Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Digital Antiquarian

One of my favourite websites if Jimmy Maher's blog The Digital Antiquarian. Jimmy writes long articles about the history of computer games, with a focus on innovative games, and with occasional forays into the history of (home) computing in general. That would already be interesting enough, but what makes The Digital Antiquarian a must-read, in my book, is the combination of Jimmy's painstaking original research and the intelligence and perhaps even wisdom of his literary/ludological criticism.

I'm not being paid to say that. Rather the opposite, since I just signed up at Patreon to support the blog. But I wanted to support the blog in more than just a financial way, and hence I'm writing this to get all of you who are interested in computer games, gaming in general, or digital history, to click on the link and sample The Digital Antiquarian for yourself. It is totally worth it.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

To judge or not to judge

I'm not sure whether I'll be judging the IF Comp this year. Mostly that is just because it is a time-consuming process and I'm busy, but that is a reason so banal that I would not needlessly consume your time by sharing it in such a public place. This post is about another, deeper reason. "Deeper" doesn't necessarily mean "more important", but it does mean "more interesting".

Here is the deeper reason: I'm no longer sure what judging something like the interactive fiction competition is supposed to be. And that's because I'm no longer sure what my relationship to the authors is supposed to be.

The relationship between reader and author can take roughly four forms. (There are undoubtedly more, but they may not be relevant to this discussion.)
  1. The author can be the producer of a product which the reader consumes. The demand that the reader makes on the author is to provide a product which pleases the reader's particular tastes, and judgement is given depending on how much it did in fact please. This judgement is unapologetically subjective.
  2. The author can be the creator of a work which the reader attempts to helpfully comment on. Instead of being producers and consumers in a market place, here we conceive of ourselves as part of a limited community of people who help each other out, and who share the goal of creating works that are as good as possible. We try to be positive, or at least constructive. We point out what went wrong, but with the aim of teaching the author to do better next time. And "better"doesn't necessarily mean "maximally pleasing to us," since we recognise that not everyone in the community has the exact same tastes. Our judgements are inter-subjective, and made with a view to community standards.
  3. The author can be the mostly irrelevant  person in the background of the work itself, of which we attempt to be the critics. We must let the work speak for itself, and we must then do it justice. Our aim is to understand the work perhaps better than the author did; to show its wisdom or its folly; to learn from it how our craft works; and to increase our understanding of whatever themes the work is about. Our judgements strive to be objective and appeal to the unlimited community of critics (which includes all of the future), even though we know that we will always fall short. And the judgement might well be that a work is entirely worthless. Achieving artistic success is hard.
  4. The author can be a person trying to communicate personal experiences, and we are the sympathetic audience of potential friends. We might get a narrative about a boy struggling to tell his parents about his homosexuality, and we understand that this is the author's attempt to work through his own experiences in this situation, or perhaps those of one his friends. We are not called on to judge, or at the very least, we know we have to be careful with judging. Generally, friends ought to listen; maybe give advice; perhaps help out in some other way; but, in most cases, not judge. And we are at least in some sense the author's friends; those with whom he or she attempts to talk about whatever is painful and hard to talk about.
Now, I have never had any trouble choosing between these relations when writing about books or works of interactive fiction. With books, I choose resolutely for number 3. The book is the work of art; I am the literary critic; and the author is irrelevant (and often dead). With interactive fiction, I have always tried to create a mix of number 2 and number 3, depending on the maturity of the author as author. Someone new to the form can use some encouragement from the community, so I'll try to do more of 2. (I know I have often failed at this, sometimes massively so.) An established author is probably more interested in real criticism, especially since quality criticism is often much harder to get than craft advice.

But the two relationships I've always resisted being in are 1 and 4. To judge a work simply by how much pleasure it has given me is shallow and overly subjective. And who cares? Nothing irritates me more than so-called reviews that merely expose the subjective likes and dislikes of the reviewer and then either congratulate or castigate the author for catering or not catering to them. And to not judge a work at all, but accept it as the tale of a friend -- well, I want to say, I'm not your friend. If you want to talk about difficult stuff in your life, by all means do so, but do so in private situations, not in the public channels that we use for the dissemination of art works.

