The Limits of Designing for Role-Playing.

I think this may surprise people, but the thing that had actually set me on the “warpath” of the Blinders, so to speak, of people saying their games are about and using advice to get there instead of rules, was RPGs. That is to say, it was games where the goal was to role-play, it was games where not only people role-played, but that was the declared goal.

I remember looking at some discussions, and I realized, Dungeons and Dragons is not an RPG, or at least, it’s not in the design, but “merely” in the play. I say “merely”, because perhaps that’s all there is. I looked at D&D, and I looked at the rules, and I saw nothing there that would make me roleplay. I saw very little there that even rewarded me for roleplaying, and quite surprisingly there wasn’t even much advice geared towards getting the players to roleplay and flesh out their characters’ personalities and history.

Perhaps it’s not very surprising, as aside from the Hero Builder’s Guide (which cost money for very little), most people seem to “know” what D&D is about, and are initiated into it by friends or know what to pick up. So they didn’t need to add it, because they knew that people will be told what they need to know.
Of course, they may have also realized there was very little else they could do, because you can’t do much to design RPGs.

 If I were to discuss the ontology of a “Game”, I’d say a game does not exist when it is not played. A box of Dominion or Settlers of Cattan contains the system and the physical components needed, but it doesn’t contain a “game of ___”, that game only springs into existence when people sit around and engage in the activity.
This I think is also true for roleplaying, but I mean it in a slightly different form: There are no role-playing in the rules, there’s no role-playing procedure (yes, when you are training for your job and such, let’s stay focused), but the role-playing game? It only exists, there is only role-playing when the players engage in that activity, when they play a role.

This seems like a rehash of what was said about games, but there’s a difference. The difference is that there is no game if you don’t play the game, but you can play an “RPG” by playing the game and not role-playing. For there to exist an “RPG” rather than “rpG” (where only one aspect really exists), the players need to make an actual choice, the choice to role-play. This is not something the designer can do, this is not something the designer can even assure. This is up to the players.

Though a “Story” is very much the same, I do not think humans can avoid creating (“telling?” one), so I think most designers should content themselves not with trying to ensure that people would role-play while playing their games, but to allow for games where role-playing is an easy option that is not over-eclipsed by other concerns.

 You can help by having stories that the players can relate to, that they can place themselves in, you can give them entities that have personas, who are theirs to control, and with whom they can identify, or even identify the characters as their medium of affecting the world/story. Basically, provide sockets for the players to plug into. People mention “Immersion”, and immersion is a tool, or rather, a state, where some of this is achieved. But even if people think from the an “actor” point of view (not Forge theory usage), of “I“, that it’s them who react, it’d be enough.

The other side is that you need to avoid making something that has nothing to do with portraying a role as much more interesting and rewarding to the players. If you take an exciting game and add role-playing to it, people might shove the role-playing aside just in order to get to the “good bits”. And if story and role-playing is not entirely dispensable, but is the vehicle to get from one mechanical exchange to another, then it’d be stripped down and zipped right along, because the goal of the mechanical exchange is where the focus lays*.

The reason I think it may work better within LARPs is because it gives you a visceral grounding. Even if you keep feeling uncomfortable because you feel the vast distance between yourself and your character (and perhaps suffer from fear of performance), you can’t help but be the one who is acting, be the one who is acted towards by others. You almost can’t help thinking from a first person (actor?) stance, “What am I going to do?” And of course, people tend to give LARPs looser systems, probably for lack of comfortable mechanical tools to make use of (dice, cards, charts).

I think all of this should be liberating to game designers. Once you make sure that players have ample opportunities to plug into certain sockets in the game, and once you make sure it can be an engaging and interesting activity even within this game, you’re good. You don’t need to make sure that everyone will role-play, you needn’t make sure that role-playing is the natural outcome of playing your game. You can’t, and only the players can. Heck, even when it’s the “Natural Outcome”, how much of it comes because the players pick it up expecting that they’ll role-play there, if because it was marketed as such (and/)or because previous editions of the game were like that? Just like Dungeons and Dragons.

Also, that’s why I focus on “Story-Games”. Basically all role-playing games are Story-Games, but Story-Games can be good, can be emotional, without being RPGs.

