Saturday, February 19, 2011

Player Choice

It's been almost a week without me nattering on about game design, so I want to return to the matter of player choice. First, one of the things we debated one afternoon at Last Unicorn Games was the nomenclature we'd use in our games. "Players" rolled dice; "characters" did not. "Characters" possess skills and abilities; "players" do not. Just to be clear on what I'm talking about when I say "Player choice."

I alluded in a previous post that a player's character has basically three types of response to the setting. The idea came to me while reading my friend Greg Christopher's blog In one post, he talks about the ACE Morality Model. The system alternates between "adherence", "concensus", and "efficiency". Don't worry, I'm not actually going to employ that model too closely, other than to note that this triggered an idea.

When players sit down to create their characters, the face a tripartite choice. They may or may not be aware that they are making this decision at the time they create their characters; that is to say, they may simply create a warrior, and give no thought to the character's relationship to the setting until play starts. Or they might; a player who chooses to create a Paladin is making a decision about his character's relationship to the world -- he's choosing to uphold "good" (however "good" is defined by the setting). That choice is: Adherence, Noncompliance, and Digression.

Adherence: The player wants his character to adhere to the main storyline. He wants to fight the Dragonriders, bring down the Empire, or drop the magic ring into Mount Doom. He's on-board with the central conflict presented by the setting. Generally, he enthusiastically follows the plot laid out by the gamemaster, and contributes enthusiastically.

Noncompliance: The player doesn't care about the central conflict presented by the gamemaster. He's not engaged by the story,  but wants to play nonetheless. At best, he goes along with the group and finds stuff to do. In fact, such as character can add some depth to the game, if played well ("Tell me again why we're walking into Moria?"). He's the reluctant hero. At worst, you have to wonder why the character is involved at all. This is the guy who creates an anti-paladin or a necromancer while everyone else is making elves and druids.

Digression: This is the Han Solo type of character. They kinda sorta care about the central conflict. He's the thief who goes along with the rest of the group because there might be something valuable to steal. He's the warrior who'll fight the evil sorcerer because it lets him kill orcs. He won't mind dropping the One Ring into Mount Doom, so long as they stop along the way to pick up some Halfling leaf to sell in town. In other words, the character isn't centrally focused on the main conflict, but isn't opposed to it either.

As an example of what I'm talking about, when I sat down to play Fallout 3, I made a conscious decision to ignore the main storyline. I'd played Betheda Softworks games before, and knew they rewarded players who just wandered around. I went on some of the tangential missions -- I helped the Vampires in the Metro system, and I helped that town on the overpass. But mostly I just wandered around and stumbled onto some pretty fun stuff. I collected nuka cola. I liked shooting slavers. I found a cache of military weapons in an abandoned convoy. I was Noncompliance. But I had fun.

This would have been difficult had I been playing with a group. It's kind of hard to hunt rad-roaches while the rest of the group is trying to stop the oppressive fascists. The best way to do this, I suppose, would be to integrate one with the other. While you're hunting rad roaches, you happen upon a patrol of oppressive fascists.

In the end, I think the best setting is one that accomodates all three types of interaction. There's stuff for to please the warrior, thief, and cleric in the group. Of course, this depends entirely upon the gamemaster, and how closely scripted his campaign is.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Setting at War

Well, it appears I've picked up a seventh follower. Welcome, new follower. If I continue on at this rate, I'll have enough followers to found my own religion sometime in the mid-24th century. But, as I've stated before, those of you who join early shall be part of my inner circle, where we will enjoy Mubarak-sized riches, as well as hottie nuzzling. I hope you can wait it out.

Since my earlier post, I've been giving some thought to honing my thesis, that good settings are those that have a central conflict built into it. First, I want to clarify what it is I mean. I believe there's a fundamental difference between a story conflict and a setting conflict. In the former, the characters are involved in a conflict. In the typical detective story, for example, the private investigator is on a case. Maybe his partner's been killed, or the case involves some point of personal honor. The detective wants to find the perpetrator and bring him to justice. The criminal mastermind might even make life for the detective very hard indeed, so that it seems as though his world is in danger. And it might well be. But it's his life, his world, that's in danger. The rest of the world, the setting, goes on.

