Sunday, February 27, 2011

Three Tricks for Setting

I did not expect to get to Dreamation this year, but My wonderful wife surprised me with a window of time that allowed me to day-trip up for the last day of the convention. Didn't play anything, and didn't get to see everyone, but still very much enjoyed myself.

Part of my fun was sitting down to talk with Brennan Taylor. Nominally, it was for a podcast, and he's got 10 minutes of me talking about hacking games that will no doubt be unleashed on an unsuspecting world at some point down the line, but after that, we got to talking about setting. This was a little bit catalyzed by talking about his forthcoming game, Bulldogs, which I'm pretty excited for, but it was also kind of general. From this conversation came three points that I'd like to share with anyone looking to write setting material, mostly out of a selfish desire to make it all interesting to read.

First: Write Around The Holes

As a tribe, we're smart people who like to show off how smart we are, and that lends itself to a completust streak. We also like our books, and we have an instinctive understanding that world building is something which should usually yield to the necessities of story. These elements combine to create complete, cohesive settings with satisfying narrative arcs and it's terrible.

If you're writing a setting for play, you are not telling a story - you are creating an opportunity for someone else. This doesn't mean that nothing should be going on - quite the contrary, things should be hopping - but they should not be resolved. It is ok to set things up and then just stop. Our instincts may want to resist, but by doing so we create the opportunity for people to fill those holes with play, which seems rather the point.

Settings that fail to do this may be interesting and colorful, and they may be entirely satisfying as a pure backdrop of play (that is to say, interchangeable dungeon storage) but if you want the setting to matter, leave the holes in place and trust someone else to fill them.

Second: Playable Is Better Than Clever

In jokes, word play and other setting elements that have nothing to do with play and everything with the author squeezing in something cunning need to be used with the utmost caution. This is not to say text needs to be all serious - jokes which include the reader or the occasional easter egg can be fine, but if you're just showing off, knock it off.

Short point, I know, but there it is.

Third: The Three Sentence Rules

Virtually any setting element can be fruitfully described in three sentences: a description, a distinction and a hook (they don't literally need to be three sentences, but you get the idea). For example: Varn Kasi is an Ethari crime lord (description) based out of a gentlemen's club overseeing the Alverado harbor (distinction). He's making preparations for war against the Dwarf gangs horning in on his silver dust trade (hook).

That is not a lot of information, but it's enough to play with. A GM can absorb that from a book and very quickly plug it into actual play. You really don't want to use less information than those three sentences - doing so can cause the reader to wonder why you're bothering to mention it at all. But on the other hand, you want to have a very good reason to provide any more information than that. Obviously, you will want to do so for the central elements of your setting, but it is worth challenging yourself to determine what more you really need to add. See, the three sentences is a sweet spot. Every additional piece of information you add takes longer to absorb and - almost paradoxically - often puts more limits on the element in question.

This need not be so. If the extra information is kept sharp and focused on how it will come out at the table, it will probably work out. And the best way to make that happen is to really ask yourself how you're improving on those three sentence.

So, three guidelines. They're not hard and fast rules, and they are probably a bad match when you are talking about worldbuilding in fiction, but gaming has different priorities, and it's important to remember that a game's setting should not be a reformatted novel. If you want to write a novel, then write a novel. Heck, it might even make for a great setting to game in once your done. But if you're writing setting, then write for play.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Investment in Advancement

Haven't done a random idea post in a while, so I figure I'm due.

Twitter discussion with @atminn gave me an interesting idea for how to handle player investment in the setting in a way that ties it directly into advancement. I'm going to present this in a fairly generic fashion, but the concept is pretty easily portable to whatever system you prefer to use.

The core idea is a basic one - tying character advancement to the investment in the setting by tying points earned to specific setting elements (usually people) and paying out advancement when those elements how up in play. The basic model pays out something like this:

1 point if the element shows up during the session.
2 points if the GM has to "take the reins" of the element and actively use it during the session.
3 points if the element is central to the session, seeing use in many scenes.
4 points if the element is put at risk
5 points if the element is lost or destroyed.

This can be tracked pretty easily with something like this on the character sheet - just mark the box as it happens, then pay out the highest value at the end of the session.

For Example, if Lord Chuzzleworth (Chaz to his friends) is your anchor, you might get the highest of the following in a given adventure:
  • Get 1 point if you say go see him, send him a letter or otherwise bring him up in play (it's very easy for a player to get 1 point).
  • Get 2 points if the GM uses Chaz to hire the group to do something.
  • Get 3 points if that something is to escort Chaz to Castle Winterscap
  • Get 4 points if there are assassins after Chaz specifically (as opposed to generic road dangers)
  • Get 5 points if Chaz gets killed.

Now, by itself this is pretty abusable, since it basically encourages players to get their elements killed and replaced as quickly as possible, so there needs to be some check on that, allowing for investment in an NPC or other element to grow over time. To model this, I propose that at the end of every session (and chargen) the player gets a point. That point can be used to add a new element at "rank 1" (more on that in a second) or to increase the rank of a current element (I'd cap the maximum number of elements somewhere around 3).

The "rank" of an element indicates it's maximum payout. That is, if your character's father is one of his elements, but only at rank 1, then the character only gets 1 point of XP when dad shows up, not matter how involved his role. This is not exactly speedy investment, but it makes the ideas of risk and loss carry a bit of a mechanical edge in addition to whatever they may mean in the fiction.

There's a lot of implicit information for the GM to work with in this kind of setup, but most importantly, it can turn the player into an advocate for risk. Even the most mechanically-minded player has incentive to push things towards the more dangerous (and interesting) outcomes, and at the same time offers some small payback if things go horribly wrong. In some ways, it's the flipside of the XP system from The Shadow of Yesterday. It's not player directed, as TSOY is, but that sentiment of transparency and explicit xp hooks is definitely baked into the thinking.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Princess Is In Another Castle

A couple of people asked in comments yesterday what I mean by unfairness. I started to reply, but it ran long enough to turn into today's post. Now, while it would be easy to turn to fiction for examples, the simple truth is that most any good example of unfair from fiction would be a spoiler, so I must tread carefully.

At its heart, unfairness hinges on expectations, in this case player expectations. They did X, so they deserve Y. They Killed the dragon so they deserve the reward. They broke into the vault, so they deserve the treasure. When they don't get it, it's easy to be pissed or to feel the GM pulled a bait and switch. The players had a reasonable expectation of outcome (both mechanically and within the fiction) and the GM is explicitly defying that expectation, usually through simple expedience of the GM narrating the world (which someone will insist on calling fiat because, hey, what's a good discussion without fighting words?)

A very bad example of unfairness would be the player's rescuing the king from assassins, but he then dies falling down the stairs. That's kind of random and capricious, and it makes a useful example because of the reasons it doesn't work. It definitely violates the player's expectations of outcome (they saved the king, he should damn well stay saved), so why is it a bad example? It's because the reversal is too neutral. It's bad, sure, but it's not BAD. In contrast, consider the example of the heroes saving the king only to have him believe that THEY were the assassins, and call for their heads. That's unfair, but it's the right kind of unfair.

Good unfairness can be found throughout darker fiction (Martin, Morgan and Abercrombie spring to mind). Heroes are reviled and villains exalted. No good deed goes unpunished. You know the drill.

Dramatically speaking, it's all about the emotional charge. Mckee and Snyder both talk about this, but I'll sum up: in fiction, a good scene starts at one emotional state (positive or negative, + or -) and changes state over the course of the scene (or beat, depending). Sometimes those go to double positive (++) or double negative (--) for great victory or terribly defeat, but the general idea is pretty easy to grasp. In almost every interestingly unfair situation, the players are expecting a big payout (++) and the GM instead hands them a ticking time bomb (--). That's a huge emotional jump, going from the high of the expectation to the abrupt low. This is why the king falling down the stairs is kind of lame. It's bad (maybe - at worse) but it's got no real punch for the players. The emotional level doesn't make as big a jump, so it's just kind of annoying.

But here's the rub - the power of the event is all about that unexpected reversal. The bigger the gap, the more powerful the moment, and that's what demands unfairness. Specifically, it must be unexpected, and under any kind of measure of fairness, that big a jump would simply not be possible. It requires disempowerment, opacity and surprise, all of which are INSANELY abusable things. But they do the job.

Now, I want to note that unfairness is not necessary for the _events_ to occur. A fair table populated by players with a good sense of drama are fully capable of inviting outcomes on themselves every bit as brutal as the dramatically unfair GM is going to do, perhaps even moreso. But I am saying that unfairness (or more aptly, the surprise and dramatic shift which only unfairness can allow) is the only way to deliver the real gut punch.

