Ongoing Uru Review: More On Writing Games

Not the writing of games, but games in which you write.

I propose a Writing game, to take place on the MOUL forums. Specifically, on the Creativity forum. This could be considered fanfic. The aim, however, is to create an Age, in public, in a way which gives it weight and clarity and detail. And is interesting for everybody to follow.

The aim, in other words, is Age Writing -- not the 3D modelling or the Python scripting, but the part where you spin ideas.

And also write journals. Nothing wrong with practicing that.

The Proposal

This is a game for two people, posting on a public web forum. They will take turns, each posting once a day. (Maybe twice if someone is feeling energetic.)

The structure is an explorer's journal, as he travels through a lost Age. As he explores, he discovers pages of an older journal -- one left by an inhabitant of the Age at its height. He inserts the older pages between his own, as he finds them (or perhaps as he translates them).

Thus, the current entries alternate with the historic entries. Each player is responsible for one set of entries, and so the players alternate as well. I will refer to the players as "Present" and "Past".

The players should not plan anything out in advance. They can exchange private messages to clarify details, but the primary interaction is the alternation of public posts.

Each player starts with ten white stones and one black stone. (Virtual stones -- purely a score-keeping device. This is not a competitive game, but we keep track of certain things.)

The Present player goes first. He writes a journal entry, from the explorer's point of view, about linking into the Age and what he sees. This should, of course, include finding a mouldering old journal.

At the end of the entry, the Present player writes an extra line. This is a list of one to three elements from the entry which will turn out to be important. The elements can be anything mentioned in that entry: images, sounds, symbols, smells, memories, events, ideas or guesses about the Age. This is introducing an element.

(Note that the journals themselves can't be introduced as elements. They're taken for granted.)

Introducing an element costs a white stone. The player should include his current stone totals with his element list. For example, if Present lists three elements from his entry, he would note that he has seven white and one black stone remaining.

The Past player then takes his first turn. He writes the first entry of the older journal. He, too, can spend up to three white stones, introducing up to three new elements. He then copies the first player's list, adding his elements to it. (So after the first pair of entries, the list might contain as many as six elements.)

Each entry should be consistent with all previous entries. Naturally, there have been changes in the Age between the two eras. But the changes should make sense. (If a change is particularly striking or inexplicable, maybe you should spend a white stone on it!)

The players continue to take turns. Each player must introduce one to three elements per turn, as long as he has white stones left.

On your first turn, you may only introduce elements. But on subsequent turns, you can also resolve elements. This means wrapping up one to three elements in some way, in your entry. Maybe the explorer figures out what an element really means. Maybe one element is a clue to another; that resolves both of them. Maybe the explorer realizes that two elements are connected. Resolving an element does not eliminate it from the story -- it can still be mentioned in later journal entries. But the need to explain it, or tie it in, is finished.

When you resolve elements, you delete them from the element list. Also, resolving more than one element together gives you a reward. Tying two elements together gives you a black stone; resolving three together is worth two black stones.

What are black stones for? On your turn, you can spend a black stone to re-introduce a resolved element. It goes back into the list, with a star. And then it's the other player's job to resolve it again. (It doesn't matter who introduced it in the first place.) You don't have to mention the element in your entry, although you may. The black stone just ensures that something new will be discovered, eventually, about that element. The other player doesn't have to resolve it immediately, but he has to do it by the end of the game.

You can also spend two black stones to contradict something the other player has written. (Add a note to your entry saying exactly what changed.) The other player's next entry must include the discovery that his previous entry was wrong! He is free to invent the reason for his character's mistake.

(Note that you can contradict your own previous entry for free. That's just writing about a new discovery. However, if your original idea has been picked up by the other player, such that changing your mind contradicts his entries, then you have to pay the two black stones.)

The game ends when each player is out of white stones, and the list is empty. (Thus, each player will have introduced ten elements, and all twenty have been resolved.) Each player then gets one more entry to wrap up his character's story. You may not spend black stones on this last clean-up turn.

The Rules (summarized)

Additional Notes

Think of a white stone as a dramatic closeup on something, in a movie. Na-na-nahh! You're promising that it'll turn up again, somehow.

The white stones give you a rough timetable. If the players have spent seven white stones each, you're about 70% of the way through the story. Much might remain to be resolved, but you're not going to be introducing many more pieces of the puzzle. So you should think about how things will wrap up.

"Resolving an element" can mean almost anything. Puzzles are commonplace in Myst stories, but not every element is a puzzle. Chekov's phaser rifle hanging over the mantel is an element. When it goes off in the third act, the element is resolved.

Just because you resolve a puzzle element, doesn't mean that your character solved the puzzle. Maybe he discovers a reason to ignore or bypass it. Maybe he discovers why the other character was trying to solve it; that's a story resolution.

Or maybe you resolve the puzzle by giving the other character a way to solve it. The Past player might have his character reveal a puzzle solution -- maybe he was the one who designed the puzzle! That resolves the puzzle elements, even though it's the Present character who will make use of the solution. Go with whatever fits the story.

