Tuesday, January 31, 2006

wtf?

Upon Jeff's recommendation, I took a look at WTF?, a game written by Daniel Solis that was included in the Nopress RPG Anthology.

WTF? is either a minigame or a metagame. I'm not sure if it makes a difference. It might be both. It is billed as a competitive RPG, but I didn't find the reward mechanics particularly compelling.

What is WTF? It is a game that takes my first approach to what I describe as the lone wolf problem without apparently being concerned about that problem at all. It is a multi-player game that casts one player as the protagonist and the rest as GMs (in this case, called Directors).

It explicitly doesn't, however, do this to tell a compelling story about a single individual. The game would, I think, work (with a very small amount of modification) with multiple players portraying characters. The primary innovation of WTF? is its treatment of multiple Directors. This treatment is set up so that various people can provide wildly divergent narrative elements.

While interesting and potentially a lot of fun, this probably isn't a viable road for me to go down given my goals.

To be contrary, though, let's explore it a bit.

I'll assume one player is playing a PC with a variety of aspects/agendas/whatever. What if, at any given time, one of those aspects is dominant? What if the character sees the world through somewhat different eyes depending upon the dominant aspect? What if each of these aspects is represented (in whole or part) by a different GM having primary narrative control?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Pull

Over at Sin Aesthetics, Mo is talking a lot about what she calls Pull.

Go and read it.

I'm still not entirely clear about the conceptual space that Pull inhabits. It seems to be defined largely in terms of what it is not.

Pull is not Push.

Push is easy enough to define. Push is the development of story/drama/theme through competitiveness. Players/GMs each have their own goals and push against each other. Something cool (hopefully) emerges.

Push has often rubbed me the wrong way, but I've never thought of it as being relevant to gaming before. Where has it bugged me? Primarily in the law. The U.S. court system is based on push. There are two sides to every case and they push against each other. The hope of the system is that the truth will emerge from this conflict.

The problem is that there is no reason to think that the truth will emerge from pushing in court. Lawyers lie. Despite the fact that it is illegal, witnesses lie. Even the side who is in the right will often (usually?) lie in order to make their case stronger. Is there any reason to think that the truth will emerge from the conflict of two sides who are both trying to obscure it? Nope.

Now, the case is a bit different in roleplaying games. Conflict is generally central to a story. It seems natural to think that by setting up conflicts, one can create stories worth telling. So far so good. People have had a lot of success with games based on Push mechanics and assumptions (most games are, more or less).

Let's take a step back, though. Are the players around a table trying to do anything besides tell a story? Sure. They want to have fun. They want to share immersion in a collaborative imaginary space. They want to tell not just a story, but their characters' stories. There is no reason to think that Pushing will work well for all of these.

Sure, Pushing might contribute to fun if you assume a specific type of competitive mindset. That's an assumption I am not willing to make, though. Even at my most competitive in gaming (conventional D20 type games tend to bring this out in me), I don't really want to beat the other players, I just want to make my guy the best he can be. If other people help me to do that, I am usually going to have more fun than if they are working against me.

Pushing allows players to collaborate on an imaginary space, too. Universalis is built around this idea. On the other hand, Pushing seems to promote a sort of collaboration that is inherently uncooperative. Perhaps the best bits of different people's visions will survive in an end product through some sort of Darwinian competition, but an assemblage the best bits don't make for the best possible outcome. Sometimes otherwise good ideas will need to be set aside for the purposes of cooperation and coherency. I'm not saying that a Push-based mechanic won't be able to handle this, but it seems less optimized for such a thing.

Lastly, and this is what Mo seems to focus upon, Pushing seems specifically designed to make it difficult to tell the story you want to tell. If you have a character who you would like to develop in certain ways, Push-based mechanics seem likely to make that more difficult, not easier.

So what are the Pull-based alternatives?

I'm not sure.

I do know that this gets to some of my dissatisfaction with where I was headed with my thoughts about the Lone Wolf problem. Internal conflict may be essential, but a willingness to cooperate and compromise seems even more so...

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Neitherworld (a wuxia urban fantasy?)

In case you wanted more details concerning the premise of Neitherworld:

Ages ago, magic was torn from the Earth.

Those responsible shaped their own world, a world whose very bedrock was created from the stuff of dreams, a paradise in which they could live out their every fantasy for eternity. All that it cost them was Earth's dreams, hopes, and future.

They created a rift, a chasm between worlds, through which they could siphon off Earth's magic as it renewed itself and use it to fuel their Paradise.

