Thursday, 25 April 2013

Encumberance and Game Coherence

Nothing says “RPG Dinosaur” like an equipment list.

Back in the old old days, itemised equipment lists were the norm, and were a working component of the game: a component that a lot of us could comfortably ignore, but in many ways given equal priority to levels, hit points and saving throws.

In our modern era of hippy games, there are no equipment lists. Games like Don’t Rest Your Head and Hollowpoint don’t even require equipment per se. DRYH‘s talents are entirely contained within the dice system–it doesn’t matter which power, all that matters is scale. Hollowpoint’s gadgets are a kind of one-use trait–so if it’s not really possible to separate a character from their equipment because it’s a trait, is it really equipment?

In the two decades in between, we have a whole load of games where equipment was sort of implied and sort of not. We didn’t bother tracking how heavy something was, or itemising the contents of a pack. Equipment was relegated to a little box at the very bottom of page two of your character sheet (you know, the page no-one reads).

That’s interesting. A whole part of the game system was deprioritised, despite having a defined game effect. As with most things it started with Vampire, where there was a little space on the sheet for weapons, and nothing else.

When I ran LotFP there was a clash of these two cultures. Some my players didn’t look at the second half of their character sheet; they’d all assumed they had a basic level of equipment (or objects to hand) that would allow them to perform whatever action they chose. Case in point:

GM: he’s drowning in the quicksand.

Player: OK, I’ll throw him a rope.

GM: what rope?

Player: the rope I carry everywhere.

GM: is it on your character sheet? If it isn’t, you don’t have it.

This isn’t the player’s fault. In a modern game, or even a 20 year old game, we’d assume a basic level of fluidity and common sense with carried equipment. But this was an OSR game, and I was being a bit of a prick about it.

In a hippy game the discussion might be:

GM: he’s drowning in the quicksand.

Player: I need to get him out!

GM: what’s your plan?

Player: well, I have my pack with me–it’s got all sorts of stuff in it. Maybe a rope or something.

GM: roll COOL. If you get a success you have the rope and you can help him. Otherwise, find another way.

The hippy game sidesteps this whole issue with a trait-based resource management mechanism. In doing so it also sidesteps the issue of game world economies, but in many cases that doesn’t matter if what you can do is wholly encompassed in your dice pool (or whatever).

Equipment still matters in games like D&D with long times between levels, as it’s the only mechanism the GM has outside x.p. to reward the players or give them an advantage.

Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe

What is kit, and what is just a trait by another name? Kit is anything that forms a transferrable bonus (e.g. someone borrows your armour) or anything that’s essential for the use of a skill (e.g. a lockpick). It’s only worth differentiating as “kit” if you intend to separate it from the original owner.

Games without transferrable/deniable kit can wrap “kit” up with non-transferrable character traits; equipment function is secondary to character ability. It’s a very “story” or “mythic” approach. Everway is an example: in the example fight between Fireson and a couple of ghouls, it’s noted that Fireson is armed with a sword, but it’s nothing more than one nebulous advantage in the fight–the main factors are the Fire and Earth scores of each side and the draw of the Fortune Deck.

It raises the question of whether or not your players actually like mucking around with equipment lists. For the Everway player the weapons, tools and armour of a given character are motifs that project their image into the game, just like habits and speech. D&D however will appeal to players who like to organise/optimise their own resources, accepting penalties if they fail to do so.

Currency

But seriously, who wants to keep track of gold pieces, much less dollars? That’s the problem with games like Vampire: Resources or Wealth is a dotted trait, but the stuff that matters–swords, guns and armour, things with in-game effects–are measured in dollars. Of course you can always apply some kind of conversion but even so, a PC with no dots of Wealth will chose to go naked as long as they can scrape together enough pennies for bullets.

All of this links back to the Currency of the game, and I’m talking GNS Currency with a capital C. If equipment provides an advantage it should be measured on the same scale as all the other traits, or otherwise not measured at all.

If you don’t bother to measure it, then the GM simply decides to allow equipment for all, or prohibit it for all. That’s desirable for several reasons–say your game is in a totalitarian state where firearms are just not allowed, then posession of a prohibited weapon becomes a plot point. Or say you want to up the threat level of that state, so you arm everyone equally. In each case having a weapon stops being the thing that differentiates PCs from NPCs, forcing the group to focus on what does make them different.

Otherwise if you’re going to make players “pay” for equipment, there are a few ways you can achieve this:

1. Set Menu (dietary restrictions apply)

There is no choice. You assume that a flautist has a flute, a mechanic has a monkey wrench and a thief has a mask and a bag with SWAG written on it. Spell foci in Runequest work like this–if you can cast the spell, you’re assumed to have a focus. If they player has the skill, they’ve already paid for the kit.