Look at the list of elements, and think about unexpected ways to put them together.

Don't worry about designing a playable Age. That's another whole kettle of squid. It's perfectly fine to say "I figured out the diagram and started the engine"; you don't have to create a real engine-starting puzzle just for the story!

Think of a black stone as a chance to steer the other player's story a bit. You can't control his story, but you can give it a push. (At least until you run out of black stones.)

You can also use black stones to make the other player's life more interesting. (Heh heh heh.)

When you resolve the last element (and all the white stones are gone), that's the climax of the story. Give it some kick.

After that, each player gets one more turn -- the other player, and finally you. That's the epilogue. (Yes, you get the last word. That's your reward for resolving the last element.)

Your grand plans won't work out. This is collaborative improvisation, which means the other player will do something unexpected and trip you up. Go with it. You can spend black stones to try to recover a plan, but only a little bit -- you only get a few black stones.

Don't worry about making the story, or its climax, brilliant. This isn't a novel, or even NaNoWriMo. You're improvising and trying to work in some cool bits. Your character isn't going to save the world or make peace with his emotionally disturbed mother. He's probably going to get through a locked door, start a machine, or find a journal page. That's the Myst universe.

An Example

This is not a real game; I am writing both parts, to show how the stone system works. Because it's an example, I'm keeping the entries short, and spending white stones faster than I normally might.


Linked in on a boat -- or a barge, would be a better description. Very flat, very broad, at least two hundred feet long. No sails or masts. The barge seems to be moored to a dock at the far end, but I haven't worked my way over there yet. Still looking around the barge.

The air is a heavy, salty fog. I can see nothing farther than the dockside.

The deck is bare wood, empty. But a few leaves are scattered across it, and piled up against the rail. Dried leaves: all the same, a narrow sword-shaped leaf with a deep blue cast. I can only imagine that they were the barge's cargo.

I found a few pages of crumbling paper buried in a heap of the leaves. Will try to translate them.

(ELEMENTS IN PLAY: leaves; how did the barge move? PRESENT STONES: 8 white, 1 black.)

Commentary: The player has added two elements: the dried leaves, and the question of what powered the barge. He could have added "fog" as a third element, but he chose not to. The fog is mere scenery, at least at the moment.


I could not have imagined my fate, when first I tacked the clipper Dujensai out of Raui Port.

The first two weeks of the voyage were uneventful. The raths in the hold were larger and more vicious than one might have hoped, but there will always be raths somewhere. The Dujensai's lynxes -- a trio of lovely golden longhairs -- are keeping them acceptably under control and out of sight.

We had nearly reached the tropical latitudes -- and well before kii storm season -- when the trade flotilla crawled out of the mist before us. In all innocence, we hailed them.

(ELEMENTS IN PLAY: leaves, how did the barge move?, raths belowdecks. PAST STONES: 9 white, 1 black.)

Notice that each player has his own stones, but there's just one list of elements between them. The Past player has introduced one element. The two introduced in the first entry are still listed; they will remain in play until they are resolved.


I don't know which end of this thing is the front, but there's a small deck-house by the rail, adjacent to the dock. It's just a tiny wooden shack. I suspect there's a ladder inside, leading below; it's too small to be a cabin or even a storage locker for a boat this size.

No way to tell, though -- the deck-house door is locked.

A short gangway leads across to the dock; only it isn't a dock. It's another barge. A different design, shorter, and with heavier rails. But it, too, carries the remains of what must have been a full cargo of the dried leaves. Someone must have spent a lot of effort carting the lot away.

Funny thing: the gangway connecting the barges has a complicated triangular symbol carved into it. The planks are worn -- years of use, certainly -- but the carving is sharp and clear across them.

And now that I can see the outside surfaces of the barge hulls, they look scorched. Down to the waterline, and below it, as far as I can see. That makes no sense at all.

Made more progress on the old journal...

(ELEMENTS IN PLAY: leaves, how did the barge move?, raths belowdecks, deck-house is locked, gangplank symbol, scorch marks. PRESENT STONES: 5 white, 1 black.)


The flotilla appeared as any other -- a train of cargo barges, fading into the mist-banks. But they gave no answer to our hail. Silence alone welcomed us.

Worse: when we cut closer, we saw not a soul manning the decks. And worse yet: when watch first sighted them, he seemed to see no less activity than usual. It was only at our hail that they decamped below.

No doubt you will think this adequate warning and more. But the Dujensai's master thought watch might have been mistaken earlier. A truly abandoned cargo flotilla could make our fortunes in salvage. And thus he ordered me to bring in by the lead barge.

A clipper's crew is not large; half our number made to board the barge, myself among them. The deck was indeed deserted, but was stacked high with bales of Western dye-leaf. Better quality than reaches to our markets, if I am any judge!

Although no one was in sight, we perceived clear signs of their presence: an open water-barrel, a half-shifted stack of bales, abandoned levers and cargo-hods. Nonetheless, we took a moment to carve the Dujensai's seal on the railboard. Our claim would not stand if the barge held living crew... but this was open sea, and sometimes a cargo-claim is what you might make it.

