D&D petition update

Some of you may remember that last year I created a petition asking Wizards of the Coast to make the art in D&D Next more diverse than that of previous editions. The petition closed in February, it got 650 signatures, and since then I have been trying to get Wizards to give a response to the petition.

I made contact with Wizards’ PR guy John Leroy in April. The fact that the only public contact point with Wizards is a PR company didn’t exactly fill me with hope, and unfortunately my fears turned out to be justified. After asking me to send him the petition, John entered radio silence. I’ve chased him every few weeks since I sent him the petition, and he has failed to reply (and yes, I did check my spam box).  I darkly suspect that the petition never made it past the PR department.

I think that when hundreds of your customers tell you they want something you should at least give them a respectful response. Ignoring them outright – well, let’s say I’m not impressed. I don’t necessarily expect them to change their art policy (though obviously I want them to) but to ignore the petition outright shows a lack of respect.

I would encourage those who signed the petition (or anyone who thinks they ought to reply) to contact John Leroy at 360 degrees PR. His email address is jleroy@360pr.com. (Note that this is a corporate address, not a personal address; I would never share a personal email address in this way.) Alternatively you could tweet them at @360pr, perhaps including Wizards customer service @Wizards_CS. Let them know your views.

Pointless mechanics that aren’t so pointless

I recently bought a copy of Kagematsu through the ever-wonderful Bundle of Holding (highly recommended if you haven’t come across it). Kagematsu is a game about the attempts by the women of a Japanese village to woo a wandering ronin in the hopes he will save their village from a looming threat.

I haven’t played the game (yet) but reading it has highlighted an interesting issue that I’d like to talk about here. The issue is: mechanics that ostensibly do nothing, but actually exert an important psychological effect.

Here’s a flow-chart I made showing how Kagematsu is played, from a mechanical perspective.

Kagematsu flowchart

The solid lines and boxes represent game events and the flow of time. The dotted lines and boxes represent game stats and the flow of mechanical causation.

There’s a couple of things  I want to highlight here.

The first concerns Pity. In Kagematsu, in every scene a villager tries to elicit an affection from Kagematsu (the ronin); this is carried out through the mechanics shown schematically above. At the end of the scene, regardless of the mechanical outcome up to this point, Kagematsu’s player must decide whether to allocate the villager a point of Love or a point of Pity. That is represented on the diagram by the dotted arrows from “End scene” to “Love” and “Pity”.

Notice that while there are a couple of dotted arrows from Love to other bits of the diagram (Love is important in the game; it improves your chances of winning affections in future scenes, the Kagematsu uses it to confront the threat at the end of the game, and also, though this isn’t shown on the diagram, it shows who gets to go off into the sunset with Kagematsu if he defeats the threat), there are no dotted arrows from Pity to other bits of the diagram. What this means is that mechanically, Pity does not do anything.

But Pity is an important part of the game, because of the influence it has on player psychology. If we didn’t have Pity, the choice would be: award the villager a point of Love, or don’t. It seems pretty clear that this would lead to a lot more Love being given out, simply because the alternative is to do nothing. By introducing Pity, even though it has no mechanical effect at all, we give the Kagematsu a real choice – do you love this woman more than you pity her? It also makes the choice somewhat less controversial, since while one might be peeved at not receiving Love, one is probably more likely to accept that one deserves Pity.

The second point I want to highlight concerns the Shadow Track. Every time anyone rolls a 6 during a scene, that 6 is placed on the villager’s Shadow Track. If three 6s are placed on the Shadow Track, the scene is interrupted by the looming threat. The villager describes how the threat breaks the scene up. The villager does not receive her affection; indeed, it is as if she had never attempted to gain it.

The Shadow Track does have a mechanical impact, in that it nixes the last affection attempt and ends the scene prematurely. But the overall effect is to slow the game down a bit, rather than to actively push it in any particular direction. So while it’s less empty-seeming than Pity, it is fairly weak mechanically speaking.

But the constant risk that the threat will muscle in on a scene, and the occasional reminder that the threat is present, have an important psychological impact. They reinforce one of the central themes of the game and boost atmosphere. They remind everyone what’s at stake.

My point is, both of these are examples of good game design. On paper they look like mechanical dead-ends, failing to influence the key game outcomes much if at all. My initial reaction on reading them was to think the designer had made a mistake. But their psychological impact is important. I shall try to bear this in mind for my own design work.

Disaster Strikes! is now available

I have finally completed a post-playtest version of Disaster Strikes!

For anyone who hasn’t been following the designer diaries, Disaster Strikes! is a game modelled on disaster movies. You create a threat, escalate it almost to the point where it is unstoppable, and see who can get out alive. Your small group of Protagonists are the only ones brave, competent and heroic enough to save countless innocent Bystanders from their doom.

The game takes around 4 hours to play, and is “zero prep” which in this case means all the set-up work is done in play, and should take only a small fraction of the total play time. It is not GMless – one of the players will be the Disaster Master (DM), charged with pushing the disaster forward and putting the Protagonists and Bystanders in peril.

Please do share the link to the game, and if you play it I’d be interested to receive any comments you might have.

