Showing posts with label Things We Think About Games. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Things We Think About Games. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Things a Parent Thinks About Games #1

A couple of years ago, with Jeff Tidball's blessing, I wrote a few responses to his and Will Hindmarch's excellent book Things We Think About Games. More than responses, these were posts that reacted to statements in the book using a Tidball/Hindmarch aphorism as the starting point for discussion. Amateur blogging being what it is, these posts tapered off and I never continued the series. It's always kind of bothered me as the book itself is fantastic and because I keep picking it up to read as a catalyst for discussion with my friends or even to examine my own thoughts on games and game play. Since I rebranded this site "Advanced Dungeons and Parenting" a while back, I've seen an uptick in readership...even when there is a gap between posts due to graduate school. The posts that tend to do best are those about Savage Worlds and those about gaming generally, as opposed to those posts that are more of the "hey have you seen this new game" variety. Looking at the data, and combining it with my desire to write more about the Tidball/Hindmarch book, I've decided to add a semi-regular series of posts discussing Things from a parent's perspective. These will be reactions to the book as it applies to playing games with kids, in particular my own 6 year old twin daughters.

The player of any game has, at most, two hands.

Things begins with a very simple statement about a utilitarian design consideration, "are the components of your game conducive to actual play?" It's a vital question, especially when it comes to gaming with children. There has been a trend in Role Playing Games lately to design games that can be played with children. There are some very good games on the market Hero Kids, Little Wizards, and RpgKids to name but a few, but I keep thinking that they all have somehow missed out on the design lessons of existing children's' games and from the design lesson of Stan!'s Pokemon Jr. role playing game. Think about children's games for a second. 

What are the first two games that come to mind?

For me they are Candy Land (the link is to the Princess Version I might just order the twins for Christmas) and Hungry Hungry Hippos.

Image from
What do all of these games - and Pokemon Jr. - have in common?

Toy factor and/or simplicity. You don't need to read rules to understand the intricacies of HHH or Candy Land. The game pretty much teaches you how to play. As a story telling game, Pokemon Jr. has the parents take the role of storyteller who prompts children into action. Little Wizards - and excellent game - does the same, but Pokemon has these really cool looking Poke-cards (Got 'em All) and the rules are only a couple of pages. Most of Stan!'s design in Jr. is the scripting of adventures to play with the kids. Candy Land uses colors and color matching as its signifier of movement. These games are easy to pick up and play and have "toy factor."

Our games need to do this as well. RpgKids has some pretty cool Crayon maps that add a nice Print-and-Play toy factor to the game, but the rule book has an odd cover. The drawings also eventually lose their appeal when compared to something like the Print-and-Use figures for Order of the Stick.

This or Pikachu?
Hero Kids has a more cartoony feel - and good graphic design with some "toy factor" - but its resolution mechanic is similar to that of Risk and the rule book is longer than that of Heroquest. In fact, in some ways the game is as complex as Heroquest...though Heroquest's dice are more intuitive when giving results. I think my twins might prefer to see swords and shields over seeing who has the highest number. They can calculate the highest number - and tell it to me in Japanese - but does it have the "toy factor" needed to keep play "playful?" I think it does to a certain degree, but I also think it would need more toy factor in a published product. It also needs more character types - though it has some good ones - and the standees need to be in color. They need to be in COLOR!

When designing RPGs for children, we need to think less about "how can we get them interested in playing rpgs when they are older?" and more about "what will they think is fun now?" We need RPGs that tell the same kinds of stories we are showing our children. Can I play "Avatar" type games? With Hero Kids yes, with the others?... Can I play Tinkerbell-esque adventures? Pokemon based? My Little Ponybased? And don't get me going on the Pathfinder Pony game. If you think I am introducing Pathfinder to 6 year olds, you are crazy.

The fact that I ranted a bit on making sure that the design is such that it appeals to kids and has graphic fun factor and toy factor may seem like I am criticizing the games I listed above. I am not. They are all good games and I am grateful to their designers. I am just saying they are the equivalent of Avalon Hill's Afrika Korps or Gettysburg. They are early designs in what I hope will become a growing genre.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Roleplaying Evangelism -- The Kids Are Alright

I recently wrote a post responding to the "Dead Game" statement in Things We Think About Games. The post, and the original comment by Will or Jeff at Gameplaywright, discusses what it really means for a game to be dead and what it takes to keep a game alive. The short answer is that a game is alive as long as people are playing the game.

