Oath | Designer Diary 3 - Frames and Folly
When I started to build Oath, I had a very limited sense of what I wanted the game to be like. I really can't overstate this point. Most of my other projects brim with specificity, even early in the design. Oath was different. I knew that I wanted a game to tell something like a multi-generational story and I wanted that story guided by the decisions of the players. I had a clear sense of how players might talk about that game when they weren't playing it, but no real sense of what it was like to play. This is an odd starting point. It sounds a little presumptive (even arrogant) to be thinking about how players are going to talk about a game long before the game even exists. But Oath is a funny game built around a funny intent. Though the history gets made within a game of Oath, I wanted those stories to get told, remembered, and sometimes forgotten in the space between games. It wasn't good enough to make remembrance into just another victory point currency.
So, when it came to actually getting a prototype up-and-running, I was in an unhelpful space. In fact, Not only did I not have a firm sense of any particular mechanism in the game, I didn't even really have a thematic framework. I didn't have a sense of who the players were or what kind of vantage point they would have on the action of the game.
Initially, I had build the game at roughly the scale of Glenn Rahman and Kenneth Rahman's Divine Right (1979). In that game players try to gather support among the ten or so kingdoms in a fantasy world. It tells a great story, filled with betrayal, comic reversals, and daring campaigns. More than perhaps any other epic fantasy game, I feel like Divine Right organically produces epic fantasy better than any other. It seemed like a fine starting place
Almost immediately there were problems. Divine Right is a long, fiddly game and much of its charm comes from both its length and the chrome of its rules. As I stripped out systems and started simplifying things, I realized that I was well on my way to making a completely generic game. At some points the game looked quite a bit like Britannia (1986) or History of the World (1991), two games that do admirable jobs capturing the big sweep of history, but that tended towards the abstract. Without a strong historical reference point, my abstract efforts were lacked gravity.
I didn't realize it at the time, but a lot of my problems likely stemmed from the book I happened to be reading by Peter Frankopan called The Silk Roads (2017). The Silk Roads is an excellent book of history, among the best. The conceit is simple enough: most western histories of the world are written from the perspective of Europe and its dominance over the past two centuries or so. Frankopan's book instead offers a history of the world from the perspective of central Asia. He makes a compelling argument for the importance of the land trade and, in general, the centrality of cosmopolitanism and exchange as drivers of history. It's beautifully written, and I feel like I learned something on every page.
Yet, it was a truly awful book for the purposes of Oath.
Without realizing it, Frankopan's book had tricked me into thinking that my game about history had to be a game about world history. Really, it's not his fault. Most my academic research concerned subjects that had to be viewed from a global perspective--or at least a multinational perspective. Frankopan just happened to be the person I had on hand at the moment.
For many months I tried building a game large enough to handle global settings, with dozens of actors and robust enough economic systems to handle changes in trade, innovation, and infrastructure. The best versions looked like poor imitations of the expansive Pax Renaissance. The worst ones looked like early 1990s simulation style games that came in ziploc bags.
After trying to push forward a “global” design for a few months, I abandoned the project. At this point, after perhaps six months of fiddling in my off hours, I was becoming convinced that the thing I wanted to exist was fundamentally untenable.
Then, on a whim, I re-read Barbra Tuchman's A Distant Mirror (1978). A Distant Mirror is a big, complex book of history about the chaos of the 14th century in Europe. But, though it's subject is demanding, Tuchman had the wisdom to focus here study on a single family—-really a single person--Enguerrand de Coucy. As far as history goes, it's a little old fashioned, but it's an excellent book nonetheless. Sometimes, when history books anchor their subjects to a single individual, it can feel like you are reading a slipshod biography. But Tuchman sidesteps this problem by making the interpersonal dramas of de Coucy play second fiddle to the broader tensions of the era. His actions are interesting for what they teach us about his particular time, not what they teach us about himself in particular.
A Distant Mirror led me down a very different path of reading. Instead of digging up big tomes of world history, I started reading more books with a tighter focus—especially those that really engaged with the problems of their own framing. One of my favorites was Jill Lepore's recent book These Truths (2018). I have more than a few problems with the book (I think it may have been a little rushed), but on the whole it is quite good and it has a few moments that are absolutely stunning. In particular, I think just about every student of American history should treat themselves to the first third of the book, which handles the origins of the United States while also accounting for the origins of how we talk about our origins. It's wonderful.
