Thursday, July 12, 2018

Game Mechanics: 'card' based advancement

A little while ago, there was talk (centered on Jeff's Gameblog and started by Zak I believe during G+ discussion, or maybe over at his blog...I stumbled across it from Jeff's blog anyway) about random advancement tables for D&D and similar games. The idea is to break the monotony of all characters of the same class having the same abilities, but avoid the rules onanism of full customization.

I wasn't thinking of that at first, but my line of thinking this morning brought me to it. So I'd better start at the beginning.

A few days ago, my son wanted me to download a game all his friends are playing on their phones (I use Android, my wife iPhone, and my son has my wife's old iPhone). It's a tank battle game. When he described it, it reminded me of my college days playing Scorched Earth.
Scorched Earth image via Wikipedia
The basics of this new tank game are the same. Choose your projectile. Set the cannon angle. Set the power level of the shot. Fire at the enemy.

Where it differs in that each tank starts out with six different types of projectile and you cycle through them. Once you've fired one of each your arsenal refreshes. In Scorched Earth, you earned money and could purchase whatever you liked. Also different is that when you win a match, you get a loot crate with random contents: gold, gems, or cards. The cards are for the tank itself or for the various projectiles/weapons. If you earn enough cards of one type, you can spend gold to level up that tank or weapon system.

Last year, my son had me hooked on Clash Royale. Similarly, it uses a 'card' system. Every victory gets you a loot crate with random cards and some cash. You unlock new monsters and spells by finding a card in a crate. You power up monsters and spells by collecting enough cards then spending money for the level up.

So, it got me thinking about RPGs. Would a "card" system work for character advancement in an RPG? I don't mean that the DM should be handing out actual cards (although you could), but there could be a random table to roll on at the end of every session to award points to different abilities or aspects of a character.

Zak, Jeff, & Co.'s system (linked above) is just roll randomly every time you level up. Systems like Gamma World (original and maybe 2nd edition too?) had something like this.

Where a "card" system is different is that the player still has some control over how they level up. So every adventure (or session, or boss monster slain, or any time a treasure hoard is discovered, or at "milestones"...when the fuck ever you want to give them out, DM-sama) the players get a random roll to see what abilities gain points. These of course should include hit points, attack probabilities, saving throws, defenses, and skills. They can also cover spells, fighting maneuvers, thief skills, etc.

Get a new "card" and you get a new ability. Thought you were a Fighter? Congratulations, you're now a Fighter who can cast Invisibility.

Get enough points (or cards) in Invisibility, and you can...if you choose to do so...spend money/time training to improve that ability. You also need to spend those cards. If you had more than the threshold amount, you have a few cards left over, it doesn't reset to 0.

Now, for the system, things could get a little complex. Some things like HP and attack bonuses may scale near indefinitely, while other things should be capped. How many points should each ability need to advance? How much gold/time should it require to level up? Yeah, making this system would be potentially a lot of work. But it might not be that bad. Keeping with the Invisibility example, you might get:

Pre-Invisibility (1st card): like an Elven Cloak, it's not really invisible, you just hide so well no one can see you unless you roll a 1 on 1d10.
Invisibility (5 cards, 100gp): like the 1st level spell. You're invisible until you attack once.
Invisibility II (10 cards, 500gp): like the 1st level spell, but if you save vs spells when attacking, you remain invisible until you attack again.
Invisibility III (15 cards, 1000gp): you and 1d4 allies gain Invisibility I.
Invisibility IV (25 cards, 2500gp): all allies within 10' gain Invisibility I, you gain Invisibility II.
Invisibility V (50 cards, 10,000gp): improved invisibility, you don't lose it until you decide to become visible or it's dispelled

Benefit? Balance between purely random advancement and customization. Don't want a power but you've got the cards for it? Don't spend time/money to level it up.

Drawback? It's a lot of work to bolt something like this onto an existing system. It might be best to build a new game from scratch designed around this. Could be good for a Supers game actually...

