Two days and many realizations

Read to the end of the post to figure out what this is from.

I.

I've had a cascade of realizations over the past 48 hours and I feel like if I don't write them all down somewhere they're all going to fly out of my head. I have no idea whether this will be useful to anyone, but at least I'll be able to link it to people if they ask me "hey what ever happened to that G&G thing you were making."

This is my second post about the failure of a big project called Goblets & Grues, although the last project under that name was only partially related. (There's a small part of me that's embarassed to write again about my failures, but the rest of me knows that if things are especially hard for me to learn, that just means I'll learn it better.

The spark for this new G&G came in July 2021, when I came up with the idea to run some version of D&D for a good friend of mine who lives in another country.

I really wanted to run 5th edition D&D for this friend, because despite gripes here and there, it's still my favorite edition of the game. But for reasons I won't go into, the friend was uncomfortable with the idea of playing over voice chat.

Fine, I thought, I'll try this play-by-post thing that lots of people on the NSR Discord seem to like. I had just discovered a lovely guide to playing-by-post written by one of our mods, Tam H, so I felt all the more confident I could do it.

But 5E is too complex to run smoothly over PbP, so I had to pick or create a different system. I was burnt out after the last project, so I thought I would try to throw together some kind of FKR thing. But it wasn't exciting me, because it didn't feel like what I wanted it to feel like. Because I wanted it to feel like 5E D&D.

So, in late October / early November 2021, I started designing a rules-light 5E. And, because it was the lightest system I knew and liked, I decided to base it on Into the Odd.

II.

The problem is that, when you base a game on Into the Odd, it's really embarassing to make changes. Seriously, it actively feels bad. The system is like a tightly-made clock, for better or worse: when you change one thing, everything else breaks.

Confronted with this problem, I deluded myself into thinking that it was fine. If I can't change ItO without breaking it, then I just won't change it too much, and I'll build the 5E stuff I like on top of it. I'll make an OSR / 5E hybrid game. What could go wrong?

Here's the thing I've started to realize about my relationship to the OSR style and the games that come out of it.

  1. Do I like how light the rules are, and how easy they are to hack? Definitely, they make me feel a lot more in-control.
  2. Am I attracted to the emphasis on procedure? Yes, my brain really likes easy, go-to solutions for how to structure a scenario.
  3. Is the emphasis on a living world that matters with or without the players really important to me? Absolutely, I hate when settings feel like they have no reason to exist outside the PCs.
  4. But... but... is the OSR style what I want out of my D&D? Absolutely not.

I didn't realize this for a long time. I thought what I wanted out of a game was a hybrid between the OSR style and the 5E style, when what I really wanted was the 5E style. But when I got to writing the character classes for what I thought was an almost-finished system, I realized how far I was from what I wanted, and I had no idea how to fix it.

III.

At this point I was experiencing unwelcome thoughts that I ought to abandon my responsibilities and the people I love so I could focus on the game and nothing but the game. They built and built to the point that I was having panic attacks and felt the need to admit myself to the hospital.

As it turns out, I have some tendencies of OCD that had gone largely unrecognized by my therapists and doctors over the years. I'm on medicine for OCD now and I feel a big change in the way I'm thinking and operating.

I don't really want the post to be about this, so I don't want to write a long section about the whole experience. But I wanted to include it because I think it's important to acknowledge the ways in which game design has fit into my life and how it affected the project.

When I was obsessing over game design, when I was engaging with it in an unhealthy way, I wasn't thinking about making a game that I could play with my friends. I wasn't thinking about the experience I was trying to create. I was thinking about creating the "perfect" system that ticked all the boxes of what I assumed my system should have.

I think this kind of behavior is why I was spinning my wheels on the project for so long and why it took so long for me to realize the fundamental flaws of the project. It was only after I got out of the hospital that I was able to start taking a step back and thinking about what I was trying to do.

IV.

Back to the last 48 hours. The other night, I discovered a two-part series on the development of Blades in the Dark on designer John Harper's YouTube channel.

Watching the video, and watching John flip through a number of old versions of Blades, the viewer learns that Blades was heavily influenced early on by the OSR. The idea was that the game was about stealing stuff, and OSR games are about stealing stuff, so of course the game should be deadly like OSR stuff, right? Not to mention the game started as a Lasers & Feelings hack with "Blades" and "Dark" as the stats.

It's hard not to be blown away. How did Harper get from OSR + Lasers & Feelings to the playbook-driven, flashy heist game that BitD is today?

Harper and his co-host in the videos, designer Andrew Gillis, have a fascinating discussion about this in the first video. Harper uses the terms "goalposts" and "systems," while Gillis uses "aesthetics" and "mechanics" (which reminded me of an old post of mine). They discuss how some designers develop systems first and create an aesthetic to suit the system, while others (like Harper) nail down their aesthetic first and then rework their systems until they capture that aesthetic.

And instantly I recognized that was my problem. I had an aesthetic in mind: 5E, heroic-style D&D. I pulled together some initial systems that I liked and that I thought might work. But when I encountered friction, I forgot what aesthetic I was chasing; I got bogged down in the mechanical foundation I had started with.

I immediately started doing research. Basing my game on Into the Odd, and the OSR principles that came with it, was a dead end. What other rules-light, PbP-friendly systems were out there? Were there any that were already trying to capture the feeling of 5E?

V.

As it turns out, a number of Reddit threads had already asked that question. I did preliminary research into half a dozen games that were recommended and looked up my alley, and I found myself drawn to Quest.

I had encountered Quest in the past, but I bounced off. I was still in the mindset that my game had to be "OSR," I think, because I had been stuck working with those mechanics for so long. But I started looking over Quest's classes, and the introductions to the rules and the Creator's Resource (the SRD), and I'm starting to suspect that, had I chased my aesthetic and not the systems I started with, Quest is the game I would have ended up with.

I was prepared to buy the game today when, by coincidence, Quest went free-to-play out of nowhere. And at this point I'm 90% convinced that this is the game I'm finally going to run my big PbP campaign with. It's been a while since I encountered a game where, at least so far, there's not a rule I would change.

One last thing to end the post with. Yesterday, I decided to rip the band-aid off and run a game for the friend who started this whole thing, FKR-style, with no one else in the party but an NPC sidekick and a pet.

I used the d20 rolls system from Quest but made up everything else. I used tables from Adventure Hour and Maze Rats for inspiration and ran combat without any strict order or HP system, just in-fiction consequences.

I still want to run a more heroic, 5E-style game for this friend, but starting-items-only and a focus on problem solving is a great way to introduce a first-time player without getting bogged down in abilities, I think. It was awesome and I feel like a huge weight has been taken off my shoulders. 

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