April 24, 2010
I’ve been wrestling with a couple of problems – call them X and Y – for a while now, and have been completely unable to find a satisfactory solution to either.
It turns out that if I give up on problem Y, then X not only ceases to be a problem, it becomes a solution.
September 20, 2009
Monopoly goes to war
More news of board games in World War II: “Before leaving for missions, British airmen were told that if they were captured, they should look for escape maps and kits in Monopoly boards and other games delivered by charity groups. They were told that ‘special edition’ Monopoly sets would be marked with a red dot on the free parking space… In addition to [a] concealed compass, tools and maps, real bank notes were hidden under the fake money.”
August 31, 2007
Not all hopscotch and conkers
In what will come as a great shock to those who think the British were above propagandising to children during World War 2, the Beeb digs out such games as "Decorate Goering," "Hang Your Washing on the Siegfried Line" and the ever popular "Throw Darts at Hitler's Face."
May 26, 2007
More on Civilisation IV classification
This is not to say that Civilisation IV doesn't thoroughly deserve its PG rating. I just feel the OFLC should be warning of a broader range of dangers in its consumer advice. In the case of Civilisation IV, these should include:
- Addictive qualities. Any game whose exit dialog includes the option "Wait... just one more turn..." might just as well have a warning on the box saying "Gateway game for crack. Parental guidance recommended."
- Weak puns. The feeble gag about "Caesar" and "salad" alone should have earned them a consumer advice warning, not to mention three quarters of an hour alone in a soundproofed room with Gary "The Cosh" Buttafuoco.
- That it insists, in game after game, that Buddhism was founded by the Spanish in 3600 BC.
May 25, 2007
What are themes?
Civilisation IV is certified "PG: mild violence, mild themes."
Mild violence? That's easy to understand. When a battalion of tanks gets decimated by a bunch of enemy longbowmen, I exhibit signs of mild violence. But themes? What on earth are "mild themes"?
The Office of Film and Literature Classification attempts to explain: "Classifiable elements include violence, sex, themes (eg suicide, racism, corruption), coarse language, drug use and nudity."
Ah, yes. Corruption has of course been a feature of Civilisation since day one, so you can imagine the scene that might otherwise play out in countless parental-guidance-lacking homes around the world.
Lisping Golden-Haired Child: "Mama, it was so horrible. Novosibirsk was only producing 30% of its full production. Oh, mama, I cannot sleep for thinking about it!"
Mama: "There, there, darling, it was only a computer game. Don't worry your pretty head about it. Come, sit with me on the chaise longue; we can watch Dick Cheney on the news signing some more no-bid contracts with Halliburton together, and soon you will be quite better."
Fortunately, thanks to the OFLC's alertness for "themes," the world remains safe for childish innocence.
October 15, 2006
Flavour mechanics considered harmful
Mash mentioned somewhere -- I can no longer find where -- that I was interested in aspects of roleplaying theory other than the anatomy of narrative. Since getting an ear-bashing from Michael on Thursday night about the uselessness of anatomy-of-narrative theory, and having defended it only to see Michael's criticisms gloriously validated less than 48 hours later, I thought I'd write up some observations on ergonomic and usability aspects of roleplaying games.
Ergonomics? The physical factors? Are we really expected to concern ourselves with such mundane matters as how we roll dice and what is the optimum font size for character sheets? Don't I realise that roleplaying games are about narrative, setting and character, not about rolling dice for heaven's sake?
I do, they are, and we should. Those mundane matters can break immersion and engagement just as surely as good narrative, setting and characterisation can create it. Every excursion into the realm of mechanics drags us away from the in-character experience, breaks the flow state. The received wisdom on flow states in programming is that, once concentration is broken, say by a phone call or email, it takes 15 minutes to get back to the level of productivity one was at before. Die rolls and such like aren't so blatant a break, because they usually relate to with the in-character experience, but the impact is still noticeable; and the worse the usability, the bigger the break.
I'm going to use Fading Suns as my case study, mostly because it's the only game I'm in at the moment which has been running long enough for me to fully appreciate the impact of the mechanics, but also because it has some interesting "flavour" features which look great on paper but work disastrously badly in practice. In fact, it's my contention that the "flavour" features do more to harm engagement than they do to promote it.
Fading Suns' core mechanic is a pretty simple variant on White Wolf's Storyteller system. You add an attribute and a skill, and try to roll the total or less on a 20-sided die. If you succeed, then the higher the roll, the better, with a roll equal to your total being a critical success; if you fail, you fail, with a roll of 20 being a fumble.