Friday, June 15, 2018

Mako Miyasuzu, Sohei

My friend Alex of the Busan Gamers, now living Stateside, got in on my online Chanbara playtest game. He created a female Bushi/Sohei named Mako Miyasuzu. She's the next character I want to highlight from Chanbara because there ended up being a lot of emergent world-building from his character creation that I added into the campaign, and it allowed me to tie together several different types of PC that otherwise might not have had any story-relevant reasons for adventuring together.

First of all, here's Mako's description in Alex's own words:
Mako Miyasuzu is the last remaining member of the Miyasuzu family of the noble Akugiri clan. Seven years ago, on the fall equinox, the day that the walls between the worlds of the oni and akuma are closest to the world of man, the day that every family responsible for a Shrine of the Silver Bell must perform the ceremony to keep the walls strong for another year, Mako lost her family.

Mako does not know exactly what happened. She heard screams of warning, and her grandfather bundled her up and hid her under the floorboards. From her hiding place, she saw figures, perhaps humans in black, perhaps oni or akuma for some seemed to be wreathed in fire, others in unnatural blackness. Mako hates herself for cowering, listening to the beasts slaughter her family, the screams of her sister, the defiant cursing of my grandfather, the splintering crash as the bell her family was pledged to tend and defend was stolen.

For weeks Mako stayed at the shrine, trying to rebuild it, training herself in the manner her family had, torn between rage and sadness. Eventually, she was found by some pilgrims who took her to her great uncle, Lord Suzaku Akugiri. Mako was raised in the military manner of the Akugiri, but never forsook or forgot the pledge she made to herself every minute of every day she stood on that mountain in the ruins of her family's shrine. She would find whoever murdered her family. She would return the bell to the shrine. She would deliver the curses of her grandfather, to drive home into the bellies of those beasts the swords of her father and mother.
 Mako's stats are a bit out of date - a few things were modified in the final published book, but here's her character sheet:

Basics
Name:Mako Miyasuzu
Class: Bushi (Warrior)
Profile: Sohei (Warrior Monk)
Background: Buke (Warrior-Aristocracy)

Allegiances: Azuma Shinobi, Akugiri Clan, The Order of the Silver Bell


Ability Scores
Str 14 (+1)
Int 10
Wis 17 (+2)
Dex 17 (+2)
Con 11
Cha 9

AC: 17
TD: 17
HP: 10   Current: 10
Attack Bonus: +2
Encumbrance: 11 allowed Current Total: 5.75

Bonus Dice: 5   Type: combat

Background Skills

Religion
Art (High)
Craft (Weaponry)
Investigation

WP: Basic, Samurai, Classical
Armor: All

Class Abilities

Frenzied Attack – By spending a combat die, the sohei may make 
additional attacks equal to the result of the combat die, but 
all attacks that round take a penalty to hit equal to the combat 
die result instead of a bonus. They gain no bonus or penalty to 
damage.

Spells
Spells Per Day: / / / /
L1:

L2:

L3:

L4:

L5:


Ninpo


Money and Treasure - bag of coins - 1EU
Zeni: 10
Mon: 53
Ryo:
Trade Bars:
Other:


Gear

Wakizashi - .25EU - d6+1 - +1 to hit
Katana - .5EU - 2d4/d10+1 - +1 to hit
Long Bow - 1EU - d8 - rate: 2 - S: 70 (+2 to hit), M: 140, L: 210 (-3 to hit)
arrows (40) - 1 EU

Backpack - 2EU
Contents: Clothes(1 set plain, 1 set fine), flint and steel, flute, tent,
weaponry tool set, silk rope-50', wineskin, preserved food (10), torch (5)

Her allegiances developed through conversation between Alex and myself. He came up with the background above in a more skeletal form. I added in a few details to tie it to my Enzan Province setting. I had pulled some (very derivative in most cases) organizations from a setting I developed back in the 3E OA days (which I ran with my old Yamanashi Group). One of them was the Azuma Shinobi, based on the 'good guy' ninja from the Tenchu video games.