This is an important matter, because if I'm not interested in the game's premise, then I'm not playing the game. For example, I didn't like Assassin's Creed. I really wasn't interested in playing an assassin, though I really liked trying to kill Templars. I would have been perfectly happy wandering around searching out Templars and assassinating them. That's a really fatuous example, by the way, but I think it gets my point across. I don't like playing Vampire: the Masquerade because I don't care about Vampire politics. That's all that game seems to be about. (And the two times I've tried to run the type of game that interested me, everyone ended up wanted to dabble in vampire politics.) I think a game that has the broadest central conflict is the one that provides the most play value.

You don't get much more broad than a setting that is somehow at odds with itself. A setting in conflict means just that -- a world at war, a world coping with the aftermath of a disaster, some fundamental law of nature changes. So what I mean is that the setting itself is in some kind of turmoil. There is a disonance or discord built into the fictional landscape itself. It is something that the characters, the protagonists, must either address or ignore according to their nature. For example:

1) In All Flesh Must Be Eaten, the discord built into the game's setting is the existence of zombies. A fundamental law of nature, that the dead stay dead, has changed (if you want to be academic about it). The protagonists of this setting can either address the situation, by fighting the zombies. Or they can try to avoid the situation altogether, in which case the zombies are treated as a fact of life. Or they can try to ignore the zombies and go about their business. Simply put, they can liberate the town of zombies, try to scavenge for ammo and food and avoid being noticed, or simply hide in an attic and hope for the best.

2) In Dark Sun, the disonance in the setting stems from the origins of magic. Using magic kills off surrounding plantlife, and the wizards have used so much magic over the years that they've turned their world into a desert. The protagonists can attempt to oppose the wizards, get them to stop using magic, and restore the world. Or they can simply accept the situation as a fact of life and go about their business. Or they can ignore the whole thing and sell lizard pelts in the marketplace.

Notice how the protagonists don't necessarily have to solve the setting's central conflict; it could simply be playing in the background. The player characters don't have to locate and fix the source of the zombies in order to have a good time. In fact, it's better they don't, so they can continue to adventure in a zombie-filled world. Similarly, they can't stop every wizard from using magic in Dark Sun; it may simply be enough that they defeat one wizard (to strike back at the forces of oppression). If you are going to make the setting's conflict the central conflict of your story, realize that you're telling a very big story, indeed. And also removing the dramatic tension from the setting itself. Once you defeat whatever it is that's making zombies, you can't necessarily bring them back for a sequel (and boy do I wish Hollywood would learn that lesson).

Another thing I notice: the two examples I cited preclude you from one character option -- joining the forces of dissonance. AFMBE doesn't let you play the zombies, which I think would be pretty cool. I suppose you could play an evil, life-destroying wizard in Dark Sun, but I've never heard of it being done.

I think that in the best games, the dramatic conflict comes from the nature of the setting itself. The land is in some way wounded, and it's up to the main characters to decide how they respond. I think that gives players much more to do with their games.

What Makes a Good Setting?

I've been thinking a lot about games and their settings lately. I found myself last night trying to figure out how The Commons could be a good roleplaying game, mostly as a thought exercise. I don't sleep well at night, what with the insomnia, so this is how I occupy my time -- considering all kinds of intellectual questions. Counting sheep never worked for me. This led me to wonder about what makes a good setting  for a roleplaying game; how do I define a "good setting?"

I can't tell you the number of times I walked the aisles at GenCon, and met some fresh-faced designer standing in a booth with his pride-and-joy who could not tell me what his game was about. This is just about the most central question a designer should be able to answer, because this tells me (the prospective player and customer) just what my character will do in the game. Sometimes, I'd get a blank stare, as though it should be obvious what my character would do. Sometimes, I'd get some vague, uninteresting description ("Uh, you play supernatural mobsters fighting over turf"). Okay. But what if I don't want to play a supernatural mobster? What if I want to play a supernatural cop fighting the mobsters? What else can I do?

See, oftentimes, the setting is limited to what the designer had in mind as to your character's goals. He wants you to tell his story, using your characters. I blame Vampire: the Masquerade for this phenomenon. In that game, you play a vampire engaged in all manner of politics and back-stabbing. This was new and revolutionary when the game came out. Most games up to that point had you playing some version of Dungeons & Dragons. That is to say, the setting encouraged you to explore ruins, fight monsters, found kingdoms... But what made V:tM revolutionary wasn't that you got to play the monsters, it was that you were encouraged to do different stuff, political stuff. Quickly, other games started aping this model.

What makes a good game setting, in my opinion, is one that exists in conflict with itself. Certainly, you can have fictional settings where everything is honky-dorey, and main thrust of the conflict arises out of character interaction. I would call this the drawing room roleplaying game. Sherlock Holmes contends with Moriarty, but the danger level never approaches the level of threatening the existence of the British Empire. You can have a perfectly fine setting where the conflict arises out of societal norms, but I believe, however, that this is sub-par.