If you play this way then you remove a lot of the negotiation around “can I have XXX”. However just because you remove the negotiation it doesn’t mean you remove the equipment as a tangiable object, i.e. something that can be taken away. The decision to deprioritise equipment (as in Everway) is a separate choice.

2. All-you-can-eat Buffet

Players sign up to a particular “package” where they can pick out as much stuff as they want up to a certain level of functionality. In Vampire, for example, you could make equipment availability dependent on a certain threshold–wealth, status or rank.

Conspiracy X uses a point-buy approach for resources. In a lot of ways it’s not much different from assuming kit based on skill set, although it’s a shared resource.

Since players will often use the best available equipment–it doesn’t matter how many guns there are in the armoury, they want the big one–there’s no need to break things down into dollars here, either. A point system equates to a certain level of performance in-game and has the same Currency as other performance indicators (skills and whatnot).

3. A la Carte

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p>Players can buy anything they can afford, as long as it’s available to buy (D&D model). This puts the responsibility on the players to plan everything they would need in advance. While that’s unfashionably old-school, it is part of the game that some people like–kit is another PC resource and a factor in winning or losing.

It may seem that this is the most complex approach, but it can absolve the GM of a lot of responsibility. There’s no tiresome negotiation on whether the BFG2000 comes with the Illuminati Orbital Mind Control Laser Package. It’s their money, let them spend it how they want.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Blindfold

When I was in my twenties I sailed close to becoming a Christian. Some evangelists in the area had set up a new church and were trawling for new young members in the strangest of places–in the middle of the street, on the bus, even coming up to me in a record shop. And for some unknown reason I actually went along to one of the meetings.

It was everything you would expect, wrapped up in a twentysomething-friendly package: dogma masquerading as open discussion, more and more extreme views aired in the open as my contact went deeper. Trouble is, at that time I didn’t have the confidence to say “I just don’t believe in god” although nowadays I’d waste no time in telling them I didn’t believe in their god.

Now I am a strong believer in humans, including their behaviours and motives. My realisation of this, and that I just didn’t want anything to do with Christianity anymore came when a friend explained the evangelist behaviour quite neatly:

Christian evangelists see all non-believers as wearing blindfolds and wondering around aimlessly near a cliff edge. They will do anything in their power to get that person to take off the blindfold and see what complete danger they are in.

Of course there may be other more tangiable, less morally pure motives for such people–but the statement above doesn’t condemn them any more than their misattribution of the blindfold to those they’re trying to convert.

Ever since I’ve reacted badly to any kind of evangelist. Evangelism of entertainment is mostly of no consequence, but it has the same negative behaviour. It usually boils down to:

You should do/try/play/listen to XXX

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p>This is distinct from “I like XXX because”, which is just a statement of opinion. It intrudes further into the realm of knowing the wants and thoughts of the person being addressed; it imagines a peak communication that isn’t there, which is very risky for the relationship. It’s not the same as a recommendation, which is a risky action but defensible with “well, too bad you didn’t like it, here’s something else instead”.

Proselytism and evangelism riddle RPG theory. Mostly it’s tainted by the usual name calling, meaning that it’s difficult to spot (long words are a give-away). It’s almost all to do with redefining terms to suit an argument. What is meant by Rules. What is meant by Advice. What is meant by Metagame.

The best way to deal with this kind of thing (should you choose to engage it at all) is to use dictionary definitions, which are anathema to the argument. Anything less (e.g. a long discourse on the context of those terms) will probably lead to more confusion, not less, and give more opportunity for out-of-context or bad faith analysis.

Even then, by participating with this discussion you’re trying to get them to take the blindfold off. Given most of the participants will have strong opinions, you can imagine how successful that will be.

The best thing to do is follow William Burroughs’ admonitions:

For god’s sake, keep your eyes open. Notice what’s going on around you.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Fiat Breaks Down

Daniel Dover wrote a long essay on what a decent RPG provides that can be boiled down to:

  • Clear and consistent premise, with traits and mechanics that do what they say they’re going to do
  • Optionally, provides inspiration to the player and GM
  • Optionally, provides interesting gameplay due to the in-game choices offered to the players

I enjoy reading and writing about RPG theory, even the controversial stuff, because I think (hope) it will improve the way I write and run games.

About 5 years ago there was a war. Like a lot of wars, it mattered to a small number of people and was ignored by the rest of us. I for one was completely oblivious.

