Bill White's roleplaying game design blog, with emphasis on narrativist or story-heavy games.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Two Games, One Name

My friend Nathan Paoletta is running a design contest called "Two Games, One Name," where pairs of designers are given the same title for a game and a set of contrasting constraints (e.g., "design a game for solo play" vs. "design a game to be played via text message") and asked to create games.

My assignment was The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which fit nicely into something I'd been thinking about since Gencon. My constraint was "music must be central to resolution," which I interpreted fairly broadly, using a musical analogy for the sort of exchange-level game-mechanical focus I first used in The Perilous Realm. I'm not sure whether to consider this a cheat or a bit of cleverness.

A draft of the game is here. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Designing Ganakagok Essay at Flames Rising

When I was at GenCon this summer, the impresario behind the Flames Rising webzine invited me to write an essay about designing Ganakagok. So I did. Let me know what you think of it, if you get a chance.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The New World

At Gencon, I played Ganakagok with Simon Rogers, the impresario behind Pelgrane Press. Later, I had a conversation with him, and he told me that there was a game he wanted to play that, based on his experience with Ganakagok, he thought I could write. The game in his head is a colonization game, essentially Guns, Germs, & Steel, the RPG. What follows is what I pitched to him; we'll see whether the game in my head matches the one in his.


A Roleplaying Game

by Bill White

You must leave everything behind.

You must forge a new life for yourself in an alien land where everything is strange.

You must journey to THE NEW WORLD.

The New World is about the encounter between the Old World and the New. It can be played as a straight historical game, or in a more speculative mode. Thus, a given instance of play could be a quasi-historical game about Vikings in Greenland, an “allohistorical” or alternate history game about Chinese admiral Zheng He’s colonization of the West Coast of North America, an homage to Eisner’s stories about Jewish immigrants on Dropsy Avenue, a fantasy of conquistadors seeking the Seven Cities of Cibola and the Fountain of Youth, or a science fiction epic about the terraforming of Mars.

Basic Concept of the Game

The New World is a tabletop version of games like Civilization and Colonization. But rather than attempting to be a quantitative strategic simulation—something that computer games facilitate far better than tabletop play—the game is a qualitative, impressionistic simulation of the experience of leaving your home and voyaging to a distant land that may change you, break you, or kill you.

The game is thus played at the macro level and the micro level, where the macro level models the movement of peoples, resources, and ideas in time and space, and the micro level involves playing out the little dramas of individual choice, action, and experience. The two levels feed into each other, with the macro establishing the situation at the micro level and the micro informing the parameters that the macro level comprises. In other words, player decisions at the macro level have consequences at the micro level, and vice versa.

One player is the Game Master; the others are Player-Characters. In general, the GM represents the resistance of the New World to efforts at colonization, while the PCs are the agents of the Old World, will he or nil he. Each player-turn consists of a scene that intimates the material and cultural flows taking place at the macro level but is played out at the micro level of character action.

Macro Level

The macro level is constituted in how the Frontier mediates the Old World and the New World. Players brainstorm, or the GM concocts, contrasting descriptors for both domains in terms of Geography, Ecology, Economy, and Culture; e.g., well-mapped/trackless; cultivated/wild; agrarian/nomadic; civilized/savage.

The Frontier is defined in terms of cultural ecology concepts (after Diamond): Development, Sustainability, Hostility, Trade/Support, and Cultural Change. Comparisons among those elements determine what’s happening in the colony; e.g., if Development is greater than Sustainability, then some sort of environmental damage takes place.

Micro Level

Characters are leaders or exemplars of what’s happening in the world. They are defined minimally by assigning a different die type (d4, d6, d8, d12) to each of four domains: Physical, Social, Mental, and Moral. They may have other, scenario-dependent special abilities as well. Players probably create new characters for each scene.

The Game

The game is played out in scenes.

Each scene is about an encounter between the Old World and the New, on the Frontier (in a colony, that is to say). This encounter may be literal, as in meeting the natives upon stepping off the boat, or figurative, as in a single individual choosing between the values of her immigrant parents and those of the community beyond the ghetto.

Each “side” (GM=New World, PCs=Old World) starts the game with a pool of tokens representing their available resources, with different colored tokens signifying different resources. The size of the pool is probably tied to the qualitative description system in some way.


Old World Action

New World Attribute



Vastness, Extensiveness



Deadliness, Danger



Richness, Diversity



Strangeness, Unfamiliarity

On his or her turn, each player plays a token from the Old World’s pool to signify the larger macro-level activity in which his or her character is engaged, involved, or enrolled. The GM responds by playing a token from the New World’s stock. Playing a token commits a player to a particular mode of action in the scene, and shapes the macro-level stakes of the scene (i.e., the effects on the Frontier).

Development: Green/Red, Blue/Blue

Sustainability: Blue/Blue, Blue/Green

Hostility: Blue/Red, Green/Green

Trade: Blue/White, White/White

Cultural Change: Green/White, Red/White.

So, for example, if I’m a PC (a Player-Colonist, naturally) then I’m playing out a scene against the GM (Geographical Mediator). I define my character by putting my d12 in Physical, my d8 in Mental, my d6 in Social, and my d4 in Moral. I’m a tough and ruthless navigator with a sturdy crew and a mercenary eye on the main chance.

I take a Red token from the Old World in order to engage in some Exploration. This has some sort of in-game meaning as well, e.g., “I travel up the river, hoping that it leads to the Northwest Passage.” The GM chooses a Blue token, and has to describe the richness of the environment, “You are struck by the many streams that drain into the river, and the great number of beaver dams that block the streams.”

But the stakes of the scene now have something to do with the presence of hostile neighbors or natives. The GM gets to introduce a character. She describes a tribe of innocent natives, noble savages living in a neolithic utopia, and assigns her dice by putting the d12 in Moral, the d8 in Physical, the d6 in Social, and the d4 in Mental.

We declare our actions; I go first, saying “I give them gifts of steel axeheads and pretty beads.” I roll my Social die, a d6, and get a 4. The GM says, “They examine the gifts you bring with great interest. One elder of the tribe says, ‘These gifts are good, but I am afraid that they will cause jealousy among the younger men. Let us throw them in the river, so that there will be peace among the youths, and no strife.’” She rolls her d12 (because her reaction was moral), and gets an 11, which beats my die (and is also prime).

The GM has the high die, so she gets to describe what happens next—something involving my umbrage at the refusal of my trade goods. She also gets to increase the Frontier’s hostility by 1, because she won. If I’d won, I’d have been able to reduce it by one.

Her result of 11 was also prime, so she gets to inflict some sort of consequence on my character, moving him closer to his eventual deserts: death, madness, destitution, ignomy, and so forth. If I’d had a prime number (or 1) on my die, I’d have been able to move closer to my character’s stated goal: fame, fortune, discovery, and so forth.

Play continues in this vein until one side or the other runs out of tokens. During play, comparisons among Development, Sustainability, Hostility, Trade/Support, and Cultural Change will allow in-game events to be introduced, both in favor of the colony and in its despite.

The Book

The game book will consist of a a relatively short section on game mechanics and then a number of sample scenarios along the lines of those discussed above, plus guidelines for creating one’s own, either on the fly or as a prepared “adventure.”

About Me

My photo
A communication Ph.D., I teach public speaking and media-related courses in the middle of PA. I do research on scholarly/scientific communication, and I write & play roleplaying games.