This rift, this place between worlds, was soon defined by the flow of magic that passed through it. It became known as the Neitherworld. It was a place of movement, change, and theft. These things would define it in the times to come. The Neitherworld accumulated magic quickly. At first, it was an empty place defined only as a conduit for stolen power. As magic filled that space, it created in the Neitherworld a land shaped for its own uses, a land of dreams and nightmares. The Neitherworld, by necessity, opened onto both Earth and Paradise. It claimed things from both worlds, making them its own.

Those who dwelt in Paradise were ignorant of the Neitherworld's growth, blinded by their own arrogance and obsessions. They knew only that they were drawing magic from the rift they had created. They assumed that this magic came from Earth. When the Neitherworld built up a greater supply of magic than the Earth, however, it replaced Earth as the source of stolen magic used to power Paradise.

With that, this new world might have been doomed. Those things which it had stolen from other worlds and made into its own, however, included men from Earth and arcane constructs from Paradise. These denizens of the Neitherworld were resourceful in defending their home. They learned how to creep out from the Neitherworld into both Paradise and Earth for short periods of time.

In Paradise, they waged a guerrilla war aimed at those who collected their magic. Despite the near-limitless resources at their disposal, those whom they attacked were wholly unprepared for such an event. While the denizens of the Neitherworld did not meet with complete success, they dealt a serious blow to the very infrastructure of Paradise. Perhaps more importantly, they gave rise to the first signs of civil unrest in Paradise, as magic became, for the first time, a limited resource.

On Earth, the denizens of the Neitherworld began to steal magic to replenish their ailing world. Humans untouched by magic gave these marauders many names: goblins, brownies, pixies, and fairies. In the future, they would become known as the Fey Ones.

In order to replenish the magic of Neitherworld, the Fey crept onto Earth and stole those things in which magic had collected. Most of these thefts went unnoticed. Most notable to the inhabitants of Earth was the not-infrequent theft of those infants who were born with a wellspring of magic inside them. These children they would replace with simulacra crafted from the stuff of the Neitherworld – faux children whose bodies and minds would deteriorate as they spent time on Earth.

This state of affairs persisted for centuries – an ailing Paradise, fighting to rebuild while struggling against itself and attempting to strengthen its borders – a rapacious Neitherworld growing fat and strange on stolen magic – and an Earth that turned away from magic out of necessity.

It is only now that things have begun to change.

The Unborn have appeared on Earth. In the past, the changeling children left by the Fey Ones had always decayed over time, dying early deaths or suffering from debilitating physical and mental conditions. Now, something has changed. The Unborn changelings have begun to thrive. They are the children of two worlds, and their birthright is magic.

The Unborn appear at a time of change in other ways as well. Factions from Paradise have carved guarded paths through the Neitherworld to Earth. Some of these did so in the hopes of once again gathering magic from the Earth, bypassing the now-vigilant Neitherworld. Others hoped to find allies on Earth, whether against the Fey Ones or against each other. They look to the Unborn with both hope and fear.

An Introduction to Neitherworld

Neitherworld is a game that has been rumbling around in my head for the past year. I've written bits and pieces of it. Most of these I have found unsatisfying. I've been trying to determine why that is the case.

So far, this blog (which gets its name from the aforementioned game-embryo) has been useful for that. In Neitherworld, the characters that I'd want to play are larger than life, internally conflicted characters. It doesn't make sense to design this game with the assumption that you need multiple characters of this type in order to tell a worthwhile story. It makes even less sense to assume that you need other types of playable characters. I've been having a lot of trouble breaking myself of these assumptions.

Now, I think that I might design it with the default assumption that it will be played with a single protagonist portrayed by multiple individuals. Perhaps I'll support other modes of play as well, but that will likely be an afterthought.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Fixing the Lone Wolf Problem

This is a follow-up to my last entry. In particular, I want to look at my second suggested method for dealing with the Lone Wolf Problem:

Multiple players share the single heroic character. Each of them might have a different agenda and different commitments (some of which they may be able to impose on each other). This would be a more appropriate method for dealing with complex characters with significant internal conflict.

This is something that I've been struggling with for quite a while. A few years back, I was working on creating a game called Standard Deviants. This was a science fiction game in which the players would portray members of a group of clones that have a psychic bond forming a sort of hive mind. It was heavily influenced by Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep. The PCs would be deviants within this group who would be different enough from the other Standards (i.e., clones) to upset the psychic balance of the group. Ultimately, the game design came to a standstill when I couldn't come up with a compelling idea for what the characters would actually do within the setting I'd created. The idea itself, though, was an early attempt at shared narrative control of a single character (in this case, the group organism of the Standard Group) by splitting up the aspects of that character and assigning them to different players.

