Monday, September 24, 2012

Death and the PC

So, this reminded me about the concept of death in games.

Death is, like turn-based combat, a relic. It's inherited from the wargame era, just like turn-based combat. Everything is simple when it boils down to death: if you die, you have lost. Otherwise, you've won.

Obviously, we've gotten more nuanced and complex. Nowadays, most combats in a game are not threatening death. They're threatening resource damage. You get fewer rewards, or have fewer hit points, or use up some of your spells, or whatever. Typically, only bosses and other major combats threaten death these days, and even then many GMs will bend over backwards to avoid it. Video games similarly reduce death to a bare slap on the wrist - death as a major punishment just doesn't happen much any more.

Some people say that this is because games and GMs aren't "hardcore" enough. I say it's because death in combat is a stupid concept. It's a binary pass/fail. There are certainly games where death should be a problem, but most games would benefit from carefully considering whether death is even something that should pop up, let alone as a primary threat that pops up multiple times a session.

Not every game has to be about death. In fact, not even combat-heavy adventure games have to be centered around avoiding death. There are many alternatives that allow you to play completely different kinds of games that carry completely different messages within their mechanics and allow completely different stories to emerge.

For example, the article I linked up top is about a wacky game. By saying that you can't die, and instead things just get worse, they allow for the players to do crazy stupid stuff instead of sticking to sensible actions. And I think that's great. It's one example of how you can do a game where win/loss is not so... binary. After all, the point of challenges in a role playing game isn't simply to win, but to play a role while facing the challenge. If you "lose" because that's what your character would have done, isn't that a win?

I think the concept of turns and death are both things deeply rooted in wargaming culture, where victory is statistical. One of the most interesting things you can do when designing a game is try to throw them away. You don't have to center your games around combat, either: there are plenty of interesting games hidden in the less testosterony parts of our lives.

For example, you could make a game about high school friendships, romances, and coming-of-age issues. You could do a lot of fun, complex rules and build deep, interesting narratives... even though combat and death are unlikely to be mechanical threats.

Fundamentally, you can create a role playing game around any sort of situation where people are being people and there is some kind of conflict. You could make a game about small businesses striving to resurrect a local community. You could make a game about adding content to an on-line video game. You could make a game about dance-offs. Or cooking. Or being weather gods. Or fashion.

The complex mechanics of combat serve primarily as a scaffold to make players comfortable at playing their roles within the game. Traversing the scaffold builds investment, interconnections, memories... it helps to create the character, and to make the player comfortable in being that character.

But any scaffold of similar complexity can do that, and noncombat scaffolds can lead to radically different stories emerging.


I think the next big social innovation will be leveraging individual judgment.

Last time I mentioned this, somebody spent two paragraphs calling me nasty names. But I'm talking about a fundamental shift in how we participate in the world. Our citizenship within the world.

There's only so much we can do on our own. Right now, we're in a phase where we're learning to communicate things to each other on a grand scale. There's no way I could personally discover all the things in my social media streams - even if I spent all my time sifting through the internet, I'd never find a tenth of the brilliant things that the 1000+ people I listen to have collectively found. I don't spend all my time sifting through the internet, but I still see all these things, because I have 1000+ sets of carefully chosen eyes happy to share what they have seen.

And, of course, I share what comes to me when I think it is vaguely interesting. It makes me a decent citizen of the network.

But this - sharing input rapidly and easily - can only stretch so far. Already, the vast majority of the content that gets shared with me flits by before I even see it. The highly concentrated stream of brilliant observations is too much. Just this tiny corner of the internet has too many people seeing and saying too many interesting things. It is physically impossible for me to keep up.

And it shouldn't be necessary. There's no reason for one human to try and contain the whole internet. The point isn't to be superman, the point is to be a good citizen.

Right now, being a good citizen involves adding new finds and, equally important, sharing good finds someone else found to amplify them so that people like me are more likely to see them. I admit I find reshares to be as irritating as they are useful, but they are a critical part of the network "thinking". Reshares are like neurons firing, amplifying and processing an important bit of input.

It's only a very minor step to automate this. The only real barrier is that humans like to think they are in charge of every bit of data they see see. We aren't, we never were, and if we accept that, we can think about using other people's judgments much more fluidly.

There are two easy examples of what I mean.

The first is this: I'm walking to work. I get in line at a coffee shop. I get a ping from a stranger. They ask me to buy them a coffee and a scone, and they'll meet me a bit further along my path and pay me for them.

This is basically impossible right now. It'd be really tough to coordinate that even with friends. And, thinking about it as a person living in today's world, you wouldn't just buy a stranger coffee and scones, not unless you were aggressively hitting on them. But... in a world where human judgment is shared fluidly, I would have no trouble with it. I would know the stranger could be trusted to pay me, and I would be fine with it.

The second example is this: I want to get lots of cool music and science in my mailbox. But I admit I just don't get excited viewing music and science projects on hubs like Indiegogo. There's a flood of them, and very few of them catch my eye, and after sifting through them for half an hour I feel burned out and tired.

It would be nice if I could set up a "bid match" system, where I could attach myself to someone who actually loves looking at those kinds of projects. If they donate, I get an email with a big green button that says "MATCH DONATION!"

This really isn't about being lazy. It's about participating fluidly in a network of humans and machines. The two easy examples are easy examples, but if you dig even an inch deeper you can see how this could radically change the way human society works. It allows humans to leverage themselves and each other so much more fluidly and easily.

