Category Archives: Showdown Development and Playtest

It’s Epimas!

My new game Showdown is for sale during Epimas, so if you’re interested, you can check that out.

But what is Epimas?

It’s a celebration of giving! You purchase one or more bundles of RPG PDFs ($10/bundle, with a discounted rate for buying multiple bundles). You get the contents of that bundle immediately *plus* the person of your choice receives the same bundle on Epimas (December 24). Essentially, you buy someone a gift and get to keep the gift at the same time. That’s the magic of Epimas!

Be sure to check out the Epimas sale, and get yourself a copy of Showdown for you and a friend!

My Life with Games (part 29)–Showdown

I’ve lived with Showdown for over six years now, so I forget that many of you reading this may not actually know what in the world the Showdown project was about. For that matter, it’s been a fairly tumultuous stretch in my life, and there are a number of you who didn’t even know me when I started to work on Showdown. So, for all of you, let me tell you about my new game Showdown.

Here’s the basic pitch from the book:

Showdown is a roleplaying game about two people locked in a bitter struggle that can only end with the death of one of them. It’s for two players and should take between 60 and 90 minutes to play. Over the course of play, you and your opponent will be fighting over two things: the outcome of a climactic duel between these two foes and the history that led them to that duel. Win the duel, and you get to choose who lives and who dies. Control the history, and you get to shape why they fought in the first place. How did it come to this? Who’s the hero? Who’s the villain? And who’s left standing when the dust settles?

Raise your weapons and prepare to face the truth.

When I designed Showdown, one of my goals was to create a roleplaying game that would fit into a boardgame-sized social footprint. Most roleplaying games are events, requiring multiple sessions of 2-4 hours. Even back then, my life didn’t really afford the opportunity for much of that sort of thing, and the demands on my time and energy have only increased. But most people can find 60-90 minutes of time to play a game.

I also wanted a game that made creativity easy. Instead of presenting the players with a wide-open canvas, I used the rules to hold the players by the hand by asking specific questions of each player. “How do you attack your opponent?” “Who exactly was there with the two of you?” “How did she succeed against you?” By asking small questions, the game makes it easier to create a compelling story. “Say anything!” is hard, but “say this” is a lot easier.

I also wanted a game that gave some thought to the user interface of the game. As I’ll discuss in a moment, players are already tracking two parallel stories in their heads. I wanted the game to remember as much as possible for the players, freeing them to focus on their developing narrative. Thus the special Showdown cards, helping to track information for players.

So, what’s gameplay like?

Each game is composed of two entwining narratives. The first narrative is that of the unfolding duel to the death between the two characters. In this narrative, each player is describing the ways that their character is attempting to win this final confrontation by killing the other character. Success in this narrative represents your character getting the upper hand over the other character, and ultimate victory in this narrative gives you the right to decide who survives the duel and who is killed.

Because, for certain, one of your characters will die.

So, why wouldn’t you always choose for your opponent’s character to die?

Because of the second narrative, which is composed of a series of flashbacks, stepping through the history of these two characters. The first flashback of the game shows the first time these two characters met, and the succeeding flashbacks unfold their history of these characters’ interactions, which we know must lead ultimately to this climactic battle. Success in this narrative represents your opponent’s character being revealed for who he truly is.

See, as you make your character for this game, you create four Qualities that complete the sentence “I think I am [a]….” For example, “I think I am a generous person” or “I think I am next in line for the throne.” When you succeed in a flashback, you take your opponent’s character sheet, cross out a Quality, and replace it with something that finishes the sentence “…but really I am [a]….” The replacement has to subvert or diminish the original Quality in some way. So, for example, “I think I am a generous person, but really I am a manipulator who uses money to get ahead.”

Qualities are privileged by the rules; any narration has to be consistent with them. So, you start the game thinking you knew who your character is, but in reality, you have no idea.

Another way of putting it: you have two kinds of hit points in this game, and one of them is your self-image.

By the time the game comes to an end, you may discover that your character is so vile that you’d be happier seeing him dead than alive.

So, on each turn, the two of you set up what you’re trying to do in the duel and then what you’re trying to do in the next flashback. Then you both choose the dice you will roll to attempt to come out ahead. Higher numbers are better for dueling, while lower numbers are better for the flashback. So, if you really want to get ahead in the duel, choose your d12, which is the highest die. If you want to get ahead in the current flashback, choose your d4, which is the lowest die. You then roll two dice of the kind you selected, one for the duel and one for the flashback. This means that a lucky (or unlucky) die roll can still let you win both the duel and flashback…or lose both.

