Kicking off Questo development we were excited about creating a role-playing game experience that had a different feel than other projects we had worked on. We were thinking about the reasons that folks don’t play RPGs, or don’t play them as often as they’d like and we came up with three:
We wanted to make a game where these obstacles were laughable. It needed to be simple and social, and flexible enough that players could come and go as they please.
We began our process by making a “minimum viable product” (MVP). This is a Silicon Valley term that came into my lexicon from the Stop, Hack and Roll Podcast. The idea is that you make the simplest possible version of the game first so you can start testing and iterating as soon as possible.
We gave ourselves one afternoon to make the MVP, which meant we would need to make a lot of quick decisions. The first major design question was what is the role of the audience, both as individuals and as teams. We opted to cast each team as a single character on an adventure with the characters from the other tables. During the Quizzo-style breaks, the team members will huddle up to discuss/debate/derail their choice as the character they’re all playing together. Once back in the adventure the characters will be working together to overcome different encounters.
The game also needed a competitive angle to create tension between the tables and put some pressure on the decision making. The problem we were running into was how could we create dramatic risk for the characters without undermining the gameplay? If each character represented an entire table of people, we couldn’t risk having the characters get eliminated or separated without a plan for what we would do with that team for the rest of the game. We landed on a paradigm where the characters would succeed and advance between the encounters at the same time, but the question is how much does it cost them to do it, and who has the better story at the end?
The last major question for the MVP was what would our role be as performers and gamerunners? How would we frame our interaction with the audience? Here, instead of taking a swing at the best answer, we’re going into the pilot with a couple different modes in mind that we’ll test in different encounters. Sometimes we’ll operate as neutral gamerunners, other times we’ll play characters. I’m most excited to test out the version where we play gamerunner-as-character, rooting on the characters and pitting the teams against each other. We’ll see which mode seems the most fun during the pilot.
Another thing we’re testing in the pilot is how we can use the note cards that teams will turn in to capture their decisions. We realized we could have some fun by making them into kits of gear, to flesh out the characters and inspire the players’ creativity. At the beginning of the game, each table will receive a cache of items that their character has with them on the adventure ahead. The teams won’t know exactly what gear they’re selecting, they’ll simply have to choose one of the available monikers like “The One Who Rushes In” or “The One With the Keen Eyes” but for a little preview, I’d like to show you what one of the caches looks like. The team that picks the [redacted] moniker will get to take these fine items with them out into the wild world:
If you’re in Philly and you’re interested in coming to the Questo pilot, shoot me a line and I’ll get you the details.
images from https://game-icons.net/
Questo is my current project in development with Jeffrey Evans. Jeff is a long-time collaborator who I worked with on Skills & Scars in last years Philadelphia Fringe Festival as well as the Science After Hours events at the Franklin Institute. Questo is our latest exploration bringing gaming into our performance work, and our goal is to create a game that an entire audience can play together in a casual setting like a pub or cafe. Eventually we’d like this to be a recurring event with a serialized narrative. We’re running a pilot episode at the end of this month as our first playtest to see how an audience responds to it.
The concept for Questo originally came during one of our green hat brainstorming sessions for Skills & Scars. When thinking about all the different ways we could implement or tinker with a role-playing game for a live audience we wondered what it looks like to have a large audience all playing the game with us. It was a natural response to the work that we were making at the time. Skills & Scars was small and intimate; it was a piece about feeling comfortable and welcome and taken care of in a friendly atmosphere. Questo came out of the question of “what if we did the opposite?” What if instead of being small, safe, and comfortable it was big, public, and raucous. Would that be a good time? We wondered about a hybrid between Quizzo and a tabletop game.
I had a few different experiences of large audience role-playing at PAX Unplugged last year which I’ll dive into in a future post, but one of the immediate takeaways from seeing other people’s attempts was that a lot of work should go into delivering the game to the audience and providing clear structures for their involvement.
When game designers talk about role-playing games at their most basic level, they often describe them as a conversation. In Blades in the Dark, John Harper uses this breakdown:
The GM* presents the fictional situation in which the player characters find themselves. The players determine the actions of their characters in response to the situation. The GM and the players together judge how the game systems are engaged. The outcomes of the mechanics then change the situation, leading into a new phase of the conversation—new situations, new actions, new judgments, new rolls—creating an ongoing fiction and building “the story” of the game, organically, from a series of discrete moments.
*GM stands for Game Master, the player who is running the game for the other player characters
Zooming in on those first two sentences, there are two key channels of communication that need to be established: describing the fictional scenario and determining the character’s actions. At a table with a handful of players, this is simple to manage conversationally, but with a whole room of players it begins to get unwieldy. At the structural level, this made me think of Quizzo as a possible framework.
In Quizzo, the two channels are very distinct. The hosts use a microphone to give the audience the rules and prompts for the game and the teams turn in index cards to capture their input. Could we use this format to run a roleplaying game? Structurally it makes sense, but there’s also a question of rhythm. Tabletop gaming thrives on impulse. During a game, we expect the gamerunner to put us under pressure to make quick decisions. This creates immersion and stakes. Your character doesn’t have time to find the perfect choice so just leap into the action! This is also for dramatic pacing and tension. A skilled player is going to make their decision quickly so that everyone else stays engaged and the game can keep moving. Contrast this with Quizzo where the breaks between questions do have a certain time limit, but that limit is intentionally long enough to allow people to order another drink, chat with their friends, second guess their responses one too many times, etc. If we bring that rhythm to tabletop, how does that change the experience? If people don’t need to be on their toes thinking and responding, are there other things that can arrive?
These are some of the questions and curiosities that we had at the launch of our Questo development. Next time I’ll talk a bit about our process and implementation and preview some of the things we’re building for the pilot episode.