Competitive Games and Handicaps.

The previous post was mentioned on RPG Theory Review. Always warms my heart when it happens. I’ve noticed the blog wasn’t updated recently, and I hope it will soon be updated once more.
Not that I’m in any position to complain, seeing as my last post was back in July 07. I’ll try to write some posts these coming months, even if I’ll take a break afterwards, I have several post ideas written down (and have had for a while, the problem is actually writing them down).

I am looking for people to write articles for this post, especially those who design competitive or seemingly competitive games, which also have story. I am especially interested in writing about the interactions between Story and Competition in the game, and how that interaction had shaped the direction of the rules and game-play.


And now we will get to today’s topic. Today’s post was inspired by this thread on Story-Games, “Hardcore Gamism and Dysfunction Within the Big “G””[1], where Jonathan Walton recounts discussions with Eric Pinnick, and also references an article by David Sirlin.
I did not read that thread fully, and as such, this post is merely inspired by it. Some points I make have already been made on the thread, but the overall conclusion seems to have not been made there.

(Edit: People suggested I add my conclusion up top, to clarify things: I posit that it is better for a group to find a game they can agree to play, as it is, without the need to add handicaps to it. Adding handicaps as opposed to finding a game where the gameplay will be the same, but without the need to add those handicaps, will only trouble those players who are extremely focused on competition, at all costs)

So you have a competitive game, one where you compete with others. There are often more powerful techniques, ones that if you’re not aware of or not familiar enough with, you will have trouble countering and will probably lose to, there are some games where there is nothing you can do to counter, we will discuss those harsher games later.

Two weeks ago I was visiting my cousin, and we were playing Tekken 5. I play the game two or three times a year, always when I visit him, whereas he has the game in his room and has been playing it extensively. There are several characters with a move that takes a long time to charge (meaning you can smack them before they can set it off), but if that strike connects it takes out roughly 3/4ths of your health bar. My cousin used these constantly, and the game stopped being fun for me, so I told him to stop using these moves.

There is a very important question, laying behind the issue of handicaps (I think I may have assumed you’ve read at least Jonathan’s series of original posts on the inspiring thread, forgive me). What do you find fun, and when we move into the realm of Story/Roleplaying games, what does the group find fun; and then, what sort of balance you seek, or at least find acceptable.

If for you, playing the game is fun, things that cut the game short, or stop you from playing, will make the game less fun. Magic: the Gathering combos where the player wins on his first turn, do not let the opponent do anything, and stop them from having fun. When I began playing Magic (back in 1996 or so), I had a deck with 160 cards, I then went down to 120 cards, 80 cards, and eventually to the 60( and rarely 64 card) decks. I’ve played with people who were much better players than me, they had much better decks than me, and I’ve lost. I’ve always said that you learn more from losing in Magic than you do from winning. I’ve played, I’ve lost, I’ve learned, and I’ve had fun.
However, had I constantly played against players who would’ve won before I had the chance to do anything, or anything more than draw a card and play a land, I would not have studied what worked and what didn’t (except the opponent’s combo, that it works), and I would not have had fun.
There’s a reason Wizards of the Coast handicaps certain decks; some are considered “too tough”, and we’ll address the issue later, but some, simply don’t let the other player do anything, it stops being a game of competition between two players; one plays a solo game that the other is all but unable to affect.

 If what I care for is the playing, the adversity, I will be having more fun if I play with someone on my level, or someone that is acting on my level. How much adversity do you get from stepping on a slug? How much adversity do you feel like you’re providing when someone is stepping on you as a slug?
I cannot prove it, but I’ve always felt that while sprinting, both people get the best results if they’re nearly evenly matched. When you’re far ahead of someone you don’t step on the gas fully, and when someone is already 20 meters ahead of you (on up to 100 meter runs), you give up.

But do we not also get a good feeling, simply from winning? I feel good when I win, even if it’s playing Magic against my ten year old cousin. Winning feels good.

And so, most of the above was talking about reasons to employ handicaps, but there is, as always, the other side. I will discuss this other side in more detail shortly, but first I’ll talk about the Social Contract, the reasons and methods that this will work out in a group, specifically one where the games also involve role-playing/story-telling. After discussing the other side, the anti-handicap side, I think I’ll return to the group-play once more.

I am going to make an assumption, but I will make it explicitly, and I believe it is an agreeable one; we play games to have fun. It is our explicit goal. Different people find different things fun, and find them to be fun to a different degree (look at Mo‘s Sockets idea). We can try and maximize the whole group’s fun, by creating a formula where we look for a maximum value on the output, and then decide what values to use based on it. Of course, we don’t actually do it in such a codified manner, and furthermore, each player may require there to be a minimum value to certain variables (combat, story, immersion; Mo’s sockets again provide useful terms), and each player requires themselves to have a minimal fun factor for them to keep playing.
As such, we try to reach the maximized value of collective fun, that we can, and can maintain.

