Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Ready Player One Review Five Years Too Late But Whatever

I saw RP1 last  week. It’s a good film, watchable, over-hyped for sure. It’s a little above the level of Jumanji and Rampage, both of which I also enjoyed. It’s all about expectations. 

So, take a look at this. Well, the trick is not to look. All I recall was, looking is bad. See, look, it’s one of the nice devil mirrors from the dreaded S1. Or demon? Daemon? Is that a burning Styx album?

Last week I got to talking with Grace about the movie and she wanted to know if I knew about the “Tomb of Acer...ekk..whatever his name is”. It’s a ruse. When you meet him...never-mind. Yup. I even have a copy. Usually at this point is when the person to whom you are talking to "hears their mom calling" (Pre-internet texting). Instead I got “Can I borrow it?” Poor girl. 

It was at this point I started talking. Kinda like when my wife makes fun of me about recounting dungeon adventures as if they were something that happened in real life. Not only did I have it, It was the first D&D dungeon I played it in ‘78 and could probably go on and on and on (until I froth at the mouth and fall over backwards). So I talked. Grace is pretty hardy and fairly tolerant. Poor girl.

Next I was asked if I had read “Ready Player One”. I had not. I was informed that I needed to. It appeared on my workbench the following day with a vintage Barbie bookmark informing me I had better read this or die. Well, not “die-die” but the a kind of death a friend can conjure up with soft cushions and Barry Manilow (why wasn’t HE in the book?). My next book in the queue is about the slow disintegration of the Soviet Union in the mid 1990’s. No cushions or Barry needed to start this one.

I began on a Wednesday and finished on Sunday. Saturday I forced myself to read more slowly, once it’s gone, it’s gone. I like the feeling of fighting the whirlpool when reading a story like this. Way way way better than the film. Reminded me of reading Twilight and the Stainless Steel Rat. 

This book is constructed from the trash heap of 80’s pop (and sub-pop) culture. I have a vague memory of passing through that time, some of it brought a scrunchy face, some a gnashing of teeth. Cline handles going through the trash heap well. He stays his temptation to really geek out and keeps the writing focused on the teen boy angsty plot. Getting down into the pop culture weeds has a way of culling out a lot of readers who are just not interested in the fact that you get teleported to a misty room naked. (So, do you like gladiator movies?”)

The non-virtual world in the movie seemed flat to me. In the book it’s more real and is a proper contrast to the digital fantasy. The grayness of the world, it’s blandness, even the dull way one of the characters dies all works. The plot is fast moving and has balls. I believed in Wade's do anything to impress the girl thing. It’s the kind of thing that makes sense when your an 18 year old virgin.

I half believed I was one of the characters in the book (not one of the stupid kids, BTW). I remembered how I sat in front of the TV with my tape recorder to record Gilligan's Island. I am a purger now, a destroyer, I just don’t have reverence for old unchanging crap anymore. Where are the new ideas? I digress.

The book is a celebration of social gaming: “...As I learned more about how these early role-playing games worked I realized that a D&D module was the primitive equivalent of a quest in the OASIS. And D&D characters were just like avatars. In a way, these old role-playing games had been the first virtual-reality simulations, created created long before computers were powerful enough to do the job. In those days, if you wanted to escape to another world, you had to create it yourself, using your brain, some paper, pencils, dice and a few rule-books. This realization kind of blew my mind…”

On the back cover is a pic of the author sitting on his Delorean. I can still remember seeing one back in the 80’s at a local shopping mall with my dad. ”What a piece of junk…”

So, don't thank me, thank Grace.
Read this book or I’ll be forced to get the soft cushions out.

Remember, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants:

Sunday, April 22, 2018

RPGDM #1 Introducing the RPG Designers Manual & My Definition of the term “Game”

The Plan is to systematically go through books on game design relevant to RPG’s.  Detailed notes will be kept and a review of each will be posted. All of this is in support of the project I am calling the RPG Designers Manual. It’s a lot, but I was doing it half-assed anyway. I’ll just be doing a better job of documenting things. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.

I have been reading on this subject for decades primarily for amusement. What there was up until the last 10 years or so was pretty sucky. With the popularity of MMORPG's new books are bubbling up to the surface. Likewise, reading “Playing At The World”, which is an exhaustively researched and well written history of D&D also spurred me on. RPG’s can be more than schlock entertainment. 

My goal is to make the RPGDM more than a few abstract theories on how to make games fun. Using research as a foundation I will document my own thoughts of game design, first as blog posts, then collected into a RPG Designers Manual. I plan to cover a lot of ground by going through every aspect of what goes into an RPG. This will include scale, time, skills, IP, first & second order mechanics, encounter systems, the level of detail, system focus, tools, character design, table design, variable results, probability, complexity...the whole thing. The stuff I was always looking for in a book that was about game design. A book that does not exist.

I imagine this to be an actual discourse with anyone who cares to participate. I’ll be posting all the bits and pieces here. I think this covers my statement of intent. Let’s begin. To kick things off I’ll start with the big definition, one that in every text I read is different.

Here is my definition of the word game:

1) Has mutually agreed on rules
2) Has consequences which are not real
3) Has quantifiable states
4) Has clear end conditions

Chess has a set of rules that are mutually agreed on at the start of play (1). When a pawn is lost and removed from the board the player does not suffer any real world consequences (2). During play the current state of the game is easily defined by the positions of the pieces on the board (3). Lastly, the game ends when one players checkmates the others king (4). 

Now, consider how actual warfare differs from chess. One could argue that there are agreed on sets of rules for combat, such as the Geneva convention, Chivalry or MAD for example (1). These rules seem to get thin when the existence of a country is on the verge of losing. War also appears to have a quantifiable states and a clear end condition (3 & 4). It is with #2 however, that war diverges sharply from being a game as the consequences are very real. War is not a game.

What about auto racing? (take your pick, Nascar or Formula). It has a mutually agreed on set of rules (1), quantifiable states (3) and winning the race is a clear end condition (4). However, the consequences can be very real during a crash (2). Typically racing is thought of as a game, but that term is not used to describe it. Any type of game in which you are essentially using your body as a piece of “game equipment” (like Basketball, Pool and Soccer) is a specific kind of game called a sport.

Are RPG’s games? (For clarity, I mean the original type which are often referred to as “pencil and paper” games. Most people nowadays would think an RPG is an MMORPG). Here is my swing at the definition of RPG:

1) mutually agreed on rules to create a narrative
2) consequences which are not real
3) quantifiable states
4) indeterminate end conditions

The first difference seemed relatively minor, that participants are creating a narrative. I was sure there were a slew of games out there in which you create a narrative. Turns out there are not. There are games that have an existing narrative running in the background (Clue, Zork, Pokemon). There are a few in which you choose a path within existing branches provided (the early Tunnels & Trolls and Fighting Fantasy books). But, other than role playing games, I did not find a game in which you create your own narrative.

Number four trips us up as well. Think about when a non-gamer has asked you “did you win your D&D game?” Winning D&D would be like Daredevil “winning” in his serialized comic. RPG’s do not have a defined end or winning condition. Again, this is a grey area as this depends on whether you are playing a campaign at home or a four hour tournament module at a con. When playing a campaign in your basement, the narrative will run as long as the participants choose. At a tournament there is definitely a fixed time limit and set winning conditions. It is worth noting that RPG’s have a lot in common with serialized adventure stories like Flash Gordon, Daredevil, Harry Potter, James Bond and Doc Savage. They also have a lot in common with improv. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It is also important to think about the idea of what an end is...Is the end the same as winning? On the surface, it would seem you cannot win an RPG the same way as Chess. However, what if the idea of “winning” Chess was tweaked? Figuring out another players strategy is a win. Blocking an important move is a win. Taking a rook is a win. “Win” is a wide term and as such can be interpreted in different ways. Now, apply to role-playing. You survive the dungeon. You level up. You solve the riddle. These are expansions on the idea of winning. 

The short answer is RPG’s are games. They are a specific kind of game.

Next time a review of “The Art Of Game Design” by Jesse Schell

Sunday, April 8, 2018

How to play RPGs Real Good Part 2: Referees, Basement Leaders and Crypt Lords

Your role is multitudinous and profound. It’s tedious and dull. It’s cosmic and mundane. You are the killer of pencils, mangler of accents, appropriator of ideas, nerd wrangler and setter of the final percentage. These are my thoughts on how to be a better Basement Leader:

1) The rules should ooze from your pores. No one should be able to discern where you end and the rules begin. You are the one behind the curtain who pulls the right lever at the right time. Imagine the great and powerful Oz saying “...wait a moment while I 43….hang on, illness….idiocy...ah, here it is illusion”. This is the sort of rampant sloppiness of lesser beings! Slogging through game mechanics during play makes the game run like a glitchy Tom & Jerry cartoon streaming through an old dial up modem. A referee who waits to learn the mundane workings of the rules while running the adventure is shameful indeed! They are not worthy of the term "master". Learn the rules beforehand!

2) Know your adventure. Imprint the logic of the adventure way down into your reptilian brain. This is key, because it’s impossible to document for every action the players may take in advance. Even so, creating such a vast archive would be tedious and wasteful. Record only the data you need to keep things flowing. This deep understanding will free you from the tyranny of the written key. I am completely against those prepackaged text boxes that appeared in so many TSR modules. You embrace the dullest of dooms by reading these. Sure, they are convenient, but they encourage you to understand nothing. Any creative thoughts you may have had will be whitewashed. By understanding the logic you can describe what players are seeing in a much more fluid and interesting way. This is one of the reasons why I use drawings and bullet points as my key. The images are rich with detail and have be described, bullet points let me know what is really important upon first contact with that area or event. Players will pick up on whether you are engaged or reading pre-written descriptions. Because they know you have a deep understanding of what’s going on, players will exercise their agency. Just be sure to jot down anything you create of consequence for future reference. 

3) I hate the term NPC. Non player character is not unlike a government acronym where by definition something is defined by naming it what it is not. It’s an artifact from the original D&D, in which non player “henchmen” were created to be used as pack animals and fodder to test a situation deemed too dangerous for your real character. Applying this worn out term devalues your participation in the game. Since when is a persona you are playing a “non” character? Your personas, whether selling a bauble, ordering an execution or hiding in a shadow are equally important to the narrative. They are your voice, your hand, your thoughts. Commonly accepted ideas should always be held suspect until tested as useful. There are so many lame “rules of thumb” and “common sense” notions hidden in plain sight. Change the language and you change the game. How about “In-Game Persona”? Anything is better than NPC.

4) Talk like a fool.  Elocution is the quickest way to bring your creations to life. Try out the high pitched whine of the effete warlock or the giggling cuteness of a twitching psychopath. Ever wanted to talk like Peter Lorre on an opium kick? Now is your chance! As I  create In-Game Persona’s I always note how they will sound: “Jessica Rabbit” or “Sam the Eagle” or “Paul Lynde”. This becomes a starting point when I start to talk like that character for the first time. I am always surprised how entertaining it is.

5) Be impartial. You simply must be as fair as possible. Strangely, RPG games illicit the old “Dungeon Master versus the Players” paradigm, as if every creature under the referee’s control should act as one mind to hunt down and expunge the players. I have experienced a few of these and while charming in their own way, the blood lust hollows pretty quickly. The game setting should be experienced as neutral and react to player inputs thusly. Otherwise players will feel they have no agency and will stick to solving problems using the dull solutions already built into the game. Impartiality rewards clever players because they know “the game is not out to get them”. Being impartial also means to let random things happen, things that  don’t seem to fit what you thought the story was. You need these external inputs to shake up the your thinking. If everything is always coming out of your head the game will start becoming predictable. Random mutations is a mechanism that forces you to evolve. This is one reason why a good game system has lots of tables to generate random characters, events and so on. They give you a starting point for something that you would not have created. Using these things exposes you to a new ideas. 

6) Players should have an idea what they are getting into: This gets at the heart of a couple of things, game balance and player agency. Consider: If you subscribe to the concept of “game balance” your players will know that for every situation they find themselves in, they have been matched up evenly to whatever the challenge is. Where is the agency in that? Discerning the danger level of a situation and then making choices on what to do is where all the excitement is. If they know everything is balanced, it really makes no difference what they choose. Think how Lord of the Rings would be with balanced encounters. Once the players realize that a decision could lead to a truly deadly encounter, they will definitely be more engaged because they know their decisions matter. This means they need to be able to figure out what the risk level is. As referee you will need to describe the game state in such a way so as to not hand them too much information on a silver platter. You should be unbiased, so if they ask smart questions they can figure it out. This kind of play creates a lot of excitement and you will marvel at the solutions they come up with. Sounds scary, but wait until you see the glee on their faces as they willingly choose to embrace doom!

7) No exit signs: Do not figure out the solution to an adventure in advance. If the thing you have made has one specific solution, then you have to make sure they stay on that track in order to solve it. If they have to follow that particular track, then where is the surprise? A game that is predestined, is not interesting. The excitement of a narrative unfolding is the uncertainty. Coming up with solutions is their job anyway. This does not mean the adventure should be unsolvable or that there are not useful things in it for them to exploit, it just means that you haven’t connected the dots for them.

8) A game session is made up of little bits.  These bits are sometimes called “atoms” and are a short sequence of actions that make up an event within the gaming session. They should not be treated as throw away things. RPG’s are by their nature made up of details and often they don’t always seem to fit neatly together. This is actually desirable, because if everything is meshing too well, that means the agency of the game has probably been compromised. The narrative is constructed from all these little bits. Seemingly unrelated bits become connected with one another simply by being together. For this to happen they all need to be treated the same. Think about how some random detail in a Sherlock case suddenly becomes important. Or how a strange coincidence suddenly changes the story. These seeds are here in the details whether they are contrived or random.

9) Serve up equal slices of pie. Sweep from one end of the table to the other continuously and make sure everyone gets an equal chance to do something. Don’t let loudest people suck up more than their fair share of your attention. By constantly sweeping back and forth from one player to the next you can make sure everyone gets to do something. During combat this is easy as game mechanics pretty much resemble a turn based game at this point. But also get in the habit of doing it all thru the game. There is always a quiet one in the back...the crazy one who is going to take a bite of that unidentified mushroom, jump up on the creepazoids back and get this party started!

10) Own your weakness: I suck at making things up on the fly. And I get flustered sometimes. So I prepare beforehand by creating a bunch random junk that I might need. It’s not much, a few lines, but it seems to be enough. The flustered thing, when I feel it coming I’ll excuse myself for a minute or two and think about bowling or something. Weakness is a reminder to not take your eye off the ball. Weakness is strength. I think that’s carved on a ministry somewhere. 

11) Keep up the pace. As basement leader it’s up to you to manage the time flow. You are the director making sure the production is moving along at the right speed. Watch just about any action movie from the 70’s and you will know what I mean. Do we really have to watch someone get into their car and drive for 8 minutes? Time is plastic, so the unimportant stuff can be summarized in a quick sentence or two. Keep things moving at a rate that is consistent with the players actions and the what is going on. This doesn’t mean that everything should be moving real fast all the time, sometimes things deserve to be stretched out to fully enjoy their impact. Like the oozing of nearly coagulated blood down the pitted face of a giant skull right before get the idea.

12) Meta-Gaming: This whole idea that players can only act within their characters in-game knowledge is total BS. It is the most anal way to suck the fun out playing RPG’s. “Metagaming” is the fun real world social interaction that happens when players talk to one another. This is where the jokes are, the irony, begging/cajoling someone to do/not do  something. This is the reason why we are here. Limiting players to what their personas only know in the game will turn your social interaction party into a tedious tactical miniatures game. Somehow anti-metagamers believe RPG’s are quantifiable like a real game. That the player with the highest xp, money, power, is comparable to a basketball player. RPG’s are not games the same way basketball is. The rules of basketball do not arbitrarily change. Basketball players are not allowed to attempt any action to score points. Even the idea of what winning means are not in sync. “Metagaming” is equated with cheating, which is absurd. How can there be cheating in a game in which the referee can instantly change things, often times without the players even knowing it? I mean OMFG. I am out of breath. Phew. Idiots.

13) Anything may be attempted. This is the most unique thing that RPG’s have over any other game experience. Players have the freedom to attempt any action and you then decide what the chances of it working will be. This is the essence of RPG’s and why they are so  compelling. For some referees, when players try unusual stuff (which can push against the boundaries of the game system) they get a little nervous. This is OK, roll with it and work out a way to that allows the action to be attempted. A simple die roll is the easiest. The crux here is to let them try stuff. Otherwise the single most powerful aspect of role playing is lost.

14) You are not responsible for all the fun. It’s up to you to prepare the adventure beforehand. Dice have to polished. Chairs reinforced. Never mind all the complex referee stuff you need to attend to while play is in progress. Snacks must be arranged alphabetically. It’s a lot. It would seem logical then that you are also responsible for all the fun. You are not. Being part of an RPG game is a collaboration between everyone present. The players have things they need to do (see How to play RPGs Real Good Part I: Players), one of them is to get off their lazy behinds and play the game well.


Friday, April 6, 2018

Abismal Pit of Hell D&D Adventure 1980's by "The Big Toe"

Here is another adventure from the days of yore:

TBT uses a similar method I use to document adventures...drawing pictures. They are a better shorthand and way better than reading through a text block. You have to describe in your own words...hugely important in word based games.

Here is a sample of the words.It's amazing how little you need to run an adventure, really.

Grribgigrt, the main "In Game Persona" (More on this in a later post).

Frog Castle. Duh.

More descriptive stuff. Imagine describing this all in words...the picture is so much more efficient.
The whole point I think is to show the stuff, the hidden stuff that the players never see in this way. To show that...I guess you sit down and just do it. This is what it looks like. Words. Pictures. Some ideas. A few stats. 

The Big Toe is going to be mad. Maybe he will shed some light on all this in the comments. He's skulking out there somewhere ready to break a candy glass bottle over your head. Or accidentally break your Magna Doodle. Do you know how hard these things are to break?

Oh, here is the PDF of "The Abismal Pit Of Hell":

BTW, there is some Gama World stuff rolled into this adventure. I really hated it when the nice people at TSR decided to "Standardize" everything. Magic AND science? If we put them in one game they will just buy one instead of two...