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Jonathan Walton: On the fringes of design

There are indie game designers – and then there are indie game designers. Every creative subculture has its undercurrents and countercultures, and if the games spawned by the Forge and its diaspora seem far out to you, wait until you’ve tried Jonathan Walton’s Mwaantaangaand.

Jonathan Walton is a 25-year-old researcher for an independent foreign policy think-tank in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’s originally from North Carolina and Virginia. His main area of focus is the contemporary religious revival in mainland China and what it may mean for China’s social and political development. He’s in the midst of applying to PhD programs to continue his studies in graduate school. He plays the banjo and is about to get a Zen drum to play in this new musical project. He loves comics and po-mo experimental fiction.

On the side, He also edits «Push: New Thinking About Roleplaying,» a hobby journal which takes a progressive look on roleplaying. The second issue is supposedly in the process of being sorted out, but real life has shoved that aside in the past few months.

He can also be found on the web at One Thousand One, a personal design journal; Secret Wars, the tag-team design blog he shares with Shreyas Sampat, currently on some kind of hiatus; Fingers on the Firmament, a d20-based OGL design project I’m working on with Justin D. Jacobson (firmamentproject.wordpress.com); Story Games; and Knife Fight .

– First of all, a small thing, but something that I’ve been curious about ever since I first read your name… are you related to any of the other RPG-writing Waltons?
– There are other RPG-writing Waltons? I normally just get thrown in with Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, and John-Boy Walton, from the long-running American TV series «The Waltons.» I’ve definitely heard quite a few «Goodnight, John-Boy» jokes in my life.

– You’ve made some pretty different games. Lots of structure, not a lot of dice. One, «Waiting for the Queen / Tea at Midnight», was published in «Push» volume 1. It has one of the tightest and most constraining structures I’ve ever seen in a role-playing game. Can you tell us a little about it, and what inspired it?
– Sure. «Waiting/Tea» was inspired by those old text-based computer games of the «Get lamp» variety, what are now called «interactive fiction» (a term like «graphic novels» is to «comics,» artsy-ing it up a bit). I was attempting to test out this idea that you could make an RPG with very limited choices as far as character actions go.

The two fixed characters, Gai Zheng and Chema, have basically two physical things they can do: walk to a new location, pick up / set down a bucket. But their verbal and gestural expression is not limited. They can talk, smile, yell, scream, cry, or even improvise «emote» commands like you might in a chat game: for example «Throw snowball at Gai Zheng.» None of the expressions have any mechanical weight, but they add meaning and context to the limited physical actions the characters can perform. The story revolves around two problems, one for each character. Chema is waiting in the cold for someone to come through the front gate («Waiting for the Queen»), based on an old promise she made to her mother. Gai Zheng has been sent out to fetch water from the stream («Tea at Midnight»). There is lots of snow everywhere and both characters are miserable. And the game is about their interactions. It plays in less than 20 minutes, usually, but is radically different every time, even with the very limited list of actions.

Another thing worth noting: the two characters play by slightly different rules. The rules are complimentary and some actions by Gai Zheng open up new actions to Chema (and vice versa). This is something I hope to explore more in the future.

Transantiago. The world is about to end, and bodhisattvas try to resolve the unfinished business that is preventing the metro stations from transcending.

– «Transantiago», written for one of the very many recent design contests, involves drawing lines and stations on a map. What’s that all about?
– Ha. «Transantiago» is a bizarre mashup of «The Line,» this game of «Primetime Adventures» that John Harper («Agon») organized in Seattle, and a previous contest game concept, «When The Forms Exhaust Their Variety,» from Game Chef 2005. The premise is that the world is about to end and several saints, angels, and bodhisattvas have been sent into the metro to try to resolve the unfinished business that is holding the metro stations into this world, preventing them from transcending. The characters, who have no identity or traits of their own -– being pure, refined souls, travel from station to station attempting to resolve whatever situations are there, situations that are improvised by the other players. It’s somewhat absurdist but also focused on real situations, real people, and real problems. It’s like a optimistic Buddhist retelling of Samuel Beckett’s play «Endgame,» but on the subway.

System wise, it’s interesting because you have characters that aren’t really characters in the traditional sense (they have no traits, they are defined simply by what they do) and because the station map gradually develops over time, based on how the characters move around Transantiago.

