Archive for July, 2010


RPGs and definitions

July 31, 2010

I got a chance to listen to the Geek Nights Podcast interview of Luke Crane & Jared Sorensen it’s a fun listen- it’s good to hear folks just talking about games and play in general.

What is an rpg?

So, at one point, it comes to that classic bugaboo of “What is and isn’t an RPG?”, and Luke and Jared point to the idea that in an rpg, “You make mechanically suboptimal decisions” (John Wick has also said the same thing).

I think this is close, but not quite right on. Making suboptimal choices is a clear example of something that happens in rpgs that doesn’t happen in other games, though, it misses a wide swath of games and gameplay.

For example, what about the old school D&D game where someone parleys with the evil Elves because it’s the optimal strategy? Would you say they’re not roleplaying?

A better definition would be this:

Roleplaying games are games where imaginary fiction is the focus of play and influences choices and outcomes of play.

That fiction might force you to do the suboptimal thing (“We are not robbing the dead! We bury them with honor!”), but it also affects optimal things as well (“No, they’re actually right, we’re trespassing on their territory. Let’s see if we can perform a deed or task for them in exchange for the right to pass through- after all, we’re outnumbered 20 to 1.”)

When you play chess, it really doesn’t matter that you have knights running down bishops, or that the Queen is threatening another King – there’s no specific need for fiction, you can play the whole game as an abstracted tactical exercise.

Even games that have a lot of interesting color, like wargames or recent boardgames, the fictional stuff doesn’t direct your choices. The best options based on where the pieces are, scores of the units, cards in your hand, all of that is all you need to interact with to make a choice.

In roleplaying games, the things that aren’t numbered, aren’t rated, might just be the most important things to pay attention to.

“That’s not a roleplaying game!”

Aside from the usual strawmen arguments this gets used in, from throwing it at games that are different than what folks are used to, to using it when the rules are actually expected to be followed, there is a small subset of folks who are basically saying, “I don’t know how to engage with the fiction in this game”.

(Vincent’s old post on Cues and Fiction is worth reading if you haven’t yet.)

For that group, when they encounter a game where this is a problem, they’re having a tough time seeing how to take fictional choices and carry it over to the mechanical aspects, and then take what the system and Cues deliver and put it back in the fiction.

This may or may not have anything to do with what the game has design-wise, in actuality, and more to do with gamer culture, but it’s a worthwhile thing to consider if you’re introducing new games and/or designing games.

Mostly, it comes down to clear examples pointing to exactly how you carry the fiction to mechanical choices (which, generally isn’t so well done in a lot of games) and then lots of repetition. There’ll always be some amount of folks with really poor reading skills, but this seems to be the best way so far to helping people familiarize with the idea.

I see it a lot with crunchy games like Burning Wheel or D&D 4E, where, folks see the rules, but fail to see how and where fiction makes an impact in the rules (for Burning Wheel, it’s embedded in to skills, Helping Dice, FORKs, and Advantage Dice, for D&D4E, it’s all in Skill Challenges, Quests, and pg. 42 on the DMG).

I suspect in both of these cases it has to do with the fact that the major rules for carrying fiction to mechanics in these games has a few pages compared to a few hundred pages of other rules. The monkey-brain easily mistakes quantity for importance.



July 18, 2010

I just listened to a really great, and frustrating podcast. The frustrating part was that the questions put forward by the hosts really reflected a couple of long standing problems in the hobby and got in the way of the interview they were doing. I’m not so much interested in talking about the podcast as much as the two issues I saw.

Justifying the Rules

Tabletop roleplaying is the only gaming hobby I know of, where gamers regularly demand that the rules be justified before trying them. “Oh yeah? Tell me WHY I should play by the rules you give me, huh?!? HUH?!?”

And, I know that 95% of the games in the hobby have had pretty crappy design and most people don’t trust rules to work in the first place. And I know when you don’t have an organized method to consistently people to play the same game, there’s a level of fear that anything might knock down the house of cards that forms “working play”.

But still. You kinda have to look at folks and go, “Look, do you want to play or not? If you do, let’s try it the way the rules say, if not, let’s just go play something else.”

The Personal Experience

When you listen to music, when you see a painting, when you watch a movie or play, read a book, there’s a personal experience you have with the media – it causes feelings, directs thoughts, etc. Games are the same way – they affect you as you play them.

Part of that is to experience that, to think about it, to digest it. I mean, you can just casually enjoy it and not think about it, but if your friend asks you about the subject, you’ll give an answer based on your experience of it. If you enjoy writing, speaking, making podcasts, etc. on the subject, you probably are going to do more thinking and analysis about play.

A lot of tabletop roleplayers tend to be not so good at this task.

