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 My Visit to XOXO 2015: an RPG Design Inspired by the Land of Oz

Letters

News and letters on the Game Lantern - the world's first magic lantern game system by P.D. Warne

My Visit to XOXO 2015: an RPG Design Inspired by the Land of Oz

Paul Warne

"Cowardly lion2" Illustration by W.W. Denslow (d. 1915)

"Cowardly lion2" Illustration by W.W. Denslow (d. 1915)

Dear E & A, 

    Do you remember the time, around when E was starting Kindergarten and A began daycare, that I went on a business trip?  Well, I flew to a magical city called Portland. There I attended the XOXO festival—a merry congress of inventors, wizards, storytellers, tinkerers and creators.

Some attendees have shared insightful posts on the event, like this piece on the community aspect of XOXO or this post about all the game exhibitions.

What I would like to share with you, however, is a more personal account of what I learned during my trip (which is now foggy and dreamlike as I write this two weeks later). The best way to do this is by describing what I discovered in my workshop on the afternoon of my return. 

PRELUDE: SYSTEMS BUILT ON VALUES

As you know, I have been building the Game Lantern in order to create a  little game system built on the values I would like to see in our new games. In this previous XOXO talk,  Max Temkin presents the merits of placing your values at the base of whatever you are building. This theme of systems and values was carried further at this year’s conference, as Heather Kelly points out:

The #xoxofest talks by @TheQuinnspiracy and @meyerweb are like two halves of the same message. System designs carry and shape human values.

It was incredible to meet other creators at various phases of their projects and hear how the values of systems have helped or hindered them. This gave me new confidence in the foundations I have laid out so far for the project. So, on my first day back, I was inspired to move forward.

FROM SYSTEM TO CHARACTER

With the prototype of the Game Lantern fairly complete, my task that afternoon was working on game concepts for the system catalog. For now I will be building these games by myself (and hopefully with you two!). Before leaving for XOXO, I was thinking about a casual, all-ages RPG (in a box) adventure game—in which a group of players team up to save a fantastical realm from a nefarious force that has submerged the realm in shadow.

To flush out this game concept further, I began by reflecting on the adventure stories set in the land of Oz (who knows, maybe the game will end up taking place in Oz). Those stories often involve an ad-hoc group of characters, each sad about a particular flaw they possess, coming together to set out on an epic quest. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz the group shares a delusion that a mysterious and powerful wizard will rid them of their flaws. Along their journey they learn to rely on one another instead of pinning their hopes on a magic man who can supposedly remedy their imagined shortcomings (so indie!).

This helped me to see that the next step that day would be to find out more about who my group of player characters might be. The more I learn about them, the more I will know about their quest.

THE FLAWS THAT SHAPE US

“Tea bowl fixed in the Kintsugi method” by Unknown - museum collection documentation. Nicky Case's talk shared an anecdote about the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where broken ceramics are mended with gold to accentuate the breaking and repair inherent in the history of the object, instead of hiding the flaw (or erasing it by throwing it out); flaws are part of the honest beauty of this art.

“Tea bowl fixed in the Kintsugi method” by Unknown - museum collection documentation.

Nicky Case's talk shared an anecdote about the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where broken ceramics are mended with gold to accentuate the breaking and repair inherent in the history of the object, instead of hiding the flaw (or erasing it by throwing it out); flaws are part of the honest beauty of this art.

Lisa Hanawalt's XOXO talk touched upon creating when feeling flawed, or not in a happy place. A variation of this was echoed in Nicky Case's presentation. Neither suggested it is necessary for creators to “suffer for your art”, yet it is useful to recognize that everybody suffers, things break, and it's ok to keep creating in spite of all this (or especially because of it). Don’t worry if you are unsure exactly WHAT you are creating in that moment. You do not always have to be building toward your big dream project. Dreams change. Some dreams may even be holding you back—dreams of having a different family, living in a different world, acquiring a new heart, gaining a missing brain, etc.