The longer answer is that games are truly alive as long as anyone is actively promoting participation in the play of the game. A game that is only played by one group during one play session a year isn't dead for that group, but it is dead for all intents and purposes. A game that is played by very few people, and has no support products (like A Penny for My Thoughts), but has Fred Hicks pounding the pavement in support of the game online, at conventions, and at friendly local game stores, is very much alive. Goblinoid Games purchase and promotion of Starships and Spacemen are keeping that game alive, even if it never sees the promised revised edition.

The whole "Old School Renaissance" movement is about keeping games alive and promoting older games/older styles of play to keep them alive. Some of what the OSR movement does is that it re-introduces gaming to players of a particular generation and gets those people to start gaming again. Some of what they do is bring new gamers into the hobby who are looking for less expensive, and more DIY, entries into the hobby. A lot of the advocates of OSR have particular ideas of what gaming means. These ideas reflect their tastes in the style of content as much as the style of narrative.

For someone like Ron Edwards, the creator of the excellent Sorcerer independent role playing game, the playing of role playing games is a kind of counter culture activity. For him the counter culture that saturated popular culture is a quintessential part of the D&D experience. In his essay "Naked Went the Gamer" in Fight On! #6, Edwards states that the SF/F culture that appealed to him "ran more underground, more enthused about bloodshed and pulp driven plots, and the associated science fiction was rebellious and rude as in Dangerous Visions." In particular, he was attracted to two aspects of the gaming hobby and the subculture it represented to him. These were the monstrous and the naked. I won't go into any real details here, you should read the essay yourself, but a brief synopsis of his point is the following. In the 70s, popular culture itself was a kind of counter culture that celebrated the monstrous and the naked. That the overall culture of the 70s and early 80s was such that nudity in role playing games, or in society in general, wasn't shocking. For him the gaming company's "flinched" when responding to the heightened cultural conservatism of the mid to late 80s. To quote:

D&D went Disney while GURPS shed Metagaming's zesty illustrations. Rolemaster, Rifts, and the Hero System were born eunuchoid and stayed that way. T&T and Tekumel remained marginal, and the latter's Book of Ebon Bindings vanished. Even the Arduin Trilogy, of all things, cleaned up its art. RuneQuest content floundered and was eventually scrubbed to nothing by Avalon Hill. Role-playing publishing became monster-ly and naked-ly cleansed, in as stunning a victory for the coalition of censors as anyone could have imagined.

Before I go on to criticize Edwards view of this as the ideal state of gaming, I would like to say the following. He is right in asserting that the gaming hobby, as a whole, shouldn't run away from doing "adult" themed products. No individual company should feel compelled to Disney-fy their content. I am with him when he argues that we should defend the works, like the dreaded D&D Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry from those who want to argue that its cover is exploitative and that the product encourages devil worship. Roleplaying products should not be written with the intent to "not offend." They should be written to appeal to an audience.

And here is where I differ from Ron in my gaming experience. I don't view the Jeff Dee and Bill Willingham illustrated D&D Basic Set as a watering down of other material. I see it as material directed at an entirely different audience. In this case, that audience was 11 year old me. The 70s weren't merely counter culture, porn chic, Disco, Punk, and Caligula. They were also a time of uncensored Richard Scarry, of Atari, and of Star Wars. The 80s weren't just an era of cultural conservatism and Moral Majority backlash. They were a time of the Atari 2600, Transformers, GI Joe, and -- yes -- the D&D Cartoon. They were a great time to be a child, not the least reason because TSR and other gaming companies began looking to children as a way to expand their business. I was one of those children and the games they presented to me, especially the Moldvay/Cook line of D&D products were like manna from heaven to my imagination. For the child who adores Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as well as Edith Hamilton's Mythology, the "Basic/Expert" D&D products were ideal introductions to a hobby -- regardless of Ron's belief that these were "flinches." Not all young people like Karl Edward Wagner or Heavy Metal, some prefer Manly Wade Williams and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

These people need products too.

