Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Gender of Art

There’s been a lot of pixel-ink spilled lately on the subject of women in gaming art. I’d like to take a slightly different tack on that subject. Instead of discussing how not to market to women, I’d like to take a look at how some industries successfully market to women.

As a recap from Anna Kreider’s article on sexism in gaming art, here are two examples of how not to market to women. And here are two examples of cover art from industries who have made women not just the cornerstone of their business, but pretty much the entirety of it.

Now, some are going to jerk their knees and demand that there’s no significant difference. This isn’t true. There are differences, and though subtle, they are vital. It goes beyond just context. Remove the words and branding, and you can still see these differences, if you’re looking for them.

Heck, you probably see them even if you don’t. If you’ve been a member of Western Civilization long enough, you can see pretty clearly that the second set of pictures are coded as “targeted at women” while the first pair are clearly coded as “targeted at men (who probably haven’t been getting’ any recently).” In both cases, the artist is assuming a heterosexual audience with an interest in the erotic, but not going so far as to cross the line into the pornographic.

What intrigues me is how the coding is achieved. The most obvious technique is the deformation of female bodies in an almost cubist attempt to show “all the good parts” in a single image. This sort of thing is blatantly coded as “targeted at men.” Likewise, poses of groups that send “couple signals” (two characters touching or focused on each other in a non-antagonistic way) are nearly always coded as “targeted at women.”

There are tons of other techniques for coding art either way. Artists know this stuff, either overtly or subconsciously, and can turn it off and on in their work as needed. It’s much, much more than the figures chosen, but includes colors, composition, focus, and mood.

Obviously, if you want to attract a female audience, you put art coded towards women on the cover. Only if you do that, most men won’t touch it with their old-school ten-foot-poles. While a woman openly reading something coded as male by its cover art might garner a second look, but little more, a man reading something coded as female causes discomfort and confusion. Gender-bending in that direction is often the focus of comedy while going the other way hasn’t been part of the comedic repertoire much since Shakespeare gave us Twelfth Night.

So here’s where things get interesting: can we mix-and-match our coding? Can you compose a piece that signals as “targeted at men” to the guys and “targeted at women” to the gals? Is it possible to invite the women without sending the men running for the hills in the cultural climate we have today. I’d like to think the answer is yes, especially considering how subtle some of this coding is. But I have to admit I really don’t understand the techniques at even a surface level yet. Mastering this sort of thing is going to require a deft hand by someone who really understands this stuff. I think this was a first good stab, but we need more if we’re going to make women actually feel invited to the RPG clubhouse.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Unleashing the Lawyers of Yuletide Cheer!

Dan over at "Sword and Board" reports that WotC has sent a cease-and-desist order to Crystal Keep. For years that site had blatantly copyrighted material posted for download, being a sort of mostly-up-front version of those sketchy Russian torrent sites so famous in gaming circles.

Most see this as WotC getting tough about defending their IP. I’m not so sure that’s necessarily what’s going on. As Ghostofmarx pointed out, WotC’s virtual table appears to be system-agnostic. Yes, I know WotC has been strongly anti-pdfs in the past. And yes, I know this flies in the face of all that the intranetz holds to be true about business (in spite of evidence that 3e with OGL has sold much better than 4e without it), but I think this may be the opening moves in attempts by WotC to get a piece of Paizo’s action.

The Pathfinder RPG did commit some pretty serious tweaking on 3.5, but they claim it’s still backwards compatible with at least that version of 3e, and I haven’t seen a lot that leads me to think otherwise. Which means all the customers WotC “lost” when they didn’t migrate up to 4e are playing a game that’s compatible with large numbers of books WotC could still sell them. No, reprints are almost certainly not going to happen, but pdfs could.

That could be a win-win for both WotC and Paizo. The truth is, it’s not really competition; by this point, the 3e/Pathfinder folks aren’t likely to migrate back to WotC for anything less than 5e (and probably not even then) and the 4e folks most likely to go back to 3e probably already have done so. And, quite frankly, there’s no reason someone couldn’t play both. :p

So, WotC releases a their virtual tabletop as the flagship of a revamped D&D Insider, and to sweeten the pot even more for those holdouts firmly in the Pathfinder camp, they’ll offer pdf versions of 3.5 material to subscribers. Now WotC has folks who never bought the 4e books paying monthly subscription fees for their digital initiative.

And now Paizo is getting support from the biggest gorilla in the jungle. People have a new way to play Pathfinder even when they can’t get face-to-face, there’s old-but-cool exciting material to incorporate into their games, and more excitement and buzz about their work.

