Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Gamism in the digital age


I think it would make little sense for designers of pen and paper roleplaying games to try and create types of games that work better on computers. If some kinds of roleplaying game are consistently more fun in computerised version than when played around a table with pen, paper and dice, then we should play other types of games when we are sitting around a table. In the following reflections I will try to find out whether such types of roleplaying games exist, and if they do, what they are.

Taking our cue from the crude but still useful GNS-distinction, it is very easily seen that if computers have an advantage, it must be in the realm of Gamism. At least at this stage of their evolution, computers have no 'feeling' for dramatic issues and thematic situations, nor can they adequately respond to the different directions a player might want to take the 'dream'. What computers are good at, though, is keeping track of variables, manipulating them according to strict rules on the basis of discrete actions taken by the player, and calculating its own 'actions' from a list of discrete possibilities based on rule-bound tactical considerations. In other words, computers are good at types of gamism where the possible actions at each point of the game can be written down in a relatively short list and the rules for success and failure are also clear, rigid and non-fuzzy. In yet other words: computers are excellent at D&D 3rd edition fights.

Fuzzy and rigid gamism

Now, gamism comes in many types. I suggest, based upon the above considerations, that we distinguish between fuzzy and rigid gamism. In rigid gamism, all (or most) tactical options are rigidly determined and classified by the rules. In fuzzy gamism, tactical options that are not rigidly determined and classified by the rules play an important role.

A good example of rigid gamism is chess: the most important tactical options - the possible moves - are rigidly determined and classified by the rules. You can make a list of possibilities, and it is always clear which one you have chosen. I said 'most', because chess does offer some minor fuzzy tactical options: making your moves very fast and with an air of superiority might unnerve your opponent and make you more likely to win, for instance - all the tricks of psychological warfare do apply. But, from my experience, they are of little importance during real chess games.

A good example of fuzzy gamism is Diplomacy: although the actual moves on the board are rigidly determined and do carry tactical weight, the real tactics of the game lie in your social interaction with your fellow players. These interactions are not classified by the rules, nor is it easy (or often even possible) to say whether some social move was a good or a bad move. The tactics of Diplomacy lie in the fuzzy social realm.

Computers are much better in rigid gamism than in fuzzy gamism. This is why playing chess with a computer is a lot like playing chess with a human, whereas playing Diplomacy with six computer enemies/allies would differ dramatically from playing it with six humans. You could (and can) play Diplomacy with other people over the internet, but as internet communication is a lot less natural than face-to-face communication, this is probably less fun than playing the boardgame.

Simple and complex gamism

With those remarks have not yet plunged the depths of computer-assisted interaction between humans. But in these depths lie our answers, for playing with other people cannot be usefully compared to playing without other people. Me vs the computer can be fun, but you can't really compare it to me vs another person. What we want to compare, in this essay, are games played by people sitting around a table, and games played by people sitting behind their respective computers.

I will now introduce another distinction: that between simple games and complex games. What I am not talking about is tactical depth: chess is very deep, tactically, but it is a rather simply game. The distinction I want to make is between those games that have relatively simple rules, track few variables, involve few die rolls, and so forth; and games that have very complicated rules, track many variables, involve lots of rolls, and so forth. Simple games are games that have little search time and handling time; complex games are games that have lots of search and/or handling time.

Computers are great at calculating, looking things up and keeping track of variables at an immense speed. This means that using a computer can dramatically decrease the search and handling time of a game, and can allow you to play very complex situations at a very fast pace.

The best Gamist moments I have had while roleplaying must have been while I was playing Baldur's Gate 2 in multiplayer with a friend of mine. This game was based on AD&D2E rules. I still recall with pleasure the many fights our party had with other parties of adventurers (mostly evil); the sheer tactical depth of these encounters has never been surpassed. We literally had dozens of spells available, many special abilities, huge numbers of different weapons and potions and stuff; and the enemies were as varied as they come, complete with their own arsenals of spells and potions and stuff.

A fight with such tactical depth might take only 5 minutes of play time (though often you had to restore and try again, a feature which I will not talk about now): fast and furious action, with the blessed 'pause' function that allowed you to think and give new orders to your characters.