Obviously, this is only one sort of payout. I don't expect every table to prioritize it the way that I do, nor would I want them to. Games offer a huge array of emotional rewards, and it's well worth going towards those you value most. But it's an important one for me, and I consider it a tricky one to do well, so I figure it was worth some air time.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Fairness and Trust

(Unrelated to anything in today's post, I encourage you to go check out the Sight for Sore Eyes Benefit Bundle, a benefit for a single mother who is losing her vision. At $10, it's a steal. We may not have yet figured out how to save the world with our games, but I have never been disappointed in how hard we are willing to try.)

Yesterday's post stayed with me longer than usual, and some very thoughtful comments really left things rattling around in my head. The issue that I think I accidentally tripped over in my consideration of choice is that of fairness. After some thought, I think this may be something of a keystone that really determines what shape a game will take.

I kicked it around for a while and came down to a pretty simple question: Do you trust your GM to be unfair?

Like most such questions, the simplicity is deceptive. The idea that you might want your GM to be unfair is a pretty crazy proposition - GM unfairness is, after all, one of the things we spend a lot of time and effort trying to find ways to fix. Most of the worst kinds of abuses take the form of GM unfairness, after all, and a lot of games have been very heavily designed to minimize the GM's opportunities to be unfair in the first place.

What's more, fairness has a critical role in the flow of information, because fairness marches hand in hand in hand with predictability. That may sound dull, but it's a critical part of getting invested in a fiction. Players depend upon having a reasonable understanding of the likely outcome of their actions. No one wants to make stupid mistakes because of a misunderstanding about the physics of the world.

But, of course, there's a but.

When a GM is good enough that they're not going to screw the players, and the players have reciprocal level of trust, new options appear. It becomes possible for the game to be unfair in a manner that is neither punitive nor grating. Instead, it can feel more like life, with tragedies and triumphs that don't always line up with how you expect them. Victories and losses carry weight, but they may not bring closure. Tomorrow, you still need to get up and face the day.

I have no idea about other people's experiences, but for me, that is something of an exalted level of play. When things get that good and bad, that's when it really comes to life. It creates the kind of games that I chase like a junkie. The games I've seen in that place are what make me so passionate about this hobby, because the prospect of managing to capture that lighting in a bottle is my holy grail.

Sadly, I suspect my story is more Lancelot than Percival (who I always liked better than Galahad). I'm not sure I'll ever find it because for all the love I have for systems and the good things they can bring, I don't think this is something they can achieve. It's a human thing. A good system can help, but it's ultimately built on talent and trust. I like to think I can help someone find the tools to get there themselves, but it's ultimately up to that GM.

So, do you trust your GM to be unfair? Do you want to? I know my answers, but I'm curious about yours.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Makes a Choice

In a strange juxtaposition, I've been playing Knights of the Old Republic and watching The Shield. The Shield is new to me based on many recommendations, including several suggesting it hits similar notes to The Wire. KOTOR I've played before, but never finished (for technical reasons), and I decided to fire it up while waiting for Dragon Age 2. Both are awesome in almost entirely unrelated ways.

So, one of the strong things about KOTOR, which is shares with most of the other Bioware RPGs, is that the player is presented with numerous choices, and those choices have consequences. In KOTOR, this is tracked by your movement towards the dark or light side, though the choice usually also has an immediate (and sometimes powerful) impact on the fiction. This is not all there is to the game - there are cool lightsaber fights and annoying logic puzzles - but like most Bioware games, the thing that really pulls me in are the characters and the choices.

The Shield is also keeping me sucked in because of the characters and choices. It has a great cast, and while it need to occasionally nod to it's FX roots ("We're EXTREME!"), its mostly a very patient, deep show that's willing to play out the long game to explore the characters and the choices they make (both why they make them, and what they mean).

If asked, I would say the Shield is deeper and more powerful, and I found myself wondering why. Some of it is the nature of the medium - more happens in a hour of the Shield than in an hour of KOTOR play, just due to the necessities of gameplay. But that's not an automatic bump - there are many TV shows I would rate below KOTOR. Just having more time doesn't mean you use it well.

Next, I wondered if it might be an issue of immediacy. The Majority of KOTOR choices have an immediate result, but don't really linger. On the Shield, there may be no immediate impact, but the choice never really goes away. This, I think, is closer to the truth. KOTOR does have some element of long game too, but it doesn't really build a landscape out of choices made the way The Shield does. So that's part of it.

The rest, I think, is about fairness. Games (and gamers) tend to favor fair choices, at least in terms of opportunity cost. No choice is going to ever offer you a free ride, and if it did, we'd view it as cheating. By the same token, no choice is going to screw us over so completely as to stop our fun. We trust those things to be true, both practically and in terms of our sense of fair play. The shield, on the other hand, has no need to be fair. Consequences may be entirely disproportionate or inappropriate to the choices made. The logic of the writer room guarantees that these consequences are compelling while at the same time given them a feeling of capriciousness which feels very apt for an unfair universe.

Drawing back to a high level, this suggests to me three things I want to think about in offering choices in games I run: frequency, immediacy and fairness. Some part of me wonders if there should be a fourth about the importance of choices (contrast choosing which door to take vs which lord becomes king) but I think that's a slightly different discussion. Players will make thousands of small choices every game, and how those are constrained is a logistical issue more than a dramatic one. As such, I look at these three elements as things I want to bear in mind for choices that are interesting in play, as determined by the table. The simple truth is that interesting trumps important.

Now, there's no one right way to handle those three ideas. Rather, they make good dials for adjusting tone and tenor of a game. A game with frequent, immediate, unfair choices is going to feel very different than one with rare, far-reaching fair ones. If you find your players are not really engaging the choices in your game, look at where you have the dials set, and see what happens when you adjust one of them. If nothing else, it gives you many more options than just making impactful choices an all-or-nothing thing.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Books are not Broken

Today is a good lesson in hubris and opportunity. The post is a bit late because I have the day off today, and I figured I'd just knock it out this morning rather than do it the night before, as I usually do. Little did I suspect that it would be the kind of morning that disallows time to write until sometime well after things should be posted. So, that's a humbling reminder.

But it also made for an opportunity. Having finished the audiobook of Reality is Broken, I was initially going to take a swing at my review of it today. I've spent much of the weekend thinking about the book and my own reaction to it, both good and bad, without really concluding anything. I had a surprise inspiration this morning, while listening to my next audiobook, The Goal.

Now, The Goal has been an interesting read, but for reasons totally unrelated to games. It's a fictionalized account of how a manufacturing plant improves its means of production and a love story. It's something Paul Tevis spoke well of, and I never ignore the man's suggestions. It's been interesting, doubly so since it's a fairly old book (it's from the eighties) so there was a mix of pre-technology thinking (like no cel phones and needing to specify "computer printout" and "laptop computer") with business idea that were familiar. In this case, familiarity is not a criticism, rather, it's indicative of how much I have seen the influence of this book in other things I've read. Anyway, good stuff for the business nerds, maybe less so for the gaming nerds.

The bit that jumped out at me was in the afterward, where the author talks about his experiences since writing the book. It was a big success, and the methods in the book were demonstrably useful, but getting people from agreement to implementation was (as it always is) a substantial hurdle. In talking about the methods he tried, he quite casually mentions that one of the most obvious and successful approaches was the creation of a computer game to illustrate the principals. Here's this decades-old book making an off-the-cuff comment about the utility of games like it's the most obvious thing in the world.

And the thing is - I suppose it is.

And that's when I realized where Reality is Broken and I parted ways. While the early chapters provide some very interesting and useful analysis about what makes a game, that's not really what the book is about. There is a division between the act of playing the game (and what that can accomplish) and the game itself which needs acknowledgment. That is, a game may improve the player (teach skills, for example) or it may improve a situation (the players figure out how to solve a problem) but those are different (if related) outputs.

RiB skimps on the former in favor of the latter. Not because it's being lax, but rather because it's clear the author's passion is in the big game (a fact which makes the strongly self-promotional nature of Reality is Broken less irksome to me than it is in other). That is, the ARGs she's most excited about are ones where the game as a whole does something good to improve the world. Improvement to the player gets a mention, but it's treated far more shallowly - akin to games of "Who can pick up their room faster?" that parents have been trying to sell to kids forever. (The one exception to this is quest for learning school system, which the book provides a fantastic account of, but little analysis. It felt out of place, though it was great to read about).

Seeing this has made the book both better and worse for me. That perspective does and interesting job of aligning it with the fantastic Gamestorming, which is also about using games to do things, but on a much more personal scale (which makes it less dramatic, but more practical as well), and with that goal more clearly in mind, I think the book does a decent job.

Sadly, that's not what i was looking for. Not the book's fault, of course, but there it is. See, I'm already sold on games being awesome. I take it as a given. But I want to know HOW to make them more awesome. I want to embrace the range of their strengths (consider modeling vs creation alone - HUGE mileage there) and talk about how to use those strengths usefully. I am annoyed and frustrated when the only thing we can takeaway from games is points and ribbons, thus more or less missing the entire point. I had been hoping that RiB was the book to bring me closer to those answers, but it wasn't.

