Friday, July 20, 2018

What's a Game Text Do? Why are we playing? What went wrong? PIG-PIP 2

Part two of a theory of RPGs.

Part one here.


20. What Does A Game Text Do?

A game text is a nonliving and static participant in play.

("Static" barring releases of errata and, like, answers from the author in venues like Dragon mag back in the day or Twitter now. The text has some dynamism, it's still way slower than a player or GM.)

The text consists of a series of suggestions about goals to be pursued and procedures to be followed in the game session, usually along with an argument for pursuing those goals and following those procedures.

For example, if the art in a game shows someone in chainmail cutting up an owlbear that's both a suggestion (try to set up situations like this when you run your game) and an argument (it'll be fun if you set up this situation, following the rules here will help you set up this situation, etc).


21. About Fun

"Fun" is a shorthand expression. Really what we usually mean is "an experience the living participant finds desirable" which covers slightly more territory, including the possibility of cathartic experiences.

For example, everything we're talking about should apply to the person who left this comment on the last entry:
"

I think you'll need to say a lot about what you mean by fun. Depending on what you figure out you might need to justify it as the focus of your investigation. Because you need to accommodate some really diverse roleplaying experiences that we should deem successful, but don't seem to involve fun as we normally think about it.

For example: I normally play pretty standard dnd, but my favorite rpg experience was in a really constrained story game (A Walk in Winter Wood) and it was genuinely terrifying. There was no part of it that was pleasant---no jokes, moments of low tension, nothing. Just stress. I was terribly uncomfortable (but of course I was at least comfortable with the level of discomfort I was in. Or I was willing to undergo that much discomfort for the experience. Dunno how to phrase it.).

Anyway that experience was great because it touched on true horror and evoked real feeling. I don't know where fun enters in this analysis.
"

More narrowly, fun is sometimes used casually to refer to light-hearted kinds of desired experiences ("It's just a fun movie" etc) often connoting, in a game context, a relatively permissive game ("It was Pendragon but I broke the rules and played a horse because, hey, fun's fun"). Just noting that here because sometimes discussion gets confused because people are using different definitions.



22. Broad Goal of Play

To distribute the maximum experiences-found-desirable to the living players.

Jargon notes: If you just go "desirable experiences" then you have the silly problem where someone undergoes an experience someone else desires but doesn't like it. Like a vegetarian eating a cheeseburger is having an experience that is "able to be desired", so "desirable" (I like cheeseburgers) but not by them. That's the important part: the person gets a thing they liked.

Also note it's not necessarily desired experience past tense: the person doesn't have to get what they expected to get, only something that, once gotten, was liked.


23. Narrow Goal of Play

While it's all fine and good to say the goal of play is to distribute maximum fun (etc) experiences, practically speaking, planned leisure experiences always involve imagining a specific kind of desired experience ("let's go bowling it will be loud and convivial and there'll be melted cheese" "let's curl up on the couch and watch Antiques Roadshow it'll be cozy and chill")  and then, as it were, carving life down until it is sharp enough to penetrate the force field of boredom or the other foes of leisure from a very specific angle. One does not just throw unrelated fun-suggestions against the wall of Fort Boredom and hope one makes it through.

The game text argues not just for the desirability of experiences but for a specific kind of experience. This is where we can talk about the "desired experience": What you went in expecting and wanting.

For example: Procedures and advice for a horror game and for a comedy game have the same broad goal (22) and very different narrow goals.


24. Observation on Evaluating Game Texts

A lot of digital ink has gotten spilled over whether a game is "well-designed" or "poorly-designed" in arguments between people who are talking past each other because one is describing a failure to hit a purported Narrow Goal of Play (common phrases you'll hear: "but it failed because it was advertised as...", "but it failed because the author's intent was..." etc) and the other is describing a success in hitting the Broad Goal of Play.

A common iteration of this argument is about whether D&D or a version of it succeeds because people like it (often over all other experienced options) or a failure because the illustrations and ads suggest the Narrow Goal of Play is epic fantasy but actual play can be more like serial pulp or picaresque fantasy or just bathetic.


