Sunday, 13 August 2017

Man, Play and RPGs

This is a post about Man, Play and Games by Roger Callois.

I haven’t read Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, but Callois mentions his work directly in the first chapter and also challenges his fixation on the competitive nature of games (and I believe the exclusion of gambling. Callois’ theory on play is summarised here).

Note that I haven’t really touched on chapters 3 or 5, which are both good reads but relate more generally to the cultural need for and the sociology of games. I’ve also very much glossed over the second part concerning the interplay of simulation and vertigo (chapter 7) and competition and chance (chapter 8) because the main area I want to consider is the conditional relationship between AGON and MIMICRY.

The Definition of Play / The Classification of Games

Note: the first two chapters are reproduced in the Game Design Reader):

  • The Definition of Play includes the six core characteristics (free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules, make-believe)
  • The Classification of Games covers the four categories (Agon, Alea, Mimicry, Ilinx) and the progression from chaos to order (paidia to ludus)

Mimicry is directly (and obviously) applicable to role-playing:

Mimicry. All play presupposes the temporary acceptance, if not of an illusion (indeed this last word means nothing less than beginning a game: in-lusio), then at least of a closed, conventional, and, in certain respects, imaginary universe. Play can consist not only of deploying actions or submitting to one’s fate in an imaginary milieu, but of becoming an illusory character oneself, and of so behaving.

The “closed, conventional, imaginary universe” is I guess the magic circle.

The interesting part of these first two chapters is the interplay between the four categories. One, Agon and Alea represent two ends of a spectrum; at one end is complete mastery and the other is complete surrender to chance.

Agon and alea imply opposite and somewhat complementary attitudes, but they both obey the same law — the creation for the players of conditions of pure equality denied them in real life.

The notion of equality is has always been the subject of hand-wringing with role-players; here it’s not game balance that matters but the ability to engage with the game on equal terms. Also game options may not be balanced, but if the freedom to make choices is there then equality is preserved. This is true if the game is largely random or has some strategic (i.e. skilful, competitive) element.

Two, there’s the interplay of Agon and Mimicry as pageantry accompanying sport:

In fact, bicycle races, boxing or wrestling matches, football, tennis, or polo games are intrinsic spectacles, with costumes, solemn overture, appropriate liturgy, and regulated procedures. In a word, these are dramas whose vicissitudes keep the public breathless, and lead to denouements which exalt some and depress others. The nature of these spectacles remains that of an agon, but their outward aspect is that of an exhibition.

This raises a question: where agon is present in the game, is mimicry always subordinate to it? I am not sure of the answer. But, let’s say you have two schools of RPG thought; one is based on boundaries and the consequences of action/reaction, and the other is based on narrative threads and the need to progress through a narrative arc, at any cost. If mimicry must be subordinate to anon, then the latter must by definition avoid all manner of competitive or strategic play. This leads us to…

Three, going from informal paidia to formal ludus, these four categories start becoming exclusive:

as soon as conventions, techniques, and utensils emerge, the first games as such arise with them: e.g. leapfrog, hide and seek, kite-flying, teetotum, sliding, blindman’s buff, and doll-play. At this point the contradictory roads of agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx begin to bifurcate.

So, to unpack this in terms of our simulationist vs. narrativist argument, any game which purports to “maturity” (ludus) must choose one approach and not the others. It’s easy therefore to see how ideas like exclusionary Gamist (alea) / Narrativist (mimicry) / Simulationist (agon) emerge; and the need for conventions and techniques to steer the players in one direction or another becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

Note that paidia and ludus are not exclusionary notations but form a continuum of unstructured/informal to structured/formal, and there are examples of both in the four categories, which Callois lays out like this:

AGON (competition) ALEA (chance) MIMICRY (simulation) ILINX (vertigo)
PAIDIA Unregulated contests (wrestling, running, etc.) Dice rolls and coin flips Initiation, hazing, “games of illusion” Dancing, horseback riding, “children whirling”
LUDUS Regulated competitions/sports Betting and lotteries Theatre and spectacle Skiing, skydiving, mountain climbing

Callois places “games of illusion” which might be our immersive, emotional roleplaying towards the unstructured and informal end of the spectrum.

In such an instance MIMICRY coexists perfectly well with AGON. The need to switch between roleplaying and competitive/rules based play is unspoken and in the mode of play I’m familiar with, the timing for the switch is tacitly appreciated by all players. There is no need for fundamentalist declarations of play towards one category or another; rather this mode switching is done on the fly by unspoken agreement.

