Role-Play Vs. Playing a Role; The Semantics’ Attack; The Immersionist Trap.

Here we are again, with another semi-service announcement. In a day or two I will post a new post that will gear towards the next Project. That post will require your replies, and without them it’d go nowhere. So please keep your eyes open, and once the post gets here, give me your opinions!

I must give you a piece of my meandering mind, that is, before I continue to do so with the body-text of this post. I have noticed something funny, as I gear up to write a post, that is, think of the post’s topic, I start noticing all sorts of things which support/relate to my topic at hand. Or people only start saying these things when I begin thinking of them? ;) Anyway, take a look at Michael Shermer’s Skeptic column on Scientific American’s July 2006(Volume 295 Number 1) issue, about fighting self-induced bias.

So, someone asked about Role-play in Cranium Rats, and I said it’s not an RPG, it’s a CSI Game. Role-playing is a possible side-effect, but isn’t the goal, or a goal, that I try to accomplish or facilitate. This brings up the horrible question(or debate) of “What is a Role-playing game?”
Add to this the piece of information I came across over the weekend on Ron Edwards’s Gamism article, which in turn is originally from the GM section of Arrowflight (2002, Deep 7, author is Todd Downing):
“The best games are those where everyone is playing a role, striving for a goal and working as a unit (that doesn’t mean that every character must like every other character, but player must at least properly play the role they’ve chosen).”

Now we reach the problem, at least, what I find as a problem. On one hand we have “Role-playing” and on the other we have “playing a role”. It seems like there is no mix-up, these two phrases, but then, let me present you with several cases: In Magic: the Gathering you portray the role of a planeswalker, in Monopoly you play the role of an investor, in Settlers of Cattan you play the role of the expedition/community leader. Do you consider these to be Role-play experiences? You do not, which shows a disparity of terms.

This disparity of terms didn’t come from nowhere. Language shapes thoughts, language shapes ideas. I posit that this is something of an Immersionist Trap, if you want to see some discussion of Immersionism, then Thomas Robertson is having an Immersionism Month on his blog, this very month.

The thought at the base of RPGs and the definition thereof is that Role-play is where you have a chance to immerse yourself. To act your character through and through it(for a short and simplistic meaning of the term). Then we reach games where the seperation through your character and you is distinct, or there is no character per se for you to portray(how does one “Feel” the Colour Red, how does one “Think” Cloud?).

If we do not treat these games as RPGs then our definition is exclusive, and we remain stagnant, with the same kind of games to draw from, whereas if we act in an inclusive manner, these borderline games are pulled under our umbrella, and then a pod is shot to the next-closest kind of game, pulling it under the umbrella as well. So that slowly but surely we expand the definition of RPGs. The Immersionist Trap defies time. We may call new games RPGs, but then the games they were linked to from, which had already been accepted, come under attack again, since they still do not allow for Immersion, or not the degree of which that these players seek.

I think that RPGs should be defined in a manner not dissimilar from Kevin Bacon’s Six Degrees of Seperation. Some games are RPGs because they are “Like D&D”[Insert link with Mike Mearls saying that all RPGs are basically “Like D&D”], and from there we slowly connect the games, until each game that we can connect to with enough points and under a certain amount of steps is now also called an RPG.

Check out this thread where Tony Lower-Basch shares some wisdom from his wife. It’s all RPGs. It’s all worthy of discussion and inclusion. If you’re too cool for school, then go away. And if you don’t want us in your schools, because these “Aren’t RPGs”, then you’re the fool.

Winning and Losing; Tony/Capes “vs.” Guy/Cranium Rats.

So, since I'm mucking about with L-Space these days, this post is actually influenced by the next post, which is yet unwritten, that post, and by proxy this one as well, will deal heavily with personalities and how they affect games. I'm going to mention Tony Lower-Basch quite a lot, he's the 'other' exemplar of CSI Games, he published Capes, a quite well known CSI Game, when the other CSI Game I'm going to make use of in our examples is obviously Cranium Rats, simply because I'm rather intimate with it, more than anyone else at this point. Tony and I also have such personalities that make it fun or at least interesting to bring them up(just look at the Muy Macho thread on Story-Games to see what I mean). I am going to contrast Capes and Cranium Rats, compare and mull over things, I will also speak of Winning and Losing and somewhat of how a Game is a personal outgrowth of its writer. Ready?

The following is a PM reply from Tony to myself, reposted with permission: 

"Quote from: Thunder_God

What elements of competition exist between the Players in Capes?

