Hello! I'm Raph and I make storytelling games.

My main project right now is a sci-fi horror storytelling game called THE ZONE, about a doomed expedition into a mysterious quarantine area.

Other miscellany:
  • Other People: 2018 Golden Cobra entry
  • Plotypus: tell a hero's journey with your friends. Made with the wonderful Randy Lubin
  • Do find me on Twitter if you'd like to chat!
    November 15, 2018

    Metatopia 2018

    My first time at Metatopia and I loved it! I’m still sleepless, feeling the con crash hard. I played some amazing games with staggering emotional range (particular credit to Alex White’s “A Cool and Lonely Courage”, which ended with 20 seconds of silence to process at the end. Thank god for a whimsical game of Fiasco In A Box immediately after).

    Other highlights: Chad Wolf’s wild diversity of ideas (in one LARP I was a fairy light, blinking in and out of existence, in the other we manipulated Ursula LeGuin’s “dreamer who dreamt the world”!); Stephen Dewey’s “Gather: Children of the Evertree” (deeply elegant conversational mechanics and diegetic teaching of the rules), Tim Hutching’s “Operation Linebacker” (a script made of real Vietnam cockpit recordings that shockingly subverted our expectations).

    Thank you Avie & Vinny for an amazing time, and—what a segue!—for getting me the perfect space for three playtests of THE ZONE. It doesn’t look like much… but it was beige perfection. Oh “Headquarters B”, I will never forget thee.

    IMG_5570.JPG

    And most of all thank you so so so much to playtesters Anne, Whitney, Allen, Robin, Elias, Brian, Eleanor, Sean, Korey (x2!), Michael, Jenna, Mike, Nina! Your feedback was an amazing gift and your stories were perfectly, teeth-clenchingly, shiver-my-spinefully, delightfully… horrifying. Squeeeee.

    What did I learn?

    I had hoped to test out player death mechanics (a crucial part THE ZONE and why the “Director” role is about scene instead of character control)—how it felt to have your character die, and whether it had the desired escalation as players shifted roles from embodying characters to being THE ZONE.

    Instead, I found myself focusing almost entirely on the instructional design of the game.

    The game doesn’t start when it starts

    There’s an adjacent framework from the terrifying world of gnarly startup growth tactics called Psych’d, that puts this rather well:

    1. Every element on the page in the instruction adds or subtracts emotional energy
    2. Inspiring users players is as important as reducing friction

    Or to put it differently, how might I avoid this?

    How might I maximize the emotional energy of my players during the necessary 30ish minutes of instruction? And which parts of the instruction actually correlate with a better game?

    My first playtest was a perfect stress test: people were sleepless, stressed from prepping their own games for playtests. By the end of my rambly intro, the energy level was gone. We’d spent far too long discussing safety mechanics, trying to internalize rules out of context, and my decision to skip character creation saved time but left people without skin in the game.

    A humbling start!

    Just before that playtest I’d attended a great panel on horror, moderated by Anne Ratchat, in which an audience member paraphrased the genre as: giving players interesting bad choices”. I had a realization: I had to give players stronger incentives to define their character’s psyches, then create explicit reasons to express their character’s fears out loud so other players could learn and act on them. I want THE ZONE to be an engine for defining and playing with the two sided coin of fear & temptation. Every mechanic should make players complicit in ratcheting both up mercilessly.

    (And yes, fear and temptation—horror & love—flipsides of a same coin. Horror isn’t just about removing agency. It can be about getting exactly what you want… at the wrong time.)

    I had to focus on the singular goal of the game: to help players safely explore themes of horror and loss of humanity. The entire game world, the intro to the game, and every part of the instruction of the rules should help set the tone. Even the microcopy on the character sheets and the sample Phobias & Temptations were a surprisingly important part of this world building.

    In the second playtest, I completely changed the sequencing. A short storyful intro to the world, then character creation. I used the Phobia part of the character creation as a jumping off point for safety mechanics, which worked well, then taught the 3 key moves in a set of short workshopped scenes. 40 minutes! Too long, but it mostly worked. People felt more invested and excited having just created rich characters.

