Category Archives: Speculations

Resonance and aimlessness

Prompted by nothing in particular, some thoughts about Game of Thrones.

At one level, Martin has an amazing accomplishment. His world is symbolically believable. Many of his characters have become almost iconic. Most creators never reach the point of establishing even one such character. In contrast, for example, Moorcock, despite all his creativity, really only has one or two (the character of Elric, the idea of Stormbringer; maybe a popularization of the struggle between the principles of law and chaos).

Consider in contrast the list of powerfully identifiable Game of Thrones characters. Circei, Tyrion, Brienne, Jon, Arya, Daenerys, Joffrey!, Petyr, Samwell, Davos, Melisandre, and that is just off the top of my head. “Winter is coming.” The new gods and the old. Wargs. The faceless men. Melisandre’s summoning. The wall. Even Tolkien might have fewer such characters and concepts. Bilbo, Gandalf, Golem, a realization of the Norse Ring mythology, Smaug, maybe Thorin, maybe the Steward of Gondor. There are probably a few more, but not that many and either way the contest is close.

Now, I am not really interested in arguing whether these characters resonate or not with you or any other person in particular; I think it would be difficult to reasonably claim, however, that they do not resonate more broadly. Madonna cosplaying your character is some sort of achievement unlocked.

Back in the late 90s, I read the first couple Song of Ice and Fire books and liked them well enough, but at some point Martin fell afoul of my Wheel of Time rule* to avoid multivolume doorstop fantasy sequences unless they are finished. So my experience with Westeros is mostly recent and through the HBO series.

In contrast to the power of his characters and setting, the plotting of Game of Thrones is muddled. Part of this may be decisions that were made for the TV adaption, but I suspect that this is true of the novels as well based on the few that I have read. When you have 10+ plot lines moving in parallel, it is difficult to make them all matter. For example, how can it be that Bran Stark has not showed up at all in the first five episodes of season 5? The story sprawls too large and loses its focus. It almost feels as if Martin himself sometimes forgets about what is happening to some of his characters. I find myself caring less about what happens, and this is not because of the low character life expectancy. Living or dying, the outcome just does not seem to matter all that much.

* Still active and broken only once for The Name of the Wind.

Ruins of Valeria (source via Google Images)

Ruins of Valeria (source; via Google Images)


Naively, the current RPG community breaks down into three basic camps. New school, old school, and indie or story game. While this is an oversimplification, a perusal of a number of games on offer lends some substance to the categories. Fourth Edition D&D and Pathfinder: new school. B/X D&D and Lamentations of the Flame Princess: old school. Apocalypse World and Torchbearer: indie. This division exists based on a number of factors, including marketing reach, the fuzzy borders created by online forum participation, player expectations about game objectives, and differences between the actual texts of written rules.

Many rules properties have been highlighted as potential differences. For just a few examples: lethality, quantity of character options, thematic coherence, rules coverage comprehensiveness, friendliness to ad hoc rulings, loci of narrative control, amount of prep required, rules heaviness, the number of resolution mechanics used. None of these factors is necessarily primary, as the old/new/indie categories are vague, though many of them are important. A dimension which I have rarely seen discussed, however, and which seems core to the difference in the approach many of these games take is the idea of proceduralism, by which I mean the degree to which a game directs your actions as a player or referee.

Many old school games do not provide direct procedures. Instead, they give examples of the kind of things participants might do, often with a short script-like example of play. This is both a weakness and a strength. It is a weakness because it is notoriously hard to learn how to play an RPG (which involves conversational form, conflict resolution, rules math, and many other components) from a text alone. It is a strength because it leaves the borders of potential wide open, assuming that you want to use the rules more like a toolkit than a how-to manual.

Of the old school games that I have read, OD&D and the Basic/Expert series have the most direct procedures. The first most likely because Gygax was essentially just telling you to do what he had done (“Before it is possible to conduct a campaign of adventures in the mazey dungeons, it is necessary for the referee to sit down with pencil in hand and draw these labyrinths on graph paper”) and the second because Moldvay was trying to create a self-consciously pedagogical text (more than a game with focused design, I would argue). Both of these works are only peripherally (or unintentionally) procedural; certainly nobody reasonable would claim that a referee that did not “sit down with pencil in hand and draw these labyrinths on graph paper” was breaking the rules of OD&D.

Skipping forward a bit over the “story focused” 90s, we arrive at the Forge, the post-Forge indie scene, and the games that arose from those seedbeds. For some concrete examples, consider Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard, Torchbearer. Apocalypse World puts forth the rules as conversation mediators; they are things that kick in “when someone says particular things” and that “impose constraints.” Dogs in the Vineyard, Chapter VI: The Structure of the Game begins: “If Dogs in the Vineyard were a board game, this would be the board” and then presents an outline in the form of alternating directions to player and GM. And later in the book: “Every moment of play, roll dice or say yes.” That is a pretty strong directive.

