Sep 112010

So, the theme and ingredients for Game Chef went live last evening, and as is my sickness, my mind got to thinking.

I’ll admit that at very first blush I wasn’t that inspired (I joked that my initial reaction was “but Dark Sun just came out!”), partly because I’m a gear-head and a year without any kind of explicit mechanical ingredient can end up leaving me a bit cold. Luckily (or, perhaps, unluckily for my schedule) the “meh” didn’t last very long.

The theme is journey (some folks are taking this as Journey, the band, at least in jest; there’s something to that). The ingredients are: desert, edge, city, skin. “Skin”, really, is where I think this thing gets interesting. If you stick with desert/edge/city as your choice of three, honestly it runs the risk of feeling pretty mundane (at least on the surface — or skin — of it, heh). So I started on that angle, then reached for desert next, and conflated the two.

Here’s the thematic gist that that ended up producing for me, distilled from last night’s tweetery:

You are pilgrims to the city of Nape, the place of shadows and the last source of water to be found in the wake of the Dry God’s fall. This desert you journey through is the Dry God’s skin, this land his husk.

The desert will test you, as it tests us all. If you reach Nape and can survive what the shadows hold for you, salvation. Death otherwise.

Over on Facebook, Ryan Macklin tossed in: “Some hold that to reach Nape is to reach death, and yet we strive. For how can we not? The desert tests, but it also calls.” There’s something to that, certainly, and might inform character creation (in that it’s important to determine why you must reach Nape).

A quick grab-bag of thoughts follow:

The title for me lives somewhere around “Dry Run” or “Run Dry”.

I see water as hit points, and the slow inevitable creep of thirst. I like the idea that the journey forces you to expend precious resources, and that by the journey’s end — the climax of the closed-scenario that this game would be — you’ll be pushed by those taxed resources into acts of desperation. I’m seeing a few thresholds here, where as your water level drops, you’ll hit the “thirst” stage and then the “desperate” stage and then “madness”, each with its own consequences and compulsions.

In a way, I want the climate of a submarine drama here, in that making the pilgrimage requires you to travel with others, but the inexorable crushing pressure of thirst over time drives the group eventually towards theft, infighting, backstabbery, betrayal, and paranoia. I’m not yet decided if I want to introduce a Shadows Over Camelot/BSG boardgame style element of “one of the pilgrims may be stealing the water”, or if I want the game simply to drive the characters toward making some hard, ugly choices as endgame draws closer. I do like the idea of someone being revealed as a traitor (potentially), and gaining a benefit (like, “get back half of the water you’ve lost up to this point”) when it happens.

I should think at least a little about stuff like The Mountain Witch and Carry, where there’s a limited cast of characters on a journey together, but I’m not sure I’ll go that route, so this is more a note for inspiration than derivation.

I’m finding myself drawn towards card-based resolution. I do like my dice, but I want some kind of mechanical constraint here, and I’ve had half of a notion of a card-based resolution system banging around in my head for a while. Lots of stuff can be done here, with blind draws, voting, reveals, all of that, and I like the idea of people being able to expend water in order to increase their hand size when going into a conflict.

There’s also the potential to use the cards, In A Wicked Age oracle style, as a way to randomly generate the trials of the desert (that adds the challenge of coming up with 52 distinct trials, of course, and more if I also do some random tables around what happens at Nape, but hey, the point is to rise to a challenge, not go easy).

With the physical environment as desert, and that informing the whole myth of the Dry God (which will only emerge in snippets; I don’t want to say too much about that part of things, somewhat for fruitful void purposes), I want to make sure that the “skin” ingredient is exploited as much as possible. I’m thinking about looking at a little lightweight research into skin conditions and locations and creatures (like dust being mostly dead skin and the foodstuff of dust mites) as sources of inspiration for the trials of the desert. It needs to feel like the desert pilgrimage is in fact a journey across the skin of a god’s corpse.

I’m running a risk of perhaps going too lightly on the “city” ingredient, but given that the theme is a journey, I’m finding it difficult to do much more than say that the city is the destination. I’ll have to think a bit more about what Nape must contain (and what it might contain) for the pilgrims once the game moves into that phase.

Will I finish this thing, or just theorize about it? Hard to say so far. But this is where my head is at.

Incidentally, I strongly encourage anyone with even a little bit of a bug for game design to consider participating during this weekend and following week. Design “competitions” like this one are very good practice, even when — or perhaps especially when — you end up tossing the results at the end. It’s a great learning opportunity.