Saturday, June 25, 2005

Sundries

Adam Dray has provided a great service to all your RPG geeks who use LiveJournal -- a a listing of RPG related LJ feeds.

If you are actually thinking of playing with those skeletal Bliss Stage rules I sent out a bit ago, I have a group and character creation document that you might be interested in.

I want to write an article that is titled If I have gone further, it is because I have walked upon the corpses of those that have gone before and failed but the problem is that the title pretty much says it all.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Illusionary rails

aka GNS post #4

This post is, directly, a response to John Kim's post in his blog about the role of rail-roading, and how throughout the history of RPG theory, it has been pressed into different roles and used for various political purposes.

I don't mean to belittle the political dimension, because I think it is there, and the fact that functional illusionist play is Simulationist in nature has been used to tar Simulationists with an unpleasant brush, which is really ironic for reasons that I'll get into in a second.

The Forge tends to use "Illusionism" rather than the more commonly used term "rail-roading" simply because rail-roading traditionally means any number of things, and is traditionally a very negative term, and using a new term helps free it of some of that baggage. But the definition is essentially the same.

From the Forge glossary (edited for typos)

A family of Techniques in which a GM, usually in the interests of story creation, exerts Force over player-character decisions, in which he or she has authority over resolution-outcomes, and in which the players do not necessarily recognize these features. (references cut) Term coined by Paul Elliott.


And, the definition of Force, from the same source.

The Technique of control over characters' thematically-significant decisions by anyone who is not the character's player. When Force is applied in a manner which disrupts the Social Contract, the result is Railroading. Originally called "GM-oomph" (Ron Edwards), then "GM-Force" (Mike Holmes)


So, essentially, rail-roading aka Illusionism is a style of play where a single player (usually the GM) is effectively making all the important decisions about the direction of the game -- often in terms of story -- but also in terms of other things (I would consider the game where the GM's pet NPC meets all the challenges also a form of Illusionism.)

(There are also terms that distinguish the hidden form of this play -- Illusionism -- from more overt forms like Participationism. For the purposes of this essay, I'm talking about all covert and overt forms of this sort of play.)

Illusionism is almost entirely a dysfunctional form of play, meaning that the players of the game are generally unhappy and frustrated, often not even knowing why. To make matters worse, modern "adventure design," in the form of modules, metaplotting, and key characters, strongly encourages an Illusionist form of play. Man! It sucks!

And it is important to note that, as a form of dysfunctional play, it doesn't have a creative agenda at all. This sort of illusionism is breaking down, fundamentally, at the social contract level. Talking about what creative agenda it has is rather like talking about what sort of icing you're going to have on your cake, when there is in fact no cake at all, but rather some mashed potatoes. It is beyond meaningless.

But, I still hold that it makes sense to talk about Illusionism as a primarily Simulationist technique. Why?

Because there is another type of Illusionist play. There are, in fact, groups that report engaging in this sort of play willingly and having a good time with it. In other words, functional rail-roading where everyone has fun.

In this case (functional play) we ought to be able, as trained theorists, to identify a creative agenda no sweat. And, given that such games are usually devoted primarily to an exploration of the GM's pre-established situation (in the form of plot-line) and setting, that pegs them exactly as Simulationist.

So to recap: Rail-roading is bad, except when it is made good by the presence of functional Simulationist play.

Clear?

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Linguistic Drift

It is interesting to look at a term that you came up with gain some coinage, and it is even more interesting (by which I mean frustrating) to see how its definition drifts so widely from your original intention that you could never understand it.

Way back in my Great White Games post, I coined the term Journeyman game. Let me just quote the original post here:

I want to borrow, for the community of game designers, some ideas that traditional craftsman have used. Most importantly is the idea of a journeyman work -- the one piece of work that proves you are capable as a professional. It is not your masterwork -- that proves you a master of the craft. And it is certainly not a life's work -- that is the greatest thing you create in your life. Rather, it is a technical piece to show your competence, training, craft and skill. And teach you a lesson about finishing something good.


Check out the difference in usage from that when compared to these posts: Craft and Innovation at anyway, and When I left you, I was the learner at Esoteric Murmurs. Boy, something's really change here.

