B x B (Boy x Boy), Yaoi Explosion and why traditional game design kind of sucks.

September 22, 2011

Okay, here’s a long story about my new game (B x B) and a game that never saw the light of day (Yaoi Explosion).

Back in 2006, for the first few months after releasing the original version of Panty Explosion, Matt and I were getting a constant stream of emails and posts asking us to publish a version of the system for playing… well… anything else really. People liked the game and it was selling well, but most players wanted to play Bleach, or InuYasha or Sailor Moon or Gundam or anything but pissed off psychic school girls. Most people wanted us to release a version of the Panty Explosion rules for generic anime play, something like BESM I guess. Matt and I talked about this for a bit and decided that we were totally against it for a few reasons.  We’re both big believers in purpose built games, games designed to do a specific thing or emulate a certain genre. Also, we already knew that Panty Explosion just didn’t work well for certain kinds of games, and trying to adapt it to play something like One Piece, Patlabor or Crying Freeman just didn’t seem like a good idea.  There was one really good idea that a lot of people kept asking for though, a yaoi game.

A yaoi version of Panty Explosion seemed like it would be a good fit for the specific reason that it would be a game built around a specific subject. As I said before, Matt and I are both believers in the idea of building games to do a specific thing. The more things a game has to do, the more kinds of stories it has to tell, play styles it has to accommodate and genres it has to emulate, the poorer it will be. We see this with Gurps, BESM and every other traditional toolbox game. Gurps can be used to run almost anything, but it doesn’t put much distinction between space opera and detective mysteries, and it doesn’t really do anything that well. BESM is great if you want a really generic, mid 80’s kind of anime feel, but the kind of games you get out of it emulate the kind of anime you wouldn’t really ever want to watch. You’ll never get a Cowboy Bebop, Spirited Away or Perfect Blue out of BESM. The system just doesn’t provide you with the tools for that kind of play. If you want something like Cowboy Bebop, you need a system designed to do just that.

So I mentioned to someone that we were thinking about doing a yaoi version of Panty Explosion, and pretty soon a few sites had published the news that our next game would be a yaoi game. The problem was that neither of us could come up with anything. Matt and I spent a few months reading manga and hanging out on yaoi boards and pretty much absorbing as much material as we could manage. We had decided right away that we didn’t want to just modify Panty Explosion, but we weren’t sure where to start on a new design either. The suggestions we were getting, and we were getting a lot, we’re… well… really, really awful.  Check this out:

Lets design a yaoi game!

1. Start by choosing a race (since all rpgs have races). You can be gay, or… umm… straight? I guess? Since we need to have more than one choice?

2. Choose a class! You can be a seme or uke, of course. We still need more options though, especially since we have straight characters. Maybe a sibling character, like an older sister or brother? Or a straight best friend? Or why not just create classes based on stereotypes! We can have the gay biker class, and the Bear class and the…  yes, I know this really doesn’t fit into the genre. So what?

3. We need plenty of skills and feats and advantages and whatever.  Uke are often portrayed as shy, vulnerable or naive, so those could be skills, right? And of course we want to make sure both characters can put skill points in beauty, or looks or something. Is Anal Virginity a feat or an Advantage?

4. We need a combat system, of course. All rpgs have one.

5. And monsters! Maybe a bitch co-worker who wants to sleep with the seme, or rapist after the uke, or…

And so on and so on. Does that sound awful? Does that sound like a game anyone would want to play? Does that sound like a game that does a good job of capturing the yaoi genre, or that would attract fans of the genre? No, of course not. And yet, that’s what almost all the suggestions we got were like. In fact, spend some time looking around the internet for yaoi table top rpgs and you’ll find people discussing games just like this, trying to adapt the D20 system, or Savage Worlds or Fate or something else to play a yaoi game. Why? They don’t know any better. These are players who only have a single tool to play with. They’ve been playing with a hammer for so long, it doesn’t even occur to them to try using a different tool. They’ve been sold on the idea that the hammer can be used to build anything. They’ve invested in this idea. Once you’ve spent months or years learning a game system and buying book after book for that system, a system that promises it can be used for everything… would it even occur to you to try something new? Would it occur to you that the same set of narrative rules that you use for murdering goblins and stealing their stuff maybe wasn’t the best way to approach exploring an intimate sexual and emotional relationship with another human being?

