Last Thanksgiving

A few months back I made available a small game titled Last Thanksgiving. It was a personal project, and proof of concept, but it also stuck with me. I’ve been sort of stalled on my latest design project. Nothing was coming together in the way I wanted it to. What I’ve come to realize is that, in designing a bare-bones game, Last Thanksgiving, what I was actually doing was subconsciously working past my designer’s block. You see, I’m a theme first type of guy. Hero’s Banner didn’t come into focus until I had a theme. Same with Mars Colony and 39 Dark. Every single time I come up with an interesting mechanic or provocative setting first, I start designing — but end up designing myself into a corner because the game has no soul. It’s not until I get a strong handle on what I want to say with a game that I can really make progress. For my latest project, that theme is becoming clear, and that theme is memory.

Specifically, something that has been on my mind of late is the notion of memory loss. (And now we’re getting personal, watch out!) My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s disease before passing away. I watched my two grandmothers suffer from memory loss in their old age as well. At the same time, as I age, the notion of reliving past events through memory is becoming more relevant while at the same time more fraught. Not all the memories are good ones, and, good or bad, I wonder if I can really trust those memories as “accurate.” This is tied up with my study of memoirs (see especially Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home), and the way an author fixes a memory in time by writing it down in a particular way as a story. Hell, I’m sure even Roy Batty’s last words in Bladerunner are serving as inspiration.

memoryloss

My point is that all these thoughts about the value and peril of memory are rattling around in my brain, and I’m looking for a way to say something about it all. Enter my latest project. Both Last Thanksgiving (now revised) and the brand new extension, Lost Thanksgiving, tackle the theme of memory in a hyper-focused, two-player format. The players are presented with a limited situation that seems simple at first, but hopefully expands into something larger. This isn’t a “big” game, but it is a personal game (both for me and for anyone who plays it). The main character could be an elderly grandparent in a contemporary drama or a young protagonist in a sci-fi/horror story. The choice is yours, but the theme remains: how does memory betray us, and what power does memory have over us?

The first and base game, Last Thanksgiving, is simple in its presentation, but leaves room to take the story in whatever direction you please. The extension, by comparison, is optional, but highly recommended. It ups the ante and the elements of horror such that memories become corrupted and even malevolent.

I hope you enjoy them, and I’d love to hear your feedback. Neither is a “finished” game in the sense that I’m ready to put out a commercial production, but they are complete and fun to play. I have ideas for at least two additional extensions, and if they work out, this whole thing could see a professional production in a year or two, complete with artwork, examples, etc.

Download Last Thanksgiving (the base game).

Download Lost Thanksgiving (the first extension).

Mars Colony Actual Play

The wonderful Party of One podcast recently recorded an actual play episode of Mars Colony! If you’ve been wondering what the game sounds like in practice, give the episode a listen. The guys run through setup before jumping into the action.

Favorite line in the first five minutes or so? — “This is Donald Trump in space?” Nice!

If you’re looking for other great actual play episodes, check out the rest of Party of One.

Black Friday Anti-Sale (aka Free Game!)

TCK Roleplaying Black Friday Anti-Sale

Without getting preachy, I’ll just say that I’m not a fan of Black Friday here in America. It’s all just too much.

So I’m making a simple offer. If you email me (tim@tckroleplaying.com) on Saturday, November 28, 2015, and pledge that you did not shop on Black Friday, then I will send you any one of my games for free (PDF only). That includes Hero’s Banner: The Fury of Free Will, Mars Colony, and Mars Colony: 39 Dark.

And that’s it! Free game. All you have to do is not shop for one day.


Small print for the rules lawyers: Yes, this is on the honor system. Keep the spirit of the challenge in mind. If you need to, for example, take a taxi to get home, that’s fine. But try to plan ahead and purchase what you need beforehand. You can do it!

This is an individual challenge, which means a few things. First, if your spouse buys something, that doesn’t affect your ability to get a free game. Likewise, if you have two other family members, and neither of them buy anything, everyone can get a free game. However, if you tell your spouse to shop on your behalf, then you’re cheating — no game for you.

Mars Colony in the Classroom

I continue to be amazed (in a good way) by the number of people who try to adapt Mars Colony for a multi-player setting. If you’ve browsed some of my previous entries here, you’ll know that I have already posted one suggestion from a fan. However, previous attempts were still assuming a relatively low player count. When I received a message from Remko about wanting to scale the game up, way up, to a classroom setting, I was intrigued. He had already come up with a few ideas of his own. We discussed a few potential hiccups that I had run into with previous games, and he eventually settled on the following:

  1. I’m going to assign two Saviors and the rest are Martians. I myself will play the role of the Earth council to keep the pressure on.
  2. Each player will belong to one of the political parties. Furthermore, each one of the Saviors has a Personal relationship with one of the players.
  3. Each player has an appeal, which he or she can use to re-roll one die after it has been cast. However, that person should be able to explain that narratively.

You can read his full account on his website, but suffice to say it was an interesting experience for him and for his students. Because so many of them were new to roleplaying, there were a few interesting oddities that popped up that I would not have anticipated. This is my experience showing, and a reminder of what it’s like to put yourself in the shoes of a new player. As Remko put it:

In the beginning, players needed to get accustomed to the whole system. On one hand, there was some confusion about whether they were telling facts or fiction, since the students were feeling quite in character in that sense. Questions like “Am I allowed to talk about that in my role?” and “That what I am saying, is that the truth or is it a lie?” were confusing in the beginning, but as the game continued and I explained that it should be clear from the context whether it was fact or fiction, the game went quite smoothly.

And also this:

One thing I did like about this version was the seemingly frustrating effect for some players that their ideas weren’t valid anymore due to the story elements introduced by the other players. Part of creating a story together is the fact that not all of your ideas will be part of the story.

Thanks to Remko for his report and for his willingness to hack the basic Mars Colony system to fit such a different setting!

The Jack Vasel Memorial Fund Auction — 2014

I have tried to donate every year to the Jack Vasel Memorial Fund Auction. So far I’ve only missed one. This year, in addition to a few other games, I’m donating a print copy of Mars Colony: 39 Dark. The high bidder gets a copy shipped to him or her. If you’re in the U.S., shipping is free. Otherwise, I pay the first $5. Please bid generously as all of the proceeds go to the Memorial Fund.

In case you’re wondering what the Jack Vasel Memorial Fund is, here’s a description from the board:

The Jack Vasel Memorial Fund was started in April, 2011, in memory of Jack Vasel, son of Tom Vasel. Tom is an influential voice in the board gaming hobby, and the community rallied around him in his time of need. Amazed by this generosity and kindness, Tom was determined to help others who might undergo similar tragedies. The purpose for which the Fund is formed is to collect and provide financial assistance to members of the public who are part of the gaming community and who have suffered personal hardship. It is our hope and prayer that the Jack Vasel Memorial Fund will provide Jack with a legacy to help out the entire gaming community. The Fund is recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charity.

