Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Dream Apart Playtests

During my May trip to the US, I got to do five1 playtests for Dream Apart, the storygame of the fantastic shtetl (Dream Askew meets Isaac Bashevis Singer) that I've been working on.

I played in three of the playtests; one I observed and facilitated, but didn't have a character myself; and one was at the other end of the table in the gaming room at Wiscon. That one was run by (and written up by!) the very able Julian Hyde, who was willing to jump in and run the game without even having seen it in advance, for which I am grateful.

Observations on playtesting:
  • I was lucky to have a very diverse collection of testers, in terms of gender, background, ethnicity (relevantly for the genre, some playtests were mostly Jews, while one may possibly have been all goyim), and experience -- ranging from people with experience in rules-light narrativist storygames, to people with more traditional RPG experience, to people who were brand new to this sort of game. A few notes on reaction by category:

    • Authors sure do like setup. If you play this game with pure gamers who have no authorial ambitions, expect setup to take a half hour as people circle their favorite options and give punchy, cogent answers to the setup questions. If you play it with published authors, expect setup to take an hour and a half as your players construct elaborate, interwoven backstories and scenarios and entire chronologies, before the game even starts.

    • Traditional RPG gamers had issues with the game's structure and instructions -- more so than either complete neophytes or experienced storygamers. Dream Askew/Apart expects a high level of fluid interchange of narrative authority, which can perplex if you're used to a game that structures narrative authority explicitly. Not being sure "how much you should GM" can lead to being hesitant to bring another player's character trouble, or to drive things to closure. Neophytes seemed more likely to jump right in to negotiating narrative authority (after all, the last storygame they played was "let's pretend", when they were eight), while some traditional RPG gamers seemed distracted by the absence of structure.

      Some modern "GMless" games -- like, say, Fiasco -- actually offer a a lot structure, marking mechanically, for instance, who initiates a scene or who decides its outcome. Dream Askew leaves that largely up to the players -- and the vagueness may be even greater in Dream Apart, because its Scenarios (parts of the setting for which different players take responsibility) are less strictly orthogonal. (There's more overlap between "The Shtetl" and "The Condition of Exile" than between "The Queer Enclave" and "The Varied Scarcities", and more between "The Wild Forest" and "The Unseen World" than between "The Outlying Gangs" and "The Psychic Maelstrom", and so on.)

    • Both Jews and non-Jews had some trouble feeling confident in their ownership of the setting, but, predictably, people with more Jewish cultural immersion had a bit more context to fall back on.

  • For me personally, as the game designer, it worked well to play along with the other playtesters. It didn't work well to try and be a fly-on-the-wall facilitator/observer without playing. I don't have enough self-discipline to shut up and not make suggestions, and my suggestions have too much narrative authority by dint of my being the game designer, which created a "GM-ish" dynamic that didn't serve the game well.
Observations and player comments on the game:
  • It might be useful to explicitly mark the lack of a GM early in the text, and to describe the sharing of narrative authority.

  • The diction and vocabulary of the text could be simpler -- especially since a natural target market for a simple historical Jewish game is educational (particularly Jewish-educational) settings.

  • The allocation of the Scenarios at the beginning doesn't always avoid the "players talking to themselves" problem, and nor does trading minor characters. If your character ends up entering the Wild Forest alone, and you happen to be playing the Wild Forest, the game bogs down. When this happens, there may need to be textual permission to swap Scenarios themselves -- including principles, craves, and moves -- and not just minor characters. Similarly, if a Scenario doesn't happen to be chosen for play, and its concerns arise -- if the Goyishe World is not in play, say, but events lead to a confrontation with the Cossacks -- the game may suffer. These problems are probably exacerbated by the fact that the mapping of Characters to Scenarios, and the division between Scenarios, isn't as crisp as in Dream Askew. It's quite possible to spend an entire game of Dream Apart located in The Shtetl, whereas you probably wouldn't spend an entire game of Dream Askew in The Queer Enclave (a shtetl is probably hundreds, or even thousands, of people, for one thing, while an enclave sounds to me like dozens). So possibly a more radical redesign of the Scenaro mechanism is indicated. Maybe you should be encouraged to swap scenarios often, with other players or with the "unchosen" pile, so that if someone enters the Wild Forest, someone else draws that scenario, and if you've been in The Shtetl a long time, you switch ownership of that scenario. Conceivably there should even be mechanics for this, like "if your character enters the Wild Forest, trade Scenarios with another player" is a move on The Wild Forest scenario sheet itself.

  • The Dream Askew text follows the Apocalpyse World MC principle "make your move, but never speak its name", in suggesting that you just narrate what happens according to your move, but don't name the move itself. To some extent, this weakens the token economy, whose subtext seems to be that if someone spends a token for a strong move, they get to do that thing -- whether it's getting out of harm's way, pulling off a daring stunt, persuading enemies to ally, killing or forgiving someone -- and someone else's subsequent mere Regular Move shouldn't overrule the effect. But if you don't know which specific Strong Move was made, it's hard to respect its intent.

    Similarly, if someone makes a Weak Move, their character should incur its cost; if someone else's narration immediately blunts its sting or compensates for it, narrative tension ebbs. But if you don't know whether is actually "confusing the present with the horrors of the past" or merely "getting drunk at the worst possible time" (or if you simply don't know their playbook, and so can't guess the move's limits) it's easy to blunder. Also, sometimes, people just want to know why you're spending or gaining a token!

