Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

System Does Matter: implications for publishing

Monday, November 13th, 2006

One of the central tenets of Forge-influence thought about roleplaying is the idea that System Does Matter. The phrase can be considered to be derived from Ron Edwards’ excellent essay of the same title: System Does Matter. The idea of System Does Matter arose as a counter to the idea that ‘System doesn’t matter because our group has fun no matter what game we’re playing.’

Interestingly, when examined in light of the most commonly accepted Forge definition of ‘system’ (the Lumpley Principle), this is pretty much a tautological statement. If system is ‘how actual players actually resolve things at the table’ then of course it matters. How could it not?

The real force of the idea that System Does Matter comes from the ambiguous use of the term ‘system’ in play, design, and publishing discussions.  It’s not just that System (what the actual players actually do) matters, but also that they should be doing what the designer tells them.  This shifts everything from the tautology that ‘what people do at the table matters to what they do at the table’ to the more interesting (and more contentious) ‘what the designer has written will (rather than might) matter to what the players do at the table’.

The assumption that players will play the rules as-written is heavily influenced by other forms of gaming, and in all honesty is not a bad assumption in and of itself, though it does raise a couple of questions.  (I’m going to talk about the problems with moving this assumption from other forms of gaming to roleplaying tomorrow.)  Really, I don’t have any problem with the assumption as an assumption, but I do have problems with what the assumption has done to the field of publishing independent RPGs.

Specifically the idea of System Does Matter, combined with the belief that players should play the rules as-written, is something I consider to be strongly involved in driving the indie RPG publishing scene to publish nothing but games.  That’s an odd statement, let me explain: They could also be publishing books of techniques, the things that fall below the level of mechanics, such as Robin Laws’ Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering.  They could also be publishing quick and light rules modifications to existing systems like what I imagined Jonathan Walton’s Lions on the Precipice (a modification of Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard) would end up being when I first saw the idea.

Now, I’m not going to claim that the System Does Matter ideology is the only force driving the idea that full, original games are the highest thing a game designer can aspire to, there’s a lot of cultural stuff involved too, but I do think that it’s a major contributor.  Which is unfortunate because it means that we basically only publish one kind of product when a couple of others could be great for the community.

Thinking about the Forge paradigm

Tuesday, November 7th, 2006

The Forge has had a tremendous impact on the way I think about roleplaying.  I think it’s probably had a significant impact on how a number of people think about roleplaying.  That isn’t to say that the Forge is always right, or that its influence is a good (or bad) thing.  I just think that’s the way things are.

Over the past few months I’ve been edging around some ideas that I think are out of sync with Forge thinking.  Which is great, really.  The Forge paradigm of roleplaying is a very useful model, but it’s only a model.  And like any model it is extremely accurate and powerful within its bounds.  I get really excited when I see other models because they have the potential to do very interestig stuff that lies outside the bounds of the current Forge model.

This post doesn’t really have anything more to say.  I’ve got ideas swimming around about key Forge ideas like ‘System Does Matter’ and how they affect the roleplaying design, play, and publishing landscape.  And those posts are coming, someday soon I hope.  I just wanted to give you a heads-up: I consider myself deeply indebted to the Forge, and so I feel the need to pick at it to see where it unravels.

(Important note: while this post treats the Forge as a giant body of thought, that’s a pretty misleading characterization.  The Forge is really a purpose-driven community, and the seemingly unified body of thought has grown out of that purpose and that community.  I do think that community has some common values and assumptions regarding roleplaying, but then again, who doesn’t?)

Creating black boxes

Monday, November 6th, 2006

In the comments for last Friday’s post, Stefan pointed out something important about black boxes in roleplaying that I had totally overlooked:

Many games have such a processor – at least from the players’ perspective. You know, the guy called GM.

This is often true. In many groups the GM is not completely open with inputs into calculations, much less what calculations are actually being performed. There are entire games which derive much of their fun from this dynamic (such as Paranoia). While I think that the Forge paradigm of play doesn’t mesh well with this sort of thing (with its emphasis on equal knowledge of procedures), there are still tons of people who play this way and have fun doing it.

Of course the GM isn’t a black box to himself, and in situations where everyone knows the game’s procedures the GM isn’t a black box to anyone.  But you can still create black box-like systems, as long as you are willing to settle for extremely temporary ones.

