Thursday, April 19, 2018

Other OSR

Part of my readings on game design have got me thinking about other old school games besides D&D that could be used for designing old school games. Yes, this topic has been around in the OSR for pretty much as long as the OSR has been around. And D&D is the biggest name in table top roleplaying. Yet it's still interesting to revisit the topic from time to time (at least for me).

The actual impetus for this blog post was a bit of inspiration I had just yesterday. A while back, JB of BX Blackrazor asked me why Chanbara was a Japanese-themed game when I live in Korea. Of course, the answer is that I lived in Japan for 10 long years (I've lived in Korea for a little over 10 years now, so I've been here longer) before I lived in Korea, and speak the language better, so I have a better grasp of Japanese fantasy. (By the way, I should probably be plugging Chanbara can get it in PDF for $10, print or print/pdf combo for $20, right here!)

The fact is, I wasn't really sure what a Korean OSR game should be about. And not in the indie game sense of "about" but in the Kevin Crawford sense of "what are the verbs?" (A.K.A. what do the players do in the game?). Because honestly, with a bit of palette swapping, either Flying Swordsmen or Chanbara would work well for a Korean-themed dungeon crawl/hex crawl D&D style game. The weapons are similar. The magic system is similar. The themes in the source literature are similar.

If I really want to get a game that's somehow essentially Korean, what the game is about needs to be a bit different. And then my eureka moment started to hit me two days ago and finalized yesterday. We had gone up to Seoul to take care of some business at the U.S. embassy. We brought the boys and stayed the night, and did a bit of sightseeing. One place we went was the Korean Folklore Museum. At a display of civil and military officials' garb and gear, the idea started fermenting. On the KTX back to Busan yesterday, the idea hit me in full. And it's related to ideas that have been in my head for a while now about using other games besides TSR era D&D as a basis of old school design.

Still with me? I hope so. I think my thought process leading up to this is important to the design. Anyway, I realized that a game where civil officials are an important part of the game shouldn't be one where the primary goal is killing monsters and taking their stuff. The game should be about (and XP awarded for) solving a variety of social/economic/military problems [which, from time to time, may include supernatural/monster problems]. People are going to be the main adversaries, and combat should not be a prioritized means of solving conflicts in the game. Basically, a class/level system like D&D, with XP awarded for combat and treasure acquisition, doesn't cut it.

But a system like Star Frontiers, which is classless and skill-based, with an XP system based on how well missions are accomplished rather than the exact amount of foes defeated/wealth gained is perfect for this.
If you've never played it, Star Frontiers is a d% based game. Characters get eight stats (arranged in four related pairs) that can range from 1 to 100, and that's your percent chance to accomplish something based purely off of those stats. That includes saving throws, which get keyed either to your Stamina (which are also hit points...and saves are usually at current STA rather than total, so it's harder to stave off poison or disease or knock-out gas if you're wounded) or Reaction Speed (it's all in the reflexes). In addition to ability checks, there is a skill system where you either get a set base percent chance plus 10% per level in the skill, sometimes lowered by 10% of the level of the opposition, or 1/2 a related ability score plus 10% per level of the skill (again, sometimes minus other factors).

Each skill is actually a group of related subskills, each with their own different base percentage of success. So a PC with Computers has a chance to bypass a computer's security. The base chance is 30% +10% per skill level -10% per computer level. So with Computers level 1, bypassing a level 1 computer has a 30% chance, and a level 2 computer is only a 20% chance. At skill level 6 (the maximum), the PC has an 80% chance to bypass a level 1 computer's security, and so on.

For combat, melee is 1/2 of Strength +10% per level of Melee weapons. For ranged combat, the skills were divided into type (beam weapons, projectile weapons, etc.) and the chance to hit was 1/2 of Dexterity +10% per level of the appropriate ranged weapon type. Armor absorbs damage rather than reducing chances to hit.

XP awards are small (1 to 5 per session, usually) and XP was spent to increase skill levels and to raise ability scores (and some of the alien races had % based racial abilities that could also be improved by spending XP).

Pretty simple base system, right?

So for my potential future Korean fantasy OSR game, I shouldn't try to do yet another version of medieval Asian D&D. I should do medieval Asian Star Frontiers. All I need to do is set up the skill system to reflect what Joseon (or Goryeo if we want to go farther back in time, or Silla/Paekchae/Goguryeo/Gaya if we want to go even further still) officials and citizens were doing. Then set a system of XP awards for doing what you should be doing well.

Related to this idea (of using other, non-D&D, games for OSR designs), I'd been thinking recently that for an OSR supers game (yes, I know MARVEL FASERIP is available free online and does it well) that Gamma World would be an interesting base game to use. I'm most familiar with the 4th edition of the game [1992, not the 4E D&D one], but any older edition might work.
Gamma World's mutations are basically a list of superpowers and some super weaknesses. And the artifacts are high tech play-toys. Create a system for Batman/Iron Man/Green Arrow/Black Widow style (pure-strain) humans to roll or purchase high tech items, while altered/mutant/alien characters roll some powers (and maybe get some tech too) and you've got a supers generation system. It just needs a few tweaks to change it from a game about scouring post-apocalypse ruins for artifacts to a game about stopping super-villains.

GW more or less uses a D&D design (except for 3rd edition, which uses does Star Frontiers' Zebulon's guide), but it's got some differences. And I might want to think about FASERIP now that I think about it, as well as WEG's d6 system (the old Star Wars game) which is now open game content.

So, it may be time, for me at least, to take a break from the D&D-based OSR design scheme, and try out a few ideas for other games based on other designs. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Juul's Theory of Games Elements 4 and 5: Effort and Attachment

Jesper Juul (2003) gives a definition of games based on six elements or criteria that can be used to define a game. My initial thoughts on Juul's paper can be found here, a discussion of element 1 here, and discussion of elements 2 and 3 here.