I am referring to the Forge “Brain Damage” controversy and the resulting backlash. Threads of the argument and the ripples it caused can be found if you look hard enough–for example, two threads with Burning Wheel author Luke Crane from 2007 on theRPGsite, and a Theory From The Closet Interview with Edwards. Read (and listen) if you feel it’s worth your time.

Everything that marks the Forge/theRPGsite divide comes down to one idea: that it is possible to make a roleplaying game objectively better. Rightly or wrongly this was interpreted as the way you’re playing is wrong, we know how to play better than you.

I don’t believe the Forge-ites meant that. In fact in Edwards’ interview he criticises what he perceives as “monstrous head games” the Vampire GMs would play on their players to keep the group together, turning their game into a weird cult of personality1. If anything he’s anti-elitism, pro-openness. But by then the “story gamers” had painted themselves into a corner. They couldn’t engage with their critics because it only made things worse, and they weren’t going to concede they were wrong (and why should they?).

If we learn anything from that episode, it’s that reasonable people will tolerate a lot of diversity, but they won’t stand for evangelism.

The question is, is it possible to make a game objectively better? Yes, as long as you can measure and agree on better. I can’t write any game that will guarantee a better user experience. And if a designer responded to my criticism with “well, you’re just playing it wrong, it is objectively better” I’d laugh at them. What I can do is take a real-world skill I know something about, compare how different game systems model it, and declare which is the better model.

Even then, just because I say it’s a better model is no guarantee that someone will like it better. Also, I might be wrong.2

Customer Satisfaction and GM Personality

The primary motivator for playing a roleplaying game must be to play a role. To claim otherwise and maintain your game is a RPG is doublethink.

This is why the first of Dover’s bullet points is crucial–the game system must be able to translate the subjective view the individual player has of her PC to the objective (well, shared) world the group play in. Not only does the character need to be defined in whatever outline the system provides, the player then has to be able to test the limits of their PC against the world.

This is why designing games is not easy, because there’s more than one way to screw this up. For one, where there’s ambiguity in the system (a disconnect between players on what represents power) then someone can end up disappointed and not having fun. That’s compounded when the game gives poor guidance to GMs on how to challenge the PCs just enough to make it exciting and let them make transparent tactical decisions.

The Shortfall

When mechanics and written advice fall short, we have responses to correct the game and make it fun.

Vincent Baker’s approach is to make the rules follow the way we play as closely as possible, or “elimination of shortfall = fun”. It’s a laudible goal to make the system say what you mean and mean what you say, and it’s evidenced in games like Apocalypse World where character actions are system, i.e. there is no interpretive step to go through. The problem with that is the player has to go through an interpretive step to make their vision of their PC fit the playbook. Granted with the quality job Vincent has done on the playbooks actually making that transition isn’t hard, but its more of a constraining action; I may see my Brainer as a Tetsuo Shima-type character, but the playbook will not allow me to behave exactly as Tetsuo does.

D&D’s approach is to remove ambiguity in the system; yes, the game fails to simulate on many levels, and just doesn’t make sense, but everyone agrees what we mean by Armour Class. For the activities D&D is supposed to simulate–fighting, mainly–it has a common language of levels and to-hit numbers and saving throws; the player should be under no doubt what they can do under the scope of the system. In this case the system constrains identity rather than action (i.e. you are a 5th level thief), and identity constraint works only when the context of play is also constrained (i.e. we’re in a dungeon, check for traps).

Vampire‘s approach is to allow the utmost creative freedom (well, within reason) for a new PC, helping them to define what they see as the PC’s strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately it fails badly at translating that to the game world where those strengths and weaknesses can be tested with a predictable outcome–at least, not unless the character is min/maxed horribly. And woe betide a player who expects their sharp shooter to be using Dex+Firearms as their dice pool, when the ST rules that Perception is the operative stat.

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p>For both D&D and Vampire the rules shortfall is covered by Rule Zero. While Crane, Edwards, Baker et. al. are quite right to say “if the system is so broken that it needs GM Fiat to enable play, better to design good rules that don’t need GM Fiat” it’s disingenuous to suggest that will fix certain problems without causing others.

Most of us overcome the rules shortfall and apply Rule Zero by force of personality and through knowing our players and being identified as the GM; we can manage any player expectations by picking up on social cues and adapting play to make it more or less challenging. We can even overcome initial objections to play by eclipsing the system to be used with the GM’s personality (“well, D&D isn’t really my thing, but since it’s you…”). Of course it’s much more likely the GM will pick a game she knows will appeal and sell it to players. But they are still selling not just the game but themselves as GM, and using this as a promise that they will make up the shortfall between the system’s shortcomings and the player’s expectation.