Keep in mind that just about everyone at Paizo got their start working at WotC. The people involved here are not bitter rivals, but old friends, colleagues, and creative partners. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that they game together on their off hours, hang out at the same bars and clubs, even attend the same Christmas parties. The assumption of bitter rivalry just doesn’t appear to hold up to the reality of how this industry works. DDI goodies for Pathfinder can bring new subscribers, and Pathfinder goodies (tile sets, monster tokens, etc) for the virtual tabletop will make that product more fun for everybody. If this is, in fact, where things are heading, it could be a big coup for both sides.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Art Order Challenges

Have you been by the Art Order blog? It's maintained by Jon Schindehette, who is the Creative Art Director for D&D at WotC. Among other things, they apparently do a lot of themed art challenges. These seem to be really popular right now. Artists really like them because they offer all sorts of great opportunities for discussing different approaches towards tackling any particular theme, and great examples for demonstrating the strengths of different techniques. Most recently, the Art Order blog did one on dungeon delving. Some poor fool was to be depicted in an underground environment, battered and clearly in over their head, navigating by lantern light. You can see all 121 entries here. To my eye, Krisztian Balla’s stands head-and-shoulders above a lineup full of exceptional art. Part of it, of course, is the you-are-there simplicity of the setting and the gear of the explorer. Beyond that, the muted, washed-out palette really plays up how his only source of light is his lantern. He looks both battered and capable, and you can see he's carrying the sorts of gear we typically mark on our character sheets. Here’s hoping we see a lot more of Balla’s work in the future.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More Honey Cakes for Cerberus

Alexis at "Tao of D&D" has started poking at building some social mechanics for D&D. There’s been some questions and a few wrong assumptions about how I generally handle social interactions in my games, so I figured now was a good time to revisit the topic

There are two important issues that need to be understood. The first may be the hardest: social interaction skills are not magic. Sure, there's a place for coercion, browbeating, intimidation, seduction, insinuation, and all that sort of emotionally charged stuff. But honestly, I don't see much of this in my daily life. Most interactions I have, and I see others having, generally boil down to fairly simple exchanges. I'll invoke Heinlein:
Never appeal to a man’s “better-nature.” He may not have one. Invoking his self-interest gives you more leverage.
Generally, when I want something from someone, and I think they might not be willing to give it to me, I find some way to turn it into a barter. So do most people. Sometimes, this is fairly open-ended and long-term, like helping your friends move on the assumption that they will help you move when the time comes. Sometimes, it can be fairly immediate, like when I helped my neighbor set up a printer in exchange for homemade macaroons. Often, it's flagrantly commercial: I give the guy behind the counter a $10 bill and he gives me a Big Mac, fries, a soda, and change.

When the other person is highly resistant, you up the offer and invoke a stick to juxtapose with your carrot. If you show up for work on time and perform your duties correctly, you’ll get a better performance review, which may lead to a raise. Failure to do these things will absolutely result in getting fired. Sometimes, all you get is stick. “Take down the copyrighted material,” reads the nastygram from the lawyers, “or we’ll see you in court.”

But honestly, most of the more exotic interactions really boil down to the same thing. Intimidation, at its heart, is exchanging something you want for not unleashing a world of hurt on the person you're attempting to intimidate, just as with the cease-and-desist letter. Seduction is the promise of pleasure given in exchange for pleasure received. In either case, your success is going to depend heavily on how well it appears you can follow through on the promises. Issues like reputation, how you look and are dressed, and how you express your desire for the exchange can all have a vital affect. For instance, you'll be a lot more successful at the seduction if you know what sort of pleasures your target wants and hasn't been getting, and your behavior, posture, and outfit hint that you’re just the person to deliver that sort of fun.

And this really is the heart of the matter. It's got nothing to do with coercing the DM or vague threats or knowledge of the rules or reputation outside of the game or anything like that. At my table, it’s never a contest of wills or wits between players and DM. If your character wants to seduce someone, they’d best have a good idea what that person wants in a lover. Otherwise, the chance of success is pretty damn low. This is why this post and the previous one are entitled "Honey Cakes for Cerberus". If you wish to slip past Hades’ three-headed watchdog, you could try a move-silently roll, with the knowledge that you’ll be savaged if you fail. However, you’re much more likely to succeed if you follow the advice of the ancients and slip the pooch a honeycake just as Aeneas did. In exactly the same way, knowing how Lord Rouschford prefers to be touched, and by whom, makes it far more likely that you'll succeed when attempting to seduce him.

