Posts Tagged ‘geekery


Freedom, D&D and PnP

A while ago, I wrote about freedom in DH. I got a comment on that and wrote a reply, but my response overran and is probably more suitable and certainly more readable as a post of its own. For convenience and context, here’s the comment:

What are your thoughts of DH and D&D systems vs totally free RP on forums etc?

To me, the greatest difference between PnP (pen and paper) RPGs like DH or D&D and an MMORPG or even a standard single player RPG like, say, Diablo or Baldur’s Gate, is the extent to which decisions are made based on the players.

The first thing to do is to acknowledge the impact D&D has had on mainstream internet gaming. The essence of D&D is characteristics measuring physical or inate prowess in an area (eg. strength, or charisma) combined with skills (things you can learn) and talents (remarkable things about you). The majority of the game is in skill checks, which are done via a random number (generated on the tabletop by dice) and utilise your innate characteristics and ranks in your chosen skills to determine whether you have been successful in your attempt to deploy a skill, or how successful (or not!) you’ve been.

Does that sound like pretty much every RPG ever? It should. From games you’d definitely expect to see it in (Mass Effect, World of Warcraft) to those you wouldn’t (Borderlands, The Sims), D&D always has and likely always will remain at the heart of gaming.

But why is it so popular? PnP connoisseurs will be aware of the myriad of alternate gaming systems out there, including things like GURPS; it’s not as though there’s a surfeit of choice for budding games designers to co-opt inspiration for their systems rules from traditional PnP games besides D&D.

Well firstly, D&D was popular at just the right time for it to be a firm favourite for the generation of geeks who grew up into the developers pushing forward the boundaries of games design today. This seems like a bit of a cop out in terms of answering just why D&D has had such an impact on computer games design, but there’s no other way around it: the geek zeitgeist at the height of D&D’s popularity ensured that the system had a lasting impact on those responsible for making systems design choices for today’s games.

dungeons and dragons motivational imageI think the other main thing to think about is randomness. Why do we have randomness in games? Why isn’t gaming totally skill-driven? If you pause to consider it, shouldn’t you hit someone in your favourite RPG by swinging your sword using the mouse or keyboard at the right time? Shouldn’t your skill as a player dictate your character’s prowess?

On the face of it, I personally would be tempted to answer yes to those questions. Now for the sake of full disclosure, I enjoy playing FPS games too so that obviously affects my perspective on the issue of skill. I think that the ideal game would require the player to actually display some ability; I find there’s more fun in that kind of thing than in pressing Mega Blow whenever it recharges.

However, there’s a problem with totally skill-driven RPG gaming and it’s this: it doesn’t fit with levels. I mean, your level is there to represent your character’s power and ability — but if the main thing which governs that is the player and not the statistics, a level 5 character could easily be far more powerful in-game than a level 25 character and if that were to be true then the level system would have lost all meaning.

Levels are borrowed from PnP RPGs because in that medium player skill is difficult or impossible to judge; how do you define skill in describing your character’s actions? In the world of video gaming though, it’s suddenly possible to include genuine displays of ability. Your character Jim-Bob might just roll a die to see whether he manages to make a particularly difficult jump in PnP D&D, but if you’re playing it on an XBox or PC then isn’t that jump’s success better determined by requiring the player to physically time the jump correctly?

As above though, whilst such things are commonly applied to simple things like jumping anything more complex tends to be left up to a random number generator (or dice, in the PnP games). The reason for this, in my view, is that the human brain is too good at learning. Inevitably, the players will face the same challenge (or a similar one) and quickly be able to overcome it in future by applying or adapting successful tactics from previous encounters.

a d20 showing a roll of 20

Dude, you rolled a 20. You rock!

In a game like Half-Life 2, the developers’ commentaries reveal just how carefully they train the player: a mechanic will be shown to the player once (or their hand held through the first instance of that mechanic). This will then allow the player to use or adapt that skill in future. In an RPG though you don’t necessarily want that, because an RPG (at least, 99% of RPGs) are about progress.