We ended up shelving the project.  Neither of us could come up with anything. The closest we got was a Gundam Seed style mech game, where the main character (the uke) was a gifted young mech pilot, and the opposing character (the seme) was an enemy ace, trying to seduce him during battle. It was a fun idea, but when we posted it on the forum we had created for discussing our upcoming yaoi game, the reaction was pretty negative. The players didn’t want pre-made characters. They wanted a toolbox style game where they could make whatever type of character they wanted.

See, the thing is that they were wrong. As I said before, a decade of gamer training has told us that what we want out of our rpgs is a tool box, a customizable system that allows us to play any kind of game we want and make any kind of character we want. It’s not true. Or maybe it is, but… well, fuck it. No, it’s not. If you want to play a yaoi game what you need is a game built to emulate the genre. Built to tell yaoi style stories with yaoi style characters. You don’t also need the option for playing Indiana Jones. Or Star Wars. Or Lord of the Rings. You don’t need stats for playing an elf. You don’t need a special rule set in case you’re playing pirates.You need a system that emulates the yaoi genre and gives you a platform to play characters and tell stories that meet the expectations of that genre. A toolbox style game simply gives players the illusion of freedom by offering tons of useless and unneeded options. Look, here’s stats to play an Orc uke. Here’s stats to play a Half-Tyranosaurus seme. Here’s rules for adapting D20 combat for sex scenes. Here’s how the Cleave feat works in relationship scenes!

Useless.

Build a simple game from the ground up that does exactly what you want it to do. Leave out everything else. That’s the right approach.

I wasn’t having any luck coming up with a yaoi game, but I was jetting along working on a shoujo style dating sim game with a simple premise. You played a young woman who has just moved to a new high school. You want to fall in love, but you don’t know how. You’ll go on a series of three dates, each with another player, and at the end decide who you like best. The game used a simple card mechanic and a rotating narrator. While player one and two were acting out their date, players three and four would be narrating. Then player one and three would go on a date, and two and four would narrate. The game went through a few major revisions, but it really came together when I decided to abandon the section on character creation and just introduce 4 pre-made characters. Here’s why: When you pick up the first volume of a shoujo manga, you can’t choose the characters. Often, the main character seems weak, childish, stuck up, naive or pitiful. Often the supporting characters and love interests are unlikable. At first. The entire point is that each character is a unique individual, and as the story continues they change and grow. Creating pre-made characters, each with a set personality, appearance and name forced players to accept the characters as whole individuals, complete with strengths and flaws. If they wanted to change who the characters were, if they wanted them to grow, they’d have to do so through play. Plus, and this is even more important, rpg players have a tendency to play the same characters over and over again. Denying them that choice and forcing them to play something new and unfamiliar creates vulnerability, awkwardness and uncertainty. Which is perfect for a shoujo manga story.

Here’s the thing. G x B (that’s what the game would eventually be called) would have four pre-made characters, and it was easy to choose the types. We had the shy, uncertain heroine who always tried her hardest, the nerdy student who was smarter than all his classmates, the bully with a heart of gold and the confident class president.

The class president was a girl.

As soon as I made that choice I realized that the game could work in reverse as well. It didn’t have to be the story of a shy young woman looking to fall in love. It could just as easily be the story of a shy young man, trying to choose between the three attractive guys who are totally into him. I finished up G x B (Girl x Boy) with artist Heather Aplington earlier this year, and we immidetaly started working on the follow up.