Edwards makes the logical mistake of associating all appeals to children in rpg content with flinching from facing criticism from cultural conservatives. Certainly, changing Devils and Demons to Baatezu and Tanar'ri in the 2nd Edition of the AD&D game was such a flinch -- and it has been properly ridiculed -- but Pacesetter's Universal Pictures Monsters inspired Chill is not, nor is Hero Games superhero game Champions. He also makes the Pauline Kael error of believing that all gamers share his opinion of whether the role playing hobby, and the old school, are quintessentially counter culture. That is hogwash. The role playing hobby is both culture and counter culture, it has room for all.

This is why it is so important that we older gamers, who play the old school games, support efforts to attract new -- and younger -- gamers into the hobby. Without them, the games will age with us and eventually die. No one will play them or know what they are. TSR began appealing to younger players almost immediately with games like Fantasy Forest and Dungeon!, the cartoon was a natural extension of these efforts -- as were the action figures.

Who is doing more to keep the hobby alive...Ron Edwards with his inspirational, but niche, independent rpgs, or Jeff Kinney author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid who includes a chapter where the title character starts playing a roleplaying game? WJWalton has a post over at "The Escapist" blog that provides a part of the answer. Gaming needs more people like Ron Edwards, but we need also need more people like Jeff Kinney.

I like Ron's work. I often find his ideas inspirational, but the story of a young kid wanting to play D&D with his dad warms my heart and gives me hope for the future. I would also like to add that the good folks at The Escapist have had role playing game defense literature on their website for quite some time.

It's a bad thing when gaming product self-censor, but it is a good thing when gaming products are written for young audiences. The Pokemon Jr! Adventure Game is one of the best introductory rpgs ever written, and one would have to work hard to make it counter culture.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Responding to Things We Think About Games: "Pants Issues"

I remember, fairly clearly, my earliest experiences with roleplaying games. I was introduced to the Dungeons and Dragons game by my dear friend Sean McPhail. His older brothers had been chatting about this new kind of fantasy game and Sean was pretty excited about it. It didn't take long for me to become as excited about the prospect of putting myself in the place of the great heroes of the fantasy genre. What if I was able to make decisions for Conan or Elric as they encountered dangers on some perilous quest?

My parents, noting my interest, made an 11 year-old me very happy at Christmas time when Santa brought me a Moldvay/Cook Basic Set, a Fiend Folio, a Deities and Demigods, and a Player's Handbook -- as well as several LJN D&D themed toys. The fact that this particular combination of books didn't contain all the rules necessary to run a campaign of my own didn't matter, they contained enough information to light my imagination afire. I made scores of characters and put them through the wringer that is Keep on the Borderlands. To be fair, I played Keep as if it were a strategy wargame and the characters I made were squad members, but I had a great time.

Then came the day when Sean and I were invited to play in a session of D&D at Sean's house with some of the older "kids." It was an absolutely eye-opening experience, both positively and negatively. My imagination ran wild with the possibilities and my youthful mind painted the scenes as clearly as if I were watching them on a movie screen. It wasn't that he Game Master provided ample descriptions of the locations, he hadn't, it was that my mind was able to fill in the blanks. Sean and my inclusion in the adventure came unexpectedly, so I didn't have any of my own characters and had to borrow one of Sean's. He gave me the choice of Aragorn or Gandalf, I chose Gandalf. How could I not? I was to play the great wizard Gandalf, who I had read about with such admiration. The fact that Gandalf was a first level Magic User with only one spell didn't affect me at all.

What did affect me was how poorly the Game Master ran the session. You see, he did the opposite of so many good Game Mastering techniques that the session Sean and I participated in was an almost ideal lesson of what not to do.

First, the game master informed us that he "didn't need the rulebooks" as he had them memorized and that as DM he was "God" and we would have to accept any decision he made regardless of how it represented our understanding of the rules.