And I still largely agree with that sentiment. But I also have to come to terms with the fact that this neat distinction between public and private has weakened, and will continue weakening. It is becoming routine to talk about your private life in semi-public places like Facebook, and completely public ones like Twitter, internet forums, newspaper columns, or, indeed, novels and pieces of interactive fiction. And so my blanket dismissal of everyone who releases a work of art in order to talk about his or her subjective feelings is no longer fair. I might still resist the trend. But it would be unjust to hold those who follow the trend accountable for not sharing my resistance. And indeed, given that public means of communication have opened up new ways for people in minority positions to find recognition and develop their voice, that resistance itself is becoming increasingly unjust.

Sharing your pain has nothing to do with art. (Pain can fuel art, but the pain must then be transformed into something that is no longer the artist's pain.) But I am not enough of a Nietzschean to claim that art is the ultimate goal, and that human suffering is insignificant compared to it.

And so, while I can still dismiss 1, I have to reconsider my position with respect to 4. Is it really the case that interactive fiction community is about 2 and 3, and not about 4? I don't think I am in a position to make that decision -- nor do I wish to be in that position. And is it really the case that the interactive fiction competition is about 2 and 3, and not about 4? One might think that a competition is not the channel for voicing one's pain or other feelings. But even that is not clear. The competition is like a megaphone; it amplifies one's voice far beyond what is possible outside of the competition. It is more than a competition; it is also the prime place for speaking in our community. Making it off-limits to certain voices and stories would constitute an act of injustice, even if one had the best arguments in the world for it based on the essence of competitions or the traditions that constitute "us".

I bring all of this up not because of an academic interest in different form of judging and not-judging, but because, if I am at all right about current trends, 4 has become more important in our community in the last few years. And this leaves me in a bind. For while I can see how to combine 2 and 3, I really don't see how to combine 2, 3 and 4. How can I judge and not judge? How can I focus on the person behind the work and strive to forget that person in order to see the work objectively? There may be some Hegelian synthesis waiting to happen here, but I'm not seeing it.

How to judge the interactive fiction competition? I don't think the organisers could solve my problem by giving rules for that -- those rules could still be unjust, and "Befehl ist Befehl" never exculpates -- but what they do say only makes things more difficult for me. For this is the current slogan of the competition:
An annual celebration of new, text-driven digital games and stories from independent creators.
This then is supposed to be, not just a competition, but also a celebration. But how do those things go together? How can we judge and celebrate at the same time? Isn't celebration an event in the realm of mercy, rather than one in the realm of judgement?

How to judge the interactive fiction competition?

How to judge at all? With the division between the public and the private gone, how can we do justice both to subjectivity and objectivity, to our being able to speak as well as to our being able to speak? How can we capture in one thought, in one discourse, in one work both our individuality and our transcending of that individuality -- both of which are essential to our humanity?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Indie Intiative Bundle of Holding

If you have any interest at all in pen and paper RPGs, you should get the Indie Intiative Bundle of Holding (for sale for another 20 hours, so be quick). It contains many of the most important games to start the indie RPG movement. So much so, in fact, that the list of games basically is a list of everything I bought and played between 2002 and 2007. I can assure you that the following games are all excellent, both to play and to study:
  • Breaking the Ice
  • The Shadow of Yesterday
  • Trollbabe
  • Dogs in the Vineyard
  • Inspectres
  • My Life with Master
  • Polaris
  • Sorcerer
  • Universalis
I have not played octaNe and Munchhausen, but they are well spoken off.

All for less than 23$! It's an offer you should not refuse. I didn't refuse, even though I already owned nine of them in physical book form.

Monday, May 19, 2014

[Trollbabe] Why trollbabes aren't dogs

This is a post about Ron Edward's RPG Trollbabe (2002) and Vincent Baker's RPG Dogs in the Vineyard (2004). I'm not completely sure which of the two I played first, though I think it was Dogs. It has definitely been the case that I've seen and played Trollbabe in the past as if it was a somewhat simpler version of Dogs, though of course set in a rather different setting.