Designer Diary – Sacrifice and Consequences

I’m currently finishing off incorporating the feedback from the Disaster Strikes! playtest, so I can release a full draft on the website. Thanks to comments from Blackrat, I have encountered a problem with my design. It’s not a massive one, but it does need solving before the game can go live.

In Disaster Strikes!, you use playing cards in a similar way to how you would use dice in a standard roll+stat>difficulty game. However, because you’re using cards there’s a few features that you don’t get with dice. Here’s the key ones for the problem at hand:
– You can pick from multiple cards in your hand rather than just getting one result
– The face cards do something special; namely, you can play them on top of another card to provide a bonus
– But if you do play a face card, you get negative consequences determined by the GM
– The suit of the card you play suggests a particular mode of action (planning, execution, inspiration or sacrifice), and you get a bonus if you can describe an action that fits that mode of action
– If you play a sacrifice (spades) card then you get a negative consequence determined by the GM

Here’s the problem. To get the bonus for a sacrifice card, you have to describe an action that costs you. But you are also supposed to get a negative consequence determined by the GM. That’s two negative consequences! Rather a lot for one card.

Now, I could just say that the consequence narrated by the player to get their bonus is instead of the consequence determined by the GM. But that duplicates another mechanic, which is that if you play a face card in your character’s personal trump suit, you get to decide the consequences, instead of the GM. With your trump suit you can choose a positive consequence instead of a negative consequence, so they are different. But it feels like a spades card should  be more like a non-trump face card. It should hurt to get one.

Alternatively, I could say that you get the bonus for appropriate description whenever you play a spades card, without needing to describe anything – instead it’s a trade-off for the GM-determined consequence.

Am I making too much of this? Anyone have any other ideas about how to fixenate it?

Creativism

GNS theory cuts roleplaying creative agendas up into Gamism, Narrativism and Simulationism. The first two of these get more play, and greater respect, than the last, in my opinion. Yet I will argue this is because Simulationism has been misnamed; and in fact many important roleplaying innovations have been in a so-called simulationist space.

Quick disclaimer here: I’m going to talk about simulationism as described by Ron Edwards, but this is not really a theoretical article, and even though it tries to point the reader into a different view of what simulationism is, it isn’t any kind of attempted takedown of Edwards’s theory or other such shenanigans. Indeed it is rather selective in quoting Edwards, which would be a cardinal sin in a theory essay, but I hope I can get away with this in the above context.

The man who codified the concepts of GNS, Ron Edwards, talks about simulationism in his essay GNS and other matters:
Simulationism “is expressed by enhancing one or more of the listed elements [Character, Setting, Situation, System, Color]; in other words, Simulationism heightens and focuses Exploration as the priority of play.”

He talks about simulationism as focusing on exploration, a concept that is important to all roleplaying, but assumes pre-eminence and becomes an end-in-itself in simulationist play. Yet the term “exploration” is misleading. It implies a pre-existing reality which we together explore; or perhaps it is intended to imply a single fiction, probably created by one person, the GM. A more neutral term is creation, because that is in reality that which is being explored is simultaneously being created, whether by the GM or by the players, individually or collectively.

Similarly “simulationism” suggests an attempt to replicate some ideal – a realistic game world, a particular genre’s conventions, a well-realised character. But play that focuses on the act of creation (as opposed to exploration) need not be about simulating anything; it is often about the creation of imaginative, evocative content which might or might not relate to an ideal. Creativism would be a more accurate and comprehensive term for this type of play.

If we were going to do definitions, creativism might be defined as:
Creativism “is expressed by enhancing one or more of the listed elements [Character, Setting, Situation, System, Color]; in other words, Creativism heightens  and focuses the creation and development of the shared fiction as the priority of play.”

Now I’m not seeking to pick an argument with Ron or anyone else here. Instead, I’ll pause to note that “creativism” already probably sounds much more appealing to many roleplayers than “simulationism”, which is resonant with computer games and wargames – popular with some, but not with all. “Simulationism” hints at rules and dry technicality, while “creativism” points to imagination and shared endeavour. I’d also like to talk a bit about where that reframed concept leads us.

For one, it leads us to focus on questions about who creates the content of the game. Much of indie roleplaying design has been concerned with handing over creative authority, or at any rate extending it, from the GM to the rest of the players. Indeed, many indie games have no such distinction. This has some implications for the pursuit of drama (narrativism) and challenge (gamism) but its biggest impact is on the act of creation itself. It enables more people to take part in the act of creation, and thus plays into a creativist agenda.

We can go further. Creativist concerns lead us to look at how the act of creation is regulated. Drama points, games structured into acts, Dogs in the Vineyard’s traits, and many more, serve to regulate the flow of content creation. They serve other purposes too, of course; but one major impact is to shift creative power and constrain the creative act. This leads to the well-known paradox that one can sometimes be most creative when one does not have a free hand to create anything one wishes to.

I’m spending a lot of time thinking about these issues at present. And indeed, I’ve been teasingly referred to as a simulationist. Maybe I am – but these days I feel like I’m more of a creativist.