Second, the game master didn't need to have any materials to help him run the adventure. He had memorized that as well, or rather he felt that he was perfectly capable of "winging it." He wasn't. Most people aren't unless it is in a collaborative rpg effort like Octane! or The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries. These games work very well when the players wing it because the world construction is shared and the mechanics work to minimize arbitrary decision making. Or, as is the case with Octane!, the rules specifically discuss the disadvantages of arbitrary decision making. "Winged" adventures are more susceptible to capricious/vindictive GM behavior, or the feeling by players of the GM being vindictive.

Third, he viewed the game as a competition between the dungeon master and players. For him, the dungeon master "wins" D&D by killing off the players. Combined with the two techniques above, this creates the potential for what is possibly the worst gaming experience imaginable. In this case, much to my inexperienced dismay, it led to a violation of Things We Think About Games maxim #023:

In a tabletop roleplaying game, the characters are all wearing pants.

This is true even though none of the players informed the gamemaster that their characters were putting their pants on.
Issues such as these -- things that any person would do without comment -- are collectively "pants issues," and players in any sane game may always assert that they have done such things if it ever becomes important.

So what was Gandalf's "pants down" moment? I'm glad you asked.

After some time adventuring a dark and forbidding dungeon, and dispatching some horde of nasties or another, Gandalf, Aragorn, and their friends discovered a chest filled with treasure. Each character fixated on the item most interesting to him/her. For me, I mean Gandalf, that item was a magical scroll containing some arcane mystery. I shouted out immediately, "I read the scroll to see what it is." Thus was my fatal error.

Never mind that Gandalf had used his one spell, yes he only knew one spell as a first level magic user as this was the days before bonus spells for a character's high intelligence, Magic Missile during the earlier combat. In those days, casting Read Magic was a necessary part of deciphering a spell or spellbook. Gandalf hadn't memorized the spell and shouldn't have been able to read the spell. Gandalf, being more cautious of the dangers of untested magic than an 11 year-old, would also not have jumped out of his chair and yelled "I read the scroll!" You see, Gandalf had a high Wisdom score (14 or higher, though I don't know the exact number) -- much higher than 11 year-old me.

Gandalf would have known to take precautions. Never mind the fact that he would also know that he couldn't make anything of the scroll until he rested a day, memorized Read Magic, and only then would he be able to begin the process of unraveling the scroll's mysteries. He would have done those things, but 11 year-old me didn't and was merely excited by the mysteries of magic.

Then I heard the phrase most 1st and 2nd edition players are loath to hear, "make a saving throw versus petrification/polymorph!"

Uh oh!

Sitting at the far side of the living room, in a shadowy corner far from the prying eyes of the sinister and vindictive dungeon master, I could have pretended to roll dice and replied "I succeed!" Instead, I rolled the die and looked down with horrified eyes as the die roll was far beneath the value necessary to make the saving throw.

"I fail," I murmured meekly to the visiting DM.

"Your character has been turned into an Axe Beak," laughed my nemesis.

"An Axe Beak?!"

"An Axe Beak! Ha, ha! Someone get some rope to make a leash so you don't lose Gandalf."

And so I was punished and mocked for my excitement and wonder. I was too inexperienced a gamer, and too caught up in wanting to "play a story," to think that there were game masters who viewed the game play as a competition and who took pleasure from making players look foolish. I didn't know better than to read the scroll.

But Gandalf would have. He wouldn't, even at first level, have been caught with his "pants down." The DM used a pants issue to hose me and I have resented it ever since.

I wonder how many potential players we have lost through the decades because the person running the game used pants issues to hose the players for their own pleasure.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Some Thoughts on a Dragon Age RPG House Rule

The new Dragon Age pen and paper role playing game has only been available since December 9, 2009, but I am already thinking about how this system can be applied to situations not specifically listed in the rules set. Creating "house rules" is one of the great obsessions of Game Masters, and some players, and I am not someone who is immune to the obsession. I am, however, one who understands that when coming up with house rules one should not think that a couple of readings through a rules set gives one a better understanding of underlying game balance than the designers have. The designers have spent months, if not years, creating, playing, and testing the rules to see how different effects affect the game play.

One of my maxims as a game tweaker is, "never create a house rule that eliminates meaningful choices from the system." What I mean by this is that no "innovation" I create should be so desirable as to create an effect that must be selected for characters to be successful in the world. Don't create a "super choice." It also means that a rule shouldn't prevent players from creatively solving problems, or from making foolish choices.

