Monthly Archives: February 2011

Three Tricks for Setting

I did not expect to get to Dreamation this year, but My wonderful wife surprised me with a window of time that allowed me to day-trip up for the last day of the convention. Didn’t play anything, and didn’t get to see everyone, but still very much enjoyed myself.

Part of my fun was sitting down to talk with Brennan Taylor. Nominally, it was for a podcast, and he’s got 10 minutes of me talking about hacking games that will no doubt be unleashed on an unsuspecting world at some point down the line, but after that, we got to talking about setting. This was a little bit catalyzed by talking about his forthcoming game, Bulldogs, which I’m pretty excited for, but it was also kind of general. From this conversation came three points that I’d like to share with anyone looking to write setting material, mostly out of a selfish desire to make it all interesting to read.

First: Write Around The Holes

As a tribe, we’re smart people who like to show off how smart we are, and that lends itself to a completust streak. We also like our books, and we have an instinctive understanding that world building is something which should usually yield to the necessities of story. These elements combine to create complete, cohesive settings with satisfying narrative arcs and it’s terrible.

If you’re writing a setting for play, you are not telling a story – you are creating an opportunity for someone else. This doesn’t mean that nothing should be going on – quite the contrary, things should be hopping – but they should not be resolved. It is ok to set things up and then just stop. Our instincts may want to resist, but by doing so we create the opportunity for people to fill those holes with play, which seems rather the point.

Settings that fail to do this may be interesting and colorful, and they may be entirely satisfying as a pure backdrop of play (that is to say, interchangeable dungeon storage) but if you want the setting to matter, leave the holes in place and trust someone else to fill them.

Second: Playable Is Better Than Clever

In jokes, word play and other setting elements that have nothing to do with play and everything with the author squeezing in something cunning need to be used with the utmost caution. This is not to say text needs to be all serious – jokes which include the reader or the occasional easter egg can be fine, but if you’re just showing off, knock it off.

Short point, I know, but there it is.

Third: The Three Sentence Rules

Virtually any setting element can be fruitfully described in three sentences: a description, a distinction and a hook (they don’t literally need to be three sentences, but you get the idea). For example: Varn Kasi is an Ethari crime lord (description) based out of a gentlemen’s club overseeing the Alverado harbor (distinction). He’s making preparations for war against the Dwarf gangs horning in on his silver dust trade (hook).

That is not a lot of information, but it’s enough to play with. A GM can absorb that from a book and very quickly plug it into actual play. You really don’t want to use less information than those three sentences – doing so can cause the reader to wonder why you’re bothering to mention it at all. But on the other hand, you want to have a very good reason to provide any more information than that. Obviously, you will want to do so for the central elements of your setting, but it is worth challenging yourself to determine what more you really need to add. See, the three sentences is a sweet spot. Every additional piece of information you add takes longer to absorb and – almost paradoxically – often puts more limits on the element in question.

This need not be so. If the extra information is kept sharp and focused on how it will come out at the table, it will probably work out. And the best way to make that happen is to really ask yourself how you’re improving on those three sentence.

So, three guidelines. They’re not hard and fast rules, and they are probably a bad match when you are talking about worldbuilding in fiction, but gaming has different priorities, and it’s important to remember that a game’s setting should not be a reformatted novel. If you want to write a novel, then write a novel. Heck, it might even make for a great setting to game in once your done. But if you’re writing setting, then write for play.

Investment in Advancement

Haven’t done a random idea post in a while, so I figure I’m due.

Twitter discussion with @atminn gave me an interesting idea for how to handle player investment in the setting in a way that ties it directly into advancement. I’m going to present this in a fairly generic fashion, but the concept is pretty easily portable to whatever system you prefer to use.

The core idea is a basic one – tying character advancement to the investment in the setting by tying points earned to specific setting elements (usually people) and paying out advancement when those elements how up in play. The basic model pays out something like this:

1 point if the element shows up during the session.
2 points if the GM has to “take the reins” of the element and actively use it during the session.
3 points if the element is central to the session, seeing use in many scenes.
4 points if the element is put at risk
5 points if the element is lost or destroyed.

This can be tracked pretty easily with something like this on the character sheet – just mark the box as it happens, then pay out the highest value at the end of the session.