Element 4: Player Effort

In order for a game to be a game, players need to put forth some effort. This seems fairly obvious, and Juul doesn't spend much time describing this element, even though it's arguably the most relevant trait (Chris Crawford, whose On Game Design I'm currently reading, lists this as the final definitive difference between games and other types of play such as toys and puzzles, for example). Here's what Juul has to say in its entirety:

Player effort is another way of stating that games are challenging, or that games contain a conflict, or that games are "interactive". It is a part of the rules of most games (expect* games of pure chance) that the players' actions can influence the game state and game outcome. The investment of player effort tends to lead to an attachment of the player to the outcome since the investment of energy into the game makes the player (partly) responsible for the outcome. (p. 7)
*He obviously means except here, emphasis added.

This seems hard to argue against. If games imply challenge. Win or lose. They also imply interactivity, even though there are solitary games. However, this rules out 'games of pure chance' doesn't it? In a game of pure chance: Snakes and Ladders, Candy Land, not to mention many kinds of gambling, does the player put in any effort? Is there any challenge in the game? Or is it just luck?

Later, Juul's graphic taxonomy of games, borderline games, and non-games places these games of pure chance in the borderline category. Even though the player's actions do not affect the outcome (aside from cheating), there is an illusion of agency created by Element 5: Player Attachment to the Outcome. I'm sure we've all been in a situation where we were playing a pure chance game and thought, If I roll the dice just right... and then hoped for that exact number we needed to win (or at least achieve some specific result within the game). And every now and then we're going to roll that number by chance, and our false belief that holding the dice a certain way, or blowing on them before the roll, or tossing them hard or soft actually caused the wanted result to appear. Juul doesn't say any of this, it's just me speculating.

Juul does discuss some activities that fall completely outside of the game definition for violating this element. For one, he lists movies/storytelling as not having a variable outcome (element 2), not requiring player effort (element 4, which we're looking at now), and player attachment to the outcome (element 5, which is discussed below). Now, obviously a movie or story has a set ending. And it doesn't require any effort by the audience other than to devote their time. Nothing the audience does will influence the outcome, it's simply a question of whether you're willing to put in the effort to reach the end of the story or drop it. I'd say many forms of fiction do inspire player attachment to the outcome if it's well crafted. But it's not a requirement. A crappy book or movie still will play out to the end, even if you the audience no longer care about how it ends. But we'll discuss this more below. Fiction, Juul proposes, is NOT a game in any sense. And I would agree, because the outcome is fixed and not dependent on any input from the audience.

Now, looking at RPGs, I'd say that player effort is the whole POINT of the game. We play RPGs because they challenge us. They challenge us with rule mechanics (can we beat the orcs or will they beat us?). They challenge us with puzzles (can we avoid the trap to get to the treasure safely?) and resource management (do we take all the copper coins or leave them because they slow us down?). They challenge us with in-game interpersonal conflict (should we kill the sleeping goblins or just tie them up?). They challenge us with out-of-game interpersonal conflict (do we play without Jim's wizard this week, or put the game off until next week so he can join us?). They challenge us to be creative (how can I make this character interesting and fun for everyone at the table?) and more empathetic (how can my assassin work together with Sarah's paladin?).

Story (Narrativist) games, as opposed to regular fiction, do have a strong element of player effort. The story game tends to give you some guidelines about what the story should be "about" but the story is not there yet. It takes player effort to flesh out the story, and the whole point of those games is to be able to narrate the story your way.

Again, this is my speculation, but it may be that Juul gives RPGs a borderline status despite them not adhering to Element 1: Fixed Rules because of the above. Juul seems to place a heavy emphasis on games having fixed rules which RPGs violate, but because they are exercises in player effort, they pass muster. RPGs crank the dial up to 11 on this one, where games of pure chance dial it down to the minimum effort/decision point of play/don't play.

Element 5: Player Attachment to the Outcome

This is one element of Juul's definition that I'm not sure is 100% necessary. It basically is just a further elaboration of both Element 3: Valorization of the Outcome and Element 4: Player Effort. And Juul seems to realize this, as he himself states that this is a purely psychological aspect dependent on the player having the correct attitude, and stems from player effort.

And it does make sense. We tend to put value on things for which we put in effort. If we did not, then why expend the effort? And if certain outcomes are preferable to other outcomes (valorization), then it is only natural that we feel attached to achieving one of the positive outcomes rather than a negative one. And for a game of pure chance like Candy Land or craps, the fact that the outcome is valorized and there is a competitive aspect to the game (and in the case of gambling games like craps there is a real world consequence at stake), we get attached to the outcome.

Juul discusses the social contract of games here. He mentions poor sports who either refuse to enjoy victory or feel bad about defeat - which is not really something we can lay at the feet of the game, can we? If a game fails to inspire attachment to the outcome THIS TIME we play, is it not a game? In a way, it may not be, but that's not a useful criterion for deciding what is a game and what isn't.

Personally, if I were to revise this definition, I'd roll the various aspects of this element into #3 and #4. Social contract and player attachment are important, but agreeing to the social contract is a form of effort (#4) while attachment to the outcome is an extension/consequence of valorization of outcomes (#3).

Looking at RPGs, whether traditional or story games, I would say that player attachment is an important aspect of play. But it's not completely necessary to have a good time. I've played in one-shot games before, with pregen characters. And in these kinds of games, players tend to have little attachment to the outcomes of their PCs. Yet they still have fun.