Now, as Alexis correctly points out, this can result in a hell of a lot of recordkeeping. For just about every NPC you’ll need to know what they want, what they have, and what they're willing to trade for it. You’ll also need to know who else knows what they want and what they have. Traditionally for me, this has not been terribly difficult. I've always seen this as just part of knowing who people are. But it is a lot easier with some recordkeeping. (Currently, Odyssey and I are experimenting with different ways to make those records easier to use and peruse. This is one of those areas were someone of a more visual mind is helpful, as we want a way to convey a lot of information in a quick, easy package. Who has what, who knows what, who wants what, and how do they all relate to each other. I use tables right now, but it doesn’t make things easy, especially when you’re trying to use someone else’s campaign notes.)

That's really the bulk of it right there. The hard part, honestly, is making sure you have players who enjoy that sort of thing. Alexis’ crew clearly wouldn't. I haven’t played with people like that in quite some time. If there is a theme to this blog, it is this: know what you want and know how to get it. My games abound in background detail, conversation, emotion, and conflict. Once my PCs start talking to somebody, they’re likely to question that person every which way from Wednesday. I imagine Alexis and his crew would see this as a verbal version of pixel-bitching. Minds would wander, eyes would glaze over, and fun would drain out of the room fast. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just not what they want, and not what they find fun. This is why I'm not antagonistic in any way at all to his attempt at a more holistic social interaction system. In his game, in-game conversations get in the way of the fun. In my game, in-game conversations are the fun. Different strokes for different folks.

I do, however, dislike the term "social combat" which I've seen tossed around the 'net here and there, mostly as a short-hand for this sort of thing. The idea that social interactions are some sort of winner-takes-all conflict strikes me as utterly ludicrous. Life just doesn't work that way. You've almost always got to give a little to get anything.

However, I'm certain people schooled in the ways of swordsmanship and such may very well feel the same way about D&D’s combat. I'm perfectly fine with the abstractions of hit points and a single to-hit roll covering an entire minute’s worth of combat, because combat isn’t where the fun is in D&D for me. Getting down into the details of footwork, feints, styles of combat, and dirty tricks would force my games to linger on exactly those points where I want things to be quick and simple. Combat just gets in the way of the fun. And I imagine those who use "social combat" systems probably feel the same way about social interaction.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Taverns Three by Satyre

Over at his blog, Fame & Fortune, Satyre offers a free pdf detailing a trio of taverns. No maps, but the layouts are simple enough that they shouldn't really be needed, and the vibe is decidedly Sword & Sorcery. The OGL is invoked, but no stats are listed, so you could use these taverns with pretty much any system you please.

The first, the Zaros Road Taverna, is an orderly, well-run place that could be plopped in just about any village or town in your fantasy campaign. The Minotaur's Horn is a bit closer to the wilderness, and faces monstrous, supernatural threats. The final watering hole, the Standing Sphynx, is a den of cutthroats, harlots, witches, and the unfortunate goatherds who find them eager buyers for the flesh and milk of their flocks. Located outside a half-looted necropolis, the locals regularly must contend with the restless dead.

Each is rather flavorful and includes prices for food and lodging, details about the people who live and work and stay there, and a handful of adventure hooks. More than worth your time.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A New Direction for 4rt?

It's no secret I had little affection for the art of 4e's core books. Frankly, I've ignored most of the stuff produced for 4e, and what little I have seen hasn't really inspired me to seek out the art associated with it.

But Ben Wootten is turning out some exceptional work that really grabs me. Over on his Deviant Art site, he's posted three pics from the Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms book which is part of the Essentials line, I think. This battle scene has a few dungeon-punky elements, and more than a few nods to the art direction of the LotR movies, but the anatomy, weapons, and armour are largely toned done from the excesses we saw in 3e art.

"Kraken" invokes the best of Wayne Reynold's "wall of action" pieces without feeling completely over-the-top or out of control. Instead of the directionless vertigo that some of the art in 4e's core books used to create mood, the tilt here very much guides the eye through the action while still giving you that sense of unbalanced, roller-coaster action.

And how about that archer at the center of it all? Here's a better look at her. I'm hoping I'm not insulting Mr. Wootten when I compare this to other fantasy artists, but it really invokes the best of many of my favorites: Elmore's you-are-there atmosphere with Reynold's attention to tiny details and evocation of how we actually play the game, coupled with Eva Widermann's arresting, character-full faces. And, of course, "Saving the Best for Last" by Daniel Horne.