Using the pen and paper game, such a fight would have costed at least an hour - and it would have had the exact same content. I kid you not. The exact same content, but in more than 10 times the amount of time. And that would have been less fun.

My conclusion from this example is that when you play AD&D2E, or D&D3E for that matter, as a tactical gamist game consisting mostly of fights, you are simply better of playing a computer game. You get the same thing, but without all the tedious and slow looking things up, rolling dice, keeping track of spells and hit points and inventory and position and initiative of twelve characters, and so forth. The computer is such a great assistant when trying to cater to this Gamist agenda, that there is no reason I can see not to use it.

That doesn't mean that you have to stop playing D&D: there may be other reasons why you prefer the pen and paper game to the computer game. But D&D seems to be designed with a Creative Agenda in mind that it can cater to only in an unfulfilling way, and if that is true that surely is a big mistake.

Gamism in a digital age

What I am claiming is that rigid, complex gamist games will generally benefit from the assistance of computers. If you are serious about your attachment to tactical gaming, you would do better to connect to your friends online and play the computer game, than to go through the rather more tedious process of playing the game in a pen and paper format.

Game designers, then, shouldn't make pen and paper rigid complex Gamist games. (I beg you pardon for that sentence.) Or rather, they should think deep and hard about why their game will be more successful as a pen and paper game than as a computer game - and if you can't think of anything, you'd better think again about making it. Making something that is destined to be inferior is simply wasting your time.

I can restate the previous claim in a positive way. Designers who want to make a Gamist game should explore the realms of social interaction and non-rigid tactical options - I am sure there is still a lot of ground to be covered, and I look forward to seeing people cover it.

Meanwhile, I'm still wondering what to do with Monsters we Slay...


  1. Don't forget Tunnels & Trolls, that one is mostly fights and it uses a lot of fuzzy gamism (and Donjon, as well).

    The other thing that videogames have over pencil & paper games is that often the challenges are well thought out, designed, and tested, tested, tested, whereas for tabletop games each person has to develop the skills of a level designer themselves.

  2. Perhaps I'm some whacked case, but I totally disagree with the above. I acknowledge that multi-player online RPGs have a great following, and probably are cool implementations of this aspect. But to my mind, they aren't RPGs. Because anything without that fuzziness that is not computerizeable is not dependent on the agreement amongst the players of what is transpiring that is the essential component of an RPG. I have mostly rejected computer aid during play (I do use a computer for prep out of play, and I have in the past used a computer to keep notes). I want to roll real dice, and sit with real players, and move real counters or miniatures across a board. And I want that group coming to agreement over things that is essential to an RPG. And did I mention I like detailed, tactical combat systems?

    Now perhaps as I get into narativist gaming I'll change, but I rather doubt it. I like manipulating visual and tactile representations of the imaginary space.

    Of course I think one reason I reject the computer as a tool for play is that I work with computers all day. Sure, I enjoy using the computer to surf the web and participate in online communities.


  3. I prefer the terms that Callan has coined for the two approaches to Gamism: exploration of challenge and address of challenge.

    See this thread as a starter.

    And yes, you can explore challenges in a computer game. However, you don't get the flexibility of options that lead to the challenges that a tabletop RPG offers.

    And address of challenge is impossible in computer games. The best you can do is a very open exploration (say, physics engines that allow manipulation of objects in ways the designers didn't all map out).

    So tabletop RPGs offer better options both for people who enjoy exploration of challenge and address of challenge.

  4. I want to roll real dice, and sit with real players, and move real counters or miniatures across a board. And I want that group coming to agreement over things that is essential to an RPG. And did I mention I like detailed, tactical combat systems?

    Then I submit to you, Frank, that while you do like that detailed, tactical combat system, you're also after other things -- socializing, collaborative imagining, and other hippie bullshit. There are folks who don't care who they game with, they just want to play the game and defeat a cardboard playing piece. The MMOs can have their souls.

    What Victor's getting at, though, is that if someone was to make a nice gritty gamist-leaning game for an audience of you, they'd be sure to include that collaborative imagining, socialization, and whatever other hippie bullshit you're after.