Games are about stories, whether the game itself tells the story or the story comes when the player is talking about the great time he or she had playing it, and the more choices the players have the more creative the stories can be. Any given system will already have eliminated some choices as a part of design, for example there are no machine guns in Dragon Age, my goal is to find ways that the existing structure allows choices that might be overlooked if they aren't pointed out with a house rule -- or that might have to be house ruled on the fly when a player asks if he or she can perform a certain action.

As you might have guessed, this doesn't mean that there aren't any choices that house rules should not eliminate. There often are. As stated in Will Hindmarch's and Jeff Tidball's book Things We Think About Games in statement 018, "all variations on gameplay stem from two core types of alterations: expanding choices and restricting choices." A house rule may be needed to create a restriction against using an "exploit" a player discovers within a system. What is interesting in such cases is that by restricting the use of a particular choice, the house rule might actually increase the number of other meaningful choices within the system. After all, what is an exploit other than a "super choice" -- a choice that makes all other choices undesirable? The key as a game tweaker is to determine what the meaningful choices are within a given milieu and to work to maximize those events for players while eliminating choices which might supersede these choices to the detriment of the game.

A second maxim is, "never create a house rule that makes it more likely that the players will fail." Players participate in role playing games because they want to imagine succeeding at things they, in the real world, would find difficult or impossible. They want to leave the workspace cubicle and become "heroes." Players hate failing and they hate it when their characters die. This is even true in slaughter house games like Call of Cthulhu, which is why the rule book for that game goes to great lengths to describe how to make death "meaningful."

This doesn't mean that tasks should be made easy. In fact, Raph Koster has an entire "theory of fun" based on a definition of fun in which enjoyment is equated with continuous challenge based learning. A game must challenge the player enough to be interesting, but be easy enough that they do not become bored. For role playing games, like video games, this means that the rules, adventures, and stories must scale in difficulty and complexity in a way that corresponds with player and character experience. You don't want to make a rule that makes it more likely that players will fail in any given course of action, because the game designers -- if they have done their job with any iota of skill -- have developed a game that has a "fun balance." More than likely, they have weighted their "fun scale" on the side of challenging rather than ease.

Okay, with those caveats, what new house rule have I come up with for Green Ronin's Dragon Age pen and paper game?

In this case, it isn't a "new rule." Rather it is an expanded application of an existing rule. In the Dragon Age RPG, the rules use three kinds of tests to determine the success or failure of a given action.

There are basic tests where the player rolls 3 six-sided die (3d6) and adds the appropriate ability and focus in the hopes of exceeding some target number. For example, a person trying to sneak through an alley would make a test rolling 3d6 + their Dexterity ability + 2 if they have the Dexterity(Stealth) focus. If the game master thinks this would be a Challenging task, then the result must equal or exceed a total of 13.

There are opposed tests, which are made when a character is attempting an action that is actively opposed by another character. This test works like the basic test except that both characters make a test roll and compare target numbers with the higher target number winning. There is a tie-breaking mechanic, but it is unimportant at present.

Finally, there are advanced tests. These tests are typically used to emulated tasks that take a lot of time and/or planning to complete. This might include forging a suit of armor or researching the history of Ferelden. Players make a test as normal, against a static difficulty, but they record the number of pips displayed on a particular die within the 3d6 roll (the Dragon Die). This value is then compared to a "Success Threshold." If the value of the Dragon Die equals or succeeds this number, the task succeeds. If not, the player must make another test which if successful will add the value of its Dragon Die to the existing sum of prior Dragon Dice values. This continues until the threshold is passed. Failed tests merely increase the length of time it takes to succeed. These tests aren't typically used to determine the success or failure of a given task where failure has dire consequences, rather they help determine the speed of success for tasks that will eventually be successful if enough time can be committed.

This is where my alternate rule comes in. The rules as written (RAW) state that if a character is aided by other characters when attempting an advanced test, then the difficulty of the test should be modified instead of both characters making tests and summing the Dragon Dice of the multiple participants. I think that is fine for some actions, but if we could also use the advanced test mechanic to simulate a test to succeed at something that would be impossible for one person to accomplish and where prolonged exertion may or may not affect success or failure?