I'd listed some of these organizations as ideas for the players. They could join one if they liked, and help me flesh it out more, or create their own using the ideas for inspiration. Alex and two other players liked the description of Azuma Shinobi, and we negotiated how his demon-hunting shrine protectress could also be part of a ninja clan. We must have emailed or Skyped the details, because they're not on the RPOL game and I don't remember exactly how we discussed it working out that way, but it made sense at the time.The mission the Azuma gave Mako at the start was to serve as bodyguard to the two dedicated Shinobi characters.

Since two other characters were tied to the biggest local shrine (the Mahotsukai/soryo daughter of the shrine-keeper, and the Mahotsukai/onmyoji protege of the shrine-keeper's old friend), we worked Mako's quest to retrieve the family's Silver Bell as an angle to tie her in as well. The shrine-keeper had some limited information about the bell, and was helping Mako piece together clues to its whereabouts. (Conveniently, the clues led to the adventure location...)

The shrine-keeper's daughter (I'll post her eventually) and another of the Azuma Shinobi characters both also had allegiance to the daimyo, so I was able to bring in a third set of characters. In that way, I brought them all together despite varied allegiances and varied purposes into a party that was prepared to explore the Ghost Castle Hasegawa.

While we never ended up completing Ghost Castle Hasegawa before my dissertation killed the game, I did work up plans for the next adventure to be about hunting down the oni/akuma who stole the bell. Alas, it never got past the idea stage. 

Fun fact: Alex had Mako only speak in haiku form. He'd told me he would do that, but not any of the other players. The first time he introduced himself, several other players also decided to answer his poetry with their own. It was a lot of fun for me to read the threads they were creating.

If reading about this character made you think "That sounds like fun!" then check out Chanbara. You can make your own crazy poetry-spouting ninja/warrior monk, or a drunken calligraphy-obsessed samurai, or a hermit master of the war-fan (always underestimated in combat until the war-fan clocks you upside the head), or a scholarly spy who uses brains and guile to infiltrate enemy camps, or hundreds...probably thousands...of other character types.

Chanbara is for sale in pdf for $10, print (softcover, full color) for $20, or print/pdf combo also for $20. Exclusively through DrivethruRPG.com.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Jokichi the Vagabond - Chanbara Character Profiles

I've been thinking of interesting ways to promote Chanbara besides just spamming everyone's G+/Facebook feeds with links to the game. No one wants that, and I don't like doing it. So, I'm going to post some of the characters that appeared in the play testing of the game over the next few weeks. Hopefully, seeing the interesting characters that people played in the games I ran will drum up some interest in the game.

First up is Jokichi the Vagabond. Jokichi was played by Justin, who ran the awesome Vaults of Ur campaign that I posted about many years ago (I played Thidrek the Sleestak). In my first round of playtests, Justin came up with a great character so I want to highlight him first.

Jokichi the Vagabond
Class: Bushi/Abarenbo level 1
Social Status: Eta
Allegiances: (undefined)*

Str 15 (+1)
Int 12 (+0)
Wis 11 (+0)
Dex 14 (+1)
Con 13 (+1)
Cha 9 (+0)

AC 14  HP 11
TD 14  BAB +2
PD 12  SP 22
Combat Dice: 4 (d6)
Encumbrance: 1.5/11
Speed: 120(40)

Saving Throws
Wood 12
Water 13
Metal 14
Fire 15
Earth 16

Background Skills: High Sport, Low Sport, Rural Craft, Crime

Special Abilities:
Show of Strength: Spend 1 combat die to increase Str score to 18 (+3) for 10 minutes

Gear:
Katana (hit +3, damage 2d4+1/1d10+1)
Partial Light Armor (AC +2)

As you can see, Jokichi was of Eta social status which Justin was happy to play up, and didn't get upset when NPCs treated him like garbage. Due to a lucky roll, though, the daimyo's niece was fond of him and there were hints of a "doomed romance" plot started that never got off the ground because Justin wasn't able to play the entire playtest campaign. Too bad, it seemed like it would have been a lot of fun.

Possibly because of the poor treatment he had at the hands of his employers, when the party went after a group of pirates, Jokichi tried to sign up. None of the players were sure if Justin was just doing it as a ruse or if he really intended for Jokichi to become a pirate. As GM, I was willing to let the campaign become one of nautical plunder if the players wanted to. In the end, though, the players managed to defeat the pirates (with Jokichi's eventual help), and continued on to serve their daimyo.

