Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Truth In Gaming

I watch a lot of “making of” documentaries that come with the DVDs of my favorite movies. I’m especially a fan of those movies that come with the second DVD filled with this stuff. (Conversely, I’m always annoyed by the DVDs that don’t include this kind of material; what are you trying to do? Hide from the making of your own movie? Is it some kind of mystical secret?) In these, the director often talks about his vision for the movie, and the process he went through to get that on screen. From script revisions to story-boarding, setting up shots to post production, a good documentary takes you through the director’s process. One of the things that usually stands out for me is when the director talks about bringing himself – his eye, his sensibility, his understanding of the material – to the creative process. He talks about being “true to the work,” and that’s the vector that interests me.

I live with an aspiring actor. The basis of our friendship is our mutual interest in truth. Notice, I didn’t say “the truth.” I’m not talking about cosmic truth. For him, it’s being true to the character, or the scene. For me, as a writer, I try to stay true to the work. I also look for what’s true in the characters, the scenes, and the overall work. Much like a director wants to stay true to the script or the original novel, a good writer is dedicated to what is true. If I describe a character as compassionate and loyal, he’s not going to abandon his friend dying by the side of the road. If I write a scene where everyone wants to give up, he might try to rally them to soldier on, or he might argue to stay behind with the wounded… I don’t know what he’ll do, honestly, because I don’t know right now what is true to that character (because I’m writing an example, and not a novel).

As a writer, I strive to be true to the work. This is no less true for game design.

First, you should be true to the rules. The rules of any game encourage specific play modes. They reward certain kinds of behavior, and penalize actions that run counter to the game's objectives (what it's trying to do). Often, simply not rewarding contrarian actions is penalty enough to discourage them. For example, Call of Cthulhu is a game about cosmic horrors, and the slow disintegration of your character's sanity. The game wants your characters to be scared; even better if the players are scared for the health and well-being of their characters. The rules encourage this by making the PCs generally weak, emphasizing the importance of investigation, and including Sanity rules. A lot of other games include rules for the characters going crazy, however only Call of Cthulhu has you tick off points like hit points; this is so you can see your character slowly descend into madness the more Cosmic Truth he or she learns. Finally, you don't go charging Cthulhu with machine guns blazing, because you'd get squished right before your brains leak out of your ears. 

So, when you're designing rules, you should think about the truth of what you're trying to encourage. You're aiming to encourage specific kinds of play, to emphasize the game's genre and themes. In a game of film noir detective stories, there had better be rules for interrogating people and investigation. Putting in mass combat rules would run counter to the truth of your game. Moreover, the way in which you reward characters, experience points or skill increases, should be tied to those activities; solving the crime should net more rewards than simply shooting Sydney Greenstreet in the gut. If you're going to design a pirate game, there'd better be rules for naval battles and boarding actions. Including rules for diplomacy or sanity is a waste of time and detracts from the core game play (unless you're doing a Pirates of the Caribbean rip-off in the latter case); if you're trying to emulate the "Dread Pirate Rob" effect, you might want to include rules for tracking a pirate's fame (or infamy), for example. Character rewards could be tied not only to killing hapless sailors, but also the amount of booty players take; even better if the latter outweighs the former, to encourage them to want to steal as much booty as they can lay their grubby mitts on. 

If you're writing new rules for an existing ruleset, you want to think about what the game is trying to accomplish through its established modes of play. That's just a fancy way to say "don't add rules that the game doesn't need or want." There's a very good reason why there aren't any Sanity rules in the pirate game, so adding them is superfluous. You want to stay true to the game play. However, if you're now adding zombies and tentacled horrors to the pirate setting, then you obviously need to include those Sanity rules. If the game is about low-level magic in a contemporary setting, then don't add high-level magic item creation rules. You want to be aware of what the game is trying to achieve, and support that. New rules might provide variation to existing rules, so you can use them in a new way. If you need to add a completely new mechanic, make sure it blends in with the old rules. For example, the pirate game is fast-paced and doesn't encourage a lot of book-keeping, so your new Sanity rules should emulate this (rather than requiring a complex series of dice rolls and minute tracking). Lastly, you want to present appropriate conflicts. The Noir game is about investigation, so you don't want to write an adventure with a James Bond style mega-battle. Otherwise, you're going against the established play mode, and violating the game's truth.

There’s another layer to this, as well. What are the expectations of your target audience? You have to stick to your game’s expectations, or the expectations of the core audience. Vampire: the Masquerade is all about political intrigue, because what else are you going to do to occupy your time when you’re a soulless, immortal bloodsucker? The target audience expects a lot of intrigue and backstabbing and double-crossing. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, however, is all about slaying vampires; you don’t really need all that much information about vampire politics when all you care about is staking vampires and getting to class on time. 

As a writer, you should also be concerned about the setting's truth. The setting supports the established mode of play, by giving the players appropriate things to do, and presenting conflicts to resolve in the manner in which the game expects them to be resolved. Look at the difference between Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and Birthright. Those are all fantasy medieval settings, but with different elements that encourage a specific feeling, tone, and themes, which feed back into particular modes of play. Writing for Forgotten Realms is different than writing for Dark Sun. The setting for a horror game should be appropriately spooky, with dark shadows, a menacing landscape, and disturbing characters; you don't want to create a happy little ice cream shop (unless something seriously messed up is going to happen there). A post-apocalyptic setting is going to be gritty, with looted stores and a decaying landscape; you don't want to describe a happy little town with white picket fences (unless something very strange is going on). You can introduce vampire politics in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with one group trying to use the slayers against the other, but remember the objective isn't Vampire: the Masquerade-style intrigue; the players are never going to get involved in that level of detail. Stay true to your objective. 

Which brings me to the concept of juxtaposition. Notice in those last two examples, I proposed elements that run counter to the established theme. Juxtaposition actually ends up supporting the setting's assumptions by running counter to them. Presenting a happy little ice cream shop in a normally dreary horror setting immediately sets the player's teeth on edge. What kinds of horrible things could possibly occur in a Friendly's?! Their minds are already running through the gristly possibilities. If you're going to use this technique, again remain true to your objectives. Know why you're violating the setting's themes, and running counter to its truth. That is, this setting element has its own truth. Also, use this technique sparingly. 

In all cases, I'm asking myself "why is this here?" and "what am I trying to accomplish?" It's easy to get off track, become enamored with your own work, and loose sight of the work's truth. You have to stay true to the game's rules and established play mode, as well as true to the setting. If you're going to break the mode, then you have to stay true to your objectives. It's a lot to keep in mind. 

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