Saturday, May 28, 2011

swords & wizardry, player input

Ye gods, that took me back.
It occurs to me that in games with a very heavy GM presence in the decision-making process (GM-as-final-arbiter, for example), those occasions in which players DO make creative choices are moments to be treated with something almost like solemnity.

Those moments tend to take the form of decisions made by the adventuring party or whatever, such as: which path should we take? Should we finish off this adversary who begged for mercy? Et cetera.
The issue presents itself as, essentially: "I have hardly any say in what's going on in this tale. Please respect my wish to let the ogre-mage live, as that is an expression of what little autonomy and control I have here."

It's kind of an uncomfortable feeling. I would likely quite enjoy switching over to Dungeon World, as suggested by a player, but we shall see.
This may also be a product of playing S&W with folks who usually do not partake of games of that type, but I don't usually play such games either! And everyone at the table was itching to push things in a more modern, story-gamey direction, even the D&D veteran.
That is totes fine! I've definitely seen what we can do with the system, and I have to admit that I'd probably love designing Dungeon World adventures instead.
I have some reading to do.

I will add that I have been genuinely respecting all dice rolls (no fudging!) and respecting player decisions as much as possible. I did kind of nerf a boss by not playing him as hard as I could (I really need to stop being afraid of PC-deaths), but that was my only self-criticism afterwards.

Friday, May 27, 2011

the void, actual play, and getting it wrong (or right)

Yeah, that Dwarf Fortress hack of Polaris? I may post about that someday. Maybe.

At the moment, I have a thought: when someone asks you "What's your game about?" they're really asking (or you should really be thinking) "What happens in play, independent of/because of the rules?" Sometimes you will answer the first question one way, and the second question in a very different way. And, of course, sometimes the game ends up focusing on different things for different people.

For example - Kagematsu. The author tells you, quite explicitly, that it was a game written to capture that feeling of petty competition between women over relationships, and the way that women are often socialized to be pointlessly judgmental of one another.
When I played it, it was a game about flirtation, awkwardness, and sexuality. Gender entered into it, sure, but not much - the deference and awkward pauses had as much to do with status differences as they did with feudal Japanese gender roles.

This also ties into what the "fruitful void" is all about - you cannot see what a game is really, truly about until you have played it. Even then, some games require at least a couple of sessions before all their different things can display themselves.

Kind of like how after a few Advances, your Apocalypse World character is just no longer likely to fail at things s/he's good at, anymore, meaning that hard choices are not presented to you as often anymore.

So - the point is this: why not try starting out with what kind of play experience you're envisioning? This can be tough, and pretty abstract, but at least at some point in the process, you're going to need to know/decide/imagine what play itself should look like. This goes far beyond the genre, the setting, mechanical ideas, even player roles. What kind of stuff happens in play? What are we doing? Build from there.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Camp Nerdly, May 2011

I played three games today: My Life With Master, D&D Basic Set ('79), and Polaris.
Now, on to details.

MLWM was setting-hacked, set in 1960s rural Washington State with a very Manson Family vibe. We had some great scenes, and folks were really good at characterization (a creepy big brute with a van, a guy who could only speak if he was waxing intellectual, my Patty Hearst impersonator...); our GM was also excellent - he put on black leather gloves during the Master scenes, and was really intimidating and creepy. It's clear to me now that MLWM is a kinky game.

The downside was a combo of two factors: first, it's not a game that involves the whole table very readily. Secondly, FIVE players were at the table - that's a lot of segmented play, i.e. five separate mission scenes and five separate Overture scenes every time we go around the table. I was thinking that my idea, Gang War, would benefit from some of the procedures used to portray the Master, but play would need to be a lot more open/less structured to work for stories about desperate people joining gangs to survive.

