Monday, October 26, 2009

Whatever Happened to the Power 19?


I think a good subtitle for this blog entry might be “4 Years = Forever.” Just last week, the Power 19 celebrated its fourth birthday. In human years that’s very little time. In RPG years, that was a metaphorical century ago. Each year the innovation and improvement in RPG design- especially Indie RPG design- is so great, that it almost represents a whole new generation. Each GenCon gives birth to an entirely new and improved breed of game. So it’s not surprising, really, that in the last four years the Power 19 has gone from “new-punk, anti-gaming-establishment design tool” to “old stodgy design crutch that is far too restrictive for modern design forums.”

So how did that happen? Well it may surprise you that, originally, the Power 19 was never meant to be used as a design tool per se. In fact, it was nothing more than a question bank intended to be used by Forge veterans to help newbie designers get started or get past a particular design hurdle.

I want to take you back to where it started: Troy’s Standard Rant #3. I modeled this after Mike Holmes’ Standard Rants which I encourage you to search for and read on the Forge at your earliest convenience. This is where I introduced the Power 19. I spent a ton of time slogging through hundreds of posts by Vincent Baker, Ralph Maza, Mike Holmes, and many others on the Forge. I looked for patterns- questions that came up over and over in design discussions. I collated them, studied them, and then condensed them. The list eventually grew as large as 21. But two of them I felt were rather redundant, and so meshed them with a couple others and bang! The Power 19 popped out. I posted them in my Standard Rant #3 and asked for feedback. I think the discussion in that thread was very good and helpful, and by the end of it I felt I had a pretty solid question bank for Forge veterans to use.

I think the key sentence in that thread is, “Be careful when using these in the Indie-Design forum, however. I don’t recommend asking all 19 questions at once to someone who just posted a brief sketch of their game. I’m pretty sure that would overwhelm them. Instead, walk them through 2-3 questions at a time- especially if they are a new designer. When those questions are resolved to satisfaction, move on to the next few.” That captures the initial intent of the Power 19.

For a brief time, the Power 19 was used as intended. It wasn’t specifically talked about much beyond the RPG Theory forum on the Forge. I never intended it to be; never guessed it would be. However, when I posted it on my blog (following the shut down of the Theory and GNS forums on the Forge) things began to change. I posted Part 1 on January 19, 2006. I wanted to explore the Power 19 some more and talk about the refinements and qualifications that had come up since I first compiled them. Since I knew it would be a lengthy post, Part 2 didn’t come until a week later.

I phrased Part 1 the way I did because I wanted my blog to be about helping new designers. I figured if someone was checking out my blog, A) they had to search pretty hard to find it, and B) if they did search that hard, they must have a game design waiting in the wings that they need help on. Those were probably not safe assumptions. Rather than try to accomplish that through the comments option on my blog post, I wanted the Power 19 to serve as a surrogate “Troy.” So, I encouraged people to take the Power 19 and run their game through it to see if there was any issues they had not addressed. Sort of like a conversation, even though I wasn’t present.

I don’t think people really started doing that until Ron recommended it to Christopher Peterson. This was at the height of the Ronny Award contests (which was probably my happiest time in the RPG design scene). Ron said of Socratic Design, “Just post responses to any of the topics he's posted already, and you'll see your own game design suddenly boom.” This was a couple weeks before I posted the Power 19 there. Everyone was big into the mutualism the Ronnies inspired, and so doubtless many nascent designers read that post and started using Socratic Design as a resource. Even though it preceded the Power 19 on SD, I think it raised awareness about the work I was doing here. When the P19 was posted, it had been-by extension- already legitimized by Ron as acceptable material to use in forum posts.

I think it was with Part 2 when things started to change. By then, three people had used the Power 19 explicitly to talk about their game on the Forge. I could see that the use of the Power 19 was changing before my eyes, so I wrote an entirely different post than I first planned. You can see from the third or fourth sentence that I didn’t care for the way the questions were just listed and then answered. “They don’t ask for specific feedback!” I wrote. I could tell, even then that it would be a problem if people started post the Power 19 and nothing else. In response, Clinton R. Nixon, Ben Lehman, and Tony LB posted three of the finest Power 19’s ever done IMHO. I still enjoy reading Clinton’s to this day.

At this point, though, I don’t really remember how popularized the Power 19 was. For the rest of January is was still relatively obscure IMO. That changed in February. Ross Winn highlighted the Power 19 in one of his articles entitled Close to the Edit #30: In Search of Heisenburg. There really wasn’t much follow up in the forum over it, but seeing the Power 19 on RPGnet was- I have to admit- gratifying for me and eye opening for many others. From there, the use of them began to really increase.

