Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Some Recommendations

I don't generally do reviews (mainly because nobody sends me game to review...), but I have two games to recommend:

First, I've been reading me some Microscope the last few days. It's one of very few gaming purchases I've made in recent years, and well worth it - I wouldn't call it an RPG, by any means, more a "cooperative creative endeavour", or something, but it's undoubtedly one of the most interesting games I've laid my hands on. Go buy it. It's cheap. And if you need a further recommendation, the creator was a guy who wrote something you have probably heard of.

Second, I've also been reading me some Adventurer Conqueror King the last few days too. As a genuine attempt to expand OD&D's "end game" into something interesting in its own right, I think it would be hard to better; and furthermore, as an application of real-world economics, history and sociology in playable form I think it's beyond reproach. I'm not a huge fan of some of the modernising elements when it comes to character creation and game mechanics, but that's a matter of taste. It's certainly the best thing since Birthright at answering the question: "What do I do with all these gold pieces now?"

Try them. You might like them.


  1. Can you explain enough about Microscope to make me want to buy it?

    Basically: if it's gamey and is directed and works mostly like I game I might want to check it out, if it's more toward the "hey do what you do when you're DMing or in a story-pitch meeting, only with other people" then I'll probably give it a pass.

  2. Ben Robbins is also noteworthy as a graduate of Shippensburg Adventure Camp; it's interesting to think about how many more designers of his caliber we might have if TSR's Education Department had been properly supported.

  3. "as an application of real-world economics, history and sociology in playable form I think [ACKS is] beyond reproach"

    ACKS is a beautifully consistent system, but its pretensions of economic, historical, and sociological accuracy are just that, and dangerous ones, too. ACKS works great as a game because the neoclassical economics it's based on is a fantasy model that has very almost no connection to reality (either past or present). For all the statistics they point to to justify their design, ACKS is perniciously blind in some areas, most notably in that, following from neoclassical economics, it assumes 1. that there's an infinite supply of an exchange commodity that everyone agrees on the value of (actual multiple commodities in ACKS--gold, silver, copper, etc.) and 2. as a result of that, there's no need for a debt/credit system. It of course also assumes that supply and demand work, that the market is stable, prices are accurate, etc., all the standard fallacies of economics that actual sociologists, historians, and anthropologists have proved false a thousand times over. It's even more historically absurd because the medieval milieu it pretends to emulate didn't have the strong central state necessary to maintain a currency (accounts were recorded in Roman currency, but they were debt/credit records not actually paid in currency, since for the most part it didn't exist). And of course it's off-hand treatment of slavery, racism, colonialism, imperialism, etc. doesn't exactly speak to sociological accuracy.

    I love ACKS as a game, but it's dangerously disingenuous to suggest it is in any way more "realistic" than other retro-clones. It's a clean and consistent systemization of the classic OD&D experience, nothing more.

  4. ... a concise critique of the anachronistic and ideological assumptions of fantasy economies?

    I love you circadianwolf.

  5. Sometimes lead designer Alex will get into it hardcore with Aldarron about land-use yields or Settembrini about three-crop rotation and I'm like "wow people know a lot of interesting stuff I don't." And sometimes as an undergrad Chip Delany would wax semiotic about how sword & sorcery is at its heart a capitalist fantasy re-enactment of the gold standard's overthrow of the feudal economy and I'd have the same reaction.

    The only thing I know is that an ACKS game tends to produce the kind of scenes we see in history like where Caesar is captured and says "dudes you should ask for a much bigger ransom; I am high level and thus filthy rich" and when his followers do ransom him from the pirates he is like "I wasn't kidding when I said I would crucify you; I am high level and thus have 60 hit points."

  6. Zak S: Well, you don't use dice. But it's definitely a game of world creation with the emphasis on 'game'. You get to force other players to do things, and stop them from getting their way, and it's meant not to be cooperative. I strongly recommend giving it a read at least.

    Circadianwolf: Well, I was careful to say "as an application of real-world economics, history and sociology in playable form". That's not the same as calling it entirely accurate.

    That said, I think saying the historians, sociologists and anthropologists have 'proved' things wrong about economics is to misunderstand what 'proved' means.

  7. Tavis: "And sometimes as an undergrad Chip Delany would wax semiotic about how sword & sorcery is at its heart a capitalist fantasy re-enactment of the gold standard's overthrow of the feudal economy and I'd have the same reaction."

    Yeah, I do really like how ACKS explicitly systemizes the implicit colonialism & rentier capitalism of OD&D. Every D&D-style RPG (taken to hilarious levels in CRPGs like Mass Effect or any MMO) is fundamentally based on unsustainable neoclassical economics. ACKS is at least honest and aware of its sources, and implements the model in a very direct way. I do respect that a lot.

    Noisms: I guess you could say it is an application of real-world models, even if those models are false. But to say that most assumptions & models of mainstream economics can't be "proven" false is, well, false. Economists are very fond of making grandiose proclamations about the origin of money, the history of credit, and how markets behave historically. In almost every case, these claims are not only completely unsupported, but factually contradicted by mountains of evidence and scholarship by actual social scientists. (When Adam Smith did it he could at least say that there wasn't any historical evidence against him, but we know a lot more about history then.)