For Example, if Lord Chuzzleworth (Chaz to his friends) is your anchor, you might get the highest of the following in a given adventure:

  • Get 1 point if you say go see him, send him a letter or otherwise bring him up in play (it’s very easy for a player to get 1 point).
  • Get 2 points if the GM uses Chaz to hire the group to do something.
  • Get 3 points if that something is to escort Chaz to Castle Winterscap
  • Get 4 points if there are assassins after Chaz specifically (as opposed to generic road dangers)
  • Get 5 points if Chaz gets killed.

Now, by itself this is pretty abusable, since it basically encourages players to get their elements killed and replaced as quickly as possible, so there needs to be some check on that, allowing for investment in an NPC or other element to grow over time. To model this, I propose that at the end of every session (and chargen) the player gets a point. That point can be used to add a new element at “rank 1” (more on that in a second) or to increase the rank of a current element (I’d cap the maximum number of elements somewhere around 3).

The “rank” of an element indicates it’s maximum payout. That is, if your character’s father is one of his elements, but only at rank 1, then the character only gets 1 point of XP when dad shows up, not matter how involved his role. This is not exactly speedy investment, but it makes the ideas of risk and loss carry a bit of a mechanical edge in addition to whatever they may mean in the fiction.

There’s a lot of implicit information for the GM to work with in this kind of setup, but most importantly, it can turn the player into an advocate for risk. Even the most mechanically-minded player has incentive to push things towards the more dangerous (and interesting) outcomes, and at the same time offers some small payback if things go horribly wrong. In some ways, it’s the flipside of the XP system from The Shadow of Yesterday. It’s not player directed, as TSOY is, but that sentiment of transparency and explicit xp hooks is definitely baked into the thinking.

The Princess Is In Another Castle

A couple of people asked in comments yesterday what I mean by unfairness. I started to reply, but it ran long enough to turn into today’s post. Now, while it would be easy to turn to fiction for examples, the simple truth is that most any good example of unfair from fiction would be a spoiler, so I must tread carefully.

At its heart, unfairness hinges on expectations, in this case player expectations. They did X, so they deserve Y. They Killed the dragon so they deserve the reward. They broke into the vault, so they deserve the treasure. When they don’t get it, it’s easy to be pissed or to feel the GM pulled a bait and switch. The players had a reasonable expectation of outcome (both mechanically and within the fiction) and the GM is explicitly defying that expectation, usually through simple expedience of the GM narrating the world (which someone will insist on calling fiat because, hey, what’s a good discussion without fighting words?)

A very bad example of unfairness would be the player’s rescuing the king from assassins, but he then dies falling down the stairs. That’s kind of random and capricious, and it makes a useful example because of the reasons it doesn’t work. It definitely violates the player’s expectations of outcome (they saved the king, he should damn well stay saved), so why is it a bad example? It’s because the reversal is too neutral. It’s bad, sure, but it’s not BAD. In contrast, consider the example of the heroes saving the king only to have him believe that THEY were the assassins, and call for their heads. That’s unfair, but it’s the right kind of unfair.

Good unfairness can be found throughout darker fiction (Martin, Morgan and Abercrombie spring to mind). Heroes are reviled and villains exalted. No good deed goes unpunished. You know the drill.

Dramatically speaking, it’s all about the emotional charge. Mckee and Snyder both talk about this, but I’ll sum up: in fiction, a good scene starts at one emotional state (positive or negative, + or -) and changes state over the course of the scene (or beat, depending). Sometimes those go to double positive (++) or double negative (–) for great victory or terribly defeat, but the general idea is pretty easy to grasp. In almost every interestingly unfair situation, the players are expecting a big payout (++) and the GM instead hands them a ticking time bomb (–). That’s a huge emotional jump, going from the high of the expectation to the abrupt low. This is why the king falling down the stairs is kind of lame. It’s bad (maybe – at worse) but it’s got no real punch for the players. The emotional level doesn’t make as big a jump, so it’s just kind of annoying.

But here’s the rub – the power of the event is all about that unexpected reversal. The bigger the gap, the more powerful the moment, and that’s what demands unfairness. Specifically, it must be unexpected, and under any kind of measure of fairness, that big a jump would simply not be possible. It requires disempowerment, opacity and surprise, all of which are INSANELY abusable things. But they do the job.