Lose the duel, and you lose the die you played. Lose the flashback, and you lose one of your Qualities.

Play until someone is out of dice.

That’s essentially the game.

I’ve noted in the past that my life has tended to reflect whatever game I’m working on. There’s a weird “life imitating art” vibe that turns up for me. That has certainly been true for me with Showdown. This stretch of my life has possibly been the most painful in my life, in part because my ego was laid bare for me to see, and I didn’t like it very much. God has exposed so much in my life and in my heart which was bad for me and those around me. And I guess it’s been good, but I know that it has hurt. A lot.

It’s hard to discover that maybe you haven’t been the hero of the story, the way you thought you were.

When Showdown was in playtest, my friend Ralph Mazza commented that he really wanted to see a variant where Qualities had a third statement, something like “…but now I’m becoming [a]…” with a redeemed version of the negative Quality. Something like “I think I am a generous person, but really I am a manipulator who uses money to get ahead, but now I’m becoming a wise investor in other people’s dreams.” He wanted to see a way for Qualities to come through the fire of revelation and be redeemed. It wasn’t the right choice for the game, but I’ve thought about that suggestion a lot over the last year as we’ve been finishing up Showdown. Because it certainly feels like what God has been doing in my life.

It’s good that life doesn’t always imitate art.

So, yeah, that got kinda deep. I should also say that Showdown is a ton of fun. Ordinarily, by this point in a project, I should be tired of playing the game or even thinking about it. But I haven’t. I’m proud of all my games, but I think that Showdown is the most fun of all my games. At least so far!

Showdown is available at DriveThruRPG. I’d love it if you would check it out, maybe pick up a copy, and then spread the word.

Looking for feedback on Dirty Secrets (plus a Showdown update)

So, in the wake of all the Veronica Mars attention, I find myself idly poking at the idea of doing a second edition of Dirty Secrets.

For those of you who don’t know, Dirty Secrets is my roleplaying game of detective noir, set in your home town, last week. One person plays the investigator, who is drawn into the seamy underbelly of her town in the service of truth and justice and righteousness…or at least some of those. The truth can be a dirty thing, especially the truth about yourself.

In fact, I was introduced to both Veronica Mars and The Wire through my work on Dirty Secrets. When I was demoing Dirty Secrets at GenCon 2007, people were constantly asking me, “Oh, so it’s like Veronica Mars?” After having to admit several times that I hadn’t seen Veronica Mars, I resolved to watch it as soon as possible. And, as I engaged discussions on the Internet about how Dirty Secrets handled issues of race, I discovered the need to watch The Wire.

And now, I find myself poking at the idea of another edition.

After all, it has been seven years since I designed the game originally. I’d like to think that I’ve learned a thing or two about game design since then.

For example, I know that Dirty Secrets required significant cognitive load, especially during conflicts. Using Liars’ Dice as the core mechanic was a cool idea, but this was also the time that gameplay could come to a screeching halt, as players tried to juggle narrative and dice info plus bluffing…. It was a lot to hold in the mind.

I’d also like to allow for a smaller footprint for the game. There are a lot of components required to play Dirty Secrets. Dice, index cards, record sheets…the table was full. Maybe I could cut down the clutter a bit. I’d also want to reduce the social footprint of the game. I doubt that Dirty Secrets would ever be an hour-long game, but it might be nice to get it into the three-hour time slot. This is because I’m selfish. I don’t have the mindspace these days for a multi-session game, and I want to be able to play my own stuff, dammit!

So, these are some of the thoughts I have when I start thinking about a second edition. I’ll even admit to having done a little design and prototyping. But here’s where I’d like to pause and ask a question: what were your experiences with Dirty Secrets? Anything that you really liked? Anything that could be smoothed out? Any awesome experiences? Any really bad ones? I’d love to get an idea of what worked and what didn’t.

Please note: this doesn’t constitute a promise to actually release a second edition or even to do any work on it. I’m still in the exploratory phase, you might say. After all, I still need to get Showdown out the door, right?

Oh yes, about that….

Here’s the deal. I have a final manuscript in place. Layout has progressed a significant amount. However, my wife is my graphic designer and layout person. Part of the joy I get from working on Dark Omen Games is being able to work with her. And right now, due to some health challenges[*], she hasn’t been able to work on the project. I like all of you, and I really want to see Showdown in the world, but caring for Crystal comes first.

We both intend on seeing Showdown through to the end. But for now, the project is at a standstill.

At such time as we reach our next milestone, which would be the completion of layout, I’ll let all of you know.

