31 January, 2010

Vector Theory #4: Appearance of Nodes

If we work off the assumption that roleplaying games are stories which follow straight lines until they encounter a node, then we need to ask how these nodes arise.

Without nodes we might as well be reading a story or watching a movie. It's a valid pastime, and many people engage in it. But then again a lot of people complain about the choices made by novelists and script writers.

Roleplayers engage in a different pastime (they may read books and watch movies as well, but this blog isn't about those hobbies). Roleplayers engage in their hobby to make choices of their own and explore the consequences of these actions.

Some choose to explore certain settings through the personae they create. Possibly settings from movies or books, maybe even using the characters portrayed in those books (or thinly veiled facsimiles of those characters...but that's an entirely different blog entry).

Some choose to create their own settings and their own characters, using them to explore issues of emotional or ideological conflict.

But it's the choices that set the hobby apart from virtually every other pastime. Even computer roleplaying provides these choices, and this is one of the aspects that separates this genre from other computer games.

Which brings us back to the question of where nodes come from.

I've identified three sources for nodes. Different games use these sources in different ways, and different groups choose to emphasize different method of node development.

Nodes can arise through the scenario devised by the GM. Such a node could be pre-determined, allowing players to determine the outcome from a variety of possibilities defined by the GM, or a node could arise during the course of play if the GM believes that the story could benefit from a moment of tension or if they'd like to explore something specific about the characters.

Nodes can arise through the choices of the players. These nodes are less able to be predicted, and as a result many game systems place a lesser significance on them. They can be used to speed up the flow of a story (such as successful investigation attempts) or slow things down. But many game systems (and many GMs) prevent actions such as these from causing deviations to the actual story under way.

Finally, nodes can arise through the mechanisms. A game might kick into overdrive if the story tension gets too high, it might call for a specific type of test if a GM or player initiated node ends a certain way. It might shift gear when combat arises. An example of this might be Vampire's "Humanity" mechanism, a roll must be made to see if humanity is lost if the player makes a certain moral choice.

Every time a node arises, a choice is made. The story could turn to the left or the right, the situation for the characters could become better or worse, the story could continue, or it could come to it's conclusion.

"Traditional" games are typically defined by the idea that nodes may only be introduced by the mechanisms and rules of the book, or by the GM. Some would even push this further by saying that "Old School" games introduce nodes through the rules in the book or the predetermined scenario devised by the GM. In the old days it might have even been considered "cheating" if the GM introduced a choice to the players that they hadn't previously written (eg. adding a new trap to a dungeon if the players are going through it too quickly).

"Story Games" might be better defined by the idea that the players have free reign to add nodes at their whim. The destiny of the story is in the collective hands of the group rather than the single hands of the GM.

I'm still thinking through this idea of how nodes arise, and how the play experience changes according to the methods of node develoment, but this is a start.

Baron Xavier's Legacy: An Opening

Scene 1: In which our characters awaken in a large room. Lying on cold metal tables, they have vague recollections of who they might have been but they have no idea of why they are here.

Scene 2: In which our characters are escorted to their private quarters, where they are given free reign for the night.

Scene 3: In which the premise of the game is described, and our characters have their circumstances explained.

Scene 4: In which our characters start their first investigation and have their first chance to properly explore the setting.

Scene 5: In which our characters reach a climax within their investigation, and start to define how they will work as a team.

Scene 6: In which our characters face their first deep moral decision.

Game concludes with the players really thinking about where they'd like to go.

These days, that's about as strict as my planning process gets.

As I said in a previous post, we're playing D&D. Old School D&D.

It's not so much that I hate old school D&D, it's just that I think there are a lot of clunky things about the system. THAC0, Saving Throws, Random Attributes...A lot of stuff has improved in recent versions of the game, I don't know if improved is the right word. Maybe it's better to say that the game has evolved and matured. I liked 3rd edition, because it streamlined a lot of effects. It got rid of using percentages for skills and d20 for combat, it made the whole game more coherent and user friendly. But a few of my favourite settings didn't come across to the new platform (Dark Sun, Ravenloft [although this mantle was taken up by White Wolf], Planescape.). Then the game became even more user friendly, some might say "dumbed down" in it's latest incarnation, but I've already ranted about this.

We're playing 2nd Edition AD&D, the beast in all it's bloated overcomplicated glory.

I toyed with the idea of explaining the history of D&D to my new players, explaining why it was played in certain was, what has changed since then...all the boring stuff, but the stuff which really sets the game in it's proper place. I decided against this and just played. These players don't need to know my personal gripes with an antiquated system, they are simply here for a good game, and their actually paying me to GM for them. So I'll just give them a good game.