Thus far from being an immature vs. mature relationship the relationship between PAIDIA and LUDUS is one of tacit vs. explicit knowledge. And with my knowledge management hat on, this leads to a pretty important idea, which is that attempts to formalise roleplaying games into different categories may be doomed to fail, due to the prevalence of the tacit in all learned activity — learned activity being a social construct.

The Corruption of Games

“Corruption of play” has a couple antecedents in roleplaying; the first is the need for immersion or verisimilitude:

Where the problem is to enumerate the characteristics that define the nature of play, it appears to be an activity that is (1) free, (2) separate, (3) uncertain, (4) unproductive, (5) regulated, and (6) fictive, it being understood that the last two characteristics tend to exclude one another. These six purely formal qualities are not clearly related to the various psychological attitudes that govern play. In strongly opposing the world of play to that of reality, and in stressing that play is essentially a side activity, the inference is drawn that any contamination by ordinary life runs the risk of corrupting and destroying its very nature.

Second is the need to remove “cheating”. From this we get all manner of GM advice, contingent rules to stop certain behaviours, etc.

The principle of play has become corrupted. It is now necessary to take precautions against cheats and professional players, a unique product of the contagion of reality. Basically, it is not a perversion of play, but a sidetracking derived from one of the four primary impulses governing play. The situation is not unique. It occurs whenever the specified instinct does not encounter, in an appropriate game, the discipline and refuge that anchor it, or whenever it does not find gratification in the game.

The dilemma is that the player is still playing within the rules as written, but not in the “spirit of the game”.

The cheat is still inside the universe of play. If he violates the rules of the game, he at least pretends to respect them. He tries to influence them. He is dishonest, but hypocritical. He thus, by his attitude, safeguards and proclaims the validity of the conventions he violates, because he is dependent upon others obeying the rules. If he is caught, he is thrown out. The universe of play remains intact.

The third is bleed which is a buzz-word du jour in narrative circles.

Superstition therefore seems to be a perversion, i.e. the application to reality of one of the principles of play, alea, which causes one to expect nothing of himself and leaves all to chance. The corruption of mimicry follows a parallel course. It is produced when simulation is no longer accepted as such, when the one who is disguised believes that his role, travesty, or mask is real. He no longer plays another. Persuaded that he is the other, he behaves as if he were, forgetting his own self. The loss of his real identity is a punishment for his inability to be content with merely playing a strange personality. It is properly called alienation.

There’s not much else to be said about corruption except that it is and will continue to be endemic. But the table at the end of the chapter is interesting:

Cultural forms Institutional forms Corruption
AGON (competition) sports economic competition, competitive examinations violence, will to power, trickery
ALEA (chance) lotteries, casinos, etc. speculation on the stock market superstition, astrology, etc.
MIMICRY (simulation) carnival, theatre, cinema, hero-worship uniforms, ceremonial etiquette alienation, split personality
ILINX (vertigo) mountain climbing, tightrope walking, skiing, sky-diving professions requiring control of vertigo alcoholism and drugs

I wonder if (given its susceptibility for bleed and its otherwise tacit nature) roleplaying is unusually vulnerable to corruption, which is why we get so much contingency built into games.

Conditional, Fundamental and Forbidden Relationships

Chapter 6 covers an expanded theory of games, and starts with six relationships:

  • competition-chance
  • competition-mimicry
  • competition-vertigo
  • chance-mimicry
  • chance-vertigo
  • mimicry-vertigo

Competition-Chance and Mimicry-Vertigo are Fundamental Relationships; they are “parallel and complementary”. Competition-Chance relies on equality, and in games are regulated. Mimicry-Vertigo lies at the opposite extreme and “equally presume a world in which the player constantly improvises”.

Competition-Vertigo and Chance-Mimicry and Forbidden Relationships. This is self-evident — you can’t have a strategic game which at the same time destroys judgement and distorts truth; and you can’t have a game where reality is simulated based on internal logic, but at the same time random. BUT in the latter case you could design a game where one is subordinate to the other, e.g. the randomness creates a set of conditions in the illusion that the players respond to (which is a cornerstone of RPGs).

Last, and most interesting IMHO, are the Contingent Relationships of AGON-MIMICRY and ALEA-ILINX which “may be associated harmlessly.” Callois again goes back to the spectacle:

I have already had occasion to stress that every competition is also a spectacle. It unfolds according to identical rules, and with the same anticipation of the outcome. It requires the presence of an audience which crowds about the ticket windows of the stadium or velodrome just as at those of the theater and cinema.

