[19:32] <+AaronReed> Great– thanks for the invite and happy to be here. 🙂 So I’ve been a game designer off and on for about fifteen years now, mostly doing indie and digital games. I did a lot of work in the “interactive fiction” world writing text adventures. I wrote what was at one point the longest text adventure ever (no longer true)!
[19:33] <+AaronReed> I’ve also always been a roleplayer, and for the last 5-6 years was working on a PhD on interactive narrative. I started getting really back into indie roleplaying partly as research but also to get away from screeeeens…
[19:33] <+AaronReed> So I’m Kickstarting my first published tabletop game, Archives of the Sky, and it actually just hit its funding goal this morning (woohoo!) So that’s exciting.
[19:34] <+AaronReed> Would love to talk about the game, my weird path through digital games and academia to get here, or anything else folks are curious about. 🙂
[19:34] <+AaronReed> (done)
[19:34] <~Dan> Thanks, AaronReed! The floor is open to questions!
[19:34] <~Dan> And congrats on funding, btw!
[19:35] <~Dan> What is the game about?
[19:35] <+xyphoid> oh sweet you did icebound concordance
[19:35] <+xyphoid> that is super sweet, I have it on my shelf
[19:35] <+AaronReed> Archives of the Sky is a GM-less storygame set in a super distant future where humanity has slowly spread out and colonized the galaxy at sublight speeds
[19:36] <+AaronReed> (That’s awesome xyphoid !!)
[19:36] <+AaronReed> …And in doing so, civilizations have taken all kinds of imaginable shapes… evolving, regressing, building countless empires that rise and fall, etc. ad infinitum
[19:37] <+AaronReed> But there are some people who choose never to settle down, and just keep taking these long sleeper voyages between stars, centuries long. And eventually they gain this unique perspective on what it means to be human, from essentially sort of placing themselves outside the regular flow of humanity.
[19:37] <+AaronReed> Eventually they sort of join up into these Houses, a group of these near-immortal wanderers who share some common purpose, something they think is The Most Important Thing.
[19:38] <+AaronReed> And so the game is about playing a group of these Wanderers who encounter something that challenges their beliefs, and finding out how they deal with that.
[19:38] <~Dan> So is there no FTL travel in the setting, then?
[19:39] <+AaronReed> Right– which in part serves a mechanical purpose of making sure your characters have to deal with whatever situation they find on their own– they can’t call their House in for backup. (Or they could, but it might take a few thousand years to arrive…)
[19:41] <~Dan> Are there aliens?
[19:41] <+AaronReed> So that depends on the players. Besides what I’ve just said, the setting is actually very up to the people who sit down to play.
[19:42] <+AaronReed> One of the first things you do when you start playing is collaboratively define your House together and its place in the galaxy
[19:42] <+AaronReed> And part of that are things like: are there only a few Houses, or hundreds? Are there aliens or is everyone you meet human (or at least once was?) The “no FTL” thing is one of the few ground rules you have to stick to.
[19:43] <+AaronReed> (I should add, “Archives” is Kickstarting for a nice rulebook, but there’s a full free version of the rules available now… you can get it here for anyone who’s curious: (Link: http://archivesofthesky.textories.com/#download)http://archivesofthesky.textories.com/#download
[19:43] <~Dan> How does this work in play?
[19:45] <+AaronReed> So the game is GM-less, kind of in the tradition of games like Microscope, Fiasco, and Downfall. No one prepares a scenario in advance– the rules are structured to help guide you through improvising your way to an interesting story.
[19:45] <+AaronReed> One of the things I was interested in doing was finding mechanics that allowed coherent and compelling stories to emerge.
[19:45] <+AaronReed> I love GM-less games, but sometimes their stories can really ramble and have a hard time coming together (since no one person is guiding them)
[19:45] * ~Dan nods
[19:46] <+AaronReed> So I did a lot of thinking (and, uh, “research playing”) into what kinds of systems would help develop stories that had dramatic structure, that moved towards interesting conclusions, and that had real emotional stakes.
[19:46] <+AaronReed> (done)
[19:47] <~Dan> How does the game handle task resolution?