B x B (Boy x Boy) works for the same reason G x B does. Falling in love, and looking for love, and wanting to be in love, is universal. It’s something we all know. The game gives you a character and gives you a platform for falling in love. Or going on a first date, anyway. That’s it. The yaoi part? The part about playing beautiful young men? That’s there as well of course. It’s there in the premise of the game and the appearance and the description of the characters. The game itself though? B x B is a game about falling in love. It took me awhile to realize that this was what was missing from our earlier efforts to make a game. Yaoi is a genre, but a genre is only a platform for a story. Our game needed a story to hang on. This is the reason the mech game seemed to work when the others didn’t.  Looking at other genre examples it became pretty obvious. There’s yaoi detective stories, stories about struggling musicians, vampires, assassins, chefs, teachers and cave men. These are all stories featuring beautiful and passionate men having sex with each other, but each story is also about something else. So B x B is a game about a young man who wants to fall in love, but can’t choose between three suitors.

Anyway…

B x B is pretty much done. I’m just looking for a little free time to finish up some of the text, letter the instructional manga that Heather created for the book and do the layout. The game doesn’t exactly play like G x B. There are a few small changes to help the play experience stand on it’s own and stay fresh for fans of the first game. It’s also probably just not as blatantly sexy as some people would like. Too bad. Just like with G x B, I wanted to create a game that was more sweet and funny than sweaty and sexy. Anyway, I think you’ll like it!

Jake

6 Responses to “B x B (Boy x Boy), Yaoi Explosion and why traditional game design kind of sucks.”

  1. [...] the original here: B x B (Boy x Boy), Yaoi Explosion and why traditional game design … Categories: Uncategorized Tags: bleach, gundam, inuyasha-or-sailor, moon-or-gundam, [...]

  2. [...] B x B (Boy x Boy), Yaoi Explosion and why traditional game design … Back in 2006, for the first few months after releasing the original version of Panty Explosion, Matt and I were getting a constant stream of emails and posts asking us to publish a version of the system for playing… well… anything else really. It's not true Or maybe it is, but… well, fuck it. No, it's not. If you want to play a yaoi game what you need is a game built to emulate the genre. Built to tell yaoi style stories with yaoi style characters. You don't also need the option [...]

  3. Callan S. said

    A toolbox style game simply gives players the illusion of freedom by offering tons of useless and unneeded options.

    A toolbox style game gives you the capacity to play…a bunch of tools.

    I think I’d agree – the fiction needs to be embedded in the ruleset. And fiction requires certain decisions to already have been made. The more toolboxy you make it, the more you have to remove fiction decisions until the strong connection between fiction and rules becomes utterly eroded. So it becomes that with a toolboxy game, you can play any set of numbers you like! Yay!

    I think your right – they are wrong. They ultimately wants something that undercuts and destroys what they really want.

    However, instead of having a toolbox game that does anything, it probably is a prompt to make lots more games with nuanced and particular fiction. To try and cover that large amount of ground, not through toolboxyness, but through authorship. Which isn’t easy (atleast for me, anyway) I totally grant.

    • Jake said

      It seems to me that very often when someone says they want a toolbox game, whet they mean (when asked) is that they want lots and lots of choices. But what happens is that they either ignore most of those choices because they don’t actually provide what they want, or they choose something that really has no place in the fiction they’re trying to create. An imperial Stormtrooper and a D&D game, for example.

      Wanting a toolbox that lets you play any kind of character in any kind of setting in any kind of story is pointless. You’re playing one character in one setting in one story at a time. And for that one story, the tool box is not going to be the best choice. A far better choice is a purpose built game. Yes, a game built for playing marsh trolls fighting for freedom against alien slavers sin’t going to work for playing something like Metal Gear Solid or Lego Star Wars or Eberon. But you’re not playing those games. You’re playing the Marsh Troll game, with a system built specifically for that. Why do you care if the system might not work for a theoretical game you might play next month?

      • Callan S. said

        It might be worth considering that under the traditional table top RPG design paradigm, character creation is where players, if they got any creative license at all, where they got to be creative and actually get the thrill of authoring story to some degree.

        It’s possible to look at this dear need to make any old character as the gamers trying to ensure their creative freedom in the only way they think they have the option to – in character creation.

        So you have a generation of gamers thinking that if you get creative at all as a player, it’s here, in char gen and char gen only. Thus this push to ‘be able to play anything!!!1!’.

        Maybe that’s what’s going on.

  4. Jake said

    Callan, I’m sure that’s a big part of it.

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