    The third playtest was much better. I got a wonderful piece of feedback to take the time not just to level set on safety—what people wanted to avoid—but to also to explicitly discuss what people wanted. I learned a cool thing from a game called Annalise where players are encouraged to explicitly write down on an index card when a cool theme is introduced, so that everyone remembers to build on it.

    The world exists to define & amplify the characters

    This video essay about Guillermo Del Toro’s monster design sums it up well: the world that gets created around the monsters—or in this case the players—should exist to mirror, amplify, and twist the knife in their deepest fears. THE ZONE doesn’t exist for pure world building—it’s a foil to the characters.

    Very excited for where the game has ended up after Metatopia. My next playtest will be an explicit test of the refined rules and instructional design. My goal: to be able to hand players the materials and have them up and running with only limited influence from me.

    Can’t wait until Metatopia 2019!

    Epilogue: how to cram a 3 hour game into 90 minutes

    • Skip character creation… but only if it’s not integral to empathy in the game. In THE ZONE, you really need it. On the other hand, it did no harm to skip the location setup
    • It didn’t matter that we didn’t get to the ending. In fact, ending halfway created a rather nice cliffhanger
    • You can shorten the story by switching the depth of the scene. It worked very well to have players do quick epilogues for their characters. The hierarchy here would be LARP —> Acting out conversations —> Rich descriptions with everyone involved —> One player just tells the story —> Quick summary. Nice way to still get to the ending
    • Safety is the one thing that I’d never skip, but you can certainly shrink it down, particularly as players will have heard it in a bunch of other games
    • It will start 5-10 mins late. Decide on a start time and stick to it
    • Don’t rush feedback. Ending with a full 30 minutes to go was about right, with an extra 5 minutes of buffer to give people time to get to their next game
    • Know what you want to test! If players are stuck in an area you’re not trying to test, it’s OK to course correct and move things along
    • Feedback forms were great! Give them out at the beginning, with pens, so people can jot notes as they go

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    October 29, 2018

    Escalation

    This week I focused on a big open question for THE ZONE: pacing & escalation.

    My Big Bad Con playtests were the first where I simply facilitated instead of participating, and made me realize that I needed to amplify the escalation mechanics so the game would unlock its potential even without a strong facilitator. Crucial for a GM-less game.

    To start, I did a thoroughly incomplete and unscientific survey of some of my favorite storytelling games, and an interesting framework popped out:

    Escalation via:

    1. Individual moves
    2. Group moves
    3. Looming pressure
    4. Triggers
    5. Role changes
    6. Schedules
    7. Collision courses
    8. Staging
    9. Jenga

    Here are some examples of each:

    1. Individual moves

    Things each individual player can choose to do to escalate the game——”pulling the slot machine” for new content or questions.

    They can be completely self-paced content (like putting the mask on in Old Friends, or pressing the button in Juggernaut), “moves” (like “Shiver with fear” in Bluebeard’s Bride), or part of the turn structure itself.

    Perhaps my favorite is the gruesome escalation of Beastfucker, which happens entirely through individual players choosing to leave the room to “fuck the beast”. This happens offscreen, and is represented by two prompt questions they must return with answers to. Because of the subject matter, the move itself is an escalation, and the answers just make it so, much, WORSE.

    2. Group moves

    Moves whole or part of the group can choose to perform to raise the stakes.

    An example of this is Welcome Guests, where the hosts——a family of cannibals——can decide at any time to eat one of the guests, but only if two of them agree.

    Turns out eating a person does indeed raise the stakes. Check!

    Another way to define the stakes is to better define how characters feel about the stakes. Randy Lubin has a lovely way of doing this in his hilarious “Behind The Magic”——interludes where all the characters answer questions in a Big Brother style “confessional” chair.

    This is very similar to the practice in long form of improv of “group games”. In the venerable Harold, improvisers start with a freeform group game that expands poetically on the audience suggestion, generating tons of tiny ideas that stimulate later scenes, and a thematic bed that subtly knits them together.

