Playing Cards & Games About Exploration

edited January 2012 in Story Games
D&D is a game about heroic adventure. As such, the basic mechanic of rolling a d20 and comparing it to a DC fits well. The basic unit of the game hinges on the question, "Did I beat the challenge?" That really ties into the heroic adventure feel: you're presented with a series of challenges, and the expectation is that you'll have a chance to overcome them. This is also why it's so notoriously difficult to play, for instance, a horror game in D&D, or why you might feel so lost and unsupported if you try to have a game of high drama. Horror can be about many things, but it's rarely about overcoming the danger involved. That's the real difference between adventure and horror: in an adventure, you expect to overcome the challenge, whereas in horror, you typically don't. Drama, by the same token, operates on completely different questions, to which the tension of rolling a d20 seem rather completely unrelated.

The classic story game to really innovate on this sort of thing, of course, is Dread. The physical tension of pulling a brick from a Jenga tower aligns perfectly with the tension in a horror story. And as in good horror, this isn't a matter of meeting a series of challenges and overcoming them, as dice would suggest, but a matter where success merely means putting off the inevitable calamity just a little longer.

I know, for most of you, I'm just telling you what you already know. But I thought it might be a good place to start as I ponder what sort of game lends itself to the fun of exploration. Now, yes, certainly, you can tell a tale of exploration in something like a D&D game. All you have to do is turn the exploration into a series of challenges that the explorers need to overcome. However, I think that crosses a line where you can describe it more accurately as a game of heroic adventure with the trappings of exploration, rather than a game about exploration. It seems to me that a game about exploration would require that no one at the table knows what they will find next.

For a few months now, I keep coming back to how you could achieve this with a deck of cards. Once shuffled, cards don't randomize like a die does; not really. When you roll a die, you determine the outcome. Once you've shuffled a deck of cards, you have already set all the outcomes before you even begin to play. The landscape exists; you don't determine it, you explore it.

The cards in Ganakagok frequently create mythopoeic tales. I think a lot of that has to do with the symbolism. You can pull a number of different elements from each card, making them broad enough to interpret in many different ways. This leads to that "magical moment" that seems to come up at least once, at least in every game of Ganakagok I've played, where you stare at the deck in wonder, and might even think it really does have some kind of magic, because the card you pull just fits the situation too, too perfectly.

I'm interested in a more down-to-earth sort of exploration, with a real emphasis on rich description and really indulging the senses. So, I've spent some time thinking about assigning each card to a very specific image. I think, but haven't yet really proven or even thoroughly tested, that you can control the magical-ness of the experience by making the cards more or less specific.

I also thought of having several places. At the beginning of the game, we deal cards to each place, forming smaller decks, each kept face-down. We can then explore these places by diving deeper and deeper into them, from the most superficial things we find there (the first card we see), to their deepest secrets (the last card we draw).

I really just have the kernel of an idea here, though. Rolling a die or pulling a block from a Jenga tower tell you not only the action to take, but how to consider it a success or not. I just have an action to take. How do we introduce the tension of exploration? Where does the risk come in? Do some cards always present danger? Or perhaps you can only draw so many before you have to turn back, and if you can't find what you seek before then, you just can't find it?

What ideas do you have?

Comments

  • Jason, do you know about The Quiet Year?

    It's a game I'm developing, in late playtesting. It's about a small community recovering and rebuilding in the post-post-apocalypse. Play often focuses on things like rebuilding water-wheels, contending with famine or disease, developing values and moral traditions, and the like. It's played from a "bird's eye view," focusing on how a community grows and develops.

    The game is played with a map (that starts off as a blank piece of paper, and gets drawn on throughout) and a deck of cards. The deck is separated into the seasons, and each card corresponds to a week in the quiet year. The cards are oracular, framing events and situations that then play into the projects and discussions that your community chooses to carry out.
  • I think you might get some good oomf from tile-placing board games in which exploration results in random layouts.
  • I know you've been working on it, but this is the most detail I've heard yet on how it actually works. It's sitll in private playtesting, yes?

    That sounds like an interesting approach. How much interpretation is there with the cards? It sounds like it could be anything from open-ended interpretation to a randomly assorted list of 52 missions.
  • Posted By: jasonI know you've been working on it, but this is the most detail I've heard yet on how it actually works. It's sitll in private playtesting, yes?
    It's between iterations, with a new one being released by the end of the week if I can swing it.

    It's been in open playtesting for about 8 months. The deal is that you need to request a playtesting package from me, on that page I linked in my previous post, and then I send you the goods.
  • Posted By: McdaldnoIt's been in open playtesting for about 8 months. The deal is that you need to request a playtesting package from me, on that page I linked in my previous post, and then I send you the goods.
    I don't know if I can sell my group on actually playing it, but I'll try. I'd love to play it, personally.
  • Posted By: JDCorleyI think you might get some good oomf from tile-placing board games in which exploration results in random layouts.
    I haven't played many of these, but in Betrayal at House on the Hill I never feel like I'm exploring a place that already exists, it always feels like we're creating a new place with the tiles. I wonder if the arbitrariness of not knowing what the next room is until you go there is part of it. In something like an Elder Scrolls game, there's usually an element of seeing something interesting in the distance and moving toward it rather than just having a lot of details pop into existence from nothing.
  • The idea of laying out a deck of cards in a sort of map-like grid is one that I like. Here's a game I wrote that does that; PCs are travelers in the Kingdom of Prester John on a map of tarot cards representing his empire; flip over a card when you enter it to determine where you are. One trick that we liked when we played it was that you were always heading for some possibly mythical destination whose location was a little vague. To simulate that vagueness, when you entered the "square" containing a marker for, say, the Wall of Gogmagog, you rolled a die. If you weren't lucky, you'd find out the Wall of Gogmagog was actually a little further away over in that direction.