Well … there's the game, and pretty much every single one of its facets in whole and in part.  So, yeah, quite a bit actually.

Quote from: Thunder_God

What brought on this desire for competitive play?

'cuz I like beatin' on people."

Tony said the following on here on The Forge: "First thought:  What does the losing player get when the conflict resolves?  Do they get some sort of payout for the many tokens that they accumulated on their way to defeat?  That would make me more willing to take a chance:  either I'm close enough to close the gap (in which case I've got a lot of tokens, and the reward if I lose will rock) or I'm so far out of the running that it's a foregone conclusion, and I want my loser-tokens as quickly as possible."

He also said the following on Story-Games: "Or perhaps it's just a question of having a genre that gets a large number of people on the same page. Like, with Capes, I could basically say "superhero stories, like Spiderman and Superman" and people immediately had thoughts about what was important and how to do it. But with Misery Bubblegum the best I can say is "stories of misunderstanding and relationships, like Pride and Prejudice and Nine Princes in Amber" and people reasonably say "What? What do those two things have in common?" It doesn't give them the same confidence that they know what high-points need to be hit, and how to hit them."

 So now we have several quotes by Tony, which show us quite a bit about him, Capes and his Capes, and now we're going to address and contrast with these. Yay for us.

So there we have Tony, talking about how Capes is all about Conflicts, yet the promotional teaser is all about Super-Heroics. When Capes originally came out I didn't buy it because it was just another Super-hero game with the Click-and-Lock Gimmick to me. I didn't need just another superhero game. I recently bought Capes after getting the above PM from Tony, which showed me what the game was actually about was Conflict. See, that's one place where Tony and I differ, he sells his game as a Super-hero game, not espousing the conflict in promotion, where I don't pay much attention to colour in CR and focus almost entirely on the conflict.

I think Tony could benefit from putting a little bit more focus on what his game is made almost entirely of, and I know I should put more focus on colour/setting.

When it comes to mechanics, I advise people to think before putting in "Flavour of the Month" just because it's cool and it works. It should work for you, in your game, and as we will soon see, follow your personal philosophy of how a game should go.

Case in point, I took the "Sweet in the Middle" from Tony, where if you have too much or too little of a resource you're not that well off, but there's some optimal spot to be in. This creates another axis to make decisions on; once you reach the sweet spot, if you do nothing, then what good do you get? Also, if you have some mechanic that keeps pushing you to the edges then the struggle keeps going on. This mechanic is present in Capes in the form of Debt and was inserted into Cranium Rats in regards to Dice in your Die Reservoir.

However, look at Winning and Losing, which seem to show our personal philosophies, and how Tony may not be as Muy Macho as he claims(desires?) to be. Tony believes that if you "Lose" you should get some "Loser Benefit", where in Cranium Rats it's more "All or nothing"(though it's more like "Increment or nothing" with the need for multiple increments for "Much" and various "Much" for "All"). I understand where Tony comes from, but it doesn't strike my fancy. In Cranium Rats, if you lose, you lost an opportunity, resources and/or chances of victory(at least in the near future). In Capes, and it seems that it's his general design goal, you don't "Lose" when you lose a conflict; it depends on your goals. You may have wanted to lose in order to gain or get rid of specific resources, the only real way to "lose" in Capes is not to get the outcome you desired, if you "Lost" while you got your goal, then it's not really losing.

End-game is an issue tied to losing and winning, in the form of "Victory". Capes does not have end-game, whereas Cranium Rats does. Mike Mearls would say CR is not even an RPG based on that.

Maybe he's right. It's an CSI Game.

Finally, if this comes off as harsh and all sorts of baity, then it's because both Tony and I are Muy Macho, though I'm more of the Muy Bastard/Sadistic sub-variety, and because Tony acknowledges this is the way to get someone to get reactions.

Ok, that was crap, I post like this because that's how I write. You may have noticed by now. I posted this notice at the end because I want you getting all worked up while reading it, that gets the neurons rubbing!

Questioning Analysis of an Analytical Tool; “Huh?”; Descriptive Vs. Prescriptive

First, an apology. I should write the second part of the “With Blinders..” post but it will have to wait until Sunday instead.

So I’ve asked John Kirk to write his own Meta-Chanics for Cranium Rats before reading my own version which is up right here on this very blog.
He didn’t exactly do what I asked him to; he used the gauge diagrams in his RPG Design Pattern book to analyze the currency flow in Cranium Rats. I meant the Meta-Chanics to not only contain the “What” and “How” but the very important “Why”, like Water gaining Narration to keep that player invested and Advantage Dice put in in order to reward interaction with the in-game world.

