The Peoria School of Design(?)

Due to the baleful influence of various folks, I started reading Keith Johnstone’s book Impro, which is about improvisational theater. Fun read so far, and it’s making me think about the structured freeform discussions going on around the Net, especially in the context of Jeepform games. I know that “structured freeform” seems like a contradiction in terms, but I think that it sounds like a nifty idea.

So, I’m noodling around, thinking about this, and I happen to stumble onto an old blog post by Vincent Baker about character ownership. Along the way, he gives this as an example:

“Let’s design a system instead that gives the players total authority over everything that directly affects their characters” – and you might design the written freeformers’ “your right to say that your character punches mine ends at the tip of my character’s nose.”

And I think, “Huh. That’s exactly what I did with Dirty Secrets.” And then I realize that, in a lot of ways, Dirty Secrets is indeed a structured freeform game, or at least it partakes of this stream of design. I think that I might have already known this, but I had forgotten.

But now that I’ve established that I’m one of the “cool kids” (he said dryly), I just want to wonder out loud about the emerging Peoria school of game design. I’ve noted in the past that there appear to be developing schools of design in the indie world. This is still a hypothesis in need of verification, but I think that there’s a measure of validity to it. There’s a certain vibe about a Western Massachusetts design (e.g. Shock:, Dogs in the Vineyard, Steal Away Jordan) that’s different from a Chicago design (e.g. Spione, Hero’s Banner, possibly My Life with Master) that’s different from a Los Angeles design (e.g. Sons of Liberty, A Penny For My Thoughts) that’s different from an NYC design (Burning Wheel, Burning Wheel, Burning Wheel). (As an aside, I’m not sure that there’s really a Los Angeles school of design yet, but we’ll see. Rumblings are that there will be a West Coast indie booth at GenCon next year called the “Sunset Consortium”, which is both an interesting idea and a cool name.)

So, is there a Peoria school of design? I think that one is beginning to emerge. This question bubbled to the surface at gaming a couple weeks ago. Crystal suggested that there weren’t really any similarities between the games that Ralph and I design. But Ralph disagreed, and I saw his point. There’s a certain precision of boundaries about our games. Even when the core of the game is fuzzy (like narration in Dirty Secrets), the fuzziness is still precisely-defined fuzziness. There’s never a question about who has final say over a given chunk of narration in Dirty Secrets, just like there’s never a question about how to resolve Challenges or rules issues in Universalis. The procedures provides clear boundaries to the players’ authority, even if they do not always constrain their narration. Keith’s new game shares this feature as well.

Again, maybe I’m reading too much into all this. Only time will tell. But I’m looking forward to seeing if I’m right or not.

Indeed, do any of my loyal readers have an opinion on any of this?


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