Now, I want to note that unfairness is not necessary for the _events_ to occur. A fair table populated by players with a good sense of drama are fully capable of inviting outcomes on themselves every bit as brutal as the dramatically unfair GM is going to do, perhaps even moreso. But I am saying that unfairness (or more aptly, the surprise and dramatic shift which only unfairness can allow) is the only way to deliver the real gut punch.

Obviously, this is only one sort of payout. I don’t expect every table to prioritize it the way that I do, nor would I want them to. Games offer a huge array of emotional rewards, and it’s well worth going towards those you value most. But it’s an important one for me, and I consider it a tricky one to do well, so I figure it was worth some air time.

Fairness and Trust

(Unrelated to anything in today’s post, I encourage you to go check out the Sight for Sore Eyes Benefit Bundle, a benefit for a single mother who is losing her vision. At $10, it’s a steal. We may not have yet figured out how to save the world with our games, but I have never been disappointed in how hard we are willing to try.)
Yesterday’s post stayed with me longer than usual, and some very thoughtful comments really left things rattling around in my head. The issue that I think I accidentally tripped over in my consideration of choice is that of fairness. After some thought, I think this may be something of a keystone that really determines what shape a game will take.
I kicked it around for a while and came down to a pretty simple question: Do you trust your GM to be unfair?
Like most such questions, the simplicity is deceptive. The idea that you might want your GM to be unfair is a pretty crazy proposition – GM unfairness is, after all, one of the things we spend a lot of time and effort trying to find ways to fix. Most of the worst kinds of abuses take the form of GM unfairness, after all, and a lot of games have been very heavily designed to minimize the GM’s opportunities to be unfair in the first place.
What’s more, fairness has a critical role in the flow of information, because fairness marches hand in hand in hand with predictability. That may sound dull, but it’s a critical part of getting invested in a fiction. Players depend upon having a reasonable understanding of the likely outcome of their actions. No one wants to make stupid mistakes because of a misunderstanding about the physics of the world.
But, of course, there’s a but.
When a GM is good enough that they’re not going to screw the players, and the players have reciprocal level of trust, new options appear. It becomes possible for the game to be unfair in a manner that is neither punitive nor grating. Instead, it can feel more like life, with tragedies and triumphs that don’t always line up with how you expect them. Victories and losses carry weight, but they may not bring closure. Tomorrow, you still need to get up and face the day.
I have no idea about other people’s experiences, but for me, that is something of an exalted level of play. When things get that good and bad, that’s when it really comes to life. It creates the kind of games that I chase like a junkie. The games I’ve seen in that place are what make me so passionate about this hobby, because the prospect of managing to capture that lighting in a bottle is my holy grail.
Sadly, I suspect my story is more Lancelot than Percival (who I always liked better than Galahad). I’m not sure I’ll ever find it because for all the love I have for systems and the good things they can bring, I don’t think this is something they can achieve. It’s a human thing. A good system can help, but it’s ultimately built on talent and trust. I like to think I can help someone find the tools to get there themselves, but it’s ultimately up to that GM.
So, do you trust your GM to be unfair? Do you want to? I know my answers, but I’m curious about yours.

What Makes a Choice

In a strange juxtaposition, I’ve been playing Knights of the Old Republic and watching The Shield. The Shield is new to me based on many recommendations, including several suggesting it hits similar notes to The Wire. KOTOR I’ve played before, but never finished (for technical reasons), and I decided to fire it up while waiting for Dragon Age 2. Both are awesome in almost entirely unrelated ways.

So, one of the strong things about KOTOR, which is shares with most of the other Bioware RPGs, is that the player is presented with numerous choices, and those choices have consequences. In KOTOR, this is tracked by your movement towards the dark or light side, though the choice usually also has an immediate (and sometimes powerful) impact on the fiction. This is not all there is to the game – there are cool lightsaber fights and annoying logic puzzles – but like most Bioware games, the thing that really pulls me in are the characters and the choices.

The Shield is also keeping me sucked in because of the characters and choices. It has a great cast, and while it need to occasionally nod to it’s FX roots (“We’re EXTREME!”), its mostly a very patient, deep show that’s willing to play out the long game to explore the characters and the choices they make (both why they make them, and what they mean).