This is, I suspect, going to stand in lieu of a review, so here's the bottom line: reality is broken is worth reading, though a library copy will probably do the job. It's got some very interesting ideas about what makes a game and how they relate to work, and while they're under-explored, they're definitely thought provoking. The book it awash in conclusions and assertions that I disagree with, but they're thoughtfully made.

On the downside, it's a bit jargon heavy, and in parts outright disturbing in its tone. Matters that raise questions of bullying, addiction and indoctrination are all blithely discussed under a cheerful umbrella of "positive psychology" to an extent that left me uncomfortable at times. I think everyone who has spent time thinking about games and game culture knows there are downsides, but you wouldn't know that from this book. That omission really weakens the foundation of things.

So, there it is. It's worth a read, and I'm glad I did, but it left me waiting for something that's not here yet.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Personally Epic

So, tabletop RPGs and Video Games have their own strengths and weaknesses, but what is most interesting to me are the areas of overlap, where both are strong, but in tellingly different ways.

The most obvious example of this is in the realm of feedback, something I consider a strength for both models. Video Games allow much faster, finer grained feedback, but it must be within specific bounds. RPGs allow for broader (and more human) feedback on almost anything. This balance of strengths is very interesting, and obviously each approach would benefit from the strengths of the other. If we could offer deep, rich, immediate feedback to tabletop play, that would be as potent as adding real emotional investment to video game feedback.

The one that's really on my mind is scope. One of the recurring themes in Reality is Broken is about the human response to the "epic". This point comes up so often that I admit I never want to hear the word again, but it's an interesting one all the same. The assertion is that the level of work and detail that goes into crafting game worlds can inspire the same sense of awe that we get form other great works of man - cathedrals and such. The point is, I think, a little overwrought - a well made Halo level may be impressive, it's still experienced through a screen, and falls short of Notre Dame. Still, the underlying idea that Video Games can impress us with their scope is a good one. Controlling the sweep of empires, watching armies clash and other play at various scales is impressive and moving.

This is why a lot of video games have such high stakes within the fiction. A video games has the tools to get across to you some of the weight of saving the world, and that's pretty cool in and of itself, but it's also a clever leveraging of a weakness. The rub is this: it is easier to do epic than it is to do personal.

As people, we care a lot about other people and the world around us. Saving the world is a dramatic abstraction, but saving our kid brother is something we understand. We protect the people we love. We seethe in the face of those we hate. We engage people in a very personal way. For fiction (and by extension, games) the creation of those personal connections is an act of art, not science. Worse, it doesn't necessarily scale well, except perhaps in the hands of very talented artists. Making that connection is hard enough that most video games opt to take the easier route of going for epic[1]. And it's a smart choice - they've got the tools for it.

Tabletop inverts this. It can do epic, but it has far better tools for the personal. Some of this is a function of the medium - in play, it is easier to convey people than it is a special effects budget - but it's also a function of scale. A video game needs to impress everyone who plays it - a GM needs to impress a very small audience, an audience that she can watch and listen to. Yet for all that, there are tricks and methods a GM learns to use to capture that level of engagement reliably.

Ultimately, there will always be a bit of a divide in terms of which approach is stronger for which kind of scope, but unlike other differences, this definitely seems like one where each approach has a lot to learn from the other. To touch on yesterday, this is definitely something to look at ARGs for, as they often manage to convey scope without the immediacy of video games while still giving a slightly more personal sense of what's going on.

Anyway, having finished Reality is Broken, and having been drawing posts out of it all week, I really need to get around to reviewing it.

[back]1 - Video games _can_ do this, but it depends far more on good writing and design than any technology. The most visceral experience I had with this was in playing Dragon Age. I had played as a city elf, and the city elf introduction is probably the most powerful in the game, revolving around your family and very bad, very personal things happening to them. When you finally make it back to your neighborhood, you see some of the aftermath of events, and it's very human. Bioware avoided the cheap tricks and cliches, and in doing so made these characters come to life for me.

In the endgame, there's a point where you pull back to a strategic map of the city to see where the bad guys are hitting things. Nominally, you should be making tactical decisions about how you want to deal with this, but one of the threatened neighborhoods is your home. My instant, utterly instinctive response to that was that my family was in danger, and I picked that location without even looking at the rest of the map.

Dragon Age was a great game, but for all its amazing elements, that is still the element that comes to the top of my mind when I think about it. This is true of other games too - the moments that really stand out are the personal ones, like a well done death or something really moving. This may make no sense to anyone who hasn't played it, but here's another: to this day, I remember almost nothing about Final Fantasy IX (my least favorite in the series until XIII) but I remember Vivi and the Black Mage village.

Prick me and I can bleed other examples. This is the main reason I remain a CRPG junkie. Hard to get that fix elsewhere.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Castle ARG

When I talk about video games and RPGs (and I will be talking about them some more soon), I speak from a fairly solid foundation of experience. Today, though, I am talking about something I know very little about, precisely because I know so little about it. Specifically, I'm talking about Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs.

(Note: While I always appreciate comments, I would like to especialy call out for them today from anyone who can expand on these points or who can call me out for being full of it)

These are on my mind, as many of this weeks topics are, because of their prominence in Reality is Broken. When the author is talking about games that can really change the world, these are the ones she's really talking about, games that can engage a large number of players over a geographically diverse area in pursuit of shared goals. There are numerous variations, but the basic pattern seems to be this:
  1. Some sort of mysterious information is released to the public in a place that will draw some attention. It will be presented in such a way as to inspire curiosity, raise questions, and get people looking around.
  2. Investigation will reveal other sources of information, some of it real, much of it fake (in the form of fake blogs, fake posting on social networks and so on). In a big game, these investigations will extend beyond the internet and into real world investigations, through things like geocaching.
  3. As the investigation occurs, community springs up to discuss the problem and collaborate on solutions. This will probably be subtly or overtly helped along by organizers. Ideally, the puzzle is too complex and varied for any one person to solve it all, so the community is a necessity.
  4. Events may occur. People may get mysterious messages or phone calls, or there may be real life events managed by game masters.
  5. Eventually, things move into endgame. The last piece of information is revealed, probably an action to be taken or an event to be attended. When the curtain rises on that, the "winners" (members of the community who stuck through it) attend and reap appropriate benefits, or at least take secondhand enjoyment from other members of the community attending.

It sounds very dramatic, and while there are lots of possibilities for this sort of game, its most common use at the moment is as a means of marketing a brand. What may be the most famous ARG, I Love Bees, was a big ramp up to a Halo launch. Even the altruistic games talked about in the book, such as one for the Olympics, are ultimately promotion for the sponsors.

This sounds cynical, and it maybe is, but at the same time there's a bit of harsh necessity to it. In some cases we're talking about games that will be played in a few weeks which will take over a year to prepare. That ratio seems totally off unless you can really get the kind of numbers of players to make it feel like the effort was worth it. Or, at least, so it seems.

The crazy thing is that the technologies that make all this possible potentially make it easy for a much smaller operator to do something compelling, at least with the right combination of creativity and dedication. This thought is driven into my mind by a packet I received back during the height of the recent blizzard.
This is a packet of information for an ARG being run by Big House Comics. As a prop nerd, I'm blown away by the quality fo the work on this, but not surprised. Kevin, the guy behind this, is one of those disgustingly talented types, and he very clearly spared no effort in making the material really work. Now, I recognize a lot of the techniques that go into making this stuff, and I can tell you that you can accomplish a lot of it on a very small budget if you're willing to put in the time and work.

Obviously, you should check out BHC - I wouldn't have brough them up otherwise - but this example of a more grassroots ARG comes back to a question that has kept me from paying much attention to them: can they really get any good synergy with RPGs? Historically, I'd have said no. The scale is all wrong, the rewards are a poor match, and - to use phrase I rather liked from the book - much of it is "Real Play, not Role Play" (which is to say, you're playing as yourself, or someone very near to yourself).

But what if the bar is lower? What if the complexities of creating a good ARG have been a function of their relative novelty, and the medium is a bit more open to us down on the street. If so, that's a promising thought. The RPG community is already rich with enthusiasts and contributors - as the scads of blogs, web pages and wikis will testify - so would it be such a bad thing to engage that energy in play? As a game publisher, the prospect of an ARG in support of your game seems a reasonable scale. For a LARP organizer, it would seem only a small stretch. For an actual game, something on the scale of under a dozen people, then it might be rough, but I no longer think it's impossible.[1]

Put another way - perhaps there's another avenue for solo-yet-not-solo fun than just creating characters.

I'm going to be thinking about this one for a while. The difference between "It can be done" and "here's how to do it" is a big one, but I think it's a gap that can be crossed.

