Monday, 26 April 2010

Game Design as Common Law

Most readers of this blog, as citizens of England and Wales, the US, Australia and so forth, will be at least somewhat familiar with the common law - that is, law created by judges rather than by statute. (Though it's my experience that most lay people in England are astonished to learn that the great majority of the principles of English law were not produced by parliament but by courts. Maybe in the US, where cases like Roe v. Wade are so much in the public eye, people are more familiar with the way the system works.) The common law is based on a very simple concept - that judges hear cases, apply precedent and their common sense, and come up with a decision. If there is no precedent, their decision itself becomes the precedent for future cases. Bob's your uncle. It's much more complicated than this (don't let's get started on Lord Denning), but that's the basic mechanism.

I sometimes wonder how a game's rules would look if they were created in this way. Ideally, a common law system has more than one judge, so you would need to have a number of different groups involved (or, more practically, perhaps one large group with a rotating DM). You would start off with an empty page, blank except for the word "rules" written at the top. This would be the blank slate on which the "common game rues" would be set down. Everything that came afterwards would arise through quasi-judicial process.

Here's how it might work. An important aspect of the common law is that it is based on adversarial, rather than investigative, discourse. Two barristers put their case to the judge in an attempt to demonstrate firstly that their arguments are logically sound, and secondly that they follow precedent. In our common law game design system, the adversarial aspect is the realm of the players. The DM is the judge.

First of all, you would probably need a system of character generation. The DM would nominate two players to put forward tentative character generation methods (roll 3d6 for a set of stats, distribute x number of points, etc.), listen carefully to their arguments and any supporting evidence or witnesses/independent experts (the other players), and make a decision. Since there is no precedent on which to base this (it is a case of first impression, to use the technical term) the decision comes down entirely to the discretion of the DM. Character generation proceeds. Some other questions may arise (what benefits accrue to high stats, or penalties to low ones?). These can be dealt with as individual "cases", taking the format described above, or they can be decided by the DM as an aside. (A little like obiter dicta, if that doesn't stretch the analogy too far.) Finally, we have something approaching a set of rules and standards for character generation.

It is important at this stage to point out that these rules and standards will not be coherent or universal. For instance, all of the players may have chosen characters with roles like "warrior" or "magician", but none like a "priest". Therefore, there will as yet be no rules for how to make a "priest". When character generation next takes place (a new campaign, or when a character has to be replaced) a player might express the desire to play a "priest", and so the rules and standards for character generation will have to be expanded; again, two players will argue the ins and outs of this before the DM, demonstrating that their proposals are in line with the precedent set out previously.

Character generation is over and the game proceeds. The PCs come across a chasm. One attempts to jump across. How are we to judge success? A new case has come before the judge. Two players put forth proposals, and the case is decided. It may be that there is already a "jump" skill that has been put forward during the character generation process, or an opinion on the matter may have been expressed but left undecided. These issues will have relevance as precedent, and the DM and players will have to obey the principle of stare decisis in deciding the matter. Their decision will be incorporated into the rules, and will itself form precedent for future cases.

Matters become more interesting from now on. What happens next time a character tries to jump across a chasm? It's in the rules, so the case is simple. What if he's trying to jump onto a moving object? The same rules may apply, but it may also be argued that since circumstances are sufficiently different, this new instance constitutes a case of first impression and a different rule must be created. Or, the decision in the initial case in which the rules on the "jump" skill were decided may contain, in the obiter, opinions on how all "skill" usages are to be ruled upon, and this may have an influence.

Yes I do have too much time on my hands; your point being?

Saturday, 24 April 2010

There are all kinds of sources for our knowledge, but none has authority.

One of the things I like about traditional RPGs, and older editions of D&D in particular, is that they have what David Brooks calls "epistemological modesty". That is, the designers seem to have understood the futility, indeed the foolhardiness, of attempting to come up with a coherent and robust system from the outset that will work for all players; their philosophy rather seems to have been to provide a starting point, a toolbox, with which DMs and players can make what they will, and which have almost been conceived with the expectation of evolution and change. The lack of cogency in these games, and the very necessity of house ruling them, is seen as a flaw by some, but it's all a matter of perspective; I suspect Karl Popper, William Morris and Michael Oakeshott would all have approved of OD&D's approach.