* This happens when you take a meaty 500 page book and try to fit it into a 90 minute movie, sometimes. You cover all the plot-points, but that’s all they are, merely points you hop along, rather than a story with impact. But maybe that’s just me.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Competition as Training Wheels.

Quite recently we held a discussions called “Competition? What for?” on this very blog, and with this post I’m going to give a suggestion on a possible role of competition in games, specifically RPGs.

In most traditional RPGs, there is one person, the Game Master, who weaves the story and the world. Players can act and then the GM has the world and story react to their actions, but in case the group is more reactive, or even passive, the GM can push the story forward, forcing the characters to react and take a stand. The game progresses one way or another, and the GM, a good one, helps ensure that it is so.

A common problem when traditional players are faced with more recent games is that the task of narration is suddenly thrust upon them. It is not uncommon for players to freeze in such an instance. But we’re not going to dwell on that. Many a time these games are based on the assumption that all players will push the game, their characters, the story and/or the world forward. They will introduce complications, go out of their shell and make things happen. Sadly, this often does not happen.

When you have no limitations, you often get nowhere. You are paralyzed by too many options. Once you are limited by some constraint you have an easier time of figuring a direction in which to move and act. Before being thrust into a new game, many a player might do well to have some in-between stage. I posit that competitive games can be that stage (as well as a non-competitive game to which you add a competitive side for this explicit purpose).

You can treat story as a vector along which to enact competition or competition as a vector along which to tell a story. It matters little. Once there’s competition present, there’s a direction. It is clear what the goals are, who you’re competing with and why. Once you have a competition, you may very well not explore other facets of the game or enviroment, but remember, you limit freedom in order to foster creativity and lower paralysis, and once creativity is fostered, you can later remove the competition and have the players use the new knowledge and skills they had gained to explore the game.

Competition has many uses. There are too many games that once you finish reading them you say, “Cool, but now what do I do?” Competition answers that question. You compete, and if the rules make you create a story as you go along, then by the game’s end you should also have a story created and told.

Next month I’m going to focus a bit on the Story component of games. I hope this short entry was useful to you. It was intended as an answer to the previous post more than as a post of its own.

Competition? What for?

When I asked Ron Edwards to tell me what he thought about Cranium Rats, he had also said the following, reposted from private discussion with his permission: 

“The real question at the abstract, CA level, is what am I demonstrating by winning. It is not interesting to me to “compete in order to tell my story,” and I’m not sure if that’s what you’re working towards, or whether it’s a trap that you’re skirting.”

 And when I replied talking about competition for its own sake, he replied once more.

“I think that competition always has to showcase something – endurance, skill, what I call “strategy and guts” in my essay, in some form. There really is no such thing as a truly random competition – at the very least, you have to show that you’ve got the guts to stick it out until the end.

So I think you’re dodging my question. I’m not questioning the validity of competition or that it’s not fun. I’m asking what do you show by winning, and indeed by playing Cranium Rats. I’m also not saying there’s nothing there. I’m sure there is, and am asking because I’m not taking the time to figure it out.”

And you know what, I honestly do not know how to answer Ron’s competition. I am not sure if I know what the competition is about presenting, and I’m sure that if I do know then I do not know how to put it into words adequately.

Suppose that you’re playing a sports game, it is clear what you are better at by playing. But then again, if people did not enjoy competition for its own sake, why would they play games where they lose? Take Settlers of Cattan, supposing there are four players playing, three will lose. Why do they play? For the chance of winning, and if they keep on losing, why do they keep playing, or will they quit?

I’m going to use Capes as an example, simply because there’s still not much else out there for me to talk about. As far as I can tell, or as I call it, you win in two different ways: The first, you gain control over the narrative in order to tell the story. The second is to gain the type of resources you need and get rid of the ones you don’t, which feeds into gaining your first objective.
What “winning” Capes proves is actually spelled in the text, it’s knowing what makes your other players tick and putting weight on these levers. Finding stories/elements they want to control and bidding them for it.
It’s about proving you know how to manipulate others, though there’s no defined “Winning Condition” so I may be talking in the air.