It should be noted that black boxes are, to some degree or another, temporary.  People like to learn, and black boxes act as a challenge.  We want to unpack them and figure them out.  So we construct intuitive models and refine them with experience.  At some point we decide that the model is ‘good enough’ and stop working on it, satisfied that it is an accurate predictor of black box calculations.

A full on black box hides its procedures in order to obscure how it works, but it’s possible to create a pseudo-black box by making the system information rich.  Using huge look-up tables (such as the event tables in Betrayal at the House on the Hill) can make a game black box-ish.  The outcome isn’t known because not all the inputs are known.  There are simply too many of them.

But people can absorb and incorporate data into models extremely quickly.  There isn’t the trial and error process that there is with model construction.  The overwhelming amounts of data are still only inputs, not elements which you construct intuitive models out of.

However, data proliferation does allow you to create (admittedly short-lived) black box-like dynamics in games that would otherwise, by their nature, preclude them.

Digital vs. analog: black boxes

Friday, November 3rd, 2006

Wow, it’s been a while. School’s been busy, but that’s no excuse for laziness. Anyway, I’m working on a synthesis post of all my Authority and Context posts, but it’s slow going. Here’s something to tide you over.

The title here is a bit audacious, and somewhat misleading. I think that game design is fundamentally the same no matter what system it is executed on, but that digital games provide a set of tools that are not practically (though they are theoretically) available to analog games.

The tool set in question is that of the black box. In almost all analog game design the primary ‘processor’ for any calculations is the brain of one of the players. This means that all the mechanics have to be of the sort that they are understood in something close to their entirety by at least one (and in more evenly distributed games, all) player. There are no black box mechanics (this is actually something of an overstatement, which I’ll get to later).

When I say ‘black box’ mechanics, what I am talking about are mechanics that take an input and provide an output while the things done to the input to get the output are unclear. Let us take as an example the falling/damage mechanic in Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time. I know that there is an input of distance fallen (more precisely, I infer that this is the input), I know there is an output of damage taken. Somehow the game takes that input and does some magical stuff to get the output. I, as a player, don’t have to know what that black box is in order to play the game.

Contrast this with falling mechanics in some tabletop game (generally you only see falling mechanics in roleplaying and small-scale war games). I have to know what the input is and I have to know what to do with that input because I, the player, have the responsibility of calculating the output. There’s no black box there.

Now, it is clearly to my advantage to have some undertanding of the falling/damage mechanic in Prince of Persia. Otherwise I have no solid way to guage the risk of a difficult jump or risky maneuver. While I can function without such an understanding, having that understanding will improve my play of the game. So we build inferential intuitive models of the black boxes: ‘This looks like it’s about as far a fall as earlier fall X. Earlier fall X took half of my health. I can survive this even if I screw up.’

The reason you rarely have black boxes in analog games is that they require a processor (or pseudo-processor) to function. This is because you have to take variable inputs and produce variable outputs. For an analog game, the only processor you have available is the human brain. It should be obvious that it’s hard to keep the brain from recognizing the processing it’s doing.

Next time: making analog black boxes, or something like them.

Authority and context: time well spent

Wednesday, October 25th, 2006

I’m hoping that this post will provide something of an answer, or at least point toward one, to the concerns that were raised regarding yesterday’s post.  We’ll see if it helps.

I take it to be the case that one of the constants in context accumulation is time.  Simply stated: the more play time a given fictional component gets, the more context it will accumulate.  All else being equal, a component with more time spent on it will have more context.  It’s a pretty simple thing to follow.

This is why PCs tend to (always?) have more context than NPCs.  It’s a very rare game in which any single NPC will have as much screen time as even the lowest screen presence PC.  No matter how recurring an NPC or other fictional element (like a place or nation or whatever) is, it just can’t get as much screen time, and thus as much context, as PCs get.

Of course the time element is one of those ‘all else being equal’ things.  And it turns out that all things are not equal.  There are some techniques that accumulate context more effeciently.  A player using a technique that is twice as effecient can accumulate just as much context as someone else, but in half the time.

What those techniques look like, I’m not sure.  But I bet there’s a lot of potential in studying them.  Anyone got any thoughts on the subject?

