Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Five or So Questions with Ben Robbins on Follow

Today I have an interview with Ben Robbins on the game Follow, which is currently on Kickstarter. You may have heard about Follow on Google+ or other blog posts, but I hope you'll find something interesting in his responses below. Enjoy!


Tell me a little about Follow. What excites you about it?

Follow is a deceptively simple game: you pick a quest, make a group of characters to tackle it, then play and see what happens. The quests provided cover a variety of stories, from slaying a dragon, to colonizing a planet, to getting a candidate elected -- anything where people are working together to accomplish a goal.

I sit down and play with random groups all the time -- many strangers and many people who have no experience with this kind of game -- so I'm keenly aware of the challenges of teaching games and getting people on the same fictional page. I made Follow to be a game you could whip out when you wanted to just sit down and get straight to the good stuff. I wanted it to reduce the barrier between wanting to play and actually doing it.

People have joked that getting our characters to work together in the quest reflects what's happening at the table -- trying to get the players to work together to play a game -- and they're exactly right.

Can you tell me about the mechanical and structural setup for a standard game of Follow?

Quest templates provide the framework for your game. You pick one and that walks you through setting up your situation, establishing what makes your quest difficult, and creating the fellowship of characters that will try to tackle it.

Play centers around challenges. Each is a chapter of the quest and establishes the next step the fellowship needs to take to move closer to their goal. We play scenes to see how the fellowship deals with the challenge (and each other) and at the end of each challenge we draw stones to see whether we succeeded or failed, plus any fallout to the fellowship. We might lose characters or even be betrayed by someone in the fellowship.

What about Kingdom and Microscope prepared you for designing Follow, and what do you think is really different about the game?

I play my own games over and over again, both before and after I release them, so I really get to know all their strengths and weaknesses. I try not to harbor any illusions about them.

Because I play pickup games a lot, I'm very focused on the game as a set of instructions that someone at the table is trying to process and execute in real-time. Anything that slows that process down or requires a lot of page flipping or causes confusion can really kill the fun. Microscope is conceptually a very unusual game, but put a lot of work into making the process of play easy and intuitive. Simple actually takes a lot more work than complex.

Thematically, Follow shares some similarities to Kingdom. I love Kingdom, and it makes incredibly good stories at the table, but I'd be the first to admit that there are a lot of rules to absorb for a one-shot. There's a pay-off but there's definitely a learning curve. With Follow I tried a very different approach to capture the "united but divided" feeling of Kingdom but make it much simpler and easier to play.

How did you go about designing the game for replayability? It's a huge challenge. What keeps players from getting bored or feeling like they're just running over the same ground?

Replayability is a huge priority for me. I really can't overstate that. Every time you learn a new game, you spend minutes or hours just processing rules. Playtime is precious and rare, so if you don't play that game a bunch you're getting a minimal return on that time investment.

To maximize replayability, I start with a structural concept instead of something specific to a setting or genre. Microscope makes histories. It doesn't matter if it's science fiction or a zombie apocalypse or the Wild West. Kingdom is about communities. Any kind of community works, because the game focuses on how people interact and influence their community, rather than a particular type of organization. Same with Follow: "Working together to accomplish a goal" applies to a vast range of situations.

The trick (I think) is to really drill down to the heart of the structure or pattern you're modeling. If you get that right, it works. Like the power/perspective/touchstone breakdown in Kingdom: once you see that distinction you start to notice it in organizations all around you. I want my model to feel like something that's true, rather than an artifact of the game.

Do you have any mechanics or tools in place to help guide content and keep players comfortable as part of Follow?

When I started running Story Games Seattle back in 2010 and really started gaming with strangers all the time, I included an abbreviated version of Lines & Veils from Ron Edwards' game Sorcerer as part of the welcome spiel at the start of every meetup. We've done that ever since, though we recently switched from calling it "the Veil" to "the X" (as in, "let's X that out"), partially to eliminate some confusion about how we differed from the original Veil concept but also to make the phrase more similar to the X-card, which had gained a lot of popularity -- they're not exactly identical, but if you've used one you'll go "ah, got it!" when you encounter the other.

An important part of the X is that it is *not* part of the rules of the game. It trumps the rules of any game you're playing. That's a very important distinction, because we've seen cases where players mistakenly thought they couldn't X something out because of a particular game they were in. So I think the proper place for these kind of overarching "social contract" rules is sidebars that explain that, and also encourage using them in *any* game you play.

Honestly I think we've only scratched the surface of this kind of communication & consent in role-playing games. We're way behind where we should be after decades of role-playing. And as a designer I'm a little concerned that if I codify something it will be antiquated or even seem counterproductive to me by the time the game is a year old. It's not such a big deal to have out-dated mechanics for stabbing dragons in your game, but giving out-dated advice about how to handle player discomfort is potentially much more serious. At least that's how I see it. It's a discussion and exploration that's happening right now. The technology is evolving as we speak.


Thanks so much to Ben for participating in the interview! I hope you all check out Follow on Kickstarter, and that you enjoyed reading Ben's responses.

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