    The game is clunky and needs to be streamlined procedurally to make it playable, I think, but a mechanic where your choice of exploration strategy interacts with the character of the place you are exploring to produce some kind of consequence, "plot point," or narrative prompt might begin to do what you want to do.
  • I guess it falls to me to mention Jackson Tegu's the smoke dream, doesn't it? If you can lay your hands on a copy, it will inspire you. The world that the deck of cards shows you is a dream, and so a static map can't really hold the way it connects to itself, but there is a map nonetheless. You find yourself exploring the same sequence of rooms, again and again, trying to find the thing that will move you along and help you find your heart. It's the best solo game I've played, and a great example of that thing we keep talking about, where mechanics reinforce themes. Super-recommend.
  • I REALLY wish I could find a copy of The Smoke Dream.
  • Interesting coincidence; I've been developing something that ressembles this, though It came from a different need and evolved from hacking different things. My system uses a pack of cards, each with four words (distributed on the edges of the cards) and a phrase in the middle of the card, placed diagonally. The words on the top are broad categories of things you can find along the road: a place, a person, an object, a monster. Words on the left side of the cards are adjectives, most of these better fit a person or an animal. Words on the right side are also adjectives, but this time more fitted to describe a place or an object. Words on the bottom are a list of emotions.

    To use these cards to create a challenge, one player draws three or more, and uses but one word from each card to describe the challenge ahead.

    The phrases in the middle of the cards are plot twists, hacked from the Whimsy Cards. They can be added while a player is in the middle of facing a challenge, and there's a reward for players that do this. A lot of other rules complicate the circumstances, turning it into a resource management kinda game, but yet the story generated is quite interesting.
  • That's sounds pretty boss, Paulo. I dig it.
  • Thanks a lot Joseph, though I've got to thank it all to every indie designer I've been hacking it from. It's so embarrasing that I'm thinking to give it for free once it's finished.

    Character sheet is a mix from Fate Aspects, organized into 6 groups of AW moves. Current character Health mechanics come from 3:16, world creation concept comes from Burning Wheel, stripped down to a few questions. It uses the relationship tree from Smallville, Karma points, etc. you name it. And it works swiftly since each thing you wrote down on the character sheet is a resource, can be used only once per turn and there's no guarantee it will get your character out of the current challenge... or the next. And you need to ellaborate a bit to explain why it's useful in the current situation, so the game isn't a mechanical hack and slash at all.

    Rules include a way for other players to complicate the challenges you face, using anything from your own character sheet, so the game has a mad competitive side to it.
  • Posted By: Dan MaruschakI haven't played many of these, but inBetrayal at House on the HillI never feel like I'm exploring a place that already exists, it always feels like we're creating a new place with the tiles. I wonder if the arbitrariness of not knowing what the next room is until you go there is part of it. In something like an Elder Scrolls game, there's usually an element of seeing something interesting in the distance and moving toward it rather than just having a lot of details pop into existence from nothing.
    I don't really know what to say about this. Isn't this just the same as when you're walking along in Elder Scrolls and find something that was too small to be visible a long way away? Is the fact that it's buried in computer code and pre-programmed different than if you shuffled the cards and know, looking at the stack of cards, that all the cards are in there somewhere? I donno, maybe it is?
  • I have the same issues with the exploring a preset world versus a randomly built as you go world. I think it has something to do with the "logic" a preset world has with naturally forming relationships with the stuff that exists in the world.

    Betrayal on the House on the Hill is actually a good example of that. The house that you are building as you go winds up as having very little logic in the way the house gets laid out. Noone in their right mind would lay out a house where the dining room, for example, is on the complete other side of the house from the kitchen, with a swimming pool in between. They try to do a little bit of organizing room types with the floor system, and at the same time, you can kind of forgive it simply because "how fiddly do you want to make rules to place tiles?"

    It's sort of like wandering around Skyrim, climbing a mountain, and then at the very top of the highest mountain, there's a shop that only sells deep sea diving equipment.

    In Skyrim, because of it's presetness, it always feels like if I follow a river, I know I'll eventually come across a village at a juncture of rivers, because that's sort of what naturally happens in real life. In Betrayal of the House in Skyrim, I'd come across a roller skating rink in the middle of a swamp.
  • So what you're saying is that the tile choice/card choice should have a range that would allow any choice to be placed next to anything else: say, instead of defining what kind of place you come to, the card should define some element or feeling or thing that is present at that place?
  • Or maybe the cards/tiles should describe a world where absurd connections are okay: Wonderland, for example.
  • Or.. The meaning of a card could be a function of the existing uncovered cards, producing only more or less logical results.
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