[19:48] <+AaronReed> So in certain cases you can just play it like an improv scene– work towards whatever resolution makes the most dramatic sense to you and the people in the scene. But there’s a mechanic called the Trove when you want some randomness and inspiration.
[19:48] <+AaronReed> When you start play, you grab any sci-fi books you have lying around, and everyone flips through them looking for interesting, evocative words. You write down as many as you can find in a couple minutes, one per card.
[19:49] <+AaronReed> This then becomes a deck you can draw from any time you want inspiration, or some guidance as to what happens next.
[19:49] <+AaronReed> This tends to produce a lot of really lovely moments, like someone saying “Hmm, I wonder if my plan to defuse this bomb works,” and then the word they draw is “supernova.”
[19:49] <~Dan> Heh. 🙂
[19:50] <+AaronReed> It was actually really incredible to me throughout the playtesting how easily people can rationalize almost any word into something that makes sense in the story, though… I mean this is why Tarot and other divination things work. Humans are just excellent at tying things together.
[19:50] <+AaronReed> So a lot of times the Trove will push the story in unexpected directions, generally to the delight of all.
[19:50] <~Dan> How is control of the story determined?
[19:51] <+AaronReed> In earlier versions of the game there were some more specific task resolution things, like skills you could tap to use in a scene, but I found that the game really didn’t need them in the end… in part because it’s a game about incredibly powerful people who can basically do whatever they want. The interesting part is whether they should do it,
[19:51] <+AaronReed> not whether they can.
[19:52] <+AaronReed> Control is fairly evenly distributed, with a sort of focus that rotates each turn.
[19:52] <+AaronReed> Players take turns being the Narrator, who sort of frames a scene around a Question, the next thing they want to find out about the plot.
[19:52] <+AaronReed> So they ask a Question and decide who’s in the scene and then sort of set it up, but they don’t actually have to answer it.
[19:53] <+AaronReed> It’s the job of everyone in the scene to collaboratively explore the question and come up with an answer.
[19:53] <+AaronReed> When anyone thinks the question’s been answered, they can say Cut to end the scene. Then the next person gets to be Narrator and ask a question.
[19:54] <~Dan> (Howdy, MonkofLords!)
[19:54] <+AaronReed> There are some other structures in the game that help move your questions towards a dramatic spine, which is basically the One Big Question of the play session.
[19:54] <+AaronReed> It’s sort of the central core that this story you’re telling ends up being about, and it’s always a choice between two options, where each option would threaten something someone (or everyone) believes in.
[19:55] <+AaronReed> An example I like from sci-fi is from the Battlestar Galactica reboot– there’s an episode where President Roslin has to decide if she’s going to rig the election to keep someone she thinks is a traitor from coming to power.
[19:56] <+AaronReed> And no matter which choice she makes, she’s stepping on one of her values– either the belief in a free and open society, or the belief that she needs to protect humanity at all costs.
[19:56] <+AaronReed> So when you start Archives, you define a set of values for your House, things you all believe in– and then a set of personal Values for your own character.
[19:56] <+AaronReed> And the game’s structure pushes you together towards finding a Dilemma that pits two of these values against each other.
[19:56] <+AaronReed> (done)
[19:57] <~Dan> Do the PCs have stats of any kind?
[19:58] <+AaronReed> There’s no numeric stats. You’ve got a name, a “job” (which can be either literal, like Engineer, or about group dynamics, like Peacemaker), and then your set of Values, which basically totally define your character.
[19:59] <+AaronReed> it’s interesting because when I started the game I didn’t think I could get away with something that minimal, but as I playtested I really found that since so much of the game was about the values, everything else was basically just a distraction from that.
[19:59] <+AaronReed> So your character really emerges in how you start roleplaying the frictions and connections between your Values, the House Values, and the values of the other people at the table.
[20:02] <~Dan> Can you give us an example of how a scene might play out?
[20:02] <+AaronReed> Sure!
[20:03] <+AaronReed> So say a plot point has emerged about a mysterious virus that’s spreading throughout the galaxy. The players have established that they’ve arrived at a planet in the path of this plague, and they’re going to monitor to look for signs of it manifesting.