On the Narrativist vs. Challenge (“OSR”) modes of design: logically if you characterise the aim of Narrativist games to induce sensation or vertigo, then this is incompatible with strategic, “challenge based” or “boundary based” design. Of course if we’re using these terms then the use of MIMICRY to denote simulation is going to cause some confusion.

Modern Revivals

I’ll finish this with a couple of quotes — which are interesting although not specific to roleplaying.

From Chapter 8, concerning Competition and Chance:

The reign of mimicry and ilinx as recognised, honoured, and dominant cultural trends is indeed condemned as soon as the mind arrives at the concept of cosmos, i.e. a stable and orderly universe without miracles or transformations. Such a universe seems the domain of regularity, necessity, and proportion—in a word, a world of number.

From Chapter 9, concerning “The Mask and the Uniform”:

modern society is scarcely aware of the two survivals of the sorcerer’s mask: the black mask and the grotesque carnival mask. The black mask, the mask reduced to its essentials, elegant and abstract, has long been associated with erotic fetes and with conspiracies. It characterises equivocally sensual intrigues and mysterious plots against the powers that be.

Further Reading

Unsurprisingly other gamers have already done this analysis: this article cleans up the table and covers the six pairs of categories very neatly.

Going further I found this article by Jesper Juul from 2003, which goes beyond Callois’ classifications and argues that RPGs are a borderline case between GAMES-NOT GAMES. This is outside the scope of what I’ve written here but worth reading.

Finally this appears to be someone’s entire thesis which is a bit much for a casual read-through but it includes a nice pictogram of the relationships (which I reproduced above).

Thursday, 10 August 2017

RPG Backwards Look: Daytrippers Core

I’m posting this today for a couple of reasons.

First, today’s #RPGaDay 2017 question is “Where do you go for RPG reviews?”.

Second and more important AsIf Productions the author and publisher of DayTrippers whose primary job is in web development has been struggling to get new clients and sent out a general message to the RPG community about the kind of services they can provide, and I want to boost the signal.

So, if you’re looking to hire a web developer they do small business sites as well as solutions for larger business, and they’re available for freelance writing and editing. Have a look at their website.

If you like the sound of the game you can support them by buying their books, or via Patreon donations for their ongoing content. Go to the DayTrippers RPG site for more information. They sell their content on a range of platforms including DriveThruRPG and RPGNow, where you can also order print copies.

Having read the core rules I’m going to pick up Golden Age Adventures which includes not only 16 adventures, but the fiction that inspired them (Jack Vance, Philip K. Dick and others) and sounds like a great deal.

Now, onto the post.

I am a terrible RPG reader, for the following reasons:

  1. Signal to noise. I have so many pdfs (impulse purchases, Bundles of Holding, etc.) that they all blur into one.
  2. Heuristics and bias. I’ve read a lot of RPGs and when I scan a book and mentally sort the sections into fluff, system, examples, adventures; then I’ll scan each section looking for familiar frameworks. This means I don’t read in detail, and instead make assumptions about the content of the bits I haven’t read yet.

I think my first read-through of DayTrippers core went like this:

“OK, a fluff section. I know how that works, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, a point-buy character generation bit. I know how that works, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, the combat section. Yeah yeah, I’ll come back to that later.”

“OK, bits on taking damage, vehicular combat, etc.”

“Oooh! Vector slipping. I’ll definitely come back to that later.”

“Dream worlds… survival suits… slipships… right. I’ll need to come back to those later.”

“Oh! And a mission section. That’s probably going to be useful. I’ll come back to that later, after I’ve read all the other bits I said I would come back to later. After I make dinner.”

The second time I read through I took a leaf out of Baz’s book and started reading from the back, which is a great technique because the first place you hit (skipping over appendices) will usually be a scenario or mission, and barring an actual demo play session that’s the place where you get the best first impression of how a game should play.

