Metagaming intelligence

[Due to a cutty pasty error, this post made no sense whatsoever the first time I posted it. Hopefully it makes at least a modicum of sense now, but if not at least you know that’s how I intended it.]

My question for today is, should one attempt to roleplay the intelligence of one’s character? It has been often remarked that when playing a character with a low intelligence score (or whatever the stat is in your system au choix), one finds oneself encountering situations where you, the player, can see a clue/solve a puzzle/make a plan, but (perhaps) the character would not be able to. Some folks say that in this situation you should play dumb.

I’m not so sure. First, it’s relatively unusual for a game to contain a “problem solving” stat. The intellectual stats often include something around memory, academic ability etc. They do sometimes mention “reasoning”. But there are many ways to make an ommelete. Ok, bad analogy, there aren’t that many ways to make an ommelete. Forget the analogy. The point stands though: a character could come up with a brilliant plan because (a) they reasoned it out; (b) they made use of animal cunning/intuition/etc to come up with the plan; (c) they didn’t really know what they were saying and sort of stumbled across the plan; (d) they have some specialist skill which made it appropriate for them to come up with the plan; (e) they were having a moment of uncharacteristic genius… and so on.

Image by ~d-lindzee

Ok, fine. But say your character is in a game where there are stats for animal cunning, intuition and so forth, you don’t have a relevant specialist skill, and you’ve had so many great ideas recently that you’re pushing your “moment of uncharacteristic genius” quota for the year. What then? Well, I still think there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying, out of character, “it would be a really great idea if we did X… my character would never come up with that plan of course”. The other players are then free to decide on the basis of their character’s wonderful stats that they came up with the idea instead. Or if none of you can come up with an excuse to have such a plan in character, then you can all enjoy the delightful piquancy of the moment as you stumble into disaster yet again. Heh.

Some people will say that this is meta-gaming, or that it means you’re a bad roleplayer. Whatever. Unless you’re playing some super-immersive game, we’re all here to have fun, and it’s reasonable to look for excuses to come up with an awesome plan rather than find reasons not to. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like it when people break character at inappropriate moments, moments of tension or high drama, but the rest of the time, screw it.

Of course, the trouble is, while the above makes perfect sense, I’m playing this hardcore immersive roleplayer, so I just have to keep quiet. Sigh.

Mid year review

At New Year I broke a habit of a lifetime and made some resolutions. I’ve never done it before, because I’ve always thought that you should either get on and do something or not bother at all. However, research has shown that you’re more likely to do something if you publicly state that you’ll do it, and that people who regularly set themselves goals get further in life than those who don’t. So what the hell, I thought.

Anyhoo, this is my review at the mid-point of the year of what the heck I’ve achieved from the list.

1. Play at least ten games (roleplaying or board) that I have never played before.

Since New Year I’ve played three new board games:
– A Game of Thrones board game
– Cosmic Encounter board game
– Qwirkle
…and six roleplaying games:
– Apocalypse World (sort of – I’ve played two first sessions thereof)
– Archipelago II
– The Extraordinary adventures of Baron Munchausen
– Lady Blackbird
– Microscope
– Trollbabe

2. play a full roleplaying session, not just a one to one, entirely over Skype (or G Chat).

Not done. In fact I’d forgotten about this one, which is a poor show on my part. Glad I had this mid-year review thingy.

3. Read at least ten sci-fi and/or fantasy authors I’ve not read before, including at least five women.

Since New Year I’ve read:
– Spin State by Chris Moriarty (technically I started this in 2011)
– Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
– The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
– This Alien Shore by CS Friedman
– The True Game by Sheri S Tepper
– Faith and Fire by James Swallow
– The Windup Girl by Paul Bacigalupi
– Green by Jay Lake
– A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M Miller Jr.
…and I’ve started Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey.

4. Write a complete roleplaying system.

I’ve been working on this with Frax and Chrestomancy. Project Quick Draw is currently in alpha playtesting.

5. Complete my murder mystery for Undying King games.

Not done. No progress made so far this year… but there’s plenty of time left.

In short I’ve made a lot of progress in trying new things and somewhat less progress in creating new things. Though having said that, I’ve also written a Fiasco playset (will be published here soon) and launched Black Armada, both of which probably ought to have been on the list. Fingers crossed I can complete the rest by year end.

Black Armada century

Yesterday we got our 100th unique visitor. Stranger, please identify yourself, and claim your prize of a brand new sportscar!