A good fictional setting exists in conflict with itself. We learn this from fiction writing, particularly from the Hero's Journey. In myth, everything is fine until Evil enters the world. This Evil begins to corrupt the landscape (typically figuratively, sometimes literally), until the danger becomes so great that the Hero notices it and cannot avoid it. For example, in Robin Hood, Richard the Lion-hearted goes off to the Crusades, leaving behind John. John raises taxes and is generally a jerk; he's also illegitimate king. Eventually, things get so bad that Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men must rise up and oppose King John. Another example would be Lord of the Rings. Sauron musters his forces, and Evil spreads out across the land until it touches a remote corner of Middle Earth -- a little place called The Shire.

Time for an example: Vampire: the Masquerade would have been a better game if the central conflict revolved around Cain. Cain is the father of all vampires. Cain returns from self-imposed exile, and lays claim to his "throne" among vampires. How do you react? There's a central conflict that reaches right out and grabs you by the throat.

So in a fictional setting, there must be conflict, and it must be rooted in the setting itself. It must be a part of it. It isn't a coincidence that the Robin Hood stories involve an illegitimate king. It's a common tenet of myth that the king and his land are one. They are inextricably bound. An illegitimate king literally makes the land sick. That's why Aragorn's return to Gondor's throne is so important to the Lord of the Rings. The story isn't over, indeed the setting isn't "healed" until the proper and rightful king of Gondor sits upon the throne. Just as a story begins by presenting a problem for the protagonists to answer, a good game setting asks a dramatic question.

The broader this dramatic question, the better. Because it provides the players with more to do. The Cain idea for V:tM is nice, it's an attention grabber, but then the game would revolve around this central political question; there would be no way to avoid it. But with a broad dramatic question, a player's character has the choice of confronting the central conflict, working tangentially within it, or ignoring it altogether.

For example, Critical Failure is a game set in a post-apocalyptic future where a calamity destroys interstellar trade. Worlds that depend on supplies from elsewhere begin to die off. Whole sectors descend into darkness. This gives players tons to do! I could play a merchant struggling to keep my colony alive (confronting the conflict); or I could play a scoundrel salvaging technology for money (a tangent); or I could play a mercenary who's only interested in the next fight (ignore the conflict). In other words, the characters have to have something to respond to in the setting. They have to have something they either implicitly or explicitly react to. There are space hulks to salvage, ruins to explore, factional politics in which to engage...

Note, also, how this setting in conflict still allows the player to create a character with the freedom to respond as he sees fit. The merchant might want to explore the derelict space ship looking for parts so the colony's fleet can find the supplies they need. The scoundrel in the group might want to explore the same derelict for salvage to sell. The mercenary is just along for the ride, hoping there's something to shoot. Same central conflict -- how do you surive an interstellar collapse? -- but with the freedom to respond as the player sees fit. (Even better if all three characters are in the same group, providing a mix of tensions between protagonists).

Thus, a good game setting provides a broad central conflict that arises out of the nature of the setting itself. In a sense, the setting is at war with itself. It should provide the players with various motivations for adventuring, as well as giving them loads of different things to do.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Well, That Went Over Well

I can see by the flood of messages in the comments section that I'm going to have a hard time deciding which of you to choose to join my gaming group. See, that was called "sarcasm." Seriously, folks, how often do you get the opportunity to game with a noted (some might say "famous", and those some might be "me") game designer? I could see the dearth of replies if I said "hey, I'm trying to get a gaming group together in Saskatoon, Canada." But this is New York City. If I wanted to find a midget escort for light bondage, I could do it. There are, like, ten places for that here (I assume).

Let's see if I can grease the wheels a bit. I'm interested either in doing a Dresden Files game set right here in NYC, a high-powered, Elven campaign (again, set here in NYC), or a straight up fantasy setting along the lines of classic Jack Vance (or Matthew Hughes). Lastly, I've got an idea for near future All Flesh Must Be Eaten campaign. Surely, there must be someone out there interested in some, or all, of these ideas.

