Tuesday, November 25, 2008

More lessons from the Wasteland

I've been playing a lot of Fallout 3 lately. Parts of it are brilliant. Parts of it suffer in contrast to the brilliant bits. I keep thinking of it in comparison to a tabletop RPG, and thinking about what could have been done better on the tabletop and what couldn't have been done at all on the tabletop. Here are a few observations:

Reputation and Morality

The karma system in Fallout 3 is better than that in many computer games. Nonetheless, it can't really take your intentions into account. There's one group in particular that - as a good guy - I have trouble leaving alive. If I kill them, though, I will lose (as far as I can tell) as much karma as if I had killed anyone else.

Another problem: people react directly to your level of karma. Perhaps you've done all your killing of innocents behind closed doors, in secret, wearing a full-face mask and coveralls. When you walk around town in a fancy hat and old-style business suit, you'll still be treated like a murderer.

Both of these things are near-trivial for people to handle in a tabletop situation. Can it be done in a computer game? Probably. It would be tricky, though.

Immersion

Some people have incredibly vivid imaginations and are able to fully immerse themselves in an imaginary world given just a few words of description by a GM. Most people don't fall into that category. There are few times that I've been panicked or really creeped out by a tabletop game. It happens, but it is rare. In Fallout 3, I've been getting creeped out regularly while stalking through old, labrynthine buildings or abandoned metro tunnels filled with boobytraps and other dangers (don't get me started on the fire-breathing giant ants). Then, there's all that wandering through ruins when someone starts shooting at you and I can't see where he is and oh my god he has a minigun and gah he isn't even human!

The reaction to that is a bit different from my reaction to something that begins with the words, "You failed your spot check?"

Similarly, wandering around in the Wastelands in Fallout is fun. You run into burnt-out husks of abandoned houses and all sorts of things. Describing the minutia in a tabletop game to get that level of detail would, I think, not be terribly interesting.

Conversation

Fallout 3 is pretty good about conversations with NPCs - for a computer game. All NPCs have actual voice acting, and it generally doesn't suck. Many of them have their own story to tell. Many of them are totally insane. You generally have multiple conversational options.

That said, unless they start having live people portray NPCs, this is the one place where I don't expect to see CRPGs close the gap with tabletop games (and even then, it would be tricky). I like to think outside the box in RPGs and solve problems creatively. Someone has a quest for 18 widgets? I want to know what they need those widgets for and think about whether there's an alternative solution to their problem. While most quests in Fallout 3 seem to have a few ways to complete them, I've still run in to several places where I want to do something that just isn't an option.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Storytime: last night's game

I swear, our party isn't made up of PCs. I'm pretty sure we're a wandering encounter.

Last night, in Angela's game, we went through our first real(ish) dungeon. Yes, we've been playing for two years, and we're 10th level now.

...and, yeah, the dungeon is actually above ground (going up, actually), made of glass, and inhabited by good guys (who are total jerks).

Anyway, relevant bits of the story in handy bullet form:
  • While investigating a cult of a forgotten god (the bulk of the campaign to this point), we discovered that our plane had become untethered and was hurtling through the outer planes in a manner that would end with its destruction (or possible incorporation into Mechanus - not that such a fate would be any better).
  • We headed to Sigil to look for help. One of the trails we followed led us to Mitra, an arch-mage who had been (inadvertantly) responsible for the untethering of our plane 3,000 years ago - and cursed with vampirism.
  • Mitra said he was willing to help correct his error, but he'd need his notes on the ritual, which had been taken by a paranoid cult devoted to slaying vampires at any cost.
  • We made contact with the cult (their base was in the always-sunny part of the Beastlands), but they were unwilling to deal - or even budge. We decided that we had to take notes by force. Mitra helped out by creating a diversion in Sigil that drew some of their heavy-hitters away.
So these guys are living in a giant glass building in the Beastlands. They are totally paranoid about assassins (since their nemeses tend to be able to dominate thralls), and have boobytrapped their home (which is also hallowed w/dimensional anchor and has permanent Private Sanctum up).