  5. Joshua - ok, I'll buy that.

    So I guess now my question is how do you address such things in a gamist design (since I'm in the process of designing a detailed, tactical, gamist game)?

    Hmm, thinking about this from a different angle: I've long been frustrated I couldn't quite define what an RPG was, but now I'm thinking that actually I have been onto it all along (at least Vincent's definition of players agreeing on a shared imagination), but that what's really been wrong is identifying just what structures in the game are actually supporting that nature.


  6. I've read this post 3 times now and I'm still not sure if I'm grasping your point. So please bear with me if this comment does not reflect 100% on what you were trying to say.

    First I'd like to point out that playing chess on a computer or on a real chess board is a very different experience IMO. I play chess at a chess club, on the internet and on my cell phone, all against human players, but every medium has a different 'feel' to it. Winning a 'real' chess game gives much more satisfaction than winning an online game for me. This is probably because those real games are often more important (I care more about my club rating than my internet rating), but I think it also because a RL opponent has a face while an internet opponent remaines relatively anonymous.

    My second point: A RPG, even a gamist RPG like AD&D, is not a tactical game. Heck, it does not even define how you win the game, so how could it be a real tactical game? Even the fighting rules, which do offer some tactical options, are there mainly to offer 'realism', not to make the fight a tactical chess match between the GM and the players. The GM sets the challenge for the players, he can use any monster and any number of them he likes. If this was a pure tactical game this would hardly be fair. But that is not the aim of an AD&D fight. The GM (usually) hopes the players will survive the challenge he set them and the game mechanics should insure that there is a 'realistic' fight and hopefully an exciting one. (Whether or not AD&D succeed in this is a totally different matter.) The AD&D rules are not balanced (which would be necessary for a tactical game) at all. Like I said before (as comment on a different post), if the GM would use the most efficient tactical strategy for his minions (teaming up against one player, killing him, then the next etc) that would result in very angry players.

    My third point:A RPG is about creating a story. Even in a fight it is fun to narrate how you chop an orc's head off, how your fireball burns the enemies etc. If it is necessary to break a rule to achieve a more dramatic climax to the fight then most GMs I know will happily break that rule. A computer could never do that.

    which brings me to my final point: I too played BG2 single player and online I played a similar game. For me the online game was of the worst gamist moments I ever had. There were crappy controls and AI (For some reason my wizard just loved getting killed by walking into a fireball or getting himself surrounded by a mob of enemies).

    But that aside, what it lacked was the Role Playing element (kill enemies was the only goal, storyline was totally unimportant) and what was left was one of the worst designed tactical games I ever played. It was not balanced at all, the options though it seems there are many are actually very limited because some options are clearly better than others. The fights do not differ much, it has certainly nothing of the tactical richness in choices that a true tactical game like chess has to offer.

    I do agree with you that a AD&D fight with dice, paper and pencils takes 10 times the amount of time of a computerized version, but it would also be ten times more fun. AD&D utterly fails as a tactical game and I don't think it was meant to be one. In my opinion AD&D or similar games on the computer lack the creative input a player has with the tabletop version, while at the same time the game design is not suited for a purely tactical game. I know thousands of WoW players probably disagree with me, but for me a game like WoW could never compete with a table top RPG or a true tactical game like chess.

  7. I agree with Victor's point, at least from a marketing perspective. It encapsulates exactly why the market for board wargames has been shrinking since 1980 or so. (Well, there are other factors besides computer/console games. I wouldn't completely disregard such factors as general competition from other new forms and channels of entertainment and recreation, a general reduction in free time available to the demographic that plays those sorts of games, and possibly an actual reduction in interest in the subject matter of said games, i.e. mostly history and militaria.)

    But I think some people are overlooking two things

    1) If you don't care about marketing, then complex tabletop fightin' games still have a lot of attraction. It's very similar to a discussion that came up years ago about computer flight simulators vs. air combat boardgames. Here's a link.

    2) Simple tabletop games have many of the same attractions as complex ones vis a vis video games, and they're commenurately more marketable than complex ones.

