Metatopia 2015 Roundup

By | November 14, 2015

Hi all!

Last week, we had the fortune of attending Metatopia 2015, the game design festival run by Double Exposure, Inc.  At this year’s festival, I ran five two-hour long playtests during which I explained the system and our intent for it, played for at least an hour, and gathered feedback.  This was intense!  I think I died from exhaustion on the way back to Raleigh, but fortunately Sarah was there to pick up the driving until my resurrection.

As it was last year, this year Metatopia bore us some delicious, delicious fruit.  But unlike last year, this year’s fruit was not bitter and is not going to cause us to redevelop the game in any significant way.  We are on track for a 2016 publication!  I’d like to thank all the fantastic playtesters who joined us this year for their feedback.  We’ve been going over that feedback with a fine-toothed comb and determining what we need to edit / clarify / change for the past week.  And today, I’m going to share some of that feedback (and what it’s inspired) with you, dear reader!

It’s Good

The vast majority of feedback we got was that Forthright Open Roleplay is easy, simple, works well, is flexible without being overwhelming, and feels very intuitive.  Because play could spin up so fast due to the intuitive nature of both the play sheets and the rules, several people told me that I was simply explaining too much, making the system feel heavier than it actually is.  The roll mechanic was very well liked, as was the speed of play and the engagement in combat thanks to the Exploit mechanics.  We had two playtesters mention it felt a bit like Savage Worlds to play because it was so fast.

Playtesters also liked how teamwork is actively encouraged through the use of Bolsters.  We also premiered something new in our last playtest of the weekend, Combo Strikes, which allowed players to juggle their turns in order to attack simultaneously.  Wow did they love that.  So we’re going to keep that mechanic and refine it.

And finally, players were thrilled that they could do things in Forthright without having to worry about game balance or the rules “getting in their way.”  Creative players could sit down and have, for example, robot vehicles that merged together into a bigger robot vehicle without the ruleset batting an eye – not because we’ve built something that explicitly identifies how that would work, but because the rules are high-level enough that there’s no need to make such things work differently.

So this is great stuff.  Feedback like this accounted for over 80% of what we got at Metatopia.  This feedback leaves us feeling very much like we finally have something different to offer gaming.  But. . .

It Could Be Better

It’s still not perfect.  (It never will be.)  We got some very significant feedback that will shape what we do to tweak the system.

Problem:  The number one thing playtesters took issue with is the “blank paper problem”:  the problem of freezing because you don’t know what to do when handed a blank piece of paper and are told, create!  For a lot of people, a blank sheet of paper is not an invitation but a curse – and in several ways, Forthright suffers from this problem.  Specifically, this appears in the Gamescape section of the Game Charter, in the Purpose and Relationships on the Team Sheet, and on the Blank Slate section of the Protagonist Sheet.  Some players expressed concern that the demands on their own creativity were too high.

Solution:  Part of this was due to my own rushed presentation and the lack of a full Session Zero; these contributed significantly to not properly prompting players and sorting out the aesthetics prior to play beginning.  But part of this is due to a lack of prompts for players to help them identify how to fully engage with their protagonist and the gamescape; something that we’ll be writing into the text so groups can have a better experience with this.  We’re not going to go so far as Apocalypse World (which uses a method I lovingly call “Badger the shit out of players until you get something you can work with”) or putting these prompts on the play sheets.

Problem:  We had a couple of playtesters say that it didn’t feel crunchy enough for them – that the rules didn’t feel like they had much depth or mechanical heft.  (One of these players said he still liked it more than Fate, so we actually kind of consider that an endorsement :-)).  We had some other playtesters tell us they felt like the system was too heavy, or that there was so much going on that they could see people easily getting confused.  The game designers that played our game said they could specifically see traditional gamers (those who play primarily D&D and the like) wanting more crunch while story gamers (those who play new-wave indie games Powered By The Apocalypse) would feel like there was too much crunch.