In fact the history of RPGs could in many ways be seen as a struggle between epistemological modesty and reductionism. On the one hand you have those who believe in decentralisation and freedom of interpretation. On the other are those who think that the complexity inherent in a game played by literally tens of thousands of different discrete groups at any one time could be simplified to the point where a satisfactory unified mechanical structure could be maintained. The latter seems like tilting at windmills to me, but it's been the philosophy of game design since at least the mid-90s.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday (Except on Tuesday and a Week Late): Seas of Blood (XII)

[Totally forgot to do Fighting Fantasy Monday last week. Forgive me, I pray. Anyway, the general wish was to swim into the hole in the stern of the merchantman in question.]

The hole leads into the captain's quarters, where you confront half a dozen Sea Sprites. These anxious little creatures dart nervously from side to side as you enter the vessel, then rush into the far corner of the room where they whisper together in high-pitched squeaks. Finally, one of them swims forward cautiously and says, 'We are magical creatures, O brave adventurer from the world above. If you will help us to recover a treasure, we will speak on your behalf to our cousins, the Wind Sprites, who will surely make your ship the fastest on the seas.' Will you help them (turn to 75) or not (turn to 383)?

I don't want to prejudice this, or anything, but if you don't vote to help them you should be thoroughly ashamed of yourselves.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Looking for Life in the Back of Your Mind

I think it's somewhat interesting that the first two editions of AD&D fairly accurately map to developments in rock music - the height of 1st edition's popularity coincided with the zenith of metal, whereas 2nd edition came into its own just as grunge was taking over the music scene. Whereas people from my friend's older brother's gaming group were all into Iron Maiden and Slayer, if you passed the room where our group played all you were likely to hear were the raw sounds of Mudhoney, Dinosaur Jr., Screaming Trees or Soundgarden. (Never Pearl Jam, though. It was our highly developed and well informed opinion that they were shit.)

I sometimes wonder if that had some sort of influence on "the game" itself. 1st edition AD&D is, as a general rule, a pretty gonzo and simultaneously hard-edged affair, which always seemed to me to reflect "metal" rather well, whereas 2nd edition tends towards a slightly (although only very slightly) more "grungy" introspective and emotive feel. Obviously the comparison is hardly perfect - 2nd edition took a deliberately unironic and heroic view of fantasy, which is pretty much the opposite of the grunge mentality - but I think there's a case to be made that it had a more slightly more reflective and arch approach (although 2nd edition was all about high fantasy, it seemed to have a far less hard-core view of what good and evil represented; just compare 2nd edition Baatezu and Tanar'ri with devils and demons from 1st). And all the grunge bands were much more reflective and arch than their 1980s metal forebears.

Or maybe I'm overthinking it.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Tom Shippey Tells it Like it is

From here:

Q) Why do you think Tolkien has been so popular with readers?

A) He opened up a new imaginative space. He would have said it was an old imaginative space, which had been walled off, that of traditional legend and fairy tale, but I would say that he did something new with it, which was to provide the world of dwarves and trolls and elves and wizards with a map, with a consistent history and geography, which feels as if it is infinitely extendable. That's why there have been so many successors to Tolkien, writing fantasy trilogies or sequences of the same type, maps included.

The other and deeper reason is that he answers questions that have deeply preoccupied ordinary people, but that have not been answered by the official (or self-elected) speakers for our culture — writers, politicians, philosophers. The most obvious one is, Why was the twentieth century so unremittingly evil? The nineteenth century was looking forward to moral progress and freedom from want. Where (in Tolkien's lifetime, and mine) did it all go wrong? I think his images of evil, like the Ringwraiths, are at the same time completely original, highly contemporary, and mythically timeless. What they say is that anyone can turn into a wraith, and you can't be sure when it will start. Nor can you deal with evil just by being a nice guy yourself. It may force itself on you. Tolkien's images of the good are similarly mixed, complicated, and satisfying. His work has great emotional depth.

Q) So why has Tolkien been so unpopular with the critics?