[20:04] <+AaronReed> The next player who is Narrator might think and decide the Question they have is “Who do we discover here who knows something about the virus?”
[20:04] <+AaronReed> But that might have been anything… it might have been “What do we do when we find out the virus is already here?” or “How does Aldara react when she finds out she’s infected with the virus?”
[20:04] <+AaronReed> Questions can be general or they can be leading like that last one, if the Narrator has a specific idea in mind…
[20:06] <+AaronReed> So the Narrator decides who’s in the scene. She can include her own character if she wants, but doesn’t have to. She decides that two of the other players’ characters (let’s say Eridani and Zircon) are in the scene,
[20:06] <+AaronReed> And that it’s going to start in the capital city of this planet, while they’re walking down the street.
[20:06] <+AaronReed> So boom, the scene starts, and those two players just start making shit up.
[20:06] <+AaronReed> If you’re in the scene, you can play your character, but you can also make things happen in the world.
[20:07] <+AaronReed> So after some light chit-chat, Eridani’s player decides they should meet a mysterious stranger. She wants to draw from the Trove, though, so let’s say she draws…
[20:07] <+AaronReed> (and I’m going to look at my table of trove words here…)
[20:08] <+AaronReed> “disrupted”
[20:08] <~Dan> (Howdy, Viktyr!)
[20:08] <+AaronReed> So she rolls with this and says they see someone pushing through the crowd, shoving people out of their way.
[20:08] <+AaronReed> And the scene plays out until someone thinks it’s done… maybe they tackle this guy and he turns out to be an agent from a rival House, and we cut the scene on that revelation.
[20:09] <+Viktyr> (( I ate all the rest, and now I gotta eat you. ))
[20:09] <+AaronReed> A scene ends with a phase called Reflection, where everyone says one thing they’re thinking about where the plot is going.
[20:09] <+AaronReed> So Eridani’s player might say something like “I wonder if this mystery agent is trying to save the planet, or doom it?”
[20:09] <+AaronReed> This sort of serves as inspiration to everyone at the table, helping people think about where the plot might be going.
[20:10] <+AaronReed> Then it’s the next person’s turn as Narrator, and you move on to the next scene. (At certain times you can do a special move that helps you Build the Dilemma, if something has come up that you think might be good to make part of it.)
[20:10] <+AaronReed> (done)
[20:11] <~Dan> Can you say a bit more about Building the Dilemma?
[20:11] <+AaronReed> Yeah! This is probably the trickiest part of the game to get a handle on the first time you play.
[20:12] <+AaronReed> (There’s a printed handout that helps set this up.)
[20:12] <~Dan> (Howdy, Monochrome_Tide!)
[20:12] <+AaronReed> Basically, a Dilemma has three parts: a Conflict, which is the course of action you’re trying to decide on, and then two Threats, each of which is a Value connected to one way the conflict could be resolved.
[20:13] <+AaronReed> So in the BSG example, the Dilemma’s Conflict would be “Should Roslin steal the election?”
[20:14] <+AaronReed> As the Dilemma is taking shape, the moral stakes become clear. So the players would move a Value like “The human race must survive” to the YES side, because it justifies that action.
[20:15] <+AaronReed> And they’d move something like “I will always defend democracy” to the NO side.
[20:15] <+AaronReed> But each of these values is then threatened by the other course of action. So choosing YES threatens “I will always defend democracy,” while choosing NO threatens “The human race must survive.”
[20:16] <+AaronReed> The interesting thing is that these three parts might be defined in any order. So sometimes you decide that everyone wants a certain Value to become the linchpin of the story, before you even know what the Conflict in.
[20:16] <+AaronReed> In which case, threatening the Value is like foreshadowing: you don’t know how, but you know something has to happen in the plot that will threaten this value.
[20:17] <+AaronReed> And conversely, sometimes you establish the Conflict first, which means you know what the approaching plot point is but not yet what the emotional stakes are.
[20:17] <+AaronReed> (This is a bit like the superhero realizing his decision to save Boat X or Airplane Y is complicated by the fact that the villain has placed his elderly relative on Airplane Y…)
[20:18] <+AaronReed> And sometimes, all three points just become clear immediately at once– there’s an action called Build the Dilemma, where you can create one, two, or all three parts.
