Saturday, December 31, 2005

[Shades] My first 0.3 playtest

I finally got to playtest the 0.3 version of Shades last night. An actual play report can be found on The Forge. In summary: it was great, and very different from other RPGs.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Fun with the Lumpley Principle

Every now and then, the Lumpley Principle comes up in a discussion - and in general, quite magical powers are attributed to it. Also, these powers change from one speaker to the next. I give you, after some Googling, several intriguing claims made about the Lumpley Principle - dozens more are awaiting the treasure seeker.

  • ...the ability to resort to human discretion when the book fails (i.e. the application of the Lumpley Principle when necessary).
  • The Lumpley Principle was presented precisely as a response to the sort of thinking you are attempting to support in your rant, because it is a widespread misconception that mechanics need to model physics, or the physics of the world (and their exceptions), that such is their purpose. They do not, unless that is their purpose -- unless the purpose of the game is Simulationist "what would really happen if." It is not necessary for the mechanics to model physics or reality, as long as they support the goals and ideas of the game.
  • ... is meta-gaming, and while this is something for the GM to do, if the PCs are doing it you've lost the suspension of disbelief (which is what *role playing* is about). In fact, if the players are having to think about this significant, it violates the vaunted Lumpley principle, because you no longer have a shared illusion.
  • I would say, rather, that the Lumpley principle is merely a summation of the concept "once you have what you want, stop trying".
  • This principle is the reason freeform and Rolemaster ultimately have the same "amount" of system.
  • [The Lumpley Principle is a] concise, effective way... of summing up... Vincent’s view... on gaming.
  • [Y]our character only ever exists in your head and the heads of your fellow players - in what your group says and does and thinks and feels. The stuff on your "character" sheet isn't about your character at all - it's stuff that you, the real live player, have at your disposal when it comes time to decide how the game's going to go. [...] This, by the way, is a simple restatement of the so-called Lumpley Principle.
  • [T]he most powerful insight to arise from the Forge is, IMHO, Vincent Baker's "Lumpley Principle".
The uninitiated may wonder, at this point, what the Lumpley Principle actually is! It is both the reason that all games have the same amount of system, and a summary of Vincent's view on gaming; it is equivalent to an ontology of characters and also means "once you have what you want, stop trying"; it proves that systems need not model realistic physics, and applying it is the act of disregarding the rule books in favour of human judgement, and it is violated when the players think meta-game thoughts. Small wonder, then, that it is the most powerful insight to arise from the Forge!

The actual definition of the principle in the Provisional Glossary is bound to be a bit of a disappointment, after that. It merely states:

System (including but not limited to 'the rules') is defined as the means by which the group agrees to imagined events during play.
Take a good look at it and see it what it really is, and what it not only is but also explicitly proclaims to be: a definition of the term 'system'! That is all. Nothing more, nada. It merely says: "this is what we mean when we use the term 'system'"; it doesn't say anything at all about any of the things mentioned above. You can believe it is a useful definition or believe that it obscures more than it enlightens, but you simply cannot agree or disagree with the Lumpley Principle because it is nothing but a defintion of a single term.

Of course, I will not deny that choosing this definition of 'system' has a certain ideological background - when it was proposed, it was probably a powerful rhetorical weapon against people who thought that the social level of roleplaying was not the concern of game designers. But that ideology is not part of the analytic content of the principle. As behooves a definition, the analytic content of the principle is zero.

So, please, let us stop making such a fuss about it. Everybody makes a different fuss, and none of it is going to further our understanding of roleplaying games. If you want to refer to the insight that the social level of roleplaying is important, just say "the social level of roleplaying is important". The same holds for all the other uses the LP is put to - when you need a hammer, don't call it a screwdriver.

Of course, Vincent has been downplaying the importance of the LP for ages now, but I hope my examples have made clear the confusion generated by its widespread use. Let's use it as stated, and for nothing else.

[Monsters we Slay] Cool powers

Today, I have fought the first trial combats of my gamist dungeon crawl RPG that currently listens to the name Monsters we slay. I assure you that a dragon slayer and a shadow dancer have no trouble overcoming four goblins, which is exactly what I intended.

A lot of my current work on the game consists of thinking up cool powers for the heroes. In the setting I am currently developing ("Into the pit of fire" - think dungeons deep in the earth; goblins, golems, demons and dragons; elemental magic and exorcisms) there will be six hero types, and each of them needs about 25 or 30 cool powers. Currently, I have created the six first level powers of the dragon slayer, the shadow dancer and the lightning lord. Three observations from this process.

  1. Balancing cool powers is going to be very playtest intesive. It is quite impossible to judge whether it is more useful for the shadow dancer to use her 'dance of daggers' or her 'snake strike' ability - or rather, it is easy to see that they are useful in different situations, but it is hard to judge how useful they are in those situations and how often you'll see those situations. I am afraid that where many RPG designers can limit themselves to, say, 6 to 10 sessions of playtesting, this game will require a lot more testing and tinkering. This is because aspiring to tactical depth goes along with a serious possibility of breaking the system by underpowering or overpowering something or someone.
  2. Cool powers immediately open up a wealth of tactical possibilities. Almost all cool powers are actions you can take instead of the standard actions, increasing the number of options. Because using cool powers generally costs 'passion', a medium-term dwindling resource, you can't just use them all the time. Will you use your passion to increase your defense, or rather your damage? If your damage, do you prefer a big one-time boost that you can spend rerolls on to maximise, or rather a constant and reliable, but much smaller, boost that stays in force throughout the fight? Are you willing to trade in chance to hit for increased damage? Is it worth it to take the risk associated with a snake strike, or would you do better to calmly wear down your opponent? And so forth - even in the very simple fight I mentioned above, there was already a pleasing tactical depth.
  3. Cool powers are... cool! Creating a first level character comes down to choosing a class and choosing three out of six available cool powers. I actually found myself agonising about how I wanted all the cool powers, and weighing the pros and cons of all of them before I finally made my choice... and this was only a test fight. I knew that cool powers were cool - it is what makes many CRPGs so enticing. But it is good to see that I like the powers I come up with.
Also, I like the classes I have made - all of them seem interesting to play. There is the dragon slayer, a muscled sword-wielding hero with many combat options; the shadow dancer, who fights defensively until she strikes with sudden fury; the lightning lord, an archer-sorcerer whose magic is very unpredictable; the exorcist, a healing priestess with a bloody big hammer; the blue mage, a learned wizard whose spells are both diverse and subtle; and the red mage, a furious girl wielding sword and flame, not so good on defense but dealing lots and lots of (melee) damage.