    If you're interested in the subject, David Graeber's recent book _Debt: The First 5,000 Years_ is a pretty definitive refutation of mainstream economics (though they are plenty of those around these days) as well as a fascinating source of inspiration for alternative economic systems (not to mention it's fantastic and revolutionary on a whole bunch of other subjects).

    (I've been trying to figure out how to design a sandbox RPG that explicitly refutes neoclassical economics & neoliberal colonialism, so this subject has been on my mind a lot.)

  8. Lemme just lay this out:

    Alex Macris is a known libertarian, with all the assumptions about economics that entails.

    If you want to argue with him about that, go ahead, but that's where that stuff may be coming from.

    The game is the game and is either fun or it isn't.

  9. I'm aware about Alex's affiliation, Zak. As I said, I feel like ACKS is pretty open about its sources and methodology, which is great.

    I know your position is that system is, if not irrelevant, at least overrated (and incidentally your post the other day about RPGs as social gathering vs pickup soccer was one of the best things I've read on RPGs in a long while), but I do think that there are certain fundamental assumptions within systems that are meaningful. Also obviously games have meaning outside of fun as cultural rituals that are symbolic of real-world relations, etc.

    But yes, I think the discussion is probably for elsewhere. Mostly I just don't want to see ACKS' claims to things beyond fun and good design go unquestioned.

    I imagine it is a very fun game, based on reading the rulebook, as far as that goes, and I look forward to buying a hard copy when it's released. I'd love to play in a game (even if I'd be too uncomfortable with the ideological background to run one).

  10. Zak: In Microscope you do two things. 1. Make up setting details. 2. Play scenes (i.e. improv; no dice, no DM, no resolution system). There are strict rules for turn-taking and who gets to make things up, but it IS pass-the-stick plus improv.

  11. Circadianwolf: I'm really going to have to quibble with you here. It really is impossible for claims in the social sciences (beyond very simple factual ones) to be proven false, because - to borrow from/bastardise Popper - they're not falsifiable.

    This is especially true of economics, where counter-factuals don't exist, where all variables cannot even be identified, and where political bias is so powerful an influence on how data is interpreted.

    The most you can say is that historal evidence persuades you that the neoclassical account is lacking, not that it has been proven false.

  12. Noisms: Do you think direct historical claims can be proven false? Like, claims about literal events in history.

    Obviously, historicity is problematic, and falsifiability is ultimately always impossible at some level. In general, though, economists are bafflingly audacious in their claims (presumably because the Western policy elite and media treats their proclamations as unquestionable gospel, so they don't have to worry about factchecking), and they're very, very demonstrably off-base. Mainstream economics is a pseudoscience designed to justify rentier capitalist ideology, and most relevantly it doesn't really try to hide it. Any semi-thorough examination of their central texts makes that clear (to the point where take-downs of mainstream economics have become something of a cottage industry since the 2008 collapse--if I were a sociologist or anthropologist I'd probably write a book on it too just for the quick and ironic cash-in). It's like saying that since psychology can be ambiguous we have to give credence to phrenology (and maybe racism is right?).

    If you want more than that, we can agree to disagree, etc. Obviously this is pretty off-topic.

  13. Part of the problem is that economics has both descriptive and prescriptive elements.

    Also, historical arguments about economics are fraught with peril because capitalism is relatively recent, only a few cycles of globalization have been identified, etc, etc. History is not science, it is history.

    So spoke circadianwolf:

    Mainstream economics is a pseudoscience designed to justify rentier capitalist ideology

    And you say economists are bafflingly audacious? What do you mean by mainstream anyways? There are many different mainstreams, just off the top of my head: Joseph Stiglitz, Kenneth Rogoff, Paul Krugman, Alan Greenspan, Daniel Kahneman, Amartya Sen, Martin Wolf. There are the Keynesian-leaning, and the Austrian-leaning. And others.

    I mean come on. Do you know anything about this field that you want to condemn entirely?

    By the way, there are many fascinating books by reputable sociologists about economics and financial markets. I would strongly recommend: An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets by Donald MacKenzie.

    Gillian Tett of the Financial Times was also originally trained as an anthropologist, and brings that training to bear on her analysis of financial markets. You might be interested in her work. She also has a popular book about the financial crisis called Fools Gold.

    Sorry to get off topic. :-)

    Regarding ACKS, isn't their major economic inspiration just that incentives have consequences? I'm still waiting for my PDF (they are having some sort of problem with my order), so I haven't had a chance to read it yet.

    I actually strongly disagree with the ACKS position that every important NPC should have many hit dice and many tens of HP. There was some pretty good discussion about that on this post over at my blog:


  14. Hmmmm.... ACKS doesn't represent my personal views on the world. As Zak said, I'm a libertarian. As a libertarian I oppose political power, and ACKS is all about the accumulation and use of political power. Arguably the reason I *am* libertarian is that I'm all-too-familiar with the lure of power, and therefore assume the worst of my would-be political leaders. But that's my own baggage.