I also recommend reading a few of the stories posted by people who have received help from the Fund. I assure you, they will tug at your heartstrings.

Fringe Cards

I was surprised at just how difficult it was to come up with 32 different fringe groups for the 39 Dark Kickstarter reward. It wasn’t that there was a lack of groups. Rather it was difficult to choose 32 groups that, as a whole, represented a sufficiently multi-national swath. I also wanted to amass a collection of groups that represented both the right and left, extremist and peaceful side of protest. I’m sure I’ve failed on at least one front, but I’m nonetheless happy with the collection. What I realized was that it’s impossible to capture the spirit of protest around the world in a simple deck of cards. But I also realized that I can make some pretty darn interesting combinations from the deck I did create. Available now for purchase.

Fringe Group Cards

Finding Your Pace: A Companion Article to Clot

Pacing is typically a product of intuitive “feel” more than conscious decision. Pacing is nonetheless a worthwhile consideration because it penetrates all aspects of play. When and how a story speeds up and slows down affects the table’s sense of intellectual involvement, emotional connection, and raw excitement. Knowing when to insist on speed—and how to do so without excessively imposing your will on the group—can lend an exhilarating sense of urgency to a scene. Having the confidence to slow the pace to a near stand-still without relying on boring tropes can offer a poignant interlude to an otherwise brisk string of events. Most of us recognize the value of pacing. What are less explored are the variety of techniques, grounded in both specific game mechanics and more general play-styles, that will help you to increase your awareness of pacing and how to control it for maximum effect.

To make this discussion less abstract, I would like to talk about pacing via my short-form game, Clot (free download). Clot is a 20 minute two-player game that I designed back in January with the idea of pacing in mind. There are certain mechanics that address pacing explicitly, but it is my hope that the game serves as an exercise that encourages players to make themselves aware of, and therefore engage with, the best possible way to pace their collaborative story. While I am not entirely satisfied with Clot as a standalone game, I do think it can help to illustrate much of what I’m talking about below. By examining pacing in Clot, I hope you will be able to apply many of the same ideas to any roleplaying game.

Types of Pacing

Pacing operates on at least three levels. First, at the level of explicit rules, a game may require certain narrative frameworks that in turn define pacing choices. In other words, the action may speed up or slow down as a result of mechanical constraints. Therefore, I will label this type of pacing “mechanical.” Second, and especially in a multi-player game, pacing may change as the focus moves from one player or character to the next, usually in separate scenes. The pacing of one character’s story differs from that of the others. I will call this type of pacing “character-specific.” Third, and finally, pacing may change as a result of the overall flow of the game or story. This is the type of pacing control most of us use naturally, and usually matches whatever in-game events are unfolding. Therefore, I will label it “event-specific.” By making yourself aware of the different types of pacing and how they can positively or negatively alter the tone of the game, you can improve the quality of your roleplaying experience. Like anything in roleplaying, it takes communication and teamwork. However, only by explicitly acknowledging the role of pacing in our games can we learn to integrate techniques for controlling the pace in a reliable way.

Within this trio of pacing controls (mechanical, character-specific, and event-specific) it is important to know why and how you are shifting the pace from fast to slow. Why would you want some scenes to be fast and others slow? How can you give the illusion of fast action when you are bound to the constraints of telling a story orally? How can you lend a sense of languid ease to in-game events when everyone is hyped up on coffee and soda? Why would you want to?

To answer these questions, let’s look at Clot. In Clot, two players are narrating an emotionally painful, physically awkward encounter between a grown child and his or her father. The entire game takes place in a restaurant. There are other patrons, the waiters and busboys, but little else to interact with. The focus of the game is instead on the conversation, and the emotional damage behind that conversation. Compared to other games like Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, for example, there is hardly anything to do. So why does pacing matter so much? It matters because, in a game like Clot, the effect of pacing is emphasized. When an argument gets heated, or a wine glass goes flying through the air, you can lend these events a heightened sense of chaos through speedy pacing. Alternatively, movies have shown us that a wine glass flying through the air in slow motion can seem agonizingly tense. Similarly, when one character delivers a particularly hurtful barb, one that cuts deep against the other character, the pain of that insult can be emphasized by slowing the pacing way down—by letting the insult linger so that its implications have an opportunity to fully develop in the minds of the players. Fast or slow, the events of Clot need to be paced appropriately to achieve maximum impact.

This is not unlike many roleplaying games, even those that are more traditionally focused on adventure, combat, and action. It is important to recognize, though, that fast pacing need not always correspond with action. Likewise, heavy emotional scenes need not always be slow. In other words, there is no necessary correlation between action and the speed of pacing. In fact, by examining the relationship between action scenes (like a bar fight) and pacing, we can uncover a curious inconsistency in many roleplaying games and the pacing that they enforce.

Take a game like Shadowrun, for example. The focus of any given Shadowrun game is inevitably a gun fight—and you could say the same for any number of roleplaying games. But let me ask you, when you think of a gun fight, do you picture it as a quick-paced, knock-out action scene? Or do you picture a meticulous chess game taking place in excruciatingly slow motion? For me, it’s the former. Fights are supposed to be fast. Even in a movie like The Matrix with its “bullet time,” the brief glimpse of slow motion only serves to highlight how fast the rest of the action is flowing. For the most part, when the guns come out, the pacing speeds up: faster is better because faster means adrenaline and excitement and the fear of the unknown happening with the flash of a gun barrel. So please tell me why games like Shadowrun force a painfully slow pace on all combat scenes? With detailed rules for initiative, rounds, actions, positioning, and a host of other factors, it is clear that combat in many roleplaying games is not built for speed. The combat rules are a remainder from roleplaying’s war-gaming roots, and they serve only to satisfy the tactician in us—but not the adrenaline junkie.

What we see with pacing, therefore, is that there is a correlation between the number of events you can describe in real time and the perceived speed of pacing. In Shadowrun, the pace of an average combat is slow because there are so many detailed events taking place in real time. The game mechanics force a slow pacing by requiring players to consider all details and lay them out one by one, initiative round by initiative round.

If you want to reverse slow pacing, and make it fast, then you need to do two things. First, you need to cut details from your narration. We perceive action as fast because there is a lot happening in a short span of time. Our brains cannot process every detail, and so we must edit. What is most important, most dramatic? Keep those details. Cut everything else. Second, you need to speed up your descriptions. And I mean in real time, not game time. The action in a Shadowrun gun battle happens in a matter of seconds, but that doesn’t matter to the players’ sense of pacing. From the players’ perspective, the pacing is slow because the description in real time is slow. If you want speed, you need to make the players experience that sense of speed through rapid narration.

To sum up: Fewer details spoken in rapid-fire delivery equals faster pacing. More details spoken slowly and with greater precision equals slower pacing. From here we can explore the ways in which you can control your pacing choices, and put them to use in your game.

