Thursday, July 27, 2006

Burning Empires: From Inception to Finished Product (Part III)

Continued from Part II

Shotgun Playtests (Dec.-Jan.)

Once Luke finished the initial rewrite of the Burning Wheel and moved on to the Character Burner, we began holding regular playtests of the various new mechanics during the evening at BWHQ. We’d sit down and set up a Firefight or burn Worlds, or even use the Infection mechanics to go through whole campaigns at the macro level of play.

The shotgun playtests were absolutely necessary, as they allowed us to very rapidly use the mechanics over and over again, time after time, to a degree that would take months or longer inside the framework of actual play. The tests were quite enjoyable at first, as we were still challenged with shaping the rules to conform to our vision of how they should work. But as time went on, it became less about the fun of creating rules and more about making sure that we were consistently getting the results we wanted. Without the investment of actual play and the connection to character and color that play engendered, it became tedious. Still, they were incredibly valuable, and the game would not be what it is without them.

These tests would often run late into the night, and I was consistently bleary-eyed walking into work the next morning.

Playtest Agra (January)

With the Character Burner rewritten, it was time to put together another playtest. Drozdal was off visiting family in Poland for the holiday, so we brought in Alexander to replace him.

This time we had a more fully formed World Burner to work with and actual lifepaths to use. We soon saw some of the things that were still missing from the lifepaths, but the lifepaths also gave us much better traction for understanding the setting we had created and also allowed us to use the Circles mechanics to greater advantage.

Additionally, we had now formalized something we did instinctively in Playtest Alpha: each character had to have a relationship with a figure of note on the other side of the conflict (i.e., with one of the GM’s antagonists). One of the things that had made us love the Iron Empires comics was how human the protagonists (and antagonists!) were. Sure, they were wrestling with the fate of their planet against an implacable foe, but they still loved, hated, committed adultery, etc. They were fighting to save humanity, but they were at the same time led astray by that which made them human. It really suggested the very core of Burning Empires play: the choice between doing what is necessary and pursuing one’s personal goals and desires. The first step in making that choice central to play was requiring that every player tie his character personally to the enemy in some fashion.

Now Burning Empires wasn’t just about fighting for the fate of the planet, it was about the fate of fathers, sons, sisters, husbands and lovers. And working to save one might mean sacrificing the other.

Agra also led to another key aspect of Burning Empires: scenes as currency.

One thing that Luke and I and others at the Forge have seen very clearly is that role playing texts in general are pretty poor at teaching players how to use them. Invariably, creators do things when running their games that are essential to making the games function as they should, and yet some of the most important of those things never make it into the text. We do things that are so ingrained that we take it completely for granted that other players, who learned to play in other environments, do them too. Once you release a game, if you interact with your fans, you quickly start to see patterns in the questions they ask. Pretty soon, the conclusion is inescapable: you’re doing something at your table that is not actually in the text. Burning Wheel is no different than other games in that regard.

Luke and I pledged that we would do our best to hard code the way we played into Burning Empires by critically evaluating every nuance of how we played our games, and making sure it made its way into the text.

During Playtest Alpha, Luke and I had watched very carefully what we and the other players were doing, how we went about involving each other and how we built toward conflicts. Just as importantly, we noted where things fell down and tried to understand what caused the failure. Luke synthesized it all and brought the new scene rules to the table for Playtest Agra. He had divided the things we did in play into four distinct types of interaction with the rules and each other. We used Color Scenes to allow our individual characters to take the spotlight and introduce cool details about the world that made the game a richer experience for all of us; we used Interstitial Scenes, which consisted of scenes of pure interaction between two or more characters; we used Building Scenes to lay the groundwork for conflicts, stuff like creating propaganda, buying technology or hacking a network; and we used Conflict Scenes for the serious action—big firefights and duels of wits.

Luke identified the different sorts of things we did when playing and broke them up into the above categories. Then he turned those scenes into currency by limiting their availability. In one Maneuver of the Infection rules (which equates to half a session or a full session of play, depending upon your speed of play), each player would have access to one Color scene and one Interstitial scene. Each player would also have access to one Building scene OR one Conflict scene. Additionally the players were guaranteed one Conflict scene, but could have a maximum of two in a Maneuver. The GM, also, had access to one Color scene and one Interstitial scene for each of his figures of note (he can have up to three), and one Building scene Or a Conflict scene per character. The GM was also guaranteed at least one Conflict scene and a maximum of two. Players could invite each other into their Interstitial and Building and Conflict scenes, as well.