Thinking of games like Call of Cthulhu, or D&D modules like The Tomb of Horrors, though, I would consider them to be an inversion of the valorization of outcomes. In CoC, the ideal outcome may in fact be the death or insanity of your PC. When playing Tomb of Horrors, the idea may be to see in what humorous/grotesque/idiotic way your PC dies. That may be the prized outcome of the game. Looking at the one-shot game through this lens, it may simply be a flipped valorization scenario, in which case players are in fact attached to the outcome of their character - it's just that the outcome they are attached to is the one they normally try to avoid in standard play.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Juul's Theory of Games Elements 2 and 3: Outcomes

This is part 3 of my analysis of Jesper Juul's (2003) article The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness The first part is here, the second is here. The original article by Juul is online here (page numbers are from the PDF version).

Juul, as noted previously, outlines six criteria that he holds up as being necessary and sufficient to label an activity as a game (or not). Yet, as I noted when discussing the first one (fixed rules), he mentions several 'borderline' cases, including tabletop RPGs, which still seem to be games, but don't conform to one or more of the elements of his definition. My hypothesis is that each element is a cline or gradient, and the dials can be turned up or down along the axis of each of these elements. In this post, I'm looking at his second and third elements, which are related: Variable and Quantifiable Outcomes and Valorization of Outcomes.

Element 2: Variable and Quantifiable Outcomes

By variable outcome, Juul means two things: first the system of the game must allow for chance and/or skill to affect the result; and second the skill level of the players must be such that the outcome is uncertain.

He doesn't spend much time on the first point, only giving the example of ring-a-ring-a-rosies (or as we called it as kids, ring-around-the-rosie). For young children, this is a fun activity. It has set rules (link hands in a circle, sing the song, move clockwise as you sing, fall down at the end). But it only has one outcome: everyone sits down. So, by this definition, it is not a game.

The second point he goes into more detail. He again uses a game for young children, tic-tac-toe. Anyone who knows the system well and plays against another player who knows the system well will ALWAYS result in a draw. Someone who knows the system (an older child or adult) who plays against someone who doesn't (a young child) will always win or draw, never lose. Only two players who do not yet fully understand the system will have a chance of winning, losing or drawing when they play. Hence, tic-tac-toe is a game, but only when played by young children or others who do not yet fully understand it. Once you learn the system, it ceases to be a game for you and becomes more of a puzzle.

He then mentions several games that have handicap rules to allow players of various skill levels to compete. Without the handicaps in place, those instances of play are unlikely to have variable outcomes. Related to this is the phenomenon of a player purposefully not playing at full potential, such as a parent purposefully allowing their child to win a game in order to build interest and confidence in the activity.

This reminds me of my college days. One of the students in my dorm, Eugene, was a chess master. We'd play from time to time, and of course I knew going in that there was no way I could beat him. I just play chess casually. He competed in and sometimes even won tournaments. Yet, it didn't stop me from playing with him now and then. And there WAS a variable outcome. It just wasn't 'win/lose.' Instead, the variable outcome was to see how many moves I could last before the inevitable defeat.

So, again, I think Juul may be being too strict when he posits an either/or dichotomy in his definition of games. This also leads into the second part of this element is what he terms "quantifiable" outcomes. Just as a game has strict rules, Juul says that "the outcome of a game is designed to be beyond discussion, meaning that the goal of Pac Man is to get many points, rather than to 'move in a pretty way'" (p. 6). In other words, outcomes are objective rather than subjective. To me, this seems fairly non-controversial. Game systems define the 'win conditions' but it's also possible for players to decide on their own 'win conditions.' 

The obvious example of computer games without quantifiable win conditions seems to be Will Wright's games like Sim City and The Sims. There are no intrinsic goals for these games. Nothing within the game will tell you that you've won or lost. But players are able so self-assign goals and try to achieve them or fail to do so. Juul puts them as borderline games because of Element 3 (see below), but several other writers I've been looking at, including the creator Will Wright, see them as toys rather than games because of this trait. 

Element 3: Valorization of the Outcome

Valorization is a fancy term to use, but what Juul simply means is that for an activity to be a game, some outcomes need to be better than others. If all outcomes are equally good, then there is no point to the challenge of the game. In Game Theory (which both is and isn't about games), Zero Sum and Fixed Sum games are set up so that one player can only achieve a positive outcome if the other player achieves a negative outcome (or at least a less positive outcome for Fixed Sum games). In cooperative games, all players work together to either beat the game or fail to beat the game. In RPGs, you can slay the dragon/blow up the space fortress/prevent the Great Old One from rising. Or, you can get roasted to a crisp/get disintegrated by droid ships/go insane and join the cult. In many RPGs and computer games, live or die is a commonly valorized dichotomy of outcomes. 

Again, an open ended simulation like The Sims doesn't valorize outcomes. While it's possible to give yourself goals within the game, there's no pressure to actually achieve them other than personal satisfacton, and no award of any kind when you (inevitably unless you choose to give up) achieve that goal. Juul also notes Conway's Game of Life (the computer microbe simulator) and watching a burning fireplace as systems with rules and variable outcomes but without any positive or negative value assigned to those outcomes.

There is a tendency that the positive outcomes are harder to reach than the negative outcomes - this is what makes a game challenging; a game where it was easier to reach the goal than not to reach it would likely not be played very much. (Juul, 2003, p. 7)
This is an important point. Especially when we're talking RPGs. I'll have a bit more to say about this below.

This element is, in my estimation, an actual dichotomy, rather than a cline. I'm having trouble imagining an activity where the outcomes are all somewhere equally positive or equally negative yet still being able to call such an activity a game. If all outcomes have the same value, then where is the challenge? The activity may be play, but it is not, I think, a game. If someone can give me an example of a game with only partially valorized outcomes, I'll be happy to change my stance here.