D&D Basic involved the famous Keep on the Borderlands adventure. It was pretty amazing - almost indistinguishable from Swords & Wizardry: very freeform, very deadly combat. The fighter and the dwarf were killed after charging at some spear-goblins, my thief ran away, and the DM ruled that there was 3 weeks of downtime in the fiction while the other players rolled up a couple of elves.
The DM then employed an interesting house rule: he briefly narrated what my thief, Otto Lampblack, had been up to in that time, and then granted me a level. Dunno if that was something he'd devised ahead of time, but after that, the rule was - if some PCs die and the survivors have to retreat, cue downtime and a level-up.

We briefly discussed how level 3 is about the point where a lot of things start to bloom for your character (and I think someone else said this online somewhere, recently) - - abilities that cue to your level relative to monsters begin to matter more, the infamous start-with-1-hp is no longer an issue, and characters begin to differentiate a lot more.
This all makes me want to start a campaign all the more.

More on Polaris soon.

Friday, May 20, 2011

How Mysteries are Solved in a Dramatic Fashion

The following is especially true of supernatural or suspense tales.

Scenario A, "The cost of knowledge" - A scholarly, curious, or wise character encounters new information that pushes open the mystery a little bit further. That character is then antagonized in some way, as dramatic "payment" for advancing the plot in this way.

All good drama needs to be consistently dramatic, and a scene wherein a character is just finding out stuff could be pretty boring. To liven things up, the acquisition of information comes at a cost, either during the acquisition or immediately after.

During the acquisition: (Jurassic Park) "My god, those velociraptors are trying to break into this computer lab! I have to hurry!" The cost is that there's a risk to the attempt itself - Lex (the young girl) has to turn the compound's electronic locking mechanism on NOW, or she'll be killed by the 'raptors. If she fails, she'll either die or have to abandon the computer terminal, and both those options guarantee an escalation in drama.
If she succeeds (which she does), she provides some payoff and relief for the characters - the electronic locks activate, and now they have a safe base from which they can start regaining control over the crisis.

Immediately after: (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) "He chose... poorly." [the Nazi archaeologist promptly dies and turns to dust] The cost comes from the discovery itself - Donovan (the main bad guy) identifies the wrong cup as the Holy Grail, and dies for it. If he had been right after all, the conflict would escalate, as the Nazis (or at leastone Nazi) would have access to the Grail. Overall, a ratcheting up of tension for Indy.
Because Donovan actually failed, the Nazis became less of a threat overall, but the chance of Indy choosing the wrong grail would increase the immediate tension and conflict in the situation. Long term gain, short term loss.

Scenario B, "Surprise!" - The info-gathering character (the "informer" from now on) discovers something important and we are immediately shown that the new info is true. Both the audience and the character(s) find out something at the same time. The cost of the information is that there's no time to use it.

This comes (mainly) in one of two ways: either 1) the "informer" announces the info and someone in that same scene (the "informer" or someone else) is immediately affected by the truth of this new info, or 2) the "informer" announces the info and the scene cuts to another character being affected by the new info.

Scenario C, "Chekhov's Gun" - the information-gathering character makes a revelation that does not immediately create tension - instead, the tension comes from the information being ignored or disbelieved.
In the case of Chekhov's Gun, information is simply established as fodder for a later scene - the gun is on the mantle in the den, we (the audience) know that now, and thus any later scene in the den could involve the gun in some way.

So, when actual information is relayed in this way, the audience is given information that is not demonstrably true through what's happening in the plot. For instance, a horror-movie character will earnestly tell his friends that the noises in the woods are werewolves, and you gotta help me, man!!

In Scenario C, he is regarded as crazy, and ensuing scenes that do not feature werewolves possess a tension based on the absence of those creatures. Every scene that does not have werewolves in it, after we've been told that there ARE werewolves in the forest, demands an answer: Are there werewolves or not? The tension should build from scene to scene, until finally the "crazy" character is either proved wrong or proved right.

If the audience is told the information at point A, and the protagonist finds out at point B, the plot in between must create tension via the period of ignorance (on the part of the protagonist) in order to keep things interesting. Every time someone or something references the protagonist's ignorance is an opportunity for pathos, tension, or a joke.