Authority and context: quantity and quality

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

It’s been a while, but I haven’t forgotten the topic at hand. There’s plenty more to say about authority and context.

Some of you might remember this pair of threads from the beginning of the month. Both started by Joshua BishopRoby (Full Light, Full Steam available for preorder now!). First, over on Story-Games was Bangs and Illusionism, and then over on the Forge was Bangs&Illusionism – in which Ron beats down Confusion. While all this discussion was going on, Joshua and I had a brief email exchange which is part of what sparked this specific post.

So, on with the topic at hand. The paradigm case of the authority and context discussion so far has been that of single players with single characters. Going all the way back to my first post on the subject (Aurhority and context: two types of power), you can see in my example of Harry and Bob with Sally and Frank that there’s a form of power imbalance that context brings to the table when someone controls a context-rich fictional component and someone else does not. But there is another way in which context imbalances can arise.

Specifically, a player can control a dozen components of play that all hold a medium level of context and still have access to more power than a player with control over a single high-context component. This really gets us into the realm of authority (who controls which components), with context (how much power does each component provide) being a secondary consideration. Still, considering the context of components is an important step in understanding at least some of the ways that authority matters.

On to the point: in traditional play, the GM controls effectively unlimited context by controlling an unlimited number of components.  The GM can introduce new elements as needed.  Now, while each element is going to tend to be relatively low in context (and almost assuredly lower in context than a Player Character), their aggregate context ends up being greater.

When the GM is tasked with ‘playing the world’ (as is the case in many roleplaying game designs), the GM is given not only the authority, but the responsibility to affect the game through the use of numerous low and medium context fictional components.  This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, but it does raise some interesting concerns.

First, by giving the GM control of this theoretically unlimited amount of context, control of the game is passed into his hands.  The GM can keep throwing more and more bad guys at you until you lose, for instance.  This isn’t that big a deal because most instances of actual play have numerous points of social pressure to prevent this sort of behavior (or in some cases, the players do not mind at all that this happens).

Second, and to me far more interesting, this expectation reduces the ability of the GM to develop high-context components.  I take it to be a major function of context development that the more time you invest in a component the greater its context.  The more we’re ‘shown’ about it.  Since the GM traditionally has the responsibility of managing dozens of components simultaneously, and often needs to introduce new components, he has far less time to focus on any single component.  This tends to result in the players who only have a single character to focus on developing them into extremely high-context components while the GM has, at best, a handful of medium-to-high context components scattered among his many low-context components.

Since I take it (and hope to cover this in a later post) that there are certain certain techniques that may be employed in play that require high-context components, this tends to bar the GM from utilizing those techniques.  Of course there are also plenty of techniques that require the control of multiple fictional components, so the GM also has access to a number of techniques that the other players can not utilize.  The point here is that the traditional GM role, in making the use of certain techniques difficult, is uninteresting or un-fun to players who derive a great deal of enjoyment from the use of those techniques.

Authority and context: long-term play and editing

Monday, October 16th, 2006

One day I will have a full post on the subject of editing in roleplaying (which is a real-time form of media, and thus operates under some interesting constraints). I think I’ve talked about the subject twice: once back in April, focused on design (RPG Design is like editing but backwards), and once more recently talking about remixing (Low permanency and remixing). The ideas I was working with back there are going to be at work in today’s post.

One of the reasons that a character with an existing play-history is more powerful is based on simple refinement. It is rare in my experience that any character in a roleplaying game turns out in the end to be quite what the players thought they were when play started. Generally characters evolve as players strive to catch one anothers’ interest and mold their characters in personally meaningful ways.

Playing a character over time gives you more time to edit and revise that character in order to make them as powerful as possible. A brand new character does not have the benefit of all those hours of work invested in improving and sharpening his or her coolest features. Consider how much cooler most characters seem at the end of the first session than they seemed at the beginning of it, the process of play allows you to cut out the parts that looked cooler than they were, and to solidify the emergent coolness of the character.

This time-based editing process also allows you to shape the character to better fit the dynamics of the other characters, as well as to better fit the other players. It is in these interactions that a lot of the emergent coolness comes out. With a character sitting in isolation it is often hard to get all the cool parts figured out, but when you mix in other characters you can suddenly start playing with relationships and foils. (This is one reason that group character generation is so powerful, it lets you start with a character already playing with relationships and foils. That said, even this does not net you a perfect character because you still end up with ideas that look cool in theory, but are flat in practice.)