We located the ladder-house at the other end of the barge. Upon entering, we found the opening below to be impenetrably dark. But a salt-lantern hung nearby; I took it down and shook it, and its light answered easily. One by one, we descended the ladder.

(RESOLVED gangplank symbol. ELEMENTS IN PLAY: dye-leaves, how did the barge move?, raths belowdecks, deck-house is locked, scorch marks, abandoned tools, salt-lantern. PAST STONES: 7 white, 1 black.)

The player has named the leaves as "Western dye-leaves", but he doesn't regard this as a resolution; it's merely a bit more information about them. So he doesn't gain or lose any stones for it. He still updates the element list to call them dye-leaves, just to be clear.

He introduces some tools, and the notion of a salt-lantern (costing two white stones). He also resolves the question of the symbol carved into the gangplank: now we know what it means. He removes it from the element list. But he doesn't gain a black stone, because he didn't tie it to any other element. If he had written something like "We carved a symbol which scares raths away," he would have resolved both elements and won a black stone.


I went looking for those tools mentioned in the journal. I didn't find most of them -- probably they were used when this thing was cleared off. But there was one crowbar under a drift of leaves.

That's all I needed. Cracked the ladder-house door open. Climbed down the ladder, and my foot splashed into icy water. Only a couple of inches deep in the hold, though.

The lower deck might have been pitch-black once, but it isn't entirely dark any more. Some misty light works in through cracks in the planking. This barge must be old... a wonder it hasn't leaked more than it has.

Still awfully dim, though. It's hard to tell what's down here. Not bales of leaves, I'm sure of that. There seem to be statues; great rough wooden figures, taller than a man. I nearly squeaked when I ran into the first one.

A reddish light was glowing somewhere across the hold. Couldn't see anything more interesting, so I worked my way towards it. It took me a while, splashing between the statue-shapes and trying not to think about raths... whatever they are.

And when I finally reached the light, what did I see? That same triangular symbol as before; but carved on the hold wall, and each stroke lit with a guttering, dull red light.

(RESOLVED abandoned tools, deck-house is locked. REINTRODUCED triangular symbol. ELEMENTS IN PLAY: dye-leaves, how did the barge move?, raths belowdecks, scorch marks, salt-lantern, statues, triangular symbol (for Past). PRESENT STONES: 4 white, 1 black.)

The Present player ties the tools and the locked door together: the one breaks open the other. That resolves both elements, and wins him a black stone. But he also spends a black stone, to bring the symbol back into the story (and creepier than before!) He wasn't satisfied with it being a simple ownership mark.

The reintroduced element is marked "for Past", because only the Past player can resolve it now. He will have to think of a more interesting way to work the symbol in.


We have been entirely unable to locate the crew. The cargo hold is not heavily loaded; large pallets of timber of stacked along the sides, but perhaps these are merely ballast. They are rough-cut logs only -- bark still clings in places.

We surveyed the impeller rods. They were sound at first glance: great brass monsters of an antique design, running nearly the lengths of the hold walls and each as thick as a barrel. But our engineer says they are stone dead. The internal laminae are shorted, as if by some violent shock -- he insists that he has seen nothing like it since the Mivirale was struck by lightning while beached at Vondan Key. But for a vessel at sea, with its lightning-wires immersed, such an accident should be impossible.

At any rate, while the rods retain power in their cores, any attempt to strike them up would invite certain disaster. If we are to salvage this beast, cargo and hull, we must hope that another barge in the train is in better condition. The Dujensai has no hope of taking even one such in tow.

We are eager to leave this dark hole. The salt-lantern illuminates little of it, and each of us (except the stolid cargomaster) has heard movement in the shadows.

(RESOLVED how did the barge move?, scorch marks. CONTRADICTION: the scattered leaves on deck look like the bales were torn open and eaten, not carried away whole. ELEMENTS IN PLAY: dye-leaves, raths belowdecks, salt-lantern, statues, triangular symbol (for Past), logs, damaged engines. PAST STONES: 5 white, 0 black.)

The Past player resolves two elements, showing the engines and implying that the boat was damaged somehow. But he also decides that the question of exactly what happened is still interesting, so he spends a white stone to introduce it as a story element in its own right. (If he had not done this, the damaged engines would just be set-up for the Incident of the Barges.)

He wins a black stone for this resolution. He immediately spends it, along with his original stone, to change an element of the Present player's second entry: the leaves are hurled about as if some animal had torn into them. The Present player was imagining piracy, but now the story is heading in the direction of wild beasts...


This game was a bit stiff at first; the two characters were in different places, so the elements they were introducing weren't really meshing. Once they both got into the barge hold, more possibilities opened up. The Past player has offered an easy link by putting wooden logs in the hold, where the Present player described wooden statues; undoubtedly he will be able to do something with that.

Only nine white stones (of the original twenty) are still on the table, so the story is about half done. What remains to be told, remains to be seen. Something happened to the engines; the glowing symbol means something. And the raths are lurking...

Last updated November 11, 2007.

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