25. Observation on Game Communities

People (the game's living participants) are influenced by-, and in some cases arguably products of-, communities. Communities have norms, ranging from use of language ("dual-wield" is a gamerism, not a military-historical way of referring to two-handed weapon fighting) to procedural assumptions ("GM is always right"). As soon as a game involves more than one person, gaming can never exist outside of some kind of cultural assumptions (even if they are so limited as "What language do we use when we play?").

Cultural assumptions are thus very close to a "participant" (though technically: "a characteristic that participants have in common") and can and should be analyzed with the same scrutiny one analyzes the game text or individual player behavior when asking what went wrong or what went right in a game.


26. Practical Consideration for Game Texts About Community Assumptions

Since:

a) There are far fewer game communities than gamers
b) The author of a game text is far more likely to be familiar with the assumptions of game communities than individual gamers,
c) Assumptions in these communities vary widely, and
d) These assumptions can affect how the text's suggestions are interpreted

...it is desirable for a game text to, all other considerations being equal, communicate as much about how the suggestions inside interact with different communal assumptions as possible.


27. Limit on 26

There are few assumptions so bizarre that some gamer community on the internet somewhere does not hold them (including: you don't have to read the text to run the game and then decide it doesn't work), therefore there is a practical limit on the ability of any text to communicate every single aspect of how it interacts with communal assumptions.

A game text that spends time addressing each of the infinite ways communities could misconstrue it will eventually become so difficult to read (ie uncharismatic) that it works against its purpose of effectively providing suggestions for play.


28. Post-Game Analysis

A PIG-PIP analysis of a game session would consist of:

-Listing the participants (including players, texts, and other paraphernalia used)
-Describing specific contributions made by specific participants, with an eye specifically toward contributions that were atypical or different from contributions made in a game session that had a different outcome--like if trying to figure out why a session failed, look at how it was different than a similar one that succeeded and vice versa.
-Looking for "chemistry effects"--that is, interactions between participants whose result was complex or unusual. This is by far the most difficult part.

A good analysis might examine things like the interaction between GM and text (how many of the text's suggestions were thrown out or altered, which ones were sed) player and text (which of the rules did the players engage especially, including spells, items, feats, etc) player and player (were they interpersonally helpful or disruptive to some players more than others) etc.

One tool would be a Punnet-squarish matrix like this: http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com/2011/03/zaks-ez-adventure-making-chart_30.html
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and now a word from our sponsors:

TIME IS ALMOST UP TO VOTE FOR THE ENNIES...
Frostbitten & Mutilated is up for:
Best Art, Interior Best Monster/Adversary Best Setting Best Writing Product of the Year
Maze of the Blue Medusa is back in print

Check out the Demon City kickstarter, Do Not Disappoint Doug


Thursday, July 19, 2018

PIG-PIP Theory of RPGs

So this the first of maybe several posts attempting to create a new comprehensive theory of tabletop RPGs.

Part 2 is here.

It'll need your help.
Here goes:



PIG-PIP Theory


Participants Invent Games-"Participants" Includes Paraphernalia


1. Meta-note on Development:

I'm Zak and I started this theory, but there are several areas here which could use development, and likely technicalities I've missed so: I welcome commentary and contributions based on your own observations and with any luck this gets both expanded and tightened up.

2. Meta-note on Format:

Theory and assertions of fact like this, extra commentary and context like this.

3. Meta-note on Goal:

The purpose of the theory is to help match participants and potential participants in tabletop RPGs with game experiences they enjoy as much as possible.

This should be applicable to recommending games, altering games, designing games, matching players, running games (GMing), etc.

4. Meta-note: Justifications Negative & Positive

Negative: Other extant theories of tabletop RPGs are vaguer than they need to be and/or make inaccurate predictions.

Negative: Bad theories exist now and continue to be used. This has had disastrous effects, leading to genuine real-world abuses. Replacing them might ameliorate that.

Positive: It saves time to have a vocabulary with which to describe games, players, play practices etc.


5. Meta-Note on Jargon:

Under current conditions, the main immediate impact of a theory of tabletop RPGs is likely to be use and re-use of its vocabulary, including by people who haven't read the theory.

On the one hand: in that case, there's little point in even having a theory unless it has words and phrases that are locally defined in a special way that allows them to stand in for common complex concepts. A theory or at least a common language should mean we all have to type less.