Since Justin couldn't continue playing, we decided that the authorities put the blame for the mission's blunders (they stopped the pirate leaders, but the ship and its cargo got away) on Jokichi's head, and he was confined to quarters. That way, if Justin had returned, we could roll out Jokichi again by saying he'd served his term of punishment.

He was a trouble maker of the first order, and the early playtest games were really lively because of the chaos Jokichi brought to the staid lives of the more honorable characters.


*Since I was trying to playtest the exploration, combat, and magic rules in the live game, I didn't worry about allegiances. In my play-by-post game, I did, and I'll provide some of those characters and their allegiances in future posts.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Juul's Theory of Games Element 6: Negotiable Consequences

If you haven't been keeping track, I've been analyzing an academic presentation at a conference on Game Studies by the Danish researcher Jesper Juul, presented in 2003. I had to take a little break in the series due to some real life issues (family issues, midterms, Avengers: Infinity War...). This post discusses the final element Juul uses to define what is and isn't a game, and I give a few thoughts on his definition of what a game is.

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

Element 6: Negotiable Consequences

Juul's final element gets a fairly long section in his paper, possibly because it is the fuzziest criterion for defining games. Basically, what he's trying to say is that games, as most people conceive of them, do not have serious, lasting consequences...but sometimes, they really do. Several of the sources Juul used to synthesize his definition of games listed something along the lines of being for fun or having no influence on the world at large. And really, when we think of games, we think of them as a form of pastime or entertainment. Games should be fun, right? We play them for fun. It makes intuitive sense.

Yet, we look at the real world, and we seem plenty of 'games' being played WITH actual consequences (financial, physical or mental health, relationship, etc.). We can gamble on nearly any kind of game, and it has serious financial consequences if the stakes are high enough. Professional games are played. Games can be addictive and damage our physical and/or mental health if we overindulge. What seems like a harmless family game may cause long-term relationship damage. How do we square this actual observational data with the ideal of games being 'just for fun'?

As I mentioned before, Juul posits a cline or spectrum upon which instances of game play can be placed from no consequences to however serious they may be (some sports have deadly consequences from time to time, and most professional sports have high stakes financial consequences).

I can play soccer with my sons. There is no money on the line. Ronaldo plays soccer and makes big bucks. Is Ronaldo not playing a game because he is making money from it? Caillois, one of Juul's sources (yes, I need to read this, I'll get to it) says Ronaldo is NOT in fact playing a game because he is working. But I think most of us would still consider a pro soccer match to be a game. It is identical to that game my sons and I play in the park rules-wise (well, we may bend them since my younger is only 3). Both have variable and quantifiable outcomes. Players are attached to the outcomes in both, and both valorize winning as opposed to losing. Both require effort by the players. Both fit all five previous elements of the definition. It is only in this last that they diverge. And in order to solve the question of divergence of consequences, Juul posits that the game exists independent of the consequences. A game on its own has no serious real world consequences. People may, though, decide to give a game consequences prior to play (negotiating).

In other words, this is not so much a defining element of games as it is a refutation of Caillois and others who claim that games are ONLY leisure activities void of consequence in a real-world sense.

As such, I think it makes sense to have it as part of the definition - because the question of "Are pro gamers still playing games?" is of academic interest. But it has little useful function in defining what is and isn't a game 99% of the time.

In this section, and later when he talks about the chart of games/borderline games/non-games, he mentions several activities that seem to meet the previous five criteria but HAVE serious consequences in real life. The stock market is one. Traffic and war are also given as examples. The stock market is interactive, has set rules, has variable quantifiable outcomes, involves 'player' effort, valorizes some outcomes and not others, and 'players' are most definitely invested in the outcome (pun intended). Yet trading shares of stock is NOT a game. It could be made into a game, but it isn't. Because the default way to 'play' the stock market (and we do use that verb with it, don't we?) demands real financial consequences of play.