We're not totally through yet, but we did manage to make it to the stairs to the third (top) floor. Talking to people first gave us enough info that we were able to bluff some people into thinking that we belonged there long enough to get the drop on them. Having two PCs capable of an invisibility/sneak-attack combo helped down a wizard without giving him a chance (his failure of 4 or 5 listen checks helped, too). We tried to subdue people when we could - but we had to kill more than we'd like. We had an in-character discussion about the possibility before we went in (the group is mixed good/neutral).

We managed to avoid a number of traps (though our druid got caught in an explosive runes), but we did encounter (sort of) an iron golem (medium-sized) - which probably would have wiped us out (our only adamantine weapon is a chef's knife - don't ask, and most of our big damage-dealing relies on either spells or sneak attacks) if we had actually fought it. Fortunately, we managed to close the door between us... and then I slipped our portable hole through the crack under the door. The golem fell in... and now we have a portable golem, and I really don't know what to do about that...

Beyond Alignment: Adding Moral Complexity to your Game (Reprint)

Reposted from 9/4/07

This article first appeared in the Silven Trumpeter (Vol. 4, Issue 2, June 2006).


Many people play roleplaying games in order to escape from the moral ambiguity of real life. They want to sit down, roll some dice, kill some goblins, take their stuff, and feel good about it. Perhaps the only personal growth that they are interested in for their characters is measured in terms of levels and experience points.

I find this to be a perfectly valid – and often very fun – way to play roleplaying games. In this article, however, I am going to talk about focusing your gameplay on serious moral questions and complicated moral dilemmas. Think about the goblin children that will starve to death now that their parents, mentioned above, are dead. This is not a new idea. People have been engaged in morally-focused roleplaying for decades. They have, however, been doing so without any guidance.

Conventional roleplaying games, such as Dungeons & Dragons and White Wolf’s various games, tend to address morality descriptively, if at all. They may have tags, like an alignment systems or virtue scores. These tags can provide a set of guidelines for roleplaying a person with a particular sort of moral outlook, but they do not in themselves regularly raise serious moral issues.

Recently, a number of small-press roleplaying games have come to print that focus strongly on some sort of moral question. Dust Devils is a game set in the American Old West that focuses upon the question of whether to shoot or to give up the gun. Another Western-themed game, Dogs in the Vineyard, casts the player characters as gun-toting religious lawmen who travel from town to town to set things right. With Great Power... is a super hero roleplaying game with the tag line, “You can save the world, but are you willing to pay the price?” The granddaddy of the indie game scene, Sorcerer, asks the simple question of “What would you do for power?”

These games have mechanics that are specifically designed to bring the moral issues that they are concerned with into play. In Sorcerer, for instance, you summon and bind demons in order to make yourself more powerful. There is no conventional limit on how many demons you can summon and bind, either in play or during character creation. Each time you summon or bind a demon, however, you risk a bit of your humanity.

This article is not designed for players of these games. Instead, I want to focus on how to ask interesting moral questions during gameplay when the game was not designed specifically around such questions.

Before you implement any of the suggestions I put forth here, talk to your players. If you don’t, following the advice in this article might destroy your game. I don’t want that to happen. Do your players want to be tested with morally difficult dilemmas? Are they interested in a game that asks tough questions? Do they want to have to second-guess their actions, or would they be happier killing goblins and taking their stuff?

Creating Moral Dilemmas

When creating a moral dilemma for a game, I try and remain aware of (and avoid the pitfalls of ) cliché and excessive frustration.

Of the two, clichés are easier to identify. Are the player characters in a position where they had to kill a pile of babies, puppies, and/or kittens in order to save the world? If so, you have a cliché. Using clichés may be an easy way to add moral dilemmas, but “easy” is not tantamount to compelling.

Frustration is trickier, insofar as it is necessary in moderation. Any challenge is a sort of frustration, and you want your players to be challenged. The frustration brought about by an intractable moral dilemma, however, can be particularly disheartening. When planning morally-charged situation, think about the frustration level of the dilemma before you use it. How will the dilemma frustrate the players: will it challenge them or will it simply aggravate them? The frustration level of a dilemma can be raised to unacceptable levels when a player realizes that she can’t make a difference, that her choices are irrelevant, that she don’t even have a choice, or that the game master forced her into the situation. If any of these are true, your players won’t find your plans for the game to be fun, and you need new plans.