Well, back to work.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Journal of RPG theory

Each medium has both advantaged and disadvatages. Blogs seem to be very good for thinking, for informal discussion and for spreading ideas quickly; but they seem to me to be pretty bad for producing polished, well though-out articles and storing such articles in an accessible way. There is little incentive to rewrite your blog posts in the light of discussion. Blog posts tend to disappear from view after a few days, or weeks at most.

Now it seems to me that it would be very useful if RPG theorists, after thinking about a subject and discussing it with each other, would write nicely structured, thorough articles about their conclusions; and if these were stored and made easily accessible at some central place. In fact, this seems to me more important than unifying all these theory blogs at one location.

So maybe we need an online journal of RPG theory? This would be a website that publishes thoughtful articles about RPG theory. It would encourage authors to first discuss the subject on blogs, so they can test their ideas and improve them. It would peer review articles, but probably in a rather informal way by the editors - the standard academic peer review process would be both impractical and pretentious, I think.

I am especially interested in your opinion about this. What do you think? Do we need an online journal of RPG theory, as an addition to the current proliferation of blogs?

Monday, December 19, 2005

Immersion and imagination

I am not sure that I understand the concept of 'immersion' in the same way that self-styled immersionists do, but there is certainly something I do understand and experience that can be called by this name. It is what I experience when I play Trollbabe, but which I experience much less often and less strong when I play Polaris, and not at all when I play Universalis. It is a sense of character identification, of not just telling a story about a character but of being, in some sense, that character.

But, what sense?

Taking my cue from Walton's book Mimesis as Make-believe again, let's say that a roleplaying game is a game of make-believe. Depending on what is happening around the table, we are to imagine certain things. But is everybody to imagine the same things? It would seem so, at least on the surface. If I, playing my trollbabe Ingirid, state that I run towards the troll shaman and punch him on the nose, then surely everybody is to imagine that Ingirid runs towards the troll shaman and punch him on the nose.

But there is a difference, and is related to the role of the appreciator. Everybody is to imagine Ingirid punching the shaman, but in addition I am to imagine being Ingirid and punching the shaman on the nose. It is not just fictional that Ingirid punches the shaman, it is fictional that I punch the shaman.

Maybe putting this in terms of having to imagine things, and things being fictional, seems wrong. It would be more intuitive to say that some systems enable me to imagine myself making those decisions and performing those actions, and other systems do not enable me to do so - they merely enable me to imagine that some character makes those decisions and performs those actions. But I suspect that the parts of the system that enable me to imagine myself as fictionally identical to the character are the same parts of the system that make it fictional that I am identical to the character. (Still following me?) For instance, "each player is allowed to make the decisions of his/her character alone and unhindered by other players" is one such part. (Having or not having this in place is one big difference between Trollbabe and Universalis.) It enables me to identify myself with the character (in the strong sense of imagining being the character), but it arguably also makes it fictional that I am the character.

Anyway, let's not dwell on that too much. What is more important is to identify techniques that will aid / hinder immersion. I'll make several observations, the first of which is probably rather uncontroversial.

Authorship over a character

Fictional identification with a character (immersion) is helped by mechanics that give total authorship over the character's beliefs, desires, decisions and so forth to one player. In Universalis, you do not have authorship over the decisions of any character, which hinders identification with any character. In Sorcerer or Trollbabe you do, which aids identification. In My Life with Master, you only have authorship within certain bounds (some decision are made by the dice and, more importantly, the kind of scene you're in severly limits the possible desires and choices of your character), which puts it in the middle.

Please note that I'm talking about authorship, not about authority! You can have authority about your character without having authorship - that is, although you are allowed to have the final say about what is the case, you can leave it up to others to actually think up and narrate what happens. Authority as such does not aid immersion.

Actor / author /director stance

The division between actor / author /director stance (and whatever other stances you want to identify) has absolutely nothing to do with aiding or hindring immersion. It is not the case that actor stance is in the interest of immersion, or that director stance is detrimental to it. If my character is in a bar and a fight breaks out, I may yell "I grab a chair and hit the sucker on the head!", when no chair has been mentioned before. This is director stance. What goes through my head as a player is this: I realise that chairs make good weapons, I realise that I probably should imagine that I see a chair, and I start imagining that I hit the sucker on the head with the chair. The player and the character are in close correspondence. Yelling what I did makes it fictional that my character looks around, sees a chair, realises that chairs are good tools for hitting people, grabs the chair and hits the sucker on the head. What I, as a player do, and what my character does are closely related. This helps immersion.

That bears repetition and emphasis: immersion is easier when the actions of the player and those of the character are closely related.

Using this principle, one can make a case that playing this scene using actor stance actually mildly hurts immersion. "Do I see a chair?", the player asks the GM. This corresponds to the character looking around, so there is still a close relation between what the player does and what the character does. However, the split second look of the character is more like the split second realisation of the player using director stance, than it is like the several second exchange between player and GM in the case of the player using actor stance.

In general, however, I don't think there is any clear relation between stances and immersion.

(I don't think that actively pursuing a narrativist CA hurts immersion either, but that's something else.)

An analysis of Polaris

Polaris is not, in my experience, a very immersive game. How is that possible? It is, after all, a game in which one has not only authority, but even authorship over the thoughts, feelings and decisions of one's own character. That should help immersion, shouldn't it?

Yes, and I think you can immerse best when you are in the stage of 'free play'. However, once conflicts get going, the immersion is mostly lost. Why? The principle I identified in the previous section will help us out. In a conflict, I am negotiating possible events with my Mistaken. As a player, I am considering alternatives, weighing conditions against each other, trying to get the Mistaken to accept what I really want to happen, and so on. I, as a player, am doing all these things; but it is not fictional that my character is doing anything like this at all. My character is making all kinds of important decisions, having strong feelings, and so forth, while I am doing something else entirely. It would be hard for anyone to imagine that I am fighting a demon lord when what I'm actually doing is negotiating possible outcomes of the fight that do not even cross my character's mind. The very mechanics themselves seperate me from my character (in the fictional world), casting me as a benevolent hand of Fate instead of as my character.