    BTW, in reply to Chris's post above, that videogames have well thought out levels, the flip side is that a lot of people like to fiddle and design their own challenges. Not that you can't do so in some videogames, but that just wipes out the point of comparison. I will say though that videogame expectations are often built around the idea that failing--a lot--is part of the fun, and difficulty levels seem to be calibrated toward getting the right amount of failure before the player masters the level. In something like the old Death Test, the idea of "reload from a saved position" wouldn't work quite so well.

  8. Er, start with message 20 on that Usenet thread.

  9. Hi Elliot,

    My point isn't that we should have all our challenges pre-made for us, but that we need tools to build good challenges easily.

    Videogames don't give you that option because they've maximized the challenge set up, playtested the hell out of it, so by the time you get it, you have a solid challenge waiting for you (when designed well).

    So far, rpgs have pretty much given us challenge by trial-and-error. CR's and similar methods are a start, but still rely more upon the GM's mastery of system and personal experience than really solid advice on building good challenges.

    This requires a much higher experience curve for people to get good challenge, than say, popping in a game disc and playing out the box.

  10. Chris - I wonder, would a good computer simulation of the TTRPG challenge system be a workable way of testing the challenge? I'm not sure how tough a job it is to really do this sufficiently accurately, but I do know that when we got a "combat simulator" for Cold Iron that allowed testing a variety of one on one fights I learned a lot about how the system really worked. It certainly would be cool if a good enough simulation could be developed that would let you test your challenge against your PC's stats and run a nice Monte Carlo simulation. Of course your players might not make the same choices, but if you had a decent baseline simulation, you'd at least know that for the baseline, the PCs have a 80% chance of success (and then you can modify the challenge until you get the PC success rate that you feel is right - of course there's another trick - what is that ideal success rate? I bet it depends heavily on the group, and also on what the ramifications for failure is [for example, one group might prefer an 80% success rate with a 10% chance of a total party kill, while another group is happy with a 50% success rate so long as the chance of a total party kill is only 1%]).

    On challenges - one thing I'm definitely exploring is "let's restore the saved game and try that again" which is something that allows a computer game to have a higher challenge level than might normally be acceptable for a table top game (of course as some have mentioned, many traditional games are also played with "let's try that again", chess, hand-ball, etc. [which makes me wonder at the few folks who have gone "ooh ick" when I've brought it up in an RPG venue]).


  11. Hi Frank,

    Having a computer brute force the numbers is still a pretty bad way to go. You have to account for two major possibilities- first that the players might not make optimal choices (issues of system mastery, teamwork, etc.), and second that the players might take exceedingly unorthodox tactics (Older D&D, Shrink was a really fun spell to cast on helmets...).

    I think the idea of balancing challenges, and providing toolsets for challenges needs to be addressed at the design level, not afterwards.

  12. Is it possible to completely balance a gamist design at the design stage though? Your example of the shrink spell points out something that is either a design flaw (the spell wasn't sufficiently well defined that it could be put to the unexpected use) or a design feature of the game (the players may make creative uses of game elements in new ways). The second is often considered an attractive part of an RPG (and may be critical for a gamist RPG).

    As to players not playing optimally, that suggests the GM will need to adjust for their non-optimal play, and there's no way a designer can solve that problem (other than making the game so straightforward there is no way to play non-optimally - but then where's the challenge in the game).

    Of course Monte Carlo simulation can be useful in the design phase also. If a Monte Carlo simulation shows up a character design choice that the designer wanted to be a good choice as being terrible, then the designer can re-work the design choice.


  13. I apologize for bringing up something old, but I was quite interested and had something to say on it. I can only defend myself with the words of The Boss - "Everything dies, that's a fact - maybe everything that dies, someday comes back.".

    Now, then... I think something that real-life gamist games can do that computer games cannot (and will not for a while) is case-by-case risk-VS-reward.

    A game where people "bet" dice on achieving a particular outcome will not be playable by a computer.

    For example, if I were to say "If I win, X happens" and you say "Ok, but if I win, Y happens", and we both agree...

    This sort of negotiation would not work very well with a computer. So I guess this is "fuzzy" gamism? Still, I'd like to see this advanced into a game...

    Maybe I'll get to work on it?