For example, let us say that a group of 4 characters stand before the Temple of Riognaton -- one of the Old Gods. The temple's massive stone doors haven't been opened in millenia, but the characters need to enter the Temple. The GM has determined that it would be impossible for one character to move the doors and that the action will require at least 2 of the characters. One could rule that this is a basic test where additional characters add a modifier to a primary character's roll, but I don't find that quite satisfying.

I would like to propose using advanced tests in these circumstances. The GM could determine that the task is a "formidable" task (needing a Success Threshold of 25) for the group and requires a target number of 15. All of the players could roll against the target number, with only those who succeed adding their Dragon Die value to the Success Threshold. Obviously, there are multiple ways one could use the Dragon Age system to emulate the opening of the doors, but this method allows the individual players to see how much their character contributed to the ultimate goal. It also avoids the more mechanical seeming, each helper adds +2 to the roll or each successful helper adds +2 to the roll mechanic. It takes an often static choice, aiding a comrade, and makes it more interactive.

One of the wonderful things about the Dragon Age rules set is that it inspires these kinds of uses of existing systems. My house rule for opening ancient temple doors didn't require the creation of a "new rule," but it did use an existing rule in a way not previously highlighted by the creators of the game.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Responding to Things We Think About Games -- Gaming Expectations: Playing Optimally

Last week, Cinerati featured the first in a series of responses to the book Things We Think About Games. In the post, I discussed how the interaction between a game's narrative and its mechanics might affect the player's experience. In particular, I praised Robotron 2084 and criticized the Dawn of War real time strategy game. Both games are highly enjoyable, but when Dawn of War is played in Campaign mode the ending leaves the player feeling less than satisfied with their achievements.

But specifically narrative expectations aren't the only kinds of expectation players can have when approaching a particular game. Some gamers look at the game system itself as a kind of puzzle to be solved. Many games, particularly war games and games like chess, tic-tac-toe, and checkers, have a finite number of "good moves." In fact, some games can be "solved." There is a perfect way to play checkers and chess -- thankfully the "solutions" to these games are so monumentally complex that there are currently no players who play these games "perfectly." One of the lessons of tic-tac-toe is that solving a game can make future play less fun than "imperfect" play. For these players, the examination of the system itself is a wonderful experience -- one that I will touch upon more fully in a later post -- but their mindset, that games are puzzles to be "solved," can be a useful one to those who are more competitive in their gaming habits.

Which brings us to the passage in Things We Think About Games that I'd like to talk about today:

If doing well matters to you, learn the optimal methods for the games you like.

I'll be honest, I'm not one of those people for whom doing well at a game matters. I blame Candyland for this, but for me the most important thing is that everyone is enjoying themselves. One can only submit themselves to the whims of fate, unalterable fate, as manifest in Candyland so many times before they begin to care less about winning than most game players. But I also happen to be one of those people who likes to break game systems into their respective parts and put them back together, so I do tend to play "more" optimally than someone who doesn't care at all. I just have a different motivation for finding the optimal methods for the games I like. This also means that I don't mind being totally "owned" by an opponent at Blood Bowl, as long as I can see why I was getting so easily destroyed.

But for those who do care whether or not they do well, which might be different than winning, the analytical tools that those who treat games like puzzles use are one of the first places a player should look to find out what the optimal methods of playing a particular game are.

Take for example this brief analysis of die probabilities over at the Giant Battling Robots blog. Take a moment to read Kit's article and come back to this page. We'll still be here, I promise.

The post is expressly about how modifications (bonuses and penalties) to a bell shaped probability curve have disproportionate effects on the player depending on where along the bell curve a particular target number is. That is to say that a penalty punishes the player more, with regard to a positive outcome, the closer to the middle of the distribution the initial target number was. A -1 penalty when the target number needed for success is 11 or greater, on 2 ten-sided die added together, is about 10%. The -1 penalty effectively changes the target number from 11 to 12. Whereas the same -1 penalty on a target number of 19 is only a 2% penalty.

