Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Game Writing, Writing Writing, “Lazy Writing”


Craig Raine is a poet, but he wants none of your pearl mist and opium dreams. Here he is, in 1979, writing about an experience nearly every writer of his era already had—using a phone:

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,

that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it

to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet, they wake it up

deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

It’s a truism that a great artist takes an experience that’s familiar and, through writing, makes it new. When William Carlos Williams tells you about eating the plums that were in the icebox because it is common and he is excited about the challenge of making it live again.


Another poet called both sex and death “the horizontal mysteries”. This is the opposite kind of thinking.

Writing a game mechanic often requires this kind of opposite—rather than wanting to know how to make familiar experiences different, we want to boil different experiences down to similarities.

What do seemingly disparate experiences have in common? What widely separate necessities can be explained with one single mechanic?

Wait are Magneto’s powers just telekinesis but less? Can the crossbow rules work just like the gun rules? Can those work like the “call lightning” rules? Can the mechanic we use in the fantasy game for the power of the crystal ball be used in the spy game for the quality of the surveillance drone? 


This is part of a tension in game writing: Engaging writing is often about making the familiar seem new, game writing is often about making what appears to be a wide variety of phenomena expressible using a small number of tools. Some examples:


Sometimes a killer monkey with a knife and a goblin just have the same stats. So you’re reading along and this killer monkey seems pretty cool and you get to the stats and it’s, ok, nothing special. Is that a little uninspiring? But then you use it at the table and your players are like “Oh whoa, remember the killer monkey?”

-Games' "Library content":

Library content is that store of creature abilities and other re-usable ideas that come with a game. A hallucinogenic mushroom and a hall of mirrors might both rely on the Confusion spell for their mechanical effect, even though they're different things. 

-Abstract stats:

Nights' Black Agents has vampires with an ability called "Monstrosity"--i.e. how intense any given monstery power they use is. On paper, the creature can fly, resist magic, climb walls, charm people, but lower down on the paper it's just "Monstrosity: 4".


“Point Break and the Fast and Furious are basically the same movie”. Well, they aren’t, but…

(Chart by Andy Ryan)


One of the things you see people who can't write (at least in the first--at the top of this page--sense) complain about is "lazy writing" or "bad writing". This is, so far as I'm aware, never used to say that writing is bad like somebody wrote his cloak was as black as sin, and instead always means that someone used a common trope the complainer does not like. Or, more precisely, used a trope the complainer discovered after deciding they didn't like the work for some other reason.

It's a strange formulation since the phrase itself is a lazy shorthand--the critic substitutes "writing" for "plot" and "uses a common trope" for "bad". Write better.


When you actually do the work of game writing, switching between the two modes--describing the lush variety of things there are to put in front of players versus finding the DNA that unites them--can be a little dizzying. 

If you keep an eye, it's easy to see who is good at only one or only the other.




Tuesday, November 24, 2020

What We Talk About When We Talk About Playtesting

Because time's a flat circle, gamers are asking about playtesting again.

Because no-one has the ability to learn, the meta-conversation about playtesting is more interesting than the conversation. It always goes like this:

Kickstarter Careerist Take

We have of course playtested extensively and also spellchecked and indexed and sensitivity-readed and bought DeviantArt of the highest quality and so should everyone and we do all things at the highest of qualities unlike those that are not named that might be others than us. This is how The Importants do it.

Consumer vs Capitalism Take

Angry gamers who grew up Extremely Online on video game websites spending their allowance on glitchy randomware before YouTube previews were a thing think it should be a capital crime to not to playtest and quote extensively about editions of D&D that made them angry that weren't playtested the way they think they should because they consider that edition "broken" and now that they've been around long enough to have turned into game developers themselves claim their games have been extensively playtested by which they mean the game's a Fate hack and Fate is playtested. And also maybe their friends played it.

Arty Game Writer Take 

I tried hard I am earnest I wrote a game it is a poem playtesting is a luxury for capitalists buy my game no-one has ever played it no-one will it is too unique like I am it is an expression of me there are 3000 of me.