You could check the First Thoughts forum of the Forge and generally see two or three posts that included them. On Story Games or RPGnet, there would occasionally be a post that either referenced the Power 19 or used them explicitly to talk about a game (Andy eventually asked people to stop posting them on Story Games, I believe). Several people posted them on their blogs. Sadly, some of those blog posts have been lost. I honestly think that those are actually some of the most valuable examples of how the P19 could be used outside the conversation starter context. However, during this time the use of the Power 19 on forums stayed the same. People would often just post the questions and their answers without asking for specific feedback or prefacing their post with any kind of context for the reader. It was becoming cumbersome to read.

I think the first people to really speak out against posted on Story Games. It was in this thread that Shreyas expressed his concerns. Andy Kitkowsky and Jon Walton (for other reasons) jumped in as well. Some in the thread wanted to create another set of questions to answer in forum posts. I was against this at the time since the Power 19 had already showed what a bad idea that was. If ever there was going to be a set of questions or something along those lines to challenge the Power 19, I think it would have happened here. As a result of this thread, I think, the P19 was solidified as some kind of pre-eminent authority on how questionnaire templates for RPG design should look. You can almost see here how any vestiges of the Power 19’s role of being conversation starters in design forums was lost during this thread and instead replaced by the default mindset of “the Power 19 is something to be answered en masse in a public forum.” It was mainly my fault for not reminding people of my original intent with the P19. I was too focused on discouraging another overbearing set of questions being created and the foisted on newbie designers. Back then, I didn’t realize how important that thread would become in defining the role of the Power 19- especially for veterans of the Forge.

If there was a chance to get the Power 19 back to where they should have been, it was right there. But the allure of a template that helped you design a game was too much, I think. Even the person who started the thread to express concerns wrote directly to me in that thread and said, “Please, please put the P19 somewhere permanent, not a blog, but like a proper-style website or a print publication or something, and talk about how you arrived at it and what sort of design thinking it comes from and what it builds. This is stuff that needs to be...what's the word? Needs to be put into that kind of form, set in a story about its strengths and contests, preserved.” I maybe should have done that, but I think it would have made the Power 19 even more ensconced as the de facto method for discussing design.

Several more months passed and the Power 19 had been around about a year and a half. It was helping many designers refine their games, challenge their assumptions, and post their designs on the Forge and other places. Podcasting was becoming a larger and larger part of the Indie RPG scene. Paul Tevis had been doing it for quite some time and had a rather large following. His show opened the gates for many other podcasters to come through. One of those new podcasts (new at the time, that is) was Canon Puncture. They interviewed me in March or April about the Power 19. Looking back on that now, it seems like it was forever ago. I can tell I was really caught up in the excitement of it all, but I can also tell that the Power 19 was having a significant effect on game design. Many designers from all over were using it to help them orient themselves in relation to their design. For that purpose, I think the Power 19 is really good. I look back at this interview very fondly. I was proud of what the Power 19 was accomplishing outside the online forums.

By now the Forge Diaspora was fully matured and the old guard started returning to their cradle so to speak. In May 2007 Andy Kitkowski started a thread under Site Discussion at the Forge entitled, “Practical Things we can individually do to Revitalizing the Forge?” In that thread, Ralph Maza (Valamir) posted, “I suggest that all veteran Forge designers (current regulars or diasporized) post a Power 19 for their current and future designs to First Thoughts. These can then serve as a template, a supply of good examples to help make the Power 19s posted by new designers more useful.”

Actually, this was a really good idea. If long time veterans could find a way to make the Power 19 viable for forum discussion, that would go a long way making them more useful. Also, it would provide a series of models for new designers to look at and get ideas. I was fully behind this. Here are some examples of what people posted at that time:

Christian/Xenopulse’s P19
Ralph’s P19
Northerain’s P19
My P19

I followed this up with a blog post called, “Why should I post my Power 19?” I gave three reasons. I only agree with two of them now that I look back. I have to take issue with what I wrote here, “Phooey! Feedback, even misguided or lackadaisical can be useful to a designer as it help you reinforce and defend your ideas. At worst, the feedback will help you sharpen your edge.” While technically true I suppose, the problem is if such feedback becomes the norm, then the overall quality of the forum begins to decline. Forums like the First Thoughts forum for the Forge are about exploring new designs and helping nascent game designers overcome their hurdles. It’s not about glory-hogging for veteran designers nor about clogging it up with a particular design exercise. The Power 19 posts that came from this era were useful and instructive, in my mind, but they perpetuated the idea that the Power 19 was really the “right way” to talk about a game in First Thoughts.