(And Ed's post needs another response. Next post.)

This isn't so much a "man, you guys, stop misusing this term." I'm fine with the terminological drift. But it is interesting to see how a term that essentially meant "finish a damn game, asshole" has turned into a term that means "I have not yet completed the ultimate game" and then in turn seen as some sort of symbol of oppression.

On Task Resolution

aka Technical Concerns post #2

(P.S. to the last post: Thanks go to Emily Boss, who helped me hash this stuff out over the phone before I wrote it here.)

So, you've all read my previous post just now on Conflict Resolution, right? Good.

So, what does this mean for Conflict Resolution versus Task Resolution? Well, for one, we have to drop the "versus." All games, in play, use Conflict Resolution (either explicitly or implicitly or a mix of both). So Task Resolution can't be opposed to Conflict Resolution, nor can it be a thing that occurs in the absence of conflict resolution.

What is Task Resolution, though? Well, in any game, there are going to be actions taken by the players. Task resolution either determines what actions are taken, or whether those actions succeed and fail, depending on the IIEE structure of the game. (For those that aren't clear on IIEE... uhm... best of luck to you?)

We can now realize that Task and Conflict resolution are, in fact, orthogonal to each other, and we can look at four types of games in terms of text.

  1. No task resolution and no explicit conflict resolution. Freeform games fall into this category, and also anything close to them.
  2. Task resolution with no explicit conflict resolution. GURPS is like this, so is WOD and a lot of the "standard" games outside of combat.
  3. No task resolution with explicit conflict resolution. Universalis, the Pool, Primetime Adventures, and other games are like this.
  4. Task resolution with explicit conflict resolution. D&D is like this, so is Dogs in the Vineyard.


In the fourth category, we can also consider the relationship between the conflict resolution and the task resolution, a wide range from Dogs in the Vineyard's system -- where the steps of conflict resolution are, themselves, task resolutions -- to Burning Wheel -- which uses its task resolution system as a conflict resolution system almost directly -- to theoretical games where the conflict resolution system and the task resolution system are totally separate from each other. That range is a huge thing to mine, but there's something else we have to talk about first.

Namely, now that we know that task resolution isn't anything like conflict resolution, and doesn't have to have anything to do with conflict resolution, do we need task resolution at all? Is it just a vestigal shell of implicit conflict resolution that we can cast aside when we've developed explicit conflict resolution? Or are there some other uses to it?

I, for myself, think the task resolution can still be useful, although I'm happy to hear explanations to the contrary. In particular, I think it can be useful unrelated to conflict resolution entirely, as part of a large subset of mechanics that serve to provide inspiration and color for the rest of the game. (see Tony's post here for more about that.)

In short, conflict resolution is a way of determining what happens in your game. I think that task resolution, once you have your conflict resolution nailed, can be used as one of a set of tools that tell you how whatever happens happens.

So questions: Should we use task resolution and what should we use it for? How, if at all, should it be tied into conflict resolution? Can it be tied into other systems, like conflict generation or resource limitation?

On Conflict Resolution

a.k.a. Technical Concerns #1

All games have conflict resolution.

I guess I'm going to have to back up that statement, aren't I? To do that, I'm going to need to say what a conflict is, and what resolution is.

A conflict is any situation in a game where the players of the game are concerned about the outcome, and there are multiple possible outcomes. In other words, a situation where the results have meaning. Further, you might say that such a situation is meaningful.

(One can further subdivide this, and I may do so later in this post, but let's just leave it it as it is for right now.)

Resolution is a method for choosing one of the possible outcomes, or generating a new outcome, from the situation.

Note: This is totally agnostic with reference to time scale -- the outcome we care about could be anything from "do you blink or not" to "does this civilization prosper or not." It is also totally agnostic to creative agenda -- what is meaningful is defined entirely by the interests and focus of the players at the table.

So that's what conflict resolution is. Now, as to why every game (and I'm talking about in games in play, here, just to clarify) has conflict resolution.

Pretty much any game, no matter how bad, has at least a few meaningful moments for the players, where they are concerned about the outcome and direction of the game. Games also move on from these moments -- the situations turn into something else. Okay, so we have these conflict situations, and they are being resolved. Bing! We must have conflict resolution.