This means that any player participating in a game that uses die rolls that have bell shaped probability distributions -- games like Feng Shui, Dream Park, and Battletech (notice I am counting "opposed" d6 rolls as the same as a 2d6 roll as they are the same for probabilistic purposes) -- one should examine what significance the individual penalty or bonus will have when making a decision. The human mind typically inducts all +1 or -1 modifiers to be the same, but this isn't the case when the die rolls have a bell shaped distribution. This means you might take a risk you might otherwise ignore if it only has a moderate affect on your probability of success. You need to know when +1 means +10% and when -1 means -2%. This lets you take more rational risks, ones that are more optimal.

Kit uses this analysis to come up with a quick equation that can be used "on the fly" to determine whether you should take a particular action. All you need to know is your initial target number, your opponent's initial target number, and how much your action will affect each of these. This is a powerful tool that can be used in a number of games and will help the player play more efficiently.

One doesn't need to be a mathematician or statistician to utilize these tools either. Thankfully, there are plenty of mathematicians and statisticians who are willing to write their discoveries regarding a particular method, and put it in layman's terms. Perhaps Kit will follow up his article with one including specific examples of how his quick equation is used. Besides this, the massive number of Chess and Poker books available at bookstores is testimony to the fact that there are those willing to share optimal play. Likely because they like to play with others who care about playing well as much as they do. Take some time to find these resources, if only to find out more about how a game works.

There are many games, Dream Park I'm looking at you, that could have benefited a great deal if they told the players a little bit about the mathematics behind their opposed roll systems. Many a GM running Feng Shui has misinterpreted the significance of adding as little as 3 points to a villain's skill/statistic. It can change the dynamic from a fun night gaming, to one where the villain is impossible to defeat. In role playing games, GMing optimally, means understanding how changes in one part of the game affect the probabilities of success. In Candyland, playing optimally means not minding that the results are predetermined the moment the cards are shuffled -- though you don't know the result -- unless you shuffle the full deck after each move in order to intentionally create a Markov-chain.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Responding to Things We Think About Games -- Gaming Expectations: Heroic Endings or Doomed to Failure (Case Study One: Robotron 2084)

In 2008, game designers Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball released a very useful book entitled Things we Think About Games. The book contains 101 statements by the authors, with a couple of additional statements by guest gamers/designers. Some of the comments are common sense, some are blunt, and all are thought provoking. Things We Think About Games is a book that belongs on every gamer's bookshelf, and Will and Jeff's website belongs on every gamers rss feed.

At the San Diego Comic Con this year, I asked Jeff Tidball if he would allow me to write a series of posts featuring the statements from the book. Each blog post would be a gamer reacting to one of the statements in the book, and eventually I'd like to address all the statements made by the various game designers. I will also continually belabor the fact that Will and Jeff asked Wil Wheaton, and not me, to write the introduction to the book. While this is a common mistake, it is one that I will point out at every opportunity. Yes, Wheaton is more famous (and is in Secret of Nimh which I recommended as last week's Hulu recommendation), but I am less likely to use expletives.

This being a blog, and not a Thesis or Dissertation, I will address the statements in no particular order, but I do hope to address them all. Today's blog topic is inspired by the 101st entry in the book.

Know Why You Play Games.

The statement is simple enough, and is a gamer's version of Oracle of Delphi's famous dictum GnĊthi sauton or "Know Thyself." It is a statement seems to have an underlying claim that some ludophile Socrates might adhere to, "the unexamined gaming experience isn't worth playing." That may, in one way, be the whole point of Hindmarch's and Tidball's book, but this quote provides a nice starting point for any discussion regarding games and spurs one on to think philosophically about the subject.

It was this thought that was lurking around my subconscious when I read an article at Gamasutra about Robotron 2084. The article is an historical article about the game and its legacy with regard to game play. A good amount of time is spent discussing the games innovative use of a two joystick system, an innovation that couldn't be accurately emulated in a "home experience" for many years. It makes for interesting reading, but there was one quote which mixed with STATEMENT 101 to inspire me to think about why I play games. The quote was a simple one, "The player is tasked with the grim, desperate, and ultimately futile task of saving the last family of Humanoids (emphasis added)."

Ultimately futile -- the words echoed in the back of my mind.