If asked, I would say the Shield is deeper and more powerful, and I found myself wondering why. Some of it is the nature of the medium – more happens in a hour of the Shield than in an hour of KOTOR play, just due to the necessities of gameplay. But that’s not an automatic bump – there are many TV shows I would rate below KOTOR. Just having more time doesn’t mean you use it well.

Next, I wondered if it might be an issue of immediacy. The Majority of KOTOR choices have an immediate result, but don’t really linger. On the Shield, there may be no immediate impact, but the choice never really goes away. This, I think, is closer to the truth. KOTOR does have some element of long game too, but it doesn’t really build a landscape out of choices made the way The Shield does. So that’s part of it.

The rest, I think, is about fairness. Games (and gamers) tend to favor fair choices, at least in terms of opportunity cost. No choice is going to ever offer you a free ride, and if it did, we’d view it as cheating. By the same token, no choice is going to screw us over so completely as to stop our fun. We trust those things to be true, both practically and in terms of our sense of fair play. The shield, on the other hand, has no need to be fair. Consequences may be entirely disproportionate or inappropriate to the choices made. The logic of the writer room guarantees that these consequences are compelling while at the same time given them a feeling of capriciousness which feels very apt for an unfair universe.

Drawing back to a high level, this suggests to me three things I want to think about in offering choices in games I run: frequency, immediacy and fairness. Some part of me wonders if there should be a fourth about the importance of choices (contrast choosing which door to take vs which lord becomes king) but I think that’s a slightly different discussion. Players will make thousands of small choices every game, and how those are constrained is a logistical issue more than a dramatic one. As such, I look at these three elements as things I want to bear in mind for choices that are interesting in play, as determined by the table. The simple truth is that interesting trumps important.

Now, there’s no one right way to handle those three ideas. Rather, they make good dials for adjusting tone and tenor of a game. A game with frequent, immediate, unfair choices is going to feel very different than one with rare, far-reaching fair ones. If you find your players are not really engaging the choices in your game, look at where you have the dials set, and see what happens when you adjust one of them. If nothing else, it gives you many more options than just making impactful choices an all-or-nothing thing.

Books are not Broken

Today is a good lesson in hubris and opportunity. The post is a bit late because I have the day off today, and I figured I’d just knock it out this morning rather than do it the night before, as I usually do. Little did I suspect that it would be the kind of morning that disallows time to write until sometime well after things should be posted. So, that’s a humbling reminder.

But it also made for an opportunity. Having finished the audiobook of Reality is Broken, I was initially going to take a swing at my review of it today. I’ve spent much of the weekend thinking about the book and my own reaction to it, both good and bad, without really concluding anything. I had a surprise inspiration this morning, while listening to my next audiobook, The Goal.

Now, The Goal has been an interesting read, but for reasons totally unrelated to games. It’s a fictionalized account of how a manufacturing plant improves its means of production and a love story. It’s something Paul Tevis spoke well of, and I never ignore the man’s suggestions. It’s been interesting, doubly so since it’s a fairly old book (it’s from the eighties) so there was a mix of pre-technology thinking (like no cel phones and needing to specify “computer printout” and “laptop computer”) with business idea that were familiar. In this case, familiarity is not a criticism, rather, it’s indicative of how much I have seen the influence of this book in other things I’ve read. Anyway, good stuff for the business nerds, maybe less so for the gaming nerds.

The bit that jumped out at me was in the afterward, where the author talks about his experiences since writing the book. It was a big success, and the methods in the book were demonstrably useful, but getting people from agreement to implementation was (as it always is) a substantial hurdle. In talking about the methods he tried, he quite casually mentions that one of the most obvious and successful approaches was the creation of a computer game to illustrate the principals. Here’s this decades-old book making an off-the-cuff comment about the utility of games like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

And the thing is – I suppose it is.

And that’s when I realized where Reality is Broken and I parted ways. While the early chapters provide some very interesting and useful analysis about what makes a game, that’s not really what the book is about. There is a division between the act of playing the game (and what that can accomplish) and the game itself which needs acknowledgment. That is, a game may improve the player (teach skills, for example) or it may improve a situation (the players figure out how to solve a problem) but those are different (if related) outputs.