I’m thinking there’s two things that create that- a lot of game books, advice, “common knowledge” that is both untrue and sets up a culture of divorcing oneself from one’s own personal experiences, and second, when there’s dysfunctional gaming experiences, group pressure to edit one’s understanding of one’s experiences, and again, divorce from critical thought about them.

Notice that, though the interview, they’re effectively asking him to make an interpretation on the experience of the game… after having played quite a bit themselves.

If you read some of the comments you can see the same issues reflected again. Instead of asking, “Wait, you guys played the game, why are you asking these questions?”, they’re asking, “Why is Jared dodging the questions?”

Such a long way to go.


Shadowrun World

July 16, 2010

I’m thinking I’m going to have to do a Shadowrun Hack of Apocalypse World at some point.

The grubby desperation to keep fed and housed, the “I know a guy who knows a guy, but that guy works for the other gang-oh shit!”, and just cracked out action of Apocalypse World seems like a perfect fit for Shadowrun. One of my big sticking points for Shadowrun was the clunky system (and fucking up Seattle, and sketchy race shit…).

I could see keeping the moves, but adding in Moves like, “Going Wireless”, “Calling Spirits and Daemons”.

The interesting twist is that AW doesn’t have a social structure- power is pretty much you, me, us, them, nothing above gangs- while Shadowrun is basically about the us vs. them under the heavy shadow of the corporations crushing everyone underfoot.

In half the cases it’s going to be dealing with folks after you because they’re dealing with a scarcity, and the other half would be dealing with folks after you because they’re just fucking greedy.

Having a rival gang push you out of your territory because they’re going to set up a giant neo-meth house out of your entire apartment complex is just as messed up as having everyone in the building get arrested in a surprise police raid because they want to knock it down and put up a mall in time for next month’s World Cup game.


D&D influences MMOs, again

July 9, 2010

Guild Wars 2 Design talk on Death & Healing.

If look at what they’re talking about- the ability to do things while downed, or heal yourself, or make an attack that heals allies? That’s all stuff that’s in 4E D&D.

They also talk about the issues of organizing a game (mostly in needing healers) and tossing conditions on opponents as a major tactical aspect of play.

It’s really interesting to see how games with the same general foundation issues (team play, death/being out of play) have the similar issues and solutions – whether it’s a direct influence or parallel evolution.


Buy in at the character level

July 7, 2010

Over on the Forge, Ron talks about a pretty common issue I’ve seen in rpgs:

And all of a sudden, you look at your character and it’s just a pile of points and terms on a sheet of paper. You’re not feeling it. You don’t know how you came up with it. It looks sensible, but nothing currently happening in play seems to relate, either on that sheet or internally. You either start doing random shit in hopes that something clicks, or start strategizing in a vague way that doesn’t have any real payoff, or you shut down.

This is one of those crucial things I mean when I talk about “buy-in” to playing a game.

It’s tough, though, because a lot of people have been trained out of thinking of “character” to be a character in the literary/fiction sense- this interesting person, and instead, a set of stats.

(Don’t take that as roll vs. role playing- you should pick stats to reflect your concept, or build a concept around your stats – these should work together).

There’s a ton of games that you spend a lot of time, reading the fiction, then going step by step through creation process, and at the end, you have a concept, solid, sure, but not interesting to you. And if the character isn’t interesting to you, how will you play the character interesting to anyone else?

The usual functional process for this is:

1. Read the setting/idea and get inspired of what kind of characters you’d LOVE to see in it
2. Take that inspiration and form it into a character
3. Play hard to see that inspiration brought to life.

If #1 fails, either because the writing is confusing, the GM/group failed to convey “What’s cool”, or it’s just not what you’re into, it’s pretty likely you’re not going to get a good #2, and if that’s no good, you’re certainly not going to hit a fun #3. (Also: if players focus on very different aspects of the setting in #1, they usually end up with non-compatible characters for a different set of problems…)

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of framing. It can be easy to get lost in the crunch of character creation and lose whatever idea(s) you had going.

It’s reasons like this I like to use a mad-lib style Character Concept Generator – you’ll notice that it’s totally loaded with conflict material- all you need to do is cherry pick the setting stuff you find interesting for a particular game and drop it in.

This always ends up being one of my litmus test for a character concept- are you excited? Is there a direction for this character? Can you envision scenes with this character?

If you cannot articulate concrete fictional goals and why they make you exciting, odds are you’ve got a dud. Time to either start over or start soliciting ideas from the other players to put a twist on it.

When one person doesn’t buy-in, they end up being sorta… there, but not doing anything. When multiple players end up in the same position, the game just stalls out. Then it just becomes a contest of how stubborn the group is, rather than how much fun they’re having.