Mechanical Pacing

Remember there are three primary ways in which you can control your pacing choices. The first of these is mechanical pacing. Any sort of structured scene type is also a mechanical pacing control. For example, traditional combat structures are ironically slow. I have already mentioned the way in which a game like Shadowrun enforces slow pacing via its methodical combat rules. On the flip side, though, is a less structured, more free-form scene structure. With so much open-ended possibility, a free-from scene structure offers players almost no pacing guidance whatsoever. Players are free to speed up or slow down the pacing of the game as they see fit. While this may seem like the perfect opportunity for powerful pacing choices, it can also serve as a hindrance. Like any creative endeavor, constraint is important—perhaps more so in a roleplaying game where a collaborative impasse can stymie gameplay. The pacing guidance offered by the game can sometimes help players to make decisions not only about the “feel” of pacing, but also about theme and plot. Therefore, while open-ended mechanics have their place, learning how to make better use of restrictive mechanics can often lead to more satisfying pace-related choices.

Another type of scene structure to consider is scope.[1] In a scene with large scope, many things can happen. Kingdoms can fall, years can pass, and time can move with great alacrity.[2] So what does such broad-scope scene structure imply about pacing? In one sense, pacing in a broad-scope scene is fast, very fast when game-time is hurtling by. However, as we have already seen, fast game-time does not necessarily translate to fast pacing. It is more important to consider what you are skipping over in a broad-scope scene. By moving quickly through game-time, you are necessarily leaving out details deemed unimportant to the story. You may describe the actions of a character in general terms as a plan comes to fruition, similar to a montage. Less detail equals faster pacing. Therefore in general, broad-scope scenes speed up pacing and provide an opportunity, similar to jump-cuts, to focus only on what is important to the game. If you want to slow down a broad-scope scene, you must linger in a few choice moments to give an impression of time passing more leisurely. This is where you might insert, for example, a description of the leaves turning yellow and orange in the Fall, the land accumulating a layer of snow in Winter, and the flowers blooming in Spring. By lingering on the details of the seasons changing, you insert more detail, which in turn slows down the pacing of the game.

By comparison, you may think that a small-scope scene is necessarily slow-paced. But this may or may not be true. Because small-scope scenes, where only a few key events are described in a relatively short span of game-time, are the bread and butter of any roleplaying game, most players have learned to control pacing, both fast and slow, within these scenes. While a broad-scope scene is atypical, and therefore more prone to follow general patterns of fast pacing, a small-scope scene does not necessarily impose a particular pace. The players may describe many details quickly to create a fast-paced scene, or they may do the opposite. Players are generally well-versed in small-scope scenes, and therefore exert more active control over pacing choices. At the small-scope, we have to look at other mechanical features for guidance. To do so, let’s refocus the discussion on Clot’s pacing mechanics.[3]

In Clot, there are two pacing-related mechanics that can be used by the players for a variety of thematic effects. First, and most obvious, are the “Quiet Pauses” that come up randomly as part of the Clot Deck. Quiet Pauses are described in the game as moments without dialog. The players are supposed to take a moment outside of the normal conversation to “narrate some detail of the restaurant” that could, for example, “reflect symbolically on the struggle between child and father.” The idea behind Quiet Pauses is to force the players to slow the pace down, and allow the emotional content that has developed in the game to sink in. The setting is developed, but in a way that reinforces the strained relationship. These pauses need not be long, but should at least linger in the players’ minds. Describe a passing waiter, or the smiles on other patrons. Perhaps explore some small event happening in the distance outside of the restaurant windows. It is a technique used by filmmakers, and one that I believe can be imported into roleplaying games to great effect. It may seem artificial at first, but a slowly-paced moment outside of the main action of a game can create a surprisingly emphatic tone that can also refocus the players on whatever themes they have been exploring. By doing this mechanically, instead of relying on the players to occasionally pause, Clot works to catch the players off-guard and introduce creative constraints that hopefully lead to more rewarding play.

The second pacing mechanic in Clot is the Clot Deck itself, which is punctuated by the Clot Card that signals endgame. The deck of cards serves as a countdown timer in the game, regulating the pace at which the action takes place. However, there is no set rate at which the players must draw cards from the deck. If they want to draw out the game, they can simply draw cards less often. If they want to race through events, they can draw cards more frequently. So the deck is not enforcing a particular pace. Instead it is merely a tool that the players can use themselves. The deck is a physical reminder that the game must move forward. It also introduces narrative wrinkles into the game. For example, the rank and suit of the card drawn determine the possible topic of conversation between the two main characters, or might even serve to introduce new characters into the story. The players are incentivised to draw cards because they want to see what new narrative elements will come up; however, the game itself does not force these interactions with the system. The idea behind the deck is to make pacing a central concern of the game, to make the players more aware of the effect their narrative choices will have on the pace of the game, without arbitrarily dictating the pace of a particular scene.

Similarly, the Clot Card brings about the climatic event that ends any game of Clot: the father’s heart attack. Again, this event is paced mechanically, but only with direct input from the players. The Clot Card begins the game off to the side, and is only cut into the deck “after the second card in the deck is drawn, and no later than after the fifth.” If the players want a faster game, they can introduce the card early; if not, they can introduce it later. The game ends when the Clot Card is drawn. While the players don’t know the exact location of the card (preserving a sense of tension), they have a general idea, and will work to pace the remaining interactions between father and child appropriately. Like the Clot Deck itself, the Clot Card serves as an indicator of pace just as much as it forcefully brings about endgame. Rather than sit by passively and allow the game mechanics to dictate pacing, the Clot Deck ideally provides feedback to the players so that they can react to the deck and make appropriate pacing choices themselves. It is a symbiotic relationship between mechanics and narration instead of a one-way, mechanics-to-player structure.

To broaden these techniques, players should examine the explicit pacing mechanics in other games and look for ways in which they can control or react to the dictates of mechanical pacing. This will allow them to harness the power of mechanical pacing to create more rewarding play.

Character-Specific Pacing

After mechanical pacing, we can look at character-specific pacing, which focuses on the pacing needs of a particular character or player. Generally, this is more common in multi-player games where play transitions from one character to another. Let’s look at Ron Edward’s Trollbabe as an example. In Trollbabe, each player controls a different and unique trollbabe that travels independently. Typically, players take turns narrating a scene, or a chunk of a scene, before the action swings around to another character.[4] This round-robin style of play is not uncommon in the wider world of roleplaying games, and often leads to different pacing peculiarities around the table. One character may be caught up in a fast-paced fight to the death, while another may be enjoying a leisurely banquet with a cadre of friends. Obviously, these two scenes (fight vs. banquet) have a different tone, but they probably also have very different paces. Depending on the needs of the game, and the make-up of the players, transitioning between these scenes could be jarring. How a group handles these choices can have a profound effect on the feel of a game, and the satisfaction of the players.

Individual players as well as the GM need to pay attention to when a particular transition makes sense, and when it does not. If the game allows for it, skipping around from character to character may make for a more satisfying story when compared to a simple clockwise turn structure. Because roleplaying games often allow this type of freedom, it is important to take advantage of it. Ask yourself whether it makes more sense to go from one action scene to the next, or to insert a quieter scene at any given moment. Smooth your transitions by becoming more aware of what seems most appropriate rather than arbitrarily giving the next player a turn in the same order, one round after the next.