This is especially important with competitive games, where one player’s fun may come at the expanse of another’s. This is even more important in competitive story games (our blog’s focus, we’re getting there!), where this is not considered the norm, and many people consider it to be antithetical to what they are trying to get out of the game. Handicaps as we will shortly see also infringe on the fun of some competitive players, while they may feel required for the non-competitive players; some may require that competition will not harm the ‘value’ of the story, and that things be carried out mainly for reasons driven and benefiting the story, rather than the competition, reasons that revolve around who will ‘win’ or advance the most.

To the highly competitive player though, handicaps are anathema, they diminish from the competitive game. Let us take Eric and myself, as an example (Eric, if I’ve misread you, I apologize): If I play a perfect competitive game (perfect means, “I think it’s perfect”), I’m happier than if I’m playing a perfect non-competitive game. If I play a non-perfect competitive game, I’ll have more fun playing a non-perfect non-competitive game[2]. I am much more invested when playing a competitive game. I am much more invested in the mechanics. I am much more troubled by something which does not let me play out, not to my strengths, but to the full extent of the game’s system.

Handicaps are extraneous, they come from outside and limit you, within the game. Look at Chess, no one considers the fact that you are not allowed to simply remove an opponent’s piece from the board a handicap, but not being able to use a certain move in Tekken, one that the game’s engine, technically, lets you play, because a certain group said so, is a handicap.
And this ties back to the social contract issue. After you’ve selected a game, setting up handicaps in order to maintain the fun of the rest of the group, in order to maintain an overall high level of fun, is too late. The highly competitive player is already suffering, and many of the reasons are explained elsewhere (the opponent is too weak, too unskilled, values “X” over competition which is what matters…).

The solution, if the competitive player is so troubled by handicaps, and the non-competitive player is so troubled by the lack of handicaps in games which he perceives to need them, seems quite simple to me: the choice of adding handicaps or how to resolve the social contract issues after the game is chosen is too late, as I’ve said before, the choice must be made before the game is chosen – the choice is the choice of which game is chosen. The game must fit the desires and needs of the different players as it is now, before any changes, any handicaps, are applied to it.

This is a challenge to the game designers. Though I, and many self-pronounced “Competitive designers” are seeking to create games that are handicap-less, and quite possibly such that non-competitive players will deem are in (dire) need of handicaps, perhaps we also need, for different crowds, and in order to effect the rise of competition in Story Games, games which are without handicaps, but where the extreme parameters are such that other, less competitive people, will not feel the need to limit them (Magic without combos, or without combos that kill before turn 4-5, where many creature decks can win as well).

There need to be games across the spectrum, games with enough competition, but where people, or different people, will not see the need to add handicaps. Once we add handicaps, we’ve already got the competitive players disgruntled, and the non-competitive players? They may have been happier playing non-competitive games to begin with (though there are also spectrum players; I enjoyed Tekken’s competitive nature, once the “killer blows” were removed).
Spectrum. Variety. There must be enough games to choose from, and you need to choose the fitting game, that too, or perhaps that especially, is a critical part of competitive games’ game-play, on the social level.

[1] I will leave my problems with the title alone, as they will not contribute to the actual discussion at hand, and will yield meager returns for the energy this discussion will consume. I do want to note that I dislike the title though.

[2] This is why this blog is here.

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.

“CSI Games for All!”?; On Promotion

So, Emily Care Boss, author of Breaking the Ice, talks about CSI Games, even though it was prompted by me, asking her if she thinks her newer game(Shooting the Moon) fits, because I think it does. This raises an issue close to my heart, the issue of promotion.

I raised the issue of how Capes is promoted earlier. When I asked Tony about why he promotes the game as a super-hero game instead of putting Conflict in front, his answer(which I can’t find…) was(IIRC) that it didn’t attract as many asses, and when he talked about the playtest he said that focusing on it as super-hero game got him something to compare it with.

I serve in the army, people often ask me about what my game is about, and what RPGs are in general(It’s still the easiest to go from the RPG angle, CCGs and non-family board-games are all but unknown to the public in Israel, unlike Dungeons and Dragons, and if even D&D fails, LotR). When I tell them about the game, I eventually tell them about the Colour, the fluff, the setting, and that is what most people go “Cool!” about. Ron Edwards often says that he cares most about Reward and Colour. Me? I could care less about Colour, I don’t care for Capes’s Superhero aspect, I believe Werewolf: the Apocalypse high politics and Vampire: the Masquerade hack-and-slash are viable choices.