What these Elements Have to do with RPGs

First of all, I don't think there's any doubt that traditional pen and paper/tabletop RPGs like D&D conform to both of these elements. There are definitely multiple outcomes, and a combination of chance and skill determine what outcome you achieve. There are system outcomes like how much XP you gain, or whatever advancement reward system the game uses which is variable and quantifiable. In addition, in-game outcomes - save the town/defeat the bad guy/complete the quest - are also variable and quantifiable. Basically all of these outcomes, whether looking at system or in-game, break down into outcomes where you advance your character/continue playing it (positive) or else fail to gain XP or die (negative).

Narrativist/Indie/Story games, however, are a bit different (remember, this line of posts was inspired by Zak's close analysis and criticism of GNS theory). Now, my experience playing them is very limited, but from what I've experienced and what I've read about them, the system of those games is probably higher up the scale of Fixed Rules (element 1) than traditional TTRPGs. This is because the rules of these games aren't designed to provide guidance for actions taking place within the in-game fiction. They're designed to assign narrative agency to various players. In these games, when the rules come into play, you're not rolling to see if you can jump across the chasm, you're rolling to see which person sitting around the table gets to decide if you manage to jump across the chasm and what complications or benefits may arise because of the jump. [Again, people with more experience in these games correct me if I'm wrong here.]

The stated outcome of these games is to, through play, craft a compelling narrative about a theme. As Zak posted, Ron Edwards originally believed a morality play to be the highest form of the genre but other game designers have moved away from the explicit moral judgment of the narrative. Which is funny, because Edwards' original intent was an attempt at valorization of the outcome while actual practice (if Zak is correct, and my limited experience agrees with his) has tended to unvalorize the outcomes. The goal is simply to craft a narrative. If a narrative is crafted, the goal is achieved. And I can't help but think that no matter how you play these games, a narrative WILL be crafted. That is not variable.

Juul points out that interactive fiction, like text adventure games and I assume the analog version of Choose Your Own Adventure style books, don't really have variable outcomes...there are numerous outcomes but they are finite and unchanging if I always make the same choices every time I play/read. If I play a story game, but my character dies at the end, it still may be a satisfying narrative - a heroic tale of loss, or a tragedy in the classical sense, for example. Is it quantifiable? I suppose you could make an argument about whether the narrative is 'good' or not, but Juul again suggests that subjective appeals to art (making Pac Man move in a beautiful way) are not quantifiable. Even if we give story games this, that a good story is a better outcome of play than a bad story, how do we judge if the narrative is good or not? It goes back to Element 2, that the outcome must be beyond discussion for the activity to be a game rather than just a form of play.

So one of three conclusions are possible: a) Juul's definition of a game is incomplete [the null hypothesis],  b) story games fail the game test because of a paradox of not being able to uphold both Element 2 and Element 3 at the same time, or c) I'm missing some way to put valorization of outcomes on a cline rather than a binary which would allow story games to exist somewhere in the middle.

I think story games, like traditional RPGs, would likely fall in the borderline zone if they do fail the test. Just like Juul places The Sims/Sim City in the borderline, story games DO have definite rule systems, require player effort, have players attached to outcomes, and have no or negotiable real-world consequences. And they either conform to Element 2 or 3 as well. I'm liking this line of thought because it not only explains the difference between role playing and other games in general, but also easily shows how traditional and story RPGs are different.

If anyone can debunk me, though, I'll be happy to review this again. Next up, I plan to cover the player in relation to the game with Elements 4 and 5. Then I'll wrap this up with negotiable consequences and some final thoughts in the last post.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Why You Should Buy Chanbara Part 3: About Me

Buy It Here!
Part 3 of why I think you should buy my game.

When I made Flying Swordsmen, I was doing a retro-clone of Chris Pramas' Dragon Fist game. I'm into kung fu and wuxia movies, but it's not my abiding passion. I just thought Dragon Fist was a neat and fun little game that I didn't want to be lost when Green Ronin got the rights from WotC but then it (the updated version Green Ronin wanted to do) got mired down in production hell. So I decided to clone it, even though I am FAR from an expert in the genre, just a guy who enjoys it.

And I think I did pretty well.

With Chanbara, though, I do know exactly what I'm doing with the genre and the game. Many of you probably remember (or your memory will be jogged when I mention it), but I spent 10 years living in Japan teaching English. Before I went there, I took 3 years of Japanese language classes in university. While there, I continued to improve my language abilities, and immersed myself in the culture quite a bit. I almost said "as much as I could" there, but that's not strictly true. I spent plenty of time with other foreigner friends, even after I'd made some good Japanese friends. But I did spend a lot of time with those Japanese friends, and watching Japanese TV/movies, playing Japanese video games, and traveling around the country rather than jaunting off to Thailand on holidays. I've read a fair amount of Japanese history and mythology/legends as well.

Now, there are people in my RPG circles who have spent as much or more time in Japan than I did. There are plenty who speak Japanese better than me (JLPT level 2, but after a decade in Korea I doubt I could pass that if you gave me the test today...I could probably pass level 3 though). I'm not even really into anime, although I've seen many of the 'classics.' I'm not trying to say I'm the best expert on Japan and Japanese legends in the OSR, but I do know what I'm talking about.

And the game's "mythic Japanese" feel is all about my personal interpretation of Japan, and what's important in their history, legends, myths, and modern Japanese takes on their own history, myths and legends. I also think I've got a good grasp on what non-Japanese get wrong about the country, as I've been disabused of many of these misconceptions myself by hard experience.