With me so far?

Now that we have established that every game has conflict resolution in play, we can talk about the types of conflict resolution that games have. I'm going to make a division between two types, and then further divide one of those types into two more. This is just the way of thinking about it that is useful for this essay! I'm sure that you could divide conflict resolution in other useful ways as well!

Some games have mechanical conflict resolution. Games like the Pool, or Dogs in the Vineyard, say, have an explicit method by which the players can select or otherwise determine the outcome of a conflict. Other games do not have explicit conflict resolution. We have traditionally referred to the conflict resolution in these games with the somewhat dismissive term blanket term "GM Fiat." I think that the implication of this term, that the GM decides everything, is flat-out wrong, and that this sort of conflict resolution is actually any number of different arrangements, complicated social bargaining, Drama-based interpretations of die rolls and skill numbers, and pre-established fact. There are a lot of different ways that this implicit conflict resolution works, and boy, it would be cool to talk about them, but it is outside of the scope of this essay.

When you ask to an RPG designer "does your game have conflict resolution?" you are really asking "does your game text have explicit conflict resolution rules?" The game, when played, will have conflict resolution by default.

Still with me?

Okay, now, we can look at types of explicit conflict resolution. Boy, there are a lot of types. What I'm particularly interested in here is bounded conflict resolution versus unbounded conflict resolution. What do I mean by that?

Most of the conflict resolution systems that the pervy theorists who read my blog are familiar with are what I'm calling "unbounded" conflict resolution. The point is that you can pretty much set pretty much anything as the outcome for your conflict, with possibly a few exceptions. For instance, in the Pool, you can say anything happens if you get a success -- it is yours to say how things go. In Dogs, you can declare anything except "I kill you" as the stakes of a challenge (if you do, that has special rules which effectively prevent it.)

But there are also other types of conflict resolution systems, which only resolve a fixed number of conflicts. In fact, nearly every RPG has a conflict resolution system like this -- the combat system! Some of these can only resolve one conflict "Do I kill you?" but others have more options "Do I knock the weapon out of your hand? Do I make you run away in fear?" etc. Usually each of these conflicts has its own special systematic exceptions and mechanical bits to go along with it. For instance, in D&D, you can try to resolve the conflict "do I knock him out of the fight?" with HP damage, but you can also get "Do I push him over? Do I disarm him? Do I repel the evil?" and more with their own special rules. D&D has a gazillion of these things -- nearly every skill is its own little conflict resolution system, and many options in combat also are. Hence, why I always say "D&D is a conflict resolution based system." 'cause it is!

I'm not going to make a broad statement about whether the first or the second type is a better game right now. I do think the second type is much harder to learn. And there is also a way that the second type becomes the first type.

See, most of the special combat maneuvers in D&D are of the form (maybe Base Attack Bonus) + (attribute) + (maybe a size modifier) + 1d20 vs. (the same), with the penalty that you give the enemy a free attack on you for trying it, or that you suffer the effects if you fail, or both. One could imagine a D&D game where the GM groks this mechanism enough to improvise things like:

Insult
Level + Cha + Social Class Modifier + 1d20 vs. Level + Cha or Wis + Social Class Modifier. If you succeed, your opponent is embarrassed, suffering a -2 to all actions until they take (your level) rounds to recover. If your opponent is already embarrassed, they become scorned, taking a -4 scorn penalty to all Charisma checks until they restore their reputation. If you fail this roll, you become embarrassed or scorned yourself.

And then we've turned a bounded conflict resolution system into an unbounded conflict resolution system! We could even imagine feats like "improved insult" or "ranged insult." So that's an interesting thought.

(Note: When I talk about D&D as a conflict resolution system, I am talking about by-the-book play, not this sort of improvisation. This isn't actually the way I play the game, it is just by way of example.)

So that's some things about conflict resolution.

Mostly -- every game has conflict resolution.

What does this do to the hoary, old "conflict resolution versus task resolution" business? More next post.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Diaspora

There is an excellent discussion of the Forge diaspora and the future of RPG theory development on anyway, right now. Particularly insightful is, I think, Adam's post here, and Chris's post following it.