Now this already has a few problems, but in and of itself it's pretty benign. Now let's start adding in some of Fading Suns' "flavour" mechanics and see how it looks.
First, Fading Suns provides a character customisation system based on Ars Magica-style virtues and flaws. This means that goal numbers are subject to special modifiers in certain situations. The problem is that whether a modifier applies is not always obvious. A particular offender is the Keen Eyesight virtue, which gives a bonus to perception checks involving eyesight. The net result of this is that, whenever the GM asks for a perception check, the cry goes up, "Does it involve eyesight?" This more than doubles the time spent on mechanics-level interchanges. It's a good thing we don't have any more of these modifiers in our group, or every perception roll would turn into a game of 20 Questions: "Does it involve eyesight? Does it involve hearing? Is it bigger than a breadbox?"
Second, Fading Suns provides a mechanism called "accenting" to represent particularly careful or desperate actions. The idea is that a player can trade off the chances of success against the quality of success: in a do-or-die situation, you can take a reduced likelihood of success but guarantee that if you do succeed it will be a high quality success; or if you can't risk disaster, but have plenty of time to get it right, you can increase your chance of success at the expense of achieving only marginal success. This potentially turns every die roll into a lengthy odds calculation: "if I positively accent by 1, I get the better result table; but if I positively accent by 4 then I'm guaranteed at least a +3 success, but I have a 40% chance of failing; but if I negatively accent by 4 then I max out my chance of success... but I have a 55% chance of getting only a +0 or +1 which won't be enough... but I'll be able to try again next round..." This is particularly poor design given that the accent system is meant to be used for moments of high tension -- do-or-die or can't-afford-to-fail -- just the moments when a lengthy excursion into mechanics is least welcome.
To add insult to injury, by the way, the positive accent (do-or-die) mechanism is broken, so the whole "how much should I accent by" calculation turns out to be meaningless anyway. You should positively accent by 1. End of story.
Third, in accordance with its idea of itself as a "futuristic passion play," Fading Suns allows players to invoke their character's Passion in order to improve their chances of success at actions their character cares about. This is a nice idea, but has two problems which cause it to bog the game down. First, the definition of a character's passion is very vague. Players are required to supply a Passion attribute, but the direction of that passion is nebulous, so in practice any request to use the passion system results in great debate (either that or it becomes a general-purpose "I need plusses" system which rather removes the flavour). Secondly, it is implemented as a Passion roll, the result of which gives a modifier for subsequent rolls related to the passion. Because using Passion on its own for this would result in little chance of success and feeble bonuses, the game supplies a laundry list of modifiers of which any or all may apply. Finding and trawling the list is a very slow process.
What makes the Passion system triply annoying is that it is usually invoked in response to the request for some other roll. "Make your attack roll." "Hey, I hate this guy. Can I use invoke Passion?" The smooth flow from the request for an attack roll to the attack roll itself is disrupted as the game detours to perform a completely different roll. It is extremely noticeable, once a player has completed the "invoke Passion" mechanic, that they have to perform some sort of reset to get back to the task at hand. ("Right, what was I rolling again? Melee?") A mechanic that should be in helper posture is so complex that it has forced a complete context switch.
I want to mention a fourth problem, which is not technically a flavour mechanic but which is exacerbated by this multiplicity of flavour mechanics. As mentioned before, a Fading Suns goal number is attribute plus skill, plus modifiers from situational or flavour mechanics. This results in a lot more addition than the plain attribute plus skill mechanism. Figure in, say, a wound modifier, an accent and a passion modifier, and you've gone from one addition to four. This causes genuine problems as people try to keep track of the numbers in their heads. (Worse, alone of all modifiers, accents modify the die roll instead of the goal number. So you have to keep track of which modifiers to apply where.) This is particularly frustrating because the modifiers do not affect the quality of a success, only the goal number; so the modifiers don't matter unless they would change your die roll from a success to a failure or vice versa. If your base goal is 13 and you roll a 2 -- or an 18 -- all those calculations to work out if your net goal was 9 or 10 were unnecessary.
The net result of all this is that Fading Suns is, mechanically, an extremely tedious experience. (This is not to say that any given Fading Suns game is doomed to tedium. I'm greatly enjoying the one I'm in.) The heavy use of well-meant but badly-designed flavour mechanics, ombined with other infelicities such as poor character sheet layout and unpredictable skills lists, make every roll in Fading Suns a potential source of disruption; worse, the more tense and critical the moment, the more likely the disruptive mechanics are to intervene. Flavour promotes engagement and immersion; mechanics disrupt engagement and immersion. Mechanics that purport to introduce flavour need to be examined with great care to determine that their cost does not exceed their payoff. Fading Suns' flavour mechanics fail this test particularly badly, but they're far from alone.
