Friday, March 20, 2015

Teaching a Game: Mythender's Tutorial, Part 1


It's a game that's over-the-top, wonderfully excessively metal, and it mashes its hyper-edgy attitude with some surprisingly thoughtful character beats. You play as characters imbued with the power of the mythic beings you're trying to destroy, and as you get pulled further towards an inevitable tragic end, you start to learn more about the human half of the Mythender, because they're trying to hold onto it. But that's not the main reason I'm singling out the game this time: this week, I'm talking about the way that Mythender eases new players into the game...

When you open up Mythender...there's a lot of stuff to take in. It gets pretty overwhelming if you don't know where to start. So Ryan wrote a tutorial session for it. Now, the session winds up being pretty on-rails, but that's so that it can do an effective job of teaching the game to players. I personally think it succeeds in being an entertaining tutorial, given that I've played it literally three times already and had unique experiences in each game--and because of the game's focus on engaging your character, it's the particular cast of Mythenders in the tutorial battle that winds up making it feel fresh, even if the whole thing is (on some level) the same thing every time. I suppose it's like that old apocryphal proverb of uncertain origin: "It's not the destination, but rather the journey, that matters the most."

Before we get started, open up the Mythender tutorial battle so you can read along! (Ryan's released the game under Creative Commons, and this is the link to a System Reference Document for it!)

Setting the Ground Rules
The tutorial gets off to a great start, because it knows what it needs to establish: it has to get the player who's running the game on top of things. There's a really nice introduction section where it talks about the stuff you need (tokens, dice, playsheets), and then explains a few basic things about running the tutorial. It tells you what all the fancy formatting means (by the way--the fancy formatting is a wonderful visual cue) and then it explains how the tutorial is supposed to be run: it's on rails, because it introduces the rules in a very specific order. They're actually some pretty good ground rules you could use for tutorializing any game.

Because this tutorial is designed to introduce concepts in layers, we’re going to ignore some of the rules during different parts of it. If a rule hasn’t been mentioned yet, then it’s not applicable right now. After this battle, all rules are fair game.

Sometimes I’ll cheat, in order to make the tutorial work with fickle dice. I’ll point that out every time I do so.

It’s cool to ask questions about what’s going on and what’s on the playsheet. But I might respond with “We’ll get to that in a bit” if the rule’s about to be covered later.

After a few more miscellaneous bits (like mentioning that there's small supplementary rules the tutorial doesn't cover), the chapter talks about one very important thing: the minimum required knowledge level. As Ryan explains, "Ideally, the Mythmaster has taken some time to digest this book, but we don’t live in an ideal world." I think this is incredibly important! Teaching people is largely about recognizing their non-ideal situations and giving them tools to deal with that. In the Mythender tutorial chapter, it's a short blurb which can be summarized as "Here's the sections you should quickly skim to get an idea of what you need, and we'll cover the rest in the tutorial. But read the book if you can!"

Oh, and a fun little thing that comes in just before the tutorial proper: a few quotes from gamers with advice for playing Mythender and making the tutorial run awesomely. You can take my word for it: they're awesome stuff.

Enter the Einherjar, Round 1
The tutorial uses a battle against an army of einherjar in service to Thor. After quickly explaining how many dice players start with (and other various details), it gives the Mythmaster some nice scenery to set the stage for the fight. It's a pretty nice and short piece--enough detail to start building a picture, and some ominous hints that remind you of the real point of the game: taking down Myths.
Fresh snow has fallen at the base of this mountain. Up in the distance: trees and rocky outcropping. Beyond that lies the Fort of Thorberge, a place where Thor’s warrior cult trains for eternal battle. But that is a great distance away. Above you, storm clouds crackle. Thor certainly watches overhead.
That's some sweet stuff.

From there, it takes another strong step: it has the Mythmaster go first. This isn't something that all game-teachers think about, but leading by example is the best way to teach, and that's exactly what the Mythender tutorial does. Here, the tutorial gives the Mythmaster a very specific list of steps to follow, and it breaks down an action into lots of detail. This is another important thing to note: in gameplay, actions typically flow seamlessly, but when you look at them, there's a lot of different pieces. When you call out the different parts, it lets you show off the full breadth of what you're doing. For example, it calls out "Describe Being Awesome" as its own paragraph. While this is technically part of the normal rules, the tutorial accentuates it multiple times to teach by repetition.

What I really want to note here, though, is the substance of this first action: it introduces the concepts behind a basic action, and it introduces "charging up" a weapon, which is the simplest result of a roll. Then it stops there. It doesn't move on to anything else, but leaves this as a foundation. After the Mythmaster demonstrates it, it's time for the players to follow suit--the tutorial demonstrates something, and then has the players repeat it. That's another type of good teaching. It starts with this first layer, and it doesn't try to go any further.

Incidentally, neither will we. This is a hefty tutorial, and we'll wrap it up next week! You can read through the rest of it to get a sense of how it goes, and then I'll be back, dissecting it and whatnot.