Similarly, we have traffic laws. You won't always get to your destination (you could crash, or get lost, or run out of fuel) so it has variable quantifiable outcomes, and drivers and passengers are definitely invested in arriving at their destination. It takes effort to drive a vehicle. Again, is driving a game? Juul says no, because again the consequences of crashing your vehicle are always potentially deadly.

So, Juul needs to address professional sports again in the realm of safety now, and he does. Some sports carry the risk of injury or even death, even if played just for fun. And professional sports have, over the years, continued to evolve their rules and safety precautions in order to minimize injury and death from the sport. We don't have Roman style gladiator contests anymore, we have things like Sasuke and pro-wrestling which minimize injury and death. We make sure the cars used in auto races are as safe as can reasonably be expected. We are constantly seeing advances in sports gear to protect players from injury in a wide range of sports. The ideal is that games should be consequence free, but in reality they often do have serious consequences...but players know this going in and agree to accept the consequences of play.

Gambling, again, is another example of negotiating consequences. I used to play poker with my siblings as a kid. We never wagered any money, though, it was just for fun (and bragging rights). But walk into a casino. In that location, you can't play any sort of poker, craps, roulette, or other games of chance without wagering money on them. The gambling in a casino has mandatory consequences, but it is a choice on the part of the player to engage in it or not. The activities can be and are sometimes played without consequences just for fun.

Finally, Juul notes that there are some non-negotiable consequences of play, and they are often not consciously considered. Games take time to play. The valorization/attachment to outcomes require mental and emotional investment in the game, and can cause hurt. He again mentions sore losers as people who violate the social contract because of their reaction to these unavoidable consequences.

That's a lot of words by me (for a lot of words by Juul), but it can be boiled down to this: games are activities that can be played without any real world consequences other than the time and effort needed to engage in the activity, and the fact that they sometimes have more serious consequences attached to them does not invalidate the activities as games (although people are free to exclude the instances of game play which involve consequences if they like).

______________________________________

To wrap up the series, I want to re-iterate that this has been mostly a thought exercise for me. I looked at how Juul defines games, and what I see as a missing implication (that most of the elements in the definition are not binaries, but rather sliding scales).

Commenter Mr. T suggested that trying to define games is a pointless task, as no definition will be satisfactory. I think he's right that no definition will ever be satisfactory. But then my academic field, language education/applied linguistics, also has terms that people can't agree on how to define. Yet people DO propose definitions, and other researchers use those definitions (or modify them) in their own work to use as a common baseline for other academics to understand the position of the writer, and to test the ideas presented. The important thing is to spell out your definitions openly so people know where you're coming from.

If I write a paper using a Connectivist Model of Learning, it's fair to critique it using Connectivist definitions. It may be useful for someone else to use a Behaviorist Model and discuss how that would possibly interpret the data and conclusions I present differently, but it's not actually saying I'm wrong because it's using a completely different conceptual framework. It's just saying their framework is different from mine. Any real critique of my work needs to be done first from within the conceptual framework I've chosen, and once the flaws are pointed out in that conceptual framework, THEN another framework can be argued to better explain the data.

Juul's definition of games is a decent conceptual framework to base further ponderings of RPGs and what makes them games but somehow different from other games. Other conceptual frameworks surely work well, too. I'm not opposed to taking what I've written here (or will write in the future) and examining it from another conceptual framework. But academics need to spell out what conceptual frameworks they're working with, so the idea that games "can't adequately be defined" is really not helpful. They can be defined, and while no definition is perfect, the definition can be good enough to work with going forward. I think Juul's definition is definitely in that category.

In the future (I've been reading more on game design theory, as well as Games Theory which both is and isn't related to games), I'm going to be looking at RPGs and design using this model of what a game is, and probably also evaluating them from a few other models or definitions as well.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Chanbara: Additional Content!

Stefan, who playtested, edited and was there for me to toss ideas around with when making Chanbara, is more into anime than I am. I don't hate it, just never really delved deeply into the waters that are Japanese animation. When he was playtesting the rules, he made a few mods to bring his game more in line with anime (while mine was Lafcadio Hearn stories directed by Kurosawa Akira).