RiB skimps on the former in favor of the latter. Not because it’s being lax, but rather because it’s clear the author’s passion is in the big game (a fact which makes the strongly self-promotional nature of Reality is Broken less irksome to me than it is in other). That is, the ARGs she’s most excited about are ones where the game as a whole does something good to improve the world. Improvement to the player gets a mention, but it’s treated far more shallowly – akin to games of “Who can pick up their room faster?” that parents have been trying to sell to kids forever. (The one exception to this is quest for learning school system, which the book provides a fantastic account of, but little analysis. It felt out of place, though it was great to read about).

Seeing this has made the book both better and worse for me. That perspective does and interesting job of aligning it with the fantastic Gamestorming, which is also about using games to do things, but on a much more personal scale (which makes it less dramatic, but more practical as well), and with that goal more clearly in mind, I think the book does a decent job.

Sadly, that’s not what i was looking for. Not the book’s fault, of course, but there it is. See, I’m already sold on games being awesome. I take it as a given. But I want to know HOW to make them more awesome. I want to embrace the range of their strengths (consider modeling vs creation alone – HUGE mileage there) and talk about how to use those strengths usefully. I am annoyed and frustrated when the only thing we can takeaway from games is points and ribbons, thus more or less missing the entire point. I had been hoping that RiB was the book to bring me closer to those answers, but it wasn’t.

This is, I suspect, going to stand in lieu of a review, so here’s the bottom line: reality is broken is worth reading, though a library copy will probably do the job. It’s got some very interesting ideas about what makes a game and how they relate to work, and while they’re under-explored, they’re definitely thought provoking. The book it awash in conclusions and assertions that I disagree with, but they’re thoughtfully made.

On the downside, it’s a bit jargon heavy, and in parts outright disturbing in its tone. Matters that raise questions of bullying, addiction and indoctrination are all blithely discussed under a cheerful umbrella of “positive psychology” to an extent that left me uncomfortable at times. I think everyone who has spent time thinking about games and game culture knows there are downsides, but you wouldn’t know that from this book. That omission really weakens the foundation of things.

So, there it is. It’s worth a read, and I’m glad I did, but it left me waiting for something that’s not here yet.

Personally Epic

So, tabletop RPGs and Video Games have their own strengths and weaknesses, but what is most interesting to me are the areas of overlap, where both are strong, but in tellingly different ways.
The most obvious example of this is in the realm of feedback, something I consider a strength for both models. Video Games allow much faster, finer grained feedback, but it must be within specific bounds. RPGs allow for broader (and more human) feedback on almost anything. This balance of strengths is very interesting, and obviously each approach would benefit from the strengths of the other. If we could offer deep, rich, immediate feedback to tabletop play, that would be as potent as adding real emotional investment to video game feedback.
The one that’s really on my mind is scope. One of the recurring themes in Reality is Broken is about the human response to the “epic”. This point comes up so often that I admit I never want to hear the word again, but it’s an interesting one all the same. The assertion is that the level of work and detail that goes into crafting game worlds can inspire the same sense of awe that we get form other great works of man – cathedrals and such. The point is, I think, a little overwrought – a well made Halo level may be impressive, it’s still experienced through a screen, and falls short of Notre Dame. Still, the underlying idea that Video Games can impress us with their scope is a good one. Controlling the sweep of empires, watching armies clash and other play at various scales is impressive and moving.

This is why a lot of video games have such high stakes within the fiction. A video games has the tools to get across to you some of the weight of saving the world, and that’s pretty cool in and of itself, but it’s also a clever leveraging of a weakness. The rub is this: it is easier to do epic than it is to do personal.

As people, we care a lot about other people and the world around us. Saving the world is a dramatic abstraction, but saving our kid brother is something we understand. We protect the people we love. We seethe in the face of those we hate. We engage people in a very personal way. For fiction (and by extension, games) the creation of those personal connections is an act of art, not science. Worse, it doesn’t necessarily scale well, except perhaps in the hands of very talented artists. Making that connection is hard enough that most video games opt to take the easier route of going for epic[1]. And it’s a smart choice – they’ve got the tools for it.

Tabletop inverts this. It can do epic, but it has far better tools for the personal. Some of this is a function of the medium – in play, it is easier to convey people than it is a special effects budget – but it’s also a function of scale. A video game needs to impress everyone who plays it – a GM needs to impress a very small audience, an audience that she can watch and listen to. Yet for all that, there are tricks and methods a GM learns to use to capture that level of engagement reliably.