Why would you think the two games are closely related? Well, Trollbabe is acknowledged as an important influence in the text of Dogs. But looking at the games themselves, we can see three very important similarities:
  1. The protagonists of both games are outsiders who come to a community in trouble, will influence that community throughout what is probably a single play session, and will then leave for a new "adventure".
  2. In both games, the GM prepares by thinking up something that is at stake or going wrong in the community, and preparing a couple of characters that have views about the situation and interests in seeing certain outcomes come true. Then it's time for Story Now.
  3. In both games, the player characters are only ever at risk if the player decides they care enough about a certain issue to put themselves at risk. Death is only possible if you decide that a conflict is worth dying for.
Given these similarities, I naturally assumed that Trollbabe and Dogs in the Vineyard were very similar games overall, and the GMing one is almost identical to GMing the other. This was a mistake, and I think my earlier lack of success with Trollbabe can be attributed to it. I didn't really get the game, because I was looking at it with the wrong assumptions.

So, what's the difference? Let's start by summing up a few things:
  1. Dogs is made for party-based play. The assumption is that you and your fellow dogs move from town to town together. Trollbabe, on the other hand, does something that always made me raise my eyebrows in surprise: at the start of the game, it lets all player choose a location on the world map. They can choose the same location, but they can also all choose different ones. Even when they choose the same location, the trollbabes are not assumed to form a group (though they may do so if they choose).
  2. In Dogs, conflicts are conflicts between a number of sides (often two) that all wish for a certain outcome. All sides roll dice, and all sides decide how far they want to escalate the conflict. There is no fundamental difference in this regard between PCs and NPCs, between the player and the GM. In Trollbabe, on the other hand, every conflict is one trollbabe's attempt to make something happen. Only she sets stakes; and only she rolls. The GM never sets a goal, never rolls, and never decides whether an NPC wants to continue the conflict or not.
  3. The dogs in Dogs have a very specific role in society; they are appointed to judge people's sins and set communities aright. That doesn't mean that everybody will always listen to them, or do what they say; but it does imbue them with authority. They are also responsible for the communities they visit; walking away on whatever mess they may find is not really an option, at least not for as long as they want to be dogs. Or rather, it may be an option, but an extremely radical one that implies the extreme judgement that a particular community is literally damned. And whatever the dogs judge to be the case is supposed to be true; after all, they're the chosen servants of god. The trollbabes in Trollbabe, on the other hand, have neither authority nor responsibility. They are powerful, and people will see them as threats or opportunities, which means that they act as destabilising elements in any tense situation. But they don't have authority or responsibility; their judgements are not sanctioned from above; and in fact they are under no compulsion to judge.
Now if you expect Trollbabe to be just Dogs with simpler mechanics and more fjords, all these differences will appear to be weaknesses of the game's design. What Dogs is extraordinarily good at, indeed what it has been designed to do, is to give you complex situations in which your players must come to judgements even though fair and equitable judgement may be hard or may have harsh consequences. They enter a town. Something is amiss, and it is their job to find out what it is and to make things right again. They'll start pursuing this job. As the GM, you can have NPCs drag them into conflicts. There will generally be differences of opinion between the players, and because they're all in it together, this leads to immediate in-game tension between their characters. There's one big huge conflict situation, and the players must -- and more or less automatically will -- go to the heart of it before the session can come to an end.

But how do you make that same thing happen in Trollbabe? Players don't have the same strong motivation to enter a situation; you can't drag them into it; and their fellow players might be somewhere else entirely. It just doesn't work! Only if you are very lucky will the good Dogs in the Vineyard stuff start happening! Ron Edwards, fix your game!