Now, he's developing an alternate spellcaster class for the game -- the Ganshu -- based on the 3E/4E/5E Warlock model. I think it may need a bit of playtesting for balance, and so far he's only got one profile up: the Miko (shrine maiden). The other profiles he's working on are the Tsukimono-mochi, which has a very creepy pact with yokai vibe, and Shotokandoka, which is straight out of Street Fighter II or other 90's fighting games.

And if you don't have Chanbara yet and have no idea what I'm talking about, you can check it out here! Only $10 for the pdf, $20 for print or print/pdf bundle.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Other OSR

Part of my readings on game design have got me thinking about other old school games besides D&D that could be used for designing old school games. Yes, this topic has been around in the OSR for pretty much as long as the OSR has been around. And D&D is the biggest name in table top roleplaying. Yet it's still interesting to revisit the topic from time to time (at least for me).

The actual impetus for this blog post was a bit of inspiration I had just yesterday. A while back, JB of BX Blackrazor asked me why Chanbara was a Japanese-themed game when I live in Korea. Of course, the answer is that I lived in Japan for 10 long years (I've lived in Korea for a little over 10 years now, so I've been here longer) before I lived in Korea, and speak the language better, so I have a better grasp of Japanese fantasy. (By the way, I should probably be plugging Chanbara more...you can get it in PDF for $10, print or print/pdf combo for $20, right here!)

The fact is, I wasn't really sure what a Korean OSR game should be about. And not in the indie game sense of "about" but in the Kevin Crawford sense of "what are the verbs?" (A.K.A. what do the players do in the game?). Because honestly, with a bit of palette swapping, either Flying Swordsmen or Chanbara would work well for a Korean-themed dungeon crawl/hex crawl D&D style game. The weapons are similar. The magic system is similar. The themes in the source literature are similar.

If I really want to get a game that's somehow essentially Korean, what the game is about needs to be a bit different. And then my eureka moment started to hit me two days ago and finalized yesterday. We had gone up to Seoul to take care of some business at the U.S. embassy. We brought the boys and stayed the night, and did a bit of sightseeing. One place we went was the Korean Folklore Museum. At a display of civil and military officials' garb and gear, the idea started fermenting. On the KTX back to Busan yesterday, the idea hit me in full. And it's related to ideas that have been in my head for a while now about using other games besides TSR era D&D as a basis of old school design.

Still with me? I hope so. I think my thought process leading up to this is important to the design. Anyway, I realized that a game where civil officials are an important part of the game shouldn't be one where the primary goal is killing monsters and taking their stuff. The game should be about (and XP awarded for) solving a variety of social/economic/military problems [which, from time to time, may include supernatural/monster problems]. People are going to be the main adversaries, and combat should not be a prioritized means of solving conflicts in the game. Basically, a class/level system like D&D, with XP awarded for combat and treasure acquisition, doesn't cut it.

But a system like Star Frontiers, which is classless and skill-based, with an XP system based on how well missions are accomplished rather than the exact amount of foes defeated/wealth gained is perfect for this.
If you've never played it, Star Frontiers is a d% based game. Characters get eight stats (arranged in four related pairs) that can range from 1 to 100, and that's your percent chance to accomplish something based purely off of those stats. That includes saving throws, which get keyed either to your Stamina (which are also hit points...and saves are usually at current STA rather than total, so it's harder to stave off poison or disease or knock-out gas if you're wounded) or Reaction Speed (it's all in the reflexes). In addition to ability checks, there is a skill system where you either get a set base percent chance plus 10% per level in the skill, sometimes lowered by 10% of the level of the opposition, or 1/2 a related ability score plus 10% per level of the skill (again, sometimes minus other factors).

Each skill is actually a group of related subskills, each with their own different base percentage of success. So a PC with Computers has a chance to bypass a computer's security. The base chance is 30% +10% per skill level -10% per computer level. So with Computers level 1, bypassing a level 1 computer has a 30% chance, and a level 2 computer is only a 20% chance. At skill level 6 (the maximum), the PC has an 80% chance to bypass a level 1 computer's security, and so on.