Here are some of the lessons I've learned that make Chanbara a bit different:
  • There is no mechanics of "honor" like in 1E OA. First of all, like in other countries, some people are obsessed with honor/status/face, but not everyone. It's also something that's subjective, so having objective standards of behavior that gain or lose you points in an RPG is constraining. If you want to be an honorable samurai (or whatever type of character), role play it. 
  • Social relationships are key. Acting in accord with social norms is approved of, although there is also glorification of the rebel/outsider/anti-hero at times. I devised a three-way system of awarding XP that encourages characters to make their social relationships part of the game, but doesn't overly penalize players who don't want to do so. Players who prioritize social relationships will gain levels faster and also other benefits but also responsibilities and drawbacks. Those who don't will level a little slower, but will be a lot richer and have more freedom at the expense of influence. 
  • Japanese monsters can get really weird. It seems like a lot of legends they tell were made simply to creep people out, or to get a laugh. Monsters aren't only there to provide combat challenges. There are also plenty of ways to use the monsters presented for role playing or puzzle challenges. And not every monster is immediately out to attack the players. 
  • Even without getting into anime or sentai shows, many depictions of samurai or ninja (and the less common depictions of magicians like onmyoji or yamabushi) are super-heroic. Granted, most are 'street level' if compared to Marvel or DC superheroes, but the focus is usually on people doing things that couldn't really happen - or at least would be very improbable. And I'm not just talking about Zatoichi the blind swordsman. Just like with Flying Swordsmen, it was important that I make a 'heavy' OSR game with plenty of kewl powrz. Yes, you could play an OA style game with just BX D&D, but it would miss some of the feel of the source material because of it. 
Thanks to the people who have purchased the game so far! I appreciate it, and if you have a review of the game, send me a link - I'd love to read it. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Juul's Theory of Games Element 1: Fixed Rules

In my post the other day, I got some good feedback from people. I'd just like to make a clarification before moving on to the first of Juul's six elements that he considers necessary and sufficient to label something as a game.

This is just a theory that I found interesting. It's 15 years old, and Juul may have gone on to modify or clarify it (I haven't checked). I did find his Masters thesis online, which argued that narrative and game were incompatible, with a note from him that he's changed his stance on the issue since then.

I'm not posting Juul's theory as some sort of definitive matter on the subject of what is and isn't a game. I'm just throwing this out there as a potential framework upon which an actual workable theory of RPGs could be based, since they share all of the listed elements to a greater or lesser degree (yes, even the one I'm discussing today, which was the big point of contention in my previous post). Feel free to disagree with the theory. I may play devil's advocate here defending it, since I'm presenting it, but I don't have any stake in Juul's theory. If it doesn't stand up to criticism, then it's not a very good theory and we can look for something better.

So, once again Juul's six elements and my brief definitions of each:

Juul (2003) argues that a game must meet these qualifications:
1. Fixed Rules [players don't need to debate rules during play]
2. Variable and Quantifiable Outcomes [there are specific goals or end points, and they are not the same in all instances of the game]
3. Valorization of the Outcome [some outcomes are better than others]
4. Player Effort [the player must act to overcome the challenge, not just rely wholly on random chance]
5. Attachment of the Player to the Outcome [players are invested in achieving certain outcomes or avoiding certain other outcomes]
6. Negotiable Consequences [while most games can be and are played with no real world consequences, it's possible to bet on, play professionally, or in some other way attach real-world stakes to instances of play]

OK, here goes nothing!

Fixed Rules
Calvinball: Probably not a game by this standard.
 This was a point of contention in the previous post not so much for what Juul actually says on the point (which I didn't go into detail there, that's what this post is for). It was that this was the one element Juul noted that table top RPGs violate, for which he labels them as a 'borderline' game. Note here his terminology. He's not saying TTRPGs aren't games, he's putting them on the border - hedging his bet. In other words he just made a theory saying games must have these six things, but here are a class of activities that are sorta soft on one of the main elements but are recognized broadly as games. So he notes them as more of an exception that proves (in the sense of tests) the rule along with a few other borderline cases.

Here's what Juul has to say himself:
1. Fixed rules
Games have rules. The rules of games have to be sufficiently well defined that they can either be programmed on a computer or sufficiently well defined that you do not have to argue about them every time you play. In fact, the playing of a non-electronic game is an activity that in itself involves trying to remove any unclearness in the game rules: If there is disagreement about the rules of the game, the game is stopped until the disagreement has been solved. In a commercial game, the developer will (hopefully) have made sure that the rules are unambiguous, but what about non-commercial games? A non-electronic and "folk" (i.e. non-commercial) game tends to drift towards becoming unambiguous, not in the sense that they don't require ingenuity to play, but in the sense that it doesn't require ingenuity to uphold the rules. This explains some of the affinity between games and computers - and the fact that a several thousand year old non-electronic game is easily implementable in a computer program: The drive towards unambiguity in games makes them ripe for implementation in a programming language. To borrow some concepts from computer science, the rules of any given game can be compared to a piece of software that then needs hardware to actually be played. In games, the hardware can be a computer, mechanical contraptions, the laws of physics, or even the human brain. (p. 5-6)
Juul develops his six elements of his definition of 'game' from seven previous definitions, and all seven included some sort of phrasing about rules and/or procedures. The rules should be unambiguous. Over time, rules for games tend to lose any ambiguity they may have once had.

Notice, he doesn't say arguments over the rules can't happen, he says they don't happen "every time you play." And the more established a game is, or the more carefully developed (for commercial games), the fewer ambiguities the rules are likely to have.

