Saturday, November 28, 2009

Putting Debt in the Fruitful Void

A lot of Story Games got started with disaffected World of Darkness players. They loved what the "Storyteller" games promised: games about story and character, and all those things. But they didn't really get that. The Storyteller System just provided another game about combat. That disappointment led to some of the first indie games, which began with ideas like "system matters," that stressed designing a game to fulfill a goal.

In that context, the idea that Ron Edwards and Vincent Baker started working towards back in 2005 seemed revolutionary: the Fruitful Void. Ron Edwards said, "Without such 'fruitful voids,' perhaps envisioned as what you get when you show a person seven of the eight corners of a cube, a rules-set is no fun. It's just a full cube; you can look at it, pick it up, mess with it, and nothing happens except it stays a cube." Vincent Baker said, "There's a trick to designing games, which I'm trying to tell. Ron says it's to leave the eighth corner of the cube unmade. I say it's to make a whirlwind."

In short, what you leave out matters just as much as what you put in. Most often, people use Dogs in the Vineyard as the example, I think in part because it does provide an excellent example, and probably in part just because Vincent used it in his post. You'll note that Dogs doesn't have any kind of "Judgment" or "Faith" mechanic. Yet, everything in the game—town creation, stakes, raising and seeing, escalation, fallout—it all points towards that. The game centers on judgment and faith. It doesn't need to address them directly—in fact, it makes the game more strongly focused by not addressing them directly, because everything else in the game already pushes you in that direction.

Yesterday, I worried about what role debt should play in the game, now that it no longer makes sense as a mechanic. Willem Larsen commented, stressing the importance of debt, and saying, "I would rather play archipelago-style and just presence the debt relationship in my story through setting."

I started to wonder how I could point players in that direction without preaching or mechanics—because, without something pointing them in that direction, what would make it come up more often than anything else?

And then I remembered the Fruitful Void.

The Fruitful Void of the Fifth World, the undefined center, should deal with Debt and Obligation.

I talked to Giuli about this earlier, and realized that I had to make the challenges harder, so that you need help. I thought of a new twist: you don't get to reduce obstacles by how many heads you get, but by how many heads you get over the obstacle. So, if you want to try to earn an Achievement with six coins on it, and you get seven heads, you can take one coin off the top. That would make it very hard to get started on an Achievement, but each success makes the next success easier. You might get the final, winning blow by yourself, but you'll know that in the beginning, you needed help.

I thought about a mechanic about people you owe, like if you help someone, they owe you, so you can force them to help you at some point later on. But I hate rules that force you to do something. In fact, I wonder now if this works better by leaving it undefined: if you get a reputation for not helping others in return, maybe they won't help you, which will make it awfully hard to earn the Achievements you want. Just like cooperation in the real world.

I don't know if this whirlwind has really built up enough force, though. Do you have any ideas of how other ideas could push play towards debt and obligation? I'd love to hear them!


terrapraeta said...

Hey --

I haven't been following all of this closely enough to really comment on mode of play or mechanics.... but I do have a philosophical approach point.... I think you want to remove the entire frame of "moral accounting" from what you are doing here. Just like when you wrote about Mouseguard and failures being at least as important to building your character as successes... in this case, you want assistance you give to be at least as important as assistance you receive.... it should be win-win anytime there is co-operation....


Anonymous said...

Out of interest, looking up synonyms for obligation. Came up with 2 that might be promising: a "trust" and a "bind".

For example, I've got a trust with Josephine. She owes me something for a previous favor I did for her.

I'm bound to Meredith. She performed a favor for me in the past.

Both of these are Obligations. They tie me to one person or the other. They are useful in different circumstances. They are detrimental in certain circumstances.

Just thinking.



Willem said...

What if you had a debt relationship map creator, just like the town in Dogs in the Vineyard?

Then, in that game, one essentially tells the dogs to "go forth and judge", in your game you can tell players to "go forth and pay or maintain the indebtedness".

No mechanic, just setting and framing of the purpose of the stories the game creates.