    So perhaps one should narrate these moves more like Apocalypse World player moves than MC moves; to do it, you have to do it, but in closing your narrating, you do cite the name of the move, giving explicitly the mechanical correlate to the fiction.

    (It also seems desirable to nudge fellow players towards using the token economy -- "hey, sounds like you might be deducing a hidden truth, are you gonna spend a token?")

  • The most common suggestion, and largest complaint, was that people need more background information. While Dream Askew does foreground queer content in a way that might challenge some players and require them to do some research, the other aspects of its setting are very forgiving. You can set it in a world based directly on your own experience, and your own imagination of what the apocalypse might mean. Dream Apart isn't just a game set in a marginalized community, but in a historically distant marginalized community. There's a lot more concern about "getting it wrong". This concern is exacerbated by fears of playing into inaccuracies or stereotypes (or overreacting against them). Some ideas for handling this:

    • Include a glossary of historical specific terms, and perhaps a pronunciation guide.
    • Include a bibliography/mediography to get give players ideas and act as a jumping-off point for research
    • Include a brief pep talk on alternate history, on making the setting your own, and on the balance of bravery and sensitivity required in "playing the other"
    • Include or mention the "x-card" mechanic specifically, because it's a good idea in general but also as a way of addressing concerns about being upset, or upsetting someone else, around representation. Maybe also indie-game-culture tools like veils, debriefing, etc? Maybe this is a separate artifact from the main game? Maybe it's the place to discuss "GMless" narrative authority sharing?
    • Expand Scenarios from a half-page to a page, with the left side being the existing scenario text and the right side including things like:
      • Bullet-list historical information about that aspect of the setting
      • Picklists offering choices about that aspect of the setting
      • Lists of names for the scenario's minor characters
      • Abstract rubrics capturing the scenario's essence, like the way Dogs in the Vineyard offers a codification of the religious laws of The Faith
  • A related issue: of the four games that got past setup, three of them ended up in a confrontation with the local goyim that put the shtetl at risk. That makes sense -- it's sort of the gun on the mantelpiece in the game as written. (The fourth game, in which "The Goyishe World" hadn't been picked as a played Scenario, ended up in a confrontation with strange otherworldly trolls and wolves from the Wild Forest that put the shtetl at risk...) Particularly in the game with the fewest Jewish players, when the pogrom started, the players reportedly looked around at each other and said, "um, so I guess then they kill us all." I think they got past that, but the point is that it's a hard balance to strike between honestly portraying the danger and inequality of the setting, while leaving the characters agency. So the additional background text ought to highlight the resources, strategies, and options available when the gun on the mantelpiece goes off.

    For instance, the goyim are rarely united: if it's the peasants or garrisoned soldiers rioting, the local baron may well take umbrage at anyone else harassing "his Jews"; and if it's baron inciting the riot, maybe there are sympathetic peasants or partisans offering refuge. That a populist heretical Christian revolt is targeting the shtetl may be reason enough for the offical Church to want to protect it, and visa versa. While most of the shtetl's inhabitants are poor, the influence of wealthy merchants, advisers, estate agents and creditors may be enough to get the nobility to intervene. And then of course, there's always magic and the miraculous. Perhaps we should explicitly address this, or perhaps just putting more emphasis on the Shtetl's and the Characters' resources will do the trick...

  • Issues with instructions:

    • Some players found it awkward to pick a character before hearing "how to play a character", and to pick a Situation before hearing "how to play a situation", so perhaps the ordering should be shuffled to explain Character and Situation mechanics first.

    • When players are introducing their characters, in addition to their setup choices it would be good for them to announce the Character's first Special Move, the one that acts as an incentive by giving other players tokens.

    • Unlike the queer enclave in Dream Askew, the shtetl has strict gender roles; characters should perhaps explain how the shtetl genders them, and name lists should perhaps note gender (players might not know that Gittel is a girl's name but Mottel is a boy's name).

  • Notes on specific Character playbooks:

    • The Midwife playbook might be too dark: the description is heavy on death and danger, and lacks the joy of successful births and the connections that come with seeing people in extreme moments.

    • In every game with a Matchmaker, the allies chosen were the lovestruck blacksmith and the giggling schoolgirls: the other options are bland by comparison and should be punched up.

    • Replace the Matchmaker's "untroubled heart" option with "a clear conscience", since the former contradicts the "desperately longs for" bit.

    • Other things the Klezmer might long for: fame, renown, respect

    • It would be a helpful mnemonic to write "spend a token" (in gray) by "Strong Moves", "gain a token" by "Weak Moves", and perhaps "free" by "Regular Moves"?

  • Notes on specific Scenario playbooks:
    • The Unseen World description is far too complex and overwritten, particularly the "tripartite soul" sentence & the stuff about the Divine Will. Simplify and clarify.
Research to do:
Typos and minor issues:
  • Several places where "Dream Askew" has not been changed to "Dream Apart".
  • Safely/Safety typo in "The Unseen "World"
  • a line which should read "as suggested by yourThe Situation's principles and moves", lest people think Character moves are meant
  • Rules clarification: can you ask a question (as a Character move) of a minor character, or only of a PC?

(...Mostly a list for me, but your feedback is welcome!)

  1. or four-and-a-half, since one didn't get much beyond setup...
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