A & B are situations in which time is a very small factor.
C is when it is a larger factor - you establish information for future use.
A & B are what I'm interested in - the act of searching for information "buys" the information and makes it true. It happens right away.

Friday, May 13, 2011

OSRAW! Fight that troll, Willow!

Had a good conversation, post-game, last night with George. He's critical of Dungeon World, feels like it's not quite there (or maybe he'd be more strident about it than that!), and one of his particular criticisms was an issue of scale:

In a game of Dungeon World we played at a Jeff-con, the party's bard managed to use a move, Fascinate, to bewitch a frog-god and convince it to follow him to the ocean, where he would threaten to force the god into the sea and kill him (amphibians breathe through their skin; the GM ruled that gods are no exception here) unless the frogman armies left the city alone.

So, from a D&D/OSR perspective, the idea of threatening an amphibian enemy with salt water is pretty badass. Everyone at the table agreed it was a really cool plan, and the GM ruled accordingly.

The other side of the OSR viewpoint could be/would be, however: how the heck did a level 2 bard manage to use his magic on a frog god, just like that? I mean, whatever, but the status of god would matter more than the status of frog, just like how some kinds of undead are harder to repel than others.
Even if it'd be amazing to see the party cleric repel a nasty mummy-king right into a bonfire and watch him light up like a thing on fire, there's still that part of the fiction that says, "Yeah, but, isn't this adversary pretty powerful? Couldn't his incredible evilness deflect the power of this dime-store holy symbol?"

That gets me thinking about the role of levels in Dungeon World - pretty much any charm-related/mind control spell in any incarnation of D&D is going to address the monster's level or hit dice. Player-characters get stronger based on level, not just in terms of benefits like attack bonus and hit points, but intrinsically - the saving throw rolls get better over time 'cause of some inherent excellence that develops with leveling up.

In Apocalypse World, advances can sharpen or broaden a character, and they eventually lead to a character retiring from play. You can't get more than 10 advances before you MUST take the advance, "Retire your character (to safety), and create a new character to play."

Dungeon World has rules for going up to level 10, and it has some moves that don't scale at all to level (such as Fascinate). I think that a direction should be chosen - are levels going to matter a lot more, or are we going to use them only for the vibe they give? I think either option would be cool, but at this point it feels like one of those is not happening. I wasn't particularly bothered by it in play, but it's an interesting notion: there are certain things that low-level characters can do just as well as high-level characters. That definitely grinds against the spirit of D&D. If I have to gain 10xCurrent Level experience points to ding, it'd be nice if it counted for a bit more.

I think the scaling issue could be fixed just by including info about levels, for monsters or for PCs, in a lot more moves.
On the other hand, what if "level" is just a misnomer, just a colorful term, and leveling up is really about gaining more abilities, not necessarily more powerful ones. But, in DW, that does depend on the class: any of a bard's moves can be bought any time you level up, whereas the cleric has some moves for levels 2-5 and some for 6-10.

At the same time, this is all entertaining a particular argument. How I really feel is that it's way too hard to level up in D&D, given the benefits that affords you, and especially when compared to AW.
It might make more sense to flatten the xp requirements for leveling, just making it 10xp/level, or some other flat but high-enough amount that it doesn't happen too fast but you do get to do it often enough that it feels actually possible.
Pre-3rd edition D&D is clearly a game about having almost nothing to work with and getting through a tough spot regardless. The level-up rules are a carrot for extended play, but really, I've never actually played in a D&D game long enough to go up a level. Especially in its OSR incarnations, D&D play seems to mainly be about having the pluck, courage, and sheer good fortune to make it through some really tough scrapes intact.

I don't know if a game like AW, with all kinds of ways to improve your character and to show off your powers, is really suited to capture this particular form of D&D. I think that a sweet fantasy adventure game is perfect for AW, but more for capturing what folks like me wanted D&D to be (a way to live out 80's fantasy flicks and Dragonlance novels), not what it actually was.