Except that, of course, you shouldn't be striving to make the same thing happen at all. The new edition of Trollbabe has a passage which made me write down "Trollbabe isn't DitV!". It is on page 88:
Judge as you please. Characters in the adventure location will be constantly in her face, and she will like them or not, and interact deeply with them or not. The adventure as a whole is not your problem. Although the Stakes exist, and your trollbabe's presence influences what happens to them, it is not your job to identify them and decide upon them in any way. Focus instead on the characters she meets and what she does with, to, or about them.
A trollbabe is not a dog. She really doesn't have to judge. And a Trollbabe player is not a Dogs in the Vineyard player. She really doesn't have to go to the heart of the conflict situation; and if she does, she can deal with it any way she damn well pleases, even if that means walking away from it all in disgust, or turning it to her own -- rather than the community's -- advantage, or taking a sudden liking to one NPC and taking care of them while they let the rest of the mess take care of itself.

In Dogs in the Vineyard, the GM will build a town where if the dogs don't intervene, everything will become steadily worse. The town is on the way to Hell, quite literally. In Trollbabe, you don't have to do that as the GM. In fact, everything could end up just fine if the trollbabe doesn't come along. (And who's to say what "fine" is, anyway?) The conflict is a backdrop against which the trollbabe will come to life. Sometimes, that may mean she interacts deeply with it; sometimes, it may mean that conflict goes its own way, perhaps a completely non-climactic way, while the trollbabe pursues other interests. That would break a game of Dogs, because it would destroys the basic premise of its fiction. But Trollbabe is in a wholly different genre.

And when you stop trying to imitate Dogs and start playing Trollbabe, it actually works. In the game I recently played with Michiel and Erik, the two players chose radically different approaches. Michiel's character saw it as her mission in life to ease tensions between trolls and humans; she came to the conflict location because she had heard rumours of such tensions; and she involved herself deeply in it and tried to set things right. Erik's character, on the other hand, was an amnesiac only interested in finding out the truth about herself. She learned about the conflict situation, then killed off almost everyone involved in it because that would bring her quick personal advantage in gaining her goal. The original stakes -- whether a certain guy would be able to marry his love -- were resolved, I guess, when that guy was killed; but the killing had nothing do with his love. The conflict I had thought up was something Erik's character just didn't care about.

And it worked! Both stories were interesting, fun, and memorable. It just turned out to be the case that Erik's story was about how we and his character found out that she was ruthlessly in search of power (and in fact had recently turned herself into a trollbabe in order to achieve that end!), and not about some poor guy's attempt to marry. (Or about his relationship with his troll slave, a nice secondary tension I had set up.) It was still a good story that made all of us eager to see more.

Conclusion: it's really hard to read games without preconceptions, but those preconceptions can ruin your play. A good game text -- like the 2009 edition of Trollbabe -- can be very, very important in setting things right. A blog post like this may, perhaps, also help.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Item weights in DCSS

In Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup -- one of the best current roguelikes --  there is a discussion going on about the removal of item weights. Even if you have never played DCSS, you probably know what they're talking about, because this has been a feature in D&D and all kinds of RPGs for a very long time. A player has a certain limited weight she can carry, depending on her strength; and item weights are needed to calculate whether that limit has been reached. So, does this mechanic add anything to the game? Here are my two cents, which I just posted to the crawl developers mailing list:
Inventory management is not a very interesting part of Crawl strategy, nor is Crawl the kind of game where it could become interesting with just a few tweaks.

Inventory management is interesting when it forces you to make tough choices. There are basically two ways to achieve this. One is to make sure that items are not retrievable once discarded. This can be done in several ways, for instance by having non-permanent levels (Angband) or a strict food limit that doesn't allow much backtracking (Brogue). In both of those games, inventory management plays a big strategic role. But Crawl is more of a move-through-the-dungeon-at-will game, with permanent levels and plenty of food. Which is good, but allows players to keep a stash and retrieve whatever they want, thus taking the bite out of inventory management.

A second way of turning inventory management into hard choices is by having a very limited inventory; so limited that the player must leave behind some of her basic tools. Suppose that the player can carry only three types of item. Then you suddenly have to choose between carrying scrolls of teleportation, potions of healing, potions of berserk strength, and that ring of fire resistance. If you leave the ring in your stash, you're in trouble when you get into a fight with a fire-breathing dragon.