Another problem may arise if one character is advancing more quickly in her story arc than the others. She may find her story complete while the others still need to press on. Generally speaking, this is a different type of pacing than what I have described above. This is because pacing covers both the perceived speed at which the action occurs in a given instance of play and the “progress” in a larger story arc made by the various individual characters. In a two-player setting, the progress of a character is of minimal concern. If the main character moves quickly towards the endgame, that’s okay. Play stops early, but the story is still satisfying for both players. In a multi-player situation, however, individual character progress is important. If one character reaches the conclusion of her story before the others, that character’s player may be left with nothing to do for another hour while the rest of the group finishes. Unless the game has an open-ended structure where characters are free to immediately start a new arc, it is usually a good idea to pace each character as evenly as possible. In this way, all characters move towards the climax of their individual stories at the same rate. Likewise, with even pacing you can avoid the awkward negotiation of finding something for the finished player to do while the rest of the group catches up.

When it comes to managing character arcs, ask yourself whether one character is too far ahead of the pack. Perhaps the game gives a mechanical indicator of pacing (e.g., the Passion point track in Hero’s Banner), or perhaps you can intuit a character’s progress based on your knowledge of books, movies, and other narrative forms. When you detect a possible problem, you will need to either speed up the pace of the other characters or slow down the pace of the leading character. Worst case scenario, you will need to skip over the character who is too far ahead until the other characters catch up. One or two missed scenes is usually more palatable then an hour of nothing to do at the end of a session.

Traditionally, the obligation of handling pacing inconsistencies—whether they are the type seen in a jarring mismatch between one character’s scene and the next, or in the premature conclusion of one character’s story arc compared to the rest—fell on the GM’s shoulders. It was up to the GM to manage all of the characters and act as a de-facto director shepherding one scene into the next. Depending on the game, this concentration of pacing power may fit, but I see little reason why players cannot speak up and make suggestions in all games. If the players have a good idea about how the transition from one scene to the next, or one character to the next should be handled, then it behooves a skillful GM to listen to that advice. No matter where the burden lies, it is important to recognize the dangers of allowing pacing problems into your game.

As you and your roleplaying group become more aware of pacing issues, much of this will become second-nature; however, while you are learning, there may be some awkward breaks and transitions. That’s okay. Better to manage pacing as part of a long-term process of learning than to continue to play unsatisfying games with a myriad of pacing-related problems.

Event-Specific Pacing

Finally, we come to event-specific pacing, which you might also call “intuitive pacing.” Here I mean the type of pacing choices that roleplayers make by the seat of their pants in response to game events. Making yourself aware of this type of pacing, and practicing at it, is actually an exercise in deciding what events to emphasize and de-emphasize. You must learn to trust your instincts and to gain a feel for the pacing choices that make the most sense to you. However, it also means learning to work with your fellow roleplayers to ensure that the pacing choices you feel are correct mesh with the preferences of the group. It may be easy to think that this sort of pacing technique will take care of itself. For many experienced groups, it does. But that does not necessarily mean that awareness and practice are unwarranted.

Let’s return again to Clot for some practical examples of what I’m talking about. Because you’re reading this article, I’ll assume you aren’t simultaneously engaged in a game of Clot, but let’s pretend anyway.

In our hypothetical game, I’m playing the father and you’re playing the the child. Let’s call the child in this particular game Kyle. As the game unfolds, it becomes clear to both of us that Dad and Kyle have some deep-felt regrets when it comes to Kyle’s mother, now out of the picture. Furthermore, as you narrate some dialog for Kyle, we both surmise that the reason that Kyle’s mother left Dad is because he was abusing her. This is a dark turn for the game, and one that both of us are prepared for. However, I make the decision on the fly that we shouldn’t get into the details of the abuse. For our game, those details are best left hauntingly unstated. As I’m the one narrating the current scene, the responsibility rest with me to make certain choices about pacing. I could, for example:

  1. Cut away from the conversation for a Quiet Pause, allowing the revelation of abuse linger in the background.

  2. Speedily narrate a series of verbal barbs between Dad and Kyle, relying on you to pick up on my cue and fill in Kyle’s dialog.

  3. Draw a card from the Clot Deck while looking for inspiration and a way to change the subject of the in-game conversation.

I am sure you can imagine a few other options. The point is that my choice will determine not only the course of the story, but also the way in which that story is experienced. A big part of that experience is the pacing of the scene. If I linger in a Quiet Pause, then the pacing will be slow, and I will be emphasizing the memory of Dad’s abuse. If I start up a heated argument full of accusations (unrelated to the abuse), then I will be rushing past the issue at hand with a quick pace. If I draw a card, and use it to change the subject of the conversation between Dad and Kyle, then the pacing is left more open ended. I would be, in a way, asking the system and you for help in deciding the pace.

No particular choice is “wrong” in my example, but all have different implications. Part of making the “right” choice is trusting my instincts based on the feel of the game and my prior experience playing with you. But the other part of making the right choice is knowing myself. Knowing what I want from the game, and how to get there through accurate pacing can greatly improve the experience. What’s more, if my pacing choices become part of the conversation with the other person I am playing, then the experience for both of us will feel more collaborative and natural. This is the key to event-specific pacing, and the larger key to more rewarding play through awareness of pacing in general.

Bringing It All Together

The three types of pacing make up a framework. It is a tool for thinking about issues of pacing, and why a game may feel unsatisfying. Each type of pacing overlaps with the others, and there are probably additional ways in which to categorize and implement pacing decisions. Nonetheless, the larger point is that pacing is something that is not only important to rewarding roleplaying, but also something that can be practiced and improved. Players and GMs alike need to make a conscious decision to monitor the pacing of their games. While pacing can function on the intuitive level, it can also become part of the explicit conversation at the table. Just as we learned to think about the types of scenes we wanted to narrate, we can also learn to think about the type of pacing we want to set for individual scenes as well as for the overall story in our games.

Part of improving the pacing in your game is learning to identify problems and opportunities. This sort of self-awareness operates at the individual and group level. We can have conversations about why our games work and don’t work. Pacing shouldn’t be the only consideration, but it can be part of the discussion. It is one area of many in which the considerations, contributions, and feedback of everyone at the table can help in the collaborative process of roleplaying.