For combat, melee is 1/2 of Strength +10% per level of Melee weapons. For ranged combat, the skills were divided into type (beam weapons, projectile weapons, etc.) and the chance to hit was 1/2 of Dexterity +10% per level of the appropriate ranged weapon type. Armor absorbs damage rather than reducing chances to hit.

XP awards are small (1 to 5 per session, usually) and XP was spent to increase skill levels and to raise ability scores (and some of the alien races had % based racial abilities that could also be improved by spending XP).

Pretty simple base system, right?

So for my potential future Korean fantasy OSR game, I shouldn't try to do yet another version of medieval Asian D&D. I should do medieval Asian Star Frontiers. All I need to do is set up the skill system to reflect what Joseon (or Goryeo if we want to go farther back in time, or Silla/Paekchae/Goguryeo/Gaya if we want to go even further still) officials and citizens were doing. Then set a system of XP awards for doing what you should be doing well.

Related to this idea (of using other, non-D&D, games for OSR designs), I'd been thinking recently that for an OSR supers game (yes, I know MARVEL FASERIP is available free online and does it well) that Gamma World would be an interesting base game to use. I'm most familiar with the 4th edition of the game [1992, not the 4E D&D one], but any older edition might work.
Gamma World's mutations are basically a list of superpowers and some super weaknesses. And the artifacts are high tech play-toys. Create a system for Batman/Iron Man/Green Arrow/Black Widow style (pure-strain) humans to roll or purchase high tech items, while altered/mutant/alien characters roll some powers (and maybe get some tech too) and you've got a supers generation system. It just needs a few tweaks to change it from a game about scouring post-apocalypse ruins for artifacts to a game about stopping super-villains.

GW more or less uses a D&D design (except for 3rd edition, which uses FASERIP...as does Star Frontiers' Zebulon's guide), but it's got some differences. And I might want to think about FASERIP now that I think about it, as well as WEG's d6 system (the old Star Wars game) which is now open game content.

So, it may be time, for me at least, to take a break from the D&D-based OSR design scheme, and try out a few ideas for other games based on other designs. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Juul's Theory of Games Elements 4 and 5: Effort and Attachment

Jesper Juul (2003) gives a definition of games based on six elements or criteria that can be used to define a game. My initial thoughts on Juul's paper can be found here, a discussion of element 1 here, and discussion of elements 2 and 3 here.

Element 4: Player Effort

In order for a game to be a game, players need to put forth some effort. This seems fairly obvious, and Juul doesn't spend much time describing this element, even though it's arguably the most relevant trait (Chris Crawford, whose On Game Design I'm currently reading, lists this as the final definitive difference between games and other types of play such as toys and puzzles, for example). Here's what Juul has to say in its entirety:

Player effort is another way of stating that games are challenging, or that games contain a conflict, or that games are "interactive". It is a part of the rules of most games (expect* games of pure chance) that the players' actions can influence the game state and game outcome. The investment of player effort tends to lead to an attachment of the player to the outcome since the investment of energy into the game makes the player (partly) responsible for the outcome. (p. 7)
*He obviously means except here, emphasis added.

This seems hard to argue against. If games imply challenge. Win or lose. They also imply interactivity, even though there are solitary games. However, this rules out 'games of pure chance' doesn't it? In a game of pure chance: Snakes and Ladders, Candy Land, not to mention many kinds of gambling, does the player put in any effort? Is there any challenge in the game? Or is it just luck?

Later, Juul's graphic taxonomy of games, borderline games, and non-games places these games of pure chance in the borderline category. Even though the player's actions do not affect the outcome (aside from cheating), there is an illusion of agency created by Element 5: Player Attachment to the Outcome. I'm sure we've all been in a situation where we were playing a pure chance game and thought, If I roll the dice just right... and then hoped for that exact number we needed to win (or at least achieve some specific result within the game). And every now and then we're going to roll that number by chance, and our false belief that holding the dice a certain way, or blowing on them before the roll, or tossing them hard or soft actually caused the wanted result to appear. Juul doesn't say any of this, it's just me speculating.