So, I believe that based on us playing competitive games, the competition in and of itself gives you some fun. But help me figure it out, use your own games, use my game, talk in abstract. What do you prove by the competition in CSI Games, what happens if you don’t have something proven or one can’t tell it (Possibly the game isn’t fun and falls on its face?), how do you tell what the competition is about?

This is our Project Discussion for the next 3 weeks, to end on the 25th of December. Take one of the games on the CSI Game List and try to answer those questions.

Here is another issue, if two people think the competition is over something different, do both win, do both lose, or things fall apart? For example, one that competes for the mechanical win and one that competes for control of Narration in Cranium Rats? By Wednesday I’ll have a post dedicated to the matter linked here, to aid in this discussion.

Edit: There’s a link posted a line or two back, edited in as promised.

Discussion Continues; The Cobwebs Attack.

You may have noticed the recent lack of posts. If you have anything to say regarding CSI Games which you can formulate as an article, feel free to send it, now is the time. I will use them to bridge the gaps in my own posts as I recover from my recent bout of severe tiredness. The next month in the army is promising to be extremely tiring and busy, so bare with me, and please, send me entries.

The voting for the CSI Logo are ended, and with 32% of the votes, I present to you the winning logo:

Winning Logo


This is the second Discussion post, and it is tied into the newest Project we’re kicking off, of finding/creating a “Definition” entry for CSI Games. Like the well-known “What is an RPG” entries other games have.

In order to support the effort it’d be asked that games will use such a “Definition”, each one could use their own, naturally, but I think we’ll do good to start creating them here.

Thus; submit your definition of “What is a CSI Game”, anything from 150 words to 400 words(0.5-1 page seems optimal size), and post it as a reply to this post. Other posters should feel free to post suggestions, thoughts, fixes and so on and so forth.
I am doing this before I’m posting my updated “Definition/Review” because I think this will be telling.

So go on people, and write in “Game-book voice”, what is a CSI Game.

CSI Game Criteria; On Figuring Out if you Fit.

So on the previous entry we’ve covered what a CSI Game is, now I’ll add the last entry needed in order to complete the CSI Game project scuffolding, after this post, the project could technically stand on its own.

This entry is about figuring out the “CSI Game” Rating of games, and figuring if your game fits into the criteria.
CSI Game Rating is based mostly on your intentions and their executions, with an added final weight given to subjective opinion on the quality of these paremeters and their integration. The rating goes from 0 to 10, with 0 being “Not a CSI Game” and 10 being “A CSI Game through and through”.

If any of the four individual ratings(Competitive, Interactive, Story and Game) get a score of 0, then the game is not a CSI Game, you may still continue to check the other criteria, to get its “Virtual CSI Game” rating.

1) Competitive: This is the Litmus test, most games will not have this criteria, this most distinguishing criteria, and will thus fail to register as a CSI Game.
Does the game create tension between players, does it intend to, does it succeed?
* Does the game push for Competition as one of its goals? If Yes, add 1 point.
* Does the game use mechanics that create, encourage, reward or in any other way illustrate Competition between the players? If Yes, add 1 point.
* How well do you think those mechanics work, on their own, and in order to accomplish the goal of fostering Competition? Add up to 1 point.

2) Interactive: Does the game foster interaction between players? Can you sit on your own and play without the game, or yourself being harmed?
* Does the game push for Interaction as one of its goals? If Yes, add 1 point.
* Does the game use mechanics that create, encourage, reward or in any other way illustrate Interaction between the players? If Yes, add 1 point.
* How well do you think those mechanics work, on their own, and in order to accomplish the goal of fostering Interaction? Add up to 0.5 points.

3) Story: Do you create a story as you play? Is the story part of what you’re actually playing for? Is Story just an after-thought?
* Does the game push for Story Creation/Telling as one of its goals? If Yes, add 1 point.
* Does the game use mechanics that create, encourage, reward or in any other way illustrate Story Generation? If Yes, add 1 point.
* How well do you think those mechanics work, on their own, and in order to accomplish the goal of creating a Story? Add up to 0.5 points.