Torchbearer moves play through a series of different phases in a predefined manner, sometimes requiring character tests for transitions. Town phase leads to adventure phase, which may lead to camp before adventure again, or back to town. To someone used to D&D, this may just sound like shorthand for referee narrative, but it is structurally different. After three adventures, there is a winter phase. Wait, what? But what if we adventured three weekends in a row? No, that is not how Torchbearer works; you can’t do that. It breaks the rules, which abstract time in a certain way. D&D flirts occasionally with turn structure at different time scales, moving from the dungeon, to the wilderness, to the domain (“wargame”) turn as needed, but in a less defined, sometimes confusing, and certainly often overlooked manner.

A game may be procedural in one domain but not others. For example, combat in all editions of D&D is more procedural than many other fictional activities. The game grabs hold of you and does not let you go until you have performed the necessary steps. Though there are little islands of such proceduralism, no edition of D&D really tells players what to do when moving between these islands. This is not necessarily a flaw, but rather a different rules property that creates its own set of consequences.

It seems to be an implicit article of faith among many game designers that proceduralism has pedagogical advantages, and that games written with strict procedures are easier to pick up. This is possible, but far from established, and any such claim must also take into consideration extratextual resources such as the oral knowledge of communities, both distributed on the Internet and as passed between groups of friends in person. The game is more than the text.

At a first glance, this may seem like a critical evaluation of the procedural tendency in many of these more recent games, but that is not the intent. In fact, the rules project that I am working on right now (which grew mostly out of my “JRPG Basic” Gravity Sinister experiments) is highly procedural. The many procedural additions I have made to my ongoing OD&D game have mostly resulted in gameplay improvements. You can see further gestures toward this direction in A method of play and Gravity Sinister gameplay. However, all that said, it seems to me that there are some real trade-offs involved in going in either direction along the proceduralism axis. This is not at all a case of more procedural games being more advanced or more evolved than less procedural games.

Rogue, sorcerer, warrior

Why this split? This began as a comment on a Google Plus conversation, but I think it’s worth a blog post. For me, the split is based on two things: problem solving tools and archetypes. For archetypes, the inspiration is swords & sorcery. This, in my opinion, is uncontroversial and does not need further elaboration (other than to remark that the cleric, if taken too far away from the original Van Helsing and Solomon Kane inspirations, does not fit so well aesthetically or culturally).

Clerics are really a hybrid class in terms of problem solving, and could potentially be either fighter/mages (for the trad crusader vampire hunter that also has some magic) or thief/mages (a version less often seen, but just as thematic for zealous witch hunters or hashashin characters). However, the hybrid nature of the cleric means that it can be understood based on the other three main classes, so no more need be said about the cleric independently.

The primary problem solving qualities of the core classes are: combat/renewable resource (fighter), combat/consumable resource (magic-user), utility/renewable resource (thief), and utility/consumable resource (magic-user). Thus, the magic-user is more versatile, but resource-limited (and in most incarnations, more fragile). Obviously there is some bleed between the approaches when you consider the actual implementation (everyone can make melee attacks, fighters can still use some magic items, etc). So that’s where the split comes from in terms of OD&D game mechanics.

Edit: I should also link to Talysman’s post on classes and problem solving here.

Inconsistent or unknown

In a comment on a Monsters & Manuals post, knobgobbler wrote:

One of the reasons I won’t GM for my regular Saturday group is because I KNOW those guys will pick apart anything I run… ‘Oh! that aqueduct wouldn’t work that way!… and ‘Oh! You’ve got the physics of that all wrong!’ I’m really reluctant nowadays to run anything for self-proclaimed ‘gamers.’

This experience is alien to me. Anything like aqueduct mechanics is a mystery, from the PC point of view. Sometimes I will know why the (for example) aqueduct works the way it does, because that will be something that I have thought about, and sometimes I won’t (it’s obviously impractical, not to mention boring, to think over every fictional thing beforehand).

In either case though, if a player ever says something like “hey, that doesn’t make sense!” the response would be: yeah, that’s kind of mysterious, do you want to investigate, and if so how? If I already know some backstory, then the player can figure it out through adventuring, and if I don’t, then we can figure it out together.

Affordances and aesthetics

Odilon Redon - The Black Torches

Odilon Redon, The Black Torches

Assume for a moment that you have a game artifact. This is a thing, to be “used” with your games in some way. Maybe it’s a setting write-up, or a module, or a bestiary. Maybe you wrote it, maybe someone else wrote it. First: it’s important to note that these things are all the same sort of thing at some level, and thus this is not just a discussion about modules, but of any product useful for gaming. But what does “use” actually mean? Consider the idea of affordances from ecology.

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.

