Equitable Gaming

I’ve seen the notion of “game balance” come up more than once recently. There was John Wick’s “Illusion of Game Balance” where he said a bunch of stuff, including:

In a roleplaying game, game balance does not matter.

What matters is spotlight. Making sure each player feels their character had a significant role in the story. They had their moment in the spotlight. Or, they helped someone else have their significant moment in the spotlight.

Then there was Josh T Jordan’s G+ post where he said:

Note for later: Character balance is a lie. What you want is player investment balance. Character power level and turn frequency are just one dial to adjust.
What about requiring one player to keep his character’s plans secret but his character’s emotions obvious?
What about a character who can be in every scene but who can only act once per session?
What about making the right to give another player help or advice the strongest currency in the game?
Balance isn’t where you think it is.

Coincidence? Who knows. They’re not really far apart; however it’s worth noting that Jordan is coming from the POV of player investment, whereas Wick’s message is for our typical, stuck-in-the-nineties autocratic GM who by divine grace permits their players to bask in the spotlight.

I have a proposal. Let’s stop talking about balance, and use better terms. Let’s consider equity, and equity theory. Taking this approach we can consider both inputs and outcomes provided by and applied to all players at the table (including the GM!).

equity

These are some sample Inputs for the games we like to play:

  • agreeing to play
  • turning up to the session
  • bringing snacks
  • providing props
  • acting (“getting yer thesp on”)
  • developing a strategy (personal or team)
  • involving other players when talking in character
  • involving other players when making tactical plans
  • not hogging the limelight / giving the limelight to other players
  • giving power (fate points, magic items) to other PCs
  • defeating monsters
  • learning the system
  • teaching the system
  • providing rulebooks
  • writing an adventure
  • contribute to story

And these are some Outputs:

  • recognition from GM and other players
  • in-game rewards (experience, magic items)
  • overcoming milestones
  • involvement in story (shaping it, being a part of it)
  • development of character (self-perception and as perceived by other players)
  • in-game markers of reputation, praise and thanks (“you saved us! You’re the greatest!”)
  • responsibility and kudos for the game (traditionally a GM output)

Two remarks about this list:

  1. The examples Jordan gives are very much about defining (and perhaps limiting) the inputs available. Defining how players contribute to games is indie game design thinking.
  2. In many cases we assume the outputs are the same for all, because (on an holistic level) the output is “the game”. We rarely dissect the outputs further, or at least not explicity. But again, the modern indie design school tends to take care with defining some of the outcomes, giving us a better idea about what we can expect from a game.

Are we having a good time?

The big problem is measuring input and output; this is certainly why our perception of “game balance” is skewed towards statistics and time-phased activities (i.e. “actions”).

At least we have the four propositions of Equity Theory (shamelessly nicked from Wikipedia):

  1. Individuals seek to maximize their outcomes (where outcomes are defined as rewards minus costs).
  2. Groups can maximize collective rewards by developing accepted systems for equitably apportioning rewards and costs among members. Systems of equity will evolve within groups, and members will attempt to induce other members to accept and adhere to these systems.
  3. When individuals find themselves participating in inequitable relationships, they become distressed.
  4. Individuals who perceive that they are in an inequitable relationship attempt to eliminate their distress by restoring equity.

Of that lot I found the second point very interesting: roleplaying groups will form their own norms, and can be self-selecting, and these norms must logically be around their perception of fair and equitable treatment. But when these groups get large (say 30 people in a turn-based freeform LARP) they will subdivide into groups with different notions of equity.

The freeform LARPs we played in the 90s (e.g. Vampire) had a huge potential for feelings of inequity on account of the GMs being overwhelmed and unable to assess or address inequity in players; and at the same time those games often empowered players to address the inequitable relationship themselves. In one game I ran the players restored equity by effectively cutting the GM out of the game (by keeping secrets from them). An interesting outcome!

I’m not sure how useful this line of thinking is, but I guess it’s worth remembering just how complex and individual our perception of “fair treatment” is.

RPG Retrospective: Dream Park

If I were to describe an innovative game where

  • players play players playing a LARP
  • adventures are deliberately railroaded
  • session design is structured around a series of scripted beats
  • character development is based on the cynical accumulation of “Game Points” that are spent to gain advantage in the game-within-the-game

you might think “wow, meta! Sounds like one of those ironic postmodern dirty indie hippy story games I’ve heard so much about.”

dreampark

1992 called, and wants its game premise back.

