During the Origins Awards this year Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple won the Vanguard Award. This award is significant in that it is not given every year and honors highly innovative games. I recently interviewed Dan Solis, the game designer, along with Ryan Macklin and Lillian Cohen-Moore, the editors. The following is the transcript of that interview.
Bear Weiter: Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple is both a game and an exercise in storytelling. How did you design something that balances creative writing with the use of mechanics?
Daniel Solis: Working in advertising, I often get called on to write within constraints. If it’s a TV script, I have to include certain language or disclaimers while promoting a brand. If it’s a billboard, I usually only have three or four words to communicate a much larger idea.
Then occasionally I’ll get a client who says “do anything” and I suddenly go blank. It’s the constraint that inspires creativity. Constraint is the pressure that creates heat. That is a very ancient idea, of course. It goes back to haikus and sonnets.
In Do, I designed a game that is all about constraints and writing prompts. First, the players are all writing a story together. Second, a player can only write one sentence at a time on her turn. Third, the players win by using all of the “goal words” in their story, but can only often only use one word per turn.
As you play, you may get opportunities to use more than one goal word, but at the price of your hero getting into trouble. This acts as yet another prompt for the next player’s turn, as she must decide whether she will rescue a companion even if it means taking his place.
With all these constraints, I was worried at one point that it would hinder a player’s creativity. There certainly are a lot of factors to consider in a single turn. Yet I’m always amazed at the players’ imagination during the game. They’ll come up with the zaniest ways for their heroes to get into trouble or to rescue a friend in need.
BW: As editors, how does your approach differ when you edit a game versus other kinds of manuscripts?
Ryan Macklin: I’m primarily a game editor. A game has many different contextual channels, more than fiction or even most text books. Games books need to serve as instructional text (along with examples and other methods that facilitate learning) and sources of inspiration. That means text flow is as much of a page design consideration as what’s on a given page.
Since people learn by different methods, including having others read a book and teach, a given section needs to take that into account, as well as blend in evocative tone and color to facilitate learning the context of the game and giving additional points of reference to remember a given rule or piece of advice.
Lillian Cohen-Moore: Since I’m primarily a copy editor for games, I have to pay attention to whether I’m reading something with mechanics in it. If I don’t keep that in mind while changing passages to fit a style guide or clear up unclear text, I run a risk of taking a machete to text that’s essential for understanding gameplay.
BW: What were the first games that truly grabbed you? How have your past experiences playing games motivated you to get involved in game development? How did playing games influence you as storytellers?
DS: I played a lot of D&D as a teenager, then other role-playing games in college.
In most RPGs of the time, the critical question was “Does my character succeed at the action I just described?” You rolled dice to find the answer to that question and modified the dice results in various ways to get your desired outcome. This creates very decompressed narratives that, in total, take many hours to describe very little.
My whole perspective changed thanks to two games: octaNe by Jared Sorensen and The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen by James Wallis.
In octaNe, the question was “Who gets to decide what happens next in the story?” There were some constraints on scope and character ownership, but otherwise you were given very broad license to just narrate to your heart’s content. You still used dice and still modified those results, but the meaning of those results was very different than a traditional RPG.
By the same token, Baron Munchausen gave even broader license to each player. In that game you’re simply asked to tell boastful lies about one of your amazing, heroic accomplishments. Occasionally other players may ask prying questions that poke holes in your story, to which you must respond with wit and grace. It’s a challenging game partly because you must think quickly without many prompts.
Both games put you much in the position of a writer. That’s probably what influenced me most in developing Do.
LCM: When I was a kid my parents would buy my siblings and I board games every year. We’d get bored of the regular rules and start inventing our own “hard” modes. From there I get into table-top and live-action role-playing as I grew up. Games were always a part of my social circle, but I didn’t realize I could actually get involved in games development till a few years ago. Playing games has had a very noticeable influence on my sense of pacing. Both when I’m writing and when I’m telling stories in casual settings.
RM: I used to play GURPS, back in the day. Mage: the Ascension and Unknown Armies blew my mind, and really got me thinking about writing stuff.
I have a mild reading disability, so looking at the old-school roleplaying games and how they just throw walls of text at you was frustrating. So I started looking to how other books presented information, and have been using that as a guide to developing games I’ve been involved with.
I can’t really answer how games have influenced me as a storyteller. I know that they have, but games are an integral part of my personality DNA. I can’t really remove that to tell you how it’s impacted my life.
BW: You created another game before this – Happy Birthday, Robot! – that is also a mix of storytelling and gameplay. Are there more games to come that feature storytelling so prominently? Do you do any other kind of creative writing?
DS: The irony of all this is that I consider myself more of a board game designer. I just happened to find success with these odd little storytelling games that apply simple board game mechanics to the ephemeral world of creative writing.
I explore this space a bit more with some side projects like the Writer’s Dice. These are dice with the words AND, SO, BUT, IF, AS, and OR on each face. The idea is that as you outline a story, you’ll roll a die between each story-beat to keep the story moving in unexpected directions. You can buy Writer’s Dice from my etsy store at http://www.etsy.com/shop/smartplaygames.
At the moment, I’m developing two new story games using these dice. The first is Pop and Locke’s Last Heist, a storytelling game about a father/daughter heist team recovering supernatural objects from their family of supervillains. The second is tentatively titled Rulers, which is a cross between Fullmetal Alchemist and Hunger Games.
BW: How did you get involved with the project? What were your official roles and were there other aspects you were involved with along the way?
RM: This is the world of game bookmaking; there isn’t much in the way of official roles on small projects. I was the guy who challenged Daniel when he needed challenging on rules presentation, and played clean-up on the text.
It was a collaborative arrangement, not an equal pairing but one of a friend helping another friend make a vision come to life. Daniel had many such folks; I just happened to also be his editor.
LCM: Ryan and I knew each other before working on Do together as co-editors, and was who brought me in to work on the editing with him. Since I was doing copy edits, the bulk of what I did was making sure things looked good after Ryan had come in and kicked the tires.
BW: How do writers who are interested in writing for games get into the business?
LCM: Pay attention to games publishers and industry publications. There’s regular calls for pitches and openings. Just like fiction, those submissions practices are spelled out very clearly. Outside that familiar process, you should be exhibiting the same qualities you do writing fiction. Make your deadlines and don’t be a dick.
RM: This isn’t like the world of fiction. Roleplaying games are a niche market, and you get into the business by doing stuff and being loud. Sometimes, larger companies hold contests or open calls for submissions, always for their established games. But if you have an idea for a game system or setting, just do it and put it out there. Then network. Go to conventions and get to know folks.
Being an independent publisher in the RPG world doesn’t have the dirty stink on it that it seems to have in the world of fiction. There aren’t Big Publishers that will take your new idea. Their resources are stretched working on their own properties. So if you’re going to get out there, you should strike on your own.
That said, places often look for freelancers, but they’ll mostly go with people they know or have met.
Many thanks to Daniel, Ryan, and Lillian for their time, and congratulations on winning the Vanguard Award!
More information about Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple can be found at www.SmartPlayGames.com.
By day, Daniel Solis is associate creative director at Third Degree Advertising. By night, he’s an award-winning designer of storytelling games and board games. He designs in public at www.DanielSolis.com. Follow @DanielSolis on Twitter.
Ryan Macklin is a freelance game designer, writer & editor, and frequently blogs about the creative process at RyanMacklin.com.
Lillian Cohen-Moore is a freelance writer, editor and journalist. Part of the proofing team for “Attitude” from Catalyst Game Labs, Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple was her first project as a game editor. She blogs at www.lilliancohenmoore.com. She is also assistant editor here at Booklife Now.