  1. When I say “scope,” I am talking about the passage of time, not necessarily the number of characters involved or the scale of events taking place. A single character carrying out a plan that affects only a few people may have a broad scope (i.e., large amount of time) even if it nonetheless operates at the small scale. Although there is some correspondence between scope and scale, here I mean only the passage of time.  ↩

  2. For an example of a game that encourages truly broad-, actually epic-scope scenes, take a look at Microscope by Ben Robbins. Microscope can be both epic in scope and scale, where scope refers to time passing and scale refers to the grandeur of events taking place.  ↩

  3. I cannot hope to cover all examples of mechanical pacing in all roleplaying games. That sort of encyclopedic coverage is assuredly outside of the scope of this article. The great thing about roleplaying games is that each one approaches questions of pacing with unique mechanics and attitudes. What I do want to encourage you to do, however, is to look at a game’s mechanics with an eye towards pacing. How does a mechanic enforce or encourage a particular type of pacing? How can you use the mechanic to regulate pacing? By making yourself aware of the ways in which game mechanics affect pacing, you will better be able to control pacing as a generalized roleplaying skill.  ↩

  4. Especially in the second edition of Trollbabe, the round-robin, independent style of play is described as the default. Ron goes to great pains to explain how this type of scene structure works, and is generally a good text to consult on scene construction and pacing.  ↩

Why Two-Player?

In the realm of roleplaying games, a strictly two-player experience is still rare. That reality is changing with the release of many two-player games (or “twosies” as Ron Edwards likes to call them). For example, I am looking forward to the publication of Seth Ben-Ezra’s long in development, Showdown. Games like Sweet Agatha and S/Lay w/Me continue to be some of my favorite rpgs, period. The recent trend in micro-games is likewise prime territory for twosie development and play. However, the majority of games default to multi-player mode, or at least include a multi-player option. I am often asked why I don’t publish an “official” (whatever that means) variant for Mars Colony that would allow for more than two people to play simultaneously. There are, after all, some lovely multi-player fan variants for the game. Why not at least adapt one of those for inclusion in future releases, or in Mars Colony: 39 Dark? To those people I must politely respond, “No thank you. Not interested.” But whhyyyy? Well — I hope to answer that question in this essay. The two-player experience is a different, more intimate experience that allows for both mechanical and narrative techniques not easily achieved in the multi-player form. I have absolutely nothing against more traditional, multi-player design, but at the same time I remain dedicated to exploring the twosie and its unique opportunities. Twosies may not be for everyone, but they are certainly for some.

Focus, Friend

One of the primary reasons that two-player roleplaying games are so rewarding is because they offer a type of narrative that is so very different from a more “traditional” multi-player game. I say “traditional” because multi-player has been the default for years. Even if my friend Jim and I were playing the D&D starter set one-on-one back in the day, the rules assumed that we would have a dungeon crawling party — that there would be a host of elves, fighters, and wizards to share the load of killing monsters and hauling away loot. This template set the norm for most games to come even when the template didn’t fit the narrative it was attempting to model. For example, look at a game like Shadowrun. Yes, of course you can play Shadowrun much like a game of D&D. You can put together a team of elves, fighters, and wizards, and “dungeon-crawl” your way through the corporate high-rise. The game reads that way, it works that way in play, and the rules support a large party of PCs. On the other hand, much of the fiction that came with Shadowrun and its supplements, from the character profiles to the blurbs sprinkled throughout the text, hint at another type of story. In this other type of story, you have a lone shadowrunner, or maybe a duo, that live a hard knock life just scrapping by. Maybe they make a living as investigators, exploring supernatural phenomenon. Or maybe they work alone as high society cat burglars. Whatever the case may be, Shadowrun inspired me to think outside of the box. I suddenly wanted to tell a story that wasn’t just about reliving the movie Sneakers in a modern day fantasy setting. I was looking for the type of narrative that played like a film noir novel, or like Bladerunner. But I couldn’t do that with Shadowrun because it was designed for something else. It was designed to fit the D&D template.

One thing I learned while designing my first rpg, Hero’s Banner, is that I truly appreciated the concept of the protagonist. I enjoy stories that revolve around the strong development of a single character. In part, this is because I also appreciate shorter narratives. How can you pack in all the character development I want if you have a movie-length story with six different protagonists? With tight writing, and a planned arc, perhaps it’s possible. In a roleplaying game where you are forced by the nature of the form to improvise and revise, no. It’s just not possible outside of a long-form game. With just one or two sessions and many PCs, the different characters will necessarily feel underdeveloped. This same concept plays out in books, movies, and roleplaying games. Take Hero’s Banner. I have GMed the game with every player count from one through (an insane) five. The amount of detailed, focused character development that occurred in each of those games was inversely proportional to the player count. One-on-one saw a very focused, heart-wrenching story about a noble destroying himself. With five, it was a raucous, world-spanning epic. But on the level of individual characters, the story was impersonal. The only way the multi-player game could have achieved the same sense of character development present in the one-on-one experience would have required a long-form, multi-session game where each character received significant screen time. Then we would have had a game that looked a lot more like HBO’s production of A Game of Thrones. As it was, however, we didn’t come close. There’s nothing wrong with short, punchy play and superficial character development, but it’s not what I want out of my roleplaying all of the time.

Now let’s circle back to Bladerunner, one of my favorite movies. If the movie was the product of a roleplaying session, how many PCs would have participated? Certainly Deckard would have been a PC. Rachael would have probably been a second, and maybe one of the fugitive replicants — I’m thinking Pris or Roy — could have been a third. But that’s really it unless you were playing a game that was designed to highlight certain PCs at the expense of others. No other characters in Bladerunner are developed enough to have warranted full PC treatment. No other characters have a strong character arc. They may be interesting. I wouldn’t want to cut them from the movie; however, it’s difficult to imagine them as anything but side characters. And even given all of this, I think most people watching Bladerunner identify with Deckard. He’s the primary protagonist, the character that the entire movie revolves around. In other words, if Bladerunner really was a story that was generated during a roleplaying game, I would not be surprised to learn that there was really only one PC: Deckard. Everyone else could have just as easily been played as an NPC.

Fine. Let’s say you accept my analysis. Why go through this exercise? Because Bladerunner is the type of story I wanted to tell while I was running Shadowrun. It’s the type of story that I want to tell now when I roleplay. And Bladerunner is a two-player type of story. There’s no troupe of adventures. There’s no need to divide up the cognitive load. You need one person to frame the world and introduce Roy, and Pris, and all of the others — and you need one to concentrate just on Deckard’s inner turmoil while the Vangelis soundtrack plays on.

It’s not just Bladerunner, though. Think about your favorites movies or books. How many of them are ensemble pieces, and how many of them focus instead on just one or two protagonists? I know I’m not alone in saying that most of the stories I love fall into the latter category. Yes, there are plenty of book series that are filled with interesting, well-developed characters. And there are plenty of roleplaying games to support that sort of Tolkien-inspired play. But what I’m looking for, and what I want to design right now, are games that are focused on supporting the single protagonist. Give me one novel’s worth, one movie’s worth of sharp play that allows for a single character (maybe two) to progress through a well-defined arc. That’s a powerful play experience that I can complete in just one or two evenings. It’s exciting. It’s fascinating. It’s also a game in need of a different sort of ruleset.