He also doesn't say the game can't have a referee. At the end there, he notes the "hardware" needed to implement a game includes the human brain. A referee can judge whether or not a rule has been followed or broken, but does not (ideally) modify the rules during play.

What he is saying is that a game has (or at least should have) rules that are clear and well understood by all players. Any rule that is not well understood by all players will be modified over time to become clear. Because of this, computers make a great medium on which to program and play games. It's the ultimate impartial referee. It also helps explain one appeal of many Euro-style board games, with their clear and simple rules that make them easy to start playing.

Here's his chart of various games, pass-times, and systems-based activities and how they relate to his six elements.
Juul points to two activities that violate the Fixed Rule element: RPGs and freeform play. Now, like I assume most readers of this blog to be, I'm a table top RPG enthusiast. And it may seem grating at first to see our beloved pass-time listed as less of a game than a computer RPG or board game. But at least hear me out as I delve into how I think this definition of 'gameness' may help develop a better theory of RPGs than GNS.

How do (tabletop) RPGs violate the element? Juul says:
Pen and paper Role-playing games are not normal games because with a human game master, their rules are not fixed beyond discussion (p. 8)
With an end note saying:
Rather much of the enjoyment of role-playing games is due to the flexibility of the rules. (p. 13)
This is a sentiment I think most RPG players would agree with. Isn't the flexibility of the rules one of the first thing we praise about table top RPGs when comparing them to computer RPGs?

The important takeaway from this, in my opinion, is the inference that can be made from the chart above and Juul's comment that rules evolve over time to be unambiguous:

These six elements are not binary. It's not a question of "does it have it or not?" but instead it's a question of "how much does it have?" Each element is a cline, and activities can be more or less game-like along each axis. Some of the clines may be steeper (less forgiving of deviance) than others. That will require a bit more analysis of Juul's taxonomy presented in the chart above.

Tabletop RPGs have fixed rules. That's what the rulebooks are. But, by their nature (simulating a fantasy universe) they need that wiggle room of sanctioning the game master/referee to modify, add, subtract or otherwise change the rules to fit unusual situations or the preferences of the game group. Juul doesn't say they are not games, he says that they are not normal games. In other words, the game master allows RPGs to exist down the cline of rules fixedness, but still within the scope of activities considered to be 'games' by this definition.

I included the Calvinball comic above because, if it were a real game, that's an example of something that would be farther down the cline of rules fixedness from RPGs but still above free-form play (although not by much). Calvin and Hobbes do create rules for their game, it's just that the rules are in a constant state of flux. I don't remember seeing a 'calvinball' comic where Calvin and Hobbes argue about the rules. It would seem, like with improv acting/comedy training, that the one fixed rule is that every player has to accept what the other players throw out, although with the ability to further modify the input by creating a new rule later.

True freeform play is as far down the cline as you can get, and Juul labels it as "not a game."

Games have rules. Well-established/well-developed games have fixed rules. Games without fixed rules, or with ambiguous rules, tend to solidify the rules and remove ambiguities over time. 

The interesting coda of this is to look at the evolution of various games over time. OD&D, for example, is full of ambiguities and vague references. Basic D&D helped clarify them. AD&D sought to expand, clarify, and disambiguate for tournament play. AD&D 2E sought to clarify the hodgepodge presentation (and some still ambiguous rules) of 1E. 3E sought to streamline the mechanics with a universal resolution system (no more questions of what die to roll, do I roll over or under, etc.). 4E tried to turn table top gaming into a system like those in computer RPGs. 5E has taken a step back from 4E as that system was hurting what distinguished TTRPGs from other types of games (4E made the play too 'normal' in Juul's terms), but still tried to make the game simple and easy to understand. Pathfinder went in the direction of codifying EVERYTHING to remove ambiguity.

Look at spells. Originally spell descriptions gave a brief description of what it did. As we move forward in time, more and more creative uses of spells get ruled out straight away, or else sanctioned and given specific rules with which to implement them in that manner. Can I cast light in the evil high priest's eyes to blind him? We go from DM ruling on that to specific allowance in the rules. Can I stand on my floating disk to use it as an impromptu elevator? It says follows me at waist level... Again, we go from DM needing to make a ruling in earlier editions to specific statements that the disk does NOT change elevation suddenly (like if you fall) but only slow elevation changes like going up a ramp or flight of stairs in later editions.

The OSR, on the whole, seems to be a reaction to this drift toward disambiguity, trying to preserve what makes RPGs unique and distinct from most other types of games.

I don't have enough experience with multiple editions of other games to make a similar comparison, but it would be an interesting line of research to follow.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Challenges of the Gaming Parent

I haven't blogged much about it, but I'm running a 5E West Marches campaign twice a month, and we're closing in on the one year mark. We just had a game today, but the story I want to talk about begins last session. Of course, before I get to last session, the story needs a bit of background info presented about the game itself.

I've obviously modified the original West Marches concept a bit. I run the game at fixed times for whoever can show up, and advertise the game as open and newbies (to the campaign as well as to RPGs in general) are welcome. I started the game as a way to a) play more D&D, b) play D&D with my son, and c) get my son interacting with other people in English. My son's 10th birthday was yesterday.

From the beginning, Flynn (my son) has mostly been interested in combat. In the early sessions, there usually weren't many players. Flynn was pretty comfortable acting in character, but his characters acted like 9-year-olds. He loves Dragonborn, so for example he can communicate with kobolds...and when the party needed him to do so, he mostly threatened them with sticks up the butt if they didn't obey. Things like that. Most of the adults in the game just accepted it as what happens when you play with kids.

