE: Contributions now closed. The stickers have shipped to me for fulfillment, and I’ll write the status update soon. Thanks for your support!

UPDATE 2: The stickers should arrive tomorrow, according to the tracking number search. That means I should be able to get the stickers out to contributors by midweek or so. Thanks for your contribution!

Toxic Community and the Illusion of Agency

Bioware has a reputation for storytelling, but it’s taken some hits recently. Over at gamesindustry.biz, I saw an article about the negative environment at Bioware’s social site, however.

Part of the negative attention Bioware has received lately I think comes at the intersection of predetermined narrative and player input. With the negative reception for the conclusion of the Mass Effect trilogy, I think this is a self-created problem for Bioware.

Plainly stated, certain single-player and quest-heavy computer RPGs cultivate the illusion of choice, that you’re in control of the character’s fate. Over time, as the player experiences the game, the illusion grows, but in the end, when the game (or trilogy) concludes, that illusion evaporates abruptly. The end — whether it’s a single ending or one from an array of multiple endings — happens and the player responds with, “What? That wasn’t what should have happened at all!”

dragon_problemAnd that “should have” is the point of divergence from player expectation and the game-as-product that was delivered. In a scripted storyline, as all narrative-construction games must be, because that’s how they’re coded, the player is not in control of his fate. In tabletop RPGs, the gamemaster can’t help but give a mutually achieved story result. In most computer games, particularly those that rely on scripted stories, it’s all but impossible. Marketing, positioning, and development promises for computer RPGs, however, very often posit just the opposite, that every decision the player makes ultimately collects to create a unique ending that is the culmination of his — the player’s — story.

This simply is not true. In any game with a scripted narrative, the best the player can accomplish is some amount of steering the story toward one of the pre-written eventualities built into the game during development. This has always occurred to me as a weird way to allocate development, as well. Your player won’t see a significant portion of the experience you’re paying to develop. It’s as much movie as game, and the player isn’t really telling his story, he’s only pantomiming his version of the permitted story. I remember seeing a marketing promise about Dragon Age’s story component: The claim was that it had as much “content” — a word that represents a loathsome reduction of the craft of storytelling to a product — as nine fantasy novels! Well, so what? If I wanted to read novels, I’d read novels instead of playing a game. And most of that, the player won’t even see, given that he’s making choices in game that wall off a distinct portion of it. “Features a ponderous volume of writing ill suited to the medium into which it’s been crammed, but don’t worry; you’ll never see most of it” makes for a poor bullet point.

The blame here, unfortunately falls on both sides. It falls on the side of the developer perpetuating the lie that the player controls his fate, when really, he’s in control of (meta)gaming his experience toward his desired result. It also falls on the side of the player for not adequately understanding what he’s buying, or, worse, willfully ignoring that reality. Certainly, the player is less culpable in this arrangement — he’s actively being lied to — but, as the old saying goes, fool the player once, shame on you, but fool the player twice, shame on him. For many players, I believe the potential of the outcome outweighed the inherent limitations of the medium, and then reality intruded.

Games that make this plain don’t suffer the same sort of hostility, at least with regard to the illusion of determination. You’re telling Niko Bellic’s story, or Ezio’s story, or Gordon Freeman’s story: There’s no misstatement there. But when the scope of the degree to which the player’s ownership of that story conflicts with what the player has been led to believe, when the amount of Shepard’s destiny that the player controls is at odds with the amount he’s told he controls, that’s where the letdown of expectations occurs. I’m not generally disposed toward the use of phrases like “entitlement,” but in this case the player has been told one thing and given another. So long that continues happening, especially in the epoch of eight-figure development budgets, the feeling of frustration will persist.

Anarchs Unbound Dev Scenario: Stealing Alexander

I’m using the the following scenario as a playtest bed for some of the Anarchs material that’s rolling in. It’s for an elders one-shot or mini-chronicle that uses some of the concepts and mechanics of Anarchs Unbound, currently in development.


The Prince of Atlanta has much to deal with during the week that the city hosts the Grand Masquerade. The agenda for this Kindred convocation seems fluid — vampires of every clan and sect will attend, with a week-long observation of neutrality from all attendees (at least in open sight of others). Camarilla luminaries will rub elbows with Sabbat icons as True Black Hand agents discourse with Anarch firebrands and Inconnu mystics. The gathering will be at once political and apolitical, a chance for the undead to associate without the sanction of their sects… but many contacts are made and relationships are forged in this bizarre crucible “celebrating” the Kindred condition.