Ironically, just as Rule Zero is intrinsically linked to GM personality, the adoption of indie systems that eschew Rule Zero have also been in part due to force of personality. Both Baker and Crane have forums for their games where they imprint their personality, and I don’t think either game would be popular if they weren’t identifiable designers with a fanbase. That’s a good lesson in customer management.

I was going to talk about how Everway can achieve player expectation, but I got sidetracked. Everway is possibly the ultimate game for GM Fiat, with it’s Karma/Drama/Fortune giving the GM plenty of scope to give the PCs what they want. In fact so much scope that it might be difficult to challenge them.

TTFN


1. I don’t know how Vampire was played in California back then, but he’s describing insecurity an order of magnitude greater than anything we felt here.

  1. In Luke Crane’s interview his scripted combat is discussed; he drops Jake Norwood’s name. Mr Norwood is a medieval martial artist with years of experience, and his own RPG The Riddle of Steel has an endorsement from John Clements (who is to The ARMA what Ron Edwards is to The Forge). With years of WMA experience myself I respectfully disagree with The ARMA’s approach to WMA and Norwood’s model. But also I just don’t like Crane’s scripted combat.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Season’s Greetings

From Coil’s Moon’s Milk in Four Phases:

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p>Faithless or faithful, have a splendid holiday.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

RPG Spotlight: Lamentations of the Flame Princess

LotFPWFRPGE

It’s nearly 20 years since I bought a roleplaying game that actually came in a box. (I think it was an on-sale copy of Cyborg Commando, which remained unplayed until I gave it away. As the link says, it’s even worse than it sounds.)

The complete title is Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role Playing (Grindhouse Edition). Since LotFP:WFRP(GE)1 is a bit unwieldy I’ll stick with LotFP. The differences between the “Grindhouse Edition” and the first “Deluxe Edition” (jumped the gun a bit there) are superficial, anyway.

I looked at the free download a while back, and I was really impressed. Excited. Stoked. You see, I’ve never gelled with D&D. It was the first fantasy RPG I owned, but it just seemed peculiar: a flavourless pulp where the streets were littered with magic items, religion was bland and homogenous, monsters cartoonish and illogical. But mostly I didn’t like how everything was so obvious, so commonplace. I started to dislike White Wolf games for the same reason, as the cynical marketing engine exposed more and more metaplot.

LotFP has no setting. It has tone, it has flavour, it has recommended reading, and it has method. All of these speak to me more clearly than a setting ever could. I don’t care for other people’s settings, but a clarity of purpose I like. I respect. And LotFP delivers.

A recap of what I really like about Rules and Magic:

  • a streamlined BECMI style D&D, with great tweaks for e.g. encumbrance, skills and AC
  • a really nice character sheet
  • weird spell lists
  • focused classes
  • a very lean approach to a dungeoneering game

OK. What does the box give you that you don’t get for free?

  1. A box, stupid.
  2. Some nice A5 double sided character sheets.
  3. Some teeny tiny precious little dice.
  4. A Tutorial book.
  5. A Referee book.
  6. That art.

Tutorial Book

Who is the Tutorial book for? Mature players don’t need another diatribe on how to play. OSR grognards don’t need to be sold on playing a D&D clone. New players will probably benefit, but LotFP is a niche product and (fairly) expensive2 at that – aimed at people with disposable income who played the red box D&D set when it was new.

Look closer. Look at the introductory solo adventure, the one where you’re slowly introduced to your stats and you have to save vs poison and you meet a cleric on the trail of an evil magic user who kills her and charms you and…

It sounds familiar, because it’s exactly the same adventure from the red box. But it’s horribly distorted. It’s like coming back to the beach you played at as a child and finding it littered with broken glass and human body parts. The poor cleric in the red box gets shot with a glowing magic missile and collapses with a gentle sigh. In this book she gets incinerated by green and orange fire and the last you hear from her is her eyeballs popping.

So the Tutorial is really a knowing wink to the old-timers, even as it’s a pretty good tutorial for the post-White Wolf and WoW generation. And all the while reinforcing Raggi’s personal agenda on back-to-basics dungeon crawling. Very slick.

There’s the obligatory description of play, and finally a nice section on recommended reading at the back which includes Barker, Lovecraft, Poe and Vance among others–each author is treated to a heartfelt essay on what they represent and what they can bring to the game.

Referee Book

The Ref’s book is short and contains what Jim Raggi thinks makes for Weird, what makes for Adventure, and how to write a game his way. Jolly good. For the beginner it’s all solid advice, and for the experienced GM it’s a nice set of footnotes to focus the mind on what matters for this kind of game. The text is long enough, and nicely laid out. The feel of what is being presented is consistent throughout.