I am available (for bar mitzvahs and weddings) on Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

If you are interested, post to the comments thread. Punch and pie.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Open Call for Gaming

My friend and fellow game designer, James Maliszewski, mused recently on the difference between "sandbox" game settings and "quest" game settings. (Truth in advertising, I must always go to his website and  cut and paste his name whenever I refer to him in print. You try typing Maliszewski from memory.) In the former, there is no set plot or agenda. They players can direct their characters wherever they want, and the gamemaster (GM) tries to adapt. One week, they may fight orcs in the barren hills of Cimmeria; the next might be a bit of necromancer bashing. In the latter, there is very much an over-arching plot. Toss the One Ring into Mount Doom, or collect the pieces of the shattered Sword of Dawn. You can read the original post here:

Now, I must confess, I haven't ever run a sandbox campaign. I've always had an agenda, a story that I wanted to tell. Whether it's opposing the sorcerers of Athas, or defeating a Romulan plot to dominate the Veltran sector, I have in mind a beginning, middle, and end. I find it easier to plan each week's adventure session, since I know, generally, what's going on. First, the Hook; I have to get the characters involved in the quest. Next, they have to find the wizard who has the secret knowledge to the next quest point. Then, there's the introduction of allies, enemies and helpful devices... I'm very much into the Hero's Journey. (If you don't know what that is, go and return your diploma to whatever college you graduated from. It's Joseph Campbell. Read him.)

Typically, running a quest style campaign means railroading the players along a particular track. I didn't have much of a problem with this, as I would generally move whatever was supposed to happen to wherever the characters went. Imagine if Weathertop didn't take place at Weathertop, but instead happened at Joe's Deli (because the hobbits were hungry, and Joe's has a nice, lean pastrami....). You get the point. Sometimes, I had to stray into railroading territory, by having the forces of evil get worse and worse -- more bandit attacks, more orc raids, etc. After all, that's what would happen if the heroes stayed home. I'd keep this up until the group got tired of being attacked by yet another gang of gnolls and got back on track.

As James says in his post on the subject (and you did go and read it, right?!), quest-style campaigns have inherent drawbacks. Either they peter out because the story takes too long to unfold, or the players lose interest in the quest (or worse, the gamemaster loses interest), OR there's nothing left to do once the quest is complete. The heroes return from the Special World of the story, and settle down, and tell their tales in the local tavern. The Scourging of the Shire notwithstanding (and that was Tolkein tying up a loose end, and being unable to just stop writing). Once the quest is complete, the gamemaster can hold up a big sign that says "The End," and everyone can go off and play some Munchkin.

Reading James' site, however, has put me in a mind to run a sandbox style campaign. I'd like to give it a try. So if you live in the New York City area, I'm interested in running a game of something. I'm not even particularly particular about the game's setting. I'd even be willing to run a Star Trek campaign (though I'd prefer not to). Right now, I'd like to either use the Blue Rose True20 System, or the Houses of the Blooded System, though not necessarily the worlds themselves. While I'm jonesing for a more traditional fantasy setting, I'd be willing to entertain a modern urban fantasy game. Oooh, or my AFMBE setting (which needs work). If you're interested, contact me through email, or post to the comments section.

Eating Crow

You may not know this about me, but I'm the kind of guy who puts his money where his mouth is. I pony up. I bet it all on black. I roll the hard six... I have no idea where I'm going with this, but insert your own gambling metaphor so you can play along. I've said I don't like the .pdf format. I've said I don't like reading games on screens and that the format is unwieldy. So I decided to put my money where my mouth is, and try this whole, newfangled electronic revolution thing. Because I may be a crumudgeon, but I prefer to do so from an informed position.

I also have a Nook Color. I thought to myself "now here is a chance to sort of combine two experiements into one." The Nook allegedly allows you to read .pdfs. I considered this to be a bogus claim; well, not really bogus so much as a "we'll put a crappy .pdf reader on this Nook just to throw people a bone, but we'd rather they'd buy stuff in our EPUB format" kind of claim. See where I'm going here? I'm going to test the functionality of both the Nook Color and the .pdf format and see what happens.

I fired up my web browser (on the Nook, no less. If you're going to test something, really stress it out) and went to DriveThruRPG. I'd never visited the site before, but I checked it out when I blogged about the .pdf format a few posts ago. All of the .pdfs I'd seen previously had been given to me (a scan of FASA's old Star Trek game, Dresden Files). While there, they (DriveThru) were promoting something called Mortal Coil. I clicked on it because it had a cool cover, and read a few pages of the sample. That was pretty neat; I could see a cover, and open the game up and read a preview version. Almost like I was standing in a game store. So my first helping of crow: I have to admit that DriveThru does a nice job of promoting and marketing products. (Their web design, however, is horrible. Must all game-related sites look like they were designed overnight by a guy who just read Web Design for Dummies?!)