So, he did that, and I’m once again reminded of questions I have regarding the usefulness of such a tool, which is used to analyze games such as mine(note that there will be a thread on Cranium Rats regarding this issue on The Forge soon, a link will be edited in at such time it is up).

So, first and foremost, and also the last, because it sums it all up: “Yes, cool, what do I do with it?”

So you have this nice document. If you are creating your games and you’re missing something you can peruse it in search for something to fit in a hole(differing XP, HP and so on systems and what they may be useful for), if your thought processes are arcane enough you can sketch a series of diagrams of “How” you want your game’s currency flow to look like and only later work on such minute details as what the rules actually are(if you can do it then I worry for you, and for all the rest of us too…).

Or you’re in my position, you have a game and you have it looked at through this scientific-looking method, and we’ll use Cranium Rats as an example. So what does it do for you?
Unlike Meta-Chanics as I suggested above it is descriptive, whereas Meta-Chanics are descriptive(to me, from me) but becomes(often against my will, as noted in the previous post and the one regarding Meta-Chanics) prescriptive once it gets into the hands of other players. The system may do X, but once people get it into their heads, often because of “Advice” chapters it does Y, they will claim it really is all about Y. Look at Exalted for a good example.
Well, it lets me see how many stages one needs to go through in order to accomplish something and how many fiddly bits may have to be accounted for. This is helpful if you need a visual help, less helpful otherwise.
You can also see where things are going and if there are “Currency Sink-Holes” or “Geysers” where Currency comes from/evaporates to unexpectedly. But again, this isn’t of much use if you already know what you are doing.

This tool is merely descriptive, it doesn’t lead to much after you already have something, where often it is my opinion that game designers need prescriptive tools to further their work and agenda.

How else can one use this tool?

If you want to see someone else’s thought on Methods(Scientific, Philosophical Vs. Artistic and more) from which one can also take Descriptive Vs. Prescriptive check out Chris Lehrich’s two Livejournal accounts: Account #1 and Account #2. I’m not going to link to specific entries as they are numerous and a short scroll-down will help you find them. Even entries about other topics are actually about this, so read everything.

Game Theory and RPGs; Logic Vs. Reality.

People, please share your thoughts regarding my writing, because I can see we have at least a couple of readers.

In games and businesses we have Game Theory, which to some degree dictates the way people operate. You’d think they’d operate by common logic, but they do not.

Note that I know some tidbits of Game Theory, but not too much. I have several books, including University MBA level on the subject, but did not peruse them too deeply, so take what I write with a grain of salt, well, a bigger one than usual.

So some examples:
We have two people who will never meet again, have this opportunity be repeated or met before: One of them gets $100 and can offer the other participant as much of it as he wants, should the other particiant accept, they both take the money, should he decline they both leave empty-handed.
Common sense would decree that even if you’re given $0.01 you’d accept, because it’s better than going away empty-handed.
Yet, this is not the way things go.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma:
So you have two prisoners(A, B) who got caught after committing a crime, and are questioned simultanously in seperate rooms: If both tell on their friend they each serve 2 years, if neither talks they both get 6 months inside. If one talks and the other doesn’t, the one who talked will go free and the silent one will get to spend 10 years in jail.
By logic, both should remain silent, mathematically, each ‘acting agent’ should speak.

So now let’s look at two RPGs with mechanics one can look at from the Game Theory angle, both have a mechanic with the same name: Trust. The games are the Mountain Witch and Conspiracy of Shadows.

In Conspiracy of Shadows there’s a communal pool called Trust. When you do something for the benefit of the group you put a die in it, when you could do something for the group but don’t, remove a die from it. You can take dice from the pool and use them.
So long everyone is acting all cooperatively it’s all cool. Once someone starts pissing in the pool, aka, acting against the interests of the party, I forsee players taking dice out as fast as possible, in order to not let more dice go to waste.

In the Mountain Witch each pair of characters have a Trust score for one another(the game is influenced by Reservoir Dogs), the higher you trust someone, the more he can use your help to get things done, to help everyone get to the top of the Mountain. Once things get a little hairy as people’s secrets and secret goals get exposed though, the Trust you have for someone can be used against you.
So do you give someone high Trust in order to help everyone at a possible of self-risk or don’t Trust and then you may not even finish the quest?

I am not going to tell you what to do with it, just wanted to get something out there for you to think about.

And if you don’t see how this relates to Competitive games, then shame on you.