4) Game: Is this a “Game”? “What is a game” is a hard thing to answer, the short answer is, “You know it when you see it”. Is this played as a fun activity, rather than as an effort whose goals are to tell a meaningful story, explore the concept of…
* Does the game actually act like a Game, with its goal being having fun and such as described above? If Yes, add 1 point.
* Does the game have a finite finishing point? If Yes, add 0.5 points.
* Does the game have a “Winner” once it ends? If Yes, add 0.5 points.

And now you too can channel the spirit of CSI Games folks. Now I want your help to steer me further.
Now, as I’ve asked on The Forge:
1) Do you “get” anything out of the current posts on CSI Games blog?
2) What kind of tools/topics do you wish were covered?

Also, we got mentioned.

CSI Games; A Definition.

First, tried to get a game of Cranium Rats going today, still no luck. Fate is conspiring against your faithful writer, who will keep fighting back, and will eventually win.

So, we keep talking about CSI Games, but we do not yet have a clear definition of what comprises a CSI Game. What we do have right now is what I said in my first post on the topic. To whit:

“..”CSI Games”, CSI being Competitive Story Interaction. These are RPGs(“What is an RPG?” is a question I will leave unanswered for now, hoping you know what I mean) where there is a story being generated, but the social interaction is competitive and even antagonistic in nature, rather than the “Cooperative” mode suggested and propagated throughout our hobby’s history. In a way, this is us going back to Board/War games, from which our hobby draws much of its history. I’d say that we’re growing in the opposite direction, rather than regressing.
What is Chainmail, Dungeon and Dragon’s Proto-form if not a Wargame to which one adds little acting? So CSI Games are in a very real way RPGs to which you add a Wargame mentality!”

So we’ll start with that as an introduction and continue to construct a definition, one that hopefully could be used as is, or as a basis in game-book introductions.

CSI Games.

C is for Competitive/Cooperative.
Most games under the umbrella of “Role-Playing Games”(RPGs) till now had been Cooperative in nature, the social interaction between players, players and Game Master(GM) and that of between player-characters had been Cooperative. This is the origin of or originated from the “party”. We’re all in this together.
This may also be a leading cause into the “You don’t win in RPGs” when explaining what you’re doing to an elder family member.
The other side of the coin is that which I am putting up as the main identifier of CSI Games, the Competitive side. Competition is something inherent to human interaction, inherent to the act of gaming. You find competition in Board, War and Card games, along in most sports(where you have competition between groups and cooperation inside them). I want the players to compete, whether for spotlight, victory, control, in-game resources, whatever. There need be a competitive element somewhere in the game.
It should be reflected in the mechanics as well, but that comes second.

S is for Story.
We’re here to tell a story, to hear a story or experience one’s wake. We’re not here to merely roll the dice or shuffle the cards. Unlike board-games and card-games, we have a story unfolding here. If we don’t, we’re dealing with something else.
Story often goes with Cooperative. The story-building part is a joint effort by all participants.

I is for Interaction/Isolation.
We’re playing a game with other people, you interact with them. You want to help them stop that other guy from winning, you’re talking to them and trying to stop them, that’s also interaction! You do not play in a void, you’re playing with people, interact with them.
Mechanics should have some way to represent and encourage interaction between the players.
Isolation has little place in this scheme, it’s mostly there as the other side of Interaction, where you’re “Snubbed” for game reasons, as others ally against you. Alternately, if you’re snubbed for out-of-game reasons, you’re unlikely to do well in game, or have fun.

Game is self-explanatory.
This is a game, it has winners. This is a game, it has rules. This is a game, it is an activity you do for fun. This is a game, one of the basic human activities, and you know one when you see it.

So we are left with CSI Game, or Competitive(/Cooperative) Story Interaction Games.
Isolation plays little part in this, and is mostly there as something to be avoided.
Competitive is what sets this apart from other games, so we’re paying it more heed. Cooperative is also there, but more as part of the Story or Interaction bits and less as an individual agent.

This is what a CSI Game is, if you disagree with me, or think of a better name or definition, this is the place to argue so.
If you think “CSI” is Geeky, this is where you get to voice your piece.