What this shows us is simple, and even obvious. Not all types of promotion benefit all folks. When I came up with Cranium Rats, the Conflict and Competition quickly took center stage, and the Colour, while I love it, isn’t half as important. But if you’d look at ECB’s Shooting the Moon love triangle situation, I think the conflict came from the colour and not vice versa, and selling the game as “A game about Competition” rather than “A Game about a love triangle and romance”(though very much the same) would hurt the game, would hurt the promotion, more crowd would be lost than crowd would be gained. 
I on the other hand talk about Conflict and barely mention Colour, which may not work as well, but I rather do that than “Bait-and-switch”(I think most people who like Capes like it because of the Competitive element, and those who dislike it, dislike it for the same reason, selling it as a superhero game doesn’t inform your audience if they’ll like it or not. I, like Alexander Cherry, am surprised when the game is brought up in Super-hero game threads, I don’t find Super-hero game content in it, though I love it for other stuff it has).

Those of you who do identify your games as “CSI Games”, please mention it in the text, if Competition is what you pride yourself on, do so on the first page, put the “CSI Games; a Definition” post in the front of the text. If your game happens to be a CSI Game, but that is not the focus, but yet you identify your game as such, please put a mention somewhere, even if on the book’s last page or two. This project is all about creating a support-net for other people who work on CSI Games, but once our games get out there, it’ll also help to point people who like the competitive angle to other games who contain that aspect.

JJ Prince, John Kirk, I’m looking at you, this also applies to playtest versions!

Regarding Crowd

This is an addendum to the previous post.

So, I got this PM on The Forge from John Kirk who’s working on Gnostigmata(he’s currently looking for playtesters), in response for me trying to get him to playtest Cranium Rats since as you can see from the last post we CSI Game designers are the most suited people to help one another:

“Guy, I’m sorry I’ve got to turn you down. It has taken me many months to convince my group to try out Gnostigmata. And, in fact, it has taken me a couple of years to warm them up to play-testing some new concepts for Legendary Quest. I truly wish they were more amenable to such things, so that I could offer to help other gamers try out their stuff, but it’s just not in the stars.I wish I knew why so many gamers are so reluctant to try out new things. :-/”

My reply to him was as follows:

“One last thing, the thing about CSI Games is that you should test them with card and board-gamers.As Ron said, it’s at all surprising RPers of mainstream are even willing to try narrative games. Need to branch out to non-RPers :)”Role-players tend to stick with what they know, RPGs, when Sorcerer came Ron directed it at those who did not have fun with what they did before, those outside of the “mainstream” of RPGs, it was a surprise to him that some of them(us) even took to it and tried to understand.

Now I think the same is happening with CSI Games, you have a better chance getting it playtested with card/board gamers than with role-players.

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CSI Games: So Why Bother?

I love it when other people do my work for me. So we have a question, “Why do we need someone to push forward the idea of “CSI Games”, a further subdivision of our hobby?”

The answer begins in this post where I outline what CSI Games are to begin with and how they differ from what is out there right now. Expect a more formal answer, one that people could(hopefully) put in their projects’ introduction, soon.

Then along come two people, Paul Czege and Sydney Freedberg and make my point for me:

Paul:
“..but I think the extended development time is more because my goals are outside the development tradition than anything else. I’m designing for Acts of Evil player characters as static antagonists, and NPCs that emerge from play as protagonists. And I’m trying to provoke creative and interesting antagonism from the players via competition amongst them..”

Sydney:
“Paul, that’s fascinating. (Plus it allows me to console myself, as I labor on the playtest-proven brokeness of the third set of core mechanics for apocalypse girl, that the reason this is so much harder than the two RPGs I designed in college and played with my friends is that I’m trying to do something radically new, even if it is essentially second-generation Capes).”

We have the methods for Simulationism, we have the methods for Narrativism(if only for a short while now), we do not yet possess the tools for Gamism, not in this hobby.
We know how to simulate reality, and in the books we pay for the engine. We know how to format a good narrative, and we charge for the experience. We are now working on the tools to construct constrained competition, and we will charge for the Game Experience.

We do not yet have what we need, we cannot simply say “Take Settlers of Cattan and narrate some story event for each turn”. We are starting anew, and we’re alone, or so it seems.
The experience of those who came before can only take us so far, and look at the net, look at The Forge, what are they if not tools/places to have people meet and help one another?

Those who work on CSI Games should playtest one another’s games. Those who work on CSI Games should help others push towards the CSI Game nature and goals from the board-game and Narrative ends.
If we won’t help one another, no one will. We currently have to work inordinately hard to playtest, since we do not have much to compare our work to.
We have to work inordinately hard to find playtesters, because people have a hard time wrapping their head about what we do.
Even if we ourselves won’t benefit from this meeting of minds now, hopefully things will be easier for the next generation.

Well, I guess that is my mission statement for the CSI Project, thoughts, notes, comments?

On another note, Cranium Rats V. 1.2 Beta is now live, and the game will progress no further till substansive contribution(playtesting) is made by outside parties.

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