Simply playing a character puts that character through the editing process.  The longer you play, the more editing you get done.  This simple dynamic is another thing that contributes to the narrative power of an established character.  There are, of course, interesting work-arounds.  Playing archetypes gives you access to more-edited character forms, for instance.  What other techniques let you get some of the benefits of editing up front?

Authority and context: showing and telling

Friday, October 13th, 2006

The core source of power provided in all this context stuff comes from two primary souces. The one I’m going to discuss today is that is that context is shown, not told. Monday I’m planning to talk about the other one: editing. A new player with a character just as rich and detailed as all the existing characters in play, but they can only convey that information directly through telling, rather than more indirectly/subtly (this distinction is important, and I can’t seem to find quite the right words for it, if anyone can help then please chime in).

Actions, and the interpretation of them by audience, are inherently ambiguous. Maybe a character kills someone because he is protecting someone, maybe it is in revenge, maybe the character is simply psychotic. It is even possible (perhaps common) for all of these reasons to be backed up by the fiction. It is simply unclear which reasons are primary and which are supporting. I think that, often, the players themseles do not fully know which motive is dominant.

This ambiguity is important because it builds much more complex models in the minds of players. It also allows for compatible but non-identical models of a character to exist in the minds of players (going back to my thoughts on Play is Chaos and, to a lesser extent, Low Permanency and Remixing).  These ambiguous models are also important because they are much better at facilitating reinterpretation based on new information than static models are.

If I tell you that my character Bob killed his family out of hate, that’s a static model.  You know that it was done in hate because I’m the author of Bob, if I tell you that Bob did something for a reason then I can not be wrong.  But if later developments in the story make it such that things are far more interesting if Bob did it out of some twisted form of love, we run into a problem.  It seems odd to say ‘Oh, I thought that Bob did it out of hate, but I can see now how I simply misinterpreted’ because you didn’t interpret at all.  I cam right out and told you what was going on.  You can, of course, choose to reinterpret things anyway, but it is a bit jarring.

Hopefully you can see how having built the model on the basis of action-interpretation solves this problem.  We acknowledge all the time that we mis-interpreted actions, and our minds naturally construct new models based upon new evidence.  Reinterpretation is no longer jarring because it does not involve a conflict with an authoritative statement from the author.  The author did not unambiguously tell us what to think, but more subtly showed us the way to get at what we are supposed to think.

Authority and context: appropriating context

Thursday, October 12th, 2006

The power I’m talking about that comes with having a context-filled character (or whatever fictional item you’re using, though I think the vast majority of them are characters) actually comes from appropriating existing context from past interactions.  Which is a complicated way of saying: they have context because you are taking it from the last session (or whatever).  This is what distinguishes the character from a character with the same name who is different, or a character that is similar but not the ‘same’ character.  The context doesn’t transfer if the characters are considered different, no matter how similar they might be.

Which gives rise to an interesting technique that is incredibly rare in the culture of tabletop gaming: stealing other peoples’ context.  This is something that is actually common (even dominant) in certain cultures of online play.  The technique is simple.  Instead of saying ‘I wanna play a guy who’s like Luke Skywalker’ you say ‘I wanna play Luke Skywalker’.  The difference is that in the second statement you are directly appropriating context from existing media.  You are taking ideas from someone else.

Maybe you want to play Luke starting from the end of The Empire Strikes Back.  Everything that happened before that in the films happened to your character.  He made those same choices, and had those same revelations.  This gives you a huge amount of context in which to base his actions in play.  Your first session of play, you’ve already got this rich history of decisions.  We already know that Luke blew up a Death Star, that he’s conflicted about the revelations about his father, that one of his close friends has been frozen in a block of carbonite.

But, and this is the key point, we as audience have been shown all of this stuff, not told.  (This assumes, of course, that we as audience have all seen the movies in question.)  The context in question has a weight beyond mere backstory.

Appropriating existing context is a powerful tool, and interestingly one that is rarely done in tabletop play.  I mentioned yesterday that I had a possible ‘solution’ to the power and context thing, and here it is.  New players can, at least in certain types of games, simply appropriate a huge amount of existing context from shared media experiences within the group.