Vampire20LogoFor one coterie of Kindred, however, the events of the Grand Masquerade pale in comparison to gaining revenge against a hated rival. For, while the Prince’s attentions lie with the impending convocation of all sects, the time is right to steal the torpid form of the Methuselah Alexander.

Over a century ago, Alexander relented to the will of his assembled Primogen — for he was then Prince — and starved himself into torpor to satisfy the Kindred’s demand for exile. His childe assumed the praxis following Alexander’s abdication, and has since remained Prince. The result empowered the Primogen who, after removing the tyrant Methuselah, replaced him with a figurehead who nonetheless held power at their whim: a puppet, but a puissant one.

For the Camarilla Kindred of Atlanta, the transition from Alexander to his childe was pomp and circumstance. Nothing in their unlives changed as this particular maneuver in the Jyhad played itself out. To the Anarchs, however, the transition represented the grand betrayal of the War of Ages. Meet the new Prince, same as the old Prince, and no Kindred’s lot improves who isn’t already at the top. The shift in praxis was symbolic only, consolidating more power among the council while stripping it from the office of the vacant Alexander. With a strong Primogen and their sledgehammer Prince ruling Atlanta, the Anarchs could do little but bide their time and wait for an opening.

That opening has come. As the Prince and Primogen attend to their high-profile self-congratulatory fashion show, Alexander will be left on his own. And what better statement of Anarch craft and the unsuitability of the Primogen than to abscond with the slumbering corpse of the one-time Prince while his caretakers preen before the rest of Kindred society?

Not everything is so simple for the Anarchs, however. Stealing Alexander would be a grand coup — but they have to find him first. And then, once they’ve seized the torpid Methuselah, what do they do with him? Is diablerizing him publicly, destroying him as a symbol, a grand enough gesture? Would it be better to expose the Primogen for all their vain weakness and demand a ransom? Or might Alexander actually harbor some sympathy for the Anarch cause after a century of torpid punishment?

The Glorious Mess

I have too many notebooks, note-taking apps, and devices. And I just bought another. Some are grid-ruled, some are lined, and some are blank sketchbooks. Some are spiral-bound. Some let me paste in media and some let me edit that media, scribbling over it or making notes on it. I have the paradox of choice — I have too many tools from which to choose when taking notes, and as a result, I have shit all over the place and I can’t find any of it, even though I wrote it down so that I wouldn’t forget it. I have notebooks dedicated to fiction writing, scratch pads for hashing out game design ideas, app subsections for reference works, and little folders full of scraps of paper and physical copies of articles that I really, really promise I’ll mark up or read again this year, definitely.

The romantic notion of the glorious mess, I find, doesn’t work for me. I’ve never been the type of creative who thrives in the chaos of pure potential. I like to know what I’m doing and then work toward that goal. As a designer, I’m more like a producer. I want the thing I’m making to be tight and complete, not sprawling and overstuffed (but only partially done and, hey, we didn’t have time to test that, but it’s in there). I like iterative development because it lets me get rid of stuff that’s rattling around under the hood more than because it gives me a chance to cram something else in there.

It would be excellent if every idea naturally fell into a proper nook and I could just dig it out later, when I needed it.

But of course, life doesn’t work that way. I don’t get to pick and choose my inputs or decide when an idea is going to come to me. (The shower, when I literally cannot scribble something into a notebook or peck it into a mobile device, is a particularly fecund idea time.) And that’s why I have ideas scribbled all over the place, spoiling on their vines until I can give them a little attention. Assuming I can remember where I wrote them. But at the very least, I take the first step. I write the thing down so I can come back to it later. The journey of a thousand awesomes always begins with that first step, which must be more ordered line than inchoate scribble.

Optimal Party Size?

From the text of the 1980 Moldvay edition of Dungeons & Dragons (p. B19):

It is not wise to adventure alone, for the monsters which may be encountered are numerous. It is much safer to go adventuring with a group of people who can help and protect each other. The best size for an adventure party is 6-8 characters, enough to handle the challenges which will be faced, but not too many to become disorganized or to ruin chances to surprise the monsters.