Mr. Wootten mentions Kate Irwin as the art director for this book, and she's not listed in my 4e PHB, so we could be seeing a new direction in art for D&D. Maybe this is just an attempt to look back at older styles for Essentials, or perhaps follow the same trend in fantasy art that the Paizo books have captured so well? I can't really say, but whatever they're doing at WotC, I sincerely hope they keep it up!

"Because they are animals!"

This. Very much this. ;D

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Internetz to teh Rescue!

My style of gaming relies heavily on winging it, DMing by the seat of my pants, often with little more than a few vague ideas and the backstory of the campaign to-date. I'm pretty good at that, but I've had over a quarter-of-a-century of practice, trials, amazing successes and humiliating disasters to guide my way.

If you're not so comfortable playing D&D by ear, and sandbox play works best when you are, frankly, there are lots of tools to lend you a hand. Just recently, these tools seem to have taken a quantum leap forward. First, via The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms, I found Dave Millar's Mapper App. Unlike the random map-builders of yor, this one takes advantage of a number of very cool original geomorphs that have been appearing on various blogs lately. It's got lots of customizability options, and the maps look great.

Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut, so I'm not sure what all's being discussed at Von der Seifenkiste herab... but I could follow the link to this great collection of Labyrinth Lord tools. The map generator only uses the geomorphs of Risus Monkey. Apart for the occasional bit of repetition, and the things kinda falling off the corners, it's damn near impossible to tell that these maps were not made as one whole, rather than being assembled from bits.

In addition, that site also has various arrangements of the LL monster lists (alphabetically, by region, and by hit dice) and random room and treasure generators, so you can populate your assembled geomorph dungeons.

Speaking of treasures, did you catch Jeff Rients' series on ornamental and semiprecious stones? They include pics (so you can know what it is you're talking about) in addition to brief historical and mythological blurbs on many of them.

Truly, this is a golden age for those of us in gaming in general, not just the old-schoolers. Tools like these are becoming easier to make, and we're finding new resources all the time. I can certainly understand why some folks balk at including a laptop at the table, but I'm getting to the point where not having the resources of the intranetz at my fingertips is annoying, especially when I'm designing a setting or mapping a dungeon. Stuff like this only makes it more so.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Aztec Murder, Gamer Gold

If you’re the type of reader who is going to enjoy Aliette De Bodard's Servant of the Underworld, the cover to the American edition is likely to grab your attention. The clearly Aztec inspired circle isn't the sort of thing you expect to find on the cover of a book in the fantasy section of your local bookstore. Even if you do see it, you're likely to assume that this is a modern day story in which ancient Aztec relics serve as the MacGuffin, and, if you're lucky, there may be a handful of flashback scenes actually dealing with life in pre-Colombian Mexico.

Luckily, this is not the case with Servant of the Underworld. Instead, this is a murder mystery that takes place in the century before the arrival of Cortez, so there's nary a gringo to be found. In addition, the religion, myths, and superstitions of the Aztecs are, in fact, correct; the book is full of spells, gods, and monsters from Aztec myth. If you're a fan of a literary style jokingly referred to as “anthropology porn,” in which part of the fun is the description and exploration of strange and alien cultures, Servant of the Underworld is a delight. If you're a fan of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel novels, or pretty much anything written by Martha Wells, and have even a modicum of interest in Mesoamerican cultures, you should definitely give Servant of the Underworld a look.

If you're a fan of mysteries, you'll likely find the mystery at the center of this novel to be a touch weak. From the start, it's fairly clear that the original kidnapping is perpetrated primarily as a cover-up for more nefarious doings. Still, there's fun to be had in following the threads of the various political and personal plots that tangle together in the story. The characters are very human, and in the tradition of noir crime fiction, nearly everyone is tormented by their past in some way or another. Ms. De Bodard's skill at weaving the personal and the political allows her to couch large chunks of exposition within very personal drama. While it can get a little thick sometimes, the empathy she builds for the characters keeps you turning the pages.