For example: People continue to use the word "simulationist" because they need a word to describe games that have rules which extensively distinguish imaginary in-game objects and actions from each other from similar in-game objects and actions (like say, spear vs halberd) despite the fact that word "simulationist" is ill-defined and part of a whole theory they may not believe. But they still want and should be able to talk about the difference between like The Pool and GURPS and it'd be nice to have a way.

On the other hand: under these same conditions, words with misleading connotations or whose meaning is more difficult to intuit than necessary are undesirable. To the degree possible, we'll want to have words that mean, in the context of game design, as much like what it sounds like they mean to the average native english speaker in a native english-speaking country as possible.

PIG-PIP is obviously not a word that explains a lot, so someone encountering it for the first time somewhere else will go "What's PIG-PIP?" and the other person goes "It stands for Participants Invent Games-Participants Includes Paraphernalia". Which should at least get them asking the right questions.


6. Scope: What Is A Role-Playing Game?

This is a descriptive, not a prescriptive definition.

"Role-playing game" is a category used usually informally in discussion and used more formally commercially (like when deciding what to order for a game store, f'rinstance, a pie is not a role-playing game so you don't order a pie and put it on the shelf next to Star Frontiers).

The category basically covers a variety of activities that lie between wargames on the one hand and improv-theatre exercises on the other. That is: all things currently discussed as role-playing games share characteristics with at least one of those two activities, usually both, yet have elements neither has.

We could go on to list elements RPG usually have but this isn't necessary--there are always outliers that don't have them (some like Amber don't use dice, some like DCC have players controlling more than one character, some don't have game masters, etc). What we want here is to make true statements about "RPGs" whatever that is, so these statements should apply to the outliers as well. This definition therefore includes not just tabletop games but LARPS etc.)


7. The Basic PIG-PIP Claim: Participants determine the character and quality of a game experience.

In addition to the players and GM, "participants" includes paraphernalia used during the game and preparation for the game--game texts, house rules, miniatures, tables, chairs, the physical or virtual space the game is played in, snacks, etc.

8. Predictions based on The Basic PIG-PIP Claim:

More often than not, replacing a major participant with one all the people playing have previously experienced and would agree would agree to call "substantially worse" while keeping every other variable the same should result in what most of the people involved would agree is a "worse" play experience.

More often than not, replacing a major participant with one all the people playing have previously experienced and would agree is "substantially better" while keeping every other variable the same should result in what most of the people involved would agree is a better play experience.

These are testable predictions. They haven't been rigorously tested.

9. The Chemistry Principle (Possible exceptions to 8):

It's possible that one or more participants of (what everyone experienced involved would agree to call) inferior quality might be more compatible than participants filling similar roles that  (what everyone experienced involved would agree to call) superior quality.

Thus replacing specific high-quality participants with lower-quality but more compatible participants might improve the game for everyone present.

Like: maybe everyone playing likes Rolemaster better than Tunnels and Trolls but they all know the rules to T&T better that day so they actually have more fun that day than they would had they played Rolemaster that day.

10. The Asymmetry Principle: Not all participants' contributions are equal in terms of deciding the quality of the game experience. 

Living participants have a choice about how active or passive to be, (with some--but less--latitude given to the GM, if there is a GM) and about how faithful to be to the suggestions of rules texts and other paraphernalia. Texts and paraphernalia can't make adaptive choices about the living participants or their contributions.

11. Prediction based on The Asymmetry Principle:

More often than not, if a living participant moves from a passive to an active role they will have more influence over the quality of the play experience and vice versa. If a player all living participants judge as "better" is more active in a group of average players then they will judge the play experience as having being better than if that participant was passive, all other variables being equal. Same goes for "worse"--etc.

12. Evaluated vs Unevaluated Challenges:

Nearly any task a live participant might perform during a game could be considered a challenge  ("it was challenging to think up a good name for my PC" etc) but there is a distinction between evaluated and unevaluated challenges. Evaluated challenges are linked to specific mechanically relevant in-game consequences.

Even if making up a name for a PC is a challenge for a given player, there are few games where the attempt to meet that challenge is evaluated--that is, a game procedure changes in a way that could be considered by those engaged as "towards" or "away from" a win condition.