Being creative is about giving yourself time and space to be with these “flaws”. Instead of trying to just sweep them under the rug, you can allow for the possibility of something good to grow. The results or process can be a useful practice to you or those around you—even if only to keep you company while waiting for the next adventure to come by.

BUILDING CHARACTER

Back to working on the game’s player characters, I next began thinking of the main flaw each may see in themselves. My past experience is largely in designing game levels, tools and mechanics. Having little experience in character development it seemed “write what you know" was a good instruction to follow, so I jotted down characteristics familiar to me. For the sake of brevity, here are the ones that were shortlisted:

DOUBTFUL, DISSATISFIED, FEARFUL, IMPATIENT(?) BORED (?)

The lack of overlap in the first three characteristics felt balanced, but I wasn't sure of the fourth. So I then placed these characteristics in a matrix along with some attributes. As I created attributes for the known characteristics and filled in their values, I knew the the missing characteristic could be revealed through the unused attribute values:

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 1.08.07 PM.png

This table is just a sketch. None of these characteristics, attributes or values are balanced or well defined. For now this table is a tool to create a starting point to work with. The attributes began as fairly typical to RPG’s, but morphed a little towards some kind of “expression” of these characteristics. These “expressions” could later manifest as a variety of potential game mechanics (so “hit” in this case may not refer to combat).

After putting in some numbers and shuffling them around, I was left with a value of zero for “Attention” and a value of one for “Awareness”. These two low values led me to define the missing characteristic as “ignorance”. Given I am starting to see some Buddhist influence coming through in this matrix, there is potential character overlap as ignorance can be seen as the root of all flaws. But that’s ok, because characters don’t really fit into charts! This paradoxical personality may end up the most interesting. Perhaps this character first appears as the most repugnant but eventually becomes the heart of the group—like Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai.

As a small side-exercise I briefly considered who may be the owner of each of these characteristics:

MAKING CHOICES

By this point it was after 4pm. Soon I would be leaving the workshop to pick you both up from school, so I started to wrap things up by thinking a little about what I would work on next time.

Watching how these characters formed over the afternoon gave me a sense of how I might start exploring the game’s mechanics. It was interesting to observe myself trying to balance (and define) the attributes as I roughed them in, all while thinking about what I learned at XOXO. Dissatisfaction is the quickest to act (3) which can be impulsive in many contexts, but agile in others. Fear is highly focused (3) which could manifest as neurotic in some cases, yet be usefully attentive in other situations.

Perhaps over the course of this game the players work together to uncover strategies for wielding both their characters’ strengths and flaws in gaining the advantage. This is fairly typical of how RPG mechanics function, however it may take on a slightly new flavour given the game’s emerging theme - how changing context and relationships (Game State) can flip the nature (Outcome) of seemingly concrete attributes… or something like that! That will be a job for another day.

ALONE TOGETHER

This letter is part of a new experiment in sharing my work with the both of you. Writing this all down as letters to you was, in fact, inspired by the nature of what I encountered at XOXO. I now see how the same values at the heart of what I am building can be used to also help me in talking about building it.

If you are heading out on a journey alone (starting a project on your own, visiting a conference by yourself, trying to return home from a mysterious realm full of flying monkeys, etc. ) it does not have to be a journey based around ego if you recognize ways the journey’s underlying values may connect with or be useful to others.

And if you extend this recognition to yourself, you may glimpse how your “flaws” can be useful on your creative path - for example, perhaps they can help you build characters in a game you are making for your great-great grandchildren to play.

XOXO acted as both lens and mirror for investigating these ideas. Not emerald glasses for distorting truths, but more akin to the lenses of Mister Palomar or Lebbeus Woods' Solo House—inspiring closer investigation of the past and present, self and other, in order to witness their subtle and ephemeral interconnections.

I hope this letter offers you, or anyone else out there reading, an experience to reflect upon as we each head out alone on our creative paths, together.

Love,
Pops