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 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 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.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Juul's Theory of Games Elements 2 and 3: Outcomes

This is part 3 of my analysis of Jesper Juul's (2003) article The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness The first part is here, the second is here. The original article by Juul is online here (page numbers are from the PDF version).

Juul, as noted previously, outlines six criteria that he holds up as being necessary and sufficient to label an activity as a game (or not). Yet, as I noted when discussing the first one (fixed rules), he mentions several 'borderline' cases, including tabletop RPGs, which still seem to be games, but don't conform to one or more of the elements of his definition. My hypothesis is that each element is a cline or gradient, and the dials can be turned up or down along the axis of each of these elements. In this post, I'm looking at his second and third elements, which are related: Variable and Quantifiable Outcomes and Valorization of Outcomes.

Element 2: Variable and Quantifiable Outcomes

By variable outcome, Juul means two things: first the system of the game must allow for chance and/or skill to affect the result; and second the skill level of the players must be such that the outcome is uncertain.

He doesn't spend much time on the first point, only giving the example of ring-a-ring-a-rosies (or as we called it as kids, ring-around-the-rosie). For young children, this is a fun activity. It has set rules (link hands in a circle, sing the song, move clockwise as you sing, fall down at the end). But it only has one outcome: everyone sits down. So, by this definition, it is not a game.

The second point he goes into more detail. He again uses a game for young children, tic-tac-toe. Anyone who knows the system well and plays against another player who knows the system well will ALWAYS result in a draw. Someone who knows the system (an older child or adult) who plays against someone who doesn't (a young child) will always win or draw, never lose. Only two players who do not yet fully understand the system will have a chance of winning, losing or drawing when they play. Hence, tic-tac-toe is a game, but only when played by young children or others who do not yet fully understand it. Once you learn the system, it ceases to be a game for you and becomes more of a puzzle.

He then mentions several games that have handicap rules to allow players of various skill levels to compete. Without the handicaps in place, those instances of play are unlikely to have variable outcomes. Related to this is the phenomenon of a player purposefully not playing at full potential, such as a parent purposefully allowing their child to win a game in order to build interest and confidence in the activity.

This reminds me of my college days. One of the students in my dorm, Eugene, was a chess master. We'd play from time to time, and of course I knew going in that there was no way I could beat him. I just play chess casually. He competed in and sometimes even won tournaments. Yet, it didn't stop me from playing with him now and then. And there WAS a variable outcome. It just wasn't 'win/lose.' Instead, the variable outcome was to see how many moves I could last before the inevitable defeat.

So, again, I think Juul may be being too strict when he posits an either/or dichotomy in his definition of games. This also leads into the second part of this element is what he terms "quantifiable" outcomes. Just as a game has strict rules, Juul says that "the outcome of a game is designed to be beyond discussion, meaning that the goal of Pac Man is to get many points, rather than to 'move in a pretty way'" (p. 6). In other words, outcomes are objective rather than subjective. To me, this seems fairly non-controversial. Game systems define the 'win conditions' but it's also possible for players to decide on their own 'win conditions.' 

The obvious example of computer games without quantifiable win conditions seems to be Will Wright's games like Sim City and The Sims. There are no intrinsic goals for these games. Nothing within the game will tell you that you've won or lost. But players are able so self-assign goals and try to achieve them or fail to do so. Juul puts them as borderline games because of Element 3 (see below), but several other writers I've been looking at, including the creator Will Wright, see them as toys rather than games because of this trait. 

Element 3: Valorization of the Outcome

Valorization is a fancy term to use, but what Juul simply means is that for an activity to be a game, some outcomes need to be better than others. If all outcomes are equally good, then there is no point to the challenge of the game. In Game Theory (which both is and isn't about games), Zero Sum and Fixed Sum games are set up so that one player can only achieve a positive outcome if the other player achieves a negative outcome (or at least a less positive outcome for Fixed Sum games). In cooperative games, all players work together to either beat the game or fail to beat the game. In RPGs, you can slay the dragon/blow up the space fortress/prevent the Great Old One from rising. Or, you can get roasted to a crisp/get disintegrated by droid ships/go insane and join the cult. In many RPGs and computer games, live or die is a commonly valorized dichotomy of outcomes. 

Again, an open ended simulation like The Sims doesn't valorize outcomes. While it's possible to give yourself goals within the game, there's no pressure to actually achieve them other than personal satisfacton, and no award of any kind when you (inevitably unless you choose to give up) achieve that goal. Juul also notes Conway's Game of Life (the computer microbe simulator) and watching a burning fireplace as systems with rules and variable outcomes but without any positive or negative value assigned to those outcomes.

