By The Stars — “More machine now than man, twisted and evil” — Week Fifty-five(!)

03Sep07

Over a year I’ve been struggling with this damn game. Mostly out here, in public, on my LJ. After GenCon ’06 I thought doing a weekly update would keep me on track and focused. Instead, it kept me feeling guilty and pressured into producing something, even if it wasn’t worth producing. Couple that pressure to perform with one of the most stressful years of my life, and you have a recipe for what I have on my hands with By The Stars: an 80% functional game that I don’t particularly like. That’s what I’ve had on my hands all through the summer convention season.

I ran the turn-based version twice at Origins. The first time had 4 players plus me and crashed and burned. The game itself did not give us enough to work with. Plus, all the “clever” fiddly-bits of keeping the turn-based system running were too much trouble to keep track of. The second time had 8 players and went better, although still not real great. Both games at DexCon folded for lack of players. At GenCon, I jettisoned the whole turn-system and rolled it back to the LARP rules. For the GenCon Thursday game, I got 12 players and they had the best BTS game yet! The players even applauded when it was all over (not bad, considering I sat around and did nothing for 3 hours). On Saturday, I had 8 players and it was a rougher, more strained. Both GenCon games had strong critics among the players (often those who were succeeding very well, mechanically.)

Looking back, I see that the game structure I’ve crafted doesn’t do much but encourage players to get into lots of conflict after conflict. The attitude and imagination that the players bring to the game determines completely how the game is going to go. I’ve made noises about possibly polishing it up and releasing it as “By The Stars: The LARP,” but I’m not familiar enough with the LARP scene to be able to promote it properly. Perhaps I could format it as a PDF and sell it that way, but it’s not top of my priority list. I feel guilty to set aside all the work I’ve done, and all the great feedback that my playtesteres have given me, but this path is not working out.

Neither are the regular updates. I’ve let them slide over the summer, and I’ve seen my game more clearly. The only constant game design methodology I have is “Keep doing whatever works, stop doing whatever doesn’t work.” Thus, I’ll only be posting updates when I have something to report.

However, I have narrowed my focus on the game, have new, fresh ideas, and am working on it. One of the unproductive design goals I’m jettisoning is the “must be playable with up to 12 players.” It was seriously tripping me up. And I’ve regained some badly-needed focus. By The Stars is no longer going to be simply “a game inspired by my love of Star Wars,” but will be “a game inspired by my love of the Luke-Vader duel scene in The Empire Strikes Back.” It’s all in there. I just need some time and thought to tease it out.

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20 Responses to “By The Stars — “More machine now than man, twisted and evil” — Week Fifty-five(!)”

  1. Good luck.

  2. 4 Anonymous

    By The Stars
    The fact that you personally don’t care for the game you’ve created doesn’t necessarily mean that the experience of creating it is wasted. Your experience may ultimately be applied to other projects, or you may find that other people enjoy the resulting game even if you don’t (though I understand why you might not want to put extensive effort into selling/promoting it).
    If you’re not sufficiently familiar with the LARP scene, couldn’t you recruit help from someone who is familiar with it?
    Encouraging players to get into conflict after conflict is fine, in its way, because it makes *something* happen. You might want to achieve more, but that alone has some value.
    Don’t feel guilty about wasted time, because it’s not wasted as long as you’ve learned something. Sometimes you have to learn many ways *not* to do something before you learn how to *correctly* do something.
    Sounds to me as though you’re not giving yourself enough credit for the process of sorting through what you want and what you don’t want, and that’s a necessary process on any project. And sometimes the result of that is the difficult decision to begin again, or to discontinue a project altogether.

    • Re: By The Stars
      You are, of course, correct, Anonynmous. The tone of the post is more negative than I intended. While it is very frustrating to spin one’s wheels for a year and still be no closer to my goal, you are correct that at least I’ve seen a few paths *not* to take.
      And while I certainly could find someone in the LARP scene to promote BTS: the LARP, I’ve got a list of gaming and non-gaming things to do that take priority. For instance, I want to have Serial ready for external playtest before the end of September, but that will require writing time.

  3. It was a good experience helping your playtests a little – but that doesn’t mean we should expect a finished game out of every prototype. Some designs just have to be laid to rest…
    But, i, too, wish you luck in carving something you can care for out of all your work!

  4. It makes sense that those who succeed are often the strongest critics; they found holes to exploit.

  5. You’re still my hero.
    For me, the blogging helped because I wasn’t creating a game from scratch. I was rewriting character sheets. I had a very clear idea of what I needed to do — finish each item on the list of characters.
    I’ve been spending a lot of time recharging after finishing the draft, and we’ve had a Genuine Meeting of All GMs for the larp, and we’ve got to say, “Okay, you’re talking Mr. Best Case scenario. Let me introduce you to Mr. Reality as I know him.” And, I know my next steps (get <lj user=mnemex to rewrite the rules, add the funky bit of the system that he likes to each sheet, and ponder about the minigame that should be created to test funky bits like that).
    And, right now, what’s keeping me from burning out is that I am not focusing on any of that. zrealm’s got a lease on our souls until the end of the month because we asked for wheel time — we need experience running a full weekend larp. He just happens to be running one at the end of the month. It’s going to be a lot of work, but I’m starting to fall in love with this odd superhero larp called Masks. And, best of all? I am so not in charge. Yay!

  6. Thoughts on the Gen Con 2007 game
    In my trip report for Gen Con Indy 2007, I have several paragraphs on my experience with By the Stars. (Sorry for the lack of internal links. Search the page for “By the Stars” to find it.)
    In a nutshell: the core mechanic (conflicts resulting in card trading to achieve a goal hand of cards) and the actual conflicts felt completely disconnected. I might have a series of conflicts that seem to move my character’s goals forward, but the resulting card trades don’t actually do so. Conversely, my character might fail at every conflict related to his goal, but end up succeeding. There is a core idea here that really appeals to me, but there is a serious, yet unresolved problem. There are also a few other suggestions in the full write up.
    With the several months since I wrote the writeup, I do have a few more thoughts. In particular, I no longer think the game needs a LARP-like space. I suspect it would work just fine around a table.
    (My apologies for taking so long to let you know about this.)


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