If this is right, then immersion should be bigger in Polaris when I'm not using the conflict system. And actually, it is: I feel most immersed when I'm playing my character as a Moon. Because when I'm a Moon, most actions I, the player, take that have to do with my character correspond neatly with things my character actually thinks and does.

Obviously, the above is not a criticism of Polaris, lest anyone think it is. It is a wicked cool system, and immersion is not the 'way to play'. But I hope it has made for an interesting illustration. O, and while we're at it...

Intermittent immersion

Immersion might be helped by not having too much rules stuff in play, but I actually don't think this is very important. It is easy to drift in and out of immersion. You can immerse one moment, do some complicated rules stuff the next, talk about stakes the next, and immerse yourself back in. Please take care to notice that in my Polaris analysis, one fails to immerse not because one has to do things that don't correspond with character actions; no, one fails to immerse because the character makes his/her important decisions and has his/her strongest feelings while the player is involved in something else entirely. If one's important decisions all took place in the free play stage, immersion would not be hurt at all. (Of course, one should also stop playing Polaris in that case; it wouldn't be helping you at all.)

I hope this has been interesting. I thought I was going to write a very short entry, but I was wrong.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

[Monsters we Slay] Design considerations

The new working title for my `quick tactical gamist' RPG is Monsters we Slay. It is somewhat less stupid than Looting the Labyrinth, isn't it? The core system is coming along nicely, though I can't judge whether it's going to be successful at this stage. Today, I want to talk about some of the decisions I have made.

Appropriate adversity

Several blogs on RPGs have recently contained posts about adversity and GM fiat. Especially relevant is Matt Wilson's post on inappropriate adversity. I quote:

See, and when I'm GM, I want to be able to throw everything I'm allowed to at the players without worrying whether or not I've crossed the line.
In a gamist RPG with the classical dungeon crawl challenge - survive as a group and defeat the Big Bad at the end of the dungeon - this is especially important. If the success or the failure of the party is dependent on the Game Master's decisions, the game fails. For this reason, I believe that D&D3E may actually not be a good dungeon crawling game. The GM in D&D is very much within his rights to declare that the players confront an enemy on a small ledge where they can only fight him one at a time; or to put a fountain of healing in the middle of a dungeon; or to rule that the dungeon is either safe enough or not safe enough to take a night of sleep in; and so forth. Although the encounter levels do go some way in ensuring appropriate adversity, the GM can still - advertently or inadvertently - decide the fate of the group.

This must not be possible in Monsters we Slay. Like Matt Wilson says, the GM must be able to throw everything he has against the players without this breaking the game. So how does that work?

Each mission in MwS consists of a series of fights. The level of the next fight is determined by the players (within certain confines); this level determines the total strength of the monsters, which the GM then chooses from a list of monsters. (It also determines how much XP the party will get and how cool the treasures can be that they may find.)

Then, the players roll three dice. These are distributed, a la Otherkind, among three categories: Tactics, Rerolls and Treasure. The die in Treasure determines how much treasure they will get when they win the fight. The die in Rerolls determines how many times during the fight they can reroll one of the dice. And the die in tactics is probably the most interesting one. It's values mean the following:

1. Game Master chooses place, special and monsters.
2. Randomly roll place and special; Game master chooses monsters.
3. Randomly roll place; Game Master chooses monsters; roll special.
4. Game Master chooses monsters; randomly roll place and special.
5. Game Master chooses monsters; players choose place; roll special.
6. Game Master chooses monsters; players choose place and special.
The 'place' is the shape of the arena, which has a lot of tactical significance - you don't want to meet a single strong foe in a narrow corridor, and you don't want to meet enemires with arrows in a huge room where they can shoot at you before you can reach them. The 'special' is a special effect that rules in the room, such as "Unholy aura: all non-undead get -1 to all rolls" and "Good cover: all ranged attacks are made at -2". The order in the table is the order in which the fight is set up; so the difference between 2 and 3 is purely on of order.

What this means is that, hey, the GM is sometimes allowed to make things really hard for the players - but it's always their own choice. And the basic difficulty of the fight is chosen by the players, so there is no blaming the GM if things go wrong. He should always push as hard as he can.

Medium-term dwindling resources

There is a strange thing in D&D and many other games, and that is that some character classes depend on medium-term dwindling resources and others do not. The point in case is that wizards and their brethern have a limited number of spells (or spell points), and thus become less effective the more fights there are between moments that this resource is refreshed. Fighters, on the other hand, are not dependent on such a dwindling resource*, and stay roughly as effective throughout dungeons of any length.

In Monsters we Slay, the moment of refreshing these dwindling resources is mechanically defined, because it should not come down to GM choice. Spell points (called Passion) are refreshed after each mission. A mission only ends successfully if the party kills the Big Bad, in which case the party levels up. If they flee before they kill the Big Bad, they don't get any XP at all, and cannot reattempt the mission - they must start another one. The strategic dimension of Monsters we Slay is thus that you have to be careful with your dwindling resources, because only if you make it to the end of the mission will you get any reward; you cannot refresh your resources in the middle and continue.

Ok, but that threatens to create an imbalance: if the missions are too long, wizards will be at a disadvantage. If the missions are too short, wizards will be at an advantage. But finding the golden middle will probably be very hard, as a game designer.

So I will make all classes dependent on dwindling resources. I currently have two, Passion for spells and Strength for physical abilities (cool combat moves), but I might decide to put them together in one single resource. (Not sure about that.) Anyway, that will hopefully ensure that the above problem will not manifest.

Although some classes may be a bit more dependent on their dwindling resources than others - after all, the classes should play differently! - I will make sure that none of them becomes useless when the resources are spent. Yes, that means that magic users will be able to kick ass in combat. As they should. Wizards with swords are cool.

* Well, there are hit points. But wizards have hit points too, and both their function and their effect is very different from that of spells, so the analogy doesn't go very far.

Monday, December 12, 2005

[Shades] Looking for playtesters!

So, I just finished the newest playtest version of Shades. Obviously, I'll go and ask several people to play it with me. But this post is also a call for external playtesters.

Where do I get the game?

Just right-click on the above link, and choose "Save as..." or something like that.

What do I need to do?

Get one or two other players together, and play the game! I estimate that it will take two hours to play one game, a bit longer with three players. (And perhaps an hour longer in 'hell' mode.) If you could play more games with the same person, that would be very, very great.