[back]1 - Thinking about it, there's some precedent. PBEM/Post games like De Profundis are already using the same infrastructure as ARGs, albeit on a small scale. Similarly, Games like the Amber DRPG have a strong streak of out-of-game contribution. These ideas are largely untapped by rpgs as a whole, but they're on the table.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Upside of Tabletop

So, yesterday, I was thinking about the things that video games do well. Today I'm going to turn that around and talk about the things that tabletop games do well (relative to video games). This is not going to be touchy-feely stuff like engaging the imagination. While this is certainly true, it's not terribly quantifiable, so I'm going to stick to somewhat more concrete benefits: Flexibility, responsiveness and emergence.

Flexibility is the first and most obvious benefit of tabletop, as it allows the players to "go off the rails" at will. Computer games require a lot of suspension of disbelief. Even in the most realistic of games, there is rarely an opportunity to climb a wall you shouldn't climb or open a door that's not supposed to be open. If a tabletop game has these limits it is usually a result of the GM being a tool rather than any failure of the medium. This seems like a very small thing, but it's impact is huge in a great many ways. It allows players to move towards their interests freely, and it allows problem solving to become much more sophisticated.

Responsiveness is the very simple idea that player's actions have a noticeable impact on the game world. That is, if they clean out a dungeon, then the land around it might get reclaimed or somethign else might move in or something else might occur that is a direct result of that action. Video Games have gotten better at this - "phasing" technology in World of Warcraft allows certain quests to change the game world, and games like Fable and Dragon Age allow the game to unfold differently depending on choices - but they still drastically pale by comparison to tabletop. In a computer game there are merely more options that get explored, but the ultimate range is still pretty fixed.

It's worth a nod to the idea of game artificial intelligence as shaking this up. A sufficiently well designed game AI can definitely make for a much more flexible range of reactions, but for the moment it's still pretty toy-like. Even if done well, it's very hard to code in the decisions (often non-optimal decisions) that make things feel real.

Emergence is possibly the most powerful of these three, but it is very much a function of the intersection of flexibility and responsiveness. To put it simply, emergence is the unexpected that emerges naturally from play (as contrasted wit merely arbitrary or random surprises). The result of several creative people working together on a game is that it will almost always produce unanticipated results, usually in an awesome way. These surprises, from funny scenes to crazy plans to truly unintended consequences, create the real difference between play and the kinds of fiction it represents.

Now, emergence is possible in video games. Any toolset that allows humans to interact has the possibility of spawning the unexpected. Consider that a game of tag could break out on a counterstrike map - it's not what the game is designed for, but the players have made it so. Emergence in video games tends to be very interesting, since it's all about the manipulations of a limited tool set, but the limitations on the range of play are also limits on the range of emergence. Even with very creative players, the tools will eventually become a hindrance, when you attempt to play a courtly romance in Halo. Of course, one of the fun things about video games is that someone might write a mod to make it possible, but that's a slow solution.

In contrast, emergence is almost impossible to avoid on the tabletop. Get people together and give them some freedom, and crazy stuff will come of it. Yet despite this, many GMs view this as an undesirable outcome, and attempt to lock down play as much as possible, to either quelch emergence entirely, to keep it channeled to very specific avenues (such as encouraging it in tactics, but not in the rest of gameplay). And, obviously, some games are better or worse at helping this along, though ultimately the real limiter is the people involved. A GM or player unwilling to deviate from rules as written has, effectively, accepted the same limitations video games operate under. This is not always a bad thing (constraints can breed creativity, after all) but it's still going to depend on the hearts and minds of the people involved to figure out how to make that work.

As with video games, these are not intended to be things that ONLY RPGs can do, just a thought about what they do well. All straightforward enough so far, but tomorrow I'm going to look at some slightly different territory - ARGs.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Where Video Games Excel

The discussion of games and video games is going to be a bit of a theme this week as I finish up Reality is Broken. Today, I want to talk about three things video games handle very well, even better than tabletop game: providing clear goals, creating a constant feedback cycle and allowing robust failure.

Clear goals are tied into yesterday's discussion, since they're a big part of why it tends to be easy to move directly into play. Exactly how the goals may be communicated varies from game to game (a shooter may present you with enemies while an MMO may have quest text. It's worth noting that while video games don't always do this well (and can, in fact, drop the ball spectacularly), when the do it right they make the play experience seamless.

A big part of this hinges on the fact that games can more easily put goals directly into the context of play. Yes, some may have dialog or text, but many other games can present the goals (and the possible path to the goal) as implicit in the situation. This might be as crude as a boss monster showing up or as broad as a fading flashlight in a dark lair. Where tabletop play may require stepping back to explain the goal, means and consequences, the ability to present all that as ambient information is a fantastic trick.

A Constant feedback cycle is important to distinguish from feedback in general. Tabletop games can provide feedback in a number of ways, but it tends to do so in very broad strokes (either reaction in play, or through systems like advancement). This can be powerful and compelling, but there are practical limits on how fine a grain it can be. Video Games have no such limitations. They can track all manner of minutae, and potentially turn nearly anything into feedback. Gain a little sword skill every time you swing the sword. Track how many head shots you've performed to award you a prize. Build a win/loss ratio.

Constant feedback can be pretty compelling in a lot of ways, but the most potent is probably the most mundane - it's the simple "Do something, something happens" dynamic. Consider the kind of repetitive action that makes up a game of World of Warcraft or Bejeweled - it's soothing and enjoyable in a way it would not be if you were to describe the actions over and over again. The computer is willing to give you feedback indefinitely, while a human GM or player will get bored pretty quickly.

This is not to say that crunching numbers and pressing buttons are the end-all-be-all of gaming, but sometimes that's what a player wants, and video games are the best tool for the job.

The last, robust failure, is probably one of the single greatest advantages video games have over tabletop. One of the reasons people are wiling to pound away at video games is that they greatly lower the price of failure. If failure actually hurt or cost us something, we'd be far more hesitant in our play, but the fact that is has little sting makes us willing to take risks and more fully engage in the game. The only price of failure is to play again, and since we can presume that we enjoy playing, that's a price we're happy to pay.

This is, by and large, a hard idea to transport to tabletop play. The very idea of a persistent, reliable, imaginary world that forms a foundation for so much play makes consequences a necessity for maintaining that sense of verisimilitude. This means that things like save points and respawns are cumbersome ideas at best. Yet despite this, there's a lot to be said for getting the kind of engagement out of players that comes of not being paralyzed by consequences and risk. Even if RPGs can't fully capture this mojo, they can learn from it. Whether that means introducing setting elements like immortal PCs of (god forbid) respawns, or if it's just a mechanical trick, like making failure interesting or even useful, then you have taken steps towards makign failure a bit more robust.

(Notice that none of these are 'graphics'? Good reason for that. Graphics are tangential to gameplay, and mostly come into play through the lens of level design, which _is_ important, but is not something I'd say is a great strength of video games - it's more of an ugly necessity)

Ok. Deep breath. Got those out of the way. Which means, tomorrow, we look at things that RPGs do well but Video games kind of blow at.

Monday, February 14, 2011


John Harper made a point on twitter the other day that speaks directly to something that bothers me in a lot of game designs, especially ones I've had a hand in. The problems is that a lot of games pick up inertia with quick rules and a strong premise, then grind to a halt when it comes time to pick stunts, powers or whatever other specific fiddly bits provide the exceptions the the baseline rules. Things grind to a halt as players flip through the book, reading and reviewing their options before making decisions that they're really worried will be the wrong ones.

This is a problematic way to start a game, and a number of strategies have been established to address it, such as setting up quick-picks and packages, or simply preparing characters in advance of the game. These can work, but they're ultimately duct tape and a band aid sort of solutions.

Video games handle this much better, especially more modern video games, since they are designed with an assumption that the manual will barely be glanced at. Players learn how to play by doing it. There are numerous strategies that support this, including familiar control schemes, but the most basic is to start the player with a smaller set of capabilities and options than they will eventually have in play. Historically, this was the domain of "tutorial levels", segments of play that were outside of the regular scope of play, where you'd be walked through the various details of rules and interface.

More modern games have made that tutorial a part of play design. The initial situation of play is usually constrained in some way: you might have only one weapon, one spell, or control only one type of unit. You will play a level under that constraint, and then the next level (or after soem other benchmark) you will expand your capabilities. You'll pick up another weapon, learn a new spell, add more units and so on. If situations require special rules, you'll get the chance to discover that as it comes up (rather than going back to the book). The net result is that you learn to play the game by playing the game, which is pretty slick.

Obviously, different games handle this to differing degrees. For many first person shooters, the ramp up is very small, while some real time strategy games use the entirety of their single player campaign as a ramp up. From an RPG perspective, the most interesting is probably MMOs.

World of Warcraft, for example, starts a character off in a fairly limited environment (a "newbie zone") with clear direction (The guy standing in from to you has your first quest) and well-concealed safety bumpers (there are lots of enemies, but they're the kind who won't attack you unless you attack them first, so they look more dangerous than they are). Beyond that characters start with the ability to make a basic attack (swing a sword, knife, staff or whatever) and perform one special ability (cast a fire bolt, make a power attack, something like that).