Difficulty is difficult. As a GM, I find getting the balance of risk vs capacity vs reward fairly trying sometimes. How dangerous should this activity be, to counter-balance the potential rewards whilst also not being impossible with an eye to the party’s’ current ability levels? Within the confines of a truly level-based system it’s difficult enough, but it would be fiendishly hard – if not impossible – to successfully balance for a party of different people in a truly skill-based system.

Doubt what I’m saying? Try assembling a Counter-Strike team of vastly differing abilities. If you can match that against an opposing team whilst keeping everyone equally challenged, I’ll eat my own face.

And who does that balancing? That’s actually the crux of the issue. Despite the fact your PC can now return instant search results for almost any subject you desire, despite the fact it can participate in the search for a cure for muscular dystrophy or search for an alien civilisation, despite its ability to give you the answer to complex mathematical equations in less than a second, your PC is really stupid. PC (and Macs, if you’re offensively stylish) are hardware strictly limited by software and currently that software is really, really bad at thinking.

The closest we currently have to the way human beings think in the computing field is a neural network. But this technology is just not good enough to allow your PC to make judgements. You’re basically sat at a very expensive pocket calculator. You wouldn’t expect a pocket calculator to run your PnP gaming session, would you?

The reality is that when you run a dedicated D&D game like Neverwinter Nights your PC really has no idea about whether it’s providing the right level of challenge. It’s just guessing, based on the database of possible enemies and the indexed threat level of those enemies. If that data is incorrect, your PC is blindly going to provide the party with an encounter which is of an inappropriately easy or difficult challenge.

And frankly, that’s not all. Because how do you assign a threat level to something? A critter which can paralyze its foes is of a much greater threat to a class which relies on mobility, and that’s something that a PC just can’t consider in the same way a GM can. What items do the player characters have? What are their specialisms? In what areas are they weak? These are questions integral to balance but currently these myriads considerations are absurdly hard for video games to truly consider.

A PC (or Xbox, or PlayStation, or Wii, or…) therefore has as its primary role the limiting of the player and the environment. It’s not about what you can do, but what you can’t because determining what is outside the player’s capabilities is frankly much easier than deciding what they can achieve.

I have experience in browser-based games design and in running (and participating in) PnP gaming sessions. The latter is much more simple despite its increased complexity. It’s counter-intuitive but it does make sense when you think about it: the human mind is designed to solve problems in a way that computers really aren’t just as computers are designed to handle numbers in a way that nobody can hope to compete with.

Right now video games just don’t have the access to context which allows human GMs to run a free-form campaign and so they inevitably end up being far more linear or sacrificing story to a large extent.

Pen and paper RPGs are strange: their systems are designed to constrain possibility to create an even playing field and represent character skill in an environment where player skill is either absent or impossible to judge; however the fact they have an interpreter in the GM rather than in the software layers means they are inherently far more flexible. If I want to tell my story rather than a pre-packaged story, I’d always look to a PnP RPG system.

Rulesets which by their nature bind on the PC are able in a PnP backdrop to facilitate creativity and open up new possibilities. Slavery is freedom.


A waste of time?

Another of my hateful Dark Heresy-related writings. For the unfamiliar, Dark Heresy (“DH”) is a roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons set in the Warhammer 40,000 dark science fiction canon. GM or ‘game master’ is a term used to describe the person in charge of the gaming session, who typically controls the plot and the non-player characters.

I last wrote about how if you’re a GM you shouldn’t write sessions too much because it results in a lack of player choice. Now, because I’m nothing if not inconsistent, I want to talk about how rules designed to improve the quality of your writing also help equally in making you a good GM and making your sessions enjoyable.

There are a million and one rules for good writers, but here’s two which I find particularly useful to keep in mind whilst I’m writing. They’re from a set of eight principles covering basic writing and they’re the brainchild of Kurt Vonnegut (who, for those not acquainted, is a really very good writer).

The other six principles are good too, but I want to concentrate on just these two. I’ve taken them out of order, but here they are:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

In a roleplaying game like Dark Heresy it’s very tempting as a GM to turn the game into a simulator. It’s simple to see the players’ characters have a particular event or situation befall them, then to begin providing a simulation of that event rather than a game adaption.

