99.998% of Thorny Games are named Gen Con Industry Insiders

We are so honored to be chosen as Industry Insiders at Gen Con 2016. We'll be presenting on cryptolinguistic game design, how more games should be in Hungarian, and a set-theoretic approach to play.

We'll ALSO be presenting on a slew of panels with some amazing folks: 

  • Language and Games
  • Empathy in Game Design
  • Gaming and Community
  • How to Make RPG Welcoming to New Players
  • Beyond Combat: Adding Story to Your Game
  • Finding Your Spark
  • Improv for Gamers

When not paneling, we'll be running a slew of games at Games on Demand.



Play Report: Juggernaut

Juggernaut was the offering for our Indie RPG meetup this month - and oh boy did we find that our group had a LARP shaped hole in their hearts that needed filling by a three foot by six foot by eight foot, clicking and whirring mechanical abomination full of punch-cards. It filled up faster than any other game we offered to date!

A description by Bully Pulpit:

It is July third, 1950. The Korean War is eight days old. National Security Council Report 68 is sitting on Harry Truman’s desk, a grim outline of the Cold War that is to enfold the world for the next 40 years. Alan Turing’s paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” is circulating for review. Cinderella is a box office sensation. 
And you have invented a computer that can see the future.

Play kept a solid clip and everyone was engaged in the creepy vibe - we had a great time. I especially liked it for new players (half the players were new to LARP). There's a lot to explore internally for the characters, but there's also so much external weirdness going on that players have a lot to focus on in their environment if they don't want to dive too deep into introspection.

Our Juggernaut: Built from our color-coded bookcase, speakers, and a theremin.

Rainbow-theremin Juggernaut is never wrong. 

Rainbow-theremin Juggernaut is never wrong. 

Some observations coming out:

  • I love giving the players tools to ratchet up intensity and pace - it feels like you're given a set of tools to craft what works for your group, on that day, in the time you have, under those emotional conditions.
  • We ran Juggernaut as an mp3 file on a phone attached to my computer speakers surrounding our bookcase. Those four speakers together could really blare when we ran a summary output job. I was really glad we did this - keeping the noise loud enough that it immediately interrupts and stifles conversation does so much to build tension.
  • What I focus on during the safety brief has such a big effect on my relationship with the players. I'm so used to being the person making sure everything's running smoothly mechanically, that sometimes I err too much on the mechanics of safety. This time, I focused more on love and trust. It really felt like the players felt they needed to be less guarded in their play after seeing the facilitator open up like that. A great feeling to engender as we introduce new players and try to grow out the community in the Bay Area.

Here are some of Joe's thoughts coming out of the game too (our Dr. Takahashi): https://twitter.com/JoeSondow/status/724406747327131648

While looking through other play reports online, I noticed something funny. Ours wasn't the only game that had a cat wonder into the play area (pics included in Joe's tweets) - it also happened at the Larp House: http://larphouse.tumblr.com/post/92007181095/if-this-machine-does-half-of-what-we-think-it

Dr Takahashi seems to have been the cat lover in both cases.

RPG Settings for The Last Unicorn?

I've recently been overcome with an urge to play a scenario set in The Last Unicorn universe. ::cue the music:: Is this a thing that already exists in the world? A bit of furious googling didn't net out anything, but I'd love to be surprised. 

Hacking Fall of Magic for The Last Unicorn

At first blush, Fall of Magic seems like just the fit. 

A 2am back-of-the-envelope mod:

  • The Unicorn is the Magus. All players collectively embody the Unicorn and accompany her on the journey to Umbra to find the others.
  • Umbra is the location of King Haggard's Castle/the Red Bull/Final resting place of unicorn-kind
  • Starting location of Ravenhall should focus encounters in the surrounding woods or gardens. The woods around Ravenhall are the unicorn's home. 
  • Presence of magic. Only the magically inclined can see unicorns, so everyone accompanying her has some relationship to magic, however tenuous. 
  • The Unicorn should be transformed to human form through some magical means around the midpoint of the game. At the very least before the Sightless Sea or The Deepway.

And then the rest plays as is! I imagine lots of deviation from the actual plot of The Last Unicorn, but the beautiful scene prompts of Fall of Magic still leave plenty of room to be faithful, too. 