A) They sense a challenge to the dominant literary orthodoxy of the past century, which has been ironic and self-doubting. I see this as a legacy of World War I, the Great War, which destroyed traditional certainties and traditional authorities. Tolkien was himself a combat veteran of that war, and I would regard him as one of the rather large group of "traumatized authors" writing fantasy (Orwell, Golding, Vonnegut, etc.), but his experience made him want to restate traditional images rather than throw them away. In particular he wanted to find a new way to represent heroes and heroism. He knew the old ways very well, and he knew they wouldn't work anymore, but he did not want to abandon the effort. This essentially positive and optimistic view of humanity (and nonhumanity) has been dismissed as shallow and unthinking, but that is a bad mistake. Tolkien knew much more about irony than any of his critics, and about war.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Luck in the Head

I'm a big fan of having a luck stat in RPGs. Perhaps this stems from my childhood love of all things Fighting Fantasy, where your LUCK score was often the difference between life and death as well as a more mundane combat variable. It's also a stat in Cyberpunk 2020, which we always treated as a dump stat until we figured out how much more fun it was to give it in-game import.

Some ways in which I've seen luck used in a game:

  • Determining injuries in scenarios like car crashes, large explosions and collapsing buildings - roll under your luck score or you end up with something Bad happening.
  • Determining miscellania in games where the players are already "established". Is it likely my character has any aspirin lying around in his flat? Roll luck. Does my character have enough loose change to buy a pack of cigarettes? Roll luck. Does my character's servant know how to read and write? Roll luck.
  • Allowing players to get out of a bad scenario if they make a successful luck score, with the caveat that if they fail things will get worse. Your character falls off a horse - you can roll luck to see if you avoid a broken leg, but if you fail you get a broken neck. (Or you can just take the broken leg and not gamble.)

I like all of these, because they do away with having the GM have to adjudicate in many situations. They also inject randomness into the game, which is always more fun.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Why People Game

At yesterday's Call of Cthulu game we had a new player, and what's more a complete newcomer to gaming, in the form of the fiance of one of the other members of the group. It's always nice to see how somebody reacts when they encounter something you really like for the first time, and this was no exception.

Anyway, there was a moment yesterday which I think sums up what's so fun about role playing games. We'd tied up some loose ends from the previous session, and some of us were in search of a doctor - who was going to be the new player's character. The player, who we'll call Helen, was thus thrust into the limelight with her first role playing experience, which went something like this:

DM: It's five o'clock in the morning and you're waken up by the sound of the doorbell. Going to the window you see a huge, red headed man in a trench-coat at the door. There's a car parked outside, and you think you can see three other men inside it. They look the worse for wear and you think one of them may be carrying a shotgun.

Helen: ...

DM: What do you do?

I think this, in a nutshell, is what role playing games are all about and what makes them great. If you could bottle up that feeling - what do you do, and the limits are anything you can imagine - and spread it around, you wouldn't have to worry about the state of the hobby ever again. Unfortunately for some reason the powers that be have become obsessed with aping computer games, the exact opposite of what they should be doing.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Fighting Fantasy Monday (Except on Friday): Seas of Blood (XI)

[There was some discussion about regaining STAMINA. In Seas of Blood this can only be done by resting - 1 day per point of STAMINA. Seems extortionate to me, but I took the liberty of resting for 3 days to get us back to 10 STAMINA.]

Eastern Rim won by a slim margin.

You sail onwards, passing the bleak red dunes of the Eastern Rim's Sea of Fire - so named because of the intense colouring of the infertile earth. Roll three dice. If the result is less than your CREW STRENGTH, add 5 days to your LOG. If the result is equal to or greater than your CREW STRENGTH, add 6 days to your LOG. One evening, with the sun setting over the sea to the west, you notice a phosphorescent wreck in the water to the side of the Banshee. Heaving to, you drop anchor and dive overboard for a closer look. You see a merchant vessel, lying in shallow water, with two large holes smashed in its hull - one in the stern and the other in the bow. Which will you swim into, the hole in the stern (turn to 44) or the bow (turn to 33)?

Log: 25 Days
Gold: 183
Slaves: 3
Crew Strength: 15
Stamina: 10 (out of 19)

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Can you spell 'spell'?

Being away from writing blog entries has had the corollary that I haven't done much blog reading recently, either. Apologies to everyone for not commenting on anything ever (as if I commented much anyway) and not updating my blog roll.

Apparently I also missed some sort of big internet OSR controversy of some kind. It's times like this that I really am glad the whole OSR thing has kind of left me behind.