Was there a disaster? Imagine how quickly and fluidly everyone could respond if everyone could see what everyone else was saying. "This way clear", "Need sand bags!", "Stuck on roof! Help!"

Or just a personal disaster? We're already seeing the rise of the "the friend of a friend I follow on Tumblr has cancer and..." fund. This makes it faster and easier. Yeah, I imagine there are more people with cancer than there are friendly strangers willing to help pay. But when that becomes clear, it will become undeniably obvious that the health care system needs an overhaul.

How about not a disaster? Just a flash crowd? Getting together to play games in the park.

Skill support? Danielle has a new company that needs a web site, and is willing to pay X or stocks or whatever. Things like Monster don't hold a candle to hearing, from a friend, that somebody they trust could use twenty hours of your help. Someone researching zebrafish? You have a friend of a friend who knows everything about zebrafish.

This will be the next big social revolution. Fluid networked judgments.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Tabletop Design

I've been thinking about mechanics.

For example, tabletop games. Most tabletop games use a descendant of the wargame rule sets - turn-based combat-heavy rules. Even the ones which have simultaneous turns are usually still turn-based. I've talked about this in some detail before.

Rather than simply thinking about other kind of rules, it's worth thinking more about these time-tested paints we've all used a thousand times. The fundamental mechanics of nearly every tabletop game are the same, but they have very different feels depending on how things are weighted and, of course, the kind of world you've set it in. Ideally, the world and the rules should support each other perfectly.

Sometimes, a world is born out of a fascinating rule. But, more often the rules are built to support a fascinating world. And that's easiest to do when you are working within a scaffold: a painter does not invent a new paint for every canvas. Instead, they master painting and use whatever paints serve the work.

With that in mind, it's worth examining the various "paints" we might use to support worlds we have invented, stories we want the players to tell. I don't even think they have to be described in detail - if I did, they would require a post each. But we'll go over them briefly.

The battle rules are, in most cases, the heart of the game. There's actually a few paints hidden here.

One is the amount of time each battle takes, both in terms of turns, and in terms of how much real time the players spend per turn. Generally, battles with fewer turns tend to focus more on proven fundamentals, so characters in those games tend to have to choose between unlimited basic techniques and limited high-power techniques, and that's the fundamental point of combat. Battles with more turns tend to play more tactically, letting the players experiment and play with long-term effects. These basics are usually true even if you're using a miniatures map.

Of course, systems with battles that take more time tend to also focus more on battling. It may be that shorter battles are better simply because you want to spend more time on other things.

Battles can vary in terms of information inequality. Some systems, every decision you make is in full awareness of the outcome. Other systems, the players are desperately slogging through a statistical fog. This can be from things like simultaneous turns, but it can also be from simple randomness such as having to roll to hit.

Lethality matters, of course. Generally the players are always going to be quite lethal. The question is whether the enemies are going to be lethal. A lot of systems, the players are expected to win every battle pretty handily. These systems tend to have a lot of statistical fallbacks and make up for it by having epic boss battles. Other systems, every battle is a desperate struggle that could go badly for one or more players.

Another factor worth considering is how much your combat "mixes" with the rest of your game world. Some games pull stuff from the outside world into combat, allowing players to plan things out such as planting explosives, messing with the guard's communicators, using giant cranes to crush the dragon, etc.

However, in most situations it goes the other way. The consideration is how much attrition you put into each battle. Attrition is not simply how difficult it is to recover hit points, but also how many resources in general you must expend during a fight. If you have a "short battle" system your characters will typically expend a lot of limited-shot abilities. The reigning systems of the day don't much like attrition, so it's usually pretty easy to recover wasted abilities.

Moving steadily out of the path of battles, you run into the idea stats and stat progression.

The more complex your stat system is, the more meat the players have to chew on. More complicated stat systems are suitable for longer games with more experienced players, while simpler systems are more suited to pick-up games and newbies. Some people prefer simpler stats as a matter of preference, but I find they don't offer enough traction for longer games with experienced players.

Stat progression and customization is also critical. The two basic methods are equipment and level-ups. The more complicated and branching the options are for these, the more meat there is to chew. Generally, games match statistical complexity and augment complexity.

As we get further from battle again, we start to enter the noncombat mechanics. The biggest choice here is where the blending happens between rules and role play. For example, most games have social skills such as fast talk, intimidate, and so on. However, in practice the players role play social situations as much as possible before turning to a skill roll. Similarly, they may have stealth, or mapping, or so on, but in general most players appreciate the GM explaining what they see and letting them approach it from a role-play perspective instead of rolling for everything.

Some games mix it more freely, such as giving the players slightly nebulous advantages if they call on various traits. Some games create a more complex rule set and draw the line more crisply. It depends on the approach you're going for. Some games have a lot of skill stuff, especially if they are set in the future and have things like piloting, hacking, repair, market research, etc. Fantasy games tend to have noncombat situations that can be resolved primarily by role play. Creating a complex skill framework for a fantasy game can result in a really complex framework that ends up not mattering very much.

There are some other "paints", but they are more tightly integrated with world design. For example, can your heroes retreat safely from extended conflicts? Can they rest safely in the wilderness and recover their spent energy? Can they rely on magical solutions, help from strong authority figures, and so on?

These decisions sound more like world design than rule design, but in truth the boundary is pretty blurry. If you can convince a god to come down and handle the dragon, then that's going to effect your battle plans as much as if you have to expend resources every time you fight.

Anyway, I think that's most of the paints you might use. If you have any thoughts, I'm interested to hear them.