“One of my design goals for Burning Empires was for this game to do what BW did not: BW does not enforce the structure of a story. You can sit around with BW and jerk off. I wanted to try to design a game in which the players HAD to tell a story. We accomplished that in two ways. One is the Infection mechanics (including the World Burner point totals). Knowing that the game is moving inevitably to an end encourages a narrative arc in play. It's an unconscious reaction—if there's an end, there's going to be a beginning and a middle. And those are the basic building blocks for a narrative story. The other commodity for enforcing the story is the scene structure. By preventing players from just sitting around and jerking off, we infused the game with a narrative pacing. You've got limited screen time. You've got to do SOMETHING. A little pressure like this went a long way to increasing the quality of player participation in the game. And it also had the necessary (and intentional) side effect of making the game feel like the comic books.”

We found that making scenes into a commodity created a very powerful dynamic in play. It really knit the group together. It made players shove the spotlight around, and created tremendous pressure to force the story/game forward with every scene. It also produced an unanticipated but very pleasant effect from interaction with the Advancement rules. Tests in Burning Wheel have always been a commodity, as they allow characters to improve, but the scene mechanics meant that which tests you chose to pursue during play became a very important consideration. It also made the opportunity to help your fellow players on a test much more valuable.

During this playtest, the Technology and Vehicles rules also took shape.

Once the first draft of Burning Empires was finished on January 9th, I began my first editorial pass through the text. At this stage, I was ignoring most grammatical considerations, focusing my attention on clarity and whether the mechanics worked. Most of my edits had to do with strengthening or better explaining particular mechanics, though I also included suggestions for new mechanics in certain instances.

Also, whenever writers are working something out as they write, they tend to write in the Passive Voice. It’s very common when you’re trying to explain something to yourself. Unfortunately, Passive Voice leads to incredibly convoluted sentences that can be very difficult to follow. So, many of my edits at this time also involved an attempt to eliminate uses of Passive Voice to make the text easier for readers to understand.

While I was working on the sections of text that Luke was sending my way, Luke spoke with Rich Forest about working as one of the copy editors on the project, making sure he could work within our deadlines.

As my edits came rolling in, Luke started going through the edits I had submitted and began redrafting the text. Once my edits had been incorporated, Luke began passing sections to Rich for a turn.

Moeller’s Three Sketchbooks Arrive (February)

By February, three sketchbooks of Chris’ work—everything he had done in the period leading up to and during his work on the Iron Empires—arrived at BWHQ. Aside from goggling at Chris’ sketches though, we were not yet ready to start dealing with the black & white art.

Luke was still working on trying to get Chris to do some original art for us, but Chris’ schedule remained far too tight. Getting nervous, Luke and I began discussing the possibility of bringing additional artists onto the project, a frightening prospect as Luke had not budgeted for such an expense. Luke also discussed the issue with Chris.

It was at this point that we received the most severe blow of the entire project, and one which led me, at least, to question whether we had played a very bad hand of cards when we decided to go forward with this project. Luke asked Chris for the original plates for the comics, to see what could be done to make them stretch to fit our needs for the project. And we learned that Chris did not have all of them.

As is apparently common among comic book artists, Chris had sold a number of the original plates to fans and collectors. And as the comics had initially been released in the 1990s, prior to the mass adoption of digital technology in the business, he did not have digital versions.

We turned to Dark Horse Books, which publishes the graphic novels, but though they were very easy to deal with and very professional, they had only a small archive of Chris’ work—mostly covers. They didn’t have what we needed.

Our choices were limited at that point. We were six months into the project and had a lot of time and sweat invested already. We’d have to make do with the plates that Chris had and try scanning the rest from the comics. Fingers crossed.