300 PCs stand down an entire sourcebook full of monsters.

It’s interesting to observe that as time progressed and both editions and iterations of the game did likewise, the practical optimal party size decreased in membership. On the one hand, in terms of rules and systems, this correlates to the expanded versatility and durability of individual characters. In terms of designing for a particular audience, however, I wonder how much of this arose from the fact that, quite often, it’s damned difficult to be able to coordinate the schedules of 7-9 people (that 6-to-8-person party plus the DM). Did the need for fewer players in characters roles emerge because people still wanted to play in smaller groups? Ludic ethnography at work.

(There’s a separate argument to be made that, as editions progressed, individual characters have become less versatile, owing to an expanding skill system mechanic. To a degree, I buy this argument, as the more systems that exist, the less competent an individual character is if he doesn’t possess an amount of aptitude in that system. Particularly among old-school mentalities, the game revolved around rulings as opposed to rules, and clever plans hashed out via conversational give-and-take with the gamemaster superseded having enough skill points to overcome a static difficulty roll. In this case, a “thief” could generally approach any problem, so long as his player could talk through a logical or exciting method of handling that problem. In later systems, when a character faces a trap, he needs a skill score + die roll to exceed the obstacle value of that trap, which makes the game less about problem solving and more about allocating points and hoping the dice fall fortuitously. Naturally, player styles can achieve an optimal blend of these resolutions, but it’s inarguable that those mechanics exist and can thus substitute for critical thought.)

Other roleplaying games have their own twists on the optimal party size. Vampire, for existence, relies less on monsters and fighting physical challenges. Personally, I greatly dislike running or playing in tabletop Vampire games of more than four players’ quantity, because the character construction and conflict resolutions systems don’t have the same niche protections that D&D does, and sharing the limelight comes as a result of story construction rather than environmental challenges. The Storyteller chooses when and where to put a player in the spotlight, as opposed to the cooperative “dungeon.” On the other end of the spectrum, in games like Call of Cthulhu, it doesn’t matter how many party members you have; you’re not taking down an elder god with revolvers and sword-canes. The environmental threats in CoC tend to be more of mystery resolution and incidental conflict.

Appetite for (Cooperative) Destruction

I’ve been thinking lately about how people do things cooperatively online (no surprise), but I’ve also been thinking about “consumable” media and its persistence. For example, Bret Easton Ellis includes name-brand references in his fiction, the result of which is an intentional obsolescence that marks the writing as belonging to a particular period of time. As well, books that affect their environment, like Jorn and Debord’s Mémoires, and other artistic endeavors, like The Return of the Durutti Column, both of which featured covers made of sandpaper that abraded — destroying, slowly — whatever occupied the spaces next to them on the shelves or even the individuals holding them. The art resided as much in the statement of where it had been placed, at the choice of the owner, making that statement mutual and participatory. Putting the book or album on a shelf meant damaging the other objects nearby, so the owner engaged in the conscious action of the experience.

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Now, my natural inclination is more toward creation than destruction, so I don’t want the same effect there. A while back I did have the idea of writing a book, printing it, and then deleting the data once it had been printed, both planning for obsolescence and destroying, as it were, but that doesn’t leave much room for the individual’s participation. So now, I have in mind a writing, and a printing, and then a pass-off of the book text to the reader. I’m thinking via a wiki: I dump the raw text onto an editable website, deleting the original data, and leaving it to the tender mercies of anyone who wants to make a change.

This is how Wikipedia works (to an extent), but I don’t know if it’s a good fit for a piece of fiction. Part of Wikipedia’s appeal is the plain truth, without bias, and its legion supporters work scrupulously to cull editorial and revert malicious change. I don’t know that I necessarily want that, because even “malicious change” is participation, to whatever end, though it would certainly be remarkable whether people attempted to preserve some amount of the original intent, or would rather engage in pure defacement. Wikipedia also has the benefit of, being factual, a great deal of investment by people who care about that plain truth, and I don’t know that such a thing is possible for a one-off piece of fiction intentionally designed to be manipulated into something other than its original shape.

Still, I think it’d be an interesting experiment, particularly as word-of-mouth spread to people without the first-degree interest of people who cared that I was working on it. Would Kevin Bacon make an edit, once it made it through the six degrees of removal?

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