This is Dream Park, an R. Talsorian product from 1992. Based on the novels by Niven and Barnes and published in the same year as the California Voodoo Game this is kind of a cut-down Interlock system, kind of a generic universal system, and kind of a masterclass in how to write short punchy games.

I bought the game and ran it briefly and pretty badly (I was getting into my stride as a GM) and then Vampire became a thing, and this book got shelved.

It’s a thin book. I don’t really care for many of the fonts, and most of the art is dated much in the way the Cyberpunk 2020 art is also dated. There were only a few support products for it (adventures mostly) but it crams a lot of workable game — albeit a simplistic one — into 128 pages of not very dense text.

This is what you get:

  • 16 pages of introductions to the park. They’re not even really setting fluff, unless you plan to introuduce the in-game games masters like Chi Chi Lopez into the narrative;
  • then there’s a quick start section, about 12 pages, which includes 3 whole introductory adventures (you use the cardboard character cards that came inside the back cover; I’ve lost those);
  • then there’s the Advanced section of around 40 pages, which includes qualities pertaining to your out-of-game PC, Options for your in-game PC’s PC (superpowers, spells, skills), weapons and other things you might want to buy with points;
  • then 16 pages of advanced rules
  • 5 pages on Experience
  • 8 pages of adventure, the Big Zombie Pirate Game
  • and the rest (the last 20 pages or so) is how to write games.

System

It’s simple and functional. It serves the intent of the game very well; that is to say, you can play it as-written and make full use of everything with a point cost. The fact that you’re not simulating a complete environment but a game environment liberates play from the concerns of game balance (whether that’s necessary or not) — so if some of the powers have a better point-to-value ratio than others, that’s the game, and it’s there to be exploited. A lot easier to do than GURPS, too.

In fact I think the austere nature of the game makes it easier to present the duality of identity. Characters are artificial, two-dimensional, over-simplified, and that’s a good thing. It underlines the concept that this is a game (within the game). Certainly making the game-game characters shallow entities could be used to throw the personalities of their players into sharp relief.

I like layers of meaning and identity, and I’d like to know if the designers ever intended this to be a thing. Certainly when I first picked it up I thought of running an in-park, out-of-park game (much in the way I’d run a split community + adventure Beyond The Wall game) using the DP system inside and something else outside (Storyteller at the time, these days WaRP). I wonder if anyone actually did that.

Rewards

Game Points are the currency and reward system. They’re won by completing games. They’re also lost sometimes — the GM can penalise certain activities (like bad sportsmanship). PCs whose game characters die lose half their game points, but those characters are rarely dead-dead.

Taking the idea of a dual world further, game points are obviously meant to have significance to the PC player. In the out-of-park world they represent status and priviledge. What are the consequences of dropping points in a game? Is there a league table? Are points ever traded, and if so, what for?

GM Section

This is the best bit — it discusses how to craft in-park adventures. Cross-genre gaming is recommended and there are a lot of examples to choose from to mash up.

Adventures are structured around a number of beats. Beats are things like puzzles and challenges and cliffhangers; and there are a lot of suggestions. The Beat Sheet is really a heavily railroaded sets of challenges — not unlike rubber-sword LARP. But since we’re cynically emulating LARP, that’s fine.

Then there’s a bit about designing locations and tying beats to locations. It’s simple and elegant.

Finally the meta gets turned up to 11 with Setting The Stage, where the GM gets to play a sneering characature of herself, grandstanding before the start of the adventure.

Final Thoughts

This is a cross-genre game, simple and very complete. No doubt the designers were thinking of the other cross-genre games of the period (Torg, Rifts). This is evident in the ideas section in the back — how about putting Dream Park in your own regular campaign? Or how about using it to represent cross-dimensional war in a myriad of ages?

All of those are cool, and achievable with this system. But still the draw for me is the players-playing-players duality and the potential for accumulating game points to not only be a measure of power but also social success.

Sadly it seems this line is the one that’s absent from R. Talsorians’ DTRPG offerings. I can only assume the license has lapsed and it’s not economical to try to get it back. But if you happen on a secondhand copy at a non-crazy price, it’s worth picking up just for the last 30 or so pages.

John and Zak’s Mass Debate

For anyone who cares, I watched the Zak S / John Wick debate.

