Despite the fact that my game Jokers & Journeys has been part of the BLP catalogue since last November, I don’t consider myself a game designer just yet. The reason why has something to do with this principle from Things We Think About Games: “Having played chess does not qualify you to answer ‘yes’ when you are asked ‘do you play chess?'”
Jokers & Journeys is highly freeform; no two games of J&J are alike, even with the same group. This is intended. It is the backbone upon which J&J and all other roleplaying games are built—the game relies upon the collective imagination of your group. But some nagging internal editor says that it’s not mechanically robust enough, that it doesn’t stand on its own.
It’s a ridiculous double standard, when I consider it closely enough. If anyone else published J&J and then asked me if it was a game, I’d say yes, and that it was exactly the kind of game I wanted to see more of (this is why I wrote it, of course). J&J started as a way to introduce kids at summer camp to roleplaying games with minimal materials, to get them working together to build something that belonged to them from scratch. It’s developed a regional community outside that summer camp that has persisted even when I’ve been working elsewhere. The first print run has sold pretty well at Modern Myths and at BloodLetterPress events, and has more than made back the cost of printing, which astounds me. It’s been successful by any metric I care to apply to it—and yet this nagging voice insists that it’s not enough of a game if it can’t be played the same way by different groups.
All the same, watching my game designer friends at work is kind of a mystical experience for me. It’s like a smart third grader watching a high schooler do math: I know just enough for the results of their work to make sense and feel internally consistent, but their process, the way they essentialize a concept to its bare bones and then incorporate those essentials into a context bespoke to the work that they’re creating, is just beyond my ability to comprehend. Anna Anthropy wrote that games are a way for us to explore systems. The thing that drives this nagging voice, the nagging voice itself tells me, is that I’m not a great systems thinker. If I’ve got free rein to tell a story, to build a world with dubious attachment to the laws of reality and embellish as I see fit, that’s where I feel like my mastery applies: this is why I write novels. I can build an internally consistent system if I can look at it as a continuity, as a story that builds upon itself. But that feels like a very different skill set from the one needed to create an efficient set of mechanics.
Anyway, because I love to solve problems by throwing myself at them, I’m developing a new card game. I started it late last week while recovering from con crud, and I’m hoping to get it playtestable by the end of the week. It’s about a system that I understand to some degree, but that no one understands perfectly. Stay tuned for more.