Solution:  None!  We’ve been developing Forthright since the beginning to stand in the space between traditional and story games, bringing bits of both to the table to craft an engaging blend of experiences.  The fact that the designers’ thoughts on the matter were expressed over the course of our five playtests proves that they were right – but the positive feedback we got for that level of crunch far outweighed the negative feedback, and reflected our intentions for the system.  So this. . .isn’t actually a problem!  Yay!

Problem:  Basketball Initiative is bad.  Ken Hite neatly summed it up:  for a game that is so heavily wrapped-up in team mechanics, the solution to a tricky enemy should not be to send the rest of the team out of the room so that the enemy gets fewer attacks.  As Ken does, he cut to the heart of the problem and clearly identified why what felt intuitively bad to many (including you, dear reader Keith Slawson) with an example of how that would deform play in a way we did not intend.

Solution:  Basketball Initiative will come into play only with signature antagonists – your Skeletors, Mumm-Ras, Cobra Commanders and the like.  This will be how we provide “legendary actions.”  Normal antagonists will just pass initiative back and forth with the Team, and if there are more people in the Team than there are antagonists (or vice versa), that means more turns for the side with more people.  Combo Strikes will also factor into this, in that the Team (when it has more people than the antagonists do) will be able to get free Combo Strikes.

Problem:  Was the game fun just because I was the one running it?

Solution:  That’s a pretty good and insightful concern.  Some games are great only if their designers are running them, because only the designer understands what the hell’s going on.  I’m hopeful that the Guidance chapters in the final product and the playtesting of those chapters by other Guides will help identify how to run the game like I do, so that the experience of having me and my flexibility at the table can be replicated by others.  That’s a concern we’ll have to watch out for.


But Not Like That

We also got some feedback that, while solid, actually expressly stands against our design goals.  Which is great, because it allows us to define ourselves also by what we don’t do and what we don’t intend to do.  While a game should never just be about what it doesn’t do, I think a combination of what it does and does not do really helps a game stand out in its own unique space.  So here are some things that some folks thought were problems that we didn’t:

Question:  Forthright plays in a lot of ways very similarly to Fate or Apocalypse World.  Why not just hack one of those systems?

Answer:  Because we want to do something new.  Both Fate and Apocalypse World do several things we don’t like – encapsulating actions into “Moves,” for example.  We want to build something that takes what we do like, merges it with more of what we like, and doesn’t have stuff we don’t like.  There is a tendency among a lot of folks to think that those two systems can do anything and everything.  People thought that about d20, too.

Problem:  The level of transparency in the game is concerning, because there is a worry that it will prevent Guides from being able to properly run mysteries or keep secrets from players.

Answer:  Forthright‘s level of transparency flies in the face of everything DMs/GMs have been taught for 40 years.  They’ve been told they need to keep secrets, that they need to fudge the dice, that they need to railroad players in order to experience the story.  We’ve talked about how we feel about that before, and how we design for that.  Ultimately, this is only a problem for stale old advice, not for our game – for us, the whole point of play is to get on with it, and that means giving the players the clues they need without forcing them to splutter about aimlessly, wasting everyone’s time.

Problem:  The system does not tie into roleplay / encourage roleplay / force players to roleplay enough.

Answer:  That’s exactly correct.  We have deliberately left our design open, so that the players are provided soft roleplaying cues rather than hard mechanics to force them to behave in certain ways.  We do this deliberately, because everyone has a different tolerance and threshold for roleplay.  We did not want to force anyone at the table to judge anyone else’s roleplay, and we did not want to cause less outgoing roleplayers stress by providing benefits to others that they’re not getting.  In this way, we intend to make the game more accessible and avoid the potential pitfalls of One True Wayism (IE, that there’s only one way to play a game).

So that’s our sum-up of our experiences and feedback at Metatopia 2015.  Thanks for reading!  This has been about twice as long as one of our normal posts.  We’re interested in your thoughts through the comments section below!