(this way you also get a good look at the character sheets first. They’re the windows into the soul of an RPG; a bad sheet won’t necessarily kill your enthusiasm but a good one certainly whets the appetite. Take a look at the sheet for Lacuna Part 1, or the toe-tag sheet for Hollowpoint)

DayTrippers, back to front

Here’s what we know from the website:

The time is shortly after the year 2100, the location is the first world. Massive megacorporations dominate the economic landscape and incredible advances in technology make the most miraculous things possible, from genetic modification to medical nanotechnology and microfusion power generators. But the most earth-shaking development of the 21st century is one we’re just beginning to see the ramifications of: As the 22nd century enters its second decade, the inner and outer realities of SlipSpace are opening up to human exploration. The Slip Capacitor, based on the groundbreaking work of Zayim Diaspora, is an amazing device that allows travel to other dimensions in vehicles known as Slipships. The bold explorers who pilot these vehicles face a multiverse of physical and psychological dangers to bring back priceless knowledge and powerful artifacts from far-flung dimensions and other realities. They’re called DayTrippers, and you’re one of them.

Now, content.

Mission Types (p37-39)

First, a taxonomy of mission types. From this we know that the characters will be taken out of their base, home or comfort zone and participate in an adventure: exploration, rescue, fact-finding, making diplomatic contact, etc.

Next, we find out that each mission type has a clearance level and the PC’s SlipShip (whether their own or borrowed) must be up to the mission. This is a nice way of gatekeeping or power-capping the adventure, or signposting the clearence level (Paranoia-style).

More tables and bullet points follow for different choices: the Node type, the Opposition, any Perks they get before the mission, Rewards, and Complications. Several of these are rolled beforehand. This looks like something right out of Sine Nomine’s offerings with a breadth of choice and random results, so I’m already loving it. Round that off with a sequence of scenes, from downtime accepting the mission, challenges, climax and return home.

Overall impression: this is a game with a strong format of mission, promise of reward, excursion and return. I already want to play it. Next!

Slipship construction (p32-35)

OK, we know that Slipships are important for getting about. They have a capacity, components, amenities, tonnage… I don’t feel the need to go into this now but I am interested that the ship is being created like a PC (it has its own character sheet). Possibly there’s shared ownership in mind — something I really liked in the point-buy base of operations in the Conspiracy X 2.0 (Unisystem) game.

I have one gripe with the ship sheet. Since I peeked ahead and know that the survival suit consumes kilowatts, does the Slipship really only consume milliwatts? I assume it should be MW not mW on the sheet. Unless of course there’s some Grant Morrison / In The Night Garden trickery with micro and macro-scale universes. In which case, having the power consumption of your encounter suit be one million times that of your Slipship is an interesting technical point.

Experience Points (p30-31)

A workmanlike section but very clear on what you get XP for and what you can spend them on (stats, skills, drama tokens if you use them, inventions, luxuries, fame, etc.). The most interesting part is the tracking of Total Character Value, XP Spent and XP Available. Why track both XP Total and XP Available? I’m hoping the answer is interesting.

Your Automated Survival Suit (p29)

Here’s what we know about the game from this section:

  • DayTripping is dangerous enough to need a suit
  • The suit has limited power: you get 100 kW from a full charge, and expend 1 kW doing certain tasks.

The scale is interesting because with 100 points to play with, people are less likely to quibble over spending a point here and there at the start — but the steady tick tick tick of the power meter going down will likely force some harder resource choices later into the game as the climax approaches.

Vector Slipping (p26-28)

This is the method of travelling to all different “Slip Nodes” in the multidimensional maestrom of the “Multiversal Chao”. OK. What we really have is a set of difficulties for travelling to different kinds of nodes (alt. Earth, Time Travel, Dream Worlds, etc.). There are consequences for failure, for missing the “Slip Window” and so on. There’s a whole page on Dream Worlds.

What this bit tells me is that this game is about travelling from a society that has somehow broken the barriers between many different levels of alternate existence; and that they probably lump different concepts of other times, other Earths, dreams, other planets all into one single category; as far as the DayTripping society of the 22nd century is concerned all of these can be written onto the same topological map provided the sheet of paper is big enough.

It’s also clear that the easiest jumps are the ones closest to home — alt Earths, time travel and known planets.

This gave me a few ideas already. All slips are conceptually the same but depending on classification, some may be locked down — depending on how the game world is run (corporations? A multiversal hegemony?). This also reminded me of the hyperspace navigation in Delany’s Babel 17 and the multiple gated realities of Ian McDonald’s Everness series.

Actions, Combat, Helping, Healing, Vehicles (p18-25)

This bit is the standard middle chunk of a RPG — a mix of rules for different circumstances, starting with taking actions. All you need to know is there are difficulty levels, you roll a bunch of dice and pick the highest, and there are a range of results depending on whether you make or miss the result. For example it matters if you hit your number exactly, miss or hit by 1 or more than 1. This granularity feels a lot like the results in FATE or Unisystem BUT I think I like the dice rolling here a lot more since it’s regular D6.