Crawl's inventory limit is so large that the player can always carry all her most central tools, and the limitations only affect niche items, convenience items, and large stacks. And this too is something that probably shouldn't be changed, because a super-limited inventory is a better fit for a small, tight game than for a sprawling game like Crawl.

Thus, so as far as I can see, inventory management is never going to be a particularly interesting part of Crawl strategy. It still serves a function, though: it keeps things simple and convenient for the player. That may sound a bit counter-intuitive, because struggling with your inventory limit may not feel very convenient. But it is: better to have to discard a couple of items now and then, than to end up with an inventory of 472 things in which you can never find what you need.

Given that the Crawl inventory limit is mostly there for the convenience of the player, it should be as convenient as possible. The goals of an inventory limit are best served by having a limited number of inventory slots. Item weights & carrying capacity just add a second inventory limit which adds complications without any benefit.

And to speak from experience: I have sometimes increased my strength in order to increase my inventory limit, even though I knew that it was better for my character to increase intelligence; I did that just because frequent stash trips were boring and inconvenient. The optimal strategy should always be a fun strategy. Which means that in Crawl, item weights should probably go.

Now, I can see that this is already more or less the consensus, but perhaps this post can still add something to any discussion that might be going on. :-)

Anyway, thanks for the great game, and keep on the way you developers are going. I am often impressed by the quality of the design discussions here.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

[Trollbabe] Using a map

Last weekend, I finally got to play a game of the second edition of Ron Edward's Trollbabe. I played the original version several times, but never with huge success. This new edition, though, was something I really wanted to try. What we usually think of as "the system" hasn't changed a lot; but what has changed is that Ron now gives a lot of detailed description of how to actually play the game.

For a moment, I was tempted to call the new stuff "GM advice". But it's not advice. It's rules, it's system. It may not be about rolling dice and writing things on character sheets, but it is about things like:
  • Who gets to start scenes.
  • What information you can and can't add to a scene once a conflict has been declared.
  • Who gets to declare a conflict.
  • What the maximum stakes for a conflict are.
  • How you prepare a scenario.
  • How you share narrative control over NPCs.
  • What arc the narrative development of an adventure follows.
In other words, all the stuff that you need to make decision about anyway, but that many role playing games -- even great role playing games -- leave you in the dark about. Trollbabe really is the best introduction to "story now" role playing that I know of.

My plan, then, was to play Trollbabe exactly as written and see what would happen. (Spoiler: it was a success! I'll be writing more posts about that in the future.)

Now one of the things that didn't change, and that I never got to work well in the previous edition, was starting a new adventure. The idea is very simple. There's a map of the world, and when the adventure starts, each non-GM player picks a location on the map where they want their trollbabe to currently be travelling. (These locations can be the same for all players, but they can also be on different sides on the world.) The GM then creates an adventure for that location.

The problem I had with this approach is that the player's choice felt completely arbitrary. Sure, you could choose an island, or a mountain range, or a forest ... but those aren't exactly interesting locations by themselves. And there wasn't anything more concrete on the map. Also, as a GM, the map location didn't inspire me. "An adventure in the mountains... hm ..." Nope, no immediate inspiration coming.

The book does contain two smaller maps with some place names, but those didn't inspire me either; and I've never had a player choose to be in one of these smaller maps anyway.

While waiting for the players to arrive, I suddenly had an idea: I should draw my own map! I literally never do that for an RPG, because I generally don't care about detailed geography in my stories. But I had decided to play Trollbabe as written, and it uses a map. Plus, I gathered that a map might be needed in this game to give the wandering character something tangible to wander through.

So I started drawing a map. Islands, rivers, swamps, forests, mountains, hills, villages, towns, some special sites. I didn't have much time, so a lot of the map remained white. But I did make sure to give some of the locations interesting names, names that made them places that I would be interested to explore. There was a weirdly coloured plane near the coast called "de kaalheid", which means "the baldness". There was a tiny island far out in the sea named "Hargans dwaasheid", that is "Hargan's folly". There was a big forest called "woud der verwachting", which means something like "forest of anticipation".

