Shining Dodecahedron

One geek's views on role-playing and games in general.

This place is all about discussing paper-and-pencil roleplaying games. I'm Jay, and I run this joint, but that doesn't make me smarter than you. This will all work best if I say things, and you say what you think about them, lather, rinse, repeat. With luck we can all understand the hobby a little better. If you have a topic that you would like me to start a thread about, post a comment here. If you've got something to say about characters (my ongoing topic du jour), post a comment here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Investment (No not the Stock Market)

Yesterday a talked a little bit about investment and I think its worth looking at a little deeper. How do you make sure that everyone cares about something in the game?

Players are relatively easy. Each one needs to find something about his character that means something to him. Easier said than done, of course. Sometimes you can find something to invest in your character from the start. Other times you have to find it in play. This is also a dangerous proposition because it's easy to over-invest during charcter creation and come up with things that just don't work in play.
How does the GM help? Well, paying attention to how the player reacts to things in play is the first step. Find what gets the player excited and give him some more of it. Be tuned in to the investments that the players are making and don't ignore or step on them.

The GM is harder in terms of investing. The GM (at least in traditional games) spends a lot of time thinking about the game and planning for things. It is easy to invest in a clever scenario that does not take the actual players and their characters into account. This is the path to railroading. If the GM invests in outcomes of situations that should not be decided without actual play, then any investment that the players have can be negated. This ends up being fun for nobody.

It is safer for a GM to invest in particular NPCs. Having a star villain, or an amusing contact can be a great way for the GM to invest in the story without deciding how the story will end before it starts. Again, care must be taken to avoid taking the spotlight off of the PCs.

As I said yesterday, it becomes lots harder for the GM to invest in the game in a meaningful way in games where the players have more control built in. In these cases, choosing characters to play that are engaging and fun as the GM is, I think, essential.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Ten Years of Terror

This is off-topic, but today is the 10th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. I bring it up because I was in OCK that day, going about my business as usual. I was in the Air Force at the time, and I remember that, at first, we heard that there had been an explosion of unknown origin downtown. They thought it was a gas leak or something. But really, who would imagine that someone would do something like that?

Shock is an amazing thing. In the days that followed, I didn't react in a strong way. I didn't really absorb the situation until quite a while later. A friend of mine went down to the blast site the first day to help out, even after having been told not to. He showed up in his BDUs as if he were a military person who was suppsed to be there and they put him to work. He went into the fragile shell of the federal building and helped the firemen and other emergency crews fish bodies from the wreckage. That was how he dealt with it: he faced it head-on. People like me never really dealt with it at all. I still can't conceive of someone planning and executing that kind of attack. Lashing out at the government by killing innocent people. I don't get it.

I won't be so naive as to say that that day changed to world or anything, but it serves as a symptom of our problems in my opinion. Where does all the hatred come from? How do we stop it? I have no idea myself, but I don't think that it's a coincidence that this country at this time is producing so much hate. I wish more people would think about what they are doing and how it affects others. I wish that people would look at the OKC bombing as an invitation to change for the better. But then, I wish a lot of things.

Player Empowerment

This is the biggest problem for me in playing, running, and designing RPGs: how do you empower players to contribute to the story while still having a GM to hold the plot together as a cohesive story?

I don't have an answer. At least, not in a mechanical, here's the rules to use kind of way. When a game works for me, it is because the GM (whether me or someone else) is taking great care to find out what the player wants for his character and from the game at large and then responds by providing opportunities for the fulfillment of those desires in play. Traditionally, this is hard, because there are certain assumptions that are made in traditional RPG culture that get in the way:

  • The players should know no more than their characters do
  • The players should never come right out and say what they want to happen
  • The GM is "God" and should never be questioned
  • The GM has a story to tell, and the players should not get in the way

When operating under the social constraints of traditional RPGs, a GM has to bend over backward to give the players what they want. He basically has to be a mind-reader.

Then there's the impossible thing before breakfast, as it is called by the folks at the Forge. TITBB is the notion, often perpetuated in traditional games, that the GM is the primary author of the overall story that is the game, and that each player controls his character's individual story. The problem being, of course, that these two things cannot both be true. Either the GM creates the story and the players are more or less along for the ride, or the GM reacts to the players' wishes and overrides his plot as needed.

There seem to be a couple of ways that folks are trying to solve this problem in recent games.

The first, typified by Ron Edwards' Sorcerer, is to require the player to introduce a conflict as part of his character. The kicker, as Sorcerer calls it, is an open plot that the chraracter has just begun as play begins. The GM is then required to deal with the kicker in play, tying the player's idea into the story at large.

The second, advocated by Vincent Baker, is to limit the scope of the GM's job to providing adversity. The idea being that the GM comes up with situations without forming any opinions about how they should turn out. When he gets the situation to a point where the players can't ignore it, he lets them loose to deal with it however they like.

I haven't really done the first one. Though it is an extension of how many disadvantages were ideally used in the Hero System and other games of its type. I think it is a good start, but still requires the GM to be vigilant in order to not railroad the players into doing what he wants.

The second has real promise in that it trains the GM to not invest in specific outcomes of situations. The question is: what does he invest in? A good game, naturally, but I think there needs to be something more than that.

So the question remains open. What is the balance of power between the player having input and the GM getting satisfaction from his contribution? I know I'm not near the answer yet.

Of course, this is all ignoring games that have no GM, but I'll save that for another time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A Bit About Toy Factor

Someone on the Forge brought up the idea of "toy factor" (or words to that effect) a while ago. The idea is that, beyond supporting any creative agenda, an RPG can have aspects that are just fun to play with.

