New on Desk #8 — Slice of Life

I’ve been writing more C2020 material this week, continuing from the outline article I published earlier; I got inspired by pondering the game’s task resolution mechanics and decided to write another article outlining my take on how the task resolution and character development rules of the game should work. I suppose this is an extra article, I’ll probably put it out in early March or something.

My creative interest in the matter was sparked by the naturalistic Skill development system in C2020: not that it’s a focus for the game otherwise (I don’t remember having used it at any time while playing C2020, for example), but I find it remarkable anyway because it veers so close to a closet interest of mine: the idea of naturalistic Skill development as a chassis for slice-of-life rpg play.

Ars Magica: the Slice of Life Character Development Game

Slice of life is a specific anti-dramatic literary technique; it being anti-dramatic makes it of great interest to me in rpg development, as we’re currently on the tail end of a long-term design trend of dramatic design that started in the early ’90s, ended up in sparking the story game movement in the early ’00s, and ultimately took about 20 years to make way for other ideas. Drama in the Aristotelian sense has been delved into deeply, and one of the natural questions we have afterwards is naturally: what of doing story games without drama? Slice of life is one of those masterplan possibilities for what lies beyond the already well-familiar horizons of protagonism and plot threads and story climaxes.

In case the Wikipedia article is less than informative, I’ll try for a quick explanation of what slice of life is: slice of life storytelling is a plotless, documentary-like description of ostensibly ordinary moments in the life of the central figure of attention. The message of the work exists in the nature of the world it depicts rather than the congruence of events as in dramatic storytelling. For our generation it’s perhaps most familiar from Japanese comics and cartoons where the technique has had so much cachet that it’s become a genre: there are rather many manga franchises that can be summed up as “there’s a cute or bizarre main character, plus friends and family, and amusing things happen in their life.” (The X Generation might be more familiar with newspaper comics that sometimes do indeed set aside the relentless gag comedy in favour of simple atmospheric slice of life storytelling.) The genre relies on atmosphere rather than plot, which makes it uniquely laid-back compared to much of the fiction we’re used to. A variety of sentiments from horror to romance and beyond are possible.

Now, it just so happens that a magnum opus of slice of life already exists in the halls of rpg classics: Ars Magica is a game with largely unique focus in that it’s not relentlessly mission-centered as most roleplaying games are. Rather, AM’s core conceit is that the player characters are colorful medieval wizards who live together in a big frat house — a monastery-like “covenant”. The players develop the particular details of not only their wizards but also the frat house, and if everything goes well, they come up with amusing characters living in a colorful location with a supporting cast of characters.

Ars Magica sounds like a situation comedy, but what it’s actually about is the magical research those wizards are conducting: the players are free to choose what kinds of interesting magical miracles their wizards will study and develop, and while there certainly are rules for doing this stuff, what it amounts to structurally is “the game tells you how many years it takes for you to develop your project”. So the wizards all have these long-term interests they’re working on, and what is it that you actually end up with? Slice of life storytelling!

AM style of slice of life works by having the players discuss the passage of time, which is managed in quarterly increments in the game. Each quarter the players engage the system to do the book-keeping on whatever continuous projects their wizards are doing. Depending on the group’s style, they might also have joint book-keeping on how the frat house is run, tracking expenses and staff and such. And, most importantly, the players have an opportunity for slice of life play that ranges from spontaneous to GM-provoked. Often various minor events occur over the year, providing the wizards with opportunities for various activities like petting the local nobility, gathering mana, negotiating with faeries and whatnot. The game calls the more elaborate events “stories”, really meaning “adventure” in the trad rpg sense, but procedurally and most of the time practically it’s just slice of life stuff: the adventure stuff not important in the sense of being more important than your character’s individual existence and on-going project management. If the adventures matter, they do it by being solid slice of life: lively descriptions of medieval life with memorable character moments.

Also, let’s roll that back a bit: what are these “wizard projects” that characters are so keen to pursue? Most of the time they’re studying to gain experience points to raise the character’s statistics, which I find just wonderful: in Ars Magica the traditional gamer obsession with bigger numbers has been turned into a pacing and framing conceit for slice of life storytelling. You get your 5 xp for reading your book for the three months, but what actually entertains us about those three months is that this was the spring when your animal familiar started nesting in the kitchen, refusing to budge for love or money. Because the way you get experience points (which, as roleplayers know, are the most important thing in the world) is sitting down reading a book, the game cannot be a traditional adventuring game. It’s simply not character development optimal to go on adventures. You got to sit at home and learn to enjoy the humble amusements of slice of life storytelling.