Forget Play-by-Committee

While opportunities for mechanical innovation abound in exclusively two-player design, I think it’s important to pause and recognize that a multi-player game that is also focused on a single protagonist is possible. Focus on a single protagonist is not solely the purview of twosies, nor do I intend to imply that twosies cannot support a rewarding troupe-style game. On the other hand, I do believe that a two-player game offers certain advantages, and is a natural fit for single-protagonist play. Nonetheless, we can examine two multi-player games that are designed for single-protagonist play. Both Gregor Hutton’s Remember Tomorrow and Ron Edward’s Spione are designed around the concept that, when the game starts, no one at the table necessarily knows who the protagonists are going to be. Only through play does it become clear which characters will be major and minor. While a player may start the game believing that his character is the primary protagonist, each game is designed to upset the normal convention that keeps PCs sacrosanct. In Remember Tomorrow it is possible to trade PCs amongst the different players. Character ownership is dynamic, and the focus shifts from one character to the next depending on how everyone at the table collaborates to steer the overall narrative. Likewise, in Spione the game encourages a feeling of paranoia and fluidity. Just as its Cold War theme is emphasized in the relationship of handler to spy, the game also leans on the Cold War idea that individual spies are disposable. In this way, PCs may find themselves as support characters suddenly shifted to the wings of the story as the game progresses.

In both Remember Tomorrow and Spione, players still have authority over multiple characters. Whether that control shifts, as in Remember Tomorrow, or the role of a character is deemphasized, as in Spione, both games spread the labor of playing multiple characters over multiple players. By comparison, we can look at the way I demo Hero’s Banner at conventions for an example of another way to leverage multiple players to create a single-protagonist game. When I demo Hero’s Banner, I sit down with three players at a time, and ask them each to play out a scene for the same hero. Because every Hero’s Banner character has three primary drives in life, it is a natural fit to ask each player at the table to take charge of one such drive. When Player A finishes his scene, Player B takes over. Player B works through a scene focused on a different drive, but also has to live with the consequences prompted by Player A’s scene. While any given scene is playing out, everyone at the table is encouraged to give feedback to the active player and otherwise participate both as spectator and side-seat director. In this way, you have a game that focuses on a single protagonist that is nonetheless played by multiple people. It’s an enjoyable experience, and one worth exploring. However, it is not the same as a twosie.

While it is possible to find two-player rpgs that don’t focus on single-protagonist play, most do — and they do so because the face-to-face format reduces options. As a designer of a twosie, you can set the game up so that there is (a) one GM and one player, (b) no GM and two players trading narration, or (c) one or both people playing multiple protagonists. Given the mental load required for option (c), it’s not difficult to understand why most authors opt for single- or two-protagonist play in an exclusively two-player design. Besides, if you want multiple protagonists, why not take advantage of the multi-player form?

Most twosies are built from the ground up to support single-protagonist play. We can see this most clearly in, for example, the introductions to Ron Edward’s S/lay w/Me, Bret Gillan’s Cold Soldier, and Kevin Allen Jr.’s Sweet Agatha. There are plenty of other examples. Open to page one in these games, and you’ll see what I mean.

From S/lay w/Me (it even starts on the front cover):

The monster will kill you. The lover is willing. […] Say it All: I am myself. I am canny, brutal, experienced. I laugh at the gods. I delight in life. My foes meet death swiftly.

From Cold Soldier:

The dead walk. A dark master has called the recently buried to serve in his army, to avenge the wrongs committed against him. You are one of these beings. […] One of you will be the Soldier. The other will be the Game Master (or GM). From here on I will speak only to the Soldier.

And finally from Sweet Agatha:

You’ve broken the seal, you can’t stop now. […] You (the Reader) are the main character. The story is about your personal search for answers in the disappearance of Sweet Agatha. The Truth will be in charge of what goes on around you, but don’t worry you’ll both have an equal say in the story, you just have different parts to play.

It’s not just that these games are about single-protagonist play, it’s that they are all taking advantage of the design decision to focus exclusively on two-player roleplaying. What all of these games have in common is that they speak directly to “you.” The rhetorical presentation, because each game is a twosie, can speak directly to the reader/player in a way that highlights the exclusive role he or she will play in the game to come. There is no question about who will be the protagonist: it’s you. This focus is a central conceit of the twosie design in S/lay w/Me, Cold Soldier, and Sweet Agatha; and the rest of each game, both rhetorically and mechanically, follows through on the promise of highlighting that single all-important character.

A slight variation on twosie rhetorical presentation reverses the text’s audience. I do this in my brief two-player game, Clank. Because I designed Clank as an introduction to roleplaying, I direct the text towards the person not playing the protagonist (i.e., towards the GM). I want the new roleplayer to be the protagonist, and the experienced roleplayer to run the game. Nonetheless, even in Clank it’s clear that the important character is the one and only protagonist. For example, I write: “Remember that, whatever happens, the story must revolve around the main character and a relationship arising out of the stranger in the kitchen.” The onus may be on the GM to entice the PC, but the quintessential twosie conceit of a direct relationship between main character and PC is still present.

Now let’s compare the excerpt from S/lay w/Me to a selection from another or Ron’s games, this time a multi-player game, Trollbabe. In Trollbabe, Ron uses his well-known metaphor of the rock band to explain what his game is all about:

Everyone involved will be both author and audience for the fiction. In this sense, it’s more like playing music than writing, directing, or acting. As with music, people’s instruments (the rules) differ yet combine. As with music, you can play in harmony, in counterpoint, in fugue, or even at times use dissonance.

Perhaps you disagree with the metaphor, but you can’t deny that the tone of Trollbabe is different from S/lay w/Me. In a band, can you ever be sure who’s going to take the lead? In a roleplaying game like Trollbabe, can you ever be sure who will play the lead? Even if a particular example of Trollbabe play ends up being a single-protagonist story, the laser focus on one player and one character is absent. It’s a jam session until further notice. What’s wonderful about two-player roleplaying games is the laser focus. There’s no messing around. You get right to it, and you know what it is right from the start. With that foreknowledge, you can do wonderful things in a very short amount of time.

With just two people at the roleplaying table, everyone gains focus. The players know what is expected of them. The game designer who knows this is able to focus his design. Rather than spending time and energy on the more complicated process of wrangling multiple player contributions into a cohesive play experience, the designer of a twosie can let loose the reigns and lean instead on the social conventions of conversation. If you have ever worked on a committee, or participated in a large meeting, you know how difficult it can be to get everyone on the same page, let alone to agree on anything. However, one on one, people can act quickly and with a unified purpose more easily. It’s simply a matter of numbers. Explaining my point of view to you, and then listening to you explain yours back to me is less time consuming and less demanding. If we need to reach an agreement, the resulting negotiation is simplified because there are less variables, less to agree on. The best two-player designs know this, and take advantage of the more conversational atmosphere.