Back to the Nook. I go to the DriveThru site and search for Mortal Coil. I've wanted to buy it since I saw it a few weeks ago, and this experiment was my chance (and by "chance" I mean "justification"). I find it with no problem. I register on the site with no problem. In fact, the only problem I have is with the Nook's on-screen keyboard, which continuously doubles and triples my letters (rrrooss_iisaaaacs@yyahooo.comm) for no apparent reason. I have to key in my information three times, particularly my credit card information. But I'm doing it from the comfort of a noisy, crowded Barnes & Noble cafe, so it's all good. After an irritating ten minutes, I get my game downloaded directly to my Nook Color. Hey! Look at me! I'm living in the FUTURE! Eat that, Captain Picard!

Eager, I go to the place where the Nook stores downloaded files. And there is my game, sitting there waiting for me. I tap the icon. The Nook informs me that it can't read it. I stare at the screen. I think to myself "B&N put a crappy .pdf reader on this Nook just to throw me a bone, but they'd rather I'd buy stuff in their EPUB format." Captain Picard laughs at me for my hubris. I leave B&N to go to work.

I remain undeterred, however. When I got home, I fired up the Nook user guide and discovered that the preferred way in which load .pdfs is through a USB cable. (And, please, only use the approved USB cable. Don't try any of that using any old USB cable laying around stuff.) So I do that. In as little as 30 seconds, I'm staring at a readable copy of Mortal Coil, on my Nook. My second helping of crow: This isn't as hard (by which I mean needlessly complicated) as I thought it would be.

Surely, the next step would vindicate me. The reading of the game on a Nook.... Nope. No vindication there, either. I got a rock. It's super easy to do. And the text is super clear. I can get the entire page on one screen. The font is a little small, but readable. And, I don't have to prop a laptop on my lap (ever notice how annoying that is?!) to read it. I can luxuriously lie in bed and read my copy of Mortal Coil. My only problems are, again, with the Nook. I cannot use its bookmark functionality. Neither can I change the font size nor use the highlighter function (and I highlight my books a lot. What's nice about the Nook is that I can highlight a section and not have to worry that I'm marking up a book; so my highlighting tendency has gone way up, even in books you wouldn't normally highlight). Most irritating is that I cannot stop at a certain page, switch to another book or put the Nook away, then go back to where I left off. The file always opens to the first page (which makes the lack of a bookmarking function super annoying).

Giant helping of crow: Aside from some technical glitches, downloading and reading a .pdf is actually pretty convenient. Using DriveThruRPG was easy, and allowed me to buy a game in the manner that I like. Loading the game onto the Nook Color was simple. And reading said game is now not only way more convenient than on a computer, it's also way more portable. Plus, the actual reading experience isn't as hideous as I remember. I conclude the experiment to be a success: I like the combination of the .pdf format and the Nook.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to shoo some kids off my lawn and watch some Matlock. Because I'm still a crumudgeon.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Apropos of Nothing

This posting has nothing to do with gaming. I promise. Every once in a while, something occurs that so completely makes me go ballistic that I've got to write about it. I get so pent up with frustration that I must find release; but since I'm not allow to punch a kitten, I've got to find some other way. Is it Natalie Portman's pregnancy? Is it the utter collapse of Western pop culture (I'm looking at you, Jersey Shore)? No. It's the horrible search engine employed by Barnes & Noble.

They've created for themselves a nifty little gadget, called a Nook. It's an e-reader, and it's pretty snazzy. Just as I like to carry my entire Depeche Mode collection on my iPod, I like to be able to carry a library of books with me everywhere I go. "I am done with the poetry of Beaudelaire, so I think I shall read some Conan now," I can say to myself. So the Nook ha quickly become my nearest and dearest companion. When they change the laws, I'll marry it. Because it gives me what I want, and it doesn't talk back. Right now, I'm bouncing between The Stranger, by Max Frei, and The Next 100 Years, by George Friedman.

In a stroke of marketing genius, the Nook automatically connects to the wifi network at any Barnes & Noble store. I don't have to agree to any terms of service, or look at any ads -- it just connects, even if I don't ask it to. Then it asks me if I want to go to their Nook store. This is genius because they (the corporation) know exactly why I'm there and they're interested in giving it to me. I want to browse books and buy them on my Nook. It combines two disparate elements: I like to wander the stacks looking for synchronicity, and I like to handle a physical object; but I then want to buy a digital file. The publishing world knows how people like to buy books. The consumer is attracted by the cover, which gets you to read the back cover text, which (if they're doing their job right) gets you to open the book. If you do that, you're statistically more likely to buy the stupid  book. So the Nook store takes this into account.