With those caveats in mind, creating moral dilemmas isn’t difficult. My preferred method of dilemma-creation is to play on the assumptions of both players and characters. This is a simple thing to do, and it is something that many game masters do all the time, even if it is not usually done in a morally-charged context.

In many games, players will assume that a creature described to them as a monster is better off being killed. Similarly, they may assume that attractive and helpless people exist to be assisted and protected. When you spend time describing something in detail, players tend to assume that the thing you are describing is important and that at least some of the details you describe are relevant.

Every character comes with its own set of assumptions. A barbarian from the mountains might be intensely xenophobic, believing that those who were different from him are corrupt. A career soldier might assume that every situation can be solved through the application of straightforward rules. A businessman might assume that everything is for sale and negotiable. Similarly, both players and characters learn to trust certain nonplayer characters, social institutions, and their own abilities and methods.

The idea is not merely to trick the players into having their characters do morally questionable things. Doing so will only run the risk of alienating your players out of frustration. Instead, challenge the moral positions that the players and their characters hold.

How will the xenophobic barbarian react when, after being left for dead by those he trusted, he is nursed back to health and nurtured by someone from an alien culture? What will he do if, after returning to his homeland, he finds that his people are planning a genocidal war against this alien civilization?

How will the rules-bound soldier react when the rules tell her to destroy something she loves, defend something she hates, and defile something she has grown to respect? How will she change when she realizes that her life has been saved by deviating from her rules – or by dumb luck?

What will the mercenary businessman do when he finds that he has grown to care so much about something that he would never sell it? How will he react when his unwillingness to compromise hurts those he has grown to care for?

In addition to challenging a character’s morally-charged assumptions, you can challenge their habits. Consider the habits characters have that generally work out well for them. The barbarian may be usually successful when he charges headlong into battle. The soldier might function by deferring to those who claim authority over her. The businessman might quite effectively make extravagant and false claims when engaged in negotiations. It is often effective to notice these sorts of habits and nurture them. Give players a reason to rely upon them and have their characters develop the habits as worthwhile tools that they will depend upon. Challenges can then be easily constructed to test and refine these habits.

A far less effective, though very tempting, method of introducing moral issues is to introduce some sort of external moral authority and have this authority reprimand the characters for their choices. This forces the characters to either justify their behavior or atone for it. Quests for atonement can be a great deal of fun, but many players will become frustrated by them, particularly if they feel that they were railroaded into performing the act for which they are atoning and did not actually make a poor choice given the circumstances. The realization that you have done something wrong is more significant if you arrive at it yourself. Similarly, the drive to atone is significantly stronger and more meaningful if it is motivated internally.

Also, forcing characters to act in a morally-repugnant fashion is more likely to cause players to become frustrated than it is to engage them. Forcing them into situations where they are faced with an interesting moral choice, however, can be a lot of fun. As a player, I hate mind-control and paralysis, as they rob me of my ability to play my character. However, if the game master in a campaign I was playing set-up a situation in which I was mind-controlled into attacking my companions, but the mindcontrol wore off just as I was about to land a fatal blow on a companion with whom I had an intense rivalry, I would think that was terrific. I would be faced with a great moral dilemma: do I turn aside the blow now that I am no longer under
another’s control or do I pretend that the control has lingered and slay my rival?

Setting out to trick your players into acting in a way that they will be sorry for later is only reliably effective when the players can look back and honestly say that their characters ought to have known better. For instance, when a band of intrepid adventurers happens along a fearful dryad who is seeking to escape a horrible monster, the adventurers might well hunt down the monster to slay it. When it turns out that the so-called monster is a civilized, anthropomorphic beaver, they should probably consider the tool belt it wears or the enormous dam, well-crafted out of polished wood, that it comes out of, and realize that the dryad might have been a bit biased in describing it in horrific terms. If they simply charge in and slay the beaverman, then that is their choice, and they will have to live with it.