Authority and context: a problem to be solved?

Wednesday, October 11th, 2006

Ian asked a good question in the comments of yesterday’s post.

I’m really curious if you think there are any good ways of assuaging the differential of power granted by that context and history.

The short answer is: I do believe that there are techniques that can provide you with context in a new group, and I’m going to discuss one in depth tomorrow.  But first, I want to talk a bit about whether this is actually a problem that needs solving at all.

The context ‘problem’ is present in most forms of social interaction.  When you first meet someone it can be difficult to accurately assess when they are (for instance) being sarcastic or ironic.  It is simple lack of experience.  You have no shared history with the person in question, and that means that you do not have a body of context to use as a baseline in judgments.

This is not really a problem.  Especially since the inverse is true: the more context you have, the better your judgments.  This is one of the advantages in longer-term play in roleplaying.  As you accumulate context you can make more powerful statements.  It seems clear, then, that we do not want to cut anyone off on the high end.

So any solution would have to come in the form of giving new players a higher ‘floor’ of context.  The minimum context would have to be raised.  As I said, I have some ideas about this, but they are far from perfect.  However, I remain unconvinced that the context issue is a problem to be solved rather than (as Fred suggested) simply a reality to be dealt with.

To my mind it acts more as a constraint to be considered.  Some designs or incidences of play may be better served by having more context for new players, and some may not be.  It is something to be considered like physical space or medium or anything else that impacts play.

That said, I do think that identifying the role that context plays, and more interestingly to me, the sources of context in play is important.  By understanding how and why context interacts with play, and where that context comes from, we can begin playing with it directly and intentionally.  We can shape play through context in design, and that strikes me as a lot of fun.

Authority and context: Two types of power

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

The Forge paradigm of RPG design taught me something very important: the power of your character is incidental, it is the power of the players that matters.  The Forge has, rightly I think, primarily defined power in roleplaying as authority distribution.  Who has authority to say what things about what aspects of play and have those things stick?

Taking these two things together, it becomes clear that distributing authority is an important design consideration.  If it is important that players have power, and they primarily derive power from authority, then who has what authority is a good thing to think about.  However, I don’t think that authority is the only component of power.  There is at least one more, though there may be others I have not yet identified.

That other component of power is context.  If Harry (the player) has authority over Sally (the character), and Bob (the player) has authority over Frank (the character), and mechanically both characters have the same mechanical input into the game, it might appear that the two players have equal power over and within the game.  But things are not that simple.

Imagine that Harry has been a member of the group for years, and that he’s played Sally for all those years.  Sally is a complex character, one the players are invested in to one degree or another, and most importantly Sally has an extensive fictional history with the group that has been demonstrated in play.  Sally has a rich context that has been ‘shown not told’.  Further imagine that Bob is new, it’s his first night.  Thus his character Frank is an unknown quantity to the group.  Frank may have a back story, but that’s all it is: backstory.  The group hasn’t seen Frank in action, and thus any fictional action that Frank takes will be viewed from a clean perspective.

Harry, with Sally, seems to have more power than Bob does with Frank.  This is because any fictional choice Sally makes will be thematically interpreted in terms of the context of all her past decisions in play.  This imbues those choices with more force and meaning.  This does not mean that Bob is screwed and can’t contribute, but his ability to make thematic statements is significantly less than Harry’s.  It’s not a question of authority, but one of context*.

*I admit that, in a sense, this is still about authority.  Who has authority over context-rich fictional elements.  However, I don’t see any simple way to equally distribute authority if that is the case, and I feel that shifting the idea of authority in that way weakens it severely as a useful term.

Peanut gallery: Christian Griffen

Monday, October 9th, 2006

This is a place to discuss the ongoing interview with Christian Griffen as it unfolds. Toss out insights or countrary experiences or whatever strikes your fancy. I don’t know that Christian or I will address them directly (we do, after all, have an interview going on), but we might. Even if we don’t get to them, hopefully it’ll spark some valuable discussion.

Of course this doesn’t mean that you can’t have discussions elsewhere. Please feel free! I just figured it was at least worth seeing what happened if a place of discussion were provided here.