Unfortunately, the Barnes & Noble search engine completely blows. While reading The Stranger, I was struck by how close the tone was to The Hengis Hapthorn series, written by Matthew Hughes. So I wanted to see if I could download Majestrum to my Nook. I couldn't find the book, because I'd forgotten the title. No problem, I thought, I'll do an author search. The B&N search engine produces every single combination of "Matthew" and "Hughes" it could find. I think it may have even made some up. But, see, I didn't ask it to spit out "Mike Hughes," or "Matthew Howard," or "Matthew Matthew." I wanted "Matthew" and "Hughes". I thought this was just B&N being extra super thorough. But then I searched for Evil for Evil, by K.J. Parker. It spit out every blankety-blank book with the word "evil" in the title. There are billion books that meet this criteria.

Really, B&N? I just want you to find what I asked for. Not what you think I asked for. If I search for The Tattooed Map, I really don't want 300 art books about tattoos. Thank you for playing, though. I thought initially that this was just something the Nook did, but the B&N website does the same ridiculous thing. How hard is it to search for just the words in my search string? When I search for "Matthew Hughes" that means I want you to search for "Matthew" AND "Hughes".

Therein likes the problem, I think. I'm an old-school web user. I remember a time when you had to use boolean search terms to find anything on the 'net. They're the words right out of Conjunction Junction: And, but, and or. So in the old days, you'd type in "Matthew and Hughes" and get what you wanted. That, and a  bunch of unrelated porn websites. Nowadays, however, when you use a boolean search term, Google kindly informs you that you no longer need to do that. To which I say: Hogwash!

(My long time friends may have noticed a distinct lack of cursing in this post, especially given my level of pique. But my friend Sara points out that I swear like a Russian sailor, and it's not nice. So I'm trying to clean up my act. Just substitute colorful, four-letter words where it seems appropriate.)

And as Google goes, so goes the world. Clearly, someone needs to re-acquaint the world's programmers with Conjunction Junction, and the utility of and, but, and or. Because I'm really tired of wading through 160 results when I search for Dune.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Roleplaying Games as Fiction

I was trying to sleep the other night, falling off slowly into the Land of Nod, when I was jerked awake. Now, normally, when I "jerk awake" that means the cops have busted in and I'm being hauled away. But it wasn't that kind of experience. (Nor was it the other kind of experience, for the filthy-minded among you). No, I had an idea that just couldn't wait to be put down on the page. I'd been talking to my friend Sara about game design earlier in the evening, nothing particularly technical, but she's been prompting me to write. I'd had some ideas, nothing particularly well-formed -- a mechanic here, a setting idea there. But nothing was jelling. My subconscious was chewing on these things, when things clicked.

Why write it as a game when I could write it as a story? That's not the idea I had. No. Instead, I just started writing down the ideas as they came into my head. What I discovered afterwards, when I read over my notes, is that I'd started writing a story. Changing the format of my thoughts -- from game to story -- seemed to make the whole process easier. (I'm not going to tell you about the idea. I generally keep that stuff to myself until the process is finished).

What I discovered is that all the random, scattered thoughts in my head about a game setting were finding their way into the notes on a story. Which brings me to this observation: What is the difference between a game and a story? There's a reason why White Wolf calls their games "The Storyteller System." It's really the main reason I enjoy roleplaying games. You get to tell a story.

Story is central in our lives as human beings. We learn by story. From the days sitting around the fire, hearing the story about Zog the Caveman's mastodon hunt, to the Hero's Journey, to that time the dwarf missed his saving throw and got turned into stone, we are story-dwelling beings. History isn't about facts and dates (something high school teachers never seem to get), it's about the story. How was America founded? What happened to the Roman Empire? We, as a species, translate our experiences into story.

It surprises me that there isn't more fiction inspired by roleplaying games. I would think almost every roleplaying game property would come with a fiction line automatically. I recall having hundreds of ideas for Star Trek that could have easily become scripts. My favorite was The Iconian Codex, which combined elements of Lovecraft and Star Trek. That would have been cool. Anyway, you'd think that game designers would write up their own roleplaying campaigns as stories. I wonder why they don't.