Killing a monster in the game is usually an evaluated challenge. If, under no time pressure. you use only missile weapons at a distance against a very powerful but slow moving foe which itself has no missile weapons you have probably thought up a good strategy and are less likely to die before the monster. That is: it's evaluated.

"Evaluated challenges" are the core of what can, in some contexts. be called competition or competitive games.

Evaluated challenges are linked to in-game consequences though not necessarily in-the-game-world consequences, like successfully completing an evaluated challenge might get you a "hero point" which doesn't represent a specific in-world thing but is useful in the game.

13. Limits of Evaluated and Unevaluated Challenge

Evaluated challenges attempt to mechanically force responses to have more of a quality of "exercise" (doing something hard which theoretically involves learning or improvement. The analogy to physical exercise is literal.)

Unevaluated challenges admit a larger variety of outcomes into the game.

HOWEVER, participants who hold themselves to high standards of creativity--that is, try to think of solutions they normally would not--can experience as much exercise with unevaluated challenges.

14. Challenges and the Definition of RPGs

All RPGs have unevaluated challenges--or at least unevaluated activities. Even in Final Fantasy you can walk in a circle 90 times if you feel like it and it has no effect on the mechanics. Not so in a wargame.

Not all RPGs have evaluated challenges. These tend to be the games people claim "aren't games" or "aren't RPGs".

15. System-Specific Vs System-Agnostic Evaluated Challenges

Some evaluated challenges are tests of a players' mastery of the game system, and some are simply general problem-solving challenges.

If, under no time pressure, you use only missile weapons at a distance against a very powerful but slow moving foe which itself has no missile weapons you have probably thought up a good strategy and are less likely to die before the monster--that's a system-agnostic choice, because it would still be a good idea if the situation we're really happening.

If you use a Wand of Fireballs instead of a Rod of Fireballs because in that system the Wand is mechanically superior (does more damage, etc), that's a system-specific challenge.  Or, rather it's meeting a challenge in a system-specific way.

System-mastery is the quality of being good at system-specific challenges. System-specific challenges reward participants who've read the books carefully.

16. Simulation and System-Agnostic Evaluated Challenges

In order for system-agnostic evaluated challenges to occur in a game, the game must mechanically describe the relevant in-game objects to such a degree (and with such a fidelity to if-it-were-real) that the factors that make the tactic a good idea in real life are also factors which matter in the game.

For example, if combat is only resolved by comparing Fight scores of two opponents and then adding a d6 roll to each, the challenge of  knowing, under no time pressure, to use only missile weapons at a distance against a very powerful but slow moving foe which itself has no missile weapons, is negated, as none of the factors that make that a good tactical choice are in the game.

17. Note On Participant Preference and Options

Since many activities which include only unevaluated challenges or only evaluated challenges exist, most people who choose to play RPGs like both unevaluated and evaluated challenges.

Not all though, individual RPGs have enough distinctive characteristics and audience that a person might like only one of those kinds of challenges but put up with the occasional call to engage the other in order to experience the other benefits.

18. Tom Sawyer Principle

Living participants' interests aren't static. Even players deeply-invested in one aspect of play might become interested in another if other participants make it look fun.


19. Participant Butterfly Effect

Many role-playing games allow for a wide variety of scenarios that are not only non-overlapping in terms of content but also mechanics engaged. As participants invent games over and over, the character of two game sessions derived from the same text (ie "two groups playing the same game")  can be completely different even if the participants are the same merely because of choices they make.

For example: if an Apocalypse World player decides to deal with a siege against their hardhold like this, the entire session might very well be both in terms of mechanics and fictional content basically non-overlapping with another session of Apocalypse World. The two groups have played a pair of "games" so different as to be as-different as if they had used different game texts (ie two games of Apocalypse World as different from each other as they would be from a game of Mutant Future).


more tomorrow...
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and now a word from our sponsors...
Check out the Demon City kickstarter, if nothing else the end of the video is funny
Frostbitten & Mutilated is up for a bunch of Ennies, go vote:
Oh by the way Best Art, Interior Best Monster/Adversary Best Setting Best Writing Product of the Year
Maze of the Blue Medusa is back in print

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

He Knows Where To Stick Things

Art's one thing:
Design is another:
Click to enlarge
Those of you who've been paying attention to the blog recently may have noticed the one-man-force-multiplier named Shawn Cheng dropping layouts for the new project.