This empathy does come at some cost to historical accuracy. As Ms. De Bodard comments in the afterword, she "twisted" the rituals of the main characters priesthood "slightly by not having them offer human sacrifices; in reality, like most cults, they would've relied heavily on those." Still, you're never allowed to forget that the characters did not grow up in a modern suburb. No Dr. Quinn Anachronism Woman here! ;)

For gamers, this book is a trove of coolness. There's lots of thematic sorcery, from calendar-based summoning magic, to charms sung to quiet monsters, to blood magic opening portals to the underworld. Even better for those of us who typically use polytheistic religions in our gaming, this book shows feuding cults within the same pantheon, and how such things can happen within an otherwise unified culture. There's none of the monotheistic "false gods and demons" nonsense that we see too often. Nobody doubts the existence of any god in the local pantheon, and for good reason: a handful of them make personal appearances in the story. And yet, the gods have their agendas and, when those come into conflict, their mortal servants are called upon to act on their behalf.

Beyond that, you have this really cool culture in which the aristocracy is held to higher personal standards than the lower classes and death as a human sacrifice is seen as an enviable end. Servant of the Underworld is out in paperback right now from Angry Robot and promises to be the first book in a trilogy. I am very much looking forward to reading the other two.

Friday, December 03, 2010

More Poking at Rules and Actions

Oddyssey told me that I should just keep it simple. I should just point out that different games require different mechanics. But instead I wrote something long and slightly rambling.

Shlominus replied with a rather long, point-by-point rebuttal. It highlights certain areas where I need to be more clear. So that's what this post is about. Let's start near the top:
this statement of yours baffles me. what you are saying is considering any non-physical ablilites you always play within your "real" personal limits.

Well, not exactly. Let's go back to the ideas that got this whole ball rolling. Mr. Dancey wants an RPG that is not targeted so heavily at the Rules Masters and Number Crunchers. He points to Dogs in the Vineyard as a way to move forward. The problem with this is that, in truth, if you look at what actually happens at the table, he's just replacing one set of rules with another. When I played Dogs in the Vineyard at GenCon, it was once again the ace rules guy who dominated the game. In short, if you want to make an RPG that appeals to people who aren't all about the rules, you'll need to offer them something other than more rules.

Here is my argument in a nutshell: what the players do at the table is what your game is about. Does this mean he should never have rules for social interaction? Of course not. What it means is you should not have mechanics for social interaction if the goal of the game is to have the players interact socially. In the same way that the combat rules in D&D mean that the players don't have to actually swing swords in the air, mechanics to handle social situations mean the players don't actually have to engage in any sort of social interaction.

If social interaction is just something that's going to happen, but is not a primary focus of your game, feel free to throw in all the social interaction mechanics you want. If, for instance, your game is all about being space merchants, and your focus is on buying, transporting, and selling commodities, you might not want spend too much time on bribing port officials. So, you make a real quick mechanic, maybe based on the characters’ reputation versus the honesty or the greed of the port official in question. That way, you can quickly adjudicate what the cost of corruption is to the PCs, and get right back into the heart of your game.

This is why the social mechanics of early D&D mentioned by DHBoggs are so simple. One quick dice roll defines how the people you meet feel about you. Because the game is more interested in exploration than combat, only a third of such encounters will result automatically in a fight. Probably less, if you allow a PC’s Charisma to influence the role. The situation can be swiftly adjudicated, allowing everyone return to the primary activity.

The rules, in short, allow us to quickly get through things we do not wish to linger on. It's not the only job they do, however. Let's take a look at another of shlominus' comments:

but in an rpg all the players do is make their characters do something.

Ah, but this is not true at all. Most RPGs, especially more recently produced ones, are chock full of mechanics that have nothing to do with the actions of the characters. Saving throws are a good example. A saving throw is pretty much a get-out-of-jail-free card, a last chance for some mitigating force, usually luck, to save a character’s bacon. Usually, it's entirely up to the DM to decide exactly why a successful save is effective. Most don't even bother; we just assume when successfully saving that through a quirk of luck, positioning, and some sort of native resistance to magic, your character only suffers half the damage they would have otherwise.

Another example is Fate Points and the like. Lots of games these days have a mechanic by which you earn points, usually via some nonmechanical means like "good role-playing”. These points can later be spent in all sorts of ways. Among these are rerolls, automatic successes, or the transformation of a fatal wound to a lesser injury.

This is an example of a resource that the player can spend that is completely invisible to the character. Aragorn and Legolas can't have a discussion about how many Fate Points they have left. They can discuss how battered they are, how low they are in provisions, or how many arrows they have left in their quivers, but Fate Points are a resource that only the players can discuss. In some instances, their use can be described as an extra effort on the part of the character, but in most cases this isn't so. (These sorts of mechanics really annoy people who love immersion in RPGs because it forces them to think about issues in ways their characters absolutely can't. But that's a discussion for another day.)

