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...

The D&D boardgame and 'Monsters we Slay'

Yesterday I played the Dungeons and Dragons boardgame with Jasper Polane and two friends of his. I believe this game was never released in the United States of America, so those of you who live there may not have heard of it; and I don't think the game was a commercial success.

The game turned out to be a more complicated version of HeroQuest; though I found it somewhat lacking in style compared to its predecessor, the fact that it had more tactical options probably makes it a better game overall. Each player (except for the Dungeon Master) gets to play one or more out of four heroes (a fighter, a cleric, a rogue and a wizard), and then you embark on a classic dungeon crawl. You open doors, meet monsters (all of which are represented by small plastic miniatures), hack or blast them to pieces, amass piles of treasure and try not to fall into traps. For a more detailed overview of the system, you should consult this excellent review. We completed the first two quests, and then we were slaughtered during the third.

One reason I was eager to try out this game is because its goal is quite similar to that of my half-baked (quite a bit less than half, probably) game Monsters we Slay: the colour is heroes fighting monsters without any fuzzy roleplaying stuff going on around that, the preparation time is almost nil, and the agenda is tactical gamism. Two questions that weighed heavily on my mind were: 1. whether Monsters we Slay isn't too complicated, 2. whether Monsters we Slay wouldn't benefit immensely from such things as a game board, miniatures and cards. The answer to the latter question is especially important, as I have little interest in trying to make a game that needs all those things - I'm not about to embark on any risky commercial venture whatsoever.

Well, back to the D&D boardgame. I was a bit disappointed by the depth of tactics that the game allows. You have to make an interesting decision now and then, but these moments are relatively scarce. For this reason, I don't think the game can hold anyone's attention for very long. I can see a group playing through the 12-adventure campaign, but I don't think many people would want to continue playing after that. There just isn't enough crunch, not enough tactical meat. If MwS is to be fun, it must have more crunch and more meat.

There are, however, two rules in the D&D game that are very well though out, and that might turn out to be useful in some form for Monsters we Slay as well. The first of these is the rule that every character (including monsters) can take two actions whenever it's their turn. So you can walk twice, or walk and attack, or attack twice, or switch weapons and attack - and so on. Why is this a great rule? Because it ensures that it doesn't really matter which of two enemies charges the other. If you use one action to move your miniature next to the monster, you still have one attack; then the monsters has two, then you have two, and so forth - if you think about it, you'll see that in general nobody has the advantage over the other. This is great because it ensures that you don't have stalemate situations where it is tactically disadvantageous for both opponents to go to the other guy.

The other brilliant rule is that everyone can use every weapon, no matter their class, but that the priest and the wizard start out with somewhat weak weapons that have as special ability that using them gives you a chance of regenerating spell points. This means that when you're out of spell points, you can still be a cool fighter - just use you sword of slaying and kicking ass! But, if you want to be able to cast more spells, you should attack using less useful weapons. The result of this is that the priest and the wizard are often fighting somewhat ineffectively, giving the rogue and the fighter the starring roles in melee and ranged combat, but that these actions are nevertheless beneficial to the group and therefore cool to the player, because they regenerate spell points. Role differentiation by rewards rather than punishments - very interesting!

What was very clear to me was that this game could not have been played without the board and the miniatures and the cards and the great character sheets. No way. There's just too much information to handle if you don't have all the props to help you. For me, this puts a very big question mark on my plans for Monsters we Slay. Is it possible for me to create a deep, tactical game that would not be a lot better for being a board game? Could I make do with stuff that everyone already owns, like a chess game?

And, relatedly - isn't this kind of stuff better handled by computer RPGs? I'll look into that in my next post.

On the other had, the game also inspired me to think of several new features and simplifications for Monsters we Slay - so I want to emphasise that the above are real questions, not rhetorical questions, and that this project has not yet been abandoned.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

[Shades] A designer's joy

I am a happy man. Two friends of mine playtested Shades last night, and I just got a report by email that ended with the following lines:

Bedankt voor het mogelijk maken van deze fantastische sessie. Ik kan me op dit moment niet indenken een intenser, dramatischer rollenspel mee te maken.


Thank you for making this brilliant session possible. At the moment, I cannot conceive of experiencing a more intense, more dramatic roleplaying game.

I mean, wow. Wow.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

I had a dream

No, seriously, I dreamt about The Shadow of Yesterday last night. Don't ask me what the context was (I have no idea), but there was a guy talking about how this game sucked. He had just been playing his first session, along very traditional lines, where the first thing he did as the GM was give the characters a mission to perform, which he had prepared for them.

Why did The Shadow of Yesterday suck, in his opinion? "It's really stupid; how could you take the Key of the Mission during character creation, because at that point the characters don't have a mission yet!"