For the first 10-20 levels, new abilities come rapidly, but not so rapidly that you don't have time to try them out and get the hang of them in play. The speed of advancement levels off at higher levels (especially in terms of new abilities gained), but those early levels give you a chance to get a grasp on the class. But the thing is, while you're getting that grasp, you're still doing the same sorts of things that you'll be doing later on - getting quests and killing stuff. The fact that you are learning does not sacrifice the play experience.

The fact that video games do this well is not, I think, an indication that this is something that ONLY video games can do well. It would be very easy to conceive of a game like, say, 4e being tweaked into a model like this, so players enter play with perhaps a single at will ability, but gain other abilities quickly, perhaps between sessions when the time required to make choices does not detract from play (MMOs address this by offering very few choices - you get X power at Y level, and that's that. There will be some elements of choice, like WoW's talent trees, but even those will be fairly constrained).

The main thing this requires is a bit of rethinking of how we handle advancement, particularly that we might want to think about shifting some of the things we think about as normally part of character creation to advancement. Coming back to those stunt/power choices that really bog things down, there might be some real benefit in giving fewer of them at the outset, but make the first ones easier to gain.

There are adjustments that would have to be made. One thing you'd want are strong defaults that reinforce character concepts. For example, if you wanted to do this for Leverage, the GM might just pick on talent for each role and just give it to the player at the end of chargen, then let them add another talent at the end of the next two or three sessions. This constrains things slightly (so that, for example, all Hitters are ass kickers and all Hackers have "DO you have that thing I gave you?") but the trade off of quickly entering play really seems to more than make up for it to my mind.

Anyway, something on my mind.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday Roundup

Ok, so I've been violating the 500 word rule pretty hard this past week. Need to think about that some.

For Friday, I just want to point out a couple of pretty cool or interesting things floating around the web at large.
  • Chuck Wendig's Irregular Creatures was a steal at $2.99, but he's got a sale going to sell it for 99 cents for the next few days. This is a fantastic book - Chuck has a deft hand, and a bucket of talent that runs crazily deep. If you're unfamiliar with Chuck, he's the brain behind a lot of great World of Darkness stuff, and he maintains a blog over at Terrible Minds which is somethign that deserves to be on every writer's reading list (provided they do not mind salty language. When I say Chuck's blog is kosher, I mean the salt comes in huge chunks but makes everything better).

  • Couple other gaming blogs have shown up on my radar and I'd like to give them a hat tip. Transneptune Games crossed my radar on one of my rare trips to Story Games, and I think they've got a lot of promise. As I understand it they're a three man team, and they're rotating through a lot of interesting stuff. Plus, they dig Leverage, so big thumbs up. Also, I was drawn to the d20pro blog by an interesting post on running a city campaign. Reminded me a little bit of one of the weird things I'd written about skill challenges

  • This week we added Jess Hartley and Sean Nittner to the Evil Hat family, working on our current project. If you do not know why this is awesome then a) you should and b) you will!

  • You Are Not So Smart is one of my favorite long form blogs on the internet, writing about all the ways in which we delude ourselves. Posts have been less frequent lately (boo!) because there is apparently a book coming (yay!), but the latest post on Deindividuation is something that is useful to anyone who spends time on the Internet and is looking for a deeper explanation of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.

  • Peter Bregman may be my favorite business writer out there, primarily because most ofhis business writing is applicable outside of business. His latest piece, Arguing is Pointless, is a great example of this. This is a point that it really took Influencers to drive home for me, but it's an important one: talking to people is almost useless in changing their existing opinions, and trying to do so ends up pretty much missing the point, as we end up fightng over real estate in each other's heads rather than the real territory we care about.

  • If you follow tumblr, I must put in a plug for I Love Charts. Provided you love charts. Which I do.

  • Dave Gray, the guy behind Gamestorming and all around clever thinker wrote a long piece on the connected company that I'm still digesting. Really interesting, thoughtful stuff about how companies (and by extension groups) really work.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A Defense of Mediocrity

So, my good friend Ryan Macklin had a great interview over at the Jennisodes about establishing an Internet presence. It's well worth a listen if you're curious about such things, and as my first exposure to the Jennisodes, it left me curious to go check out the archives.

What inspired today's post is a bit towards the end, where Ryan was given free reign to voice a concern, and he spoke about his hatred for the rewarding of mediocrity. His thesis, in my words, is that too many products which might excel in one category but utterly half-ass it in others are given a free pass and even praised as if only the excelling category mattered. An example might include an RPG with excellent rules, but which has not been edited and has been very poorly laid out, but his objection is not limited to RPGS.

So, before I lay down some disagreeing beats, let me make some key statements about what I am pretty sure he's _not_ saying.

First, he is not saying you need to break the bank on these things. Yes, in an ideal world you have the budget to pay for top notch illustrations, editing and layout for your game, but the reality is that it's expensive enough to just get a game printed in the first place, and people are under no obligation to put themselves in debt for a labor of love. Rather, he is just asking that each of the elements of production be given your thoughtful attention and genuine effort. To use layout as an example: the difference between a bad layout and a good layout is profound, but it is very rarely a difference of cost. It is, however, a difference in time and effort. It takes more time to read a few good websites on layout and fonts or to really go through your file to check how it looks than it is to dump it all into word and apply a few headings. Yes, great layout is something else entirely, but a good, solid, readable layout is something that is within everyone's grasp if they want it to be. Other design elements are similar - professional editors are nice, but just being willing to have your game be read by a non-gamer and, most importantly, being willing to fix it based on the feedback, can work wonders[1]. Printing can be expensive, but there are less expensive options. The point is, it's not about cost, it's about how invested the creator is in every element of his creation.

Second, he is not discounting learning experiences. He comes out and says as much, but I want to re-underscore it because it's such a critical point. There is a difference between not doing something well because you don't know any better and because you half-assed it. Ultimately, the only one who can truly judge how sincerely you tried is you, but that truth won't keep people from drawing conclusions.

And that, there, is where I shift gears into objection.

See, first and foremost, a lot of this is very easy for Ryan Macklin to say. He's blessed with the gift of hindsight and a range of experience that gives him a very clear understanding of how a committed creator could address any or all of the mediocrity concerns. And more, were you to ask him, he would be more than happy to share these insights, because he's a generous spirit. But that also means he suffers from the curse of perceived difficulty. The solutions to these issues are so clear and obvious to him that it's difficult to differentiate between the person who didn't try and the person who saw this as insurmountable, and just did what they could.

Now, I call Ryan out for this, but the reality is that I know of literally no one (myself included) who does not fall into this trap. Once we perceive things as easy, it is really, really hard for us to understand the perspective that it seems impossible. This is not an argument in favor of mediocrity so much as an assertion that it's not always as easy to spot as you might like.

Now, this, here, is the actual defense of mediocrity.

Do you know what makes something mediocre? By and large, it's a result of something that's not good, but which is close enough to good that the viewer can clearly see how it could go from point a to point b. It's the "Billy has so much _potential_" reaction, and it makes us crazy. When things are genuinely bad, we're usually much more tolerant of it because the reasons are usually clear - the person just didn't know how, but they tried, so we're sympathetic. We've all been there. We get it.

But when they get close, we can't explain it so easily. We see that they got 75% of the way, we cannot so easily dismiss it. If they could get that far, we ask, why couldn't they have just tried a little bit harder and gone all the way? It's not rational, but it's a strong, instinctive response.

And that's the problem. The very fact that we're more tolerant of the actively bad than we are of the mediocre is totally illogical while still being very emotionally true, and that's a problem because we want people to suck more.

Ok, that's not technically true. We want people to be awesome all the time. But in the absence of that, we want them to be willing to take risks - to be willing to suck - in pursuit of their passion. And by and large, we're pretty good at it, especially when these brave individuals truly do suck. But for them, the danger is that they'll work hard, do better than merely sucking, but not do well enough to excel, and end up in that band of mediocrity.

That would not be so bad in its own right. If you end up in the zone of mediocrity then yes, you want to get out of it, but that depends on two things: first, you need to recognize it (which is hard, especially if you really put 100% into it) and second, you may well need as much support (or more!) as you could hope for if you had totally sucked out. So the danger of our emotional response to mediocrity is that we might end up shooting down these projects at just the point when we, as a community, are in the best position to help.

Anyway, all that said, I should add that, like many of Ryan's broad statements, there's a core to it that I agree with. There _are_ people out there who decide that these other things (layout, editing, production values, whatever) are unimportant, and commit less effort to them. In and of itself, this is totally reasonable - it is entirely normal to prioritize things and put more effort into the things you think are important. But for all that, I do agree there's some baseline good-faith effort that one can expect from the products we're expected to buy and play. Where the line for that effort can be drawn is, I fully admit, almost entirely a matter of personal taste. This makes it hard to really draw any broader generalizations from it beyond "I know it when I see it" (which, as I've noted, is a pretty bad metric because we suck at seeing it).