Again, this highlights the distance between the actions of the players and the actions of the characters. Characters might be leading massive armies, wading up to their knees through sewers, falling in love, engaging in character assassination, or struggling with existential fears, but through all of this the players may only be rolling dice and managing abstract resource points.

Which brings us back to my central point: what your game is about is what the players are actually doing. If Mr. Dancey wants to make a game that appeals to people who are not attracted to the current iteration of D&D, he’s going to have to make game that isn't simply a reskinning of D&D.

This is why mechanics are important. They can either support your fun, or get in the way. As shlominus pointed out:

you may have chosen the wrong system for this game, but i bet you had fun, so... what's wrong?! :)

And the honest answer is, nothing that can't be fixed with a few minor tweaks. But these things still bear fixing. If there is something in your game that inhibits the fun, rather than supports it, you absolutely ought to remove it. Of course, you need to know what removing that aspect will do to the rest of the game, which is why it is important to understand exactly how the whole thing hangs together. This is one of the benefits of working with a simpler system.

In this case, while Oddyssey was still having a blast, the fact that her character was not increasing in level was a minor annoyance. It was, quite simply, making the game much less fun that could be. It's not so much an on/off Boolean thing as a matter of efficiency. Rules should support the fun.

The intriguing thing about RPGs, however, is that while rules can support the fun they cannot bring the fun. Again, to quote shlominus:

an endless series of empty rooms filled with monsters and a bit of treasure works perfectly within the rules. sure, it would be a terrible game and it won't be fun but it wouldn't "break" anything.

unlike your game with oddysey, which "broke" the game, but most likely was fun for you both.


Hm, indeed. Or, to quote Mr. Gygax:

"The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules."

Thursday, December 02, 2010

What is this Game About Revisited: a Reply to Erin

Erin over at Lurking Rhythmically (and congrats to her on the LotFP contract) has a lot to disagree with me about from my last post. I'm going to tackle her arguments here because I think they get at the heart of a number of misconceptions about gaming in general. They also give me the opportunity to take some of the ideas I was playing with in the last post and apply them to other aspects of design.

I'm going to save the abuse issue for later. Instead, I'd like to start with the issues of fairness and prejudice. Erin asks, "What if I, the player, have no social skills whatsoever, but I still want to play a smooth-talking seducer or a quick-witted scoundrel?" It's an interesting question. I've got one in response: what if you have no skill at throwing the ball, but you want to be the quarterback in your local backyard football game? Can you all just go inside, start up a game of Madden NFL 11, and still say you played football?

Let's tackle this another way: what if I want to play a tactical genius in a game of fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons? Should I be allowed to simply win combats through a single skill check? Of course not. 4e is about tactical combat. That would make about as much sense as changing the rules of Dogs in the Vineyard to make combat more fun and less deadly.

Again, this comes back to questions of what a game is about. Is chess about homicidal queens teleporting across the battlefield and slaughtering all who stand before them, or about enraged war elephants trampling clergyman into bloody stains on the turf? Of course not. Those are just the trappings of the game, the fluff. Chess is about maneuver and positioning. In the same way, Go Fish is about memorization, not about worms or boats.

Let's take a more complex game. Warhammer 40K isn't about the moral dilemma that arises when the only hope for humanity's survival is a bloody-handed and cruel dictatorship. That, as the fans of the game are wont to say, is the fluff. The actual game is about building an army of units with various strengths and weaknesses, and then maneuvering that army on the board to maximize the strengths and minimize those weaknesses. The game works just fine if you don't know any of the fluff. The game is an utter disaster if you have encyclopedic knowledge of the fluff, but don't know the actual rules. You could, with only a little effort, replace space marines with Care Bears and Eldar with My Little Ponies, not change a single number or dice mechanic, and the game would play just fine.

What a game is about is not what the characters do. It is about what the players do. This brings us back to the issue of abuse. Erin is worried that replacing dice rolls and resource management with actual actions on the part of the players will lead to min-maxing. She's absolutely correct, of course. Quite frankly, if I was running a game in which some aspect like a stat was useless, I would just remove it from the game. For instance, if I did not play with retainers or morale, I probably would drop Charisma from my D&D games. After all, my games already don't include a Comeliness stat, or a Luck stat in spite of the fact that every time characters do something that requires the players roll the dice, they are testing their luck.