Juul does discuss some activities that fall completely outside of the game definition for violating this element. For one, he lists movies/storytelling as not having a variable outcome (element 2), not requiring player effort (element 4, which we're looking at now), and player attachment to the outcome (element 5, which is discussed below). Now, obviously a movie or story has a set ending. And it doesn't require any effort by the audience other than to devote their time. Nothing the audience does will influence the outcome, it's simply a question of whether you're willing to put in the effort to reach the end of the story or drop it. I'd say many forms of fiction do inspire player attachment to the outcome if it's well crafted. But it's not a requirement. A crappy book or movie still will play out to the end, even if you the audience no longer care about how it ends. But we'll discuss this more below. Fiction, Juul proposes, is NOT a game in any sense. And I would agree, because the outcome is fixed and not dependent on any input from the audience.

Now, looking at RPGs, I'd say that player effort is the whole POINT of the game. We play RPGs because they challenge us. They challenge us with rule mechanics (can we beat the orcs or will they beat us?). They challenge us with puzzles (can we avoid the trap to get to the treasure safely?) and resource management (do we take all the copper coins or leave them because they slow us down?). They challenge us with in-game interpersonal conflict (should we kill the sleeping goblins or just tie them up?). They challenge us with out-of-game interpersonal conflict (do we play without Jim's wizard this week, or put the game off until next week so he can join us?). They challenge us to be creative (how can I make this character interesting and fun for everyone at the table?) and more empathetic (how can my assassin work together with Sarah's paladin?).

Story (Narrativist) games, as opposed to regular fiction, do have a strong element of player effort. The story game tends to give you some guidelines about what the story should be "about" but the story is not there yet. It takes player effort to flesh out the story, and the whole point of those games is to be able to narrate the story your way.

Again, this is my speculation, but it may be that Juul gives RPGs a borderline status despite them not adhering to Element 1: Fixed Rules because of the above. Juul seems to place a heavy emphasis on games having fixed rules which RPGs violate, but because they are exercises in player effort, they pass muster. RPGs crank the dial up to 11 on this one, where games of pure chance dial it down to the minimum effort/decision point of play/don't play.

Element 5: Player Attachment to the Outcome

This is one element of Juul's definition that I'm not sure is 100% necessary. It basically is just a further elaboration of both Element 3: Valorization of the Outcome and Element 4: Player Effort. And Juul seems to realize this, as he himself states that this is a purely psychological aspect dependent on the player having the correct attitude, and stems from player effort.

And it does make sense. We tend to put value on things for which we put in effort. If we did not, then why expend the effort? And if certain outcomes are preferable to other outcomes (valorization), then it is only natural that we feel attached to achieving one of the positive outcomes rather than a negative one. And for a game of pure chance like Candy Land or craps, the fact that the outcome is valorized and there is a competitive aspect to the game (and in the case of gambling games like craps there is a real world consequence at stake), we get attached to the outcome.

Juul discusses the social contract of games here. He mentions poor sports who either refuse to enjoy victory or feel bad about defeat - which is not really something we can lay at the feet of the game, can we? If a game fails to inspire attachment to the outcome THIS TIME we play, is it not a game? In a way, it may not be, but that's not a useful criterion for deciding what is a game and what isn't.

Personally, if I were to revise this definition, I'd roll the various aspects of this element into #3 and #4. Social contract and player attachment are important, but agreeing to the social contract is a form of effort (#4) while attachment to the outcome is an extension/consequence of valorization of outcomes (#3).

Looking at RPGs, whether traditional or story games, I would say that player attachment is an important aspect of play. But it's not completely necessary to have a good time. I've played in one-shot games before, with pregen characters. And in these kinds of games, players tend to have little attachment to the outcomes of their PCs. Yet they still have fun.

Thinking of games like Call of Cthulhu, or D&D modules like The Tomb of Horrors, though, I would consider them to be an inversion of the valorization of outcomes. In CoC, the ideal outcome may in fact be the death or insanity of your PC. When playing Tomb of Horrors, the idea may be to see in what humorous/grotesque/idiotic way your PC dies. That may be the prized outcome of the game. Looking at the one-shot game through this lens, it may simply be a flipped valorization scenario, in which case players are in fact attached to the outcome of their character - it's just that the outcome they are attached to is the one they normally try to avoid in standard play.