Anyway, some forge spells:

P-cht-then's Ghostly Vigour (Level 4)
Range: Touch
Duration: 10 minutes/level
Effect: Temporary non-corporeality

This spell allows the target to take on a ghostly, noncorporeal form, allowing him to pass through walls and ceilings, levitate upwards and downwards, and see invisible. However, while in this form he cannot affect anything in the physical world; this includes the wearing or carrying of any clothes or items. He can be seen as a vague, translucent representation of his physical self, but he cannot be heard or communicate beyond gesture. While affected by the Ghostly Vigor he can be hit and wounded only by magical or silver weapons, or by undead beings.

Lucid Discovery (Level 1)
Range: Self
Duration: Instantaneous/6 hours
Effect: The caster discovers something while sleeping

This spell must be cast just before the caster goes to sleep. While dreaming, he can discover one of three things: 1) The qualities of a magical item in his possession; 2) The abilities of a known magical creature within 10 miles; 3) The location of a named person within 50 miles.

Moon Silencer (Level 3)
Range: 60'
Duration: 1 round/level
Effect: Temporarily cures lycanthropy

This spell will only effect a werewolf or other lycanthrope during the night, when the creature is in animal form. For the duration of the spell the creature returns to human form and regains its original alignment, personality, and memories.

Silt Pool (Level 1)
Range: 60'
Duration: 2d6 turns
Effect: Creates a pool of silt to slow and block movement

This spell allows the caster to bring into being an area of thick wet sand, up to 40'x40' in size. Any creature trying to pass through this sand can only move at a quarter of its usual rate and must make a saving throw vs. paralysis each turn or else become completely stuck.

Washan's Secret Kiss (Level 2)
Range: 240'
Duration: 1 day to 1 month
Effect: Causes the target to fall in love with the caster

This spell can only be cast when the target is sleeping. If he is a light sleeper, he may feel a light kiss on his cheek and remember it as a dream, but in fact it is the spell taking its effect; when he wakes, he will be profoundly in love with the caster. The spell will only take effect if the target has already met the caster; however, it is not necessary for the target to be in the caster's line of sight - only his location must be known.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Clash of the Tweedledums

We went 3D crazy over the Easter Weekend and saw two (count 'em!) films at the cinema - the execrable Clash of the Titans (which incidentally proves that even high-budget "good looking" films can be hilariously bad) and the slightly less execrable but still not very good Alice in Wonderland. Why on earth either flick got made is entirely beyond me - without the Harryhausen monsters the original Clash was paper-thin, and the idea that you can improve on Alice in Wonderland by "reimagining" it seems like a prime exercise in tilting at windmills if ever there was one. But that's by the by; I liked two aspects of the films if taken as an unholy duo of sorts:

1. The Gods Are People Too

The core concept of Clash of the Titans - war between men and the Gods - is an interesting one, no matter how poorly conceived and executed in the film itself. The idea that mortals can defy, challenge, and even kill the Gods is an idea that was present in early D&D but has since seemed to fall by the wayside, and more's the pity; if I have one criticism of Planescape as a setting it's the idea that "the powers" will always remain beyond the capacity of the PCs to defeat. (This is incidentally another reason why BECMI is great, and why Planescape would probably work even better with that system than with 2nd edition AD&D.) Having a goal to aim for is part of what adventuring is all about, and what greater goal is there than to cast down the very powers that rule the universe?

(Critical as I am of the Dragonlance line, it must be said that the second trilogy, (the one where the titles all end in "...of the Twins") had quite a compelling theme at its core, what with Raistlin trying to cast down the Gods and become one himself. Pity about the writing.)

A long while ago I wrote the following, which seems germaine:

One of my favourite D&D tropes is the idea that if an individual being gains a group of worshipers, it can attain divinity. This makes religion a very chaotic, ad hoc, and above all tangible thing; unlike in the monotheistic religions of our world where Gods stand aloof, D&D powers' fate is inextricably bound up in the fortunes and vagaries of their followers. It also means the interplay between believer and deity is balanced, with neither having the ultimate power; okay, so High Blierophlat the God of Death can squish any follower he so chooses, but if he does that too often he'll eventually find his disciples running off to some more amiable deity like Jethro the Gardener. Unless of course he's willing to offer some serious compensating benefits.

This approach allows for a much more localised, cultish and fertile religious climate, something akin to how I imagine a trawl through pagan Europe would have been: each group of villages has its own local deity, each cave its shrine to the mountain spirit, each river its sprite, and each boulder its guardian - the major difference being that in a D&D world, those things are real, which is infinitely better. The local village deity really will provide summer rains - if the populace are willing to sacrifice a first born. The mountain spirit will kill travellers with an avalanche unless he is properly placated. The river sprite needs just a few more believers before she can attain demi-goddess hood. The boulder is really a galeb duhr who has had divinity thrust upon him by unwanted worship; all he wishes is that his devoted disciples would just leave him be.