Like all the designers I've worked with--Jez Gordon (Red & Pleasant Land), Luka Rejec (Frostbitten & Mutilated)--Shawn is also an artist:

from Shawn's site

That mix of detail and dreaminess is just. I don't know. Cheng does things I can't and I love it.

This is Shawn's D&D character sheet, I'm pretty sure Nemo's been around since like 2009...
...he kicked some ass in Frostbitten & Mutilated last time I was in NYC. Shawn has a ton of these character sheets and the instinctive design sense even in these casual little things is depressing for a "fuck where do I cram this in?"guy like me. He even gets the horse in there. Like porn, it's a lot about knowing where to put things.


It's weird to think how long we've been working together, he did my very first coffee table book...





Even though I usually have some real specific ideas about how I want my projects to look, its those moments where we click together and he goes above and beyond that make design go from good to great. You find where the overlap of your sensibilities matches the projects own energy, you can give fewer and fewer directions and just let them go nuts. I sent a lot of reference images for Demon City--japanese and 80s horror posters mostly--but, oddly, I think when the design for Demon City really took off is when I started sending Shawn old Atari ads...

...the stuff coming back stopped being "Hmm, but can we do..." and started being "Oh holy fuck yeah".
There's some kind of aesthetic of panic in there--and also Atari and early video games in general involved graphic designers in trying really hard to use every tool of the trade, largely because they were trying to sell green squares on a black screen.

I've probably collaborated with Shawn more than anyone else over the years, and I know when we get in the zone, he delivers something and you "Oh, beautiful, perfect.."
...and you show it to people and they're like "Oh cool!" then a few weeks later he goes "Nah wait I think I can do better...."
Demon City is a modern world and the modern world, much more than the D&D one is designed, every inch...
So on this project, the design is as- or nearly as- important to the world-building as the art. Once they feel like you're inside the the world, a GM can start to spin things out of it on their own. And I knew Demon City needed someone who wasn't afraid to make the book's total package into a little brain-bomb.

Although he may not be a familiar name to some of you, he's actually been OSR-adjacent for quite a while. One of the first things gamelike projects I ever did was the collaborative "battle blog" Road of Knives with Shawn and Nick DiGenova.  In RoK, Shawn would draw a thing...
And then I'd draw something punching it...
...and then he'd draw someone punching them..
..and back and forth forever...


It was advertised in an early OSR zine, I think it was Matt Finch's? Anyway a lot of the game-like thinking that turned into this blog started there.

Anyway, part of what makes a big project cool is pointing the spotlight at other talented people, and getting to work with them, and as soon as Demon City was funded monday that me and Cheng got to work together again on something like nobody's ever seen before, I hope you have as much fun with it as we're going to.
Throw down for the Demon City Kickstarter here

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Tarot cards are hard to draw you guys.

I don't want to draw tarot cards, but they're a Demon City stretch goal. I went on a short tweetstorm about it...
You can click to enlarge it

But also don't forget it's Ennie season, so vote for
Frostbitten & Mutilated for Best Setting, Art, Monster, Writing,
& product of the year

Also you know Maze of the Blue Medusa is out inhardcover again right?

But if you want me to do it anyway,
here you go jerks

Monday, July 16, 2018

reign in blood.

So, 4 things...

Thing 1:

THE DEMON CITY KICKSTARTER IS LIVE
there's a video and everything and it's funny and guest creators and this is going to be the horror game to end all horror games and just click the link ok












 























Thing 2:


Also, the much-sought-after Maze of the Blue Medusa is once again available. Check it:

Direct link to pre-order the 2nd edition hardcover: https://gumroad.com/l/motbm-2nd
Direct link to the PDFs: https://gumroad.com/l/motbm-pdf

Blue Medusa questions go here.


Thing 3:

don't forget, it's still Ennie season, vote Frostbitten & Mutilated:
best interior art
best monster/adversary
best setting
best writing
product of the year
thank you!

Thing 4:

and just to be completely gratuitous here's a preview of the next one, Violence In The Nympharium:

God damn: