Thursday 31 October 2013

Rules and the Problem of Social Cost

There is discussion in the ether about, yet again, the importance and value of having lots of rules versus having fewer.

Let's ask ourselves: What Would Ronald Coase Do?

In "The Problem of Social Cost", to simplify grossly, Coase observed that if the world was perfectly free of transaction costs, people would be able to negotiate more-or-less perfectly efficient outcomes with each other in most situations. In any sort of dispute people can just arrange with each other a mutually acceptable outcome that will be at least as good as any solution an independent arbitrator could come up with. (The solution might not be perfect, but it would be at least as good as a decision that a judge or tribunal would provide.)

However, we don't live in a world perfectly free of transaction costs, so in practice this is not always what happens. In actual fact, there are often costs to negotiation. Chief among them is time - negotiation is costly in that regard - but there may also be costs to do with discovering information, enforcement, and so forth. (It may not even be immediately clear what the real nature of the dispute is, or who it is with.)

Sometimes the transaction costs are nugatory or small, and not enough to outweigh the efficiency and desirability of the result. But on some occasions the transaction costs are so high that they outweigh the efficiency of the result. It is in these situations that a court, in Coase's view, should and does become involved in coming up with a solution.

He used the example of a real-life case about a sweet-maker and a doctor. The sweet-maker causes lots of noise which disturbs the doctor. They could negotiate a solution between themselves: whether they decide after negotiation that the doctor will move, or the sweet-maker will reduce his noise, or the doctor will just put up with the noise, or the sweet-maker will pay some form of compensation to the doctor, the solution they negotiate will be at least as good as what a court would decide.

But the transaction costs to negotiation may be high. What if the doctor holds out for excessive compensation and negotiation takes a long time? What if it is not just the doctor who has a problem with the noise, but other neighbours? What if some of those neighbours have genuine complaints but others make frivolous, vexatious or speculative claims? It will take a long time for the sweet-maker to negotiate with all those neighbours and sort out which ones have genuine complaints.

This is when a court needs to become involved, in Coase's view - when transaction costs become so high that a negotiated solution is unsatisfactory or nigh-impossible. And his opinion was that, when a court comes up with a solution, it needs to do so in the most efficient way possible - meaning, the solution it comes up with must be as close as possible to what the parties would have negotiated between themselves if there were no transaction costs. That should be the guiding principle of a court in any private law dispute - it should pursue the outcome which would have arisen if the parties had been able to freely negotiate an outcome without cost.

So let's postulate a theory - not exactly to transpose or extend Coase's theorem about social costs, but rather to come up with something that is inspired by it only.

Imagine that a "court" in the RPG context is "the game's rules". The general presumption should be that a game should only have a rule to cover situations in which transaction costs for DM fiat will be prohibitively high in comparison to the outcome achieved.

A very good example is combat rules. Deciding who is the winner and loser of a combat without reference to rules comes with an extremely high set of transaction costs - it would take ages to argue it out to a satisfactory conclusion ("Ah, but this character is wearing chain mail!" "Ah, but this character would have ducked!" "Ah, but the floor is wet - this character may have slipped!"), and it may have the more important additional cost of heated debate - PC lives are at stake and the players may disagree vociferously with the decision arrived at. Better to have a court, in the form of rules and dice, generate an outcome - and this may well have the effect of generating an outcome which the parties would have freely negotiated (i.e. being partially random but based on mutually agreed principles worked out in advance).

Similarly the surprise roll: deciding who is actually surprised without rules would take forever; the transaction costs are too high, so we just resort to pre-ordained surprise rules which tell us what to do to get an outcome.

In other words, there are scenarios where we can say that DM fiat or complicated rules would create the same or similar outcome (the PC kills the orc or vice versa), but where the transaction costs associated with DM fiat are prohibitively high - so rules are better.