Consumer of Arty Games Take

I really would like to try some of these arty games but there are so many of them and I'm not sure anyone has ever played them so either I buy them based on the title or I have to join The Community and be part of the Discourse to find out which and which so and...

a) that's great I love the discourse also ps here's why my cousin's fanfic is problematic

b) I'm buying it based on the title, I can't get a group together ok more video games

Jaded Old Arty Gamer Take

We playtested man. We learned. We heard you. It takes process. It takes iterations. It takes Takes. It's like you go to the mountain and there's a chill wind. It's a winding path. There's goats. Maybe a climbing antelope. Years of meditation. Lava. I have a ponytail. One day you'll be like me. But, baby steps my embryos! You don't need to be there yet. There doesn't need to be you yet. Playtest? Do, don't, visionquest, whatever. It's the experience. Does anyone have to play a game?

Old School Gamer Take

Eyerolling because the last thing they bought was 87 Magic Giraffes of the Outer Planes and they know one day they'll maybe use two of them because that's what you do, you pay 5.99$ and get 87 giraffes and then talk about it and then its tuesday and you use it and buy another and playtest whatever giraffes.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Stakes: Three Takes

One: The Judge

So what is the way of raising a child?

At a young age, said the judge, they should be put in a pit with wild dogs. They should be set to puzzle out from their proper clues the one of three doors that does not harbor wild lions. They should be made to run naked in the desert until …

Hold now, said Tobin. The question was put in all earnestness.

And the answer, said the judge. If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is the race of man not more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for stakes.

--Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

Two:  Rob, co-founder of a big indie game company

Three: The Author of this Blog

My semi-educated guess is how you see stakes in games is probably related to whether "Talk to a stranger!" and "Be vulnerable!" actually do feel like high-stakes activities in real life to you.

I mean, I worked retail. Who didn't?




Thursday, November 19, 2020

Brooding, Blind, Hollow and Harsh (distant reading and games)

Distant Horizons

Ted Underwood, who teaches english and information sciences did a fascinating book called Distant Horizons, where they took massive volumes of literature and analyzed them by having computers count the words. The name of the book comes from the name of the technique: "distant reading".


It starts with an easy one: seeing if the robot can tell, in a mass of undifferentiated text, what's detective fiction, just by counting words--from Edgar Allen Poe and pre-Poe crime and Victorian shock novels to the present...

A quick glance at the words most predictive of detective fiction reveals the themes we would expect: police, murder, investigation, and crime. If we look a little deeper into the model, there are less obvious details. Architecture and domestic furnishing, for instance, loom large as a source of clues: door, room, window, and desk are all highly predictive words. On the opposite side of the model, words that describe childhood and education (born, grew, taught, children) strongly predict that a volume is not detective fiction…Working with a light touch, a critic who has read a few detective stories can use predictive features to tease out insights (the absence of children in these stories, for instance, is an interesting dog that didn’t bark). 

The model is also pretty decent at finding science fiction--going all the way back to Shelley, and this is pretty neat:

Science fiction turns out to have a strong stylistic signature, which we might loosely characterize as sublime. Invocations of scale (vast, far, larger, infinite) are very characteristic of the genre, as are large numbers (thousands, millions). Horror, nightmare, and destruction are more prominent than one might have imagined. Self-conscious references to the human tend to accompany creatures against which humanity may be defined, and the pronoun its is common, since we often confront unknown things that lack an easily recognized human gender. At the other end of the scale, a whole range of quotidian details mark a book as probably not science fiction: references to tea or a hat, for instance, and to particular days of the week…this angle of analysis may help us understand why Mary Shelley’s apocalyptic intensity belongs in our history of science fiction, with or without detailed scientific content. The same thing might be said about some of the randomly selected books that the model strongly (and persuasively) misclassifies as science fiction, like Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 and William S. Burroughs’s The Ticket That Exploded. It may not be Pynchon’s explicit concern with entropy but his paranoid fascination with the sheer scale of mass society that this model sees as connected to the tradition of science fiction.