So I think the takeaway from this should be one of encouragement, not criticism. If you love your game (or whatever) and you want everyone else to love it too, then turn that love into effort. Figure out how to make it work. Push yourself to mediocrity, then find a way to pull yourself up past that. Whether that pull comes from other people, more research or just hard work doesn't really matter. If you can get to the end and know that there is no part of your work that you let slide because it wasn't as exciting or interesting to you, then you can rest on a rare but powerful confidence.

1 - So, I put great value on editors, and I know how talented many of them are, but over and above their keen eyes and steady hands, they bring something else to the equation - an implicit willingness to change. When you write something you love, and part of it doesn't work for a test reader, there's an instinct to blame the reader. We're all guilty of this to one extent or another, and the real reason you want an editor is because you need someone who won't let you get away with that.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Framework of Faces

We played another round of the cold war game on Monday. It was a slightly compressed session, but it ended up going pretty well. It also ended up cementing my understanding of what had been the stumbling block for me with espionage, and it reinforced some baseline realities of how I look at games, things that it’s important for me to remember.

I’m a pretty good GM, but I’m at my best when I have a fairly rich tableau populated with well-motivated NPCs who feel as alive as possible to the players. This is difficult to establish instantly - it requires introducing the NPCs, letting the players develop opinions and relationships, then allowing the NPCs to “settle in” to the setting in sch a way that they feel like a natural part of it. Once this has been accomplished with enough NPCs (what I think of as critical mass), then the game will round a corner for me where things get both easier and better.

With this critical mass of NPCs, I can worry far less about plots and sessions and approach things far more improvisationally. By keeping the NPCs in mind and in play, their interests and actions (and their intersection with PCs interests and actions) combined with a decent sense of the dramatic can very easily maintain a near-constant stream of interesting, meaningful play. Meaningful is kind of a key word here, as the meaning in question hinges upon the “reality” of the setting - for the NPCs (who in many ways really _are_ the setting) dynamics to be a driving force, then players need to be invested in them for this to work.

This means that this approach works much better for certain games than others. Specifically, games that abstract the process, or lay bare the NPCs as constructs, tend to be a mismatch for this approach. They can still be great games, but I definitely approach them differently. But mechanics are only part of the equation - setting and tone can both have a huge impact on how well this model works and how quickly critical mass is achieved.

Without realizing it, this was exactly problem I’d been encountering with my Cold War game, the problem that was creating a vague sense of frustration that I couldn’t pin down. The problem is that because I was trying to enforce the “Nobody’s on Nobody’s Side” theme of the game, I tended to use NPCs very shallowly rather than allow them to form relationships. At this point in the game I have perhaps six or eight NPCs established that i can work with, and that’s pretty anemic. And tellingly, the past two sessions (both of which have been fantastic) were basically a result of me cheating and putting five of them in play and letting the ball roll.

A great point of contrast for this is the Amber DRPG, which more or less starts play at or near critical mass. It’s setting is really a list of about 20+ characters with strong and weak ties to the PCs who are an excellent mix of familiar (from the books and other games) and mysterious (since the loose framework leaves the question of GM interpretation of character specifics on the table) which allow for dynamic play to begin very quickly. This is, in many ways, one of the reasons Amber remains such a potent touchpoint for me.

What’s more interesting is that this distinction, between my cold war game and Amber, has nothing to do with mechanics. I could very easily run either game in the other system (quite seriously) and the problems and benefits would remain Identical.

This is not to say mechanics can’t help with this. Aspects and similar mechanics can help provide pointers to NPCs to help build to critical mass faster. Heck, one of my favorite things about Leverage is that is quickly builds a similar dynamic for a given job - it’s not as deep as a full NPC mesh, but it’s usable in a lot of the same ways. But for me, the thing I need to remember is my own advice: everything in the game has faces. Bring those faces to life, and the game takes care of itself.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What Games Do What Well?

I’m about halfway through Reality is Broken, a book about applying the principles of (video) game design to improving real life. It’s interesting enough that it will almost certainly merit a full writeup when I finish. So far it is both brilliant and profoundly flawed, and I’m not yet sure what the ultimate ratio will be.

One part that’s been much more good than bad has been talking about the things that video games do well. This is something that’s very useful to think about from a tabletop game perspective because the simple reality is that computer games have eaten a fair amount of our lunch (though don’t feel too bad, they’ve done it to movies and TV too). While a lot of the diminishment of individual product sales can be attributed to the diversification of the market (which is mostly a good thing), the scale of the hobby at large has definitely been impacted by the success of video games. As an example, there are plenty of people who might be a market for, say, D&D, but who have that itch scratched more successfully by World of Warcraft.
Accepting that premise and the paired premise that growing the hobby is a good thing (you’re not obliged to, but I do), there are two obvious responses.

First, you can design games that are more like video games, hoping to capture the interest of that segment of the audience, or even just a portion of it. This has the advantage of catering to a known market (we know the WoW players are out there, and they’re enjoying killing dragons) and of being concretely actionable (there are video game successes and failures that provide clear models). The problem is that there’s no real way to tell how sticky that market is (that is, how likely they are to stick with computers) and, more broadly, there are things that computers can simply do better than people (casually juggling huge numbers, obviously, but there are more subtle things as well).

The other option is to design games towards the things that video games do poorly or not at all. The obvious advantage of this approach is that is plays to the strengths of tabletop play (whatever you may think those are), and it is potentially a blue ocean strategy, pursuing untapped markets where there’s no real competition. However the drawbacks are daunting. First, there’s no real measure of how much of a market exists for such games, and the fear is that what market there is may already be saturated – the blue ocean may simply be a puddle. Second, there’s no clear course of action for design. Without a clear goal (like emulating video games) the overall process is one of throwing things at the market and seeing what sticks.

(There is a third approach which is worth mentioning primarily because of how it impacts discussion, not because I think it’s very valid. That is the idea that further game design is not the solution at all; the best of games already exist and, in many arguments, have existed for a long time and growth can be found in leveraging those existing assets in new ways.)

Obviously, there is a lot of room between these points, and most efforts will come down somewhere between them. For example, I don’t think it’s too outrageous to suggest that 4e was built with a healthy helping of the “more like video games” approach. That is not the same thing as saying that 4e is identical to a video game, but the influences are fairly clear. Now, I don’t mention this as criticism or praise, but rather to point out that someone has already made a very big bet on one approach. However you judge their success or failure in that, this changes the picture somewhat. If the 800 pound gorilla has already headed to the video game buffet, then you’re going to be competing with him for the shrimp cocktail, and unless you have a really compelling idea, then prepare to settle for very little shrimp.

Put most cynically, if 4e’s bet pays off, then you compete directly with WOTC in that space. If it doesn’t, then there’s a good chance it was the wrong bet. That is to say, under most outcomes, pursuing that same strategy of video game emulation is a lose-lose proposition.

Now, assuming you didn’t pack a lunch (taking the traditionalist posture), that leaves you looking at the covered buffet over where games do things computers don’t. There might be a hearty meal under those lids, or there might be spiders and dust. I dunno. But if you want to find out, it will be worth your while to think about what computers can and can’t do, and what tabletop play can and can’t do. Seeing that difference requires admitting that each approach has strengths and weaknesses, and that can be a hard thing to admit, but it’s the starting point of figuring out something really interesting.

More on this later, almost certainly.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Sacred Cow Job

I pulled together a gone on pretty short notice today, with no real sense of what I was going to do with it. I ended up pulling up something together pretty much whole cloth, and it ended up weird but pretty cool.

Premise was a city of gods, where one god (the Lamplighter) had forcibly assumed prominence and taxing the prayers of other gods (prayers and offerings take a physical form), so the players are champions of various bound gods, hijacking prayers and doing dramatic things in the names of their patrons.

System-wise, I started from a Leverage template (predictably). For stats, I used the amber set of _how_ you do things (Force, Wits, Grace or Resolve) and for roles, I followed the model I used for Supernatural and focus on what you use to do it (Sword, Tool, Knowledge, Tongue or Self). Rounded it out with three distinctions. The weirdness came with the patron deity who gave each character the "Gift Of..." - some power reflective of a domain. The examples below will make it clearer. Players also had the option of adding extra gifts by acquiring additional obligations to other gods. Mechanically, that took the form of an additional distinction chosen by the GM. If I'd had a little more time I might have made it more involved (such as calling for specific behaviors) but this worked out well enough.

One change I ended up making was something I'd misremembered as a Leverage rule, but which ended up working out really well in practice. After dice are rolled, if the players need a reroll, they can get it, but only if they find some way to change their die pool, such as introducing a new asset or using another distinction. This has the interesting effect of rewarding keeping a few dice in reserve, and can also end up forcing a player to hurt himself with a distinction out of necessity..

