What's happening, my fellow polyhedron propellers? I'm not feeling a long intro this month. I have too many thoughts I want to get out. I feel like I should add an up top warning, though: some of these thoughts are self-indulgent (gasp!) and industry-focussed (snore). I'll start with the game development stuff since I assume (and hope) that's what most of you are here for.
24 Word RPG Jam! Yes, you heard that right. We're writing games that consist of only 24 words (or less). If that sounds like fun you still have time to join in. I think this would be a great first project if you've never written a game before. You have till the end of the month to check it out on itch.io. I really enjoyed the challenge of writing my entry. It's so small I might as well add it here for you to enjoy or ignore as you please. The rules section is exactly 24 words long and it's about hags telling a story.
Development Diary: Jude's World
Reader, I am in a pickle. Since we last talked about my in-development, a solo journaling game about a plucky preteen protagonist struggling to reunite their warring parents, I've done my third play test and come up against a real stinker of a problem: part of the game just isn't fun.
We talk a lot about 'mechanics', which risks giving the impression that a game is only a thing that needs to work smoothly and efficiently. As if the rules only need to work. But clearly they also need to do a bunch of other things, not least turn process into play. Spark joy, if you will.
I currently have mechanics that work. You can surely play the game as it stands. And about half of the game is also actually fun. What's not working, in compliance with sod's law, is the part where I expended the most effort pre-play testing: the storylines.
The idea is to have players have to repeatedly choose whether to spend their time and resources trapping Jude's parents or to spend it on adding and advancing their storylines. These would be things like having a first job or a first crush, or dealing with the school bully. Seemed like a good idea. In practice though, I just... didn't want to write about those. And now I need to think about why. I have a few ideas, some easy to grapple with, others not so much.
Problem 1: Who even is Jude? Why should I care?
The current character creation process is a tarot spread that builds the story of Jude's parents' relationship. It's well structured and the prompts work. I've found that I come out of this step feeling attached to these two characters, which is good. Meanwhile the character players will play as, their child Jude, is somewhat of a mystery. I need to fix that.
Problem 2: Not enough structure, no limitations
It's forever the case that creativity thrives on limitations. Currently the storylines are just a set of prompts for potential diary entries. I worried while writing them that I was being overly-prescriptive with what might happen to Jude, but in play I found myself not knowing where to start. I paused, unsure. That's the kind of friction that will make a lot of players put their pens down and look for something else to do. Myself included. I need to think hard about what would make these more engaging. More structure to limit the choices? In game rewards? A sense that these storylines are creating growth in your protagonist? Or just better, more enticing prompts?
Problem 3: You could easily just not bother
The storylines are mechanically distinct from the rest of the game. They were intended as a balance to the traps, which keys in to one essential theme of the game: it's not healthy for a preteen to be fully focussed on their parents' relationship. That balance isn't baked into any of the mechanics, though. Right now a player could easily just blast through the traps without ever writing about Jude's life outside of parent trapping. It's tempting to create a rule that forces engagement with storylines in order to access traps, but that feels aggressive and unlikely to result in fun. Making the storylines fun and easy to write is paramount.
I have a LOT to think about and progress has been slow. Glacial, in fact. Of course it's January so I'm doing some traditional new year's reflection and life rebalancing, which will hopefully result in more writing time. Wish me luck!
Industry Corner: Substack, "ceding space", and POSSE
The observant among you will have noticed that this newsletter is not available on Substack. If you've been following the discourse over there then you know why. If not, FYI: the owners of the platform have publicly announced that they're just fine letting nazis use their platform as a promotional space for nazi ideology.
Substack say they believe that the best way to defeat nazis is to engage them in public debate. Which leads the cynic in me to conclude that they have never once tried debating a committed nazi online, and then leads the even BIGGER cynic nestled inside the first one to observe that a series of endless, heated debates between nazis and not-nazis has never done a platform any harm. Quite the opposite. Engagement is engagement, content is content. Those things combined are money.
Look, you do you. If you want to hang out online and debate nazis then have at it. Just bear in mind that they're not nazis because no one ever told them that their ideas are monstrous and wrong. In fact they definitely hear that a lot. They often have pre-prepared answers for everything you want to say. They've had this argument more often than you have. It's not that there's nothing to be done about nazis, but debating them on the internet ain't it.
So I moved. I know a lot of my lefty peers in the indie TTRPG scene are holding their nose and sticking with it. I get that. We're all tired of decamping every time the shitlord who owns our current outlet of barely-any-choice decides to make his shitlord-ness everyone else's problem. No platform is perfect and besides: I'm not a full time designer, I have a day job which gives me means to pay for Buttondown (the only newsletter provider so far who've said they will kick nazis out if they find them), and my audience is small enough to be easily and inexpensively portable. The whole calculation is different for me than for others.
However, I do disagree with several arguments I've seen (and heard repeated IRL) about "ceding space". Because internet platforms don't have a finite amount of space. So you, a not-nazi, being present on one absolutely doesn't mean fewer nazis will be. It might look like there are fewer because they aren't the only thing on the timeline, but that's all. Meanwhile the content you add draws an audience to the platform, growing the user base via network effects, making said platform more influential and successful. More essential. And a rising tide lifts all ships, as we often say.
I take heart from the valuable lessons floating about in the wake of multiple major platform death spirals. People are talking a lot more about owning their own audience, not being reliant on privately owned spaces. Newsletter lists are a great way to do that. I've also been made aware of a principle called POSSE: Post Own Site, Share Everywhere. Cory Doctorow talks about it convincingly, and if it works for him...
So with that in mind I've greatly expanded where you'll be able to access these posts. My own site, your inbox, Medium, Tumblr. If one goes down (or becomes a nazi bar) then I'll look out for another to replace it. It's more work that way, but hopefully it'll pay off in terms of a greater sense of stability. The full list is at the end. Right. Here.
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