…just kidding. But we’re super excited to have so many visitors[*] two weeks after launching, especially since the stats seem to indicate that most of you aren’t our mates from facebook. Thanks for reading, and keep checking back as we’ve got lots more good stuff planned đŸ™‚

[*] That’s assuming google analytics isn’t counting spambots, of course. We’ve had quite a few of those,too.

Game design: Torg

It’s my personal policy not to write reviews about games I haven’t played, and ideally multiple times. So this isn’t a review, because I’ve only read Torg. But it threw up some interesting game design ideas, so I thought I’d write an article off the back of it.

I picked Torg up second hand from Baz King’s big rpg sell-off some time back, along with bunch of other fairly old games that I’m slowly working my way through. The game was published in 1990, in a period when a lot of game designers seem to have been looking to go beyond the model of gaming exemplified by D&D, with innovative game mechanics becoming increasingly commonplace, but the overall paradigm of fairly mechanics-heavy, wargame-with-knobs-on style gaming remaining dominant even in these cutting edge games. You need to bear this in mind when reading about their mechanics, which (I believe!) were extremely innovative at the time, but now look fairly clunky and outdated.

The mechanics

Zero-based die rolling. Torg is the earliest example I’ve come across of a game where the average result on a die roll is zero. This is an important innovation, because it takes quite maths-intensive systems (roll 3d6 and add your skill, or whatnot) and simplifies them by saying “your expected result is equal to your character’s skill level”. By extension, an “easy” task is one which has a difficulty number lower than your skill level, while a “difficult” task is one which has a difficulty number higher than your skill level. Of course, Torg went and ruined it by requiring players to roll a d20 and compare the roll to a look-up table to find out what the actual result was, adding in exploding dice whenever a 10 or 20 was rolled for good measure. In other words, they took a great and simple idea, and made it complex and cumbersome. Only two years later, this model was simplified in FUDGE[*], which does the same thing but much more elegantly.

Cards. I have often commented that it is strange how board game designers avail themselves of a wide range of tools to make their games function well: dice, cards, tokens, and so on, while roleplaying game designers typically restrict themselves to one tool: polyhedral dice. Torg breaks with this trend. It makes use of cards which are said to be designed to inject drama into the game. The players use them to generate a hand of cards which provide one-shot bonuses and special effects usable in combat, enabling them to put extra “oomph” into a given action, or to get GM hints, or even to create sub-plots for their characters on the fly. The self-same cards, if flipped 180 degrees, have GM text which create special effects during conflict, always handing an advantage to the heroes or their opponents, and so creating an ebb and flow in combat. These effects even vary depending on whether you’re in a regular scene or a climactic scene. I won’t go into more detail here, but suffice to say that the cards do two further things. They really are jam-packed with game mechanical power. And, as with much else in Torg, this is their weakness. They go too far with a good idea, and what was an interesting and elegant mechanic becomes cumbersome and complex. Still, it’s interesting to observe that two decades on the idea of cards in games seems to be enjoying a mini-renaissance, with games like D&D 4th edition and the latest iteration of Gamma World allegedly (I have yet to sample these games) part of their mechanical set.

Possibilities. Torg uses a variant on what are typically called Fate or Drama points in other games, called “possibilities”. What’s interesting is that Fate points weren’t common in 1990 – indeed, as far as I know only Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying had made use of the Fate Point mechanic at that point. Possibilities in Torg are usable to reroll dice, survive danger or as experience points. They also have a formal role in the metaphysic, such that competing paradigms can be temporarily boosted by their use – so that, for example, my wizard could cast his spells in a world where magic doesn’t exist.

These mechanics are all ideas which, at their core, are very similar to concepts I’ve been toying with as a way of getting a crunchy, simulationist system that nevertheless supports drama and the ability of players to steer events a bit more than, say, D&D, without going the whole hog and turning into, say, Fiasco. It’s interesting to me that they all existed in 1990, albeit in a rather baroque form.

[*] I have no idea if the authors of FUDGE were trying to improve on Torg’s mechanics. I simply observe that the one came very shortly after the other.

DOGS IN SPAAAAAACE

I recently ran a game of Dogs in the Vineyard at a roleplaying con. But I wanted to run something a little different. Now, I’ll be honest, the basic game background doesn’t appeal to me all that much. I wanted to see if I could run Dogs but in a non-religious setting, without sacrificing any of the moral judgement that (as I see it) Dogs focuses on. My game went quite well as a game, but utterly failed in that objective. This article discusses why.