On the other hand, many social situations can be very quickly resolved by DM fiat to generate a result that is at least as good as a set of complicated social rules - i.e., there are no or very small transaction costs to DM fiat, which do not outweigh its value. Does a PC succeed in persuading the guard to let him pass? Regardless of whether the DM or the rules do the job, the outcome will be either that the PC does succeed or he doesn't. DM fiat (or DM-mandated dice roll), in other words, produces an outcome that is at least as good as social rules. But the DM can do it quickly and easily and the consequences are not life-and-death - there are very low transaction costs. Better for the DM to do it, then.

Similarly, to use a well-worn example, an elf is sneaking up on the party while they sleep. However, the PCs have put little piles of coins around their encampment as a primitive alarm system. There are two outcomes: the elf knocks over a pile of coins or he doesn't. DM fiat (or DM-mandated dice roll) is going to produce an outcome that is at least as good as rules about coins around encampments. But the DM can do it quickly and easily and the consequences are not life-and-death. Better for the DM to do it, then.

In other words, there are scenarios where we can say that DM fiat or complicated rules would create the same outcome, and where since the transaction costs associated with DM fiat are low, DM fiat is better.

Of course, nobody would sensibly argue that this metric should be consciously thought through whenever a decision is required. That would be absurd. Rather, it should be used as a guiding principle: there should be a rebuttable presumption that DM fiat (whether outright or in the form of "roll a d6" or whatever) is to be preferred, and the presumption can be rebutted if transaction costs associated with DM fiat would be prohibitive.

Monday 28 October 2013

Since Everybody Else is Doing It

I'm currently running: Nothing. I'm extremely busy lately, and in my free 'hobby' time I'm finishing off a supplement I hope to release. My final excuse is that equipment failure means I can't play in games online, and I'm too lazy to sort that out.

I would especially like to play or run: I always like to play or run traditional D&D, Pendragon and Cyberpunk 2020. Above that, I would especially like to run a game of Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies. I have two setting ideas for this. In one, the players are the idle rich in the 19th century in the North East of England investigating the occult. In the other, the players are 19th century colonialists in an imagined Solomon Islands-type Melanesian province, er, investigating the occult. I'd also like to run a game of Bushido.

...but I would also try: I really play essentially anything. I'm not very keen on anime, nor games set in high school. I don't find it fun to pretend to be in Buffy.

I live in: Newcastle, in England.

2 or 3 well-known RPG products other people made that I like: the Planescape boxed sets. The 2nd edition AD&D Monstrous Manual. The Great Pendragon Campaign. 

2 or 3 novels I like: The Once and Future King by TH White, the Complete Lyonesse by Jack Vance, the Complete Viriconium by M. John Harrison. I don't care that that totals about 15 books.

2 or 3 movies I like: Zodiac, Glengarry Glen Ross, Rushmore.

Best place to find me online: Here or on G+.

I will read almost anything on tabletop RPGs if it's: Stood the test of time. If it was released more than 10 years ago and people still rave about it, it must be worth reading. Otherwise I'll wait. I use that heuristic for most cultural products. 

I really do not want to hear about: How you were offended by a game being misogynistic.

I think dead orc babies are (circle one: funny / problematic / ....well, ok, it's complicated because....): potentially part of the game, but I don't want to game with people who think dead orc babies is funny.

Games I'm in are like (link to something):

Free content I made for D&D is available: On this blog. Quite a lot, down the years.

If you know anything about art it would help me with a project I'm working on. I could do with lots and lots and lots of little sketches and doodles that I can insert here and there wherever there is a sizeable blank space in the Yoon-Suin.

I talk about about RPGs everywhere as "noisms". If you google "noisms" it turns out there is somebody else - an ex-soldier who occasionally posts on CiF on The Grauniad website. That's not me. 

Wednesday 23 October 2013

On the Improvisation of Content

On a G+ post, the question was raised:
You're in the middle of a game and your players have just wandered into a part of the map that you didn't finish prepping for/didn't expect them to get to. What do you do? 
This can obviously be extended into a broader question: when players do something unexpected that you as the DM have not prepared for, what do you do?

This happens a lot if you aspire to run any game where players have agency. Since that basically applies to all games I run, I encounter that situation a lot. My answer is simply that I improvise. It's something I think I am quite good at; I'm used to winging things, and what I "wing" usually works out well. I put this down largely to a combination of two things - practice/experience at the table, and also my job; I teach at a university, so, not to put too fine a point on it, I'm used to being put on the spot by awkward questions and scenarios and coming up with answers off the cuff. Of course, if it's a question about contract law my answer won't be pulled completely from my nether regions, but nonetheless, I'm having to think on my feet, in front of people, on a daily basis. This is a transferable skill.

This also means I barely ever use random tables to generate content on the fly. My brain does a decent job on its own.

However, that's not a particularly useful observation: I have a lot of tacit knowledge, but it isn't very easy to explain the process (I've written about this before). As is often the case, it's just a combination of practice and, probably natural flair. But so what? As advice goes "practice harder and hope you have natural flair" is as banal as it gets.

That said, I do think there is one important thing that any GM can do if they want to be able to come up with things on the fly: a strong sense of theme combined with a strongly developed sense of setting.

First, theme. By this, I don't, it goes without saying, mean 'plot'. Rather, I mean here that you as the GM should have a strong idea of what kind of game you are running and also what kind of game has emerged over time through the combination of your ideas and those of the players. If you are clear about this, whatever you come up with on the fly will be informed by it and fit in with it more-or-less seamlessly. If, thematically, the game is very concerned with social interaction and complex networks of interpersonal relationships, as a GM you should be consciously and explicitly aware of that fact, so that what you improvise on the fly fits with it and does not jar either you or the players. That should be obvious, and undoubtedly most GMs do this implicitly.

Secondly, setting. When, as a GM, you set up and prepare your game - the NPCs, the maps, the socio-cultural background, the random encounter tables, everything of that nature - if all of those things have a coherence and reflect a certain level of vision on your part, then your off-the-cuff creations will, again, be informed by it. How to come up with this 'vision'? There is no harm at all in using the 25 words or less approach. When I first started to come up with Yoon-Suin, I jotted down these 25 words to describe what the setting was all about:
Tibet, yak ghosts, ogre magi, mangroves, Nepal, Arabian Nights, Sorcery!, Bengal, invertebrates, topaz, squid men, slug people, opiates, slavery, human sacrifice, dark gods, malaise, magic.
Everything has been based on, broadly, that ever since. Looking at it now, I might replace one or two of the words, but it still informs everything I create during prep/writing, and likewise informs the stuff I make up on the fly when I need to. This means that even when making things up as I go along when surprised by the actions of the players, I have a strong feel for the way the setting should be and that is like a thread holding everything together.

Monday 21 October 2013

Steampunk 1820

It's well-known by all sensible people in the world that the suffix '-punk' has become overused and ridiculous. (My own favourite stupid use of '-punk' is "mythpunk", but there is an unintentionally funny list on wikipedia. I hope Bruce Sterling had his tongue in his cheek when he coined 'nowpunk'.) It's a lazy shorthand that has become effectively meaningless - just an attempt to create a veneer of edginess.

That said, cyberpunk did have a meaning at one time. It was punk in the sense that it was about counter-culturalism in the broad sense - you had an advanced society where technology was almost changing what it meant to be human, but unlike in Ralph 124C 41+ the cyberpunk authors were writing about the people who were going against the grain, whether by subverting the technology from the belly up (like Case in Neuromancer or the characters in "Burning Chrome") or dropping out (like the eponymous "Johnny Mnemonic", or the main character in "Dogfight"). So 'cyberpunk' is a little bit of a silly term (I prefer "near future noir"), but there is sense in it.