My recommendations: flatten the xp advancement, put in stuff about retiring your character, put in stuff about the intended scope or length of a campaign (somewhere between a 2-hour epic and a season's worth of TV), make dungeons a part of play and not the point of play (think Moria in LotR, rather than the module adventures of yore), and dispense with the whole monster-level-thing.
If we change up monsters like that, then various benefits of leveling wouldn't make sense anymore: HP gains, bonuses to the attack roll, or really any improvement that doesn't come from stat gains or new moves.

The other road (keep levels and the design ethos they bring to the table) is totally fine, of course, but I think DW is currently in a sort of middle ground where neither approach is really being explored enough. I think DW is an awesome project, and I want to give it another shot before I put any work into making OSRAW (Old School Revolution - Apocalypse World).

Saturday, May 7, 2011

sim: what it is, what it isn't

Any ideas about what sort of difference there could be in Conflict Rez as it applies to Story Now vs. Right to Dream?

I'm not sure this even applies! I think the "site" at which Creative Agenda occurs is far broader than Conflict Rez. "Resolution" here is shorthand for player-driven resolution, but that's no reflection on CA.
You know what? I don't buy that it's possible to have Sim that's all about faithfully portraying a genre. I mean, I have never encountered Ron's fabled Sim game where the GM protects the genre from outside influence.
Maybe that is a literal statement - maybe I haven't encountered such a thing, but it's out there anyway. It sounds like the mechanics are protecting the genre in Pendragon, for example (but the GM isn't doing it) - being a Romantic knight is about grappling with the tug between virtue and ignobleness (if that's a word...), and so in Pendragon your virtue-themed stats mean you're pinging back and forth between them the whole time. You aren't allowed to simply be a knight, and explore what that means for yourself.

Of course, when I say "allowed", others might say "abandoned"! The things that make a knight into the "time bomb" Ron Edwards talked about somewhere - Story Now requires characters that have been "wound up" and have plot waiting to unfold, but it also, equally, requires procedures and mechanics that allow players to drive play forward with their choices.
But honestly, I don't know if I've come across his alleged "pastiche-play". I think V:tM is about being a vampire and stuff, but the mechanics don't empower the player to engage in the struggle of it all. When you lose Humanity points, it's totally a GM-centered thing. In Sorcerer, you agree to burn them. The difference is the procedural text, I think - - there really needs to be an understanding (on someone's part, if not everyone's) that the point of play is to hand the players morally and emotionally complex situations and give them the wheel. The first bit (complex situations) is procedural play, what the GM/GM-role is for. The second bit (the wheel) is the mechanics, what the player-role is for. The mechanics help them drive around in the emotional/moral complexity; whatever other dangers or strife are thrown in there too, they exist to draw out the emoraltional (ha) stuff.
(forgive me while I go on about the general idea of CAs for a bit...)
Gamist play is very similar, with a crucial difference - the point of play is to hand the players dangerous or unsafe situations, and empower them to decide what to do about them. There can be licentious, disturbing, or harrying material in there for flavor, but it's not the point.
It would seem that Sim play can have any kind of content it pleases, but most Sim-ish gamers I've met aren't interested in taking the wheel. They like being thrown into morally harrying situations, maybe, but they don't seem interested in getting there on their own. This isn't an attempt to impugn their play style. But what I've seen seems to be "Hey, GM! Put me in some interesting situations, wouldja?" (as opposed to "Let me do it!") And that mentality seems to dovetail with some concern for how things are supposed to operate, in terms of game physics, genre expectations, etc.