For the next year use of the Power 19 grew both in online forums and in offline use for designers. It became very prevalent at the Forge. It was during this time, though, that my involvement with RPGs mostly came to a close. There were several reasons. First, my long time playgroup- one that lasted since 1996 finally dispersed. We got old, got careers, and started getting families. The distances between us finally became so great that they could not be overcome for the sake of roleplaying. It is really hard to talk about RPGs if one is not playing RPGs. Second, the games I was designing became more and more like the one that got me into adventure gaming in the first place- Magic: the Gathering. I decided to pick it up again after leaving it in ’99. To my surprise, I discovered I was actually decent at it and have won several tournaments since ’07. The Gamist in me was getting satisfied even though RPGs were no longer a large part of my entertainment. Third, I finished up my Master’s degree but began my National Board Certification for teaching. Thus my education ate even deeper into my free time. Three years running of writing for educational purposes was sapping my will to write for entertainment purposes.

The result was I was no longer able to shepherd designers using the Power 19. I had no problem conversing with people on the First Thoughts forum who posted P19’s, but it is apparent that was not the case for everyone. By 2008, some of the old concerns were resurfacing. Anders Larsen posted a topic in Site Discussion called, “Ideas for how to get better feedback in First Thoughts.” His main complaint was, “Where Power 19 is a good design tool, it is not a very good starting point for a discussion if you are looking for feedback/suggestions on your system. The problem is that Power 19 put a lot of focus on asking about mechanics, but not so much focus on the basic concepts of the game.”

The thread was short, and had Ralph posted a link to a really good thread for getting feedback. There was even some agreement with Anders when Ron said, “I especially agree with you that the Power 19 is a good tool for orienting oneself about a game in design (if that's needed), but is not as useful as a presentation tool.” However, nothing really came of that thread. The use of the Power 19 continued on First Thoughts. One can see from threads at the time from the Forge, Story Games, and RPGnet (I’m not going to bother to link them) that the Power 19 was a very helpful tool for game designers. But its use as a conversation tool was still stuck in the 2006 mode. No serious attempt had been made either to get people to stop using the Power 19 in design forums or develop a methodology for responding to the Power 19. This is partly my fault for not being around anymore, but each person involved with the “indie rpg scene” has the right to walk away at any time. I definitely feel regret that I wasn’t there for many new designers during this period, but I am pretty happy with the life choices I have made since walking away.

Finally, in mid July 2009, Luke Crane lashed out and the use of the Power 19. Though it is apparent he made no attempt to look back at the history of the Power 19 and its use, and despite the fact that his post is rife with misconceptions about the P19, he was right to bring up the topic. At times you could see a page on First Thoughts full of threads where two thirds or more of them had [Power 19] in the title. Most of them had maybe 2-5 responses. Designers just weren’t getting feedback. It was probably a combination of boredom with reading the Power 19 over and over for four years, my long absence, and a general shift in who was participating at the Forge that led up to that post. The Power 19- which had originally been designed to challenge the ideas of traditional game design concepts- had become a traditional game design concept itself. Just as Hit Points or GMs had become sacred cows of RPG design in the 90’s, the Power 19 had become a sacred cow of RPG design on the Forge. Sacred cows are meant to be sacrificed.

Just to speak a little bit about my involvement in that thread: I was not disagreeing with Luke that the Power 19 was horrible for conversation on the First Thoughts forum. I agreed whole heartily with that. I did, however, take issue with what he and Paul were suggesting- the Power 19 is completely worthless. There are four years of threads and personal accounts that state otherwise. Designers of all stripes used it, and to denigrate their designs is the antithesis of what I’ve experienced to be the Forge ethos. I was honestly appalled at some of what I read in that thread. A more reasoned approach was taken by Adam Dray a few days later.

Luke’s thread, though, prompted Ron to post new rules (the old ones had lasted for the first 3 years) for the First Thoughts forum. Specificaly, they addressed the Power 19: “In short, don't post 19 questions and answers. It's too much to read all at once. It puts people off. It's a long, one-way conversation that is too late to interrupt. Tell us what your game is about and who the characters are and what the characters do. That's a good start.”

I really like what Ron wrote in that entire section. I think it’s a good rule for the First Thoughts forum on the Forge, and it is my hope that now the Power 19 can have a chance to get back to what it was intended to be: probing questions to be used as conversation starters for new designers.

Where the Power 19 goes from here is hard to say. No doubt it will still be widely used offline as a good orienting tool and design strategy. I’m positive it will be passed on for years to come, and I’m glad that it has helped so many designers overcome the hurdles of RPG design. I’m proud to have contributed a verse.

I hope that this wasn’t too tedious or boring. I know it’s long. I hope to have something more substantive as far as design goes in the near future. However, I think this article is important in one way. It’s rare to get a look at the history of independent RPGs. Occasionally Ron will post something about it on the Forge, but very rarely. If you’re new to indie design, I hope that this article gives you a peek at a very small facet of that movement over the last four years. I believe it’s good to know where you’ve come from in order to have a good idea of where you’re going. Until next time!