– These stations represent «a particular Issue that (…) will not be properly addressed until one or more of the characters figures out how to deal with it». Other games, like Shreyas Sampat’s «Mridangam», also use maps to represent scenes and narrative structures. What are the advantages and limits of this design technique? What are some potential implementations in current or future designs?
– I love maps and board games. I think they are a really powerful tool that has not yet been fully appreciated in roleplaying. Relatively recent board games like «Betrayal at House on the Hill» and «The Lord of the Rings» really opened my eyes to how cooperative play can be enhanced by visual tools and diagrams. Eero Tuovinen’s excellent «Zombies at the Door» also does something similar.

Right now, I only see the advantages of these tools. I don’t think I or anyone else has explored the potential of maps and boardgames in roleplaying enough to have discovered what the limits are. Maps and diagrams have always been a part of roleplaying, of course, inherited from our wargaming roots, but they were pretty much always used the same way, to show the physical position of characters and other objects in the imaginary game world. However, when you move beyond physical positioning, maps get really interesting.

Mwaantaangaand. Monsters in the game are represented by changing the themes on the board for a given number of scenes.

Over the past 2-3 years, I’ve been using maps to structure scene framing in a bunch of short roleplaying games. The framing has either been location-based or theme-based, generally. So if my character is on X space, that means he’s in a scene in X location (more physical positioning, but more abstract than in wargaming) or a scene that’s about X. When his piece moves to a new space on the map, the scene ends and the next scene is in Y location or about Y theme. One of the craziest things I did with this was in «Mwaantaangaand,» where the monsters in the game are represented by changing the themes on the board for a given number of scenes. So a space that was about X is now about «Blood and Gore» and space Y is now about «Uncertainty.» This way, the monsters directly impact the experience of play and the kinds of things that are narrated, without having traits or being measured in any mechanical way.

I’ve also been working on a hack of White Wolf’s Exalted, currently on the back burner, where every Charm, every magical power a character possesses, takes the form of a small map. The various Charm maps then connect together, interlocking and overlapping, to form the «character sheet,» the board that a player plays on. It’s possible that the maps of various characters will also interlock and overlap if the players are part of the same group or are in conflict with each other. In such a system, your character’s tokens could actually cross over and be moving around on another character’s map. Honestly, this kind of system is a bit too complex for me to design at the moment, since I haven’t finished experimenting with simpler ones, which is why it’s on the back burner. But I hope you can imagine the potential and diversity inherant in these kinds of map-based systems.

– There’s been some talk about design subcultures, creative networks of friends, and their importance for design. How do you see yourself in this context? Are you part of a specific circle, culture or trend?
– That’s hard to say. One of the great things about being part of the wonderfully welcoming indie games community is that I consider many designers to be close friends, even if our design styles are pretty different, so it becomes hard to distinguish «people I really like» from «design work that speaks to me.» I think it’s generally the case that I am more likely to recognize the influence of people who I interact with regularly, since they are constantly there helping me with my designs. But it’s important to not forget the folks who laid the foundation for what the indie games community has become over the past ten years. According to the survey I conducted among indie game designers on Story Games, The Forge, and Knife Fight, I found that the top 15 most influential games were:

 1. Sorcerer

2-3. Dogs in the Vineyard, Polaris

4-5. Dungeons & Dragons, Primetime Adventures

6-8. The Mountain Witch, The Shadow of Yesterday, Universalis

9. My Life With Master

10. Trollbabe

11-15. The Burning Wheel, Dust Devils, Everway, The Pool, The Riddle of Steel
These games permeates all of our designs, even the work of folks who’ve never read or played their games, because they’ve influenced so many other games.

Regionally speaking, I have close ties to the folks here in Boston (Nathan Paoletta, Dev Purkayastha), the Western Mass Crew (the Bakers, Emily Care Boss, Joshua AC Newman, Julia Ellingboe, and the newer additions Shreyas Sampat and Elizabeth Shoemaker), the Jersey Boys (Kevin Allen Jr., Brennan Taylor), the folks who live near my parents’ home in North Carolina (Clinton R. Nixon, Jason Morningstar, Andy Kitkowski), and some folks out in Seattle (Ben Lehman, John Harper). I also feel like I’m gradually developing a relationship with Fred Hicks, based off collaborating on the Indie Game Passport at GenCon 2007. I also try to keep up with some of the UK folks, especially Malcolm Craig and Gregor Hutton.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who’s really interested in the same kinds of design goals that I am.”Design wise? I don’t think there’s anyone who’s really interested in the same kinds of design goals that I am. The closest ones are probably Shreyas Sampat and Kevin Allen Jr., the hardcore iconoclasts from Jersey (what is it about Jersey anyway?). We like breaking stuff and putting it back together, especially when what we’re breaking is the status quo or our own expectations. We like making impossible or unlikely choices and then following them through to their natural conclusions.