And, my Blood Bowl RPG has that as well

I haven’t had an opportunity to play Ars Magica this decade, so what it’s done instead is infesting my mind with its structural and creative conceits. I’ve started to find Ars Magica in the strangest of places, like the time when I revised Praedor of all things into a weird AM spin-off game.

My Blood Bowl sports drama game that I discussed in the newsletter last week is an example of this trend at its most obvious. Here’s how I see it running:

Character creation in the BBRPG uses the same training rules that are in use throughout the game: the characters have certain training resources such as training time (finite in the form of age catching up to the sportsman), modified by the character’s stamina (itself a trainable statistic; much of a character’s early career is spent developing their stamina so they can train hard enough later), which the player then allocates according to the character’s life-path. Early life is perhaps less mono-focused on sports, but once a proper trainer/manager gets their paws on the character, they’ll quickly get into a routine of optimized professional sports development. The system I’ve developed for this provides a bit of a character design conundrum as the players are forced to balance Strength, Dexterity and Stamina development with skills and other features required of a good sportsman.

The campaign in progress proceeds in weekly chunks of time, with the players developing weekly activity calendars for their characters: the players have to figure out how their professional footballer arranges their training schedule around team and social obligations; how hard they can train and in what ways depends on a variety of factors that will hopefully prove interesting. Usually the weekly schedules don’t change much from week to week, so the players don’t need to revise them too often. The main difference is between league season (games every Saturday, basically) and off-season, as one might expect. Characters will need to train during the league season for the same reasons real footballers do: to keep the team cohesion up and retain their edge.

The secret ingredient in what will hopefully make this spreadsheet activity engaging is the slice of life story development with what are basically the exact same tools that Ars Magica uses: minor events in the daily routines of the sportsmen combine with the slow-moving background of training and match schedules to develop a generally anti-dramatic atmosphere where characters existing as themselves, and being observed engaging in their routine life, becomes interesting in itself, without needing scenes to be dramatically coordinated to be meaningful. Emergent story developments may arise, but the GM will focus on designing and performing NPCs, not plot.

So why not put it into C2020

If you’ve looked into my C2020 Redux plans, then you’ve probably noticed how “SimPunk” seems to be another iteration of my Ars Magica disease. Boy, you haven’t seen nothing yet — just wait for the next article in which I demonstrate how two games that use the d10 as their randomizer of choice are so close that you might just as well replace the mechanical chassis of C2020 with the sleeker, more actively developed AM alternative.

Mechanical similarities aside, my C2020 vision is again an experiment in slice of life roleplaying: why not, instead of having the GM introduce a Mission right out of the gate, have the players instead putz around a bit? The characters in C2020 have clear societal roles, occupations, families — we could play some scenes with those, see what the character does on their day off, before sending them off to die in some random “because the plot started just now, you actually can’t walk five blocks without encountering an entirely random mindlessly hostile booster gang” GM plot fart.

The SimPunk I want is a bit like the aforementioned Blood Bowl RPG structure, in fact; I didn’t pay attention to the similarities myself before my SimPunk vision solidified, but they’re almost uncomfortably similar in some ways. (Doesn’t matter to people who don’t have to play both, but from here in the driver’s seat this raises questions about my being in a rut.) The weekly zoom level in the timeline resolution process that I’m planning for both of them explains the most of it, and it’s not like there aren’t differences, so I suppose I won’t go changing one of them just to be different. It just happens to be the case that pro fantasy footballer life and cyberpunk street romance life seem to naturally structure themselves into weekly periods. For the footballer it’s “we have a game every week”, for the cyberpunk it’s stuff like relationship pacing and rent schedules that make this “zoom level” most natural. Probably the most important difference is that the BBRPG will during league season process at a strict one session = week pace, while the C2020 SimPunk chassis will probably do a few months per session all told — a half dozen “turns” of a week per seem like appropriate.