The game is being played at a dojo for capoiera and brazillian jiu-jitsu, the players are the advanced students and teachers within the dojo. So they understand combat, I'm not going to confuse them with what might work in combat and how weapons or tactics might be used. The trophies along the walls, and the t-shirts they wear for international fighting competitions shows that their combat experience is far beyond mine. It's a bit different than playing with computer-headed nerds who never had to fight, never broken bones in physical conflict, it's different to the gothic wannabe social animals who frequent many of the theatre style live games I've been a part of.

It's weird, and very different to many of the other groups I've played with.

8 players: 6 male, 2 female (one of whom is my wife).

It shouldn't be too surprising that three of the players have taken on the role of fighter. There's also a ranger, a cleric, a mage, a druid and a gypsy. A decent mix, and thankfully no rogues...I don't have to put up with percentile bonuses for rogues when everything else in the game uses d20s.

I've adapted the Baron Xavier setting to a more traditional D&D format. Originally it only had humans in it, but since these players want a traditional fantasy game I've made some adaptions. It began as a human only setting, really focusing on the different beliefs of people and how they hold to their beliefs to gain strength within themselves and within their cultures.

But the D&D races are easily ported across.

The city becomes a bastion of half elves, resisting a vast human empire. The scattered kingdoms to the east become a mixture of elves and other races, all hoping that the city doesn't fall to the human empire, but unable to unite due to their ancient rivalries and petty feuds. One of the beauties of AD&D 2nd Ed are the half-vistani from Ravenloft, they work perfectly as Baron Xavier's gypsies. Monsters roaming the wilderness remain unchanged.

Our group is presented with some racial options and they select 3 half elves, 2 humans, 2 half-vistani/gypsies, and an elf.

Final demographics of the group:

1 Female Gypsy of the Half-Vistani/Gypsy race (played by Leah, my wife).
1 Male Druid of the Half-Vistani/Gypsy race.
1 Male Ranger of the Human race.
1 Male Mage of the Elf race.
1 Male Cleric of the Human race.
1 Female Fighter of the Half-Elf race.
2 Male Fighters of the Half-Elf race (I'm really going to have to split these guys up somehow...ideologically, or otherwise).

I can get some good splits through the group along racial or occupational lines. So that's a nice direction for potential storylines to take.

The first session worked pretty well, but that's enough typing for tonight. Tomorrow a bit more detail about what happened, what we learnt about the world and how I've subtly changed the game system to a more story oriented paradigm, rather than a sequential slugfest.

25 January, 2010

Back in the Hot Seat

I've been itching to run a decent campaign for a while.

The last few starts I've made have all lasted a couple of sessions at best. More oftren than not, some kind of real-world issue causes a fight between players...who then take it out on one another's characters...then the resentment comes back out of game.

It's frustrating and one of the reasons my regular gaming group fractured over a year ago, then gradually crumbled away. We still socialise together, but gaming just has a way of bringing up old wounds within that group.

For the last 18 months, the only games I've GM'd or played have been at conventions. I've spent more time analysing and designing, less time playing or GMing. It's probably led to a bit of detachment from the physical/social act of gaming.

Then came a double hit to solve my problems. First a trio of Norwegians, then a distress call on Nearbygamers.

The Norwegians had come to Australia for Arcanacon in Melbourne. While passing through Sydney I offered some Aussie hospitality, preparing traditional Aussie cuisine with a main course barbeque of beef and kangaroo, and a dessert of lamingtons and Tim Tams (well...my long suffering wife Leah prepared the dessert). While in town I had to show them my most complete game, The Eighth Sea. This went down fairly well, and I gave them each a copy of the rules. Matthijs promises that he'll send across a copy of his own book "Norwegian Style" once he gets back home (There's a blog about it here). It was a great night, even if I did forget many of the rules of my own game (again).

Meanwhile a group of players in Bondi were looking for a GM...and that's where the true Hot Seat begins. They want campaign play and they seem like a fun bunch of guys, unlike most stereotypical gamers they meet in a martial arts dojo, they're all fit and I think that most combat rule systems would be incredibly overanalysed by them. They want to play D&D but I think they'll be up for something a bit more experimental based on the first session yesterday.

I decided to run character generation using a modified version of "A Penny for my Thoughts" (a review here, but regular readers will already know my liking for this game), with the hope that this would give some really interesting characters through interaction between the players.

It was a mix of players who'd heard of roleplaying and were interested, a few who'd tried it years ago, and a couple of seasoned veterans. They all got the idea pretty quickly, and it certainly produced an interesting mix of characters.