Ultimately, there will always be a bit of a divide in terms of which approach is stronger for which kind of scope, but unlike other differences, this definitely seems like one where each approach has a lot to learn from the other. To touch on yesterday, this is definitely something to look at ARGs for, as they often manage to convey scope without the immediacy of video games while still giving a slightly more personal sense of what’s going on.

Anyway, having finished Reality is Broken, and having been drawing posts out of it all week, I really need to get around to reviewing it.

[back]1 – Video games _can_ do this, but it depends far more on good writing and design than any technology. The most visceral experience I had with this was in playing Dragon Age. I had played as a city elf, and the city elf introduction is probably the most powerful in the game, revolving around your family and very bad, very personal things happening to them. When you finally make it back to your neighborhood, you see some of the aftermath of events, and it’s very human. Bioware avoided the cheap tricks and cliches, and in doing so made these characters come to life for me.

In the endgame, there’s a point where you pull back to a strategic map of the city to see where the bad guys are hitting things. Nominally, you should be making tactical decisions about how you want to deal with this, but one of the threatened neighborhoods is your home. My instant, utterly instinctive response to that was that my family was in danger, and I picked that location without even looking at the rest of the map.

Dragon Age was a great game, but for all its amazing elements, that is still the element that comes to the top of my mind when I think about it. This is true of other games too – the moments that really stand out are the personal ones, like a well done death or something really moving. This may make no sense to anyone who hasn’t played it, but here’s another: to this day, I remember almost nothing about Final Fantasy IX (my least favorite in the series until XIII) but I remember Vivi and the Black Mage village.

Prick me and I can bleed other examples. This is the main reason I remain a CRPG junkie. Hard to get that fix elsewhere.

The Castle ARG

When I talk about video games and RPGs (and I will be talking about them some more soon), I speak from a fairly solid foundation of experience. Today, though, I am talking about something I know very little about, precisely because I know so little about it. Specifically, I’m talking about Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs.
(Note: While I always appreciate comments, I would like to especialy call out for them today from anyone who can expand on these points or who can call me out for being full of it)
These are on my mind, as many of this weeks topics are, because of their prominence in Reality is Broken. When the author is talking about games that can really change the world, these are the ones she’s really talking about, games that can engage a large number of players over a geographically diverse area in pursuit of shared goals. There are numerous variations, but the basic pattern seems to be this:
  1. Some sort of mysterious information is released to the public in a place that will draw some attention. It will be presented in such a way as to inspire curiosity, raise questions, and get people looking around.
  2. Investigation will reveal other sources of information, some of it real, much of it fake (in the form of fake blogs, fake posting on social networks and so on). In a big game, these investigations will extend beyond the internet and into real world investigations, through things like geocaching.
  3. As the investigation occurs, community springs up to discuss the problem and collaborate on solutions. This will probably be subtly or overtly helped along by organizers. Ideally, the puzzle is too complex and varied for any one person to solve it all, so the community is a necessity.
  4. Events may occur. People may get mysterious messages or phone calls, or there may be real life events managed by game masters.
  5. Eventually, things move into endgame. The last piece of information is revealed, probably an action to be taken or an event to be attended. When the curtain rises on that, the “winners” (members of the community who stuck through it) attend and reap appropriate benefits, or at least take secondhand enjoyment from other members of the community attending.
It sounds very dramatic, and while there are lots of possibilities for this sort of game, its most common use at the moment is as a means of marketing a brand. What may be the most famous ARG, I Love Bees, was a big ramp up to a Halo launch. Even the altruistic games talked about in the book, such as one for the Olympics, are ultimately promotion for the sponsors.
This sounds cynical, and it maybe is, but at the same time there’s a bit of harsh necessity to it. In some cases we’re talking about games that will be played in a few weeks which will take over a year to prepare. That ratio seems totally off unless you can really get the kind of numbers of players to make it feel like the effort was worth it. Or, at least, so it seems.
The crazy thing is that the technologies that make all this possible potentially make it easy for a much smaller operator to do something compelling, at least with the right combination of creativity and dedication. This thought is driven into my mind by a packet I received back during the height of the recent blizzard.
This is a packet of information for an ARG being run by Big House Comics. As a prop nerd, I’m blown away by the quality fo the work on this, but not surprised. Kevin, the guy behind this, is one of those disgustingly talented types, and he very clearly spared no effort in making the material really work. Now, I recognize a lot of the techniques that go into making this stuff, and I can tell you that you can accomplish a lot of it on a very small budget if you’re willing to put in the time and work.
Obviously, you should check out BHC – I wouldn’t have brough them up otherwise – but this example of a more grassroots ARG comes back to a question that has kept me from paying much attention to them: can they really get any good synergy with RPGs? Historically, I’d have said no. The scale is all wrong, the rewards are a poor match, and – to use phrase I rather liked from the book – much of it is “Real Play, not Role Play” (which is to say, you’re playing as yourself, or someone very near to yourself).
But what if the bar is lower? What if the complexities of creating a good ARG have been a function of their relative novelty, and the medium is a bit more open to us down on the street. If so, that’s a promising thought. The RPG community is already rich with enthusiasts and contributors – as the scads of blogs, web pages and wikis will testify – so would it be such a bad thing to engage that energy in play? As a game publisher, the prospect of an ARG in support of your game seems a reasonable scale. For a LARP organizer, it would seem only a small stretch. For an actual game, something on the scale of under a dozen people, then it might be rough, but I no longer think it’s impossible.[1]
Put another way – perhaps there’s another avenue for solo-yet-not-solo fun than just creating characters.
I’m going to be thinking about this one for a while. The difference between “It can be done” and “here’s how to do it” is a big one, but I think it’s a gap that can be crossed.
[back]1 – Thinking about it, there’s some precedent. PBEM/Post games like De Profundis are already using the same infrastructure as ARGs, albeit on a small scale. Similarly, Games like the Amber DRPG have a strong streak of out-of-game contribution. These ideas are largely untapped by rpgs as a whole, but they’re on the table.