– You and Shreyas Sampat have started the blog «Secret Wars». What’s that? How has it worked so far?
– Secret Wars was started because Shreyas and I are constantly working on games in parallel. The few times we’ve tried collaborating on a project, it’s never quite worked out, but we’re constantly throwing ideas back and forth, leading our games to share certain types of traits. Also, we’re interested in many of the same kinds of issues and have spent the requisite amount of time talking about games together to the point that we often has a pretty clear idea of where the other is coming from and what they want to accomplish. We started Secret Wars to be a shared blog where we could encourage each other to do design work and, specifically, finish up unfinished projects. There hasn’t been much activity on the blog for the past 6 months, which means that its prime period may be over, but it has been really beneficial and fruitful overall. Certainly, a large amount of very exciting design work is contained in the archives. And Secret Wars has inspired a number of other group design blogs, the most notable of which is probably Master Mines. So I would call it a great success, though neither of us has yet to see a completely polished game emerge out of it.

– Apparently there’s some sort of vow of chastity connected with «Secret Wars». You’re not supposed to be designing other games, right? Is that hard?
– Well, it started out that way, but I quickly broke that rule. The idea was that we were only supposed to work on one game at a time and then work on it until it was finished. Unfortunately, my creativity tends to be scattered, wanting to develop multiple things simultaneously. For example, my current projects are Geiger Counter, Transantiago, The 108 Bravos of Mount Liang (a setting for In A Wicked Age…), Fingers on the Firmament, a Warhammer 40K-based hack for 1001 Nights, and Push 2. So yeah, that wasn’t just hard, that proved impossible.

– You’re an active proponent of publishing free games on the internet. Why is that?
– It’s so easy to publish a game in print nowadays, thanks to the rise of Print-on-Demand technology and services like Lulu. And the number of for-pay PDF products is immense, as you can see just wandering around RPGnow. But I guess I feel that the commercialization of every aspect of roleplaying is not a good thing. I don’t think people should feel like they need to turn every useful, fun thing that they could write up into something that they sell. Some publishers approach this issue from an economic standpoint and talk about «flooding the market» or «devaluing other products,» which I don’t believe in. I only have one commercial product (Push) and it doesn’t compete with anything else out there. I could care less how many commercial products are out there.

“Why does anything of value need to be sold?”My issue is more… Why does anything of value need to be sold? This is one of the principles behind the OGL and other open source projects, actually. They encourage people to give things away to the community, allowing others to use them however they will. There is certainly a lot of OGL material that seems to muddy the water by giving the community a lot of crap that’s not very useful or, for example, 250 different types of spoons. You don’t need 250 different spoons. You just need the best, most versitile spoon. This is how tools evolve, right, because a hammer is clearly useful in all sorts of situations. Well, if you develop a versitile tool, something that could be used by hundreds or thousands of other people, or just something that’s really cool, and you’re relatively financially secure… perhaps giving it away is a good choice to make.

Now, I don’t believe in pressuring people to give away material that they want to sell, but I also don’t feel like people should be pressured to sell material just because people say «It’s really good! I would totally pay money for that.» I also feel like free games are kinda «Web 2.0,» you know? I’m not an internet or software design person, but my sense is that free games enable community building and creative sharing in a way that doesn’t focus on generating revenue, which are some of the main principles behind the social software sites (YouTube, until recently Facebook) that make up the Web 2.0 model. And those are values that I believe in.

– Personally, I much prefer having a book in my hand. It feels like someone actually worked and invested time and money to create the game, which gives me the illusion that it’s a finished product. Someone’s blog post or ill-designed PDF doesn’t give me that feeling. Is there a way around this issue?
– Sure. There’s no reason that free games have to lack a physical product. Personally, I’m planning on paying to have copies printed of some of my projects and just handing them out or giving them away alongside other products which are sold. I’ve already talked with Vincent Baker about giving away copies of my Water Margin supplement for In A Wicked Age to people who buy Vincent’s game at GenCon

For those with less capital to invest in a free project, there are plenty of other options. You can easily set up print products on Lulu that are sold at the cost of printing, such that no revenue ever makes it back to the creator (yay, no taxes!). This would be a great way to accompany a free PDF or HTML-based game with a print version. Clinton R. Nixon, when he still worked at Lulu, was interested in setting up a system by which profits from some print products would automatically be sent to charity. I expect that kind of thing may yet happen in the future.