Where do I publish my experiences?

You can either publish them as a reaction on this post, or email me: victor [at] lilith [dot] gotdns [dot] org. Better yet, start a topic in Actual Play on The Forge, and send me an email or a PM about it.

What do I get in return?

My eternal gratitude? The names of all playtesters will, of course, be put into the final version of the text, with lots of praise surrounding them. Furthermore, you are helping the indie RPG community, and hopefully have several fun hours of gaming!

What are you going to do with the game?

That depends on the results of the playtest. If the final game is fun to play and successful in reaching my design goals, I will very probably publish it in real, paper form. (With art and stuff. I love paper books.) If things don't go as well, I'll at least release the final text in both PDF and LaTeX format under a Creative Commons license. I might do that anyway, even if I decide to publish it 'for real'.

If you have any further questions, or if there are any unclarities in the rules, please leave a comment here (or email me).

[Looting the Labyrinth] Quick tactical gamist fun

I was thinking about the black potion I described earlier today: you don't know what it is, if you drink it you die instantly. Obviously, this sucks.

And yet, there are situations in which it is very cool if you do not know whether a potion is a healing potion or a poison potion and you are ready to risk everything on it. Suppose there's is a fight, and if you win you'll get loads of XP and treasure and whatnot, and the only way you can go on and maybe win is by drinking that unidentified potion and hoping that it is a healing potion... but it might be poison instead... so what do you do? And suppose, furthermore, that you roll the dice in order to randomly determine which of the two it is (so there's no GM fiat or predefined malice involved) - how cool would that be? Pretty cool, I'd say.

Perhaps potions can only be identified by drinking them; and perhaps you can set the stakes of drinking them yourself. So you can roll to get a potion of minor healing, but if you fail it will turn out to be a potion of getting terrible cramps; or you can roll to get a potion of major healing, but if you fail it will turn out to be a potion on being changed into a frog, or something. Are you willing to take the risk? And how big a risk are you willing to take?

I think I'd like to play more gamist RPGs. Dungeon crawling, gaining experience, tactical combat - all of that can be mighty fun. I enjoy it when I'm playing CRPGs. (At least up to a point; Diablo is much too tedious for me, but the tactical depth of Baldur's Gate 2 has great appeal.) But I honestly have no idea which system I should use to run that. Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition is far too complicated for my tastes: I want a game where you can make a character in five minutes and don't have to learn 60 feats and 200 spells. That's too much investment. Donjon? I should try it out, but I actually doubt that it has a strong tactical component. Suggestions are welcome.

But of course now the notion has struck me that I simply should design my own. As a suitably bad working title, I've chosen Looting the Labyrinth. If I decide to embark on this project, I would have the following design goals:

  • There are to be fights, treasures and character advancement.
  • Characters can be made in five minutes. Rules should be simple.
  • The focus is tactical combat. With real choices. Everything revolves about this. Did I mention that the game should be tactical?
  • You can run the game on the fly, no preparation needed. That includes the GM: I hate prepping games as a GM.
  • Playing for one evening is good, but you could also keep the character sheets and play with them another time.
  • Advancement not only gives you the ability to choose cool new powers, it should also change the feel of the game. There is simply no real use for it, otherwise.
  • No GM fiat. Choosing the difficulty of the fights and the rewards that can be gotten should be part of the players' strategic thinking. I'm kind of thinking of an Otherkind mechanic here, where you roll dice and then have to choose between getting great rewards or getting weak opponents or moving along to the Big Bad, and stuff like that.
  • Players can always choose to call it a day and return to town, when they feel they couldn't possibly take on a new challenge. (Strategy plays a role here. Will you spend that fireball on the first creatures you meet?) But there should be an incentive for pushing onwards, even when things are looking bleak. (Perhaps rewards get better when you get further into a dungeon? Such a dial would be reset whenever the players return to town.)
I just might do it...

But I should get the new playtest rules of Shades finished first. (I'm more than halfway done.)

Back to the bad old times?

I've been playing around with Blood Sword, a book that let's you play a classic dungeon crawl alone. Mostly it's stuff like: "If you enter the corridor ahead, go to 314. If you investigate the alcove to the right, go to 24." Sometimes, you have actual fights, complete with maps, dice and hit points. The book was written in 1987 and can be downloaded from the Home of the Underdogs. Read the review there:

Definitely one of the best gamebook series ever released

Of course, this is merely one reviewer's opinion, but if Blood Sword even comes near to what was thought acceptable by the readers of these books, things were seriously amiss. But what makes me shudder with horror is the idea that if people accepted to be treated like this by a game book, they would also accept to be treated like this by a real GameMaster. Perhaps this book even corresponds to the play style of a substantial section of the roleplayers in 1987? That would really explain where something like the Abused Player Syndrome that Chris talks about comes from.

So, what is so horrific about this book? Well, first of all, it is almost never the case that you actually have any information on which you can base your choices. "Do you go left or right?" How should I know? There is nothing I can do to find out which is the good choice. But if you choose the wrong option, you're bound to meet a dreadful end.

Here are some choice events:

  • You meet an assassin with a poisoned dagger. If he wounds you (quite a chance), you die immediately.
  • You read a scroll and are transported to a magical place from which you cannot flee, where you have to face an opponent who is much stronger than you are. You can only escape by killing him.
  • You find a black potion. If you ever decide to drink it, you die.
I mean, come on! You give me a potion, you don't allow me to find out what it does, and when I try to drink it you instantly kill my character - and this is supposed to be fun? Well, I don't take abuse from a book, so I can cheat and there's nothing the book can do about it. But think about actual roleplaying games where the GameMaster, having read too many of these books or having been brought up in a dysfunctional gamer culture, actually constructs his dungeons this way. How many players would not dare to break the social contract by standing up and saying: "you utterly suck, I'm not going to take this kind of abuse"? Many.

Was roleplaying really ever like this? I really hope it wasn't, and that Blood Sword is merely an abberation.