Direction Shift, Refocus; Board/War/Card Games and RPGs, an Observational Treatise.

First, I’d like to note that I was in a sort of a funk regarding LJ lately, which explains the lack of updates. I am now adding a new directional goal for my journal, that of exploring my RPG related thoughts and creations. This will lead to more posts, although they may be of limited interest to those not interested in exploring RPGs or my creations.
Sleeping World Journal is merely postponed, not abandoned, fear not loyal reader.

For those of you who missed it, I am currently working on an RPG that I call “Cranium Rats”, you may view it and other things of mine on Cranium Rats Central.

*******

The following is a treatise of sorts, regarding my experiences, observations and hypotheses regarding Competitive RPGs and how they relate to Board Games and Card Games. It may be posted later on the Forge in some manner, but remember, you saw it here first!

First, some experiences and observations thereof:
I played multiplayer Magic: the Gathering. Here are some specific cases. When we played in a three-way free for all combat one of us was about to be finished, leaving the other two players to fight amongst themselves. The losing player whined and so we let him live, he created a life-gaining engine which we let him use so he won’t whine and he ended up winning by Decking.
This showed me that unlike most board-games or card games created for the multiplayer format, Magic has a major drawback: Those who lose stay left out till this instance of gameplay is concluded. This is unlike Blackjack where one is only left out for a short while or Poker where it’s one’s own decision when to Fold. In games created for multiplayer format rather than have a “Loser Out” they have “One winner and game-end”, which results in no one being left out while others are still playing.

Another instance was of me creating a deck specifically for multiplayer. But rather than have a deck which hurts multiple opponents to my benefit, I’ve created a deck based on “Fear Factor”. The deck made use of Pestilence, a card which hurts all players and characters equally. I told the others so: “You don’t attack me, I may or may not use it, you attack me, I use it and everyone, including you, suffers”. It worked, no one wanted to lose, so no one attacked me, letting me watch with glee and mess with everyone as I saw fit. This was an especially good choice for me as I am often the “Strong Pick” and thus marked for execution early on, more on this later.

Munchkin, the card-game by SJG. In it you race in order to reach level 10, backstabbing, or rather, fore-stabbing is common and encouraged. You dump monsters and curses on other players, steal their stuff, while trying to muscle your way past your “friends” doing the same to you. I play this game with my family; myself, my two younger siblings and two of our cousins. My sister plays a mean style and tries to take me out, or rather, stop me from winning.
I always win, or did till now. Sister always came in second.
When someone considers doing something to me, I threaten that I will reciprocate the “Favour”, that is usually enough to deter them. My sister says to the other players: “So he’ll do it to you, and then he won’t be able to do anything more to anyone, because he’ll use his resources”, I answer, “Then why don’t you attack me and suffer the brunt of my retaliatory attack?”.
This shows us that while everyone wants to win, also no one wants to lose. Also, by creating dissent amongst your opposition you may go through relatively unscathed, or they will only join in too late. As I will show in the next paragraph!

Enter Settlers of Cattan, a classic if I ever saw one. I’ve first played Settlers of Cattan in a convention, where the three other players knew one another and I knew none. You may think that I had the disadvantage, that they will unite against the unknown, the outsider, and will only later turn against one another to finish business. That was not so.
People who know one another mark each other as “Strong” and “Weak”, “Ally” or not. They assume that the opponent they know to be strong must be stronger than the unknown. So I used it to my advantage, as two of the friends united I offered an alliance to the last remaining player, and dumped him the moment I got what I wanted from him, trusting in my own capabilities. His friends later would not ally with him for he allied with me, leaving him alone, as I was, but much weaker.
Towards the end the other players noticed my burgeoning kingdom and decided to ally together in order to stop me. This was too little and far too late. Their pooled resources could not stop me.
Board games and other competitive multiplayer games rely far more than your average game on your relations and knowledge of the other players, as it shows you out-of-game(or out of game instance) reasons to ally and target other players.
You want to win, and more than that, you don’t want to lose.

Enter Worms, the computer game by Team 17, my cousin and I play it together, us and two teams of computer opposition. We always say we’ll kill the computer first and only then turn on one another. We never manage to stay till the end, some targets are just too juicy, and we know we’re both better than the computer. No one wants to give the other First Strike.