This, I think, is why the videogame experience will never top the table-top game experience. In the former, you're playing through someone else's story. You're experiencing story in a particular way. In the latter, you make the story. You determine the path. Death or glory are in your hands. I think it's the reason we play roleplaying games. I remember sitting around a table, and telling my character's story; his reactions to the situation the gamemaster (as fate) was throwing at us. It was a game, but it was something more.

As for me, I'm going to continue approaching my current project as a novel, and then take that work and turn it into a roleplaying game. I think it's a pretty sweet idea.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Tyranny of the Gamemaster

While I was writing the previous essay, I realized I'd left something out. The reason I don't like target numbers placed in the hands of the gamemaster. First, while I generally believe that the only people who visit this site are already game players and/or game designers, I feel there needs to be some background. Just in case Anne Hathaway has secretly become addicted to my prose, and harbors an unspoken passion for me, one that can only be aroused by my writing. In which case, Anne, I shall write game design notes to you while we repose beneath a banyan tree. The rest of you will have to just muddle through.

There are generally two ways in which to define a target number (the number that you must either roll over or roll under in order to determine the success of an action). The first, chronologically speaking, was to define this target number somewhere on the character sheet. You generated your character's strength, for example, and whenever you had to make some kind of strength-based test, you tried to roll under that number. Original D&D defined these numbers by the rules. Your character's saving throw and "to-hit" number were defined by your character's class and level. Roll under or roll under (depending on the task). This was later expanded to include skills, which were again the target number against which you rolled the dice. Thus, my skill at fishing is 14, so I must roll under 14 on 1d20.

Then, the element that determined success or failure in a task was placed in the hands of the gamemaster. The gamemaster is the referee. He's supposed to be impartial. I generally don't believe this, but more on this later. You have to do this once you make success the aggregate of attributes and skills. In simple English, once you say that success is a factor of an attribute (dexterity) and skill (sword), the numbers get too big to be the target number. Thus: DEX 10 + Sword 5 = rolling under 15 on 1d20. (First, you'd have to roll under in this system to account for character improvement. Second, yes, I know in D&D this actually works differently; I'm simplifying here. Bear with me.) You have to devise a scale by which you measure success or failure. This is the "difficulty table."

We had one of these in the ICON System. You're all familiar with them by now. The table says a routine task has a target number of ten, difficult tasks might be a 15, etc. This is why I, as a game designer, was concerned with statistical probabilities. If rolling 2d6 produced an average of 6-8, then this defined my difficulty table. Thus, if I roll 2d6 and add an attribute value (say 2) and a skill value (say 1), then my average roll is 9 to 11. So I'm going to make 10 the target number for a routine, average roll. Even an infirm, mentally deficient character can open doors and dress themselves (in other words, routine tasks). Adding an extra six-sider to the roll, or rolling 2d8, gives me a different bell curve, and thus a different difficulty table.

But it's this difficulty table to which I object.

First, I, as game designer, have to write up a whole bunch of situations and define their difficulty. I have to signpost what I mean by a "routine" task as opposed to an "impossible" task. And I have to do it objectively, without consideration of a character's attributes and skills. This is hard; is repairing a car "routine", an airplane "difficult", and a starship "impossible"? I don't know; I've never done those things. It also generates a lot of words. Game designers love generating words. Too much so, in my opinion. This leads to big, bloated game books that sell for $49.95.

Second, I'm placing an important decision in the hands of the gamemaster. He (or she) defines how difficult a given task is, using his (or her) assumptions. I may consider finding a particular secret door to be a "difficult" task, but someone else may rule that it's actually "nearly impossible." So what? I'll tell you: I don't believe the gamemaster is the impartial referee that we assume him to be. Because he's written an adventure, but forgot about the Elven thief's insanely high ability to spot hidden doors, and realizes his carefully designed adventure goes in the toilet if the Elf makes his skill test. So he sets a ridiculously high target number. In other words, he cheats. I can hear my friend Matt Colville in my head saying "so what? Any game can be broken. If a gamemaster is going to cheat, he's going to cheat." But why hand him the tools with which to do that? My apartment can be burglarized at any time, but I don't leave the front door unlocked.

Those are the two reasons I don't like the externalized difficulty chart mechanic.

10 RND20; Gosub Roll

I see by the "follower meter" on the left-hand side of the page that I now have six followers. Not enough to start my nihilistic death cult, sadly, but enough to encourage me. Welcome Number Six; I hope you're entertained. Later, once we get to monolithic cult status (by which I mean, I start making boo-yah money), I shall shower the six of you with perks and titles, such as "Grand Wizard of the Inner Chamber" with attendant nymph-nuzzling rights. Aren't you glad you got in on the ground floor?!