Interview with Christian Griffen – Chat-based play

Monday, October 9th, 2006

Some of you may remember the interviews I did way back when (the ones with Sarah Kahn and Moyra Turkington). Well, that second one, the one with Mo, never got finished. What with her going of to India and all (and, I hope, having a wonderful time). Hopefully we’ll pick it up after she gets back and settles in, but we don’t know yet.

But the interviews are some of my favorite things to do around here, so I’m going to start up a new one. This time it’s Christian Griffen, one of Berengad Games, with the very interesting-looking Beast Hunters which I’m hoping to see by the end of next month.

Our nominal topic of discussion is online chat-based play. This is a very broad thing to talk about because there are dozens of ways that this sort of play is handled, and they all have something interesting to teach us.

The rules on this interview are much like they have been in the past. I ask the questions, Christian answers them, everyone else refrains from commenting. As soon as we’re done I’ll throw up a thread where the floor is open and everyone can ask Christian questions. I strongly encourage anyone who has questions during the interview that they want to see answered there to email them to me. This isn’t a case of me thinking that I’m the only one smart enough to come up with good questions. It just keeps things tidy and easy to follow.

I will be trying something new this time though. We’ll see how it goes. I’m going to start up a thread for the peanut gallery. This is a place for anyone and everyone to comment on what Christian and I are talking about. We might get involved over there in discussions, but I don’t know if we will yet. There is something to be said about letting you guys talk on your own.

Without further preamble, let’s get this party started!

1. Tell us a bit about yourself, in general. Who are you, what do you do, what’s your shoe size? You know, the important stuff.

Well, that was interesting

Monday, October 2nd, 2006

Last month I did a little experiment.  I posted shorter articles more frequently instead of large articles twice a week.  It was an interesting experience, and I think I’ve identified some of the changed dynamics that result from doing it this way.

First, it does make me more nimble (which I was hoping it would).  I am able to respond more quickly to comments by putting together entirely new posts.  This is definitely a good thing for discussion purposes.

Second, it has lowered the barrier to entry for commenting.  With each post having one or two points, it’s easier for people to read and comment specifically.  This is definitely a good thing since it will (hopefully) allow more people to participate in discussisons.  The downside is that I can’t really get detailed academic-style feedback on long pieces, but the truth is that I wasn’t getting that anyway, so there’s no real loss.

Third, it’s harder to reference.  Since I no longer have a single post dedicated to a single idea, it is difficult to point to a single link and say ‘read this and you’ll be on the same page’.  There might be as many as four or five (admittedly short) posts that are necessary to read if you want to get the full idea.  This would be good if I wanted to make it hard for people who don’t read me regularly to get involved, but since that sounds like a terrible idea, it’s a bad thing.

These three things leave me in a somewhat odd position.  I’m really liking one and two quite a bit, but that third one’s a big problem.  It may be that people can just drop into things mid-stream and just sort of figure out what’s going on, but I’m a bit hesitant to make in nearly impossible to easily reference old discussions.

So, I’m opening the question up to you, my readers.  If you read this blog, even if you’ve never commented on it and even if you don’t really find it interesting, I want to hear from you.  This little experiment: was it better this way?  Worse?  How would you tweak things to make them even better?  Feel free to comment here, or to toss me an email.

A look at CCGs: selective mechanics

Thursday, September 28th, 2006

I mentioned this in passing yesterday, but I figured that it was worth doing a bit of expansion since it is an interesting phenomenon, not to mention one that isn’t seen much outside of CCG designs.

Most CCGs, and I think that a case can be made that all of the best CCGs, have two layers of rules.  The first layer is the core rules.  These are the ones that are always in effect across all instances of play.  Players start with 20 life and seven cards in Magic, you lose if you run out of cards or life, creatures attack and defend.  Those are core rules.  Core rules tend to be relatively simple, on the order of a game like Settlers.  The core rules can all be kept in the players’ heads, and don’t ever need to be referenced in play.

The second layer of rules is the expansion rules.  These are rules that may or may not be in force in any given game.  The expansion layer allows for a shifting and diverse play environment.  Once you have enough rules that can potentially come into play, you reach a point where each rule gives advantages in some situations and disadvantages in others.  This creates an inherently evolving play environment where the game can never be ‘solved’ in a general sense, but can only be ‘solved’ for specific permutations of the rules.