P.S. Since we are calling this a "diaspora," does that mean that we will come back in a few years, rebuild a new website, only to have it torn down by the Romans? 'cause that would suck.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

More of Sex in Games

Cazyle's Wemic Site has a great 7-part article on sex in games (although you can safely skip part five, which is pretty strongly focus on furry / herm / 'taur fandom, and brevity takes over a bit at the end -- go back and rewrite those longer, dude!) Follow the links! Cayzle reads widely from a lot of different online RPG sources, and there's some really good stuff behind the little blue underlines.

I want to play the "Bang hot goth chicks" game

aka Social Context post #1

So this is the post which I had you read *all* of the Infamous Five for, although I hope that the process was edifying in its own right. If you haven't read the 27 threads yet, please do go and read them, because they provide a really necessary context for this post. In particular, I'm going to be trying to quantify a few of the many issues that they are talking about. (And, by "quantify," I mean "analyze" not "assign numbers to." Smartass.)

At GenCon 2004 (edited typo here, was '03), there was a decent amount of talk about what we're moving towards, in terms of progressive game design and games not just for gamers. (To those that were there -- I'm thinking in particular about the conversation at the Italian restaurant on Sunday night, after enough people had left that we condensed into one table.) One of the ways that people framed it was in terms of the "deck of cards --" some sort of gaming tools which could be used to play a wide variety of games (not a literal deck of cards, mind you, but a universal set of RPG playing tools.) Not being particularly interested in games-not-for-gamers, nor particularly interested in universality in rules, I didn't engage a lot in this conversation, although it was certainly interesting.

At Brand Robin's blog Yudhishthira's Dice he recently made two posts about solo (meaning one GM - one player) games: You and me baby, one on one... oh yeah.... and the deceptively titled Solo Games, post the first. One of the issues he talks about he frames as a frustration that advocates of solo play (of which there are not many) have shied away from the "solo play can lead to fucking" angle, which he thinks is a great aspect of it, and a huge advantage. (and, you know, he's totally right). He rightly decries the general lack of emphasis on sex in RPGs and in RPG circles, and that this is really a big attraction of role-playing, being that it is a highly intimate artform (in either one-on-one or in group situations.)

We get a lot of new game designers on the Forge, people who are totally unfamiliar with the theory work we do and just stumble in trying to design the game of their dreams. This is excellent! Frankly to say, the Forge is probably the best place on the internet for the amateur design to design the game of the their dreams, and a lot of that has to do with the theory that we've developed. Anyway, a lot of these guys, simply because they don't have the exposure and backing of the theory, explain "what I want to do with my game" in terms of techniques -- mostly mechanics and setting. Things like "I want it to use a 3d12 keep the middle die system" or "It is set in a ahistorical version of 19th century Central Europe, with a focus on revolutionaries and rabble-rousers," rather than in terms of the sort of play and the sort of interactions between players that they want the game to consist of, which is usually what they want. What often happens is that people who want Narrativism will try to get it by placing heavy emphasis on Setting elements of Exploration, and people who want Gamism place heavy emphasis on the System elements of Exploration, and both of them usually don't end up with a game that is particularly playable by anyone. It is a category error, and a big one, but it is also a totally reasonable error to make, because they simply don't have the vocabulary to even begin to think about RPGs outside of the technical level.

It is my contention that the folks who are talking about the "Deck of Cards" game that will be accessible to all and Brand when he talks about sexiness in gaming and two-player games, are making the same sort of category error that the Novice designers on the Forge are exhibiting. To whit -- both are trying to change the Social Context, but they are trying to effect such change without considering it directly at all, but latching on to lower-level concerns which may or may not make a difference -- Social Contract, Exploration, Creative Agenda and Techniques level stuff, in other words.

In specific, Brand is trying to change fix / alter the Social Context of gaming (sleazy guy reputations, etc.) by making alterations to Social Contract (two-player games) and and Exploration (sexy stuff.) The "Deck of Cards" discussion was actually about altering rather high level social context (how RPG play relates to our culture-at-large) but focused on something that is situated at the Technical level of the Big Model, or at best at the Exploration (System) level. I think that this path is as mistaken as the path of trying to get functional Creative Agenda play out of fiddling around with the Techniques level, or trying to get everyone to get along by changing setting elements (the wonderfully named "Elven Ear fallacy.")

To continue pounding on Brand (who really does get this stuff, I'm just being me): It is, in truth, not entirely possible to sell a game that can be used explicitly as a flirting / pick-up game in today's RPG scene. The unpleasant social context (too many gamer girls getting awkwardly hit on) poisons the great potential. Thus, if you want your pick-up game to exist, you must change some of the things within the game and around the game in order to make it more possible. Here are some considerations:

  • Make the goal of the game less obvious / direct, or possibly even sublimate it entirely, instead focusing on having it consist of activities that build trust and intimacy and sexiness.
  • Sell it to a crowd of people who does not have the prejudices and experiences that gamers have. This, of course, suffers all the disadvantages of selling a role-playing game to non-gamers.
  • Do something to change around the social context so that it does not mirror the past sleaziness of the gamer experience. For instance, you could sell it to the girls, and encourage them to use the game to pick-up guys. But you may want to adjust the rules, presentation, etc for your new audience.
  • Many other things

A great example of a game that fails to consider the social context level of play is my own Polaris. My self-identified "target audience" is people who have been through the Amber / Nobilis / Theatrix / Freeform cycle of play, and are frustrated at the stalling of those games and the "certain sameness" that creeps into the play of each one -- essentially a slow drift towards Gamism with a strong emphasis on precedent and pre-positioning. Systematically, Polaris can answer to this in a number of ways (giving strong system tools for making things happen without a heavy mechanical component), but it totally fails on the social context level. The players we're speaking of are largely mid-20s to late-30s. They are professional types with jobs, children, highly stable gaming groups, etc. The game fails in two ways. First, it requires a specific number of players (to be fair, optional rules allow for 3-5, but it should be four, and the rulebook says as much.) This may require breaking up the old gaming group, something these players would never do. Furthermore, it absolutely and totally requires everyone's presence at every session. (Eric Finley's group is playtesting some optional rules to divert this, but...) And, by presence, I mean full on-the-ball awareness. It has no concessions for sick kids, vacations, a rough day at work, whatever. This, it will be attractive to them as a game, but I imagine most players will find getting through a full 4-6 session storyline difficult.

So here are some hard questions for any designer about their own design work:

  • How do you want play of your game to be integrated into the lives of your players? Answers can range from "just like an ordinary RPG" to any number of exotics, but if your answer is "just like an ordinary RPG" do realize that that answer covers a great deal of territory. Have you done anything in terms of design, presentations, or marketing that would help them play the game this way? Have you given an indication of how you want them to play? How else might they try to play it? Do you need to add anything?
  • How do you want play of your game to relate to previous experience playing RPGs? Answers can range from "the bestest game ever" to "new players only" to "I don't care," but each of those answers, again, means a wide variety of things. Have you done anything to support this? How else might you support this?
  • How will the contents of your game seem to a role-player who has been exposed, previously, to the various sub-sub-cultures one encounters in gaming? How will they react to it? Does your marketing and game text answer the questions and concerns that they might have? Does it need to?
  • How will the play of your game integrate into the wider gamer subculture? What preconceptions are your players going to bring to the table? How will it be perceived by others? How would your players talk about their game experiences with their peers? Do you care?
  • How does your game text relate to other game texts, in terms of differences and similarities? What systematic parts and social assumptions have you borrowed from other texts? (Commonly: one GM many players, illusionism, etc.) What parts are "gestalt" and must be taught, and what parts can be learned from the text? Do you mind?
  • Given the general context of how gaming is perceived by the culture at large, how do you want your game to fit into that or not? What can you do about that, in terms of marketing, sales, target audience, presentation, game text, and rules? What can't you do? Can you accept the things that you cannot do? If not, what are you going to change so that you can?

*None* of these questions is written with a pre-determined answer, at least not from me. These are questions to ask yourself as a designer and as a game player, and I think that asking them will make your game better, and possibly make it sell better.

P.S. Two commendations I have to give: Both Ron Edwards and Emily Boss are extraordinarily forward thinking designers when it comes to Social Context and the hard questions listed above. While I may not like all of their answers, they have asked these questions to themselves and by God they know their answers to them.