Upside of Tabletop

So, yesterday, I was thinking about the things that video games do well. Today I’m going to turn that around and talk about the things that tabletop games do well (relative to video games). This is not going to be touchy-feely stuff like engaging the imagination. While this is certainly true, it’s not terribly quantifiable, so I’m going to stick to somewhat more concrete benefits: Flexibility, responsiveness and emergence.
Flexibility is the first and most obvious benefit of tabletop, as it allows the players to “go off the rails” at will. Computer games require a lot of suspension of disbelief. Even in the most realistic of games, there is rarely an opportunity to climb a wall you shouldn’t climb or open a door that’s not supposed to be open. If a tabletop game has these limits it is usually a result of the GM being a tool rather than any failure of the medium. This seems like a very small thing, but it’s impact is huge in a great many ways. It allows players to move towards their interests freely, and it allows problem solving to become much more sophisticated.
Responsiveness is the very simple idea that player’s actions have a noticeable impact on the game world. That is, if they clean out a dungeon, then the land around it might get reclaimed or somethign else might move in or something else might occur that is a direct result of that action. Video Games have gotten better at this – “phasing” technology in World of Warcraft allows certain quests to change the game world, and games like Fable and Dragon Age allow the game to unfold differently depending on choices – but they still drastically pale by comparison to tabletop. In a computer game there are merely more options that get explored, but the ultimate range is still pretty fixed.
It’s worth a nod to the idea of game artificial intelligence as shaking this up. A sufficiently well designed game AI can definitely make for a much more flexible range of reactions, but for the moment it’s still pretty toy-like. Even if done well, it’s very hard to code in the decisions (often non-optimal decisions) that make things feel real.

Emergence is possibly the most powerful of these three, but it is very much a function of the intersection of flexibility and responsiveness. To put it simply, emergence is the unexpected that emerges naturally from play (as contrasted wit merely arbitrary or random surprises). The result of several creative people working together on a game is that it will almost always produce unanticipated results, usually in an awesome way. These surprises, from funny scenes to crazy plans to truly unintended consequences, create the real difference between play and the kinds of fiction it represents.

Now, emergence is possible in video games. Any toolset that allows humans to interact has the possibility of spawning the unexpected. Consider that a game of tag could break out on a counterstrike map – it’s not what the game is designed for, but the players have made it so. Emergence in video games tends to be very interesting, since it’s all about the manipulations of a limited tool set, but the limitations on the range of play are also limits on the range of emergence. Even with very creative players, the tools will eventually become a hindrance, when you attempt to play a courtly romance in Halo. Of course, one of the fun things about video games is that someone might write a mod to make it possible, but that’s a slow solution.

