Apr 05


Sailors Are Not Dragons

Posted by: Heather Albano | Comments (28)

… and books are not RPGs.

(By the way—hi there! I’m Heather. I joined Choice of Games as writer #3 just as Broadsides development was starting. It’s nice to meet you, too!)

This post started as a comment to the “Help Us Switch Gender” thread, but I decided not to post it at the time, both because it got way too long and because I couldn’t make my points without risking spoilers. Now I think I can reasonably assume anyone reading this has played the game (but I put the spoilers under a cut anyway.)

The core concept for Broadsides was to write an adventure that allowed the PC to feel like the protagonist of a Hornblower or Aubrey/Maturin novel. The heaving waves, the clash of steel, the opportunities for honor and treasure and fame, the danger of storms and mutiny and enemy fleets…

A core tenet of the Choice of Games philosophy is to make all our players feel as “at home” as possible. There are enough games out there where the player has no choice but to play a male protagonist. There are enough women who have been turned off roleplaying games as a result. There are, similarly, enough games where the only romantic opportunities are with the opposite sex. Enough other people are perpetuating those stereotypes; we’d like to do better than that.

Adam and Dan did do better than that, with Dragon. Some of the most enthusiastic positive commentary referenced the ability to play as female and to acquire a same-sex mate. So surely, we thought, we can do it again. No problem.

Except it turns out sailors aren’t quite so simple to stage-direct as dragons. 🙂

And RPGs are not quite as straightforward to write as non-interactive fiction.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say you’re writing historical fiction—something like Hornblower, set in the real-world British Navy fighting the real-world French. The worldbuilding is pretty simple to do (though it’s not a trivial task to get it right) because you have a template to work from.

Now let’s say you’re writing historical fantasy—the Napoleonic Wars with Susannah Clarke’s magic or Naomi Novik’s dragons. Here the worldbuilding is less straightforward, but more fun: you change your selected variable, and then map the effects on the world as they ripple outward.

Now take one more step. Let’s say you’re writing fantasy, but you want your world to evoke the feeling of a particular era or type of literature. For instance, a Hornblower novel. From one perspective, writing in your own universe gives you wonderful freedom. It’s suddenly much easier to allow women to serve in the Royal Navy … but now you’ve bought yourself a new problem. Change too many variables, and you’ll wind up with something that no longer feels like a Hornblower novel. You’re free of the constraints of the real world, but if you’re not very careful, you’ll also lose the touchstones.

And here’s one more constraint. You’re writing a game, not a novel. So your scope is constrained—you are telling the PC’s story, and have less of an opportunity to digress into the dark corners of your world and demonstrate how the changed variables affect the people who live there. More importantly, the world you build has to be fun for the player to play in. That doesn’t mean happy-sunshiny-bunnies-and-kittens, but it does mean that the player has to be able to make meaningful choices that affect the flow of the story. The life of the protagonist (the PC) cannot completely suck because of the parameters of the universe. It might be interesting to do that in a novel, but you’re not writing a novel. If historical accuracy means that it is no fun to play, you need to trade off some accuracy to improve the fun quotient.

But not too much, or you’ve lost the feel.

So now every decision becomes one factor in a delicate balance. Is the game, on a whole, historically-accurate enough to feel like a Hornblower novel… and at the same time, does it change enough variables to allow the player to play as a character type with whom s/he identifies? Can the player do most of the things (make most of the choices) s/he wants to? And is it fun when s/he does?

AND—once again, remember you’re writing a game, not a novel, so you have to consider the scope of the project, too. “How difficult will that be to code” is also a constraint. Earlier blog posts (here, and here) discuss the difficulty of balancing realistic decisions with a manageable number of branches.

Broadsides spoilers follow.

There were two big questions on the table when I joined the team. The first was whether to include the possibility of a mixed-gender navy. Adam was strongly for it. I was intrigued by the idea, and I did, in fact, spend some amount of time down the rabbit hole spinning out what that world would look like. Dan argued against, because at that point we would be writing two different games: one with an all-male or all-female navy, with gender roles either exactly aligning with the real world or exactly flipped; and one with a mixed navy, with an entirely different set of boardroom and drawing-room politics. He was concerned about our ability to manage all the different branches and actually complete and release a game that worked.

And then all three of us became concerned, the more we discussed it, at the effect a mixed-gender Navy would have on overall feel. For instance, would there be sexism in the mixed-gender Royal Albion Navy? Well… would that be fun to play? It might be interesting to play, but it didn’t sound like fun to us. More importantly, it carried a serious risk of players feeling violated or at least disempowered, and surely we get enough of that in the real world. Sexism would not aid the goal of PC swashbuckling.

Okay, but does that mean there are no gender politics whatsoever? Everybody’s just equal and friendly—the armed forces envisioned by Trek: TNG or B5 or Galactica? That torpedoes any potential comedy of manners. The “dash of Jane Austen” is gone; the Aubrey/Maturin flavor is on its way out…

The second question was whether we wanted to allow the PC to pursue a same-sex relationship. We considered structuring the “marriage chapter” to allow it. Might it be an acceptable thing to do in this fictitious world of ours? But now we’re back to what that does to gender politics and overall atmosphere… people are not dragons, and people playing a Regency comedy of manners are really not dragons. There are some ways to decouple gender roles from actual gender, but the end result might or might not feel like a Jane Austen drawing-room.

Well, okay then, what if it wasn’t socially acceptable? How about a vignette where you can pursue something illicit and secret? There was a lot of illicit same-sex love and sex in the real Royal Navy; Winston Churchill described that august body as characterized by “rum, sodomy, and the lash.” But none of the three of us wanted to present same-sex relationships as illicit, shameful, and the sort of thing that gets you cashiered if you’re caught. We had no desire to perpetuate those views, even in the name of historical accuracy; nor did we think any player would find that fun to play.

And we were at that point staring at the possibility of a “marriage chapter” with a minimum of eight branches: 1) male-in-male-only-Navy-courting-female, 2) male-in-male-only-Navy-courting-male, 3) male-in-mixed-gender-Navy-courting-female, 4) male-in-mixed-gender-Navy-courting-male, 5) female-in-female-only-Navy-courting-male, 6) female-in-female-only-Navy-courting-female, 7) female-in-mixed-gender-Navy-courting-male, and female-in-mixed-gender-Navy-courting-female. That means every step of the marriage chapter would have to be coded eight different ways. Multiply that times three or four decisions per branch… now multiply across ten chapters… and now add in the consideration that some of these paths take us places where the gameplay is no fun, and some others take us places that have far more in common with Trek’s squeaky-clean corridors than with heaving salt-sprayed decks and perfumed teatime drawing-rooms. (If you’re about to say that maybe we should have tried something easier to adapt as female-and-same-sex-friendly than the Napoleonic Navy, you have a point… but why shy away from something just because it’s hard? 🙂 )

Since there wasn’t a way to do a mixed-gender Navy without sacrificing the desired atmosphere, we decided not to. Since there wasn’t a way to do same-sex relationships that balanced fun-to-play with desired atmosphere, we didn’t do that either. Our compromise position was to include the choice that lets you decide you are roleplaying a gay character… and then you and your character can read your interactions with Villeneuve any way you like. 🙂

While I of course cannot comment on what we might be working on next, setting a romance plot in a world we built ourselves would of course remove many of the aforementioned constraints. It would be much easier to code said plot to work equally well for male-courting-female, male-courting-male, female-courting-male, and female-courting-female.

If we were, hypothetically, working on anything like that next.

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