I attempted this through a game I dubbed DOGS IN SPAAAAAACE! featuring a small colony on a distant world, struggling to survive a drought that had left them short on supplies. The players were important local people with an interest in keeping the colony from self-destructing, and the stuff that was going on in the colony was twofold:

1. A young woman from the colony, Isabelle, had fallen in love with one of the Wallas, local aliens who sort of looked like wallabies (hence the name), and started having a love affair with him. Another colonist called Peter who wanted to woo her had attacked and killed the Walla in question. In turn, the Walla’s daughter was on the warpath, demanding reparations and a trial by combat for the murderer.

2. The colony was very short on food. Rations had been cut, and particularly severely for the Drones, cloned humans engineers to be stupid but strong and unable to reproduce, and generally treated like cattle by the colony. One of the Drones’ keepers, Ethan, decided that this was unjust and started stealing food for the Drones. In turn, one of the senior keepers had started a petition to have the Drones culled, to help the supplies last longer. It would be only a matter of time before Ethan found out about this and went off on one.

Not this kind of Dog In Space. Image by Bobbie Johnson.

Now, there were several bad decisions in this design process, all of which I was aware of but (mistakenly) thought I could get away with.

– The players all had formal roles in the community (mayor, sheriff, priest, guildmaster). This led to a certain amount of hierarchical behaviour. It wasn’t always problematic, but it led to the sheriff deferring to the mayor on an important decision, which was sub-optimal.

– The colony was in a survival situation. Food was scarce; at the start of the game, a supply ship got destroyed, straining supplies still further. Moreover the Wallas represented a potential existential threat to the community, and I had made them seem overthreatening by referring to early conflicts between humans and Wallas when the colony was formed.

The combination of the two things above led to people acting more as politicians than moral decision-makers. They were far more concerned with the colony’s survival than whether they were doing the right thing. This made for an interesting and tense game, but one that didn’t feel all that much like Dogs game.

There were some good Dogs-esque bits though. The first was that the players spent a good deal of time debating whether it was ok to hand Peter over to the Wallas to face their justice. They knew anything less would enrage the Wallas, but handing him over could lead to unrest in the colony. In the end they copped out and handed the choice to him, but the debate was interesting and in a campaign I could have returned to that theme later on. The second was that there was real concern about the status of the Drones and whether they could indeed be treated like animals. This was somewhat drowned out by political concerns, but again, perhaps I could have returned to it at a future date.

I’d like to try this again at some point, but the concept needs some work.

Rolling the bones… or not.

I have noticed recently a trend for using electronic dice rollers in place of, you know… dice. Now, while I can fully understand the desire to make things simpler in roleplaying games[*], this is not the way, people.

 

Maybe I’m getting old, but the feel of the dice in my hands, the noise they make when they roll (no, electronically simulated dice-noise does not count), the ability to superstitiously pick specific dice to roll in the hopes they will provide a better result… it’s all part of the experience. And just clicking on a screen – if I wanted to do that I’d be playing World of Warcraft, or Portal 2, or whatever it is people are playing now. Insert recent game here.

 

Come to that, why are roleplaying game designers creating games that are so complicated and/or require so many dice that people even contemplate using a computer to make the roll? I mean, mentioning no names *cough*Exalted*cough* but I’m pretty sure when you have to pick up more than 10 dice – and individually count out the results on each one – you haven’t written a roleplaying game, you’ve written a computer game. So logically, you need a computer to play it. I hate to undermine my own argument, but while playing a certain game recently I found myself so frustrated with the mechanics, and so embarrassed at how long the other players had to wait for me to count out my dice, that I caved and used the e-roller. Yes, I admit it. But that’s not the worst of it. Because we only had one computer in the room, I ended up getting someone else to click the roll button for me[**]. Think about that for a moment, and tell me it doesn’t make you feel a little sick inside.

 

So come on, roleplayers. Come on, White Wolf. Let’s drop electronic rollers and the games that make them necessary. That, or give up and play computer games instead.

 

[*] I’m fairly sure nobody would be stupid enough to design a system for a board game that was complex enough to drive people to this sort of behaviour.

[**] Incidentally, an interesting fact: Bad luck is capable of detecting not only who is rolling the dice, but also who is clicking on the e-roller, and whose skill check they are clicking for. Not that I’m bitter.