A few things here:

  • Pynchon and Burroughs read a lot of science fiction--and appeal to the kind of literary-fiction-reading people who like sci-fi. The similarity in word-choice also probably reveals a similar interest in Big Ideas.
  • Christopher Mennel once paid me 200 dollars to give him a title for his sci-fi game, I gave him "Ultramassive and Unexplained"--he was very happy.
  • I'm a big fan of number words myself, but I also think of ultraextremism as a stylistic tic Patrick had.

The model also seems to be pretty good at distinguishing pre-war (basically Shelley until pulp) from post-war sci fi. While it can tell things are sci fi all the way up til the present, he tried running the pre-war-sci-fi-only predictor on post-war sci-fi and he got these results:

Many of the passages where the models disagree most sharply have a psychological or social dimension. The following example from Babel-17 is typical. (I have italicized words that make prewar models particularly skeptical that this is science fiction.)

What “self”? There was no “I.”

She had entered him in some bewildering reversed sexuality. Enclosing her, he was in agony. The light—you make! You make! his crying in terror.

Butcher, she asked, more familiar in patterning words about emotionalturbulences than he, what does my mind in yours look like?

Bright, bright moving, he howled, the analytical precision of Babel-17, crude as stone to articulate their melding, making so many patterns, re-forming them.

...There is a lot going on in this passage. Our model may not necessarily notice, for instance, that Delany has distorted English syntax to reflect his characters’ struggle to communicate. The model does notice, however, that the central conflict of the passage is psychological: words like emotional and crying are legible clues, and they do a lot to convince models trained on prewar evidence that this passage is not science fiction. The passages of Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness that are hardest for prewar models to recognize as science fiction similarly explore the psychological and social consequences of alien sexuality. And although Robert Heinlein’s politics were different from Delany’s and Le Guin’s, Stranger in a Strange Land fails to fit prewar models of science fiction for the same reason: it pays less attention to the physics of spaceflight than to psychological, social (and specifically sexual) disorientation. Arthur C. Clarke, by contrast, is relatively easy for early-twentieth-century models to recognize as a science fiction writer.

Not too surprising, but still interesting to know the robot matches what critics have said. A few of the other analyses match what you might think: male writers seem to write male and female characters more differently than female writers do, gender differences seem to narrow over time, less-prominent authors' writing tends to change to become more like more-prominent ones over time (prestigious works either set precedents or fit the changing world better or both). 


That last analyses was part of a string of inquiry Underwood did based around literary prestige. Basically he took massive samples of random writing and compared the word usage to works that had been reviewed. These produced some of the most interesting results--he started with poetry, which seems to have similar results to fiction only more exaggerated:

…it turns out that poetic prominence does correlate with a particular kind of writing. Further, that “kind of writing” can be modeled simply by counting words, and it remained rather stable between 1820 and 1919…To make this clearer, I have divided the model’s twenty-six hundred variables into three groups: the top nine hundred words, which markedly increase a poem’s perceived likelihood of being reviewed, are represented in boldface. The bottom nine hundred, which markedly decrease that likelihood, are italicized. All others are typeset normally (this includes words too rare to be included in the model, as well as the middle eight hundred words—which don’t individually have a huge effect). We’ll start with the conclusion of Christina Rossetti’s “Echo” (1865), which the model sees as very likely to be reviewed: 

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live

My very life again tho’ cold in death:

Come back to me in dreams, that I may give

Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:

Speak low, lean low,

As long ago, my love, how long ago.

It likes certain abstractions too, such as dreams and death—although, perversely enough, not live. It likes cold, but not hotfear, but not joybitter, but not sweet. In fact, we may as well admit that this model is happiest when poems are a bit desolate. Broodingblindhollow, and harsh are some of its favorite words. It has an allergy to things that are kind or noble. It doesn’t even like homes. We can see why if we look at the volumes at the very bottom of its list—the ones it is rightly confident will never be reviewed. Many of these have some inspirational or hortatory purpose; they are about equally divided between religious and political topics but share a reliance on positive emblems of collective emotion. In Memorial or Decoration Day (1891), for instance, George Loomis invokes “those who battled for these homes of ours, / And precious blood on Freedom’s altar shed.”