In contrast, emergence is almost impossible to avoid on the tabletop. Get people together and give them some freedom, and crazy stuff will come of it. Yet despite this, many GMs view this as an undesirable outcome, and attempt to lock down play as much as possible, to either quelch emergence entirely, to keep it channeled to very specific avenues (such as encouraging it in tactics, but not in the rest of gameplay). And, obviously, some games are better or worse at helping this along, though ultimately the real limiter is the people involved. A GM or player unwilling to deviate from rules as written has, effectively, accepted the same limitations video games operate under. This is not always a bad thing (constraints can breed creativity, after all) but it’s still going to depend on the hearts and minds of the people involved to figure out how to make that work.

As with video games, these are not intended to be things that ONLY RPGs can do, just a thought about what they do well. All straightforward enough so far, but tomorrow I’m going to look at some slightly different territory – ARGs.

Where Video Games Excel

The discussion of games and video games is going to be a bit of a theme this week as I finish up Reality is Broken. Today, I want to talk about three things video games handle very well, even better than tabletop game: providing clear goals, creating a constant feedback cycle and allowing robust failure.

Clear goals are tied into yesterday’s discussion, since they’re a big part of why it tends to be easy to move directly into play. Exactly how the goals may be communicated varies from game to game (a shooter may present you with enemies while an MMO may have quest text. It’s worth noting that while video games don’t always do this well (and can, in fact, drop the ball spectacularly), when the do it right they make the play experience seamless.

A big part of this hinges on the fact that games can more easily put goals directly into the context of play. Yes, some may have dialog or text, but many other games can present the goals (and the possible path to the goal) as implicit in the situation. This might be as crude as a boss monster showing up or as broad as a fading flashlight in a dark lair. Where tabletop play may require stepping back to explain the goal, means and consequences, the ability to present all that as ambient information is a fantastic trick.

A Constant feedback cycle is important to distinguish from feedback in general. Tabletop games can provide feedback in a number of ways, but it tends to do so in very broad strokes (either reaction in play, or through systems like advancement). This can be powerful and compelling, but there are practical limits on how fine a grain it can be. Video Games have no such limitations. They can track all manner of minutae, and potentially turn nearly anything into feedback. Gain a little sword skill every time you swing the sword. Track how many head shots you’ve performed to award you a prize. Build a win/loss ratio.

Constant feedback can be pretty compelling in a lot of ways, but the most potent is probably the most mundane – it’s the simple “Do something, something happens” dynamic. Consider the kind of repetitive action that makes up a game of World of Warcraft or Bejeweled – it’s soothing and enjoyable in a way it would not be if you were to describe the actions over and over again. The computer is willing to give you feedback indefinitely, while a human GM or player will get bored pretty quickly.

This is not to say that crunching numbers and pressing buttons are the end-all-be-all of gaming, but sometimes that’s what a player wants, and video games are the best tool for the job.

The last, robust failure, is probably one of the single greatest advantages video games have over tabletop. One of the reasons people are wiling to pound away at video games is that they greatly lower the price of failure. If failure actually hurt or cost us something, we’d be far more hesitant in our play, but the fact that is has little sting makes us willing to take risks and more fully engage in the game. The only price of failure is to play again, and since we can presume that we enjoy playing, that’s a price we’re happy to pay.

This is, by and large, a hard idea to transport to tabletop play. The very idea of a persistent, reliable, imaginary world that forms a foundation for so much play makes consequences a necessity for maintaining that sense of verisimilitude. This means that things like save points and respawns are cumbersome ideas at best. Yet despite this, there’s a lot to be said for getting the kind of engagement out of players that comes of not being paralyzed by consequences and risk. Even if RPGs can’t fully capture this mojo, they can learn from it. Whether that means introducing setting elements like immortal PCs of (god forbid) respawns, or if it’s just a mechanical trick, like making failure interesting or even useful, then you have taken steps towards makign failure a bit more robust.

(Notice that none of these are ‘graphics’? Good reason for that. Graphics are tangential to gameplay, and mostly come into play through the lens of level design, which _is_ important, but is not something I’d say is a great strength of video games – it’s more of an ugly necessity)

Ok. Deep breath. Got those out of the way. Which means, tomorrow, we look at things that RPGs do well but Video games kind of blow at.