Now for the controversy. No monsters, very few magic items. Some people consider this a job half done. My feelings are (i) I totally agree with Raggi that monsters-by-numbers loose all mystery and power and cease to be frightening, and (ii) it’s much more important to me to have two pages on how to build monsters, than twenty on a set of monsters I will never use. I have monsters from other fantasy games I can pinch, and I’d rather think up my own anyway (hence my affection for AFMBE).

The same goes for magic items. These are scarce anyway; I’m not bothered.

Overall the word count is probably substantially less than an equvalent hardback. But I really like three individual books. They’re the right size, the fonts and layout are nice, and the content is split logically between them.

That Art

OK, I called some of the art distasteful in my first look. I want to qualify that a bit. I really like the art as a whole in these books–it’s been chosen very well to set a particular tone, right the way from the b&w woodcut style of Amos Orion Sterns to the full colour art of Cynthia Sheppard and Jason Rainville.

There’s only one really grim picture I have seen (it’s the 12th picture in the Something Awful thread). I think it’s a good picture, with great compositon and bold style, but it’s perhaps not in good taste. There’s plenty of limbs being dissolved by slimes and rapiers through eyes and people being eaten alive by zombies, and I like all of those images. Hmm, maybe like is the wrong word. The art on a whole is uncompromising, and it works. That’s all I’m going to say.

GodThatCrawlsPoster

Overall nothing speaks to me as strongly as the theme of non-sexualised female characters in military period dress. No cleavage, plenty of action, lace and steel. This is what the cover of LotFP promises3, and I am not disappointed.

Cynthia Sheppard’s art (right) is featured on the back of the pull-out map for The God That Crawls. It’s so beautiful I’d buy the hardcopy for that alone, even if I never run the adventure.

I have to ask though, what did you expect to find down the bottom of a well?

The Competition

There’s a fairly good rundown of retro-clones here (although the author mistakenly pegs LotFP as “AD&D-ish”).

Retro-clones (as distinct from the 90s D&D derivatives which may fit Ron Edwards’ definition of Fantasy Heartbreakers) are like Linux. At the core they’re the same but the tweaks, bloat, and general tone make for a different experience with varying levels of effort and results.

Two other retro-clones caught my attention. Firstly the monstrous Dungeon Crawl Classics, which I handled while I was buying LotFP. The book is somewhere between digest and full sized, and very thick; something like 500 pages. It claims to be a cross between 3e D&D and Appendix N (I had to look that up). The tone of DCC is non-heroic, and the cover art is gorgeous. But I’m drawn to LotFP for less choice, not more. If I wanted to chew on a modern D&D variant I’m just as likely to choose Pathfinder.

The other retro-clone is Adventurer, Conquerer, King System (ACKS). I can’t say I’m keen on the shiny clean art, though the premise is very nice. The game supposedly focuses on the territory aquisition cycle of PCs going from simple adventurers to landowners and monarchs, which is a neat focus on a different aspect of Basic D&D.

DCC is the Red Hat Linux of the retro-clones, providing feature after feature; LotFP is more like a Debian that’s been stripped down to do one task and one only. Both are very respectable products and will suit different people. It’s great that we have the choice.

What makes a retro-clone not a fantasy heartbreaker? Well, mostly the latter will add layers to D&D to emulate/enable a different kind of play to the one that D&D offers. Retro-clones on the other hand embrace the system and tune it to specific activity with an associated reward mechanism, i.e. dungeon-delving for treasure.

Last Words

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p>It should be clear that I like this game a lot. Enough that I’m inclined to run D&D again, which I never thought I would say. Would I run any other retro-clone or D&D derivative? Not on your life. LotFP meets my goals in a way that my red box D&D (or any other modern variants) don’t.

This is a game that doesn’t feel like D&D at all. Know what it feels like? Alexander Scott’s Maelstrom. I can’t precisely say why; maybe it’s the buff coats, or the personal presentation, or the bare-bones approach. Maybe it’s just the way the books sit in my hand. LotFP doesn’t ask you to buy into the retro-clone movement, or to be a nostalgic AD&D grognard, it just presents a vision and the tools to achieve that. No more and no less.


1. I’d like to think the WFRP acronym is not just a coincidence but a respectful nod, given the historical anachronism of the art, and the general “grim and perilous” tone.

  1. It’s not expensive compared to its peers. But it’s a teeny tiny box that looks a bit lost between the similarly priced glossy hardbacks.

  2. OK, there are naked lamia breasts. But a flame red haired woman with a rapier in a buff coat… how cool is that?