Then word got out that the game was fun. Now, instead of two to four players per session, I have seven to ten. Two other expat fathers also joined the game with their daughters (one is a year older than Flynn, one is three years younger). With a bigger group and other kids to play with, Flynn's attention to the game drifts (as does that of the other kids). No one seems to mind, however, and they're always paying attention during combat, leaving most exploration and character interaction to the adults.

So, last session. As I mentioned, Flynn's character is a Dragonborn. He's a Knowledge Cleric with the Knight background, so he has a Dragonborn squire who follows him around and helps out. The party has been exploring Quasqueton (B1 In Search of the Unknown, stocked for a large party of average level 3). On their way to the dungeon, I rolled a random encounter with lots of vine blights. There was one for each character, as well as the squire, the tamed giant badger (of one of the other kids' Fighter), and the pet dog of the Druid. And since the party was surprised, I ruled that they had walked right into the vine blight patch and were basically in the same "squares" (I'm mostly using theater of the mind combat).

Several characters get entangled. A few use movement abilities to get out of melee. On Flynn's turn, he wants to use his dragon breath attacks (both his fire, and the squire's acid). I roll a few dice to determine how many he can hit without damaging any party members, and get a 1. So he decides to blast party members and vine blights together and get as many blights as he can.

Now, we're playing in a coffee shop, where it's noisy. We've got 10 players (plus a few followers mentioned above). We sit at a long table, and typically when someone near me is taking an action, the people near me are paying attention, and those at the far end are chatting. When someone at the far end is taking an action, those near me are chatting. It's not as bad as the 4E games I was in, but with so many characters a round of combat takes a long time, so table talk is inevitable -- especially with kids at the table.

Titan the Cleric blasts his fire breath. I roll saves for the blights and subtract the damage.
Then I ask the PCs who were in the blast to do the same. This gets the attention of everyone. And when the damage is dished out, Flynn announces that his squire will use his acid breath. One guy at the far end of the table is playing a Paladin. He's not sure what's going on other than that the party is taking damage from Dragonborn breath weapons. He then bluntly tells my son don't do it or his Paladin will kill my son's Cleric...and that he's confident that he can do it. (He is the optimizer of the group, and Paladin smites deal a lot of damage, so he probably wasn't mistaken.)

I'm a bit stunned by this, and not sure what I'd do if a PvP fight did break out. Flynn is confused. Several other adults tell Flynn to do what he thinks his characters should do. He looks at me. I suggest he can do it, but it might be better not to. He decides not to. Crisis averted. The game goes on. Flynn is kind of out of it for the rest of the game except for some combat in the dungeon. But that's fairly normal for him. I don't think anything else about it until we get home.

That's when he breaks down crying, screaming into his pillow, punching the pillow, etc. He felt bullied, and I agree that he was. And I wasn't aware how he was feeling at the moment during the game, even though I felt that the Paladin player's reaction was uncalled for. I ask Flynn a few questions. Without my prompting, he asks me, "If I hadn't used the breath, wouldn't the fight have lasted longer?" and "I'm a Cleric and can heal anyone I hurt." He was thinking tactically and considering the consequences. Smart play.

I called the Pally's player and we had a talk. I explained Flynn's decision as he saw it. The player told me he wasn't sure what was happening, and thought Flynn had just decided to blast the party members as a joke. He apologized numerous times, and even posted publicly in our Facebook group to apologize and that now he understood and thought Flynn did in fact make the right tactical decision. Flynn wasn't really convinced of his sincerity, though.

Two weeks pass. Flynn celebrates his birthday and has a lot of fun. Then last night I asked if he was ready for our D&D game. He said he wanted to sit this one out. My wife and I had talked about the situation and figured he might feel that way, so I said sure. But I did ask him a few more times if he was sure. He said he was.

We had lunch with some of my wife's relatives, then I had to go to the game. I left a bit early. Flynn stayed at the restaurant. When I arrived at the cafe, everyone asked where Flynn was and I said he was sitting this session out. The Pally's player was visibly concerned. Then I get a call from Flynn. He says they just left the restaurant and he wants to come to the game...just to watch. I say sure, everyone will be happy to see you. When he gets there (with my wife and younger son, of course, who were going to the library a few blocks away), he says he still just wants to watch...but maybe he'll play later. By the time we get all the "town business" (asking the alchemist to identify all the bottles of water samples they collected from the Room of Pools), Flynn had decided to play after all.

The Wizard's player is out of the country right now, and he is the mapper, so they decided to give Quasqueton a break this session and follow up some other rumors. One is that they can gain "awesome magical powers" in the Cloud Lands when the clouds turn rainbow colors. Another is that a dragon was sighted in the plains to the southwest, and that a troupe of knights rode through town seeking it while the party was away. After a bit of discussion of those and some other rumors, they decide to try the Cloud Lands north of town first, then circle back south to try and find the dragon.

They head north, and have to cross the Dead Woods to get to the Cloud Lands. They've been through part of the Dead Woods before on the way to Quasqueton. They've also heard another rumor about the home of a wealthy man in these woods. And they stumble across it. The rich man is now a Vampire Spawn, and his former servants are Wights. There's treasure hidden in the attic and more in the basement.

The party finds two of the wights first. They manage to take them out without too much trouble, then find their way to the attic where there is a big chest full of lots of coins (the biggest haul yet for the campaign). As they're bringing the treasure down, the vampire spawn confronts them. After a very brief conversation where they fail to intimidate it (and don't yet know it's vampiric), they decide to attack. The other Cleric (the father of the Fighter with pet badger player) pulls out his holy symbol. Roll Initiative!