...the obscure poets in our random sample lean toward abstraction and positive sentiment, whereas reviewed poets emphasize physical description—especially of colors, nature, and the human body. On the other side of the model, if we unpack the Inquirer’s terms “power” and “dependence,” we find that randomly sampled volumes emphasize words associated with social relations. The reviewed writers, by contrast, use more first-person singular pronouns. All of this boils down to a fairly clear contrast between embodied lyric subjectivity and an older mode of poetic authority that is more didactic, sentimental, and collective.

The model (correctly) sees this as a less-likely-to-have-been-reviewed passage--with bold being "good" and italic being "bad":

"Quick as lightning these thoughts and wishes flashed through his mind. Seeing his peril, in an instant he had seized his rifle by the barrel, and raising it by the side of his head, prepared to deal his foe a tremendous blow. But bruin was too good a boxer. . . . The next instant, Charles felt the strong legs of the shaggy beast folded about him, and pressing him in a closer and closer hug. He dropped his rifle from his hand, and struggled to draw his knife."

 And the model sees this (correctly) as in line with prevailing literary standards:

"Many who knew her thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as wife and mother. But no one stated what elsethat was in her power she ought rather to have done."

 Interesting that creature is on the good list but beast is neutral. Other hypotheses emphasized by Underwood:

…“A certain circle,” for instance, has paused to acknowledge a limitation on its own social description, while “else” and “ought” are used in counterfactual moral reasoning. The language is not recondite, but it may be the sort of language that was used by careful thinkers in the nineteenth century. And yet, of course, all the model really knows is that these words tend to be used by other authors reviewed in prominent venues

"Readers" vs "Audiences"

Looking at the model's good/bad writing predictions brings up a few things:

-While it may not be surprising to anyone familiar with the image of the lonely, tortured poet that the more-successful works tend toward despair and isolation--and self-examining nuance, it's also interesting to notice that the arty word-cloud is exactly the opposite of people are told to talk marketing, in giving political speeches, and when negotiating with armed lunatics: the language of public speech is all about positive abstractions, warmth, simplicity.

-While I am sure anyone familiar with modern comfort culture could write a long and snarky post about the relationship of abstract positivity to real or at least perceived badness (even empathy-performance motormouth Arthur Chu hates on Animal Crossing, apparently) I wonder if there isn't a more interesting and democratic explanation:

When you comfortably read a book, you are alone. Even if you aren't in your little bubble on a train or in the park on your lunch break, you are consciously screening-out the outside world. While anyone who's made it this far into this blog entry probably enjoys reading, you might even go so far as to say that reading is often a consolation of lonely people. You are examining minutely--part of what may make people who like books like a book may be the text's ability to respond to the situation that the reader is literally in while reading.

Contrast this to public speech: if you go to a political rally or a church or even a rave you are surrounded by people, you all came to see the same thing happen, you all are hoping these people are on your side, that you have collective purpose--it would suck to be in the middle of a crowd that didn't want what you did. Also, in these situations: you actually do have things in common--you did all choose this, you might have even paid for it. So the language of "we" and "isn't this nice" is responding to what you're probably already feeling as well.

A way to shorthand this is: you are a different person when you are a reader than when you are part of an audience.

A tremendous amount of satirical writing is literary people have a lot of merciless fun ripping open the vapidities of public speech and making fun of them, because in the context of a book being read, on purpose, by someone who paid to read it because they want to read, the cliches of tv ads, the president, pamphlets about immigration, etc. seems so absurd. And, vice versa, a lot of twitter is about taking what's 300 pages into a book most people on twitter would never read and didn't know they were going to hear about today and making fun of someone admitting to some nuanced, private, dark thing.

If anyone needed to be reminded that propaganda and art (or whatever you want to call nuanced and careful attention to private ideas) are different things.

Side note: Sex was happily on Team Literature until people started dying from it in massive numbers the 1980s. Then it had to be political, and thus require Public Speech. Now we have a lot of constant clashes between these two kinds of speech about sex: one obsessed with honesty (because people need to know they are not alone) and another obsessed with messaging (because people need to be safe).

Game Writing

Now consider game writing:

Is game writing public, exhortatory speech or is it literary, nuanced speech? 

When you're sitting at home with the book comfortably on your lap, deep in someone's cyberpunk rainforest it's literature--when you're reading a circled-in-red squeepost or outragepost about how inclusive or uninclusive a retweeted paragraph is, the game text is public speech.

When you're using the text in-game to see what a rule is--it's neither.

When you're reading that rule to the table--it's both?

I could go out on a further limb and point to evidence that a lot of broader conflict in gaming culture is down to people wanting game texts to be dark, detailed, isolated and isolating literary speech including "the sort of language that was used by careful thinkers" versus those who want it to fulfill its potential as persuasive oratory to this-or-that large group. Obviously, you can do both with any given text, but the constant frustrations of people who want most of all to be privately-pleased Readers and those who want to be messaged-at as an Audience are different.

Those most likely to see gaming as an eccentric thing done with trusted friends are most likely to be grumpy about how poorly-written something is--poorly-written not as in "using lazy tropes" but as in "It doesn't seem fun to read or diverting enough to hold my attention".

The folks most likely to say "fuck this hobby"--or even to use the phrase "the hobby"--are seeing gaming as a mass collective endeavor, one where they do, metaphorically, stand in a crowd, looking at a stage, waiting for a positive message that will resonate with them and their desire to not be trampled by everyone else in the room. Some sign that they do indeed have something in common.




Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The Demon City Scenario I Ran Last Week

 So following on previous adventures, the girls' party were an actress (Stokely with Appeal: 0), a craft-services girl, and a bouncer. The only person they knew in common was a dancer.

She died, of course, in Mexico City.

The bouncer (class: Victim) thought it sounded suspicious.

The actress (class: Curious) was curious.

The craft-services girl (class: Friend) wanted to make sure the actress didn't get hurt.

They began their investigation in a bar (also ended it one, but that's the Downtime Rules for ya) and found out their friend had last been seen at the monthly party thrown by one of the richest men in Mexico City.

I made a little chart by googling famous people whose voices I could kind of do.

Mick said "Fuck" a lot.

The party was in a mansion in the middle of a hedge maze.

For actually going into the mansion I used this map from the old Maniac Mansion video game--though I had to add some balconies so they could oversee the hedge maze

I got this hedge maze from dungeonmapster. The mansion was completely surrounded by maze, so I just made it so this square of maze repeated over and over around the house.

The girls had an alright time at the party, until everyone turned out to be werejaguars and started hunting them through the maze for sport. Actually arguably they had more fun at that point? Anyway point is they survived and kille Salme Hayek and are now Downtiming in Mexico City wondering if a werejaguar cult is after them (it is) and that's a nice place to start next week.

werejaguar totally stolen from Chill 2e 
to which Demon City owes a lot really




Tuesday, November 17, 2020

You Are Being Lied To (on Indie Press Revolution, pay rates, transparency, etc)

People are talking about RPG pay rates, finally.

As you may have heard many times here, RPG pay rates are pathetically low and exploitive.

-One of the exploitive companies, Indie Press Revolution, posted a job offer yesterday.

-People got mad via viral outrage tweet (because, like, emailing the company and engaging them didn't occur to them, because it literally never does).

-And the usual suspects acted like both of those things were ok and there should be no consequences for these stupid things happening:

I'm going to explain how we made money in RPGs, and why these rates are, yes, exploitive:

So, at LotFP, and at other companies that copied LotFP like Satyr Press, money worked like this:

-You get maybe 1000-1500$ up front. Maybe less at a new company, but the rest holds:

-You make a high-quality hardcover product and sell it for a lot of money. Like: Red & Pleasant Land cost 30$. "High-quality" here doesn't just mean "I like the author or artist" it means "the binding stays together, the printing is the best quality we can find, whether or not you like the artist or writer, we hired people we liked and gave them enough time to do work they liked". RPL took 3 months on writing and art.

-I got half of the cover price. So we sell a copy of RPL, I get 15$.

-Initial print run is 1500-3000 copies, we sell maybe 1000 or more the first year, that's 15000$ for three months of work. That's 5000$ per month of work. That's 166.66 (repeating) dollars a day. Those are 14 hour days, netting me approximately 11.90$ an hour.

-And that's before pdf sales. 

-And then, often, you sell more copies or a comparable number of copies the next year, because a game that's high quality (again, not meaning you have better taste than everyone else, meaning: no matter who wrote or drew it: you gave them time to do their work and you actually like their work) is a perennial seller.

Now, the companies like Evil Hat, who are defending IPR, work on a different business model:

-You do not hire the people you consider the best people. And even if you do, you pay them a small amount of money--6 cents a word is considered a lot, which is subminimum wage---and give them a relatively tight deadline.

-You push out a lot of things like this quickly. Rather than selling the product on quality, you sell to an existing audience of fans who just wants the next thing, regardless of quality.

-You do this a lot in rapid succession.

-You sell a small number of copies for a low price.

-These products do not much win awards, because even if you want to say the people who illustrated them and wrote them are good, they didn't have much time and weren't paid well. (This is why once next-generation hardcover OSR games were on the ballot net to these guys in fan votes they all cleaned up.)

-The products do not have a long tail. Nobody much talks about them the year after they appear.

-You tell all your fans it has to be this way because they, the fans, refuse to pay more for RPG product.

-You could not possibly, like, try harder or hire better people or give them more time or maybe re-think the Theory Of How RPGs Work that made you decide this, of all products, was the one you had to make and thus maybe create a product that sold better and was reviewed better.

We just couldn't possibly!! (Though, fwiw, I have no problem
with Invisible Sun Being 100+$. Why? They did actually pay people.)

-You spend a lot of time on social media cultivating an audience that thinks anyone who criticizes this has an evil agenda.

-You mollify the audience by pretending to have anti-capitalist ideals when you are, in fact, doing all the bad capitalist things: exploiting your people, giving customers a lackluster product that you know could be better, all to support your dream of being able to say "I'm an RPG publisher!".

-People buy that because your audience lives in an echo chamber. They all tut tut about the state of the industry rather than realizing that you're a fucking nightmare excuse for a human being.

"Very largest"? Until recently LotFP had like one employee.
Satyr Press had one. I don't know if DIY RPG has any.
You are being lied to.




Friday, November 6, 2020

The Opposite of a Dungeon

 Sometimes the best way to figure out what something isn't is the best way to figure out what it is. That is: what's essential to it.

It also helps if the opposite is--or is incarnated--in something you also think is good, so you're not just listing off bad qualities you want to do the opposite of.

So, I submit, the likable opposite of a dungeon is Gustav Klimt's landscapes. The Park from 1910ish:

What we've got: Light, space, air, freedom of movement, color, abundance. And, crucially: there are no nymphs, satyrs, weird faeries or even unicorns hiding in these trees--they aren't twisty or architectural--they aren't mysterious. Head out on a day off to the museum and stare into that green and you don't see mystery you see a bubbling static of permission--this is nothing, you're alive, trees are alive, all life is one life, variety is infinite but in that infinity: simple.

Unlike the forest in, say, Durer's Knight, Death and the Devil, these trees don't have any narrative opportunities--they're a terrible place for a random encounter. How would you describe anyone's position? Where's the orc? Where are you?

It's a park and not a forest. A park in the mid-city lunch-break sense: not a national park, not park-land, just green. The purpose of these trees is not to tell you about the trees, its just a place for you to sit and see green.

This is nature as only a civilization where the average person never really saw nature as a threat could see it.

And what is there to see in this green? Hold up your finger to cover the bottom fifth of the painting and you lose all context, it's just colors moving. Nothing concrete--it's pure emotion.

The outside world as just a bright, super-saturated meditation space for whatever you're thinking over lunch, with your bologna sandwich. No demands on you, just openness. You're free to let your mind wander not because the world is blank but because it is abundant with all the signals about what you need: there's food here, there's water, there's no need to worry.

Definitely not gothic.

So what's a dungeon then? And what's the aesthetic of the dungeony world that has villages and mountains that also feel of a piece with dungeons?

Unfree, simple wants thwarted, twisted in some way, toward purpose and intrigue. The simple made unsimple. A kind of clarity (Klimt landscapes are blurry) but the clarity shows things you have to deal with. Emotions aren't just there to be experienced --Ah, Spring!-- they're passions in the Shakespearean sense, pushing toward trouble--The King covets the Duke's hunting grounds. Contorted and demanding, everything in the dungeon and the dungeonized world has a purpose or might, every detail a thing, a constant anxiety you're not noticing the things--nothing is an abstract field of open play. 

Thursday, November 5, 2020

CRPG vs Tabletop RPG Notes

1 CRPGs approach a lot of the design issues in tabletop RPGs in simplified form.

2 The best CRPG criticism and discussion is way more sophisticated than tabletop RPG criticism 

- Because it’s easier (criticizing a CRPG is a less ambitious project)

- Because there are more people doing CRPG criticism in a popular, spreadable way (YouTube, streaming)

The kind of militant “x game I don’t like is broken!” school of Extremely Online TRPG criticism tends to take a lot from this simplified form. Like: in a CRPG if x class is useless against y foe (the undead, goblins, etc) that might be bad and unbalanced and less fun. In a tabletop RPG it’s not necessarily an issue because there’s no guarantee y foe ever even show up or play a major role.

But the Game I Don’t Like Is Broken school tends to try to make the problem simpler and more like a CRPG by assuming that the modules released by the company are, for their rhetorical purposes, the game, and so if a monster appears frequently or prominently then that is summed over so that the thing is “part of the game”.

Ignoring the marginal result makes sense in CRPG criticism since the games are simpler and most people will have the common experience. The marginal result is much less marginal in the tabletop RPG experience because customization is a defining characteristic of the form. The whole appeal is the ability to easily swap out the thing that doesn’t work for your game. 

3 CRPG criticism has a lot to offer writers of specific commercial adventures:

— Good question: What kinds of activities (looking for stuff, talking to NPCs, killing people, etc) does this specific adventure reward?

——Not as good a question for a whole game/system if the game/system is D&D or a D&Dlike (too many variables about what to emphasize), often a better question if it’s more storygamey game (many have an explicit game-as-module design)

- Good question: How do you telegraph what will be rewarded? Do you telegraph it?

—Like: in CRPG character creation, what does it take to know if a given skill will be useful? Do you want to know? Or would you rather find out in play?

—Meta-knowledge and its role: where’s the line between “finding this out is part of the puzzle of play and an interesting challenge” and “this game is irritating because it doesn’t tell you x and you have to look it up”

——The underlying problem is two little bars—“fun” and “need to solve the problem”. When the need bar is too much longer than the fun bar then you quit. Maybe even telling yourself “Oh I’ll pick the game up later”. Making the “you haven’t figured it out yet” stage fun is key.

——In CRPGs designers literally do nowadays rely on certain hidden info being too obscure to solve for even highly-engaged, skilled players and things that need to be “figured out” by the community, it helps engage a community experience, build the brand, etc.

——In CRPGs designers can also rely on different tiers of players—some have a higher tolerance for figuring out stuff despite less of what everyone else would see as fun (variety, novelty, audiovisual fireworks). The CRPG designer can create separate experiences for different tiers.

—The more replayable a CRPG is the less you need to telegraph it. The fun is trying different iterations. In a tabletop RPG you get what you get.

——This is my problem with “Scenic Dunnsmouth”—how times do I really need to run a spider-cult infested village?

————The same group won’t want to play it twice

————Different groups can all play the same one and not notice

————The only point of multiple iterations would be to customize for the group. So, why make the variations random?

—Telegraphing “what will be rewarded” in tabletop character creation is anathema: the idea is any character you make should work for you and the game, and replaying is not (in most cases) part of the fun.

——However, telegraphing “what will be rewarded” in an individual module is fun. It’s fun for players to try to pick out the right gear, hirelings, spells to tackle a given challenge.

——A bit like building an army in Warhammer.