When I’m writing and a character wants a glass of water, I can handle it in three essential ways. Firstly, I can describe how they feel the urge, the manner in which they stand up, the size and shape of the glass, the noise the water makes as it falls from the tap, the way the cool water tastes in the character’s mouth and how satisfied they are at having met their desire for refreshment.

Glass of water

Actually this does look pretty enticing.

Secondly I can convey it in a sentence. They stand up and pour themselves a glass of water, then drink it down in a single gulp. Finally, I can not mention it. Seriously, who cares? It’s just water. Where’s the relevance? It’s not building character, it’s not advancing the plot… it’s just wasting the reader’s time.

One should take a similar approach in Dark Heresy. You can’t (and shouldn’t) control the things your players do, but you can ensure that no matter what they do there’s always something interesting in it. Don’t waste anybody’s time, including your own.

Practically speaking, this involves recognising what is and isn’t important in the player’s actions. If what they’re doing isn’t advancing the plot, and if it doesn’t provide you with an opportunity to provide an interesting experience for the player, then you should skip through it as rapidly as possible. By the way, rarely is it impossible for you to throw an interesting experience into the mix, be creative!

Some of the coolest ideas I’ve had when thinking about the most recent campaign I’m acting as GM in I’ve had to throw away because whilst they sounded cool they didn’t really afford my players a chance to do anything cool. This is an important difference; if you’re adding things you think sound cool but which the players’ characters are unimportant in then you’re essentially forcing them to watch you undertaking a bit of what I’d call ‘narrative masturbation’.

Narrative masturbation is where you as a GM are simply doing things because you can. I think the rule is that if the players are observing something cool instead of causing or partaking in it, you’re guilty of narrative masturbation. You’re just showing off by trapping the players in a situation where they need to listen to you imagine something cool. The players don’t even need to be sat there for this to occur, do they?

Those kind of things aren’t interesting, and whenever I’ve encountered long chunks of non-interactive storytelling in DH as a player I’ve found my brain turning off and my eyes drifting inexorably to my watch, wondering what else I could be doing in this time.

Every encounter you design, every bit of exposition you deliver, every place you create for your players to visit, ask yourself one question: am I using the time of a stranger in such a way that they won’t feel it was wasted?

If you’re not, throw away your ideas, pull out your pen and start writing.


Cast away your notes: why I don’t plan Dark Heresy

For the uninitiated: Dark Heresy is a roleplaying game, like D&D, set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

Sometimes I like rails. For example, when I’m on a train or a rollercoaster. These are good rails; they keep me safe and prevent me flying at high-speed into a messy death. Sometimes I don’t like rails. For example, when I’m roleplaying. These are bad rails; they make me play your story when really I’m more interested in mine.

Is that a bit selfish? Your NPCs have big guns, and there are explosions and one-liners worthy of a CSI: Miami style WOOOOAAAHHH! That’s great and all… but the reason I’m finding it fun is that I like the characters the other people are playing with, and mostly because I like the character I’m playing.

I want to know more about my character. I want to discover it. Thinking about it now, isn’t it true that the best novels and films are built around characters? Take The Departed, one of my favourite films. That succeeds in telling a thrilling and exciting story, but it’s really a story about two characters. I won’t spoil the film by discussing it in-depth, but it essentially looks at a man from a bad background who makes good, and a man who takes the easy route to power and lives a double-life.

Do you want the plot even more simply? The Departed is about just one character: the bad guy living a double-life and the journey he goes on. Compare him at his most cocky early on, to that haunting final scene of acceptance at the end. That’s what the film is about.

No offence Mr GM, but though your story is great, my character’s untold story is better. Please let me tell it.

I started as a GM by adapting a pre-written story published by the games’ designers. I had an idea of the overall plot I wanted, and had decided to be as free as possible in how the players proceeded to tell my story. Retrospectively, I realise it was the wrong choice, but at least I had intended to allow the players freedom in how they got from point A to point B.