I'm fairly convinced that this could work - and work well. Something not wholly unlike it is used in Wraith's mechanic of shadowguiding.

Now, in Standard Deviants, as I conceived it, each player has a distinct character capable of independent actions while being constrained somewhat by the actions of the group as a whole. If we treat a single character as a Standard Group and assign each player to an aspect of the one character, however, players become much more constrained by the other aspects. There is no physical independence of aspects.

Can players have a satisfying game experience if they lose control of their character? One of my big frustrations in gaming is when a character I am playing succumbs to some sort of mind control or paralysis, and I lose control of that character. I certainly don't want to build a game mechanic where that loss of control is a central feature. This strikes me as a potential danger. I don't want people to be sitting around bored and doing nothing while one person has narrative control of a shared character.

Here are some thoughts toward one possible solution:

Each player has one or more desires/passions/goals. For now, I will just call these agendas. Agendas have power. Player's can spend the power of their agendas to accomplish things or prevent things from being accomplished. Player A can bribe Player B with the power of A's agendas, offering to help B in the pursuit of B's agendas. In return, B might (1) promise to assist with/interfere with/refrain from interfering with some future action (2) allow A to narrate the specifics of the action. While (1) allows some interesting negotiations between characters, it is (2) which I find to be an interesting possibility. Let me give you an example:

Meet Albert, our protagonist. Albert is a computer hacker in high school. He's overweight and has low self-esteem. He's thinks he is in love with his best friend Shannon, who is dating Robert, a football player who treats her poorly.

There are three players, who each have three Agendas which largely line up with each other (but may be contrary to the agendas of other players).

Player A: Agendas - Idolization of Robert, Desire to be accepted, Believes himself unworthy of Shannon
Player B: Agendas - Jealousy of Robert, Hatred of the establishment, Thinks Shannon is buying into society's view of what is attractive and seeks to open her eyes to the truth
Player C: Agendas - Desire to escape reality, Hatred of Self, Wants what is best for Shannon

Let's assume that there is a scene in which Albert confronts Robert about how he has been treating Shannon. Depending upon who has narrative control at the time, that scene could turn out very differently. What would happen, though, if one of the players traded narrative control away for some resource with the agreement that the player gaining the narrative control would use it to accomplish a particular task. For instance, let's say that Player C has initial control in this scene. Her main goal is to convince Robert to treat Shannon better. If she were to do this on her own, she might debase Albert in the process. Player A or B, however, might offer C something in order to take control of the scene while still generally meeting C's primary goal. Player A might appeal to Robert's better nature, feeding his ego and then pointing out that he is above the sort of behavior he's shown in the past. Player B might berate Robert, pointing out how Albert would never treat Shannon like he did.

The idea here is that everyone would have a chance to influence every scene. I would obviously need some sort of mechanic behind this, determining who gets narrative control, how things are accomplished, and how power is measured and transferred. I'm toying with the idea that the only impediments to success in this system would be internal ones. Nothing that the gamemaster (if, indeed, there would even be one) puts in the players' path would be insurmountable if they are willing to pool their power. Would such a system work? Has something like this been done before? I don't know...

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Lone Wolf Problem

Seeing Kill Bill the other night brought to mind one of my major frustrations with roleplaying games. Like many, I like to use characters and stories from other media (whether novels, movies, television shows, or whatever) to inspire my roleplaying games. Unfortunately, many of those stories that I would otherwise consider excellent fodder focus on a single character (whether exclusively or primarily), while most rpgs are built with the assumption that there will be multiple player characters each of whom will have more or less equal importance. To be honest, I like playing with more than one other person. While one-on-one roleplaying can be a lot of fun, that's not the only potential solution to the problem that I see here.

Is the problem clear? Let me state it in a more straightforward manner:

Traditional roleplaying games are not built in such a way as to facillitate telling stories about a single protagonist, particularly when there multiple players at the table.

One currently popular attempt to get around this problem is used by the Buffy the Vampire Slayer rpg. In BtVS, a player can portray either a hero or a white hat. Hero characters are significantly more personally powerful than white hats and the assumption is that the story will be primarily focused on the hero. Players who control white hats are relegated to supporting cast, but they gain a certain degree of narrative control in return. I haven't actually played the game, but I have heard that with the right group it works very well. On the other hand, in many groups everyone wants to play a hero. Also, this solution depends upon a supporting cast. If you have a 'lone wolf' type hero, this solution is likely to be significantly less effective.

