From Magnesium Games

Under the Hood #1 – The Narrative Character

Under The Hood will be a recurring column talking about the design concepts that are underpinning the various systems in development at Magnesium Games.
Before I launch into a discussion of one of the concepts, I want to quickly talk about the Underlying Principles of Magnesium Games. There are five. In no particular order they are Openness, Adaptability, Respect, Sustainability, and Not-Being-Evil. I’ll be talking about these principles and what we mean by them in a later blog post, but for the moment I want to refer to the first two I listed.
We’re talking about the design concepts that are underpinning our current projects for a number of reasons. The most important being Openness – we believe that the more that people can provide feedback and criticism, the better the products that are created and we see no reason why that can’t occur from a very early stage in the design process. This leads in to the Adaptability principle. Whilst the design concepts discussed here form our current bedrock; that does not make them an immovable object. That isn’t to say that I’ll be discarding them all in favour of entirely different ones next week, just that some changes, modifications, and refinements of the concept is not only natural over time, it’s essential if we want to create the highest quality products we can.
The design concepts that will be discussed over the coming weeks were developed for our first major project. Obviously, the design concepts will differ from project to project and their suitability can only really be judged against the objectives of the project. So, it only makes sense to show you the objective of the first major project:
To create a narrative-driven fantasy game with a broad setting and robust system.
Narrative-driven: This role-playing game is about the story. It’s less about playing a game, or creating a life-like situation than about weaving an amazing and interactive story.
A Broad Setting: Amazingly detailed settings often make for compelling reading, but many people (myself especially) find it difficult to run a game in a detailed world. I tend to want to keep what the author has written and yet find myself not having enough room in their world for my players to have a significant impact. The game we are working on at the moment will have a general universe within which many fantasy worlds may reside. Some may have contact with one another and some may not – the first setting we’re producing is a single unconnected world. The general metaphysics of the world will be wholly transplantable between worlds (albeit with a different pantheon), and on the world in question we will be describing the high level details (cultural groups, major nations, etc) but leaving many of the smaller details for individual Weavers to create.
A Robust System: The system will be able to handle the widest possible range of situations and will focus very closely on supporting a narrative-driven approach.
In future articles, I’ll talk some more about the various things we hope to accomplish with this system. For now, I’ll stop holding up the works and move on to the article I promised last week.
In this issue of Under the Hood, we’ll be looking at our first design concept – The Narrative Character.
For our current major project, we are hoping to create a system which makes it easier to create a character rather than a collection of attributes. One of the ways we are attempting to accomplish this is by having the game traits which describe your character take a more narrative approach.
In many, if not most, game systems the traits are essentially a list of things your character can do and how well they can do them. The problem with this approach is that we are often left with moments in game-play where our characters can’t do something that our mental image of them says they should be able to do, or where they can do something superbly that they should only be passable at or even just plain suck at.
My experience is that these moments often break the flow of the narrative and lessen the impact of the story. Whilst they do sometimes lead to funny stories, they are generally just plain annoying.
We think we’ve found a good way to get around this issue. It isn’t foolproof by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly seems to be decreasing the frequency with which these problems arise. I also believe that it helps to simplify character creation, especially for newer players.
In our game the core character traits are based on character ideas rather than hard and fast abilities. The driving reason behind which trait you use becomes less a matter of which physical task are you attempting to perform and more a matter of what dramatic conflict you are attempting to resolve. It also somewhat changes when the Weaver should call for a roll. In this system, you only call for a roll where there is a dramatic conflict to resolve. It’s not a matter of whether or not the character will succeed at a task, it’s whether or not their success or failure is of importance to the story.
In yesterday’s post, I spoke about a minor-project that I’m calling Plato’s Game until it is formally named. The entirety of that game is based around this idea of the Narrative Character, of a set of character traits that describe the character from a dramatic rather than an action perspective.
Plato’s Game is a generic system that can be used in any narrative intensive game. It’s flow reminds me of some dinner games I’ve seen before and as such it tends to be more suited to games that are played over a small number of sessions, or even just in a nights gaming.
The game will be released in pdf format for free! Even better, the rules take up only a single piece of paper! It is a quick and simple system to learn and will likely appeal to some of your non-gamer friends as well.
In addition to the ruleset, the pdf will include an example of play, some story hooks, and a brief guide on running a game using the rules. The game will be released approximately a fortnight after our website. As we are still in the process of designing the website, we can’t say for certain when this will be – but we’ll keep you posted.

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