Silly questions and 'realism'

In his book Mimesis as Make-believe, Kendall Walton speaks about 'silly questions' concerning fictionality. Here are some examples:

  • In Othello, Othello is not a very literary character and certainly not one of the greatest poets of all time. Yet he speaks in exquisite verse that only a genius could think up on the fly. Should we conclude that, after all, Othello is a brilliant poet?
  • In Leonardo's Last supper, all people sit on the same side of the table. What strange arrangement is this? What reason could Jesus' disciples have for sitting like this? Does it make sense to ask these questions?
  • In too many WWII movies to even begin mentioning, the german soldiers speak English. Are we to believe that Germans during the war spoke English regularly?
These are silly questions, says Walton, because they emphasise something that the author of the work does not want to emphasise. Othello speaks in brilliant verse not because Shakespeare wants to say something about Othello's skill as a poet, but because he wants to delight the spectators with brilliant verse. Leonarda has the disciples all sit at one side of the table because that we we can see all of their faces. The German soldiers in the movie speak English because that makes the movie easier to understand for an English-speaking audience. It doesn't really make sense to wonder whether it is true or false in the fictional world that all the disciples sit at the same side of the table: this is a detail we should not dwell upon. If we do dwell upon it, we are playing the wrong game of make-believe with the work.

There was a discussion on Mandragon (in Dutch) (starting from the first post of benjamin) about whether or not it made sense if characters in a roleplaying game suddenly become better in skills they haven't used during the adventure. Many systems give you points that you can freely spend to increase your skills, putting no restiction on which skills are allowed to go up. Dungeons and Dragons is a clear example, and so is The Shadow of Yesterday. But how is it that your character becomes better at etiquette after spending a week in a dungeon killing goblins? Isn't that 'unrealistic'?

Here's my answer: in these games, those questions are silly questions in exactly the same way that questions about the poetic skills of Othello are silly with respect to Shakespeare's play. The causality of 'getting better' is de-emphasised in these games: they simply want progression, and this is an easy and fun way to implement it. You are not supposed to ask questions about how this progression takes place, because that means dwelling upon something the game tells you not to dwell upon. Criticising these games for being unrealistic is not simply a matter of clashing creative agenda's, is it a matter of not understanding how these games ought to be played.

Makes sense?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

What is fictional?

I promised hard-core theory, and I hereby deliver on my promise. What I'm going to say is partly inspired by a short discussion I had with Vincent Baker on whether all truths about a character are in the minds of the players; it is partly inspired by and a continuation of a discussion on the anatomy of roleplaying I started a while back on The Forge; and also in no small part inspired by the book Mimesis as Make-Believe by Kendall L. Walton, which I have just started rereading.

There is a set of related issues I want to talk about, but for now I'll concentrate on a very simple question. When we are roleplaying, we are creating a piece of fiction. (Albeit a piece of fiction that is different from normal written fiction in that it is dynamic, constantly changing, instead of static. This makes all the difference in the world.) This piece of fiction comes with a fictional world (a concept which I will also say more about below). In this fictional world, some things are true and others aren't; instead of using the unwieldy "A is true in the fictional world", we say "A is fictional". Here is the question: when we are playing a roleplaying game, what things are fictional, and what makes them so?

This is a small but crucial question in the bigger project of developing an anatomy of roleplaying. (That's right, the activity, not the games. For the games, go look at John Kirk's design patterns.) If it sounds too abstract to you, that's fine, you don't have to read it - but I think understanding what we are doing at a fundamental level is important, and in the end I will talk about applications.

A preliminary point: I will be talking about roleplaying games while they are being played. One might wonder what the product of a session of play is, and what is made fictional by that product, but I won't. What interests me is the activity of roleplaying.

Roleplaying is an activity, and it is done by concrete people is a concrete social situation. It is this social situation and the actions of the people we are trying to understand, and fictionality should somehow be based in that. So let's try out a simple proposal:

Something is fictional in the fictional world of the game if and only if all the players agree that it has been established - explicitly or implicitly - about the fictional world.
At first sight, this seems to work. If player A has said "Harry kisses Mary, and they fall in love!", and all the other players agreed to accept this into the fiction, then it has become fictional that Harry kissed Mary and they fell in love. On the other hand, if nobody has said or implied this; or if it is just the case that somebody intends to say it; or if somebody has said it, but people are still disagreeing whether or not it should be accepted into the fiction - in all those cases, it is surely not (yet) fictional that Harry kissed Mare and they fell in love.

But there are also problems with this definition. Let me first discuss a scenario that Walton talks about in his book (in which the words 'roleplaying game' do not appear, unfortunately). Suppose two guys, let's call them Bob and Jim, are walking through the woods and decide to play a game of make-believe: all the stumps in the forest are bears! Whenever they encounter a stump, they shout "watch out, a bear!", and run away, or whatever.

What is fictional in the world of this game? Well, if there is a stump somewhere in the real world, it is fictional that in the fictional world, there is a bear in that place. By virtue of the convention Bob and Jim have set up - which boils down to: whereever there is a stump, you should imagine a bear - stumps have become props in their game that generate fictional truths. A stump being somewhere makes it fictional that there is a bear in that place. And here is the rub: Bob and Jim might not know that there is a stump hidden somweher in the thicket they are walking past. Yet it is fictional in their game that there is a bear in the thicket, and it is even fictional that they pass him by unawares.

This point easily generalises to the kind of roleplaying games we play. Suppose that a group of players have established, beyond doubt, the convention that they'll play My Life with Master strictly by the rules. They've started playing, and look up the rules as they need them. None of them has yet read the part of the book that is about the endgame - so nobody knows that in the end, the Master must die.* And yet their convention makes it fictional, given the rules, that the Master will die.

Another example. A group of four people + GM have just started playing The Mountain Witch. The GM deals everyone a Fate Card, face down, and puts away the others. Nobody has yet looked at their Fate Card. And yet the rules of the game and the (implicit) social convention that they'll play the game by the rules makes it fiction that the party of ronin has the four Fates that have just been dealt.

In the board game Cluedo (I think it may be called Clue in English) - in a sense also a kind of roleplaying game, though extremely limited in the importance of roles - it is already fictional who has committed the murder, even though all the players are still trying to find out who did it.

What all these examples make clear is that something can be fictional even though none of the players know about it. So what is fictional cannot simply be those things which all players believe to have been established. On the positive side, we have seen that every time, it was the prior establishment of some kind of convention as to what things have authority to make other things fictional that lies at the basis of what is fictional.