My suggestions yesterday demonstrated how to add small elements to an already existing game to add more flavor. The goal was not to turn D&D into a game about social interaction. These additions simply add an element of social interaction to the game. I know this, because I play with most of those suggestions. In one instance, the solo game I run for Oddysey, the game has become about social interaction and cultural, as opposed to geographical, exploration. This utterly broke the game. Since her character was not going into dangerous places and retrieving treasure, the advancement system completely collapsed. The result? Next month will be the second year anniversary of the game, and her character, the same character she's played since day one, only recently achieved third level. And she only did that because I completely jettisoned D&D's advancement mechanic.

First edition D&D is about exploration. Remove exploration, and the game no longer works. This is why linear dungeons are such a disaster in first edition D&D. Fourth edition D&D is a game about tactical skirmishes. Remove the tactical skirmishes and a game falls apart. This is why linear dungeons are not a problem in fourth edition D&D. You can easily add social mechanics to either game. Heck, you could use the exact same social mechanics for either game. However, you should not delude yourself into believing that by doing so you have created a game about social interaction. On that basis, you could argue effectively, I believe, against the suggestions I've made in my last post. If Mr. Dancey wants a game that is actually about social interaction, he will need to make sure that his rules support players interacting socially with the setting and the NPCs. Simply replacing that with dice rolls and resource management will not achieve that goal. I got the chance to play Dogs in the Vineyard at this past GenCon. Among the players was the real rules mechanic and min-maxer from one of Oddysey's old groups. He looked over the rules, figured out the central mechanic involved betting dice and raising stakes, and optimized his character for that behavior. He ended up with the character who couldn't shoot his way out of a paper bag, but who could sell ice cream to Eskimos.

And this is because Dogs in the Vineyard is not about social interaction. What you, the player, say makes no difference to the outcome of a conflict. What matters is how many dice you can and do risk in the exchange. What is hiding at the center of Lumpley’s diagram? Story. Dogs in the Vineyard is about creating a series of rising actions, climaxes, and dénouements. It might not actually be good story, but it will have that sequence of waves that we, in the West, recognized as the architecture of story.

Personally, I don't think story is a winning topic for a game. Quite simply, writing stories is work. In and of itself, it isn't fun for most people. This is why procrastination is the bane of all professional writers. It's quite often easier to clean the kitchen then is to write your story. Trust me, I know whereof I speak. D&D worked because exploration is fun. Going somewhere you've never been before is exciting, scary, and intriguing. So is pulling off a caper, achieving victory in a contest of skill (either individually or as part of a team), and uncovering the truth through assembling a diverse collection of clues. Games about resource management can be a lot of fun. They can also easily be replicated on a computer. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if the resources you are managing are called hit points, mana, or prestige.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Supporting, Not Replacing

Over at the RPG site, Ryan Dancey has started a discussion on how adding social mechanics from Dogs in the Vineyard may be a way to improve gameplay in traditional Dungeons & Dragons. Yeah, I know, I know... And the thread starts off as a hideous mess, just as you'd expect. However, John Morrow has some very interesting things to say. I suspect he and I share very similar attitudes about gaming. Things get a lot better around this post.

This gets to the heart of what I have been talking about with neoclassical gaming. Ryan Dancey, having found some neat social mechanics in Dogs in the Vineyard, has suggested that such rules might make D&D more fun for people who would prefer tabletop RPGs to computer games. Mr. Morrow complains, and I think quite rightly, that this "gamest" approach hurts more than it helps. We see this a lot in games. Substituting dice rolls and resource management for the activity itself, in this case, social interaction, which is very easy to do at the table, undercuts what we really want to have happen.

I'm assuming here that Mr. Dancey is interested in games where the characters interact with each other, are parts of their social environments, and are motivated by the peoples and situations that exist inside the game. Festooning these things with mechanics undercuts that. The players never really care about the in-game reality, because they're too busy dealing with mechanical bits that have been bolted on top of them.

John Morrow makes this very point when he says:

[T]he players are no longer making decisions based on what's happening in the setting but wing up looking for ways to wedge things like background mentions or relationship connections into the situation just to get modifiers. This is also one of the reasons why John Kim's Dogs in the Vineyard strategy page explicitly mentions that very broad traits are frowned upon. The same problem crops up in Spirit of the Century and any game where invoking some aspect of a character or their background makes it more likely for a character to succeed. Games that give bonuses for clever descriptions can also get goofy when the players start playing to the GM rather than the situation their characters are in. Yes, it gets the characters to bring those things into play, but there is a point where it doesn't help the quality of game and even a point where it turns the game into a farce…

So is there some way for us to have our cake and eat it too? Can we encourage the sort of activities we want without burying them in mechanics?