In the same way, there is sense in the word 'steampunk' too. During the industrial revolution, especially its early years, technological advances were overturning established ways of life - it was called a 'revolution' for a reason - and people were left behind by those advances (look at the London of "Gin Lane" or the victims Jack the Ripper), dropped out (Dickens' Oliver Twist - and just about anything else he wrote), rebelled (the Luddites, the Peterloo Massacre) or subverted them (white European adventurers going completely crazy in the Congo, Southeast Asia and just about anywhere else where they could carve out a small fortune - Heart of Darkness was maybe a little too late, but that was at the end of a century of similar incidents).

Steampunk does make sense as a genre too, then. It's not really about fancy zeppelins, goggles, steam-powered jet packs and triplanes. It's about the dark side of the industrial revolution: it's about what Sterling called the "victims of the new", except it's not our 'new'; it's an old one.

Saturday 12 October 2013

"Whatever Works for You and Your Group"

One of my pet hates in online discussions about RPGs is the anodyne advice to "do whatever works for you and your group". Just do whatever's fun for you and your players. Stop worrying about whether one play style is better than other - lighten up! Just do whatever works! Well, duh.

It annoys me primarily because it's meaningless, of course: if anybody in the world needs to be told to "do whatever works for you and your group" they're probably not intelligent enough to operate a computer.

But it is also incredibly low-reaching and unambitious. It is most frequently used to kill any sort of debate over play styles or techniques: "Stop being mean, you horrid bully; everybody should just do whatever works for them and their group". Don't try to discuss matters, improve your GMing, or even think about games in the abstract. Just do whatever works. Keep on keeping on. It ought to go without saying that this is not a mindset that any adult human being should have.

It also simply fails on its face: how do you know what works without thinking about alternatives? Unless you are aware that there are different ways of doing things, and have analysed them in some sense, how can you possibly know what works or what doesn't?

And finally, it implies that once you have a gaming group you stay in it for your entire life - it is "your group". Again, it ought to go without saying that groups are composed of different people, and figuring out what works for one group will require a level of thought about "what works" in general. In fact, gaming with different groups will by necessity require individual GMs to come up with abstract, universal notions about things that tend to work and things that don't, irrespective of the players involved. But no: we all live in our parents' basements and game with our school friends until death.

Friday 11 October 2013

The Fungal Curse of Tribhuvan

I have a Netflix subscription but 99% of the time I only use it for watching old BBC wildlife documentaries. Tonight, I was watching The Private Life of Plants, where it was said that if every spore released by a puffball fungus germinated and survived it would create enough adult puffballs to fill the volume of the earth twice over. 

So, in honour of the miracle of the puffball:

The Fungal Curse of Tribhuvan  
Level 8 Magic-User Spell 

The archmage Tribhuvan was of a particularly vengeful and malevolent nature. So when, after falling in love with Asha, the beautiful daughter of the headman of the village of Gyamotang, he was refused her hand in marriage, he spent 33 cycles of the moon creating a spell which would bring him the satisfaction of revenge.  
The Fungal Curse, when cast, affects a single mushroom, toadstool, or similar, and ensures that all of its spores reach adulthood. Whether this is through making the spores invulnerable, or simply manipulating their destiny so that, miraculously, none are eaten or destroyed, is unknown. The effect is that a vast area quickly becomes overwhelmed with fungus.  
After casting the spell, within 1 week the hex in which the spell was cast and d4 hexes around it are covered entirely in fungus. This kills all plant life and makes the area uninhabitable - likely permanently. 
Tribuhuvan himself never used his spell. After threatening to devastate Gyamotang and the area around it, Asha agreed to marry him. The unfortunate story of her children is, of course, well known.  

Wednesday 9 October 2013

On PC-Player Information Parity

Choosing when to have parity of information between PCs and their players is a difficult balancing act.