    The economics in ACKS are, I think, a mix of mercantilist (pre-classical) rather than neoclassical. As an example of this, in ACKS a domain ruler who licenses a monopoly on his domain's trade goods increases his wealth with no net loss. Neoclassical economics would argue that the opposite should occur. Likewise, prices are based on a labor theory of value rather than on utility, as neoclassical theory would suggest.

    My personal economic inclinations are Austrian, not neoclassical, but ACKS ignores the entirety of Austrian economics. It features no credit, no business cycle, no capital accumulation, and no division of labor. I can't say that either ACKS or neoclassical economics represents how I think the real world works.

    However, I do think that the economic and political system in ACKS is a *coherent* model given its assumptions, which is more than most other RPGs can claim. I think the coherency lends verisimilitude to the game world, which increases the fun of adventuring and conquering within it.

  15. Well, there isn't too much to add to what Brendan and Alexander said, other than that Alexander summed up what I was trying to say in my OP when he said ACKS was coherent. It's *gameable* while also being *realistic*. That's not to say it's accurate or predictive about real-world economics (which would be impossible anyway).

  16. Brendan, thanks for linking to that discussion. I hadn't seen it.

    I probably ought to reiterate a particular point, which I made in my write-up of the Auran Empire: ACKS assumes that the world is a fairly awful place, where weak kings get toppled, and strong, ruthless men can seize power. In the absence of such circumstances, then it's entirely possible that the realm ruler could be a weak, low-level NPC.

    For example, one could imagine that the best agent in the Secret Service is a high-level Fighter, while President Obama is a 0th level NPC. But that's because in America, Obama isn't likely to have his top Secret Service agent kill him and take his throne, as the Praetorian Guard were wont to do.

    *If* you assume that individuals are capable of becoming "persons of mass destruction" (as all D&D games do), and *if* you assume that the society is one where such individuals have wide latitude to use their powers (as most D&D games do), then it follows that the rulers will be "persons of mass destruction", either on the throne or the power behind it.

    One solution, which I see you gave the nod to in your blog comments, is to tighten up the "power scale" of humans. If the difference is 0th level to 4th level, it becomes much easier to believe that the king might just be 1st level, with socio-political power making up the difference.

    As a final point, if you look back at ancient myth and legend, in the Western tradition, they explicitly make the connection between personal and political power that ACKS does.

    Achilles - king; Arthur - king; Beowulf - king; Perseus - king; Sigurd - prince; Theseus - king; and on and on. In the epics and sagas, the king is always a bad-ass. In Beowulf, the old king is actually himself a retired hero!

    It's the case that just enough kings and conquerors were also, personally, bad asses (Alexander, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Genghis, El Cid) that the myths were believable.

  17. @Zak

    Regarding Microscope. I don't own it yet (it's on my list) but the reason that I am intrigued is that it seems one of the common problems for groups is sharing assumptions about the game world. With Microscope, a group can collaboratively hammer out a setting that everyone will be familiar with and have a hand in creating. Everyone will also have a psychological stake in it. It's not X's world or Y's backstory, it's the property of the group. At least, that's my sense having never read the thing.

    This is perhaps another way that things can be defined through play rather than through infodumps.

  18. Microscope can certainly do that, yes. But it's also fun in its own right (it seems to me; I've not played it yet) as a "let's sit together and see what kind of crazy setting we can make up" tool. It provides a tight, neat system for what is essentially brainstorming, yes, but brainstorming is one of the most interesting, important and enjoyable human creative endeavours. And at the end of all that it provides a mechanism to make all the brainstorming result in something complete and coherent.

  19. Wow, you guys have a degree in brain between you.

  20. Here in NYC, the Bad Wrong Fun group is using Microscope as Brendan suggests, to build the backstory for a Runequest campaign. I find these kinds of portmanteaus fascinating, from breaking out Chainmail to do a D&D mass combat to fond memories of using Virtua Fighter to resolve melee in Necromunda.

  21. Alexander and Brendan: That "persons of mass destruction" argument is an interesting one.

    Personally I think that the existence of magic complicates things a lot. You could have a 0th level NPC being a king, if he happened to have a loyal 20th-level mage by his side. His brother? A svengali/power-behind-the-throne? Uncharismatic and shy?

  22. Noisms, I believe that's a possibility explicitly covered in their argument. The de jure political ruler may be 0th level if they're a figurehead and the de facto ruler, be it adviser or relative or whatever, is high-level.

    (I'm not going to touch the economic stuff b/c there's too many fundamental errors made at the base of it to convince anyone who isn't willing to see what's there. I have studied economics, yes, and I know what I'm talking about. It's an Emperor's Clothes situation.)

  23. circadianwolf: I'd suggest that like everybody and anybody who has an opinion about economics, yours has been formed by your prior opinions about the world, not by an objective analysis of the data available.

  24. You guys must be a barrel of laughs at a party.

  25. A whole barrel.

    All analyzing the philosophy of partying and the relative levels of understanding about partying that each person in the room possesses.

  26. From Tom Parker, Rules of Thumb (via Thaler & Sunstein's Nudge):

    No more than 25 percent of the guests at a university dinner party can come from the economics department without spoiling the conversation.