[*]No, nothing life-threatening or anything, but enough to be very tiring.

Showdown update

So, I probably owe the world a Showdown update. This is pretty short and sweet, but hopefully it’ll whet your interest.

The manuscript is done and has been handed off to layout. Layout has made significant progress, but layout is currently busy with Christmas preparations in a household of eight and therefore isn’t getting anything done this month.

Work will continue in January, and I hope to have good news soon thereafter.

The biggest complication for this project is that we’re going to be working with Drive Thru Cards to create cards for Showdown. this being a new experience for us, it’ll probably take longer than normal. If we were just going to release a PDF and POD book, we’d probably be in good shape for a January release. As it is, we’re probably looking at sometime in the first quarter of 2014–which as everyone knows means by June. (I kid! I kid! I hope!)

Anyways, thank you for your continued patience as we poke along towards a release.

In the interim, check out Epimas, a sale of various independent roleplaying games, including Dirty Secrets!

A milestone for Showdown

Tonight, I finished the Showdown manuscript.

To be fair, what I really mean is that I finished the draft of the manuscript that will go off to the editor to be savaged. (I mean this in a really good way, by the way.) There are still cards and tokens to design. The project isn’t completed by a long stretch.

And yet, this is a major milestone. I can put a stake in the ground tonight and say that a chapter has closed.

When I was working on my first game Junk, I came to a point where the goal was simply to finish. It wasn’t about a quality product (which is a good thing, given my current assessment of that game) or about satisfying market demand or anything like that. It was simply about the race against myself, about defeating Resistance for the first time.

I’ve needed Showdown to be done. For the last five years, it’s been an open loop in my mind. It’s been the project taunting me with its incompleteness.

And it’s not done yet. But tonight, I put another nail in its coffin.

That’s right, Showdown. Your ass is mine. By the end of summer, you’ll be done.

So, what’s up with Showdown?

Tim Koppang (of TCK Roleplaying) asked me for an update on Showdown. I figured that there were probably others who were wondering, and I have a languishing blog…. So, here we are.

Right now, the primary thing preventing me from releasing Showdown is time. Right now, other parts of my life have been demanding more and more of my attention. This isn’t really a bad thing, but it does mean that Dark Omen Games hasn’t really been getting my attention. But I really don’t want Showdown to languish in the state of “almost finished”.

This means that I need to start making a plan to ship Showdown.

Therefore, I have just a couple of tweaks that I want to make to the design, and then I’ll declare it to be complete. (I had another idea for Stances that I’m filing away for an expansion, if I ever feel like doing something like that.) I’m thinking that one or two more playtests would be sufficient to make this happen.

After that, I need to write the thing. I also want to play around with some component design. There are aspects of the game that might be served by having a few custom cards and the like. Right now, I’m considering releasing the game as a PDF and POD book, which would include print-and-play cards, and then selling POD cards as an optional add-on through The Game Crafter. I suppose this step could even come separately, if I wanted.

It’s almost there, really. I just need to push it across the finish line. So, now, I guess I should go off and plan out how I can do that.

Literary criticism of Showdown

Offered without comment.

Colin Creitz saith:

A fortiori, then, Seth Ben-Ezra’s forthcoming game Showdown must be understood as a very postmodern deconstruction of sociopathic violence tropes in traditional games. “Rendering problematic the relationship between the act of playing and the fiction” is what it does best. Not only does it undermine the “heroic” traits of the protagonists in the fiction as we experience it, it undermines those same traits in the characters’ self-images. In the best games, we’re left with the hollow husks of the characters we thought we created, losers who resort to deadly violence because they have nothing left. It’s like playing D&D and Power Kill at the exact same time.

Showdown actual play posts

A couple weeks ago, Gabrielle and Raquel played Showdown, my current game-in-development. They were so taken with the story they created that Gabrielle actually wrote it up and posted it on her blog. It’s in several parts, which you can find here:

Showdown Intro
Showdown Part 1
Showdown Part 2
Showdown Part 3
Showdown Part 4
Showdown Part 5
Showdown Part 6
Showdown Part 7
Showdown Part 8

The story doesn’t show the actual game mechanics in use, but it does give a sense of the kind of story that the game produces.

I still need beta testers. If you’re interested, leave a comment!

Showdown cover work

Anna Kreider is still hard at work on Showdown art. In this blog post, Anna shows off her work so far on the Showdown cover. I like it!

Anna Kreider shows off Showdown sketches

Anna Kreider will be doing the art for Showdown. She’s posted some of her initial cover sketches here. Check it out!