Wider Playtesting (Feb.-March)

Meanwhile, with Playtest Agra drawn to a close, we put together another group. Drozdal had returned from Poland, and Alexander had left us to put together an outside playtest group of his own. We had been playtesting with four players and a GM, so we thought it best to see what would happen with a larger group, especially in light of the scene mechanics. Our playtest group for Morelia consisted of Luke, Drozdal, Chris (not Moeller), Mayuran, John, Danny and myself.

Morelia was one of the most difficult worlds we played for several reasons. First, as we had suspected, the number of players made working with the scene mechanics a little difficult. We determined that four or five players were optimal for Burning Empires play. Also, I played a character that was ambivalent as to which side he was on, to see what would happen. It worked, but there was a great deal of tension at the table and between the group. It also happened to be a world that was thoroughly unbalanced in the Vaylen’s favor (we were playing the human side), and so we were steadily losing ground to the terror and turning to infighting as it happened. On the whole, the world worked, even though it was hard, and was a fascinating test.

While Morelia was under way, we had also sent the text to outside playtest groups. Alexander, Mike, Judd and Kevin all gamely gave it a go with our very roughly cut gem. Others, including the estimable Mike Holmes, agreed to read the text and comment. Several were not able to make it through an entire Phase, as outside commitments got in the way.

The rest, to our good fortune, had considerable difficulties. Giving your baby to someone else, and letting them sputter and founder with it, can be one of the most difficult things a game designer can face.

Luke can react very negatively when things seem to be going badly, especially when we get into this phase of a project and the strain starts to tell. Burning Empires was no exception. The initial playtest reports contained some very troublesome issues, and there were a few times when Luke was ready to give up as a result.

But the fact of the matter is that playtests that go wrong are by far the most rewarding. Few things will teach you more about your game’s weaknesses, and what is happening at your table that’s not in the text, than a troublesome and turbulent playtest session.

These months were very intensive in the development of Burning Empires, and the text evolved rapidly based on the input of the playtesters, Mike Holmes and my edits. Luke was releasing revised drafts nearly every week.

That, in itself, became somewhat of a problem. Due to the size of the text (it was a brick even then), few if any of the outside playtesters printed new copies of the rules from the revisions. Keeping track of who was playing with which revision, and whether the problems they were experiencing in play had already been dealt with in the up-to-date text, became increasingly difficult.

Finding a way to control that issue will be a priority in our next project.

It was also in this period that we finally settled on a name for the project: Burning Empires: The Iron Empires Forged on the Burning Wheel.

In the next part: Editing Phase I, The Art Comes Through, and Copy Editing and Layout


Nathan P. said...

Wow. You guys are rock stars.

Michael S. Miller said...

I love this whole "Behind the Music" thing. You manage to keep the human context while focusing on the game design challenges faced.

Consider yourself nominated for official biographer of the Indie RPG movement. Thanks for doing this. A movement without history is barely a movement at all.

Of course, I'm also waiting for the line: "We agreed that at some point in the lull between the end of the preorders and the GenCon release, I'd write up our creative process on my blog to maintain and enhance people's interest."

It's an awesome way to draw people in, and make them excited about the game. Kinda like John Wick's Game Designer's Journal from when he was putting Orkworld together. There were several of them that followed in Wick's footsteps. The problem a lot of those faced was that the documentary competed for writing time with the game itself. You've cleverly circumvented that by waiting until after the project is at the printer. Well done!

Iskander said...

Good stuff, Thor. There was some interesting (from my p.o.v.) process stuff that happened in the Agra playtest, so...

Psychology and Agra
There were several Psychologist characters - player and GM - each of whom had connections spread liberally. In particular, Mayuran's prince Faisal was a Psychologist with a connection to Lady Kate, my awesome Hammer Lord. This relationship worked very well, to both our advantage for some time: we both took advantage of psychological communication, I took advantage of the bonus die, and Mayuran enjoyed riding along with Kate (and Lord Omei, Thor's character, too). It worked well, that is, until Faisal forced a Psychic Duel on Lady Kate, and made me (the player) accept something I absolutely did not want. I had no recourse. No escalation was possible - Faisal wasn't even targettable for ground bombardment by Lady Kate's fleet. Worse, it could happen again at any time.