Creating Morally Interesting Characters

The most morally interesting characters are often those with deep-seated but subtle moral flaws. To be effective, such flaws ought not to be simply false moral principles to which a character adheres. If they are, a player can replace them as soon as they come under scrutiny. Instead, these flaws should be deeply-ingrained habits of character. An effectively-prejudiced barbarian character isn’t one who merely holds the statement, “elves are flighty, worthless cowards” to be true. This could be easily shown to be false, given enough exposure to dedicated and brave elves. Instead, an effectively-prejudiced barbarian might be one who mocks others by calling them elves, spits whenever he sees an elf, is unable to take an elf ’s competence seriously, and would expect to die if his life depended on elves.

Our other two examples are also easy to put into terms of habits. The rules-following soldier doesn’t necessarily think that every command from her superior is the right thing to do. Instead, she doesn’t make decisions on her own well. If she doesn’t have a rule that is applicable to the situation, she may flounder and hesitate out of uncertainty. Her rules-following might stem from a deep-seated insecurity about her own decision-making capabilities. She may also have a fear of taking responsibility for her own actions. If she follows rules she can blame any wrongdoings on the rules themselves, or whoever it was who gave her those instructions.

Similarly, it isn’t simply that the mercenary businessman believes that everything has a monetary value. He lives his life in such a way that, for him, everything does. Even if he doesn’t do so consciously, he implicitly assigns monetary values to relationships, people, and tasks of all sorts.Perhaps he does this because he finds himself incapable of caring about things unless they are put into monetary terms. He might be unable to form deep emotional connections to others. To him, love might mean nothing more than that he wouldn’t trade one he loved for a pile of treasure.

Developing moral flaws as habits embedded into a character’s psyche works well for both player characters and many nonplayer characters. There is a particular type of non-player character that demands special mention, however. This is the moral authority. Most moral authorities are normal people. They may be priests, mentors, or monarchs. What makes them moral authorities is often that they speak with the voice of experience. These characters might be just as internally flawed as any of those detailed above. The difference is that they understand their flaws and attempt to compensate for them.

When portraying a moral authority it is important to remember not to take away the players’ moral choices. Answering moral questions with a moral authority can shape the characters actions such that they are no longer acting based upon their own conscience, but are, rather, acting in accordance with what they have been told is good.

This is a particularly tricky thing to avoid when you are portraying moral authorities who are not mere mortals. It is possible to portray an angel or a similar character as something other than a one-dimensional caricature. In Dungeons & Dragons, the alignment system makes this particularly easy: there is no pure good. Celestial entities are either lawful good, neutral good, or chaotic good. These three moral outlooks can be distinguished by their flaws. The lawful good outlook might focus too much on justice, ignoring concern for relationships or individual liberty. The neutral good outlook might care deeply about individuals, but do so at the expense of both justice and freedom. The chaotic good outlook might focus upon protecting individual rights at the expense of other concerns. These dichotomies can be generalized to hold true independent of the Dungeons & Dragons alignment system by realizing that instituting priorities into a moral agenda will create corresponding blind spots. In a game that encourages players to think hard about moral questions, even the angels should not be completely above reproach. In fact, providing the player characters with a reason to doubt the moral wisdom of someone who they have considered a moral authority could be a great opportunity for roleplaying moral growth.

Creating a Morally Complex Game

There aren’t any secret tricks that you need to learn to put these tools into practice. Given interested players, morally charged situations, and morally interesting characters, your gameplay will naturally begin to address these sorts of issues.

If you want to focus your game strongly on a particular moral question or issue, however, there is more to be said. In addition to designing morally-interesting characters, you may want to create large-scale social institutions that accentuate some of the themes you wish to address. You might also want to institute some rule modifications that bring the focus of gameplay onto the issues you want to be highlighted. It might be worthwhile to look toward some of the indie games that I mentioned earlier for guidance in this respect.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Naming Characters

I have a lot of trouble deciding on PC names.

I often turn to Kate Monk's Onomastikon for help. If you aren't familiar with it, check it out.

I also look at baby naming websites. Many of these have name-meanings attached, which is often a plus. Today, via Lifehacker, I found What A Lovely Name, which allows you to start with character traits and end with a list of names associated with them. It also allows you to narrow by linguistic/cultural tradition. Unfortunately, you can't do both at once, though I hope this is an upcoming feature.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Help a child. Get a gaming tool.