[20:18] <+AaronReed> So once you have the Dilemma solidified, the game moves on to a phase where the characters have to decide what to do.
[20:19] <+AaronReed> Essentially you have to come into unanimous agreement about what course of action to take (since you’re acting as representatives of your House), and no character is a leader, so there has to be consensus.
[20:19] <+AaronReed> It also has to be something that can’t be resolved by splitting the party or having some NPCs do one thing while you do another.
[20:20] <+AaronReed> There’s a sort of countdown that gets introduced at this point, though, so if you can’t decide within a certain number of scenes, you lose the chance to, and essentially one of the outcomes happens at random.
[20:20] <+AaronReed> In the final part of the game, you then find out whether your plan worked (do you save the boat / was your Aunt actually on the plane)…
[20:21] <+AaronReed> …and whether the threat to the value comes to pass or not (does Gaius actually turn out to be a traitor)
[20:21] <+AaronReed> (done) (for now) (I can go on, apparently)
[20:21] <~Dan> How are these things determined?
[20:21] <+AaronReed> Aha– so this is the one time in the game you’re forced to draw from the Trove. Generally it’s optional.
[20:22] <+AaronReed> But for each of those questions (Does the plan succeed? Was the Value compromised?) the Narrator has to draw from the Trove and use what they drew as the guiding force in answering the question.
[20:22] <+AaronReed> Now, the interpretation of the draw is still subjective– you could argue for any word being positive or negative– but generally there’s something that immediately makes sense to the Narrator about what the draw means,
[20:22] <+AaronReed> for better or worse.
[20:23] <+AaronReed> (Often worse. A lot of games of Archives tend to end up with the sun exploding.)
[20:23] <&Le_Squide> That’s a heck of an end state!
[20:23] <~Dan> So doesn’t this mean that the last Narrator has immense power in the game?
[20:24] <+AaronReed> It does, yeah! But that generally tends not to be a problem, because by then people have typically gotten so into the groove of the collaboration that everyone will sort of chip in to the final scene.
[20:24] <+AaronReed> I struggled with this a lot, actually.
[20:25] <+AaronReed> In a earlier version of the game, there was a more complex endgame mechanic where each character had a chance to contribute to the plan, and find out individually if their contribution succeeded or failed.
[20:25] <+AaronReed> And there was a resource you could spend to try to overrule a failure, so it was a whole sort of mini-game of trying to improve your odds
[20:25] <+AaronReed> (i.e. you’d know there’d be at least one failure so far in the mix, so you’d try to do something to ameliorate that on your turn)
[20:26] <+AaronReed> And it was cool and worked to raise the tension, but it was awkward having to stop the game right at the narrative climax and explain this whole new system.
[20:26] <+AaronReed> I tried working it into the game earlier, so it wasn’t new at that point, but that never quite worked out either.
[20:26] <+AaronReed> And for a long time I wasn’t sure that it would work for the climax of the story to be just “eh, whoever’s turn it is decides.”
[20:27] <+AaronReed> But in all the playtesting since I took that out, I can’t recall it ever actually being a problem– usually because I think by that point people have a pretty clear idea about how the story “should” end.
[20:27] <+AaronReed> (I.e., it’s probably going to be a more interesting story if President Roslin gets caught rigging the election than if she gets away with it.)
[20:28] <+AaronReed> Although the most interesting ending definitely isn’t always the losing one… it just varies based on how the story’s unfolded and what it’s ended up meaning to the characters.
[20:29] <+AaronReed> (done)
[20:31] <~Dan> If I can go back just a bit, let’s say the Narrator decides that two characters are in a scene. If both PCs’ players can narrate both their characters and the scene as a whole, how do you reconcile both of their descriptions?
[20:32] <+AaronReed> It works sort of on the improv model– the “Yes, and” approach. As soon as someone narrates something happening, that’s now The Story.
[20:32] <+AaronReed> And you sort of roll with it, and if that wasn’t the direction you were going to take things, you adapt.
[20:33] <+AaronReed> Other players can also sort of guide things, too. So for example someone who’s not in the scene could say “How do you feel about that?” to prompt you to share some of your character’s inner thoughts.