Yes, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's critical hit system, I'm looking at you...
January 23, 2006
Horrible things to realise about dice
Mash was hunting through my dice bag this evening and found what he at first thought was a blank D20. Actually it was just really old and faded, and I realised that it was the D20 that came with my very first D&D Basic Set (the blue book box) way back in mumbledy peg. It's been following me around for--
And that's when it struck me: my dice are older than some of my players.
I'm going to go hide under a blanket for a while now.
January 04, 2006
Console RPG cliches
Not to be read while you have a mouthful of tea. "No matter how big that big-ass sword is, you won't stand out in a crowd. Nobody ever crosses the street to avoid you or seems to be especially shocked or alarmed when a heavily armed gang bursts into their house during dinner, rummages through their posessions, and demands to know if they've seen a black-caped man. People can get used to anything, apparently."
November 29, 2005
Obedience or death
Mash hurls his dice into the bush when they continue to roll 11s despite repeated warnings. housemonkey is impressed but is regaled with tales of yet more violent punishments for recalcitrant dice. A non-gamer comments, "This is why you people scare the general populace."
October 18, 2005
Magic and fantasy
Mash: "Any sufficiently coherent magic becomes indistinguishable from technology."
Which can be a bad thing, or if well handled a good thing.
Chris Gardiner speaks dismissively of the "magic as energy science" syndrome, and points to Mark Oakley's Thieves & Kings as a sensawunda-based alternative. Thieves & Kings-style magic meets Mash's wish for "that dream-like quality" with bells on, and if made available to players in a RPG would undoubtedly also realise Mash's fear of "alienating your players through a too-strong sense of dislocation between what they try and what happens."
How do we reconcile the wish and the fear? Basically there are two methods: neutralise the fear, or scorn the wish.
Neutralising the fear means creating a fantastic, narrative-oriented atmosphere within which magical elements can be quantified and given a cause-and-effect relationship. An example of this is White Wolf's Werewolf, where magical effects are the gifts of spirits: spirits who are intelligent and independent, and must be negotiated with and won over in order to obtain their favour, and who may prove capricious or contrary. The rules put some quantities around this narrative, and in my experience the narrative and rules work well together to build an animistic, otherworldly feel while giving players a clear connection between investment -- both mechanical and in-character -- and results.
Scorning the wish means creating a world that is predictable, but based on fantastic assumptions, and those fantastic assumptions are interesting and atmospheric enough to retain a sense of difference even in the face of the Reverse Clarke's Law. Those who studied magic during the Middle Ages and Renaissance were not searching for some "dream-like quality where you can't be sure of... cause and effect." That's rose-tinted modern fantasy. The real magicians were energy scientists. They wanted to figure out how to cure warts, or raise the dead, or transmute lead into gold. They wanted recipes that worked! They wanted cause and effect! But that doesn't mean hermetic or mediaeval magic texts lack atmosphere: far from it. Read Kieckhefer, read around Bacon and Dee, read the Victorian revivalists like Waite and Crowley. The failed sciences bleed atmosphere.
(There are other strategies. I've gone with Mash's assumption of a "physics engine" style of RPG system because that's my own preference. In a "narrative style" RPG system, physical cause and effect are put in service to a higher level narrative resolution, and "dream-like" magic becomes manageable.)
But what's wrong with this picture? We're conflating fantasy and magic; specifically, we're conflating fantasy with magic in the hands of player characters. Mash contrasts "magic in D&D... merely a mechanical tool, like a sword" with "the Green Knight [embodying a] sense of arbitrary fate." Well, hey, if you want dream-like qualities or a sense of arbitrary fate, I have a Vietnam scenario to sell you. Or Heart of Darkness, or whatever. Or come to that, I can run you a game in the spirit of the Odyssey or Argonautica, something which is explicitly fantastic but where magic never has to be defined by energy-science laws because the magic is never allowed into the hands of scientific-era players. It's okay for NPC-only magic to defy player analysis when the magic defies character analysis.
So where are we? We don't need fantasy to establish a dream-like atmosphere. We don't need magic to establish a sense of fantasy. We don't need energy-science rules to handle magic. But, for certain energy-science rules, we can have rules and retain a fantastic (but probably not dream-like) atmosphere all the same. Fantasy, magic and dream are orthogonal.
Ladies and gentlemen, I now call upon Mr Nigel Evans to present his famous exposition on the distinction between magic and spellcasting.