I have to keep a watch out for assassins sent by Malcolm Sheppard when I say things like this. Malcolm, coming from a freelancing background, strongly objects to the way creative workers are underpaid and undervalued by many roleplaying publishers, which leads him, I think, to strongly object to creative work being done cheaply or for free, because that could imply that it’s without value or of low value. I don’t think those two ideas need necessarily be joined together.

– I’d like to talk a little about «Push». It’s «an annual journal of progressive roleplaying thought, creative works, and witty commentary, collaboratively created by a motley assortment of inquiring minds». Why did you start the magazine?
– Ha. The «annual» part of that has become a joke. Each issue has taken at least 2 years to produce.

“The internet is great, but it’s also scattered and there are very few places where people can stop and reflect on what all this means.”  Roleplaying is moving in multiple interesting directions, but there’s not really anywhere where these shifts are being documented in print form, aside from the dozens of new games that get published every year. The internet is great, but it’s also scattered and there are very few places where people can stop and reflect on what all this means. There needed to be a place where these diverse strands can be gathered together.

– There’s very little mention of dice and numbers in «Push». Are all the contributors freeform hippies?
– Hmm… The first issue included articles by Emily Care Boss, John Kim, Shreyas Sampat, Eero Tuovinen, and myself, so… yes, in that case, mostly freeform hippies, though honestly all of us generally play games that use dice. The dice and numbers are just not the most important thing happening at the table. Is this a bias I should fix? Maybe next time I’ll invite my friend Eric Pinnick to write an article on dice probabilities.

– In the design and theory community around the Forge, and the Forge diaspora, it often seems like the design ideas from the nineties – simple, open games like Over the Edge or Amber – have completely disappeared. Theorists like John Kim are few and far between in the landscape. What do you think are the reasons for this?
– Wow, hmm. I’m not sure I agree. I think those kinds of games form the majority of the post-Forge school of indie design. I think most games coming out of the diaspora are rules light systems built around a core conflict resolution mechanic. Generally they also have specific guidelines for scene framing and, until recently, stakes setting in conflicts. Most also take some responsibilities traditionally held by the GM and have them rotate among the players, such as controlling NPCs or framing scenes or describing pieces of the setting. While not all of these traits are shared with predecessors like Over The Edge and Amber, quite a few of them are, and I think the lines of their heritage pretty clearly trace back to games like those. In most post-Forge games, despite the desire of their creators to clearly tie the game system to a specific setting and style of play, you can still swap the setting and play style out for another, without much tweaking.

The games that aren’t like this really stand out for me. My Life With Master is probably the first one to break from tradition in a truly dramatic fashion. Several games followed it that also took a similar path, like Breaking The Ice, Polaris, 1001 Nights, and Bliss Stage. But Polaris also brought us rotating player roles, making it probably the second major game to clearly break with the status quo. Shock: is also a game that I think is under-appreciated for how different it is. What other roleplaying game focuses on cultural change as the most interesting aspect of play? I suspect Emily Care Boss’ upcoming Sign In Stranger will be the next big innovator. It’s possible that Lacuna and Capes might be on this list too, if I was more familiar with them, just based on what I’ve heard.

“Vincent is always doing really groundbreaking work, but he does it in a very familiar framework”Why aren’t any of Vincent Baker’s games on this list? Well, it’s kinda odd. Vincent has brought us some really groundbreaking, crucial techniques that have (or will) become fundamental -– initiation scenes, escalation, fallout, and NPCs in Dogs in the Vineyard; oracles and the We Owe list from In A Wicked Age. But his games still possess most of the familiar traits that I described above. I think that’s partially what makes them so popular. Vincent is always doing really groundbreaking work, but he does it in a very familiar framework that still allows people to take any of his games and, for example, play Hellboy with them (no offense, Harper!). Vincent recently told me «I design conservative games, but they don’t reveal the limits of my vision, just my agenda and its audience. For instance, I know how conservative they are.» That is both genius and madness.

– How important is RPG theory to you, as a designer?
– If you mean theory in the sense of «thinking, reading, and writing seriously about roleplaying,» then it’s critical. I live and breathe it. If you mean theory in some other sense, then I’d have to know what you mean.

– Thanks for doing this interview, Jonathan!
– Anytime! Like I said, I live and breathe this stuff and appreciate the opportunity to share. Let me know if you have any questions or things you’d like me to clarify.

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