That’s by Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, chapter eight: The Theory of Affordances (bold items were italicized in the original, but my theme blockquote style loses that).

Okay, that’s a lot of words; how about an example? From the same chapter:

The human species in some cultures has the habit of sitting as distinguished from kneeling or squatting. If a suface of support with the four properties is also knee-high above the ground, it affords sitting on. We call it a seat in general, or a stool, bench, chair, and so on, in particular. It may be natural like a ledge or artificial like a couch. It may have various shapes, as long as its functional layout is that of a seat. The color and texture of the surface are irrelevant. Knee-high for a child is not the same as knee-high for an adult, so the affordance is relative to the size of the individual. But if a suface is horizontal, flat, extended, rigid, and knee-high relative to the perceiver, it can in fact be sat upon. If it can be discriminated as having just these properties, it should look sit-on-able. If it does, the affordance is perceived visually. If the surface properties are seen relative to the body surfaces, the self, they constitute a seat and have meaning.

What are the affordances of a game-thing? I’m not talking about the physical object, but rather the affordances of the virtual objects that arise in the shared game space that players conjure together that derive directly from the game-thing. This is the use of the game-thing. Examples. A stat block (or perhaps HD + AC) affords fighting. If a thing has hit dice, it is fightable and killable. An exact site map affords constrained exploration and movement. A more abstract map (graph-style, perhaps) affords a different kind of movement and interaction (where relationships are more important than distances; see page 5 of this, by Patrick of False Machine). A treasure (in GP = XP games), or more generally a rewarded goal, affords character advancement.

Numbers and game mechanics are not the only (or even most important) affordances, however. Because as Roger put it, fluff is crunch. Thus, the adjective “covetous” attached to an NPC may afford more game utility than 100 stat blocks. If that is true though, what isn’t an affordance? Why are so many game-things so hard to use, so badly designed, and so padded with useless information? Some of it is just redundancy (text spent explaining that there are trees in the forest, or fish in the fish market, to borrow an anti-example from Vornheim). Some of it is prolixity (writing in full sentences what might better be apprehended as a list of keywords; there is a reason why referee notes are so often in this form, and it’s not because they are “unpolished”). And some of it is just bad organization (putting things that are likely to be needed together in separate places, thus requiring page flipping or even context switching between different books). That is, there are good forms of redundancy too. So, all those things are non-affordances that take up space in modules, and are all pretty much unarguably bad design.

Even factoring out those mistakes though, game-things are more than just affordances. That paragraph of imaginary history, or an evocative description which you won’t have time to read during a session but which might help communicate a mood. Like psychological priming, and memories, game-things have a lingering (and useful) influence on the consciousness of the referee. On that subject, a while ago on G+, I wrote (in retrospect, incorrectly):

In an adventure all of that backstory is useless unless it impacts the character’s adventures.

And James Raggi responded:

It colors the Ref’s attitude towards the material which should directly impact the way the adventure is run.

He’s right, and such details are often valuable, and can even be independently works of art in their own right, but such details do not afford game play. Further, unless such exposition is organized exceptionally well, this mood-filler detracts from the other useful ideas contained within the product, and may even render them inoperable. Then you get the dreaded wall of text experience where you can’t find the relevant details when you need them in play (and this can be critical to the functioning of the game-thing, such as clues for an upcoming trap, rumors about a nearby area, prophesies of a future doom, or weaknesses of a specific enemy).

The degree to which a game-thing, as game-thing, is game-functional is the number of affordances from the game-thing that are enabled to arise in actual play, and the degree to which the non-affordance aspects of the game-thing get out of the way. This is, I suspect, why so many game products work so poorly at the game table, despite being creative and enjoyable to read.

Feat creep

In the recent Legends & Lore article, Mike suggests that ability score improvements could be a simple alternative for feats. This is not something I would use, because I don’t think it’s a well-crafted trade-off: a bland bonus that is likely to affect the thing you do most often versus something specific that might add some texture. It also encourages numerical inflation.

The suggestion that it will be common for characters to “raise their key ability to 20” seems particularly unfortunate. Players often use ability scores as a form of personality profile. How boring is it that all melee fighters will ultimately have 20 strength? Isn’t class level (with attack bonus and so forth) supposed to capture the idea of progression in class competency?

Having a prestige class be essentially a preselected feat chain is not a bad idea though (sort of the high level equivalent of the lower level “specialties”) and is easy to tie into the setting diegetically, which I like. It also allows people who enjoy complex character builds the opportunity to mix and match feats but means that players who are not interested in that minutiae can just go by high level flavor, like Warhammer careers.

I don’t think there should be any mechanical prerequisites for feats though, except maybe level. Needing to consider the dependency graph for feats in earlier editions is a big contributor to the overwhelming complexity of the feat system. The model for magic-user spells is a good one, from a game design perspective. Distributing the spells over multiple levels keeps the initial complexity down, but allows for significant individualization of characters over the course of play.