So here is the new proposal:

Whenever a group is roleplaying, there is a set of implicit or explicit rules - some cultural, some specific to the group, some specific to the game being played - that establish which things have the authority to make statements fictional, and how they are to do this. Something is fictional if and only if it has been made fictional by something that has thus been imbued with the authority to make it so.
Sounds trivial? In a sense it is, but thinking about it can give us some interesting insights. Here's one: the things that are fictional need not be the contents of a Shared Imagined Space - if we interpret that term literally. They need by neither Shared, nor Imagined.

We've already seen examples of what is fictional not being Imagined: if nobody knows about it, they can't imagine it. Here's an example of a different kind: somebody has made an authoritative statement at some point of the game, but all the players have forgotten about it. Perhaps they are even telling something that directly contradicts it. Does this statement still make something fictional? That depends on the conventions the group uses. In my group, there's an implicit convention: "If nobody cared enough about it to remember it in time, it's probably not important and we should forget it." But in a heavy Sim group, I can totally see the following convention existing: "Once we've established that something is fictional, it is and remains fictional. If we forget about it and start telling things that contradict it, we are fucking up the world." In such a group, statements that everyone has forgotten could still make things fictional.

Here is a design consideration: if you want the group to adopt a rule like the above, you should give them the tools to remember what has been established! Think about how important the internal consistency - the integrity - of the fiction is to you, and build your game accordingly.

I also said that what is fictional does not have to be shared. How is that possible? These rules that establish what is fictional and what is not are shared, surely? They are. But imagine a heavy immersionist game. This group might well use the rule: "Whatever you think and feel when you are immersed is (fictionally) what your character thinks and feels." Here, parts of the fiction are only accessible to certain players - yet these parts are validated as truly part of the fiction by the social rules that govern the game. When I play Polaris and my Mistaken tells me that my character feels hate rising within him**, I certainly cannot counter by exclaiming that that is not what I am experiencing at the moment - being immersed and experiencing something does not make it fictional that it is. But in a heavily Immersionist game, this might be a perfectly valid claim that makes the other retracts his statement.

Design consideration: make sure whether you want some parts of the fiction to be private, perhaps in the interest of immersion, and if so - protect them! This is all perfectly valid.
In a sense, The Mountain Witch also has private parts of the fiction - those things concerning their own Fate that the players have already decided upon without revealing it. Since they have the authority to makes statements about this, their deciding that something is the case could already be said to make it fictional. However, in this game one should reveal one's Fate, whereas the Immersionist is under no obligation to reveal all the details of her character's inner life to the other players.

Here's another consequence of my theory of fictionality: roleplaying is not simply a process of establishing new facts about the fiction, that are added one at a time and accumulate to tell a big story. Here's why: first, narrating something, even when it is accepted as a valid part of the narration (what I elsewhere called the 'shared text'), does not mean it makes anything fictional; second, which things do and do not have authority can change during the game; third, changing the basic rules can change the fiction.

Let's take them one at a time. If you are allowed to narrate something, that doesn't necessarily mean you have been given the authority to add things to the fiction. Shades is an example of this: oftentimes, you will be narrating things that actually turn out to be not true in the fictional world. You are allowed to tell them, yes, but you cannot imbue them with fictionality. That may happen later in the game, or it may never happen.

Second, something which at one time had authority may not have so at another; and vice versa. The familiar phenomenon of 'retconning' makes this clear: statements that were once accepted as authoritive are later relieved of this authority. (Sometimes, retconning may have to do with a mistaken belief about what statements had authority; I'll not dwell on this subtlety.) Here's a more substantial example: suppose we're playing D&D3E, and we have the social convention that we stick to the alignment rules. That gives the rules "All paladins must be lawful good" authority to establish the sentence "all paladins in the world are lawful good" as fictional. Now, at some point the players may say: "let's forget about this alignment stuff - chaotic evil druids and true neutral paladins are cool!" Effectively, they negate the authority of the rule, and it is no longer fictional that there are only lawful good paladins in the world. (However, is isn't yet fictional that there are paladins in the world who are not lawful good. Until some non-LG paladins come up during play, this may simply be undecided.)

Third, the very social rules that give out authority may change during play. "Let's ditch this D&D shit and continue our campaign with The Shadow of Yesterday!", some guy may cry out - and if all the others agree, the social rules of the game have now changed and authority has been transposed from the D&D book to the TSOY book. This also makes many things fictional that did not use to be so, and it makes many things non-fictional that used to be so. Moral: you can majorly change the fiction simply by fooling around with things surrounding the narration and without narrating anything concerned with the fictional world at all.

Ok, but what does all that mean for game design? If nothing else, it serves to illustrate that there is way more to roleplaying than people saying things related to what is happening in the fiction. Yes, it is not enough to look at the processes that govern this stating of things, there's a whole lot of roleplaying going on around that. Material props can generate fictional truths; part of the roleplaying can be private; part of the roleplaying is not concerned with establishing in-game events at all, and yet influence the fiction directly. And we, as roleplaying designers, should look at all of these processes and shape them in ways we think will help to create the gaming experience we would like to bring to people.

Does the above give the designer any hard and fast rules that he can take to his design table and work with? No. But it does map out a (small part of a) space of things he might want to think about.

* Actually, My Life with Master does not necessarily end with the death of the Master. The formulae are such that it could take an infinity of time to kill him (even though chances are that it will happen pretty soon), and we can safely assume that no group will be so invested in the game that they'll spend that kind of time on it.

** This may not be quite kosher, by the rules, but we tend to allow this kind of thing.

Monday, December 05, 2005

[Shades] Social Agenda trumping Creative Agenda

There is some hardcore theory stuff that I'm going to post about, but I'm not going to do it now. This post is about design. (Truly!)

There is this little game that I have been working on, although it is mainly just lying around. It is called Shades, and you can download a version of it here. The system needs some tweaking, though, and I hope to be able to present a better version soon.

But what I want to talk about is that my main design goal with this game. I used to think about design goals mainly in terms of creative agenda:

The aesthetic priorities and any matters of imaginative interest regarding role-playing.
First, you need to find out whether you want to make a Narrativist, a Gamist or a Simulationist game (or some other category like that, I'm not going to talk GNS-theory here); and than the main worry of the game designer is to make sure that all the aspects of his system help him to deliver theme, challenge or the dream.