CCGs are able to attain this critical density in the expansion layer by making all the expansion rules that are in play easy to reference.  Each card explains the rules that it puts into effect, which allows for easy and quick reminders and clarifications about the rules.  This ease of access to the expansion rules lowers the search and handling time of play such that players can function with dozens of new rules in play without having to pause play and reference rules.  The rules are so easy to reference that play doesn’t bog down.

Another important aspect of printing the expansion rules on separate cards is that you can, to some degree, balance the game after publication.  This is generally frowned upon in terms of elegant design, but if it turns out that certain expansion layer rules are broken then you can simply rewrite them or remove them from play altogether.  (Note that this removal can be done on a local level in addition to the publishing level, ‘No one gets to play with X’ is something I’ve played with in locally.)

A look at CCGs: design as play

Wednesday, September 27th, 2006

Way back when I started this blog, I made the claim that it wasn’t just about roleplaying, but about gaming of all sorts.  I have talked about other gaming topics in the past, but I find roleplaying extremely provacative, so I talk about it quite a bit.  Anyway, I’m going to spend the next couple of posts talking about something different: CCGs.  I bet you’re excited.

One of the most compelling things about Customizable Card Games (CCGs), at least to me, though I assume it’s generally appreciated, is the deck design phase.  There’s a significant portion of play which centers around selecting which parts of the rules you’re going to employ.  (Note that this understanding of deck design is based upon the fact that each card contains certain rules.  If a given card is not in play, then its rules do not impact the game.)

One of the reasons that this is so interesting is that it makes a game out of game design.  In selecting the rules you are doing something similar to what a game designer does when designing a game.  You are constructing the specific interface that you will play under.  While your choices are constrained to the cards available in the game, they are much wider than most other forms of gaming.

This design-level game is an important and compelling part of CCG play, and it has a lot of implications for design in other arenas too.  Which is what I’m hoping to talk about over the next couple of days.  For now, I just want to point out that, in some senses, this part of CCG play is a sort of poor man’s design.  It’s also a form of competative design.  Similar to a game like Mao or Nomic in which part of the game is selecting the rules best suited to gaining you victory in future play.  This game-within-a-game effect generates some very interesting social effects.

Implications of protagonist self-identification

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

This post has been sitting in my hopper for a couple of weeks now, and I’m still not entirely sure what I want to say about the topic.  It’s not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination.  In fact, it’s something that I think most of us are remarkably well aware of.  The topic of character identification

Character identification isn’t a phenomenon restricted to roleplaying.  In fact, it might well be argued that it’s a necessary element of all fiction worth reading.  If the audience does not identify, in some way, with the characters of a narrative, then the narrative has no real power.  However, I do think that roleplaying has a strong tendency to produce extremely high levels of character identification, and interestingly to do so in a very narrow way

Often, when recounting roleplayiing experiences, players speak as if they had taken the actions that fictional characters have taken.  And we often refer to the actions of other characters by their players.  ‘I punched him right in the nose, and then he called my mother a whore!’  Of course this isn’t really a bad thing, it’s probably something of a tacit acknowledgement that we, the players, really are the ones doing things at the table.  So character identification isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.

But in roleplaying it seems fundamentally different than in other sorts of fiction.  We tend to identify extremely strongly with a single character (or very small set of characters).  Even crazy hippie games like Capes and Universalis which permit anyone to take up any character tend to, in my experience of actual play, end up with each player having at least one character that they are primarily responsible for.

Further, I see less character identification with other characters.  I find that I am more likely to identify more strongly with more characters in non-roleplaying fiction, while in roleplaying fiction I am likely to idenfity very strongly with one character, but think of almost all the other characters as foils.

Thinking back to my old post Play is Chaos, I am beginning to think that a lot of roleplaying actual play can be interpreted as a bunch of single-protagonist stories mashed together into one.  Where each player has a radically different character-centered interpretation of what the story is about.  Of course in a functional game the ‘what it’s about’ will mesh across all the stories in some way, but we’re still looking at different interpretations.