The whole video is one hour long, which is a bit too much for the casually interested. Here are the hilights I picked out.

23 to 25 mins

A discussion about how mechanics spontaneously emerged from “fluff”. I think it’s probably the most interesting part of the discussion, and yet trivially obvious.

The comments about how 90% of the rules of CoC aren’t applied on a per-session basis are good. The general tone is the difference between the rules and how you actually play.

This is my favourite quote:

A lot of people say the game is about what the rules of the game are about. I say no, the game is about what the game ends up being about at the table when you play it with people.

The game exists in a context

You play the game, you watch what happens when people play the game [and the result], and the game is about whatever that result is… the result is what matters, not the text…

Wick notes that learning a game is very hard based on the text alone; you need to be taught by someone else. Comments on Wick’s article generally agree that “how to play” advice is generally poor — in other words it relies on oral tradition and tacit understanding.

33 to 36 mins: Cannibal Mermaids and Giant Hats

A discussion of dealing with cannibal mermaids in a moat by using mercury from a giant’s hat. The subtext is that playing D&D without creativity will generally not favour the players — trying to play D&D as an actually balanced game is stacked against PCs at lower levels. More crucially the various advantages that tip the balance are negotiated via roleplaying.

41 to 45 mins: Tactical Infinity, Fluff = Potential Crunch

Continuing from the above, the “tactical infinity” of the game is this: any new rule or factor can be introduced and become a negotiated benefit, simply by virtue of being plausible and consistent with the world, even when these elements were not included in the original text. The phrase “portrayal with mechanical weight” is used somewhere.

OK, those are the best bits. I’ll admit that my examples are heavily biased towards Zak’s side of the debate — but then I find those to be the most compelling points. Mostly I don’t think the premises put forward in Wick’s article are adequately explored or backed up. One point Wick deserves is the absurd focus of combat over anything else, viz the disproportionate number of dice rolls for combat mechanics over non-combat mechanics. That revelation is hardly going to set the world on fire, though.

Mostly the debate seems painfully obvious. I strongly agree about the importance of interesting results (coupled with decisions to act and acceptance of risk, as previously stated).

John Wick and Game Balance

John Wick said something about Game Balance, and it annoyed a few people.

He basically says three things:

  1. Time in the spotlight should be prioritised over game balance
  2. Detailed weapon lists are a bug, not a feature
  3. The goal of a RPG is to advance story.

Let’s answer these.

Spotlight vs. Game Balance

Putting aside the hyperbole (Game Balance Does Not Matter!) I broadly agree, except the definition of of “game balance” is a bit lax.

Game balance doesn’t just measure player against player; it can also measure player against challenge. The player being able to assess risk vs. reward is an essential component of the actor-stance decision process.

Weapon Lists Are A Bug, Not A Feature

Being a fan of gaming minimalism I’m inclined to agree that weapon details are unnecessary. Being a MA instructor I know that nearly all systems get weapons wrong anyway (at least melee weapons). In that case, they might as well be abstracted into some other property.

This is Wick’s definition of a RPG:

roleplaying game: a game in which the players are rewarded for making choices that are consistent with the character’s motivations or further the plot of the story.

Now…

  1. …if the character’s motivation is to overcome some obstacle that involves an element of risk
  2. …and the game includes ephemera (guns, spells, that kind of thing) that the player can select to maximise their chances of succeeding in certain circumstances (maybe with some tradeoff, like encumberance)…
  3. …and success or failure creates some interesting outcome that furthers the plot…

…then surely those ephemera are serving a useful function that the player can use to gauge chance of success? Even if you abstract external ephemera like weapon stats (because it doesn’t really matter if Riddick uses a knife or a gun or a teacup) to internal ones (like Fire in Everway), the player still has to make decisions, and those decisions will be based on where the points went during Riddick’s character creation.

If you believe that Riddick was created using a sane amount of character points, of course.

Chess Isn’t A RPG / The Goal Is Story

Let’s take one example of a RPG that could be argued to fit Wick’s definition of “not a roleplaying game” because it has a tactical element that does not require roleplaying. It’s Lace and Steel:

lacensteel

This system uses a pretty tight card game to play through duels (sword, magic, and repartee). Actually playing these sub-games requires no roleplaying whatsoever. However the decisions leading up to a duel where the player gauges their chance of success against a foe, and the stakes involved (what victory and defeat mean) would seem to fit the definition of decision making; and the stakes will provide an outcome that delivers plot. The only part that’s dubious is the way the player is rewarded for making those decisions and putting themselves at risk.