Play Report: Dogs in the Vineyard

For last month's Indie RPG meetup, I ran Vincent Baker's Dogs in the Vineyard for the irrepressible +Derek Wollenstein  and +Mady Mellor . I always secretly thought more dogs should deal with their distrust of organizational hierarchy through baking and, oh yes, we went there.

roleplaying God’s Watchdogs
in a West that never quite was. 

A few thoughts. The methodical process of building a town does so much behind the scenes. You will define the seeds of pride that gave rise to the colossal shitstorm the players find themselves in, but whether or not the players ever come across it is left undefined. They have a problem to solve, the reason is there if they smoke it out, or run headfirst into it - but it lives on its own. It makes the town feel alive and breathing independent of the players.

Second, the conflicts require the players to confront and deal with the emotional stakes you lay out head on. When you raise with a character getting spit on, the player doesn't get to brush it off and move on to the next move - their character needs to deal with it. It makes the emotional beats so much more reliable.

Third, initiations are just plain cool.

Parallel to us was +tom denton running Lacuna. Hope I get to play in one of Tom's games soon too.

On a final note, how freaking cool are these illustrations? They're by Dylan Meconis for the Italian translation (http://www.dylanmeconis.com/portfolio/portfolio-series-dogs-in-the-vineyard/).

Metatopia 2015 Recap

Metatopia 2015 was a stew of wonderful, exhausting, humbling. One of the most creatively alive weekends I've felt all year. 

New friends. This was by-far the highlight of the convention. It's exhilarating to find insta-kinship with such thoughtful and passionate people. I walked around all weekend with an inner conviction that I was right where I should be. 

Games. This place was alive with creative energy and no where did I feel that more than in playing game prototypes. Stras Acimovic's Atlas Reckoning was my Neon Genesis Evangelion dreams in a tabletop. I especially loved the mechanics around synching minds and revealing inner secrets to pilot a mech. Another delight was Kristin Firth's Everyone's A Suspect, which showed me how entertaining it is to act suspicious! I really enjoyed our bizarre social-media-meets-classical-music setting. We'd love to run both of these games at our monthly RPG meet-up.

Panels. Metatopia panels were like glimpses of the RPG dojo of my dreams. J Li and Jason Morningstar's deep larp breakdown was a highlight, accompanied by a very useful handout that I've consulted multiple times since the con. Seriously, I coudn't get enough of the panels - there were many more discussions I wanted to attend than time allowed. I also participated with some great folks on a Your Game as a Product panel, the main result being yet another fun way to meet people! 

Playtesting Dialect. +Hakan Seyalioglu and I ran 4 alpha playtests of Dialect over the weekend. We'd been working on the game in earnest for 2 months, so we knew we’d be going into the convention with an alpha stage design. We were very happy at the reception. The caliber of our playtesters was off-the-charts and we received lots of insightful feedback to mull on. Hearing people use the language hours after a game had finished to recall table play was magical. More work to do until this is in a publishable form, but it is very satisfying work. 

Some Metatopia playtesting thoughts:

  • A-ha moment. Watching other people enjoy your game is tremendous.
  • A single mechanic can stifle a game. Our first playthrough on Friday was rough, but the remaining playtests shined after shedding a heavy, pervasive rule. The best tests saw people delighting in word play, bursting with new language. What a range!
  • Simple social validation and story-building is a powerful incentive. Mechanics around incentivizing language use, at least how we had implemented them, were confusing and made the experience feel transactional. Less was more - though we'll need to watch how groups not seeded with professional level storytellers interact with the game.
  • Emergent behavior is fascinating and provides a litmus test for the strength of a ruleset. A character died during one playtest (Tima was a real bless!), the first time it had happened in play. The consequences of the death felt clear and natural from the rules as defined, even though it hadn't been encountered before. However, we didn't have immediate solutions for other emergent behaviors. A few people wanted to define their own words instead of picking from a centralized dialect deck. Some tables were very collaborative, others were rigidly turn-based. We're still sorting out what behavior we're going to advocate for, but it's fascinating to see.
  • Artifacts of play can serve many purposes. In Dialect, we build a diagram of concentric circles that tracks the progress of the community and language over time. Visually, it's a linguistic map. Mechanically, it helps pace the game and controls the speed at which language is added. Practically, it helped garner attention. People were curious about our table; many people took photos at the end of the game. 
  • Small differences in phrasing can lead to strikingly different outcomes. Are we doing an event, a scene, a dialogue or a conversation snippet? Something as simple as a choice of word can deeply affect how players react to the concept.

Looking forward to making Metatopia a yearly tradition!