Enter RPGs.
Recently I’ve witnessed the nascent snow-ball movement of what I will call “CSI Games”, CSI being Competitive Story Interaction. These are RPGs(“What is an RPG?” is a question I will leave unanswered for now, hoping you know what I mean) where there is a story being generated, but the social interaction is competitive and even antagonistic in nature, rather than the “Cooperative” mode suggested and propagated throughout our hobby’s history. In a way, this is us going back to Board/War games, from which our hobby draws much of its history. I’d say that we’re growing in the opposite direction, rather than regressing.
What is Chainmail, Dungeon and Dragon’s Proto-form if not a Wargame to which one adds little acting? So CSI Games are in a very real way RPGs to which you add a Wargame mentality!

Paranoia is the first game I’m aware of that supports, even suggests, such mentality. The backdrop of the game is little but a tool to foster a “Me or them” mentality, a “We or them” and “Me or we” mentalities combined. The setting is all for you being out to get others, while hiding yourself and covering your ass from being “Had”. The players know that all characters are traitors, and if a character proves another is a traitor, then that character’s iteration(yay clones!) is offed. This encourages you to look out to screw other players, protect yourself from being screwed over AND accomplish whatever the homicidal Computer/GM throws at you, so you won’t ALL be offed.

Rune and DonJon, both take D&D and turn it on its head. Rune has one going for points, technically, everyone is together except when it’s one turn to take on the “GM” mantle and create obstacles for the others, but since one “Scores points”, one is always looking for number one. Here’s a hint, every player’s number one is himself.
DonJon has the players act together against the GM, but the two are on adversarial terms, same as in HackMaster. All conceits of “We’re all here just wanting to play a game together” are thrown aside as drivel, we’re here to play together, but we’re here to win alone, or against one another.
My best friend treats almost all convention games as DonJon, him against the group but mainly against the GM and the GM’s world, seeing how fast he can break it, and how mangled it’ll end up.

Recently(in order) we’ve had Capes, which while I’ve not read seems to foster inter-player competition for resources. One need only glance at what had been brought up over the last two months, and a bit before:
Apocalypse Girl, which to me is very much like the Illuminati card game(non-collectible) by SJG.
Cranium Rats, my own game, which is very much like the Munchkin card game. You play one of three Aspects of one character, these Aspects control what the characters do and try to win them over completely.
The Uchtman Factor, where you bid and vie for definition of the protagonist according to your viewpoint.
Champions of the Gods, which gives a board-game feel where you try to complete a certain amount of quests. It came from Game Chef 2006, and as such also sports a limited time-play, board-game did we say?
Conflict:Eridani, which combines an RPG with a “Zoom out” to the Wargame strategic level, ala the Birthright computer game of the early 90s.

For those who look at the above list and say some of those games, especially mine and The Uchtman Factor deprotagonize the character, I say to you this: The character may be the protagonist of the story, but we’re playing these games also for the competition, for the game. And as such, the character is not the protagonist of the game, the Aspects the players play are. Also, who is a protagonist once you look at the “why” of their actions?

EDIT: Shit, forgot to actually write the text of the point this post was striving for.

So, why this at all, and why now?
Look at the board-game market, it’s blooming, as there is much cross-pollenation between our geekdoms, it is inevitable that many a roleplayer is affected by boardgames he’s been playing. Also, this may very well be a counterweight reaction to the Narrativist CA and the “Emo” movement of the 90s.
Same as against the Simulationist and tactical heaviness of the 80s we had Vampire in the 90s, and against the story-front lightness of the earlier decades the Indie RPG movement of the late 90s and the beginning of the new millenium came a Story-front, now we have a new void being filled. See a need, fill a need.

Board games are fun, dammit, all those that say they take “Less” out of you don’t know what they’re speaking of, competitiveness is involvement heavy. However, they give you back something totally different, a gratification that had been infused into your genetic pool, of proving your worth.
I think the snowball will keep on rolling, first the Meme infects you, then it makes you propagate it.
Next post will be about Memes in games!

Questions, comments, flames!

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]