That’s a matter of player expectation and creative agenda. If as a player I only feel rewarded by winning full stop, then the argument that L&S is like Chess could be upheld. But making a decision that could result in failure is part of the game I signed up for. Failure is an interesting result, and I’m rewarded by being free to make the choice, not by the outcome itself.

So, anyway. Zak S posted a video of a conversation with Wick, and I haven’t watched it yet but I intend to.

I don’t really have a dog in this fight, and I think it’s an interesting discussion, even if it retreads some old ground (my first impression was “the 90s called and it wants the G/D/S debate back”).

Kate

I want to say something deep and heartfelt about Kate, and the stuff that keeps coming to the surface seems random and superficial. Like Kate playing Imogen in my Vampire game, more than 20 years ago. Or Kate reffing the orgy scene in Thieves’ Guild II (no, nothing like that. It was veiled and tasteful. And funny. And a bit tragic). Kate reading my palm and saying “wow, look at that fate line!” (with no further information… is that good?). Kate yelling “TAB SCUM!” from a car window and giving a Cambridge Uni minibus a broadside with a super soaker.

I think everyone has some tacit feeling about Kate that is bigger than words, and this patchwork of scenes is the best we can hope for. I started writing this about a dozen times and nothing came up to scratch. Eventually I grabbed the Oblique Strategies — which is I guess a kind of secular Tarot — and the card I drew said “Humanize something free of error” (sic).

I’m still not quite sure what it means, but somehow it resonates, so that’s what I’m working towards.

I want to focus on Kate, but I’m having a hard time separating my impression of Kate from a significant time in my life when she was very present — and that’s further complicated because it wasn’t just Kate, it was a whole load of people that gravitated around my Vampire game in my 3rd year.

I should have been studying for finals, and instead I was immersed in a terrific group of friends. We played games and hung out. It was an inspiring time to be gaming, too. There was a revolution happening in OURPGSoc; the zeitgeist was the “society game”, a very real cultural change in the way our society interacted.

Kate embraced and embodied all of this change. I’m sure that the change would have happened nonetheless; but a lot of what made that cultural change so tangible and immediate to me was Kate. I’ll try to explain.

I met Kate the previous summer, at the prototypical society game LARP, Conclave. I’d arrived halfway through the campaign, and Kate was probably the first person who spoke to me as I was trying to decide what to do with my first turnsheet.

The interactions were not as ourselves, but our characters — so our initial friendship was entirely fictional. But Kate was totally invested in every character she played — just as she was totally invested in her people and the things she gave her time to. Getting swept up in her commitment to gaming was a kind of role-player’s epiphany.

Then at the end of the game I was musing about what I would run in the Autumn, and I talked about Vampire, and Kate practically leapt on the idea. Now inspiring people have come into my life at times and told me that I should do something, that it was worthwhile and within my grasp when I had doubts. Like the time a teacher told me I was smart enough to apply to Oxford, and so I did. Well, Kate liking the idea of playing Vampire was one of those times. That may not sound like it was in the same league, but it totally was.

And when the third year came it pretty much defined my life thereafter — the potential of games, my own ability to play and run them, and what I wanted from friendships and community. Kate’s confidence in me was a big part of that, though not the only part. Kate was one of the forces that bound that particular group of people together so strongly and created such lasting interactions.

I haven’t even touched upon all the things Kate did after that — all the brilliantly creative things she gave to our gaming community as a player and an author and a leader. People drifted away from Oxford and came back. I didn’t see Kate so much in later life, but I remember that when we did end up in the same place it felt like we just picked up where we’d left off. It was a tribe thing.

If I hadn’t known Kate, I probably wouldn’t have been any poorer for friends. I may still have run the Vampire game and met and loved the same girlfriend, formed the same friendships, and played way too much when I should have been working. I don’t want to underestimate the impact all those other people have had on me. But I do know that there are some people I would never have met and formed deep friendships with, and insights into life I would have missed if not for Kate.

This is a poor imitation of all the thanks I want to give for Kate.

Kate, I’m really glad I blew off studying to play games with you. It changed my life.

oblique2