To be completely honest, I haven't given game design much thought the past few days. I've been working my day job as a mild-mannered waiter, and fetching someone another cosmopolitan doesn't allow for much deep thinking on game design (though it does encourage one to really, really, really want to get out of waiting tables); on this subject, I recommend you read for the low-down on how horrible this profession really is. Thus, I've decided to start doing some work on game design. Besides, I promised my friend Sara I'd start writing again.

All this is preamble to today's subject, random number generating systems. This is the heart of any game system -- the way in which we generate numbers to determine the success or failure of an action, randomly. Which means dice. Oftentimes, I'll hear gamers expound on their favorite system, saying this-or-that one is more "realistic" or "better." That may or may not be true. After all, all we're doing is randomly generating a number. A game in which players randomly draw a number out of a hat is really functionally the same as rolling dice, after all.

In the end, when we talk about "systems" (by which I mean game systems), what we're talking about is the core mechanic of determining success or failure. Sure, there are many other sub-systems that comprise a game's mechanics; how you generate basic attributes, saving throws, experience points... All those elements comprise a game's rules, but I think it's the core mechanic that's the most important. As much as I like All Flesh Must Be Eaten, I absolutely cannot stand the Unisystem's central mechanic, for example. (What makes that game great is the zombie design rules.)

Not a lot has gone on in this area over the last thirty years. But there's only so much you can do. The basic equation is: If [die roll] is equal to or greater than [target number], then success. That's all it is. (You can express it as the converse (equal to or less than), but you're really just saying the same thing.)

Originally, in D&D, this target number was defined by character class and level. If you were a first level fighter, you had to roll over a number defined on a "to hit" table. A first level thief had a different target number. Moreover, that's pretty much all we were concerned with -- whacking the monster with your sword. Modelling any other action was out of the question because there was no skill system.

That changed pretty rapidly, however. Soon, we got skill systems that modeled swimming, or climbing walls, or sneaking around, or hacking computers. But the central die mechanic remained the same. Roll a die and compare to a value. How we determined this value could only be defined in so many ways. With some systems, the target number was defined somewhat arbitrarily, that is to say the designers created a table upon which you cross indexed values. Or the target number was defined by the character's innate skills; roll over or under a number on the character sheet. Some systems only accounted for the character's skills. Others included base attributes and skills. Eventually, this target number was stripped out and placed firmly in the hands of the referee; he or she defines how difficult a task is by selecting the target number. This is where modern game design stands now:

If [die roll] + attribute + skill ³ [target number] = success

I see I've left out the question of the random number generator. Some games use six-siders, some 1d20, some use percentile dice. Big deal. There is functionally no difference between using 1d20 and using percentile dice. Both produce a straight-line progression, which is a fancy way of saying the statistical chances of rolling a one and rolling a 20 (or 100) are equal. The only time this changes is when you add extra dice to the mix, because now you're creating a bell curve. Rolling 2d6 produces different statistical likelihoods. The average roll on 1d6 is 3.5 (or rather, either a 3 or a 4); so the mean on 2d6 is 7, with a cluster of results around 6,7, and 8. There are fewer results of 2 or 12 (the ends of the bell curve). So the majority of your rolls are going to be around 6-8, with a few at the ends of the curve (the 2s and 12s). But you know all this. And I've likely lost the math-challenged among you.

(This is why I both like and dislike the Storyteller system; you're rolling a number of dice equal to your attribute and skill, and looking for the number of successes, but I don't possess the math skills to calculate the statistical chance of success rolling 10d10.)

All of the above is a long, roundabout way of saying: I have no idea what to do vis a vis game design. On the one hand, there's no point in reinventing the wheel; it's all just sublime recapitulation (I love that phrase, it's from The Name of the Rose). Rolling over or under. Including attributes and skills, or not. It really doesn't matter. On the other hand, I really hate the idea of just using an existing system. It offends my design sensibilities. Moreover, I don't want someone saying "oh, it's just the Savage Worlds engine." A game's mechanics define the game. Playing Call of Cthulhu should feel different from playing D&D. (This is, by the way, the reason I was so discouraged by the Open Gaming License; every game felt like I was playing D&D. Imagine playing chess, Monopoly, and Chutes & Ladders using the rules for Battleship....) And yet that core game mechanic remains the same.

Thus, I conclude that it's not the central random number generating mechanic that's really important. It's all the other attendant sub-systems that define a game.