A bit over a year ago, I mentioned the XO laptop as a possible gaming tool. Amazon is once again having their Give a Laptop, Get a Laptop offer where you spend $399 and get two XOs - one for yourself and one which is shipped to a child in a developing country.

I didn't get the XO last year because it runs Linux - and, thus, isn't going to work with WotC's Digital Initiative.

Now, I'm not really playing 4e. I'm not currently paying for a DI membership and I don't plan to. Unfortunately, I just spent about $400 dollars on a desktop PC, and I'm a bit concerned about long-term job security at the moment, so I don't know that I'll be able to take advantage of this. It seems really cool, though.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On the use of treasure...

In the beginning, we killed things and took their stuff.

Some of us still do that. Others of us got this crazy idea that maybe our PCs could do some other things and have some complex motivations.

What's the role of treasure in a game that follows that second path? Is it a reward? If so, it isn't really the most appropriate one - an effective reward should correspond to the motivation of either the PC or the player.

There's also no particular reason that treasure needs to scale with PC power level. That is a consideration of game and campaign design. You can have a (fun) game that has neither treasure acquisition nor necessary character advancement - Spirit of the Century is one example. Most superhero games don't really have treasure acquisition. Why do we see it as necessary to fantasy?

In the D&D game Angela is running, treasure acquisition isn't really a goal. The PCs were mostly motivated by trying to clear their names and to seek answers to some questions. As they found the answers, they found that their world was in danger and began to do what they could to help. I know that Angela has been having a hard time fitting treasure into the game. We don't kill a lot of things and take their stuff. While treasure acquisition is an assumption of the game system, it isn't really as appropriate to this campaign as it is in many others.

Yeah, we probably should be using a system other than D&D. Is that the answer here? Is there something that I'm missing?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Game scheduling tool?

At work, I've used web apps to schedule meetings between a bunch of people with busy schedules, but it never occurred to me to use such things to schedule a game. I know some campaigns out there (I'm in one at the moment) don't have a set meeting time - the players get together when they can. Often, though, these games fall apart for lack of meeting. For these sorts of scheduling issues, a web application might be useful. There are a bunch of these - one of them was mentioned today on Lifehacker (which is what inspired this post).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Magical material science

Fantasy worlds are full of magical materials - some actually enchanted, others merely unusual. In 3.5 D&D we have a whole host of them including mithril, adamantine, and darkwood.

Usually, there are weapons and armor made with these materials that are lighter or stronger than they normally would be. Rarely, though, are the full ramifications of these materials for engineering recognized.

Some settings deal with these things better than others. Exalted is pretty good for this with a host of magitech, but even it only touches the surface. In Exalted, the Haslanti League mines feathersteel - a remarkably lightweight ore that they use in building airships. The old city of Chiaroscuro had buildings built of a strong, glass-like material. The five magical materials: Orichalcum, Moonsilver, Starmetal, Soulsteel, and Jade are all nearly unbreakable possessed of different affinities. While not a building material, firedust is a naturally-occuring substance similar to black powder.

What, though, could exist in a fantasy world with some basic magic and access to materials like mithril, adamantine, and darkwood? (I am deliberately ignoring the possibility that these materials might be fantastically rare and expensive.)

Starting out in the familiar realm of weapons, we have untouched possibilities: mithril (half the weight of steel, but just as strong) could be used to make oversized, but usable weapons. Want a longsword that feels like you're wielding a shortsword or rapier? OK. How about a five foot long blade that's usable one-handed? Leverage will get to be an issue eventually, but a lot can be done with counterbalancing. Adamantine (super-strong metal) makes weapon-breakers a really feasable possibility. Darkwood (half the wieght of wood, just as strong) might have some interesting applications for long polearm hafts. A darkwood quarterstaff would be light enough to have heavy iron butts on either end - essentially, a dual mace with extra leverage. Adamantine could be used to make finely-linked (jewelery-sized) chains that are stronger than those found on normal flails - these could have a host of uses in weaponry and elsewhere.

Armor is often a reflection of the materials available. While D&D posits lightweight mithril full plate armor, what about normal-weight, extra thick full plate made of mithril? What about leather armor with mithril inserts to add extra protection to vital areas?