2. Things Don't Have to Make Sense

One of the things (probably the biggest thing) that I disliked about Burton's image of Wonderland was that he seemed to be trying too hard to make Carroll's world have a comprehensible form and function - with a past, a future, a political background and an emotional reality at least vaguely like our own. The Mad Hatter is not the brainless cipher he appears in the book, but an emotionally scarred victim of war; the Queen of Hearts is not the image of passion and blind selfish impulse that she is in the novel, but a scheming dictator aiming for global domination (again with added emotional depth: "It is better to be feared than loved"); the Caterpillar is not a capricious know-it-all but a helpful oracle. Unlike the novels, where there are no rules or logic to either the behaviour of the characters nor the physical world itself, the film has a much more conventional worldview. This is to its detriment - indeed it's what I think M. John Harrison railing at when he talked about "tam[ing], colonis[ing] and putting your cultural mark" on a fantastical setting. (He was wrong about this when it came to Tolkien - whose world was meant to be tamed and colonised by the author himself - but spot on when it comes to Carroll.)

It can be tempting to get worked up over details when you're creating a campaign setting - the need for things to make sense and fit together in a logical and "realistic" way can take over, especially if you're of a certain frame of mind. (Not all DMs worry about things like that, but I think it's fair to say a large portion do.) In fact there's surely nothing wrong with going the whole fantastical hog and letting the imagination and the subconscious run riot, if the players are willing to buy-in; who cares about realistic politics, economics and race relations if you can eat a cake which makes you 100 feet tall and walk through a mirror?

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Toying with things which should be avoided

Idle Lunch Break Activity #137-5(b): Do a search for "dungeons and dragons" on Westlaw, JSTOR and LexisNexis. Find diverting references to D&D in case law in England & Wales and in Scotland, and in academic articles:

We learn from this report also that Gormley and Wilkes, at the urging of Wilkes, became obsessed with playing a game called “Dungeons and Dragons.” Involved in this is a great deal of fantasy role playing. So it was evident to Dr. Spragg that Gormley and Wilkes had been toying with things which they should have avoided. (From (1992) 13 Cr. App. R. (S.) 689, a Court of Appeal case in which the length of a sentence for armed robbery with a crossbow was appealed.)

"The solicitor for the appellant informed me that, her parents having separated, the appellant had an unsettled background with attendance at residential schools. She was normally employed in catering. On a trip to visit her mother in Edinburgh she had got married and had later given up work to look after her husband's disturbed son. She and her husband had separated about one year ago, and the appellant had been unable to find work since.

"The appellant had bought the drugs the weekend previous to 19th November 1990 and had supplied to friends during games of Dungeons and Dragons. She had made a full admission to the police and had named her supplier. Her supply was not commercial. She sold to pay for her own drug habit. Her accommodation was not lavish. She was very concerned and worried about the offence..." (From Alison Elizabeth Wood or Gibson Appellant against Her Majesty's Advocate Respondent, 1992 S.C.C.R. 855, at the Scottish High Court of Justiciary.)

Never fear, we're not all armed robbers and drug dealers though. We also use our maths PhDs to figure out whether or not a dice could be made with an odd number of sides. From "Dungeons, Dragons and Dice", an article in The Mathematical Gazette by K. Robin Mclean (at of all places the University of Liverpool):

Certainly there are solids with an odd number of faces. We could cut off one vertex from a cube to get a solid with seven faces, but it would not be suitable for an unbiassed die because its faces would not be alike.

Drat you, laws of geometry. I won't ruin the article for you by giving away the ending. I'll give you a clue: it involves Euler's formula for convex polyhedra. Yeah, you knew that already.

Finally, we also write poetry. From the National Council of English Teacher's English Journal, an extract from a US high-schooler's poem entitled "Dungeons and Dragons (to Brion)":

Lost in the world of is,
You wandered in the realms of might have been.
On your white horse you fought dragons,
Lurking in paper dungeons, with your paper

It goes on like that in requiem-like fashion, though I half suspect it's an obituary for a character rather than a real life person. Kind of sweet though.