Let's imagine you are playing a game with opposed skill checks. There is an awareness/notice skill, and there is a stealth skill. The players are moving through a forest. You, the GM, know a group of murderous elves are setting up an ambush a little way ahead. You need an opposed skill check - you will roll stealth for the elves, the players will roll awareness. Do you tell the players what they are rolling for (whether "roll an awareness check" or "roll awareness because murderous elves are setting an ambush"), or do you just say, "Roll the dice"? If the former, they will know that something is afoot even if they fail, yet, strictly speaking, their characters will not. Does this matter? Does there need to be information parity between the players and the PCs? 

Let's look at the surprise roll. You, as DM, have to roll a d6, as do the players. Do you tell them that they are making a surprise check, or do you just tell them to roll a d6? Do you keep your result secret? Or do you openly roll a d6, telling the players exactly what you are rolling for? ("There is a group of goblins you're just about to encounter and I'm seeing if they are surprised.") Does it matter?

My own approach is usually to be as open as possible. I often, though not always, tell the players the reason I am rolling the dice. I don't care about information disparity between players and PCs in this respect. For one thing, I know that the social contract of gaming, and also just plain honesty and common sense, will ensure that the players do not make use of their information disparity to game the system or, more bluntly, to cheat. This, indeed, is probably one of the most important characteristics of a 'good' role player. This is somebody who you can tell, explicitly, "I am rolling the dice now to check if murderous elves who are setting up an ambush manage to stay silent," and who will not let it affect the decisions or actions of their PC. 

And more importantly, there is a significant benefit that you get from telling players exactly why they, or you, are rolling the dice: it keeps everyone honest. Everybody knows there is no fudging. This is one of the absolute, most crucial elements for me in what makes a game 'good'. No fudging. That is the starting point from which all else follows. 

But there is a limit to how much information disparity you should tolerate. Because information parity between player and PC can be both important and part of the enjoyment.

Let's use an extreme illustration: you don't want information disparity to extend so far that you give the players a copy of your dungeon map, keyed in full. Nobody, not even the best role player, can act as though they don't know the content of the map when making decisions on the part of their PC when it is right there in front of them. It will inevitably affect the decisions they make within the game - and even where it doesn't, the suspicion will remain. ("You're only turning left because you know there is a Sword +1 in that room down the corridor.") 

Moreover, it is enjoyable, in its own right, to discover things. I don't think any player would like a complete map of a dungeon they are exploring, nor a complete hex map of the setting. Finding out what is out there, and being surprised by it, is half the fun. 

These two competing needs - to have openness and transparency, set against the desire for surprised and mystery - pull in opposite directions. To a certain degree they are irreconcilable. One of the most interesting questions in RPGs for me would be: Which is more important - that the players know that the DM is rolling to see if the murderous elves manage to stay quiet (which preserves accountability) or that the players should be genuinely surprised when a gang of murderous elves ambush them (which is fun)? 

Thursday 3 October 2013

Cyberpunk 20...20?

Have a listen to the latest episode of Econtalk, where Tyler Cowen discusses his latest book, Average is Over. And consider - the setting for Cyberpunk 2020 is implausible, and its details are already antiquated, but in broad strokes it is not nearly as implausible as it may have seemed 10 years ago. I don't believe in Cowen's future, but it is a credible vision of the direction the world will be heading in 2020 AD, and there is an alternate universe where William Gibson wrote about it and it will come true.

In the foreword/prelude to Burning Chrome Bruce Sterling talked about "the victims of the new". What he meant by this was that William Gibson's stories were powerful because they were about the people who technological and social change had left behind. They weren't about Ralph 124C 41+; they were about the people who had been chewed up and spat out by the Future and had only two choices - to go down, or to go out. In other words, his stories are about the potential D&D adventurers of a possibly imaginable future: rogues, brigands and no-hopers who will never get a real job and whose only prospects are having nothing to lose. The kind of people who will end up at that deep dark dungeon - or oil rig archipelago - with a plan to get rich or die trying. 