And yes, I did indeed retain and improve upon the naturalistic Skill training rules for C2020: what I have now is technically even more detailed and spreadsheet-crazy than Ars Magica. You can calculate with great fidelity how many days of training your character needs to get their First Aid Skill up to a professional level, all depending on their own talents as well as the quality of teaching. It’s learn by doing, learn by study, learn by fictional circumstances only, with no artificial/formal “experience point rewards” whatsoever. In C2020 Redux it’s entirely feasible to send your character to school and follow along as they, week by week, improve in various Skills and participate in student life. (Did I forget to mention above that school life is singularly the most popular theme in Japanese slice of life storytelling? All these concepts are in scary concordance with each other — how did Ars Magica know?) In fact, if improving Skills is the best thing in life for you, basically the only things preventing your character from doing just that all the time are finances (who’s paying for your full-time student life?) and the impending NailBags that might disrupt your quest to be the very best there ever was.

All that being laid out in the open, an entreaty: if I start developing a third rpg this year with calendar-based structuration and a life management perspective, maybe send help? I assume you’ll find me in the FLGS chewing the bookmarks on Ars Magica supplements. Somebody wanting to play Ars Magica with me might help, or failing that (not an easy ask, I understand), then a comically oversized anime hammer in the head as a last resort.

Adventures in Videochat Roleplaying: hardcore RPG theory

I’ve been involved with the online RPG Club Hannilus, constituting of myself and a couple of like-minded fellows, for a few months. We keep trying to play Tales of Entropy by video chat, but it’s been tough going in terms of getting the players to show up. My lowest moment as a hobbyist last year was when in December I managed to outright double-book myself: I was literally in the middle of playing Subsection M3 with the local crew when I got a call about when I’d be joining the online crew. I suppose it’s fortunate that I’m not alone in being a bad participant: the group took a hiatus for the entire January to accomodate another member’s schedules, and this Thursday a third member couldn’t make it in time due to car trouble.

I have a pet theory about our scheduling issues: part of the problem lies in the fact that we are all rather active gamers, and while we’re generally rather competent about the entire affair, scheduling included, this simply isn’t anybody’s first priority in the ol’ gaming calendar. That and time zone issues (the group’s split between Europeans and Americans) make it so that we’ve had trouble maintaining a healthy pace.

On the bright side, though, I enjoy the group chemistry: these are skilled and intellectually curious gamers. We’ve in fact had more success in talking rpgs than playing them, all told, as discussions don’t require such elaborate scheduling. We’ve had some good talks about rpg design, theory and actual play, so in that regard Club Hannilus is working fine. On Thursday, for instance, we ultimately ended up doing a few hours of coffee house free-form discussion instead of playing, and I felt that it was pretty productive. Everybody was there with our own unique positions and perspectives, of course, but what I got out of it was the idea that I should maybe write a rpg theory article on GNS Simulationism.

You see, Paul has been grilling me about the subject; how Simulationist play works, what we understand about its underlying psychology and so on. I’ve been thinking about and playing a lot of Simmy games over the last few years (just check above for my slice of life feature piece), and I find that I can answer Paul’s curiosity pretty well in most respects. Maybe it’s time to try to “solve” an old rpg theory issue with a cogent summary of what I think I know about it.

Gentlemen on the Agora

This is apparently the most popular segment of my newsletter; it’s the only one that’s gotten directed positive feedback so far. Let’s see what those wacky gentlemen have been up to at the clubhouse:

  • A contributor had facilitated a convention one-shot scenario with ready-made characters. Apparently nobody wanted to play the girly elf sorceress, which ended up with the game operator taking the role themself and giving their intended character to one of the other players. This anecdote inspired a punchy discussion about cross-gender play: nobody was seriously against it, but we did talk over various reasons for people to have problems with it. One of the funnier was a contributor who told us about their mental character picture having the face of the character’s player, which gets weird if the player and character are very different. Lots of interesting angles overall, like remarks about renaissance theater (with men playing women) and such.
  • Tales of Entropy continues to be interrogated, which does make sense, as the game’s been out as a finished project long enough for the designer and everybody else to have some fresh takes. I think that everybody involved with the project is just deliriously happy about the fact that an independent hobbyist has chosen to play the game and is interested enough to rake it over a pit of sharp d4s a bit. One of the interesting points in this weeks deliberations was the “imperfectness theory of rpg texts”: for usability reasons a rpg text necessarily targets a narrow audience cross-section, which implies that the majority of the audience does not get to enjoy a perfect learning experience with the game book.
  • I was provoked into sermonizing about Games Workshop games despite having the most tenuous understanding of them. For better or worse I praised the relative elegance of Bloodbowl, comparing it favorably with the general trend of GW games that seem to be trying hard to situate themselves in a dark, moist niche between wargames and boardgames, lacking the virtues of both. Space Hulk is, I admitted, also a little bit of an exception. I ended up reading the Space Hulk rulebook afterwards, in fact, to reassure myself that I’m remembering the game in something resembling a realistic fashion.
  • Discussion of the C2020 Redux led into my complaining about the stupid, stupid skill rules in the game. This in turn ended up with Agora doing one of the things it does best (or at least eagerly), which is reminiscing about the ’90s when many of the contributors were young and stupid. Some rather incredible accounts were delivered specifically on the theme of stupid homebrew rules systems. The most wondrous thing was that apparently our C2020 crew was not the only one to feature a Giger alien character: another group had a Giger alien (working as a DJ this time), but they also had an “improved” version of the rules system, with separate Skills for each independent sense a character could have. Their C2020 campaign (one session, I understand) therefore had a “Taste” Skill used to determined how sharply the character’s sense of taste was. Truly, I sadly cannot say that I wouldn’t believe this to be a commercial product if you told me as much.
  • Actually, let’s do one more: another contributor’s ’90s homebrew rules system apparently used to determine weapon statistics (a very important thing, weapon statistics) like speeds, damage values and such by calculating them directly from physical attributes of the weapon: length, weight, material, honing of the (possible) blade and overall geometric balance. The weapon users own height and weight were also, of course, accounted for. This is the outer fringe of game design, gentlemen.
  • For actually educational content, a contributor wanted to know about the organization of religion in Classical Greece, which the Agora was able to answer rather thoroughly, discussing the basics of how temples were organized and financed and such. The discussion soon ended up deviating into the definition of the nasty-sounding word “cult” and the nature of atheism in the classical world and so on: the gentlemen don’t include any confessing religious people, but to our eternal delight we do have a New Atheist among the contributors, so there’s always interest in discussing religion. Human nature being what it is, our resident official atheist is doing a good job slowly converting us all into god-fearing people by the sheer force of overdoing it.
  • My key contribution to the latest round of “religion is the work of the Devil” debates was introducing Agora to one of the delightful fruits of Evangelicalism, namely Presuppositional Apologetics. (I’m a big fan of human stupidity; if you are too, and enjoy philosophy, you may have just found your favourite school of apologetic argumentation found outside of a Chick Tract.) I think my idea was to introduce the gentlemen to the logical endpoint of the ontologically charged atheism discussion that was going on.
  • What else… Oh, I got to explain Spicy Dice to the Agora just today. 10 minutes well spent.

State of the Article Poll

As you might have noticed, I published the first of my specialty articles, the C2020 Redux overview, this week. Please let me know if the format or content give cause to complaint. If all goes well I’ll publish the second piece from the January polls, the Storyboarding one, next week. I hope that’ll give you some grounds for more informed voting next month.

The month goes out next week, which means that the results of the February polls will be fixed by then; as last month, the poll runs until the end of the month, and a new poll will take its place on Sunday. At this writing it seems that “more C2020 stuff” and “how to do point-buy right” are in a pretty clear lead, so those are probably what I’ll be writing on next month. Now’s a good time to suggest new topics for next month’s poll, by the way, if anything comes to mind.

[February 2020] What should I write about in more depth?

  • C2020 Redux: Character Creation Rules (18%, 16 Votes)
  • Pointbuy game design (17%, 15 Votes)
  • Subsection M3 (11%, 10 Votes)
  • Using Mentzer Immortals for Xianxia D&D (11%, 10 Votes)
  • Neoplatonic Hellraiser stuff (10%, 9 Votes)
  • My Star Control RPG Notes (10%, 9 Votes)
  • My Magic: the Gathering RPG Notes (9%, 8 Votes)
  • Creative Safety - handling Lines and Veils (8%, 7 Votes)
  • Blood Bowl RPG campaign and rules (2%, 2 Votes)
  • Critical review of Batman comics (1%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 29

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Looking at the current standings, I suppose I should give the Mentzer/Xianxia (I don’t actually know which aspect you’re voting for) theme another month on the polls; it’s at third place after all, despite this being its second tryout month. Seems a bit unfair to it to drop it after placing so well, but it isn’t really placing well enough to justify actually writing it up, and I have a sense that I can’t keep it on board forever either. I suppose that we’re witnessing the inherent tragedy of this whole poll concept: so many great topics, so little time!

