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The central conceit

Jeff Warrender
United States
Averill Park
New York
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"You Said This Would Be Fun", a book about game design, available at Amazon and DriveThruRPG
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There is a certain logic to the way that Weekly World News headlines are written that reveal something about humor. The WWN is outlandish entertainment, but merely being outlandish wouldn't be that entertaining. "Aliens land in Kentucky!" "Train derails, crashing into sewer treatment plant!" Those aren't really funny. WWN headlines are more stuff like, "Man cuts off own head with chainsaw -- and lives!" "Warning: drinking toilet water does NOT cure AIDS!" "Alien bible found -- they worship Oprah!" These kinds of headlines are funny not merely for their absurdity, but because of the absurd presupposition that they imply: that, for whatever reason, the reader would expect that drinking toilet water would cure a disease.


In an episode of the YSTWBF call-in show that just dropped, designer Jeff F. told us about a game of his in which one player is a ghost trying to free fellow ghosts from a mansion and the other players are ghost hunters trying to capture the ghost(s) (for scientific research we can assume). It sounds like a fun hidden movement game with some twists (e.g. ghosts can walk through walls). We made a few suggestions, and the one I liked best was the simplest. The game's premise is exactly as described, with one twist: the hunters are afraid of ghosts. Now, work out the implications of that and what about the game would have to change in light of it.


We've talked at length here about how a game benefits from having a central idea (Ch 8), and at least once about how a game needs a central abstraction. What we haven't yet discussed is the benefit that comes from having a central conceit.

I mentioned the other day a game idea about making a mix tape, and if we left it there, we'd have a game where you travel around collecting song cards and making mix tapes, pretty obvious stuff. But then we added the little conceit that our tape recorders have a broken rewind button. Yes, this is a bit contrived, but what it buys us is a gameplay problem: that the order in which you "visit" the different albums matters.

Of course, to play any themed game is to indulge in a conceit; "You are bird enthusiasts", "you are heirs to the throne", etc. Or "this cube represents wood", or more accurately, it represents the supply chain associated with acquiring a raw material and converting it into a usable commodity, along with the supporting infrastructure, related products like saws and nails, and training and expertise, such that it can be converted into a finished product. Players are expected to indulge these conceits, and they rarely object to doing so except when a game's mechanical contrivance significantly strains plausibility.

But what we have in view in this post go beyond the mere conceit of participating in a game-representation of a story, and more specifically with little filigrees that we can add to the story, little twists, little details. These sorts of conceits exist purely in the game's story, but provide two kinds of benefits.

First, it lets us veer off of the beaten path or away from the obvious road in ways that may generate audience interest. "We are being chased by zombies", yes, yes, nothing could be more obvious. "We are being chased by the zombies of our parents, spouses, and children?" Now that's not so obvious!

And this benefit is important given just how many games exist. It's easy to see every game as "yet another pirate game", "yet another civ game", "yet another zombie game", and while some themes are evergreen, my own experience suggests that not many people are really looking for "the ultimate [whatever] game that will 'fire' all others", so "it's a civ game, but better than the others!" is no sales pitch. Twists and subversions of expectations have much more potential to attract player interest.

Second, it may lead us to think about the problems imposed by this conceit in the game's world, and will encourage us to devise interesting ways of depicting these mechanically. A ghost-hunter who is afraid of ghosts, what does that entail? How do the game mechanics reflect this? A "terror track" or something like that would be obvious but it might also just mean simple rules like hunters must corner a ghost with numbers; a lone hunter is a prime target for the ghost, and there's a "go out to the truck to change your pants" mechanic if a ghost catches you alone, etc.

I remember vaguely a story about some movie whose director gave each of the cast members some little detail about their character that wasn't part of the script or even the plot but that was background information. So, for example, the director told one of the actors, "your character believes alien abductions are real." It fleshes out the character a bit in the actor's mind and gives them something that informs their performance, even though the character never openly blurts out this secret information. Incorporating additional little twists can inform the creative process in interesting ways.


What are some examples of these conceits in published games? One that comes to mind is Castles of Mad King Ludwig, where we're building a castle for a ruler who is...err...capricious, shall we say. Or Spirit Island, a tower defense game where we are forces of nature defending the island from colonial interlopers. Or Q.E., a bidding game where we are monetary agencies and can print money, so there are no maximum bids. Or Chrono Corsairs, we are pirates but we're stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque time loop. Or really anything in the secret traitor genre -- Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game, The Resistance, Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game, Shadows over Camelot you name it -- we are all working on this objective together, except one or more of us is (or may be) working against the team.


Another benefit these twists can provide is as a post hoc rationalization for rules. I mentioned a few weeks back a new party game I've been working on in which each round, a list of 5 items is revealed and we each say one item we'd remove and what we'd replace it with. In the game's newly-acquired theme, we are part of a scientific team beaming these top 5 lists into space to tell aliens about Earth. But we are disgruntled members of the team and want to change the list, but if we change the whole thing it would get caught prior to transmission, so little changes are all we can make: hence, remove one and replace it. This is of course a bit contrived but it seems to work in explaining the game's rules, and it helps a bit in playing the game too.

Of our three concepts so far -- a central idea, a central abstraction, a central conceit -- I would say that an abstraction is the most important, practically a sine qua non, and a central conceit probably the least, i.e. it's the most optional and least common. But insofar as we're always looking out for opportunities for innovation, quirky conceits might provide opportunities that we should be open to.


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