How could a story about a lone wolf character be effectively told in an rpg in which there are multiple players?

I can think of two ways. I'm only going to mention them briefly now. I will come back in later entries and expand on each of them.

Method One: Role reversal

There is a single player assigned to the heroic character. Other players share the duties traditionally assigned to a single gamemaster. This is the method I would probably use to mirror a story like Kill Bill. The protagonist is single-minded. The scenery and style changes dramatically.

Method Two: Role Splitting

Multiple players share the single heroic character. Each of them might have a different agenda and different commitments (some of which they may be able to impose on each other). This would be a more appropriate method for dealing with complex characters with significant internal conflict. I'll need to remind myself to look at Wraith: The Oblivion for some ideas on how to handle this.

The beginnings of a campaign setting idea

I was brainstorming the other day about twists on D&D-style fantasy, and the following is what resulted. I will almost certainly never use it, so it becomes a gift unto the world...

In the stories you heard as a child (the ones that began with the words, "A long time ago..."), there were other lands.

That was an Age ago. Now, there is only the Land and the Water that surrounds the Land. There are stories of a time when what lay at the Water's far edge was another land and not the Sky. Most children discounted such things as mere stories, fables meant to instill wonder and fear. Somehow, though, you always knew them to be true.

When you grew older, you found you had been right all along. Adults believed that the world was once a bigger place. None remember a day before the Goblin Wars, but the eldest among them still remembered their parents telling of the days when the goblin ships first came from across the Water. The Goblin Lands were no more. The goblins said that their lands were eaten by the Sky that the Land was now the only place they could live. The parents of your elders did not welcome them. They had only known the goblins as outcasts, barbarians, and pirates. The Goblin Wars began, and the goblins were driven out onto the Water and under the Land.
We were talking about the stories you heard as a child, though... The stories were often of legendary figures, gods and heroes. There were men and women who could single-handedly face down giants and dragons in these stories. You would look around your village in fear and awe at these tales, knowing that the only thing which stood between it and a dragon was the Pact of Wizards who vowed to hunt down and slay any dragon that preyed upon men. The wizards knew that if they needed to do this, it would take all of their might and that many of them would die.

It was, perhaps, stories of the gods that moved you the most. Like tales of other lands, few children believed in these stories, but you knew that they were true. Once, there had been gods and they had provided miracles for those who believed in them. Now, their names are mostly lost. The stories say that they were imprisoned and tortured by a great evil from another land - one that was separated from the Land by the Sky rather than the Water. It was the absence of the gods that began the shrinking of the world.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Why do we trust the dice?

Last night, members of my household sat me down and we had a bit of an intervention. It seems that it had come to their attention that I'd never seen either of the Kill Bill movies. This was, mostly, an intentional oversight on my part. While I certainly appreciate his ability to craft a film, I am not an enormous fan of Tarantino.

That said, I am glad to have seen Kill Bill. It generated a number of thoughts that I think are relevant to tabletop roleplaying. I'll probably post more than just this entry on it. Though it isn't my intention to provide a review here (and I will avoid spoilers), I feel compelled to say that the movies were utterly gratuitous in their depiction of fight scenes. Throughout the films, I was constantly thinking about how different scenes would be mimicked in different roleplaying systems. The conclusion I came to? The main character, if she were a player character in a traditional rpg, would have died several times over.

In most rpgs, character life and death ultimately depends upon randomness. Does and attack hit you? Roll the dice. Does the damage done by the attack exceed your hit points/body/health levels/damage save roll? If so, your character is dead or dying. Is this the way to tell a compelling story?

I don't think that it is a spoiler to tell you that the main character in the film is in a lot of fights. Many of these occur in immediate succession. To portray this in an rpg would entail a lot of dice rolling. Dice are random. If our purpose is to tell a compelling story, why do we trust randomness to lead us there? It rarely makes a good story if, for example, your crusading hero falls in combat with a dozen guards just before he makes it to confront the leader of the evil cultists. (There are, of course, exceptions. There are always exceptions. We might, for instance, want to explore notions of futility or some such.)

Note that I said, "if our purpose is to tell a compelling story." There are other purposes we might have. Ultimately, our purpose in playing games is to have fun. Different people will, of course, find different things to be sources of fun. Not everyone finds storytelling to be the most enjoyable aspect of roleplaying. How many of these potential sources of fun are served well by trusting the lives of player characters to chance? The one that springs to mind is the competitive challenge of tactical combat. This comes as little surprise: roleplaying in its current form owes its origins to wargaming. That is what gave birth to Dungeons and Dragons, after all. I can see how randomization can play a significant role in making tactical combat simulations fun. If you think of combat in roleplaying games as a sort of mini-game within a game, then I can understand why randomization might be used. If we care about the outcome of the mini-game (as we generally do in rpgs), then why do we trust the dice to lead us to the best possible outcome for fun?