Lepore's book lead me to a big realization about Oath. The frame I needed for Oath wasn't a global one, it was a national one. The sorts of histories I wanted to tell were fundamentally stories about “a people.” I had been mistaken in thinking that you needed a global framework to tell a local story. While that might be a good way to approach writing actual history in the twenty-first century, it didn't align with how history has traditionally been told or passed on. I think it's fair to say that most human history was concerned chiefly with the origins and tales of its tellers, and that seemed to suit Oath as a project.
The Drama and Its Players
After finishing Lepore, my reading divided into three related inquiries. The first was a series of older sagas and proto-histories. The second were books about the process of looking backwards such as James Gleick's amazing Time Travel (2016) and Mark Salber Philip's On Historical Distance (2013). The third group of reading related to fantasy and sci-fi novels which handled the history of their own worlds in compelling ways.
Over the course of the work to this point, it had become increasingly clear that Oath would not be a historical game. For one, the project was designed to capitalize on the best elements of the creative team at Leder Games. I wanted to make a game that fit with the kinds of worlds Kyle liked to work in and build a design that could use our development resources well. In addition, folks that follow my work know I have a great dislike of scripted narratives both in terms of gameplay guardrails and pre-plotted storytelling. I was worried that doing a game about history in a historical setting would either confuse players with poorly-reasoned causality or else feel too driven towards a particular way of thinking about the future (jetpacks) and the past (spears). It was important to me that the game be thematically coherent and also that players not feel like I was holding their hands and pushing them to hit all of the high notes of history.
To this end, fantasy seemed well-appointed to our ends. Fantasy worlds can support deep histories without fear of anachronism. Though a lot of them, including Oath, are anchored in a kind of medieval sensibility, the genre gives us a wide berth to play with conventions and flesh out the character of the world. It also provides us with a ready-built visual language. In a future post, I'll get into the weeds about the world building, but all of that was still to come. For now it was just becoming clear that a fantasy setting made sense for this game.
Upon realizing this and talking to Kyle about some basic ideas about the world, I went off and started reading and revisiting a lot of fantasy and science fiction books. Probably the most important books I read were were N.K. Jemison's Broken Earth Trilogy, Kim Stanely Robinson's 2312 and New York 2142, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, and the History of Middle Earth, Christopher Tolkien's epic scholarly study on the development of his father's work.
The last book on that list was probably the most surprisingly useful in terms of my general approach to Oath. I decided to read the History of Middle Earth because I wanted to understand how Tolkien has created the sense of history in his books. When I was young I read the Lord of the Rings for the adventure narrative. But, on re-reading the books as an adult, I found myself taken with the songs, the poetry, the history, and the general sadness and depth of his world.
I had assumed that every little element was quite carefully planned, and that the Lord of the Rings was the work of a lifetime. This was just not true. The History of Middle Earth reveals Tolkien as a storyteller first, feverishly revising and making things up on the fly and then trying to shoehorn a spur of the moment invention into some broader cosmology with mixed success. I don't say that to be ungenerous towards Tolkien. In fact, I found it exhilarating.
The biggest takeaway from reading Christopher Tolkien's study was that the tension of the moment matters. In fact, that's true of all of the fiction I read at this time. They were all wonderful, tense stories that were buoyed by their world building. It was a nice reminder that no matter how clever I made the “legacy/campaign” or how charming or interesting the world-building was, if the tension of a single match wasn't interesting, the game would be dead on arrival. I couldn't afford to hide the cool parts of the design—and I didn't want to waste anyone's time.
In their own way, the writers I was reading knew this too. The Broken Earth has incredibly sophisticated and intriguing world with some lovely secrets, but the novel doesn't rely on those things for its forward momentum. That's likewise true of the later science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson. Both the characters and the reader have to contend with the weight of generations of bad choices from our own present to the present of his novels, but, for the characters in his books, history is still something in-progress. The order of the world might be upended at any time.
The framing for Oath is not that different. Essentially, game would take place during some period of crisis (or a period of stability with the possibility for crisis). The central tension of each game draws from a simple question: will the old order continue? And, if the existing order is to collapse, what will be the consequences? The players themselves are anonymous networkers—the glue that holds together their little collective as they try to navigate a world that may change dramatically or not. In short, after all that reading, I found myself thinking about Oath as a game with Pax-style sensibilities. After spending five years wrestling with Pax games, I was more than ready to approach that subject from a different vantage point.
Unfortunately, though I admired the Pax games, I couldn't easily import any of their mechanical innovations. In the back of my head, a set of systems was beginning to take shape that would enable the game to grow and change with it's players. But this meant that the Oath had to be able to respond to these systems. I didn't want to just build a game and then bolt legacy-style gameplay on that system. I wanted to build a dynamic system from the ground up. This created a lot of problems, the chief of which was the game's map. More on that next time.
- Cole Wehrle