Game Chef 2014 Design Notes

“A game of alienation and romance.”

The tagline I should’ve included in my Game Chef submission this year.

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Last week was Game Chef 2014. My semester had just finished the week before, and I hadn’t been watching so I missed the announcements. The initial design period is Saturday to Sunday, 9-ish days, and it was already Monday when a friend asked me about it. I’d already missed an entire weekend, Monday night is booked, and I knew I was going to be busy all of Saturday. I looked at the theme (“there is no book”) and the ingredients (absorb, wild, glitter, sickle), and basically threw my hands up. I had no idea what to do with this. I figured I was going to be taking a pass this year. 

Then Caitlin looked at the ingredients, and had an idea, I think mostly triggered by “absorb”. At first I rejected it, but it grew on me—and grew and morphed and evolved over the next couple days, until it took hold and I had to write something. The core of it was “aliens come to Earth and need to absorb the roles/auras/presence/charisma of famous actors in order to stay here”. 

Due at least in part to my shortage of time, my entry this year was a lot less polished than in some years. I believe it’s a complete game, but some of the little touches in design and presentation are missing. In particular, I didn’t have time to put any design notes in, so here they are. If you just want to read what I submitted,  here’s the link: Alien Love Isn’t an Act

Design Notes

The idea for players to play opposite their own gender was inspired by It Was a Mutual Decision. In that game, it’s designed to make you think about your assumptions of gender roles. In this game, I’m hoping that it will help promote the feeling of playing someone who is unlike yourself. Not that I think the differences between men, women, and the intersexed are as vast as those between humans and actual aliens, but rather that I think that it’s the only sort of “otherness” that most of us are reasonably familiar with, and usually not just as caricature. I hope it’s a useful shorthand for trying to think like someone who is not yourself. Also, like It Was A Mutual Decision, Alien Love Isn’t an Act is in large part about relationships. 

The reason I wrote the game I did was that I wanted a game about aliens coming to Earth that wasn’t about violence and conflict, and wasn’t comedic (or, at least, not entirely comedic). And I thought that focusing on romantic relationships was a good way to steer it there. So the backstory is in service to that:

  • Aliens want to come to Earth to evade the interstellar mob, SICKLE. 
  • Coming to Earth can evade SICKLE because Earth is an “underdeveloped world”, so none of the interstellar societies want to get them involved. It’s sort of a self-interested twist on the Prime Directive. 
  • Aliens can only stay on Earth by becoming citizens.
  • When aliens first started showing up, there was a vigorous debate—well, ok, more like a slanted exchange of political posturing. The end result compromise was extending the allowance for spouses to become citizens to include aliens, because anti-immigration forces figured basically nobody would develop feelings for an alien.
  • Aliens aren’t rubber-forehead aliens; these are creepy, ugly, weird, inhuman beings. 
  • However, aliens can “absorb” a human, and what they gain is that human’s “aura”. They’re still creepy looking, maybe even moreso, but people will react to them like they did to the human that was absorbed. It’s a little bit like They Live, and pretty much the opposite of most bodysnatchers type plots, where the possessed generally have a bit of an off-putting aura, even if you can’t objectively find any facts to support that suspicion. 
  • That aura isn’t going to be very useful if it’s just Josephine the Grocer or Tony the Secretary. But moviestars—well, everyone knows who they are, many people treat them well, and they tend to have an outsized influence on those around them.

Ingredients

In the end, “glitter” and “absorb” are central parts of my game, and my use of “sickle” just barely counts. 

Glitter is the almost-supernatural quality of charisma—or aura or glam—that movie stars (and presumably rock stars, but for purposes of the game we’re focusing on actors) have, that makes people react to them differently than they do to “normal” people, even powerful or significant people. It can even allow borderline-supernatural effects, and this part is ramped up when an alien absorbs a human. 

The fundamental tenet of this game is that glitter creates attraction but destroys relationships. The more Glitter there is, the more amped up all interactions are. We want to be around people with a lot of Glitter. However, everything gets cranked up to 11 when someone has a lot of Glitter. So all those little clashes that we have in our everyday lives? Those get amped up, too. It’s why a celebrity gets pulled over for speeding, and it turns into a fisticuff and a week in jail. It’s why celebrity marriages so rarely last: every little disagreement is a big deal, building resentment and hard feelings that just don’t dissipate. 

Absorb is what aliens do to human auras. And the humans attached to them, for that matter. This gave me the excuse to have some fun making creepy/ugly/unsettling headshots for the example character sheets. 

Scene Setting for Novices

The idea for two GM-like roles comes mostly from Wraith: the Oblivion, though I know some more-recent games have done something similar. At first, the game was going to be solely about the relationships, with people playing the in-world roles of matchmaker or agent. They were pulled out to a metagame level to give a bit more structure for those playing the game. And unlike Wraith, the two GM roles take turns, rather than being head-to-head.

That, as well as the “story arc” and “character arcs” came from my observations playing rotating-GM scene-setting games. IME, many people find it easy to explore scenes, but when there isn’t an obvious “next scene”, setting the scene can bring the game grinding to a halt, especially for people not experienced with scene-setting games. And IME setting a scene for someone else is slightly easier than setting one for yourself, but that could just be an artifact of the people I’ve gamed with. So after the introduction scenes, which aren’t meant to be conflict scenes, more just little vignettes, the game proceeds with setting scenes for others.

The Character Arc and Story Arc also came out of looking for tools to help with scene setting. The idea is to give you some prompts for that “next scene”. But I didn’t want to lock things down—this is meant to be a crutch, not a straightjacket. And thus the separate arcs. I then differentiated them by having one be about the overall structure of the collective story, and focusing on the characters’ careers for purposes of thematic parallelism, while the other is about individual character development. So even if you find the two available beats in the two arcs constraining, at least you’ve got two of them to choose from when it’s your turn. 

Miscellaneous

The dice are the part of the game I’m least confident about. It should work, and I think it creates the mechanical results I want. Namely, that Glitter tends to snowball. The higher it gets, the easier it is for it to go up more, which forces the other stats down, which screws up your relationship-related rolls. But I’m not sure about the magnitudes—it should be a problem, not an inevitability. I’m trying to remember what games I’ve seen where 1 success wasn’t actually a success, but I’m sure that was stolen from somewhere. 

Likewise, I’m sure there are other sources, but nothing I’m consciously aware of. I feel like the way that the story/character arcs operate is very similar to something, but it’s just on the edge of my consciousness and I can’t put a name to it. The only games I can think of that explicitly have a story arc as part of the rules are Primetime Adventures and With Great Power…, and this doesn’t work anything like either of those. 

For 3 to 8 Players

One important thing that I know was left out of what I submitted: I envision this game working for from 3 to 8, or maybe even as many as 10, players, with the sweet spot being around 5-7. I envision short scenes, only ~10 min or so, that focus on a specific situation/problem, play it out, and then move on to the next. 

Oh, and the title? It’s supposed to reference how the characters have come to Earth to act as a means to an end, but they need to forge real relationships, not just put on an act. It was the last thing I came up with, it’s a bit awkward, and I’m not sure whether it came from a fit of inspiration or a fit of sleep deprivation. 

alien bruce willis

Alien Bruce Willis

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