    3. Looming pressure a.k.a. “Sword of Damocles”

    The top down pressure of a decision weighing ever more heavily on the players as the game goes on. The squirming avoidance is a tension machine; knowing that the decision must be made creates a driving force.

    The decision to eat a guest in Welcome Guests is also a perfect example of this. You know it’s coming, which forces each player to come to terms with how they feel about it, and act.

    4. Triggers

    Specific actions players MUST take in response to a certain situation.

    I encountered a brilliant example of this playtesting Luke Crane’s “The Gift” at Big Bad Con. It’s a LARP of stuck up elves and kleptomaniac dwarves, and each side has trigger cards that must be played:

    • For the elves: breaking their moral code or seeing another elf threatened
    • For the dwarves: whenever they see a shiny thing

    In our game, a grief stricken elf drew his ancient golden blade——a true, jewelled marvel——which triggered a dwarf’s MUST HAVE IT “Greed” card, making him a droolingly, drunkenly leap over the table John Woo style to try to take it at all costs, triggering another elf’s “Grief” card when he drew blood in the ensuing tussle… It. Was. A. Bloodbath.

    As you can imagine, these triggers can cause wild chain reactions that players cannot stop easily——use with care——but can be a lot of fun!

    5. Role changes

    Unlocking new abilities, or completely changing a player’s abilities based on circumstances in the game. This category inherently pairs with other escalations, as it needs some kind of triggering condition.

    Examples include:

    • In Welcome Guests, eaten players return as ghosts. They cannot speak, but they can interact through freezing touch and eye contact
    • In Bluebeard’s Bride, an aspect of the Bride can become “Shattered”, removing her ability to control herself with that aspect
    • In the Battlestar Galactica board game, several players discover halfway through that they are Cylons

    I haven’t seen a storytelling game do this, but something like the Shadow of Mordor Nemesis system could be a very interesting way to do this based on history and rivalries in the game.

    6. Schedule

    A fixed pacing forced on the players, perhaps literally (as in the fixed length of The Climb), or by having a fixed structure of scenes.

    One example from boardgames is in Betrayal at House on the Hill, which begins with group exploration (and creation) of the map, followed by a dramaticc midpoint twist where everything becomes horrible and a randomly selected player is revealed as the antagonist.

    7. Collision courses

    This is all about initial setup. Two characters want the same thing, need something from each other, hate each other but must work together, or want different things but are in each other’s way.

    This is somewhat table stakes for a good character based LARP or storytelling game, but I’ll call out Honor Bound, which explores toxic masculinity through the lens of a duel nobody wants but which is made inevitable by the interpersonal dynamics that the game explicitly sets up.

    8. Staging

    This final category is fuzzy but incredibly awesome. Certain ways of delivering mechanics are inherently emotional or can make people do crazy things.

    • In Old Friends, players summon the dead by putting a mask on and embodying a spirit described on a prompt card. You could easily play the game with just the prompt, but the mask changes things. People do weird things with masks.
    • In 10 Candles, you get to burn character sheets! (oh, and the whole game is played by candlelight). In Reflections, the losing samurai, whose body is bisected by their opponents’ blade, tears their character sheet in half at the same time. So cool!
    • The loud 30 seconds of electro-mechanical clacking that plays when you press the button to reveal another of Juggernaut’s predictions

    9. Jenga

    Nuff, said. 🤣

    Where did I land?

    This is a very rough and incomplete framework, but I found it helpful to go through the mechanics I have in THE ZONE category by category and see if there were opportunities to amp things up. There were indeed!

    Individual moves: THE ZONE uses the “Not so easy” mechanic from Archipelago, and explicit scene cards that the spotlight player pulls at the start of their turn.