Stepping away from armor and weapons, what would a boat made from darkwood look like? Could a boat be made of mithral?

What about skyscrapers?

Think about what we can do with materials like plastics, high-density ceramics, steel alloys, and even aluminum - things that weren't existent or readily available 1000 years ago. Now, our current interests and needs are likely somewhat different from those of people living in a fantasy setting, but if you were to combine some of the fantasy materials above with spells like Wood Shape, Mending, Stone Shape (who needs concrete?), and Fabricate, I expect our engineering capabilities would be similar.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

WindyCon 35

Next week, Angela and I will be heading up to Chicagoland for WindyCon. This is a SF con - not a gaming con, but they do have a gaming track. sort of. in theory.

Mostly, though, I expect that I'll be in the dealer room where Angela will have a table selling stuff (mostly boxes with eyes on them and similar things).

Some of the programming looks interesting, but it is focusing upon military SF this year, which isn't really my favorite subgenre...

Anyway, if you're going to be there, drop me a line or stop by and say hello.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Fallout 3 - intro and character generation

As I mentioned yesterday, I just picked up Fallout 3. I haven't had much time to play, but i like what I've seen so far. Good games often give me ideas about how to improve other games, so I may be commenting here from time to time on possible applications to tabletop RPGs.

This wouldn't be too weird. The SPECIAL system which runs the underlying mechanics of the game is, essentially, a tabletop-style system that runs behind the scene.

Anyway, the introductory segment to Fallout 3 is brilliant.

It accomplishes four tasks amazingly well:
  • It serves as an introduction to the plot.
  • It establishes the tone of the Fallout world.
  • It acts as a tutorial.
  • It integrates character generation into it near-seamlessly.
This all happens as a series of flashbacks to birth (where you set your name, gender, and eventual appearance), infancy (learn to walk and basics of interacting with your environment - and set your attributes), 10th birthday (learn basics of conversation, how to use your Pipboy, and how the combat system works), and 16th birthday (set your skills). These are all interspersed with things that set the tone and setting of the game, and they are handled very smoothly. Once you are about to begin the game you get more of a taste of combat and a few subsystems - and then you get a chance to make any changes to your character that you want.

Now, there are times when low-impact introductory scenes would be great in tabletop RPG play. They would:
  • let new players learn the rules without serious in-game consequences
  • let you match your character stats to both your actual play style and the demands of the setting/GM
  • give you a bit of practice playing your character
  • allow you to make changes to your character before game play really starts
Now, some games do allow for some of this. Various White Wolf games have included Preludes for characters as options. Spirit of the Century has some optional rules for establishing PC stats during play. Many GMs allow players to revise their characters during the first few sessions of a campaign. I'm sure there are other examples.

The weird thing is, I loved this in Fallout, but (while I've enjoyed running them) I've never been a huge fan of White Wolf style Preludes as a player. At best, they have been OK. Now, this might have been a combination of my attitude and the GMs, but I have to wonder if this is something that simply works better in a computer game? Are there games that do this really well?

Monday, November 03, 2008

Fallout 3 and thoughts on edition change

I picked up a copy of Fallout 3 yesterday.

This is going to really cut into my productivity.

When I heard that the developers had changed, I was a little worried that the tone of the game wouldn't be quite the same under the new team. The 50s-style post-apocalyptic future that wasn't is what really appealed to me in the series. I needn't have worried. From what I've seen, they've nailed it... and they've done so while converting the game to 3-D with a different perspective (and truly gorgeous graphics), a somewhat different combat system, and some subtle tweaks to the underlying game mechanics.

Then I look at D&D, and I wonder why they couldn't have done the same thing.

The answer is pretty clear to me. There was a demand for Fallout 3. Fallout 2 has limited replay value. That doesn't carry over into D&D. Wizards created most of the demand for 4e (think about their negativity about 3.5 over the past year or so) - as far as I can tell, most people playing 3.5 were fairly happy with it. If Wizards had made 4e a slightly shinier version of 3.5 with a couple of major changes (but, at its base, the same game), would people have given up their investment in 3.5 and switched?

Maybe. Eventually.

It almost certainly wouldn't have been a rousing financial success for WotC, though.