[20:33] <+AaronReed> And people who aren’t in the scene can also add details of setting, too… if you’re not playing a character, you have more mental bandwidth to think about those things.
[20:34] <+AaronReed> So it’s really just kind of a nice flow of everyone riffing off each other, with no one really knowing where things are going– except that you always have the Question of the current scene to direct you towards what should be happening right now.
[20:36] <~Dan> Is this your first published RPG?
[20:38] <+AaronReed> It is, yeah! It’s sort of weird for me, because I’ve published a non-fiction book, a book-length game, a PhD dissertation, and written a novel. But this is my first RPG book. Apparently I am destined to always be writing first books of one kind or another.
[20:40] * ~Dan chuckles
[20:41] <~Dan> What are your thoughts on this sort of game as it relates to more traditional roleplaying games? Do you see them as the same sort of activity? Different but related?
[20:42] <+AaronReed> So in part I see the rise of GM-less and other narrative-heavy RPGs as a reaction to digital RPGs and MMOs.
[20:43] <+AaronReed> Computers are really damn good at generating random numbers and looking things up in tables, so I think some designers now gravitate more towards the things computers still struggle with.
[20:43] <+AaronReed> There are a lot of interesting parallels too between the scene of experimental, indie RPGs and the text games community.
[20:44] <+AaronReed> Both are spaces where individual creators can be really bold and original with their thinking and ideas, and those ideas (and people) often end up circling back towards more mainstream stuff in really interesting ways.
[20:44] <+AaronReed> I think it’s cool that you’re starting to see ideas from games like Apocalypse World show up in big-name games like D&D.
[20:45] <~Dan> Oh? Like what?
[20:45] <+AaronReed> In both worlds I really enjoy being down in the trenches with people who are innovating and trying new and wild things, just to see what works and what doesn’t.
[20:46] <+AaronReed> Well, so some of the alternate rules you see in D&D 5E are more “story-game” ways of doing things… there’s an alternate rule in the DM’s Guide I’m thinking of, I’ll have to dig it out in a second and see if I can find it.
[20:46] <+AaronReed> But more generally, stuff like aspects in FATE 10-15 years ago were pretty on the edge, but are becoming a more mainstream way of doing things.
[20:47] * ~Dan nods
[20:47] <+AaronReed> (D&D’s backstory mechanics for instance in 5E reminds me of certain storygame ideas… trying to get concrete things about your character’s background or beliefs in as actionable parts of the system.)
[20:48] <+AaronReed> And as a digital games designer, who’s really interested in things like procedural narrative, it’s also really interesting to me to see all of the ways people are trying to turn storytelling into repeatable procedures.
[20:49] <+AaronReed> Apocalypse World is absolutely fascinating to me, because it literally gives the GM an algorithm to follow.
[20:49] <+AaronReed> It says, your job to make this story responsive to the players and still be interesting, is to do these N things and no others. You can only do them in particular situations. Here is how you do each of them.
[20:49] <+AaronReed> That’s a really revolutionary concept… it takes being a good GM from a semi-mystical, “you got it or you don’t” concept to a “no, actually, here is exactly how to do it.”
[20:50] <+xyphoid> Yeah I really like the AW GMing stuff – it really showed up that D&D etc really don’t do a great job of explaining how the game’s supposed to run
[20:51] <+AaronReed> Definitely… in fact, it turns out we know a lot about how to actually tell good stories, and after 40 years of roleplaying we’ve learned some pretty reproducible things for doing that well too. 🙂
[20:51] <+xyphoid> and it was interesting seeing DW spread to D&D GMs around here who promptly ignored the GM rules and just ran it using their evolved accidental ‘this is how to run D&D’ process
[20:52] <+AaronReed> Right. Roleplaying systems are so delightfully flexible and house-rules-able. I’m really curious to see as “Archives” gets played what kinds of hacks people make for it and house rules evolve.
[20:52] <+AaronReed> It’s sort of the equivalent of not laying down paths in a big complex in advance, and instead waiting to see where people naturally walk and then building the paths there. I wanna find out how Archives gets lived in 🙂
[20:53] <~Dan> 🙂
[20:53] <+xyphoid> is this a game focused around one-offs or campaigns?