To use some lingo, relying on player negotiation to resolve conflicts maps to the idea of Drama Resolution. It’s shocking how much more prevalent Drama Resolution is in two-player designs. Every twosie I’ve mentioned in this essay so far makes use of Drama Resolution for at least one significant portion of play. Then again, it should come as no surprise. Just as negotiation is easier when there are only two participants, so too is negotiation-based conflict resolution in a two-player roleplaying game. In Emily Care Boss’s Breaking the Ice, it is easy to see how she encourages a conversational, drama-based resolution. The Guide is instructed to help the Active Player not by rolling dice, but instead by asking for “more detail about events or more information about the character or setting,” and by making “suggestions for narration that the Active Player may choose to adopt” (21). More to the point, the players are supposed to “work together to come to agreements about what they want to do” (24). The game also makes use of Attraction Rolls (dice rolls) to drive the action, but the dice augment rather than define the negotiation between the players. Even though it is the Active Player who has final say after an Attraction Roll, both players are supposed to “share in the discussion of the outcome” and “[c]ome to a collaborative agreement on the characters’ interpretation of the events narrated” (31). Negotiation and collaboration are the primary way that conflicts are resolved in Breaking the Ice, and it is no coincidence. Because the game is two-player, it naturally encourages an active dialogue between the players at all times.

In a multi-player game with one GM and many players, it is typically only the GM who is engaged at all times. The players take turns narrating while the GM responds. The action and focus can shift wildly from scene to scene, as can the number of PCs involved. It is therefore easy for a player to temporarily disengage while the game continues. By comparison in a two-player game, no one is left out. Both players are engaged at all times, and can more readily participate in any negotiation taking place. That sense of connection allows for rulesets that rely 100% on Drama Resolution, such as in Sweet Agatha. In Sweet Agatha, despite the fact that there are no dice and no random resolutions to prod the action, play still feels natural and interesting. The players aren’t just free-forming their way through the game, but are instead using the information provided by the Clues and Goals to organize a narrative through negotiation. Because each player was connected and contributed to all previous scenes, they each have an investment in the outcome of the game that is difficult to match in a multi-player setting. In a two-player game, negotiations are collaborative yet tense because of the heightened level of creative buy-in. There is no opportunity for a player to mentally check out because, if he did, the game would simply pause. While players in a twosie may need to take more frequent breaks to mentally recharge, it is impossible for them to disengage or play on autopilot. You may find the demands of two-player games exhausting, but, to me, the level of engagement is a tremendous advantage.

As this discussion transitions from mechanics to the social risks of playing with just two people, I think it’s important to point out that there is one area in particular where the constraints of a two-player design necessitates some extra attention from the designer. A multi-player game, while less intimately conversational, does benefit from the increased creativity of multiple points of view. With so many voices at the table, there is usually a bounty of ideas to integrate into the fiction. The game can take many different and unexpected turns because there is always the opportunity for a fresh idea. Even when one or two players are creatively blocked, they can defer to someone else in the group to make a unique contribution that launches the game in a satisfying direction.

Not so with a two-player game. With just two, there are fewer potential ideas at the ready. If one player is blocked, then the other has to carry the entire weight of game — or else the game must be put on hold. Breaks are a healthy part of any roleplaying session and give everyone involved a chance to breathe and recharge; however, too many breaks and the game can fall apart. If a game exhausts the players by calling on them to be too creative too often, then it runs the risk of halting the process of play altogether. What a designer must avoid is the scenario that causes the players to say, “Too much! No more!” Less dramatically, the designer must also avoid a situation where the players cannot invent a way forward. With no satisfying ideas, the players could instead call it quits and move onto another game. As a designer, I want my customers to be happy with their purchase and satisfied that the game delivered from start to finish. As a player, I want a conclusion to the story I have begun.

To accomodate less players, most twosie designers impose creative constraints and provide additional creative “input” from the game system. Instead of relying on a committee of participants to produce interesting ideas, the game itself becomes a catalyst for creativity. In Sweet Agatha, the game rules may take up only a single large sheet of paper, but the full-color journal, complete with Clues that are physically cut from the pages and used as props during play, provide the players with a wealth of material from which to draw inspiration. The game is not a substitute for another player, but does take responsibility for many of the creative duties that additional participants would otherwise perform. When someone is creatively blocked, they need only look through the Clues to formulate another contribution. The blocked player is not required to invent something completely original, and can — perhaps to their relief — make use of the material provided by the game. Similarly, in Sweet Agatha each scene must begin with the introduction of exactly three new Clues and a clear goal. The goal provides the players with a framework within which to work. The players are free to focus on a single scene with a single goal, and can therefore focus their creative energy on the thematic content of the scene. Creative anxiety is reduced. Play can move forward. You may be tempted to label such restrictions “crutches,” but they, like any creative constraints, can serve as the seed of something creatively profound.

In my own game, Mars Colony, I provide similar creative inspirations. Before play begins, as part of the setup phase, players are asked to write down three things that they fear about their own government in real life. These Fear Cards are shuffled and revealed slowly during play. However, at no time are the players required to use them. Some critics have pointed out that the Fear Cards seem superflous. Perhaps. I don’t want to get defensive here, but I will explain my reasoning. The Fear Cards serve two purposes. First, they get the players thinking about politics. They set a tone and introduce potential themes in a low-risk play environment. Second, the Cards serve as inspiration as needed. If a game finishes without anyone explicitly referencing a Card in play, that’s okay because there was presumably enough other material in the mix. But the Cards are there if the players want them. They can serve as both a creative constraint (“I’m going to work this card into play.”) or as a creative inspiration (“This card gives me an idea!”). When used in either manner, the Card moves the game forward. Without the Cards, without something to rescue a player from blanking, the game might stall. With the Cards, the players are offered suggestions that look a lot like what others might contribute in a multi-player game. The game system is no substitute for another person, but can effectively anticipate the needs of players in a two-player setting.

It’s Okay to be Uncomfortable

While many players are excited by the promise of a game designed specifically for two players, others are worried. What they worry about varies, but, by in large, the concern is straightforward: “Playing with just one other person sounds way too uncomfortable.” I hear this from people all the time, mostly by those who have never tried a two-player game. The fear of feeling uncomfortable is understandable, I suppose. While a multi-player game offers the security of a group, a two-player experience appears more vulnerable, more exposed. Your contributions are clearly, and perhaps painfully your own. If you want to include emotional content, you must do so without the filtered, diffuse result that accompanies multiple people adding their own small piece to the larger story. Especially if you have never played a twosie, it is easy to think that the emotional content of the game will feel that much more awkward. However, my experiences with two-player games have taught me that these fears are misplaced. While a twosie can indeed lead to an emotionally acute game, it is generally more comfortable, and feels less exposed. In other words, while I can understand the intuition of the uninitiated, those nascent intuitions are flawed. What the two-player experience actually offers is both surprising and rewarding. As in any roleplaying game, it is important to play emotionally charged games with emotionally intelligent people, but barring outright immaturity (a danger in any game), the two-player experience is a venue that enhances emotional play rather than impedes it.