But I recently realised that it is wrong to think of aesthetic priorities and imaginative interest as the main reasons for playing a roleplaying game, even when you take into account the way that they are connected to the social situation. Of course, this is nothing new: everybody will happily agree that you might roleplay just to hang out with people, or to seduce that cute other player, or whatever. But what I realised is that these kinds of social goals are not merely interesting to the group itself, but also to the game designer: you can actually desing games that are meant to further one of these social goals.

This, too, is probably nothing new, but it bears thinking about. For example, take Paul Czege's Bacchanal. Sure, people are creating a story while playing the game, and they may have aesthetic priorities concerning it. But the most important reason for playing it is to transcend, socially, the comfort zone of the group concerning imaginatively talking about sex and by doing so create a special bond between the players: "we've done that together - and it has made us better friends"!

If I had to classify 'Shades', it would certainly be a narrativist game. But, and this was the important part of my realisation, it is not my main design goal to create a game that delivers the most stunning tragedies with the most powerful adressings of theme. I mean, how could things like not having character and setting creation and disallowing OON-speech ('out of narration') actually further this design goal? No, my main design goal is to create a system that will allow people to develop their sensitivity to the other player's goals and style of storytelling, and to increase their trust in the other. The two (or three) of you have to reach a goal: to tell a certain kind of tale. The system makes this difficult: you cannot discuss the game, you have very little prior understanding to work from, you have to accept everything the other player says as part of the unfolding narrative. In order to succeed, you must be sensitive and trusting. And the system does help you with that: it gives you the tools to carefully adjust the fiction, to give non-verbal cues to the other, to transform player-misunderstanding in productive parts of the narrative. And with these tools, the two of you will become better at telling the kind of tale that has to be told, and in becoming better, you will have learned to be sensitive to and trusting of the other (in his/her capacity as a roleplayer at least, but these things will carry over to the 'real' world).

I don't (necessarily) want the players to say: "This is the best tale we've ever told together, and this system is the best system to produce such tales!"

I want the players to say: "Wow, we've pulled it off - incredible, how quickly we've learned to do this together! I feel I understand your narrative sensibilities much better now, and it's really great relying on you to make my own ideas work!"

So, I think that's a Social Agenda trumping a Creative Agenda, if I'm allowed to use that kind of terminology a bit sloppily.

And now I really have to rewrite those rules and get some more playtesting done.

Personality types and RPGs

Over in Yudhishtira's Dice, Bradley Robins has written an interesting post on the Myers Briggs personality types and playing RPGs.

I don't put great faith in these classificatory schemes, as it seems to me that people are generally multi-faceted and the dominance of one facet over the others is really dependent on social context and therefore open to change. But perhaps these schemes can give us some broad outlines of a person's personality, and thereby help us to shed some light on a subject which is still covered in darkness: player preferences and how different preferences interact.

What I like most about Bradley's story is that he makes a difference between a person's overall personality type and their type as a roleplayer, taking into account that people may well sit to the table to play in a different frame of mind than they are usually in. Someone who is very Thinking in real life might want to Feel lots of emotions during play; someone who is very Introvert might want to take some rest from his introspection and be carried away by the wondrous world he enters.

At the end of his post, Bradly writes:

We need to get lots of other people to do this and talk about it and see what we can see.

So, let me try and give an MB-analysis of myself, my gaming personality and my characters.

I did a (probably very unreliable) MB-test on the internet, and was classified as INfj: Introverted Intuitive Feeling Judging. The respective strengths of the preferences are: 56%, 75%, 25%, 22%. (The lowercase latters were adopted by me to show the strenght of the preference.) A description of the INFJ type can be found here and here.

Do I recognise myself in this description? Yes - although we may wonder whether I would not have recognised myself in many of the other descriptions either. Impressively correct, though, is that the test reached the correct conclusion that I am an introvert who easily takes the lead in social situations. Anyway, we're not here to discuss the flaws and meritt of the MB-typology (yet), but to apply it and see whether we can learn something.*

But how do I sit down to the gaming table? What are my preferences, as a gamer? I'll use Bradley's typology here.

I/E: Introverts are those that approach a game primarily through their character. Extroverts are those who approach the game primarily through the world, setting, or situation. If you want to play in the world of Wheel of Time, you're going the E road. If you want to play a farmer who grows into a great leader, in whatever setting, you're going the I road.
I tend to be very uninterested in source material, except in so far as it gives me need ideas for thematically interesting characters or somehow reinforces the aspects of the character that I find interesting. So I'll call myself a clear Introvert here.

N/S: Intuitives are basically No-Mythers, and Sensers are big Mythers. If you want the game to focus on tangible, repeatable, discrete elements you're walking the road of S. If you're more interested in the concepts, themes, and abstracts of the game then you are embarking on the path of N.
This one is a bit harder. I like colour, really, even though I am rather bad at putting it in my game as a GM. (I'm a 75% Intuitive in real life, remember?) On the other hand, I tend to think of the colour as symbolically related to the theme of the story and I often think about scenes mostly in terms of their narrative function. I'll put it down as a mild N, but this is certainly open to revision.

T/F: This one changes very little between standard and game. If you think your way through game, want to focus on the logic, an intellectual appreciation, then you are on the Tower of T. If, otoh, you want game to be about feeling you way through, focusing on the emotionality, and having a gut level appreciation of game then you're on the ship of F.
When I sit at the gaming table, F is majorly dominant, much more so than in my general behaviour. I can enjoy games that I have to think through, but I'd rather have that game be chess or Go - or a CRPG - than a (pen and paper) roleplaying game.

J/P: Mo and I called this one Pressure (J) and Flow (P). Judging gamers want to hit it and quit it, they want discrete goals, short run games, quick closure, and games full of pressure that they can make statements about and through. Perceiving gamers want more flowing games, stories that flow into each other, long running campaigns, either no closure or closure that flows into a new story, and games that are about enjoying the flow rather than increasing the pressure.
Judge. No doubt about it. Keep the pressure on, give me short story arcs, closure, goals - absolutely!

Ok, so where does that leave us? Sitting down to the table, I've classified myself as InFJ when I start playing an RPG, whereas I am INfj in general. So there are differences: I'm more open to experiencing the sensory world, am less prone to abstract thinking instead of feeling, and like to make statements all the time. But none of the differences is a major difference.