The pen is mightier than the sword

I hear a lot of people talking implicitly or explicitly about making their combat sequences like a really great movie. People are increasingly describing camera angles and SFX. But roleplaying is people talking to each other, using words. Which is, you know, more like a book than a movie.

So anyways, as I like to ponder how combat in games might be made cooler, I’m going to spend a little time looking at what’s cool about combat sequences in books. Starting with Joe Abercrombie, who for my money is one of the finest combat describers out there. Take a look at this little sequence from “Best Served Cold”:

“‘Fucking Talins,’ mouthed Shivers under his breath, the ashes of self-pity in his throat suddenly flaring up hot and bloody. It gnawed at him to come this low.Bastards had no use for his boots, just wanted to make themselves feel big. But it’d be a fool’s fight four against one, and with no weapon handy. A fool’s choice to get killed for some old leather, however cold it was.

He crouched down, muttering as he started to pull his boots off . Then his knee caught Red Nose right in his fruits and doubled him over with a breathy sigh. Surprised himself as much as he did them. Maybe going barefoot was more’n his pride would stretch to. He smashed Rat Face on the chin, grabbed him by the front of his coat and rammed him back into one of his mates, then sent them sprawling over together, yelping like cats in a rainstorm.

Shivers dodged the bald bastard’s stick as it came down and shrugged it off his shoulder. The man came stumbling past, off balance, mouth wide open. Shivers planted a punch right into the point of his hanging chin and snapped his head up, then hooked his legs away with one boot, sent him squawking onto his back and followed him down. Shivers’ fist crunched into his face – two, three, four times, and made a right mess of it, spattering blood up to the arm of Shivers’ dirty coat.”

There’s several things in here that are worth noticing. First, there’s absolutely no trading of blows. It’s all totally one-sided. Shivers is winning, so the action focuses on him kicking ass. A lot of games just don’t let that happen – even mooks get a roll to hit and the GM lamely describes them swinging and missing. The closest we get here is Shivers dodging the bald man.

Which brings me to the second point: it’s all from Shivers’ perspective. We hear how he sees the world and what he does. The bald man doesn’t swing his stick at him, Shivers dodges it.

The other thing I like about this sequence is the sheer visceral descriptiveness of it. Clearly there’s limited application of this for RPGs, because how much flowery language are you really going to use, but even so I could see applying a bit more brutal immediacy to my combat description.

Finally, and this is important, it’s really quick. The fight is all but over in one and a half paragraphs. Yet it doesn’t suffer for that, it feels like a real fight. Abercrombie does do longer fight sequences, but it’s striking how even really major fights can often be dealt with in a page or two. Yet many rpg systems grind out over many minutes if not hours.

I may look at some more authors at some point. Please feel free to drop a comment if you have an author you’d like to recommend for really awesome combat sequences.

Choose your own adventurer

A long time ago (for verily I am a long way behind on my podcasts), Happy Jack’s were discussing the idea of creating pregenerated characters for one-offs but providing a list of disadvantages to choose from for each character. You get a pre-genned character but you can give it a bit of customisation. This got me thinking – why even stop there? You can give each character options for powers, skills, whatever. You could even give them options for backgrounds. Choose between a rival who is trying to kill you, a secret you can never speak of, or a long-lost sibling believed dead. The GM could then hand you an index card with more detail about your chosen option. It would mean the GM couldn’t rely on any individual background detail coming up, but it gives you a bit more ownership over your character. And the unused backgrounds could easily be saved for the next one-off, so you aren’t wasting too much effort.

One-offs can very easily be just railroaded experiences, you’re handed a character and away you go. I’ve got nothing against that – but this seems to be a really simple way to replicate some of the fun of character gen without sucking up so much time that you no longer have time to play the game.

Since drafting this article, I gave the idea a try as part of a one-off Dogs In the Vineyard game I ran for a con. Dogs traditionally lets you gen your own characters, but given that I didn’t have a lot of time, I decided to just create the characters in advance. But I didn’t want people to be stuck with whatever I gave them so each character had two alternate sets of traits, which I chose to illustrate possible backgrounds for those characters. (For example one of the characters could either be the guy who grew up in the big bad city and pulled himself up by his bootstraps, or the guy whose parents expected too much of him and he rebelled and went off to do something different from what they wanted.)

It worked pretty well, and I’d definitely do it again. It hardly added any time to my prep, and equally it added almost no time to the game compared to just handing out fixed characters.