OSR dogma recency

It have long thought that many old school gaming principles are fundamentally reinventions and reinterpretations rather than rediscoveries. Here is more evidence for that, from N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God, page 20:

The DM must remember that it is important that the party get to the dungeon. Encounters that are obviously too strong for the group (especially if they have been weakened by previous encounters) should be reduced or bypassed—for example, the party might come across a predator’s kill or war party’s trail instead of the the actual monsters; or they might be able to sneak past a monster that is otherwise engaged. On the other hand, a very strong party might encounter up to double the number of creatures or more. In all cases the DM should match the challenge to party strength and to the general flow of the adventure.

Basic D&D has some similar advice, but the text from N1 is notable in that A) it is even more explicit and B) it occurs in the first “beginner” module, ostensibly designed to teach new referees and players how the game works. N stands for “novice-level” and N1 was published in 1982. If this passage was found in a recently written module by someone like James Raggi or Matt Finch, it would be considered the rankest of heresies.

Personally, I prefer OSR distrust of predetermination and balance over the TSR advice. Why bother even putting numbers to challenges beforehand if you are just going to scale them to party strength? Why roll dice if you are not willing to live with the result?

Balance redux

Anything that is a threat to PCs can also potentially be used by PCs creatively.

This is why balance is unnecessary in an open-ended game.
I don’t think game fairness (which is really what we are talking about when we talk about balance) depends upon being able to defeat foes. A threat could be totally impervious to PCs and still useful to them. Consider the hypothetical invincible monster (such as, for example, the Dungeon World version of the Tarrasque). All you need to do is figure out how to get the paths of your other enemies to cross with the Tarrasque, and it will do your dirty work for you.
The same is true, of course, for even the most devious traps or the most deadly hazards.

Judgments & hazards

Vincent Baker on the role of the GM in DitV:

Most importantly, don’t have an answer already in mind. GMing Dogs is a different thing from playing it. Your job as the GM is to present an interesting social situation and provoke the players into judging it. You don’t want to hobble their judgments by arguing with them about what’s right and wrong, nor by creating situations where right and wrong are obvious. You want to hear your players’ opinions, not to present your own.

Dogs in the Vineyard, page 124

There are a number of interesting parallels here to what high-quality D&D play is for me. In a sandbox game, you don’t want to hobble the choices of players in terms of where they should go or how they should approach a problem, nor create situations where there is a clear optimal solution. There should always be interesting trade-offs, whether those trade-offs are spending more time to be more careful or taking one route rather than another.

I’ve yet to play Dogs, and it’s always hard to get a sense of how an RPG will play just by reading it, but this looks to me like the social hazards are somewhat isomorphic to the D&D dungeon. Not in a plot sense, as is sometimes discussed (where dungeon-like event flow charts are created), but more like a set of potential connections between various NPCs and their interests.

In D&D, making a physical choice is almost always what engages the risk/reward system, whereas in Dogs the act of judgment engages the risk/reward system. Judgment is more abstract, which is perhaps why the stake setting system is required. The same kind of thing is going on in D&D, it’s just that what is at stake is usually more obvious, and so requires less mechanical centrality.

Spectrum systems

Image from Wikipedia

There are primarily two types of resolution system. The first kind is pass/fail, which I will call binary. The attack roll and saving throw are examples. The second kind has multiple degrees of success. I will refer to the second kind as a spectrum system. Examples of spectrum systems include the variable damage roll, the 2d6 reaction roll, and the Apocalypse World roll.

To complicate this taxonomy, binary systems are often actually limited spectrum systems, but with possibilities for super success and super failure results at the extreme ends of the possibility set (or auto-hit and auto-miss). Considering the attack roll, Natural 20s and natural 1s are examples of this sort of system, as are critical hits and fumbles. These systems are still closer to binary than not though, and I’m going to put them aside for the moment.

Many people play without using any spectrum system other than the damage roll. The 2d6 reaction roll was even removed from WotC versions of D&D. For myself, I find the spectrum systems very important. Here are a few examples of five-fold 2d6 rolls that I commonly use (with the exception of the magic roll, which is still a work in progress).

Social Rolls
2d6 Negotiation Reaction Morale
Refused, -1 future
Will consider another offer
Fights, check again
Accepted, +1 future
Proactively helpful
Fights, no further check

Cosmic Rolls
2d6 Weather Magic
2 Tempestuous (rolls -2) Catastrophe
3-5 Inclement (rolls -1) Miscast
6-8 Calm Delayed success
9-11  Pleasant Immediate success
12  Gorgeous Puissant success

When using the weather system, I apply reaction penalties by season (winter is -2, autumn and spring are -1).

Thanks to Christopher Wood from Carapace King for the suggestion of the term resolution spectrum.