I think we can. I think that old-school D&D shows us how. D&D is a game about exploration that has almost no rules about exploring. It discusses the problems of exploring, and gives us tools for tackling logistical issues associated with exploring, and creates rewards of various sorts for exploring, but does these things in a very tangential way. Your character never earns experience points from exploring itself. Instead, you gain experience through moving treasure from dangerous, unexplored territories back to home base. Monsters, traps, and the usual issues of exploration (such as provisions, light, and getting lost) all must be overcome to achieve the goal of rescuing treasure from the wilderness.

Mr. Dancey seems to want a game that is more about relationships and the social landscape. I've discussed this before. The neoclassical approach (and, interestingly, the approach of the guy who actually wrote Dogs in the Vineyard) seeks to encourage the desired gameplay obliquely. The final result would most likely be a game that looks very traditional to most gamers. However, it would have certain tweaks that encourage players to forge alliances and call on their friends for help. If we were just going to house-rule D&D, these might look like additional ways to take advantage of hirelings and henchmen, or at least, the rules dealing with them, rules that grant bonuses in combat for having friends fight with you (either by their diversity, or by their quantity), and for using social resources to solve traditional dungeon challenges. Let's take a look at two examples of what these might look like.

I frequently encourage my players to search for information about a dungeon before they attempt to enter it. Usually, this begins with visiting the local tavern and buying drinks for the old-timers with stories of days-gone-by, and ends with the PCs visiting the local sage in order to verify and flush out what they've learned. It would be easy enough to include local groups like adventurers guilds or wizards guilds, knightly orders, secret organizations like the Harpers of the Forgotten Realms, and the like. Any of these groups might have more information about the places the players wish to explore, as well as specialized tools for tackling the dangers they might have to face. In order to acquire some of the information or supplies, players may need to be on good terms with these groups or even members. However, not all of these groups will be friendly with each other, and membership in one group might earn the enmity of the others.

This sort of thing doesn't even actually require rules per se. It's simply a new way for the players to interact with their local environment. It's simple enough for the DM to implement, requiring only a list of such groups, what sort of information they may have, and how they feel about each other. I use things like this in my game successfully all the time.

Here's another example: a while back, Zak was pondering how to add something like feats to old-school D&D. The solution he came up with was rather intriguing; instead of presenting his players with a dizzying list of feats and their various pathways, he simply associated feats with different social groups, and, when the players reached an appropriate level, they were given the opportunity to learn the feet associated with whichever locale the PCs happened to be in at that time.

It would be simple enough to expand this and other aspects of the game. Maybe certain equipment can only be purchased from certain areas. Lembas bread, for instance, makes it easy to provision a large expedition, but only certain elven bakers can make it. Perhaps certain spells are only known to a particular sorority of sorceresses who carefully guard such secrets. Now where the PCs go to find adventure doesn’t just change the window-dressing (jungle vs. forest vs. plains), but actually affects what sort of rewards they can expect to earn or how their characters develop. Traveling to the Ashen Wastes in order to learn how to fight with a spiked buckler or the dreaded Disintegration spell are exactly the sorts of things we’d expect from a character like Elric or Cugel.

None of these rules violate Mr. Morrow's desire to avoid replacing actual social interaction with resource management or dice rolling. They also encourage exactly the sort of entanglement with the social landscape that I think Mr. Dancey is looking for. Where they do fall down, however, is in dictating what that social landscape looks like to a certain extent. Old-school D&D is incredibly flexible and can be used to model any sort of civilization from Bronze Age city-states to Renaissance-style empires linked by magically powered dirigibles. As the rules currently stand, including the sorts of additions I’m discussing is something the DM will have to tackle when creating the setting. For me, this sort of stuff is part of the fun of world building, but it's a rare to find it in most rulebooks, especially those that purport to be fairly generic.

It would be simple enough to create some Reintsian random tables to distribute this sort of thing among groups created via other random tables, but again, the more we do this, the more we dictate to the DM what the setting is like. Whether that is a bug or a feature depends entirely on the preferences of the group. Unfortunately for Mr. Dancey, attempts to do similar things with prestige classes in 3e fell flat: people just assumed that every prestige class ought to be available in every world, in spite of direct statements to the contrary. Then again, the players who embraced this sort of universality tended to be exactly the sorts that Mr. Dancey says we 40 lost to computer games. Perhaps those of us who are left can be expected to be slightly more careful readers?