Now, on to the characters I play! But - there is a problem here. I don't play all that many characters, since I am generally GameMastering. Hm... so I'll have to draw on very scant observations to see if I can actually make something of it. What makes them even scanter is that most of the character's I've player where before I started playing narrativistic RPGs, so they may not reflect my actual preferences.

These characters used to be very Introverted, keeping their own council. But the very few characters I've played recently were very Extroverted, spreading out all their thoughts and emotions as it were their laundry. And I think that if I were to make up a character now, he or she would always be extraverted. Why? Because that way you can make your thematic statements much more easily! Here's a theory that I'd like to discuss:

Narrativists with a Judging preference towards gaming will play Extroverted characters when they play in a game where narrativism is supported and encouraged, because it allows for easier expression. But they will play Introverted characters when they play in a game where narrativism is not supported, or even actively discouraged, because that way they can still make the statements - in their own heads.
Ok, what about the other three axes? I honestly don't know about Intuitive and Sensing - I'll go and ask advice about this distinction to Bradley or Mo. I think my characters used to be T because in-character reasoning with NPCs was one of the main ways to influence the game in our rules-lite days. But nowadays? I'm not all that sure, but I guess they'd be F at their core, since characters with an emotional core are more likely to lead to poignent scenes of drama. (My recent Breaking the Ice character was very much F. I also loved to play Masters in My Life with Master that were utterly F hidden behind a veil of rationalisations.) My characters are as Judging as I am, always ready to take a stance - because that way, something is going to happen! Heighten the stakes, make your choice and suffer the consequences...

Which would make my characters in general E?FJ.


Life: INfj
Gaming: InFJ
Characters: E?FJ


The most interesting thing is the switch between strong I and strong E: I roleplay to express my inner thoughts and feelings, and to do that I need characters who express their inner thoughts and feelings and immediately act on them in a way that I would never do myself. I also highlight any predisposition I might have towards Feeling - I generally roleplay for the drama that is so sadly and also so happily lacking from real life - and towards Judging - because I want to drop subtlety and do things and experience consequences. The Intuition/Sensing scale is still obscure.

Now I'll have to make the people I play with do the same!

* Perhaps the fact that INFJ is the rarest of types makes me more inclined to believe that it describes me. We all like to be special, don't we? :-)

Yes, formalise!

I have a love-hate relationship with formalisations. On the one hand, I can very much enjoy the abstract beauty of mathematics and logic, and I feel real sympathy for the clarity that may be won by describing initially vague discourse in a formal way. On the other hand, I abhor intricate formalisations that do not increase our understanding of their subject matter, and I especially abhor formalisations that destroy the subtle and important shades of meanings that lie in ambiguity.

The question should always be: does formalisation of this subject matter actually increase our understanding? And is the increase in understanding worth the effort?

These questions naturally arise upon reading John Kirk's Design Patterns of Successful Role-Playing Games. (See the accompanying Forge thread here.) He introduces intricate schemata to speak about RPG systems, including such wonderous entities as 'conflicted gauges' and 'feedback loops'. Does this increase our understanding of roleplaying games enough to be worth the trouble? Does it help in designing better games?

The answer is: yes, it helps. It is a vary valuable piece of theory indeed.

I am currently involved in playtesting Paul Czege's new game, and he asked John to perform an analysis of the mechanics. I won't go into the details, but this formal description of the game brought us at least four things:

  1. It showed where the rules of the game where unclear. By looking at John's diagrams, which are entirely non-ambiguous, I could see where he and I had a different understanding of the rules. The differences where so subtle that they probably wouldn't have been noticed otherwise, and the unclarity in the current rule text would have remained.
  2. By showing the feedback loops and balancing loops in the conflict-and-reward system, the analysis clarified the ways in which the character's stats can 'run away' and the ways in which the system inherently balances failure and success.
  3. By making explicit the difference between normal gauges and conflicted gauges, the analysis allowed John to estimate the tactical variety of the game. (The more conflicted gauges, the more meaningful tactical decisions the player can make, because those represent trade-offs.)
  4. By making explicit the reward system of all the conflicts, including which player is rewarded when, the analysis provided a good way to estimate player interest in each scene. (If you cannot meaningfully participate in any way, interest is bound to wane, especially if several such scenes follow each other.)
I recommend that every designer of a mechanically complex game takes a good look at John's method of formalisation. Making the way your game works explicit in this way will help you to better understand what you are doing, and will give you insights into the system you did not have before.

There are also more general benefits. There are a million ways you could formalise game systems, most of them utterly unproductive, but John has already chosen some good categories. Conflicted gauge is an important concept that every game designer should understand. Dito with feedback loops and balancing loops. This is good stuff. Yet it can almost certainly be improved upon - so theorists, go forth and do thy job!

Is formal analysis of your system a substitute for playtesting? Obviously not. But it can teach you things that playtesting might not easily reveal, and it can help you understand the issues that your testers come up with, and help you find the best solutions to those issues.

Philosophy with the hammer

The Forge has closed its theory forums. The reasoning behind this decision is that the development of roleplaying theory will be more productive when it is done either in the direct context of actual play or actual game design, or on people's private weblogs.

I am skeptical. I am afraid that not having a central place to discuss fundamental theory is going to be detrimental to the development of good and helpful roleplaying theory.

But I want to be wrong about this. In fact, I want to try and make myself be wrong about this - which is why I have decided to start this weblog. May it be a place where theory - both applied and fundamental - is developed and discussed. Somehow, perhaps, this network of RPG theory weblogs will become a more fruitful version of the old forums.

It is also an opportunity for me to make a connection with another interest of mine: interactive fiction. Do you remember the text adventures of yore? We now call them interactive fiction - and they have developed and matured over the years. In terms of our beloved GNS-theory, there have been careful but intriguing steps towards Narrativism. But the theory of interactive fiction is woefully underdeveloped, which is hurting the actual making of games. I want to explore that field, and I want to look at the interconnections between IF and RPGs, both being media of interactive narrative.

Philosophy with the hammer. This alludes, of course, to The Forge: if I can't swing my hammer on the anvil there, I'll do it here. But it is also to stress that, contrary to what some may think of me, I am commited to a strong link between theory and practice. I recently wrote an RPG for the Ronnies. I am playtesting the new RPG of Paul Czege. I have written a big piece of interactive fiction that is currently being beta-tested. And I want theory to help me.

So let us hammer away. Welcome to my blog. Welcome to the Gaming Philosopher.