Then, when my two players -- Erik (van Maanen) en Michiel (Bouwhuis) -- arrived, I had them both choose spots on the map, and I gave them the opportunity to add one or two new named features. Both quickly made a choice. Erik wanted to be on the beach of "de kaalheid", while Michiel chose a spot near a famous old battle field and added "de trolford" to the nearby river. We also gave the river a name. Erik decided that "de kaalheid" contained huge skeletons of ancient animals.

This time, the map locations actually inspired me as the GM. The player's choice of a place on the map also felt like a real choice, especially when they added a few details.

Now Ron Edwards makes it very clear that Trollbabe is not a game where the players and the GM co-create the scenario. What is going on, who the NPCs are, and what they want, all of that is up to the GM and is prepared in advance. (Though not long in advance. And of course, things can quickly go into unanticipated directions.) Well, wasn't I breaking that by having the players add stuff to the map? I don't think so. GM preparation of a scenario happens after the players choose a spot on the map to be in. So as far as I'm concerned, that spot on the map is fair game for player interventions. It's only after that that the GM gets full control over the setting.

Okay, maybe I wasn't playing Trollbabe exactly as written. But it worked really well, and in fact, this may have been the best use of a map in any RPG I've ever GMed. Also, drawing a map was fun. And I really want to know what that forest is anticipating. And why Olaf the Black's ruin is a ruin. And what the people in New Stormholm think of the people in Stormholm. And what was so foolish about Hargan.

More about the game soon.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Kerkerkruip 9 released

The Kerkerkruip team is happy to announce the release of Kerkerkruip 9, by far the most extensive update of the game ever made. Kerkerkruip is a short-form roguelike in the interactive fiction medium, featuring meaningful tactical and strategic depth, innovative game play, zero grinding, and a sword & sorcery setting that does not rehash tired clich├ęs.

With over 700 commits to the code repository, the changes made in Kerkerkruip 9 are far too numerous to mention here. But the highlights are:
  • Original theme music for the main menu, composed and produced by Wade Clarke.
  • An entirely reworked reaction system allows you to dodge, block, parry and roll away from incoming attacks. Successful reactions increase your offensive or defensive flow, adding a new layer of tactical depth to combat.
  • An entirely reworked religion system allows you to sacrifice absorbed powers to the gods. Worshipping gods grants lasting benefits, including divine interventions on your behalf; but losing absorbed powers makes you weaker in the short term. Religion thus becomes an important aspect of the player's overall strategy.
  • Grenades can now be thrown into adjacent rooms, opening up new tactical options. However, your enemies may sometimes manage to throw them back to you!
  • A powerful new grenade is the Morphean grenade, which puts people to sleep. If you become its victim, you'll find yourself drawn into one of several dream sequences: weird and dangerous adventures that have an effect on the real world.
  • The hiding system has been streamlined, boosted and made far more transparent. Stealth has now become a viable option.
  • The player now starts out with one of several starting kits, necessitating different approaches to the dungeon.
  • New content includes the angel of compassion, a radiant being that loses its lustre as people die around it; Israfel, a terrible angel that can split into two smaller beings for increased combat effectiveness before reuniting to heal; and the Arena of the Gods, where you can defend your god's honour against other divine champions.
  • A new Menu implementation which is both screen reader friendly and hyperlink enabled.
We are now also offering stand-alone installers for specific operating systems. While it's still possible to download the game file and run it in your favourite Glulx interpreter, there are also installers for Windows and Debian/Ubuntu. We will be supporting OS X in the near future.

Finally, we have a new website at That's where you should go for downloads, more information about the game and how to contribute, and a link to the wiki.

Kerkerkruip is presented to you by the Kerkerkruip team: Victor Gijsbers, Mike Ciul, Dannii Willis, Erik Temple and Remko van der Pluijm. We hope you enjoy the new version. If you've got any comments, or if you'd like to contribute to this free software project, please go the website for details and contact us!