I particularly like the opposed rolling in theory with the “Yes, BUT”, “NO, and” style of results, and because the numbers are low the cognitive overhead shouldn’t be too bad. Everything else seems to work just like any other trad RPG — setting stakes before rolling the dice, interpreting afterwards. I’d need to play through it to see how smooth or crunchy it is.

Character Development (p14-17)

This is the bit that comes directly after Character Building but it’s frankly way more interesting; character generation is a hump that players just go through and this one, while simple, is still point-buy with options. More on that in a moment.

This bit looks very interesting because it talks about what happens to your PC during play. “Progressive Character Generation” is used to let the players “wear” their PC and defer actual backstory until later, by holding back Character Points to retroactively spend.

“LifeShaping” is a mechanism to mark dramatic character development, including motivations, personal problems, relationships, etc. I like the concept although I’m not entirely clear on the in-game process; nor am I clear on how (if) these relate to the once-per-session Character Development Scenes.

I guess this is partly where the claimed OSR-Narrative hybridisation comes in, and for me it provides opportunities for narrative expression of the PCs without stepping into the narrative-shaping role of the GM.

Character Building (p8-13)

This is another workmanlike section of point-buy setup, and it’s necessary but to be honest, this is an overhead I have to pay both to learn and play the game, rather than a bit I actually enjoy. I’m glad I read the book backwards. All I can say is there are lots of options for flexible skills, packages of skills and experience (“class advances”) etc. It’s not too crunchy.

I do like the way that skills are written on the same line as the Stat they apply to — this helps parsing the character sheet a lot.

The World of DayTrippers (p6-7)

Here we learn that the big movers and shakers of the 22nd century are corporate (rather than national/political) and the one thing they have in common is the disruptive technology that allows people to the Nodes. This is an important SF conceit — an extrapolated future based on a single scientific advance. The world is otherwise a blank canvas — there’s a half-page devoted to bullet points of technologies which might be available, but it’s up to you. The best description we get is the overview:

The world of DayTrippers is kinda dull, stupid and ridiculous, punctuated by spectacle, festooned with advertising and dripping with irony. It’s a place of technological progress and rampant global capitalism, complete with continuous media charades and enormous social inequity, somewhere between “2001” and “Idiocracy”.

This is followed by a laundry list of corporations. It doesn’t really matter who or what they are; as we’ve learned (by reading later sections) all that matters is you go on missions in slipships, those ships may be party- or corporate-owned, and the missions have classifications, and the people paying you to travel are mercenary capitalists.

The Introduction (p2-5)

Finally, the fiction which tells you how the world came to be the way it was. It serves its purpose; the most interesting bit is at the end where we read about SlipSpace and the five different kinds of slips (Cartesian, Paraterran, Temporal, Subjective and Compound) which map onto five kinds of Vector Slipping.

Final Remarks

DayTrippers feels weird and goofy, and not at all serious, and I’m not sure why that is — maybe it’s the New Wave SF surrealist sensibilities or the apparently disposable mission-based approach. Once I’m over that I can see a lot of depth and potential to be both superficial and lighthearted, or serious and deep. It could be a comedic franchised exploration company, contracting out to corporate clients a la Ghostbusters or InSpectres. It could be a serious, military SF style game if you replace the corporations with a military chain of command; it could take a conspiratorial tone if certain Nodes were classified or forbidden. I could see a mission focused game, or a sandbox where the PCs hire themselves to the highest bidder. I could see a game where the downtime drama scenes become as important as the missions.

By limiting the kinds of nodes you can tune the conceptual boundaries to make a game that’s only about alternate Earths, or space travel, or time travel, etc. And by tuning the power levels of the characters you could expand the scope further — I might fancy playing a superhero game like Planetary or Zenith (Phase III), sending supers to fictional universes using a fiction suit, or the Omnihedron’s alternate earths via. an Einstein-Rosen bridge. You can probably tell this is right up my street.

I can’t say what the system will be like yet, but it deserves a fair shout; the scale of results, the use of d6, the attrition of resources and the yes/and/no/but approach all sound like a really nice balance of “narrative” and “trad” — but then that’s exactly how we’ve played for years. But if you really don’t fancy it there are conversion rules for d20, PbtA and percentile.

So in summary: this is a smart and interesting game with an intriguing system and a very strong, yet adaptable premise. It’s not too long, and it’s good value for money.