I feel as though I must first disspel an unspoken assumption about two-player roleplaying games — one that even I am guilty of from time to time. Because there are relatively few twosies available, and most of them are capital T Thematic and emotional, players often assume that the form itself is intimately and emotionally charged. Simply identifying this fear will, I hope, be enough to highlight its absurdity. There is nothing that says twosies are, by definition, more emotional than multi-player games. Almost everything that I have covered in the previous sections of this essay would apply equally to a hypothetical two-player game about, say, traditional dungeon crawling. Likewise, Sorcerer, My Life With Master, Dust Devils and others are all now classic games, and all rely heavily on thematic content rendered intense. Games in the vein of Dust Devils fit a particular style, and fans of that style barely raise an eyebrow over fears of feeling uncomfortable. Yes, there are boundaries to respect and rules to follow, but it is assumed that the intelligent gaming group can handle the thematic content of Dust Devils with skill and grace. But somehow the thought of playing a similarly themed game in a two-player format is frightening. Why? It is unfamiliar in process, but should not be alien in theme.

I want to turn on its head the notion that roleplaying with a partner instead of a group is somehow less safe or more vulnerable. If anything, the opposite is true. With a group, the dynamic is more complex. Knowing when someone is uncomfortable is more subtle and difficult. The action bounces from one player to another. The GM is distracted by multiple plot lines. Players can contribute in rapid fire succession so that it is easy to overlook the worried expression of a player feeling uncomfortable. And all of this is in addition to the power of peer pressure. Perhaps you have experienced a game where you kept your mouth shut for fear of upsetting the group dynamic. Would you have felt the same way with less players? With just one other? What designers and players alike have done to confront this myriad of emotional pitfalls is to slowly, over the years, develop systems for identifying, discussing, and limiting emotionally uncomfortable material in ways that everyone at the table can agree on (“lines and veils”, the X-Card, etc.). As a community, we have also learned to openly discuss intense themes and content in games.

However, this emotional maturity has been developed in the context of the multi-player experience. With just two, the landscape is different — but different in a good way. I won’t argue that concepts such as lines and veils don’t apply to two-player games, but I will openly wonder if they would have been as formalized if two-player games were the norm instead of the exception. Nothing is stopping the concerned player from using the techniques developed for multi-player games. A lines and veils discussion works just as well when playing S/Lay w/Me as it does when playing Sorcerer. At the same time, the inherent social dynamic of a two-player game makes it easier to identify and discuss what does and does not make us uncomfortable. Remember that a twosie is more akin to a conversation than a jam session. It is easier to talk with your gaming partner one-on-one than it is to wrangle a conversation with three or four others. Similarly, problems that crop up during play are more easily identified. In the same way that a two-player game will stall if a player is unable to contribute creatively, it will likewise stall when a player objects to emotionally charged content. While it can be unfortunately easy to overlook the worried expression on a player’s face in a multi-player game, it is difficult to miss when you are sitting face-to-face in a twosie. If an objection is identified, play can easily pause, a discussion can take place, and the game can resume. Moreover, the gaming relationship of just two players develops more quickly than it does among an entire group. Partners learn what does and does not cross the line. They adapt to match expectations. They actually become more comfortable more quickly. In other words, there is emotional safety in low numbers.

Finally, I want to discuss the big R word, “relationship.” I have said that a twosie game can help to develop a gaming relationship between two players. Relationship implies intimacy, which in turn makes some people uncomfortable. My first instinct is to say, “Get over it”; however, you take your concerns seriously, and so I will too. Cards on the table time. I get the impression from talking to people over the years that one of two things is going on here. On the one hand, some people think of gaming as a light-hearted pastime, and therefore shy away from anything that looks overly serious, like the word “relationship.” On the other hand, I have a sneaking suspicion that some people are (I can’t think of any other way to put it) weirded out by the thought of spending so much time alone with another dude. Especially if they are talking about feelings. Soooo… let’s talk about it.

As gamers, we spend a lot of time playing make-believe with each other. A shared imagined space transforms character sheets into meaningful narrative that, with luck and skill, produces a satisfying experience that transcends simple cops and robbers. Going further, many of us choose to play emotionally intense, thematic games, and we learn to become comfortable sharing a charged experience with others. We even become comfortable sharing what, in another context, would identify us as vulnerable people. That move from make-believe to theme is powerful art. However, none of it would be possible without trust and relationships. In a group, that sneaking sense of fear and of sharing too much is vague and manageable. With just two, the interpersonal connection we develop is obvious. I would ask you to trust yourself and your fellow player enough to take advantage of that connection. The theme and power of multi-player games is all there in a twosie, but you can access it more quickly — and without the need to negotiate three or four competing visions of the story you want to tell. Yes, you will get to know that other dude through gaming. Yes, it might feel a bit weird at first. But you don’t have to date him (or her), and you don’t have to make out. You just play the game and enjoy it. I promise you that your worries are non-issues. That sense of unease — fear of the new — will quickly fade into the background, and all the familiar trappings of roleplaying will emerge. If I sound dramatic, so be it. I want you to try. I’d rather overdo it than undersell you.

Mars Colony Available in the New Bundle of Holding

As of yesterday, Mars Colony, along with some other great games, is available as part of the latest Bundle of Holding. Here’s the deal. You set your own price (min. $3), and you get the following games as DRM-free PDFs:

  • Mars Colony
  • Annalise
  • Dust Devils

If you pay more than the average going rate (currently a mere $12), you get three additional games:

  • Dog Eat Dog
  • Our Last Best Hope
  • The new annotated edition of Sorcerer

And if there aren’t some super secret additions coming soon to the bundle, then you can call me crazy. Personally, I think you’d be crazy not to at least check out the bundle. Even if you already own a few of the games, this is a great chance to pick up the rest for cheap.

What’s more, 10% of your payment goes to charity: Heifer International and War Child International.

The bundle ends seven days from today, September 3, 2013.

Mars Colony: 39 Dark in Development

I have been hard at work on my new game, Mars Colony: 39 Dark. It is a sequel to the original Mars Colony set at some unspecified time after the events surrounding Kelly Perkin’s attempt to right the Colony. This time, the Savior is a new character, Lane Perkins, who is the leader of an underground protest movement fighting against the growing corruption in the Colony government. I think you’ll like it. I know I’m excited about the project.

For now, here’s an excerpt from the game’s introduction:

A solar day on Mars is 39 minutes and 35 seconds longer than on Earth.

You, Lane Novak, are a native Martian, born and raised. Once a trusted government insider, you have been tapped by the Martian uprising. A group calling themselves “39 Dark” is protesting for change. They are in need of a talented leader with a history of making the voice of the people heard. The current system is broken, and the everyday citizens that have joined the ranks of 39 Dark are looking to you for guidance and strength. You are obviously in over your head, but you have the potential to make good on the promises you have already made. You must calm the schisms that threaten to divide the movement, guide the loyalty that is fomenting in the streets against the Colony government, and force Mars Colony to change for the better before apathy and entrenched interests doom it to its current path. This is no easy task. You will probably fail, as has everyone who has tried before. But for now, you are the hero to be. A traitor to some, but a beacon for many.