——Building a character that defeats all possible/likely challenges: not fun, just lonely math and research. There will be “a” solution. Building a character to defeat a specific, narrow, challenge: interesting, variable, requires cleverness.

4 CRPG design is always chasing tabletop in terms of gameplay, the possibilities it offers.

—The obvious: Sandboxy vs railroady works differently in CRPG because the CRPG can guarantee more resources and attention will be paid to the more-prepped (railroady) content and because the ability to handle alternate solutions (important for GM and player in a sandbox) is limited.

——Sandbox content in CRPGs is about the problem of ambition: you try to enable a more complex experience, you have a better chance of failing. You need to be a good designer, accounting for more possibilities. Sandbox content for a tabletop RPG is different—you don’t have to be a better designer to write a sandbox than a railroad, but you need the GM to be good. Even if you try really hard to write a sandbox full of connections, affordances, etc, the “processing power” to juggle what you wrote is still the GMs.

————Important CRPG vs TRPG difference: in a C, the connections and coincidences can be invisible to the user, under the hood, In tabletop, a thing not communicated—via clear writing or information design—is a thing that doesn’t exist.

————I still think Dungeon World was just about communicating obvious D&D stuff for the slow kids in the back by using fewer words and wider margins. If you disagree: convince me.

—Tabletop adventure possibility: roll a character, then, working backwards, design an adventure they alone would be uniquely suited to.

——Or a whole party.

——The fun comes from the party who runs it not being this party.

5 Leveling up and inventory management in CRPGs is fundamentally different because of the physicality and logistics of it. You have to take sequential, time-consuming, steps to tell the computer that you want to make these decisions, not just draw some lines on a piece of paper while the rest of the game continues around you.

—Talking to your GM about your character options (fireball or lightning? hmmm) is fun. Not always balloon-animal-fun but you’re talking to your friend, it’s engaging. Pressing a button to tell the xbox yes you want that number there isn’t.

—For that reason well-designed CRPGs try to make these steps worth it, if they’re included. If you put the item on your arm it needs to be rewarded or else why did you have to press five buttons? In tabletop it can be a big deal or not and either way it’s usually ok.

—i.e. In a CRPG one thing happens at a time, mostly (and if not, it’s often stressful on purpose since its multiplayer online). You have to make that spent time fun-efficient. In a tabletop game you are basically at a party with snacks the whole time you do anything. Fun throwaway content is easier to have and doesn’t need to be “worth it”.

6 Quality NPCs in CRPGs are a lot about resource expenditure, quality NPCs in tabletop are a lot about compressibility.

—You can make an NPC good in a CRPG by good writing, of course, but also: good voice acting, animation, having them have a lot of behavior outcome options (like romanceability), etc i.e. expending development resources.

—In tabletop, the key thing for a designer is much more about efficiency: quick things that tell the GM who this person is. You can spend 300 hours on the drawing or the NPC backstory and you’ve done nothing to make the NPC better. A quick cartoon picture and “He thinks he’s Julius Caesar but he’s really a two-bit hustler with a Scottish accent” pretty much is all you need. And about as much as you can get across sometimes in a written module.

—All that shit about which NPCs you can romance and which you can’t—in tabletop its a nonissue. Anyone can potentially do anything. That’s nice.

——That said, it might be interesting to write a TRPG scenario that makes it a problem. 

7 Choice-gating is automatic in CRPGs: you make a decision and the designer has to make a decision whether it will matter later then program it in. In TRPGs choice-gating is often on-the-fly but in designing a module you can hardwire in certain choices as being super-important.

—However, in tabletop the chances are the party will only ever get to experience the consequences one of the choices.

——In a CRPG resources need to be expended to create the alternate outcome. In a tabletop game, the alternate outcome can be improvised if it isn’t already written.

———Imagine everything divided two ways: one world before the Big Decision and multiple worlds after it. In a CRPG you need to design everything on both sides of the Big Decision even though not al lo f the audience will get to experience all the post-Big Decision options. i.e. you have to spend time writing interesting endings that never get played. In tabletop, you can get away with writing no endings and simply making the pre-Big Decision world so carefully made that all post-Big Decision options are interesting.