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

An Introduction

I have been thinking about gaming a lot lately. I've decided to use this blog as a repository for some of those thoughts. As a roleplayer, I've gone through a variety of phases. I began gaming in the early eighties. I remember receiving Basic Dungeons and Dragons Basic (the red box, for those keeping score) as a gift when I was eight or nine years old. This confused me, as the box clearly stated that the game was for ages ten and over. I'm not sure why that struck me at the time, or why I remember it, but that is probably my first memory of holding a roleplaying game.

Throughout the eighties, I played a number of rpgs. Most of these were various TSR games: D&D, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, Marvel Super Heroes, and Top Secret/SI; but I also played some other games. Probably the most notable of these was James Bond 007.

I don't think I payed a lot of attention to game mechanics back then. My D&D games tended to mix rule editions. I vaguely remember submitting an article to Dragon Magazine that proposed an alternative to racial level limits for demihumans in AD&D, but I can't remember what I said. It wasn't accepted. This wasn't a huge surprise; I was probably thirteen or so when I wrote it. I do remember being very fond of the Marvel Super Heroes (FASERIP) rules while being annoyed by the rules of DC Heroes and TMNT. I'm still, actually, something of a fan of FASERIP.

I didn't game much, if at all, in high school. In college, I played a bit of Champions (HERO) and Rolemaster. I might have played some Star Wars (WEG) and Cyberpunk 2020, too. It was in grad school, though, that I really renewed my interest in gaming.

Like many people, I got sucked into the Vampire Live Action Role Playing (LARP) craze of the mid 1990s. This connected me to a far wider network of roleplaying gamers than I would have ever expected. I became a storyteller in a large LARP. I ran popular one-shots at a large science fiction convention. I became a coordinator in an international LARP organization.

Then I burnt out, more or less.

While I still enjoyed the roleplaying, I became tired of the politics surrounding the game. Around this time, I moved. I stopped playing in the various Vampire LARPs I had been involved in and began playing in a small Wraith LARP while at the same time increasing the proportion of my roleplaying that wasn't Live Action.

I am now in what I have come to think of as my third phase of roleplaying. Phase I was early in my life. It exists mostly of fond memories of a sense of wonder. Phase II is a mix between brilliant moments and massive frustrations; great friendships formed and personality clashes galore. It showed me the extremes of what roleplaying could bring, both good and bad.

In Phase III, I like to think that I've considered things a bit more. I've gained some distance on both Phases I and II. There are a variety of things to which I can credit this. It might be the types of gaming groups I've been involved with; they tend to be small and fairly clear on what they are looking to accomplish in a game. It might be that I am no longer blinded by novelty. Perhaps most influentual, however, have been the realizations that you can theorize about roleplaying games, analyze what it is you want out of a game, and design mechanics that facillitate gameplaying that will fulfill those desires. This is a realization that has probably been bubbling beneath the surface of my mind for some time. I went to graduate school in philosophy; theorizing is second nature to me. I've always tinkered with game mechanics, but I don't know that I ever really had a well-defined goal in doing so other than to fix a particular rule that I disliked or problem that I encountered. It wasn't until I began reading The Forge a few years back, that I really saw these ideas laid out neatly. I rarely read The Forge anymore. It seemed to get so mired in theoretical language that practical applications of the theory were nearly indiscernable. I've heard that it has improved now that the RPG Theory Forum has been removed. I might go back. We shall see.

What will the future of this blog hold?

I would like to think that I will intelligently question some assumptions that tend to be made, whether in game play, game design, or in the culture that surrounds gaming. I will relate some anecdotes from my actual play in order to illustrate specific points. I will provide examples of game mechanics that I have created or altered in order to improve gameplay, with explanations of why I did as I did and - if I used them - whether they accomplished what I wished them to accomplish. I will provide some notes on on-going game designs of mine. One on-going project I have been working on heavily inolves some of my graduate research in virtue theory. As a result I will be toying with a number of ways in which morality is or could be presented in terms of game mechanics. I will probably also use this as a sounding board for some campaign design, and a repository for ideas that other people are welcome to use in their own games. In addition, I won't hesitate to point readers in the direction of worthwhile things I've seen elsewhere. You may also see the occasional game review or fiction recommendation. We'll see...