This ended up with some seriously messed up characters. I'm going to transcribe their sheets here because I actually think the gifts are kind of mechanically interesting, and might be useful fodder for anyone looking to supernatural up their Leverage variant.

Warren, Agent of Visha

Force: d10
Wits: d8
Grace: d6
Resolve: d4
Sword: d10
Word: d8
Tool: d8
Knowledge: d6
Self: d4

To Owe is to Understand
It Is Only Temporary
Everyone Pays Their Debts
Everything Must Burn (Master Charr)
Always Give A Sucker An Even Break (Alerian Empress)

Gift of Fleeting Wealth
* When gaining benefits from Distinctions, roll d10 rather than d8
* When you roll a 1, generate 2 complications
* When creating an asset, it starts at d8, but there's almost certainly a catch to it.

Gift of Fire (From Master Charr)
* Immune to Fire
* Spend a plot point to self immolate. For the duration of the scene, if an enemy wins a physical conflict where they've engaged hand-to-hand, they take d4 fire damage. Plus, looks awesome.

Gift of Redemption (From the Alerian Empress)
* Take on an injury from another player.
* Spend a plot point to turn any of your dice into d4s. Each die so transformed increases damage done by one step.

Mary, Agent of Efficiency

Force: d12
Wits: d6
Grace: d4
Resolve: d6

Sword: D12
Word: d6
Tool: d8
Knowledge: d4
Self: d6

Promises First
How Hard Can It Be
99% Inspiration
Unnecessary Casualties (From the Executioner)

Gift of Improvisation
* Spend a plot point to duplicate another player's ability. May require another plot point expenditure if the power in question requires it.

Gift of Delivery (From the Executioner)
* Perfect timing: Show up in any scene when you feel like it.
* Non shall halt the messenger: Spend a PP to dramatically open any door

Orvik, Agent of Fenris the Flayed

Force: d6
Wits: d4
Grace: d8
Resolve: d10

Sword: d8
Word: d4
Tool: d10
Knowledge: d6
Self: d8

It Doesn't Hurt Yet
The God Guides My Lash
Repulsive (The Patchwork Man)
Hungy (Gulb, God of Gluttony)

Gift of Pain
* When you inflict Hurt, also inflict d4 Upset
* Your hurt threshold is d12
* Spend a PP to add your Hurt value to all rolls for the scene.

Gift of Beggars (From The Patchwork Man)
* Pathetic: When enemies have multiple opponents and have no pressing need to go after you, you're always targeted last.
* Melt into a Crowd: Spend a PP to vanish into any crowd

Gift of Meat (From Gulb, God of Gluttony)
* Smell of Blood. Always aware of living beings around you, even if you can't see them
* Rending Teeth: Spend a PP to make an attack using Self rather than Sword. On a hit, +1 step of damage, and you recover one step of hurt.

Beryl, Agent of the Down One

Force: d10
Wits: d4
Grace: d4
Resolve: d10

Sword: d10
Word: d6
Tool: d8
Knowledge: d4
Self: d8

Giant Hammer
Drunk (Gift of Tipsel)

Gift of Gravity
* Fall Safely from any height
* Spend a plot point to drastically reduce or increase your weight. If it's relevant to the action at hand, you may keep an extra die.

Gift of Drink (Gift of Tipsel)
* You are always confused d4 but you never take further confused damage unless it's self inflicted by drinking.
* You can Add your confused level to any roll, thus reducing it by one step (minimum d4). If you spend a PP, that extra die is kept.

Konur Tagg, Agent of Mardaug The Thunderer
Force: d10
Wits: d4
Grace: d6
Resolve: d8

Sword: d10
Word: d6
Tool: d6
Knowledge: d4
Self: d10

If It's Worth Doing, It's Worth Doing Loudly
I Must Not Have Hit It Hard Enough
I Can't Talk Around Women
Can't Ignore Tears (Gift of Kaela, Mardaug's consort)

Gift of Thunder
* You can be heard anywhere and have no problem hearing in the noisiest of environments
* Spend 1PP when making an attack. Minimum damage is d8, and inflicts d4 confused while making a lot of noise.

Gift of The Tender Heart
* You have armor d4 vs Upset
* Inflict -1 step damage less Upset damage
* Spend 1pp to remove Upset damage from an ally, and roll and keep that die.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Diversifying Your Character Portfolio

Different games teach different skills to different degrees. This is not because some games are bad and others are good, it's because games are different. They reward certain things and make little use of others. And more, they do this in a very obvious way. When you go to a convention, it is REALLY easy to spot the person at the table who has never left the nest, and has only ever played variants on D&D or Storyteller.

The heartbreaking part is that you most often encounter these folks when they've decided to stray off the reservation and try some new game. Sometimes this goes well, but most often, it just ends up reaffirming their suspicion that other games suck. This is not necessarily because the new game is bad, but rather because the new game is, at least in part, effectively in a different language of play than the player is used to, and they find themselves put on the spot. Unless the GM is very sensitive to these blind spots in new players (something that's rarer than it should be), the players will end up frustrated and feeling foolish, even if they're perfectly capable.

To put it more concretely, if you've only ever played D&D and you're dropped into a game with, say, strong scene framing, you may not be ready to frame a scene. Not because you're not smart or not creative, but because this is a new idea. Your frustration will be roughly akin to trying to cook a microwave meal where all the instructions are in Russian, all in front of an audience. Even if you manage it, you'll be self-conscious and feeling foolish the whole time. This is not the kind of fun experience that bring someone back to a game.

That is a problem, because the simple reality is that after a certain point, nothing is going to be as useful at improving the games you love as learning other games. Even games you don't like.

I don't like Burning Wheel much, but despite this I own every damn book that Luke & company put out. This may seem contradictory, or like some kind of reflexive indie purchasing streak, but there's something more to it, something that I consider very important.

See, not liking Burning Wheel as a matter of taste - I play it, and it doesn't really get my motor going - but at the same time it is a really good game. Just a small amount of time spent reviewing the products (especially self-contained marvels like Mouseguard) makes the quality of the work obvious. What's more, even if you can't see that, Luke's passion is clear both in and out of the game, and I can point to no shortage of people who have had really excellent experiences with the game. Any one of those things would speak well for Burning Wheel - all three of them together more or less shout.

There are two reasons this is important. By decoupling my dislike from my judgement of the game, I'm able to appreciate it's strengths and discuss it with people without pissing all over it. This is such an obvious benefit that I would not even feel it worth mentioning in any context but the internet. Second, it leaves me in a position to learn from Burning Wheel. This last is the reason I consider my position to be something other than hippie or zen - it's _greedy_. The world is full of games, and even the ones I wouldn't want to play are full of things I can learn.

Now, I can learn a lot just by reading the text, but there's a bit of chicken and egg to this because the more different games you play, the better able you will be to create a picture of a new game from its text. So I guess that means I've had to play a lot of games to not need to play some games.

But as nice as that is, it's still not a substitute for playing these games, or at least giving them a go. This means that it's worth your time to spend some time playing games you can see the virtues in but which may not be to your taste. By doing so with open ears and an open mind, you can learn a lot of things that can make the games you like better. You don't need to keep playing them - just take what you like and see if it an work back in the game you know you like.

That's a pretty simple proposition, isn't it? Playing other RPGs than the ones your comfortable with can teach you new things. You wouldn't think it would invite as much opposition as it does, but there it is.

I'm not proposing that you rush out and grab a copy of Everway or Posion'd just because they're obscure or indie. Look at the books. Read the backs. Find something that makes you think "Oh, hey, that sounds cool", then give it a try.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

I Play Monsters

As I write this, I have Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie" on repeat. I am, for the record, not much of an Eminem fan, and as a whole I have a very tenuous relationship with rap. But this song grabs me with a combination of raw power and horror (and musicality) that I find utterly compelling.

Art that depicts terrible things is powerful and dangerous. Depending on the viewer, the terrible thing may be so terrible that the very prospect of any art about it, even art that lays the horror bare, is something they will simply refuse. This reaction allows for the kind of easy snobbery that reveals a true shallowness of understanding in the snob, but it's a necessary risk in genuinely exposing anything terrible.

There are many terrible things, from the profound to the merely shocking. To me, the most powerful are those that force us to acknowledge that there are real people behind these horrors. That is, to put it bluntly, such a profoundly uncomfortable idea that we instinctively rebel against it. Bad things are done by bad people. They're sick. Or evil. We don't like to think of them having parents or children Anything that forces us to see ourselves in these monsters is frightening.