But we were all new to Dark Heresy, in fact we were all new to roleplaying. When they finished that first pre-written story and I told them to tell me what they wanted to do next, I was met with confusion. Nobody really knew what they wanted to do, nobody really knew what they could do.

And so I folded immediately, lacking confidence in my vision of how I could allow the players to continue. I set them on a path with only a few diversions which all ultimately led to the same places. I hope it was enjoyable along the way, but it was came close to a choose-your-own-adventure story. You find a warehouse, do you go in the side door or the front door? If the side, turn to page 9!

Rail-roading, in roleplaying terms, is putting the players on a figurative train, the only capability of which is to go forward along a linear path — your narrative. There’s nothing I dislike as a player more than playing through a session which I feel has been written. Go to X, speak to Y, go to Z, kill everyone. There is no freedom and all I can do is dictate my character’s response to your situations, and often a truly in-character response would be outside the scope of the adventure the GM has so clearly planned in detail.

Player choice?My concession to the idea of being freeform was to write a list of clues, characters and locations and just switch things about so that no matter what the characters did they still got to the same end point. There’s a great phrase for this, called ‘rail-Schröding’. It’s named after the famous thought experiment with the cat where you must consider a cat in a box potentially containing poison as being both dead and alive at the same time.

In a GMing context, there might be two doors. You have a location in mind, and whichever door the player chooses that’s where the location ends up being. In other words, all doors point to the right direction. It’s at least a bit more free than simply having one door to the right place and forcing your players through it, but really how free can it feel if there’s only one location to end up at?

Moreover, it creates a sense of amazing luck for the players which they will eventually find breaks their immersion in the universe you’re creating with them. Whichever place they go will always turn out to be the ‘right’ one!

I recently began running my second campaign after months of playing campaigns run by others. I went into it determined to avoid that rail-roading pitfall which befell my first campaign and which I felt I had experienced in those of others. It didn’t mean they weren’t fun, but that I felt I was always working towards a particular resolution and the only way I could fail to reach it was to die or abandon the mission.

Let me be clear. I failed. I knew I wanted to set the scene and put the players in a certain position of being cast out by their organisation and forced to fend for themselves. This I did, but I did so through rail-roaded games which evolved into rail-Schröded games. I could have achieved a much more satisfying beginning to the campaign by allowing the players to tell their stories during the setup phase, and have the events unfold around them rather than having them locked into a rollercoaster car powering past the narrative I had envisioned.

Now we are in the middle of the campaign and I decided to do what I had originally intended to do and let the players take the lead. For the last three games sessions we’ve played, I haven’t had any plans written down. It works, too. I haven’t had a set of rails for them to travel along. The most planning I’ve done has been to consult my original ‘master’ list of clues (to provide some structure should they wish to pursue certain lines of inquiry related to the events which befell them) and to set up a few ideas for places.

I don’t mean pre-planned locations. I just mean ideas, or themes. Where my players are right now I know they have set themselves a certain objective, so I have thought about some ideas on how they might meet that objective. I need to ensure things are more complicated than simply arriving and immediately fulfilling their objective, because I need to ensure there is a framework around which they can tell the stories they want to tell about their cool characters and the cool (and frankly, often crazy) things they do.

One of my players said during this session when his character was approached on the street randomly by a man advertising a circus “looks like the GM wants us to go to the circus” and it made me chuckle. I had no opinion on whether they should or not. I certainly don’t have an idea about what will happen when they go there.

Well, I tell a lie. What I plan for when they go there is that they will watch a carnival show. If they opt to do nothing whilst they are there, that’s all that’ll happen. I’ve now got ideas about what the relevance of the carnival is, but I only developed those after creating as some characterful interaction an NPC amongst many other street sellers who earlier approached them to promote a carnival in town. The player’s response interested me and I thought it might provide opportunities for them to roleplay and develop their characters.

And if they don’t, then so what? If they abandon all the leads they’re following now and decide to start totally ploughing their own furrough, so what?

It’s not my story I’m telling. It’s theirs.

July 2018
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