    I added in two more explicit moves that I’m so excited to playtest:

    • “Something’s not right here” any players can say this, and the group pauses and each person adds a sensory detail (sight, sound, smell, touch, taste) or character feeling to better define the horror
    • “Don’t go in there!”——inspired by “Shiver with fear” in Bluebeard’s Bride: if a player is dilly dallying, anyone else can say “Don’t go in there!”. They must say what they’re afraid of, and then MUST go in there. What’s inside is much worse…

    Group moves: THE ZONE explicitly has players add sensory details, which is working realy well.

    Looming pressures: This is something I’d like to think more about. Better defining the “Center” might help.

    Triggers: Each character has a Phobia & Temptation. These were mostly character development, but I’ve now changed them to be explicit triggers: when a character encounters either of them, they MUST immediately act on them.

    Role changes: Yes! When a player dies they become one with THE ZONE. I’ve redesigned the character sheet so you flip it inside out to more dramatically represent that change.

    Oct-28-2018 21-29-08-480.gif

    Schedules: Going to try predetermining player’s deaths in more detail

    Collision courses: I’ve explicitly dialed this one down after realizing that this game is less about interpersonal conflict than it is about world building.

    Staging: I talked about this in the previous blog post. so important!

    Jenga: hmmmmmm… HMMMMMMMMM…

    Final thoughts

    Perhaps the biggest insight for me was that it’s not just about raising the stakes: simply defining the stakes with more specificity can increase their emotional weight and give players more ideas for what to do (this episode of Writing Excuses on “Raising The Stakes” is a great resource here).

    I’m left with interesting questions:

    • What are the consequences for characters (die, gain or lose abilities, change role, become nemeses?)
    • How prescriptive (sequentially scripted content) or open ended (just questions)?
    • Divergent (generating new content) or convergent (defining things)?
    • Raise the stakes, or simply make them more tangible?
    • Escalate the world, or in your characters’ feelings about the world?
    • How might an escalation make the stakes more personal to your character?

    …and of course: when do I do the Jenga version of THE ZONE?

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    October 22, 2018

    Hello World (and Hello Big Bad Con!)

    Well this is exciting. After my very first Big Bad Con last weekend, it feels time to gather some sticks, pitch a tent, and kindle a tiny little spot on the internet to talk about storytelling games… including the one I’m actually rather far along in making: THE ZONE.

    First of all.

    THANK YOU to the wonderful people of Big Bad Con, to everyone who playtested THE ZONE. Stephanie, Aaron, Jonathan, Dani, Peter, Tom, Rick, David & David, Adrian, Chris—you are all master storytellers, lovely humans, and I so appreciated your thoughtful critique and ideas! The game is already better because of you all.

    First playtest

    I learned so much, but I’ll focus on one big thing: staging.

    I’d underestimated the importance of props in creating the necessary atmosphere, but a few days before BBC I undertook a last minute flurry of semi-random purchasing on Amazon, which led to some very fun experiments:

    A fun, pulsating experiment with LEDs

    The materials around the game can help set the tone faster, making it easier for players to get into the right frame of mind. Although some of the experiments were a bit too “busy”.

    An overly loud playmat

    It was important to embody the game’s main principle: “Campfire Stories. Controlling the lighting to create a sense of isolation and creepiness really helped.

    Credit to @nickpunt for coming up with the brilliant (ha) idea of playing the game with only a flashlight for illumination. This was thematically strong, but also crucial for the usability of the game because it helped people read cards in the dim light and made crystal clear whose turn it was.

    An overly loud playmat

    And when you’re looking at the photos above—here’s a key data point: it was 11am. 11AM, and a bright 86 degree California day outside, complete with rolling hills, blue sky, and a busy highway right outside the window of the Walnut Creek Marriott. Staging the game was crucial to transporting people away from that world, and into one of mutation, loss of humanity, and psychological horror.

    So much kudos to Big Bad Con for giving all the games appropriate spaces to work in. (I’m sure the time will come where I’ll run THE ZONE in a loud convention with 300 other people in the room…)

    Oh, and after hearing so much about it I just bought Stephen Dewey’s game / OG case study in how to do this (10 Candles). So excited to play it and be reduced to gibbering bolus of lonely terror! 😱

    (Other recommendations welcome!)

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