I was thinking about those scenes in movies where the hero has to choose between two people who are about to die. In movies where the hero chooses, the character would end up in that situation as a result of their own actions. In movies where the hero ends up escaping the choice, the character ends up in the situation because of others' actions.
Take Batman Forever, if you will - in that scene where Nicole Kidman and Robin are both about to fall into respective death-pits, Batman refuses the choice and saves them both. If the point of the film were about the pain of deciding between love and friendship, he would have made an actual choice; failing to do so would have made the film fall flat, unless a Cunning Twist is employed.
Like, if a film is about a guy who has a male best friend and a girlfriend, and he and his best friend end up falling in love, that might seem like not choosing at all, but really he has determined that Love Is Friendship.
On the other hand, if the movie was about the difficulty (not pain) of choosing between love and friendship, then we're watching Saving Silverman - the choice is resolved by a) Silverman finding a new, less objectionable love interest and b) one of his closest (and most jealous) friends finding that what was missing from his own life was (gay) love. The movie is more about what a pain in the ass it is to juggle close friendships and a romantic life, rather than about the pain of choosing and then living with that choice.
It seems to me that Nar play is about choices and living with them, whereas Sim play is more like "slice of life" fiction - the point is to portray, or explore, a "correct" vision of a particular lifestyle, world, or whatever.

I think it's probably impossible to use truly thematic Conflict Resolution in a Sim game. If play focuses on exploring dramatic themes and gives the players the power to make meaningful decisions about them, that's Nar play, straight up. If either element goes away - thematic content (i.e. it's emotional, it's ethical, it's about choices) or strong player input, it changes.
You take away the thematic *oomph*, but not the input, and you have Gamist play. It can still pluck your heart strings, but the mechanics and procedures aren't going to help you do it. If you play a heist game and it's all about the cool plan and what could go wrong, it's Gamist.
You take away the input, but not the oomph, and you have Sim play that's focused on emotionally engaging the players. Horror games are definitely molded from this clay pretty often - in V:tM, in my opinion, the Storyteller is supposed to make the players confront how ugly and creepy vampires are, but he's showing it to them - they poke at it and turn it over a bit, and look it up and down, but ultimately the Storyteller brings it mechanically/procedurally, by enforcing Humanity checks.

If you take away both, you might end up with upbeat, Illusionist adventure games, or, basically, various relatively low-emotional-risk iterations of Sim. I think. Certainly, no-oomph/no-input is the kind of Sim I grew up on.

Okay, so I guess Conflict Resolution does sound like foreign territory, from a Sim perspective. I dunno, though - CR has been painted as the difference between merely performing a task and making the effect of that performance stick. The sticky widget seems to be how we define making it stick - do we do the thing from a mechanical perspective so that we can beat a dude, or do we do the thing so we can handle a relationship?

That is, are we engaging the mechanics to gain meaningful authority over the outcome of a conflict? If yes, then it is Conflict Resolution. If we are engaging the mechanics but don't gain meaningful authority over it (that is, if the authority stays where it would otherwise lie), then it is Task Resolution.

On one level, CR is where tasks are nested - you must achieve your goals through tasks in order to ground your play in the fiction, lest you get the equivalent of:

Checkmate: Whenever you get into a fight, roll +sharp. On a hit, win the fight.

TR, on the other hand, is the opposite of "tap A to win the game" - - you can only do the component tasks, and you never get the narrative weight to say "Yep, this solved it." You are asked to handle individual bits of the fiction, but they never become the whole until someone (likely the GM) touches them - they remain the "sum of the parts" only.
Gamist play would be totally ruined by TR - if your actions don't meaningfully settle the matter (there are rubrics for determining this in a successfully Gamist design), then you've been hosed by the GM.
In Story Now play, TR totally can't happen - if your actions don't matter, how the heck are you going to address Premise?

Going back to Story Now vs. RtD: I played AW last night, and it's weird how the procedures do a lot of the heavy lifting in that they push the players into making choices about stuff they care about. They don't push them so much as help them along - the MC's various moves basically help to raise the stakes or take a loose thread and tug on it. Ultimately it's the players who are pushing things forward; the MC just helps them maintain their forward velocity.

I don't know how much more I can say about RtD play; I feel like I can only define it by what is lacking from Story Now play, rather than "positively" defining it as something unto itself.