At the time, I took note of the concept and moved on, but I've been thinking about it this week and it makes total sense to me.

After my last game session wherein we made characters with which to playtest my upcoming game, Musha Shugyo, I suggested that someone else in the group might GM something so that I could get a chance to play. One of the guys brought up the possibility of a space opera game using the Hero System. I'm a Hero junkie of old, and was thrilled at the prospect. I dusted off my rulebook and started getting reacquainted.

Then I realized: I love the Hero System because making a character is challenging, stimulating, and fun. At least for me. Part of what I like about RPGs is coming up with a cool character and then making that character come alive with the game system. It's toy factor all over.

I'm sure that lots of folks find lots of different parts of systems engaging on a toy level. It's something to think about when analyzing the "why we play" of a group.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

It's How You Play the Game

I've had some mixed results when trying to play some of the recent wave of indie RPGs. I will talk about the games and what happened when I played them later on, but I want to start with a notion I have about how you play a game.

There's a cool little card game that you may know called Bang! It's silly and fun and evokes spaghetti westerns on purpose. It also serves as a great illustration about my whole deal regarding how you play a game.

There is minimal strategy in Bang! You get a role which dictate which other characters have to die in order for you to win. So you have to figure out who is who and who you want to shoot. But beyond that, you draw cards, then you use them to unleash mayhem on one and all. The game was designed to be played fast, loose, and without a lot of thinking about stuff.

So I played the game and loved it, and got a copy for myself. Then I brought it to a regular board gaming group that I had at the time. They didn't get it. These guys were all serious gamers who wanted to be able to make and execute a grand plan. They couldn't handle a game where each turn you take the cards you are given and use them as best you can as quickly as you can. They did not like the game.

Then I brought it to a family gathering, thinking that a light, quick game would be just the thing to play with my parents. Wrong again. My father, who is a long-time player of traditional card games, couldn't grasp the concept that you are not trying to collect anything or get rid of anything. He wanted to equate the game to Oh Hell, or at least to UNO. He didn't like the game.

I use this as an example, because it is a simple illustration of a common primciple. A designer makes certain assumptions when creating a game. He forms an idea in his head about how the players will behave during the game. These ideas might be based on his own play group, or they might be based on idealized thoughts of the perfect play group. The important thing is that the assumptions are there. And if the people playing the game don't conform to the assumptions, the game will not be fun--at least not fun in the way that it was designed to be.

Some (but still very few) games try to solve this problem by providing detailed examples of play, usually in the form of a transcript of a fictional game. This is an essetial part of writing good instructions for a game, and one for which I can find no excuse not to include. But the problem is that not all players read the rules. It's usually one person trying to tell the others how it's done.

Another problem (and one that unusual RPGs often have) is that the game is similar enough to some other game that the players are familiar with that they assume it plays the same. This is a killer. I have spent most of my gaming career assuming that every RPG was to be played exactly the same as every other and that rules sets just describe how the actions are resolved. It's very hard to teach old gamers new tricks (harder than dogs by a long shot in my experience). I have yet to discover a great way to teach experienced players to play a game the way you want them to. It's a topic that I'm sure I'll get much more into as time goes on.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

What the heck is a game anyway?

The Oxford English Dictionary has several definitions of use to us:

game, n.
1. Amusement, delight, fun, mirth, sport. Often in game and glee, game and play, joy and game; also game and solace. upon her game: in fun. no game =
‘no fun’. Obs. exc. dial.
3. a.
An amusement, diversion, pastime.
Also collect., play, diversion. at game: at play.
4. a. A diversion of the
nature of a contest, played according to rules,
and displaying in the result
the superiority either in skill, strength, or good
fortune of the winner or
winners. For round, square game, see ROUND, SQUARE. at game: at play.

The first definition is interesting in that it is the oldest (and is now considered obsolete). It and 3.a. both make a game sound like something that is devoted to fun. This makes sense because the root word (gamen or gaman) means joy or glee. Many of the problems that I have had with games in the past have to do with definition 4.a., which has become the standard usage of the term.

A game, as I see it, is a thing that one does with other people in order to have fun. In our screwed-up overly competitive, rat-race world, we have this idea that a game is something that you play to display superiority. But what about the rest of our lives that are crammed full of dominance establishing activities? Don't we deserve a break from that? Why should I take time out of my struggle to get ahead at work only to struggle to get the better of my friends?

Role-playing games, in many ways, seem to fit the bill for me. The point of an RPG doesn't have to be about being better than someone else. Role-playing can be about getting together with friends and creating something cool. When I was younger that worked well. I gamed. I had fun with others. No problems. So why doesn't that work so easily anymore?

The folks over that the Forge have established (in my mind convincingly) that role-playing can be "about" one or a combination of a few simple things. To me, it all comes down to what a game is. And I think that a game is any kind of structured social fun. For some people, what's fun is competing with others to establish superiority as described in the OED definition 4.a. above. Those folks structure their fun by making rules that establish a level playing field for everyone competing. This style of role-playing is pretty easy to do. It's the other folks that have more trouble.

Most of the people that I used to play games with can't even figure out what they like about the game, or what they used to do that was cool that they can't seem to do anymore. Without a better grasp of what your social fun looks like, it's damn hard to find or make rules that make it happen. I'll be talking about this a lot more in future posts. The Forge guys have made some real headway toward defining what makes the game fun for a variety of folks (though in a way, I'm not sure that they have it as nailed as they think they do). But the finding a way to determine where you and your fellow players fit into the scheme is less well established. And figuring out what to do about it seems to be entirely hit-or-miss at this point.