Why would I want to play a game that I cannot, no matter how skilled I get at it, "win?"

What particularly bothered me about this statement is that it pointed to a contradiction in my game playing habits. I have been a fan of Robotron 2084 for decades and have played it uncountable times. In that time my skill level has migrated, from poor to excellent to poor to average, depending on how often I have played the game during a given time period. I am not always in the mood for Robotron, but I never find the game -- as it was designed -- to be a bad game. As big a fan as I am of this particular futile effort, I was seriously disappointed by the end of Dawn Of War. After many hours of game play, and total victory over the forces of Chaos, I watched as all my hard work evaporated in a "1970s Satan has eaten your soul Bad ending" as my Space Marine Captain unwittingly released a new demon into the universe.

The futility of all my hard work playing Dawn of War was made clear to me during the final animated narrative sequence. Lucien Soulban's scripted ending undid everything I had struggled for in playing the game -- and it seriously aggravated me. I was all the more aggravated because an author/game designer I respect was the one who dropped the "futility bomb" on my head.

Why was I experiencing such a strong emotion that was, on its face, a contradictory sentiment to my thorough enjoyment of the equally futile Robotron 2084? To answer this, it was helpful to contemplate statement 101.

Why do I play games?

I play different games for a variety of reasons, but one reason that keeps me coming back is "story." I like the way that games, of all kinds, tell stories. It's one of the reasons I am a "good loser." I don't mind losing to someone who is better than me at Chess, all I want is my learning experience to be a good story. Candyland, with its pre-determined gameplay, taught me the importance of story in play and de-emphasized "winning." Both Robotron 2084 and Dawn of War contain story elements. Robotron's appear to be "weak" at first, but they are deeply embedded in gameplay -- if simple narratively. Both games contain narratives where the actions of the player, in the end, result in failure -- so there must be some element of the game and how it interacts with story that allows me to enjoy one in its entirety while feeling dissatisfied with the ending of the other.

Aha! It isn't the futile ending that is disappointing. It is the fact that the futile ending was not a part of game play -- it was a forced narrative tacked on to the end of the game. When the player inevitably loses in Robotron it is because the game has finally become too hard to finish, the game has literally beaten you. When you "lose" at the end of Dawn of War, it occurs after you have achieved "final victory." The contradiction lies in the interaction between the mechanics and the story -- a contradiction made even stronger by the underlying expectations of Real Time Strategy games. The underlying expectation of an RTS is that you can win, any advantage in supply or troops the computer opponent has is usually made up by an imperfect AI -- necessarily imperfect as a perfect AI would likely win all the time and lessen the fun.

Would I have felt differently if I had actually lost the final scenario of Dawn of War rather than have a scripted 70s ending? Not if the game had followed standard RTS genre conventions, the player "must" have a chance to win in the conventional. If the game progressed in a manner similar to other RTS games, each level getting slightly more difficult but winnable, with a final impossible level, the game would have likely been as unsatisfactory. This dissatisfaction would likely have been accentuated by the interstitial narrative clips.

On the other hand, if the game lacked interstitial clips and the narrative left only to game play I would probably have accepted an unwinnable level. At least possibly, especially if I knew going in that the game eventually becomes unwinnable as each level becomes more difficult than the last. But that isn't the central conceit of an RTS campaign, the central conceit of an RTS campaign is that the player is unlocking a heroic narrative. In this case, each victory leads to a new chapter in the hero's tale. A hero can hit a low point, like the one at the end of Dawn of War, but that ought not be the end of the story. In this case, it is. There is no sequel to the narrative, though there are many sequels to the game. My Blood Angels forever stand defeated in their victory, where my mutant defender of humanity just ends up dead after finally facing overwhelming odds.

I think it would be interesting for someone to design an RTS where each level becomes more difficult than the last, with no end in sight. Then the story changes from how my victory was taken from me, to how far I was able to get and who is able to get to the farthest level. I think I might prefer traditional RTS games -- with victorious endings -- to that "futile" RTS, but given my love of Robotron 2084 I'd probably like that killer RTS more than the end of Dawn of War because the ending would be driven by the mechanics of the game.

I don't mind losing when it's a part of the rules, but I hate losing when I won fair and square.