[20:54] <+xyphoid> (narrative RPGs seem to often tie into the session-based focus)
[20:54] <+AaronReed> It can work either way. It’s mostly been played one-off style to date, but there are some rules that work for longer-term play as well.
[20:54] <+AaronReed> Basically at the end of each session, your character might have changed as a result of what happened (i.e. if a Value they believed in was compromised)
[20:55] <+AaronReed> There are rules for either doubling down on one of your beliefs, or abandoning one entirely– either evolving as a person or becoming even more committed to something.
[20:55] <+AaronReed> So you can play over multiple sessions with the same characters and see how they change.
[20:55] <+AaronReed> After a certain point you’ll get to a session where your character can’t legally Adapt again, and the rules say that’s the point at which that character’s story ends.
[20:56] <+AaronReed> So the same characters are never going to go through a huge extended campaign, but you can do enough stories with them to feel like a season’s arc of a TV show, say.
[20:57] <~Dan> How is this limit to Adapting determined?
[20:57] <+AaronReed> So you’ve got two options– you can “Resolve” a value, which means your character can never again act against it.
[20:58] <+AaronReed> This plays into the voting phase where you’re trying to come to consensus– normally you can be persuaded to vote against a value you believe in, but after you Resolve it, you mechanically can’t do so.
[20:58] <+AaronReed> This means either you have to convince the other characters to come to your side, or you have to invoke the mechanic that forces an outcome– which is like you taking the situation in to your own hands. “Screw it, I just launched the nukes.”
[20:59] <+AaronReed> (You can also Resolve one of your House Values, so one of the things that everyone’s on board with, you become SUPER on board with.)
[20:59] <+AaronReed> The other way you can Adapt is called “Letting Go,” which is getting rid of one of these values. This is like having a change of heart.
[21:00] <+AaronReed> So inevitably, you’ll get to a point where either you don’t have any more Values left to Let Go of– you’ve become perfectly aligned with your House’s ideals, essentially…
[21:00] <+AaronReed> …or you’ve Resolved everything. You’ve become a completely inflexible fanatic.
[21:01] <+AaronReed> So at that point, there’s sort of nowhere left for your character to go. It’s time for their story to end.
[21:01] <+AaronReed> (You could imagine a system where you could gain new Values, or other things… maybe for the sequel!)
[21:01] <~Dan> Ah, I think I follow you now.
[21:03] <~Dan> (Howdy, Teller!)
[21:04] <+Teller> Hey.
[21:04] <~Dan> I think I’m about tapped out of questions… Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to bring up?
[21:05] <+AaronReed> We kind of ran through most of it! =)
[21:05] <+AaronReed> I can paste in some links for people if we’re wrapping up.
[21:06] <~Dan> Sure!
[21:07] <+AaronReed> Excellent! So, the Kickstarter’s still on, which is for a full rulebook version of the game in PDF or print with lots of examples, sample Trove words, artwork, etc…: (Link: https://kck.st/2rdQgXg)https://kck.st/2rdQgXg
[21:07] <+AaronReed> You can find out more about the game and download the free version of the rules on the official site: (Link: http://archivesofthesky.textories.com/)http://archivesofthesky.textories.com/
[21:07] <+AaronReed> And you can find out about all my other weird projects on my personal website, (Link: http://www.aaronareed.net/)http://www.aaronareed.net/ , or follow me on Twitter at @aaronareed .
[21:08] <+AaronReed> Thanks for having me, it’s been a ton of fun and my fingers are only bleeding a little! 😉
[21:08] <~Dan> Speaking of links, folks wishing to back my Q&As can do so at (Link: https://gmshoe.wordpress.com/the-gmshoes-tip-jar/)https://gmshoe.wordpress.com/the-gmshoes-tip-jar/ 🙂
[21:08] <~Dan> You’re very welcome, AaronReed! Thanks for joining us!
[21:08] <~Dan> If you
[21:08] <~Dan> oops
[21:08] <~Dan> If you’ll give me just a minute, I’ll get the log posted and link you!
[21:09] <+AaronReed> Great 🙂