5 thoughts on “New on Desk #8 — Slice of Life”

  1. I recommend against measuring your impact by the amount of immediate feedback you get. Most people can either read a piece of writing *or* comment on it. Sometimes it’s a snarky remark on somebody’s blog years later that proves to you people had actually been reading. 😀

  2. How does Ars Magica compare to other slice of life -style roleplaying games? Glorantha roleplaying (not any specific system, though) with its focus on clan life and cultic identity, Pendragon with its character traits and generational progress through historical events and Paranoia in its straight version as a dystopic vision of a controlled world comes to mind. Did you pick Ars Magica as a random example or do you see it having superior quality in terms of slice of life -style?

    1. Yeah, you’re naming some rather relevant games. Runequest was sort of like an early, muted slice of life game, albeit one rarely played that way. Pendragon definitely, it’s a very similar game to Ars Magica in general. Paranoia is an interesting pick in that it’s textually very scenario-based; I guess the game instructs you to start every scenario with a sort of slice-of-life segment as troubleshooters engage in their everyday jobs and get called in to troubleshoot.

      But anyway, AM wasn’t a random example here. Rather the other way around: the above rambling was inspired by my subjective artistic trajectory through the matter. While I’ve spent several dozen hours reading and thinking about e.g. Pendragon this last decade, I’ve spent hundreds of hours on Ars Magica. Despite not playing it through that time, it’s been on my mind a lot. This is not to say that it’s the be-all, end-all of slice of life gaming, just that it’s been my personal tin god on the topic.

      Thinking about it, though, AM does have some qualities that make it more slice of life than Pendragon, the strongest contender. The most significant is perhaps the troupe play thing, as encouraging a wide character stable that has the fully force of the group’s creative consideration backing it will probably end up with more impressive results than Pendragon’s doctrine, which should mostly end up with the GM running a cast of thousand NPCs while the character players focus on their knights. The wider and more diffuse ensemble cast of AM suits slice of life somewhat better, I feel.

      But I wasn’t thinking of such comparisons above; it just happens to be the case that I have Ars in the brain.

  3. I think it’s very interesting that you call Ars Magica a “Character Development Game” in this context: practically all of my go-to examples of games that do slice-of-life really well are from a small cluster of Japanese games that I usually call character-building games (much like the “game” of character creation in Classic Traveller).

    Games like Satasupe, Meikyuu Kingdom, Shinobigami, Kancolle RPG, and Beginning Idol (note: all but one of these are from the same designer too) have core gameplay that’s essentially built up of small scenes the point of which is to acquire or spend various Currencies that you use to optimize your character on-the-go, usually as a build-up to some climactic confrontation at the end of the session.

    But what makes them so amenable to slice-of-life is that the scene prompts themselves are usually very open-ended, and since they tend to be underpinned by a more “clockwork”-style structure rather than, say, a fiction-first approach to scene triggering, you have a lot of space to interpret and contextualize how/why the scenes happen and what they mean.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Kawashima Toichiro (the designer of most of those games) was influenced by games like Ars Magica or Pendragon (I’ve even privately been referring to Meikyuu Kingdom as “Japan’s Ars Magica” for a while now). But regardless of whether it’s a case of convergent evolution or not, I wonder if this character-development style of game is just a natural fit for slice-of-life, and/or if it might even be a sort of developmental “dead-end” in the sense that it’s actually much more difficult to do slice-of-life in other “types” of games.

    1. That’s interesting to hear about character development slice of life being big in Japan — I didn’t know that!

      I think that it’s so natural to implement slice of life in terms of character development in rpgs because of how the strategy allows the slice of life content to “piggy-back” on something that gamer culture inherently recognizes as meaningful. It’s not intended or planned in any way, it just so happens that the rpg conceit of character development matches well with the idea of focusing on lifestyle routines.

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