I was angry. Deeply upset and carrying a strong sense - as a player - that it was not fun. I was ready to stop playing, and that was a sign that something was wrong.

Over the next three weeks, we edged around the issue, until I was finally able to articulate the core of my sense of unease, and fury. We talked a lot about our game as players and our relationships with our characters, and a lot of "bullshit timewasting theory" as some might have it, but out of that process came a rule change: the target of a Psychological connection must be able to sever the connection as his minimal compromise in a Psychic Duel.

So, we went from upset in play, to analysis, to concrete rule change, with lots of theory chat on the way, and made the game better. The theory chat was critical to making the game be more fun.

- Alexander

Thor Olavsrud said...

Thanks Michael!

It wasn't that deliberate. I really did decide to do this after I read Brennan's post about Mortal Coil.

I'm certainly cognizant of the fact that these posts are drawing interest to the game. But the real motivation is to share our experiences, both the highs and lows, in the hope that it can help someone else along; even if it's just some food for thought about the sorts of things one needs to consider.

I feel like we get better at the actual process of creating a game with each project that we do -- and I'm talking about the management of the projects, not really the craft of designing games.

The planning that we did in August and September is really what allowed us to finish this project, and that's really what I want to get across.

Oh! And Alexander reminds me that I meant to post about his Agra character, Lady Kate. She became so iconic in play that when it came time for Luke to commission Chris to paint the cover of Burning Empires, no one questioned the decision to make Lady Kate the centerpiece!

buzz said...

Let me add my voice to the chorus of "This rocks!" As if I wasn't already giddily waiting for my preorder copy to arrive. Thanks for taking time to write these, Thor. I'd love to someday see a BW equivalent.

Is there anything in particular BWHQ is taking away from this experience that may influence the future development of the BWr line? Or woudl you prefer to reserve comment until the book hits the street and gets played a bit?

Drozdal said...

//buzz said: "I'd love to someday see a BW equivalent."//

I think we managed to sucessfully erase most of it from out memory ;)

Paul said...

Awesome stuff, Thor. I'm following these posts with interest.

In particular, could you say more about how you got through this:

"The initial playtest reports contained some very troublesome issues, and there were a few times when Luke was ready to give up as a result."

In my experience, this stage is the long dark night of a game's soul. Since publishing My Life with Master, I've shelved one ambitious game design as a result of playtesting revealing to me that the game had serious conceptual flaws, and I'm uncomfortably close to shelving another.

Had I made a financial investment in either of them, perhaps that would have lent me the will to power through the long dark night. Do you think the financial investment is what delivered you?


Andrew said...

These really are very interesting posts. And, dare I say it, as someone who was ignorant of the whole BE thing before I was directed to your blog, I am now awaiting it with barely suppressed excitement. My only regret is that the preordering has ended already :-( Can't wait to see it though!

luke said...

Hi Paul,

Thor's away this weekend, so I don't think he'll mind if I take a crack at answering your question.

There was no financial commitment at this point in the process. True, there was a contract with Chris, but it was a very friendly affair. I'm sure he would have let me out of it if need be. However, I can honestly say that that commitment did bolster my decision to move forward.

But two other considerations weighed in as well.
First, a half dozen or so of my friends had put in a lot of fucking work on the project at that point. As a group, we had been working hard.

This may sound ridiculous, but the thought of disappointing them -- my closet friends and allies -- was something I could not bear. I felt like killing the project would seriously damage our friendships. I wanted to see this through to the end so that we could all revel in success or failure together -- so that no matter what the end result was, we tried. Hokey, I know, but true. Erin can back me up on this one. We talked about it at length.

Last, my sheer determination to get the damn thing done hauled my tired and complaining ass through the fire. More than anything, stubborn determination got me through the toughest parts. (And playtesting was NOT the toughest part.)

There's no secret or magic to the creative process. It's difficult. If I don't feel like giving up at some point, I'm probably not doing it right. If it doesn't change me from the inside out, it's not worth it.

Guy said...

That makes a lot of sense, the bit with less advancement.

Sure, your characters begin fairly powerful because they're relatively movers and shakers(though you can have the invasion as backdrop, rather than have them as actual participants), but also because you're going to advance less.