The Interrobang Diaries: Some Reflections

You're probably wondering how I got here.

I've got another letter with Interrobang rough draft stuff in it coming up, or possibly two... the draft is getting pretty large and I'm seeing a natural place to split it. The part that I'm still working on is in the first half, though.

I have to say, approaching the first draft of the system in terms that are closer to an explainer than actual rules is proving to be useful and instructive, because of course the challenge in writing rules is that you have to write them in ways that are self-explanatory. Terry Pratchett's maxim that the first draft is just you telling the story to yourself could have a game design corollary that the first draft is just you explaining the rules to yourself.

I find that as I go and I get a better handle on this project, my writing is becoming less discursive and does resemble actual game writing more, because I am getting a better handle on what the rules are and how to convey them.

While I ponder the squishier bits of the actual rules of play, I think I'd like to talk about the process that brought me here.

My first draft of the game I then called A Wilder World was threshed out during a week when I was house-and-dog-sitting for my parents. I'd gone to their house with the rough idea for a fantasy roleplaying game that supported D&D-style fantasy adventures but that better emulated the feel of adventure fiction than the feel of a D&D game, one that was more centered on characters and in which characters were defined by mashing up different fantasy archetypes.

My first draft had you picking different archetypes or traits in three different tiers. I tried different arrangements, but I think I mainly settled on one top tier trait, two middle tier, and one bottom tier. So your character would be defined as a combination of four things, and the rationale for how the tiers were filled out was that one of them would be the main thing and one of them would be a small thing that just sort of rounds the character out as an extra detail.

The idea was that any trait could fit into any tier. Each trait had three different bullet points at that point, and each time you dropped it down a tier it lost one bullet point, and also the bullet points would refer internally to the tier level. So Acrobat would give you + Tier Level to rolls involving acrobatics, which would be read as +3, +2, or +1. And the top tier version of the ability had two additional abilities, say one where jump distances are multiplied by 3 and falling damage is divided by 3, and one lets you do acrobatic attacks that rely on agility and let you unbalance or reposition opponents, and the second tier one would drop the special attacks and have the jumping/falling one with 2 as the multiplier/divisor instead, and the bottom tier one would just be the skill bonus.

Now, this system was a decent starting point, but if you're counting at home, that means a newly created character had eight different abilities to keep track of. And for archetypes that were more complicated than "good at a certain thing", the three bullet-pointed abilities could each become essentially a little mini game system in and of itself in order to cram everything that, say, an alchemist character needed to feel like a high fantasy alchemist, which then ran up against the idea of characters as modular because there wasn't an assumption that one trait would make a character a credible fantasy thief or ranger, but it was just harder to break down some end result characters into constituent parts.

And of course, I very quickly ran into the limits of trying to define characters for D&D-style adventures in four traits. Attributes were added for those ad hoc skill bonuses to work with. An equipment system separate from traits was added, with traits that referred to or implied equipment interacting with it. Adding a subsystem of alchemical items with their own rules made it easier to implement that alchemist trait, but stuff like that made the game more complicated than its "here's a simple game where you define your character by mashing up four different partial character concepts) roots.

Eventually, as the item/equipment system sprawled and the character concepts got more detailed and saddled with more individual abilities, I wound up with combining two different character concepts, each of which had close to a dozen specific abilities and their own internal progression for gaining in experience. It was very far from where I'd started, but the point of all those different abilities was to make sure that if you defined your character as a [Noble] [Assassin] or [Silver-Tongued] [Street Rat], you wouldn't be short of things you could do that would feel like those character concepts.

This was... honestly, I think it must have been eight years ago at that point. It's taken me a long time to come around to the idea that the game doesn't have to try to define the experience of being a [Street Rat], but that players and game runners can come to a loose consensus that's appropriate to the setting/genre/style of game. The special abilities proliferated so wildly in A Wilder World because my basic operating principle was that if your character's biggest defining feature as Has A Whip, they should be able to do (or at least credibly attempt) everything that you'd expect The One Who Has A Whip to be able to do in an action-adventure movie or show..

But as I have moved further away from D&D as the design inspiration, I've come to realize that if I'm working from the premise that people playing as The One Who Has A Whip have some kind of shared understanding of what that means, the game can use that rather than trying to legislate it.

And if the base game system isn't sitting there telling you "heroic characters with a whip can do this, heroic acrobats can do these things," then you can use the same system to model many different types of stories and genre conventions without having to generate a bunch of chargen content for each one. It just takes a discussion about what kind of game you're going to be playing, and then the same kind of at-the-table negotiation about what it means in specific cases that you're going to get anyway, even with super concrete rules.

Replacing a bunch of specific attributes with ratings in the spheres of Physical, Mental, Social, and Technical tasks, with specific areas of strength in each defined for each character... that came about when I decided to genericize the game that was A Wilder World into a light, portable system. My desire was just, for the sake of keeping things interesting, give characters a second dimension of specialization that cut across their character concept-based definitions, so that if (for instance) you defined your character a [Warrior] and your strength is primarily physical, you could still credibly invoke your warrioriness for social tasks (ilke intimidation) or mental ones (like sizing up an opponent) and benefit from being a [Warrior] but still not be as good as those things as you would be at the physical fighting, nor as good at them as someone else with relevant expertise but more of a mental or social focus. 

Making the main unit of division physical, mental, or social instead of Strength, Dexterity, etc., is just a matter of kind of finding the most basic yet meaningful distinction among different tasks possible. It might seem a little odd that if you're good at physical tasks, you're equally good at all the kinds of physical tasks you're good at, and that's arbitrary, yeah, but that kind of flattening occurs in a detailed attribute system anyway. This way it's more about where the character's focus is than the character's specific mental and physical attributes, and I think that honestly works as a model for most characters.

Between that second definition and defining assets for characters, things are more complicated than "pick a handful of pieces and and mash them together into your character's high concept" buuut that means we don't have to try to cram weapons, armors, tools, etc. into two or three descriptive words.

The diary I've been working on (the one that still might be split into two) concerns the "main game loop", how all the different parts of a character work together and how the game progresses. Not present: recovery, advancement, or a combat system that isn't just the story consequences of actions and reactions, though I've got notes for all of those things that will form the basis of future diaries and they will be part of the "finished product" version of the base game. 

I've just recognized that they are not necessary to a lot of the game experiences that Interrobang would be useful for. For a quick one-off game, not being able to recover resources that are used can help move the story to a conclusion without a formal Game Over state.

So, in some ways I've circled back to where I began, but with the wisdom of many years of game design experiments and exposure to new ideas. I think the end result is going to hit some of the marks I set for myself (especially in terms of portability, approachability, and playability) than any of the previous iterations.

Thanks for following my progress.