But I feel like there’s more here.  This is a big topic, and not one I’ve seen discussed much.  Especially not outside of immersion discussions.  Yet I think this is a topic bigger than immersion.  Even players who tend to identify as non-immersives seem to do a lot of character identification of this type.  So, what else have we missed?

Timing mechanisms: what’s not to like?

Thursday, September 21st, 2006

The big risk any significant timing mechanic takes is that it takes a very important element of play out of the players’ hands.  Specifically, timing mechanisms take most of the responsibility for pacing away from the players.  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this.  We’ve already got games that take setting and theme and such away from the players, so taking pacing is not a fatal flaw.

Pacing mechanics are going to narrow and focus your audience.  Thinking back to my post on games as interfaces, it should be noted that some groups have pacing and timing locked down.  They already have working procedures for this stuff.  They can sit down at the table, decide to play for an hour (or two or four) and finish their game in close to that self-imposed time limit.  Those people don’t need mechanics to cover that, and chances are that such mechanics will be less optimal for their group than their evolved procedures will be.

However, I would suggest that most groups are not like this.  I know that I, personally, am pretty bad at handling pacing and timing.  Play continues on and on until someone gets tired of it.  This isn’t necessarily bad, it does make it hard to fit a game into reliable time slots, or if you watch the clock it makes it difficult to reliably produce completely satisfying play.  When we play on the clock, I often think to myself that ‘we’ll have to come back to this next week, because all we did this week was set up conflicts to be resolved’.

I think that good and fun timing mechanisms are going to be one of the most important areas of mechanical development in the next couple of years.  I could be wrong.  It actually happens all the time.  But this time, I think I’m right.

Timing mechanisms: diminishing resources

Wednesday, September 20th, 2006

Diminishing resources are relatively uncommon in board games, but turn out to be found quite often in card games.  Almost all card games use the number of cards left (in players’ hands or in the deck) as a timing mechanism.  Perhaps not the only timing mechanism, but an important one.

Note that there is an important difference between diminishing resources as a tactical mechanism, and their use as a timing mechanism.  Dungeons and Dragons uses diminishing resources, in the form of potions, scrolls, spells, special abilities, and hit points as tactical considerations.  They are resources that are steadily reduced, but not with the strict intent of controlling pacing.  They are reduced instead to force difficult choices.

I do not believe that these two uses are very compatible.  If a resource diminishes over the course of play, it can be used as a source of tactical consideration or pacing, but not both.  You can, of course, use multiple diminishing resources in different ways.

Primetime Adventures uses diminishing resources as some sort of timing mechanic in the form of the budget economy.  It’s not a pure timing mechanism, but it definitely points out some of the possible ways one might be put together.

Timing mechanisms: clocks

Tuesday, September 19th, 2006

I consider it to be very interesting, and possibly incredibly informative, that clocks are rarely used in games.  Not all games of course, in fact there’s an entire class of games where clocks are a very common timing mechanism: team sports.

But they are rarely seen in board, card, or roleplaying games.  My guess is that this is due to the fact that clocks are not tied too very closely to play itself.  They are, for lack of a better term, an aloof mechanism.  They operate independently of play, and there is no way to guage their progress other than direct reference.  As time runs out on the clock, the dynamics of the game stay mechanically the same.

Contrast this with the other methods we’ve identified.  Each of those other timing mechanisms interacts with other mechanics directly, and as you use those mechanics you are continually updated on the progress of the timer.

This means that clocks are not very good for pacing.  This is especially true for roleplaying.  If you are playing a game, and need about ten minutes to wrap things up but get excited about what is going on and don’t realize that you only have a minute left on the clock, then you’re either going to exceed your time limit or fail to generate a satisfying conclusion.

All this explains why clocks are rarely used as a timing mechanism, but I don’t think that clocks are no good.  We just need to consider some new ways of using them.  One thing we might try is a large number of short time limits.  Maybe the clock goes off every ten minutes.  That way you can make sure that the last ten (or however many) minutes gets devoted to a satisfactory end.

Or we might try using odd timers.  Which is what my own languishing Trust and Betrayal is trying to do.  Use timers that constantly remind you of their presence, use timers that can provide timely cues regarding how much time is left.  In Trust and Betrayal we’re talking about planned soundtracks, so that you can tell how much time you have left based on the music.  But there are surely some other solutions that do the same thing, or even better things.