The vamp gets to go first, and heads up and claws and grapples with the Human Cleric. They're in a narrow hallway atop the (now collapsed thanks to the Bard) stairs. The Paladin is right behind the Cleric with a non-magical halberd (variant Human with Pole Arm Master and now Sentinel I said, he optimizes) and no more smites. No one else can get into melee. The Fighter is an archer, so she shoots with disadvantage into the melee. Flynn casts Spiritual Weapon. The Fairy Princess (Tiefling Warlock reskinned for the youngest kid) Hexes and Eldritch Blasts. The Bard gives Inspiration and also shoots into melee. The vampire takes a bit of damage (but since there aren't many magic weapons yet, not much) but starts to regenerate.

Everyone's starting to think they bit off more than they can chew when the vampire bits off more than he can chew of the War Cleric. Flynn's turn comes up. He asks me, "Can I attack the ceiling?" I immediately think, smart boy! They're in a ramshackle ruined house and I'd already established the time as around 5:30. The sun's still up. Most of the other players seem to not get what he's doing at first. I tell him to roll an Athletics check. Oh, and I didn't mention that he rolled a 16 Strength at level 1, which being Dragonborn bumped to 18, and at 4th level he put the ASI into Strength, so he's rocking a 20 Strength (as a Knowledge domain Cleric).

He rolls a natural 20.

I announce that he knocks a big hole in the ceiling which floods the hallway with sunlight. Suddenly, the vampire's regeneration stops, he takes massive damage on his turn, and has disadvantage for all rolls. I decide he retreats.

The Pally has the Sentinel feat now (he just hit 4th with the XP from the previous session) which can prevent the vampire from running if he hits with an attack of opportunity, but he misses. The vampire Disengages and moves down to the first floor and towards the kitchen (where the stairs to the basement, coffin and remaining 4 wights, plus a bit more treasure all are). The Rogue had used Acrobatics to get past the melee so was in a position to intercept, and the Archer Fighter and Paladin were able to get down and fire an arrow/take a swing (War Cleric had put Magic Weapon on the Pally's halberd while grappled). Rogue uses Fast Hands to release ball bearings in the hall. The vampire spawn trips and goes prone. Rogue, who has a dagger +1, gets a sneak attack in. Flynn is up next, and his Cleric jumps down and uses his breath weapon to finish off the vampire.

The party then left to the Neanderthal village near Quasqueton where they knew they could rest, and after resting returned and finished off the wights without too much trouble, also getting the vampire spawn's magical loot from the basement.

I'm really proud of my son. Not only did he deal with his emotional issues well, but he showed off his creativity and tactical thinking. All the adults were just looking for something on their character sheets to deal with the vampire spawn. Flynn used his head, and probably prevented one or more character deaths.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Want a Theory of RPGs? Start with theories of games.

The other day I read Zak's (long, be warned) first installment of his break-down of Ron Edwards's GNS Theory. It's pretty good. I've been saying some of the same things myself, but Zak manages to articulate some things that have also bothered me about GNS but I never could quite suss out exactly what they were. I haven't had time to read his second and third posts yet, but I'm looking forward more of this.

Now, independently, more than a month or so ago (well before I broke my arm, so maybe 2 months ago) I had read this academic article trying to define just what exactly a game is by Danish ludologist Jesper Juul called The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness (2003)*. Juul, building on previous theories of games - traditional games, folk games, board games, computer games - to come up with a comprehensive list of elements that can be used to test whether or not something is or is not a game.

Now, I'm not sure if Zak's intention is to build up a workable theoretical model of RPGs to replace GNS, or if he's merely trying to put the final nail in the coffin (good luck to that, GNS is probably here to stay, although it may not be as influential as it once was). But I think looking at Juul's work may be a good place to start if one did wish to create a workable, testable theory of RPGs.

Juul first analyzes key elements of game definitions from seven influential sources, groups together similar elements, and then arranges them into four categories: games as formal systems, relation between the player and the game, relation between the player and the world, and "other" for anything that doesn't fit into those three groups. He then synthesizes the elements into six core features that he feels are necessary and sufficient to label something as a "game" and explains them in detail. These elements are:

1. Fixed Rules [players don't need to debate rules during play]
2. Variable and Quantifiable Outcomes [there are specific goals or end points, and they are not the same in all instances of the game]
3. Valorization of the Outcome [some outcomes are better than others]
4. Player Effort [the player must act to overcome the challenge, not just rely wholly on random chance]
5. Attachment of the Player to the Outcome [players are invested in achieving certain outcomes or avoiding certain other outcomes]
6. Negotiable Consequences [while most games can be and are played with no real world consequences, it's possible to bet on, play professionally, or in some other way attach real-world stakes to instances of play]

Juul then analyzes numerous activities, placing them on a scale of games (have all six elements of his definition), borderline cases of game-like activities (lack one or two elements, but are still heavily game-like), and non-games (may be forms of play, but lack two or more crucial elements of his definition).

He puts table-top RPGs firmly in the borderline cases, because they violate element 1 of the definition. The rules are not fixed as long as a referee/dungeon master is there to adjudicate, make rulings, and interpret the rules and the actions within each instance of play. In all other ways, table top RPGs conform to the definition. Computer RPGs, because they are executed by an impartial computer, are definitely games by Juul's definition.

Interestingly, it's exactly the fact that table top RPGs have fixed rules but they are open to DM adjudication, modification, and selective implementation that gives RPGs their strength as a medium of entertainment. And unlike interactive fiction (which lack variable/quantifiable outcomes and player attachment to outcomes) or freeform play (which lacks fixed rules of any sort), Juul still considers TTRPGs to be 'borderline.'

I'll try to get back to this line of thought soon.For now, though, I'm off to bed.

*Jesper Juul: "The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness". In Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, edited by Marinka Copier and Joost Raessens, 30-45.
Utrecht: Utrecht University, 2003.