There is a tendency that the positive outcomes are harder to reach than the negative outcomes - this is what makes a game challenging; a game where it was easier to reach the goal than not to reach it would likely not be played very much. (Juul, 2003, p. 7)
This is an important point. Especially when we're talking RPGs. I'll have a bit more to say about this below.

This element is, in my estimation, an actual dichotomy, rather than a cline. I'm having trouble imagining an activity where the outcomes are all somewhere equally positive or equally negative yet still being able to call such an activity a game. If all outcomes have the same value, then where is the challenge? The activity may be play, but it is not, I think, a game. If someone can give me an example of a game with only partially valorized outcomes, I'll be happy to change my stance here.

What these Elements Have to do with RPGs

First of all, I don't think there's any doubt that traditional pen and paper/tabletop RPGs like D&D conform to both of these elements. There are definitely multiple outcomes, and a combination of chance and skill determine what outcome you achieve. There are system outcomes like how much XP you gain, or whatever advancement reward system the game uses which is variable and quantifiable. In addition, in-game outcomes - save the town/defeat the bad guy/complete the quest - are also variable and quantifiable. Basically all of these outcomes, whether looking at system or in-game, break down into outcomes where you advance your character/continue playing it (positive) or else fail to gain XP or die (negative).

Narrativist/Indie/Story games, however, are a bit different (remember, this line of posts was inspired by Zak's close analysis and criticism of GNS theory). Now, my experience playing them is very limited, but from what I've experienced and what I've read about them, the system of those games is probably higher up the scale of Fixed Rules (element 1) than traditional TTRPGs. This is because the rules of these games aren't designed to provide guidance for actions taking place within the in-game fiction. They're designed to assign narrative agency to various players. In these games, when the rules come into play, you're not rolling to see if you can jump across the chasm, you're rolling to see which person sitting around the table gets to decide if you manage to jump across the chasm and what complications or benefits may arise because of the jump. [Again, people with more experience in these games correct me if I'm wrong here.]

The stated outcome of these games is to, through play, craft a compelling narrative about a theme. As Zak posted, Ron Edwards originally believed a morality play to be the highest form of the genre but other game designers have moved away from the explicit moral judgment of the narrative. Which is funny, because Edwards' original intent was an attempt at valorization of the outcome while actual practice (if Zak is correct, and my limited experience agrees with his) has tended to unvalorize the outcomes. The goal is simply to craft a narrative. If a narrative is crafted, the goal is achieved. And I can't help but think that no matter how you play these games, a narrative WILL be crafted. That is not variable.

Juul points out that interactive fiction, like text adventure games and I assume the analog version of Choose Your Own Adventure style books, don't really have variable outcomes...there are numerous outcomes but they are finite and unchanging if I always make the same choices every time I play/read. If I play a story game, but my character dies at the end, it still may be a satisfying narrative - a heroic tale of loss, or a tragedy in the classical sense, for example. Is it quantifiable? I suppose you could make an argument about whether the narrative is 'good' or not, but Juul again suggests that subjective appeals to art (making Pac Man move in a beautiful way) are not quantifiable. Even if we give story games this, that a good story is a better outcome of play than a bad story, how do we judge if the narrative is good or not? It goes back to Element 2, that the outcome must be beyond discussion for the activity to be a game rather than just a form of play.

So one of three conclusions are possible: a) Juul's definition of a game is incomplete [the null hypothesis],  b) story games fail the game test because of a paradox of not being able to uphold both Element 2 and Element 3 at the same time, or c) I'm missing some way to put valorization of outcomes on a cline rather than a binary which would allow story games to exist somewhere in the middle.

I think story games, like traditional RPGs, would likely fall in the borderline zone if they do fail the test. Just like Juul places The Sims/Sim City in the borderline, story games DO have definite rule systems, require player effort, have players attached to outcomes, and have no or negotiable real-world consequences. And they either conform to Element 2 or 3 as well. I'm liking this line of thought because it not only explains the difference between role playing and other games in general, but also easily shows how traditional and story RPGs are different.

If anyone can debunk me, though, I'll be happy to review this again. Next up, I plan to cover the player in relation to the game with Elements 4 and 5. Then I'll wrap this up with negotiable consequences and some final thoughts in the last post.