I have played monsters in my day, and it speaks to the real power of this hobby that I can say this with no small amount of discomfort. It is a rare game that allows for that possibility - when choice and context is bounded by the logic of adventure, then choices may get dark, but they rarely end up carrying the weight that forces you to internalize them. At the same time, playing the monsters as we see them teaches us little. Mustache twirling evil and stylish sociopathy can be shocking, certainly, but they are shallow things, little worse than putting on a monster mask and growling.

What a game, a good, deep game, can do is push you to the point where the choices you make are the only choices you can, and make them terrible. You can step through every door, feeling you have no other choice, and find yourself in a place you could not (and would not) have imagined when your journey started. There's terrible power there, but also the promise of great and frightening insight.

I have played heroes. I have played villains. Both have been fun and rewarding, but few of them stay with me like the monster. I say monster, singular, since for all that I have to say about this, there is only one, and he's never going to leave my head. This was a great character, fun to play, rewarding in every possible way, but when the time came he made the terrible choices because everything demanded it.

Every hobby has literature about how many valuable lessons you can learn from it. Baseball. Knitting. Checkers. RPGs are strangely short on this, and in fact if you try to talk about the positive things people can get out of RPGs, the strongest criticism you will get will come from within the community. This is a terrible pity. I can literally think of no other hobby that can better arm you to see things through the eyes of others, to understand another viewpoint without letting it become your own.

That understanding can be scary. Really scary and unwelcome at times. It's a lot easier to live in a world of good and bad people. It's easier to be able to look on the failings of others and say with all sincerity "I would _never_ do that!" But I sincerely believe that it's an understanding worth having. Seeing the humanity in someone else's horror is terribly enlightening, but seeing the monster in yourself, in a real, practical, non-angsty, non-dramatic fashion can blow the doors off. And in seeing it, and understanding it, you can become better.

I don't write thousands of words about this hobby because I think it's going to make me rich, or because I have some bizarre dice fetish.

I think better games can make us better people.

Disagree if you like. I'll understand

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Fiction of 4e

An interesting discussion the other day got me thinking about the fiction of 4e. Not in terms of novels and the like (though I'm sure those would be an interesting subject) but rather in the fiction implicit in the game. This is not, to my mind, about the little map in the back of the DMG, or even about the idea of Points of Light. Both are good, interesting things, but what I dwell upon is the fiction as implied by the rules. That is to say, what does it mean that these classes, races, items and spells exist in the world, and how does that shape things.

Possibly the most profound change to D&D that 4e brought about was the introduction of symmetry. Characters are all roughly on par with one another in terms of capabilities. There are plenty of differences in the small details and between roles, but by and larger, two characters of the same level are in roughly the same weight class in almost every measure (combat ability, skills, stats, gear and so on).

This was not true of previous editions. The most obvious discrepancy was between spell-casters (especially magic users) and everyone else. At very low levels, the wizard might be a one-use wand, but at higher levels, he could reshape mountains with a single spell. Later editions worked to close this gap some, but it was always a baseline part of the game. If nothing else, the spellcaster was going to be more effective on the round he cast a potent spell than the round he didn't, while the fighter would be pretty consistent in his damage. A similar problem existed for specialist classes (which is to say, thieves), and broadly speaking different classes peaked at different times (all to say nothing of potentially tragically drastic problems of gear disparity).

4e smoothed that all out. Everything's on pretty much equal footing. And that's great for gameplay, but a little rough for fiction. It's a lot easier to build a story (or a world) out of a messy system full of odd discrepancies than it is from one where everything fits together neatly.

This is not to say it can't be done. In fact, I think it's possible to build a great many very interesting fictions around 4e, but the secret of doing so is to recognize that even if the mechanics push things to equity, the setting need not do the same.

The rub is that, as rules material, all races and classes (and to a lesser extent, monsters) are presented on fairly equal footing. When your group sits down to make characters, there is nothing that dictates that Dragonborn Paladins are rare or that Human Fighters are common. Some pairings might be suggested by the mechanics, but all options are equally available and equally valid.

For chargen, this is a great thing, but for fiction, it's problematic. If you infer a setting that is simply a big melting pot of these classes and races, you are inferring a fairly boring, sloppy setting, and in turn, a dull fiction. Fiction depends on tension, which in turn depends on discrepancies. Some races need to be rarer or more common than others. Some classes need to have strong cultural roles, with baggage that varies from place to place.

Consider the Warden. I really dig this class, but there's a strong implicit story to it - if there are Wardens, then there are things they protect. So what happens when you ask how many Wardens there are in a setting? If there are only a few, it might be a secret, elite order, or the remnants of an old tradition, clinging to the past. If there are lots, then there might be a warden for every place of importance in the setting. Those answers and all the answers in between mean a lot to any player who wants to play a Warden and to the game as a whole. And that's just one axis - we haven't even touched upon the role of race in the process.

By making these kinds of decisions, the DM is capable of determining what is anomalous or rare in a game. Perhaps there are only Seven Paladins in all the world at any given time. Perhaps Sword Mages are only trained in one tower off on this mysterious island. Maybe Shardminds exist only in a hidden valley where their worldship crashed. Maybe the Dragonborn have a vast mercantile empire, and can be found everywhere. Maybe there are no Dwarves.

But this does come back to the strength of 4e's level playing field. Historically, if there were only 7 Paladins in the setting, that usually meant that no one could play a Paladin, because those slots were reserved for cool NPCs. By shunting the rarity of things over to the fiction, you can open the door to any character the players want to play, and allow it, with an understanding of how it fits into the world. While not every player looks to embrace the unique or anomalous, many do. Playing the oddball, outcast or outsider is a lot of fun, but it requires that there be something to be outside of in the first place.

It's important to note that none of this is what one might normally think of as world building. It's not about writing histories or developing factions. Rather, it's about arranging the pieces you've been given in a way you (and your table) find satisfying. This means making the world less fair than the game, but that's the only way you're going to make a world worth playing in.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

End of a Saga

Lately, I've been reading the Star Wars Saga RPG books, the square, d20 ones with a system that felt a little bit like a field test for 4e. These are, I have to say, really good books. I got on this kick because I discovered the line had gone out of print, and I wondered if there were any treasures I wanted to pull from it. I was most in curious about the "Galaxy of Intrigue" sourcebook because a book about an intrigue campaign is ambitious and right up my alley.

So, through gifting, used purchases and trading, I got may hands on a handful of the books and started going through them. By and large, they surprised me with how good they were. The rules are actually pretty good, surprisingly so. The layout was clean and stylish, the square format worked far better than I expected it to. The content was fascinating. Where the authors had leeway to talk about the setting and the game, it was this great balance between a love of the source material and a focus on actual games.

Sadly, there's plenty of gamer detritus as well. It's clear there was a standard format the books needed to adhere to, which meant that one way or another you could expect to spend a lot of pages on new races (most of whom were uninteresting) new droids, new ships and new gear. In many of the books, Galaxy of Intrigue in particular, I felt cheated of the good content by what I perceived as filler.

Now, the reality is that I'm sure that there were plenty of gamers who viewed things exactly opposite way, and who looked at each new book as a collection of crunchy bits first, with this unnecessary wrapper. Hell, for the completists, much of the information I found interesting was old hat to them. And that's the sad reality of trying to manage Star Wars as a product - who is your audience and how do you serve them. Hardcore fans? Gearheads? Ignorant enthusiasts? In my mind, they struck this balance as well as it could be managed.

Now, I should note I played the hell out of the old West End Games Star Wars back in the day, starting from the first edition and reacting skeptically to improvements as they came along and cheerfully abusing loopholes. To this day, it's one of my favorite RPGs of all time (such wonderful character creation!), and I've kind of historically flinched at the idea of playing it withs something crunchier, but man, I have to admit that I would play this Star Wars Saga version, and probably enjoy the heck out of it.

Now, there's a bit of an apples and oranges comparison here. One of the great things about the new system is the expanded universe. Now, don't get me wrong, I think that Star Wars canon has gotten so big and cumbersome that trying to absorb it all is a recipe for self-destruction. But there's enough of it to allow for cherry picking, especially if you're not too worried about violating canon as laid out in some out-of-print paperback. You can really just do a "good parts version" and really rock out.

This is especially true of the _history_ of the setting. I'm really indifferent to the fates of the kids of the heroes, but the fact that they did sourcebooks for Knights of the Old Republic and The Force Unleashed was awesome. A cynic might just point to it as grabbing onto some current (at the time) hotness, but the reality is that the video games were set up beautifully with the ability to play in the sandbox without stepping on the parts worn thin by overexposure. That translates fantastically to tabletop play.

Anyway, as I've noted, the books have gone out of print. Some of the rarer ones already go for stupid amounts on the used market, and for all that I think they were a fantastic handling of a very difficult-to-handle property, I'm spacing over the game's grave, so to speak.

Rumor has it that someone else has picked up the license. I don't know who they are, and I wish them all the luck in the world with it, but I don't really know if I'm excited for it. SW Saga did the job really well, well enough that it's going to be hard for the next comer to measure up.