Tie these two notions together and what do you have? A compelling reason for Mike Pondsmith to make Cyberpunk 2020

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Barriers to Entry

I spent part of yesterday trying to watch an NFL game. Apparently once a year they hold an NFL game in London; I thought this had been a one-off a few years back, because I remember it being hyped in, I think, 2010ish, but it seems it's an annual event. Despite the Sky and Channel 4 trying to make a huge thing of stealth popularity of American football over here across the pond, I rather suspect Wembley was full of 80,000 American tourists and expats living in London rather than genuine local English fans, although I could be wrong.

In any case, out of curiosity, I watched.

Now, I'm really into sport. I love football, cricket, rugby, tennis, boxing, you name it. Generally speaking I can get into anything if it's on TV. It doesn't matter the sport or the teams. US sports have tended to pass me by, although I watched a lot of baseball in Japan. (Mainly for the atmosphere - I genuinely think baseball as a sport is actually objectively boring.)

Nonetheless, I found it really difficult to understand the point of American Football. It seemed way too stop-start and I couldn't work out why the action was stopping; every so often one of the multitude of referees would pause to explain why what was happening was happening over the PA, but he would do so in gibberish - the words seemed to be English, but arranged in a random order. Players would simply come and go on and off the pitch, apparently when they fancied a break. Each team seemed obliged to field a couple of big fat guys with beer-bellies, maybe as an anti-discrimination measure, or something. And just when things seemed to be getting interesting there would be a tea break and the action would cut to the studio where Colin Murray was being as annoying as he used to be on MOTD2 except with two Americans on the couch rather than Alan Shearer and Pat Nevin.

Anyway, I am of course prepared to accept that American football is a great sport. Enough people in the USA seem to love it and that many people can't be wrong. But without somebody there to explain what is going on, it's basically impenetrable to an outsider like me. I gave up after about 10 minutes.

The same must be true of cricket, I often think. Unless you're brought up with the sport, it must be pretty hard to understand the nuances. Many cricket fans don't even actually really understand all the ins-and-outs of what exactly is LBW, and what the difference between a leg slip and fine leg is, or what it means when the commentator says Pietersen is vulnerable to left-arm orthodox spin.

Of course, this is less true of some sports. Football is very easy to understand. As a first-time viewer you might not get what the offside rule is, but the concept is simple and the action is easy to follow. The same is true of basketball. The first time you watch it, you get the core concepts.

So some pastimes have bigger barriers to entry than others. To an extent, this seems to coincide with equipment. American football, and to a much greater extent cricket, require something of an outlay on complicated tools. Football and basketball do not.

I sometimes find myself wondering what the barriers to entry for RPGs are, and how significant. If you were to simply give a roomful of four strangers an 'average' RPG (let's say, for the sake of argument, Call of Cthulhu), what would they make of it?

To some degree, the core concept itself is problematic. While some RPG books go to considerable effort to explain what an RPG is, you can imagine that there would be a level of difficulty getting to grips with what is supposed to happen.

Then, there are the rules. People are used to games having rules, but Call of Cthulhu has a lot of rules, even though it is only, really, averagely 'crunchy'. A further barrier to entry.

Then, there is the genre. Most ordinary people have not read HP Lovecraft's fiction. Simply working out what is supposed to happen in the game, especially at the level of individual threats and problems, is not an immediately solvable task.

Some gamers fret about this, and wish for introductory games to the hobby. They worry that nowadays a kid couldn't just wander into a shop and grab a game off the shelf and play it. In part, I used to agree - I certainly think it is obscene that nobody is making a game like Red Box D&D any more - but on the other hand, I'm not so sure that this is something to worry about. The NFL is really popular. Cricket is really popular. Those pastimes thrive not because casual viewers like me turn on the TV and immediately work out what the heck those crazy Americans wearing helmets are up to. They thrive because newcomers (kids mostly, but I assume adults too) are introduced by people they know to the game, to the culture surrounding it, to the nuances, to what makes it fun and enthralling to watch. And that's okay. (The same is also true, when you think of it, of many more cerebral pastimes, like chess or poker or backgammon.) Why would you expect RPGs to be different?