I'm using this group to play out a campaign world I developed a couple of years ago called Baron Xavier's Legacy. It's a sandbox style game in the same vein as West Marches.

I'll provide some more details shortly, bit at this stage things are looking good. Good enough that they are willing to pay me petrol and photocopying expenses to keep running a regular game for them...and they're enthusiastic enough to want two games per week.

14 January, 2010

Vector Theory #3: Finite and Infinite Games

Quote 1:

"The rules of the finite game may not change; the rules of an infinite game must change.

Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.
Finite players are serious; infinite games are playful.
A finite player plays to be powerful; an infinite player plays with strength.
A finite player consumes time; an infinite player generates time.
The finite player aims for eternal life; the infinite player aims for eternal birth.

The choice is yours."

Quote 2:

"There are at least two kinds of games: finite and infinite.

A finite game is a game that has fixed rules and boundaries, that is played for the purpose of winning and thereby ending the game.

An infinite game has no fixed rules or boundaries. In an infinite game you play with the boundaries and the purpose is to continue the game."

Quote 3:

"Finite players try to control the game, predict everything that will happen, and set the outcome in advance. They are serious and determined about getting that outcome. They try to fix the future based on the past.

Infinite players enjoy being surprised. Continuously running into something one didn't know will ensure that the game will go on. The meaning of the past changes depending on what happens in the future."

- All quotes by James P. Carse

When I first read the book "Finite and Infinite Games" by James P. Carse, I found it deeply intriguing. It was over 10 years ago, I was in university, Mage the Ascension had just been released and I didn;t realise that the book was an inspiration for the game (one of it's other inspirations was my favourite all-time book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance...but more about that later).

Here was a religious scholar who had really understood the concept of roleplaying as a game topic. He provided analogy between game and many aspects of daily life. Sometimes those analogies were heavy handed, sometimes they were subtle. Maybe a lot of the interpretations of the analogies were tainted heavily by my own perspective, but I could see merit in all of the proposals raised through the book...except for one. And that killed the book for me.

The final statement in the book (as I recall it):

"There is but one infinite game."

Which can only mean that life itself is the infinite game and everything else is either a mere finite game in comparison to it, or a subset of the larger game.

Which is roleplaying?

I had always though that roleplaying was an infinite game, maybe not as infinite as life itself, but certainly something that could be played for the purposes of continuing play. Self contained modules could be played at conventions, or as short sessions, but campaigns could continue to tell stories for years, or even decades. I know of many "old timers" who've been playing the same chronicle of Rolemaster or early edition D&D for over 30 years, they might have changed the system a bit from when they first started, the characters might have even changed, but the game has continued and the story has evolved. This seems the very essence of an infinite game to me, something that you play to continue playing, you play it for the sake of play and you actively stop someone from "winning" if it furthers the continuation of the experience.

I had been thinking at the time about why certain games seemed to work and other games didn't. It was the mid 90s, I don't know where people's patterns of thought stood at this time with roleplaying theory, I think Forge theory was probably just in it's embryonic stages (if it was conceived at all). There were new games appearing all the time in the local games stores, some pushing in really intriguing directions; staggering complexity, austere minimalism, strange new mechanisms. It looked like a lot of people were struggling with their conceptions of where roleplaying would head next.

I was playing some mushes, we saw some networking games start to appear in the form of the original Doom and then Quake. None of us new that MMORPGs would be on the horizon, or how big they'd become. At that stage, computer roleplaying seemed to be a subset of our pen-and-paper hobby, it'd never be as good as "the real thing".

But I diverge from the point.

Around this time I moved from predominately playing tabletop to predominately LARPing. My thoughts on how to develop a good game were put back on the backburner, in retrospect I was swapping theory for practice. Rather than just coming up with ideas, I was putting concepts to the test.

I looked at the games that other people ran, to see what I could learn from them. I took the aspects that seemed to be working and tried to incorporate them into the patterns that were already working. Those patterns were based heavily on preconceived notions.

1. If you show up to a convention session to play a module, you expect to play through the same series of events that a dozen other groups play during that convention. You might be competing against them for trophies, you might be actively trying to engage the story, or you might be trying to break the module designer's story. But you expect it to be over in a three hour block. A finite game.

2. If you sign up to play a part of a long term live campaign, you expect to find stories hidden in the intrigue between characters. You don't expect to have everything revealed in a three hour session, because you need a reason to come back for more. An infinite game.

Ongoing experimentation showed that the two styles of play were not mutually exclusive, they could even work well together, with players seeking to resolve short term goals and intermediate story arcs while the long term goals gradually unfolded around them.

The same game can be played as a finite game by those who seek to bring a story to it's conclusion (or shut down a story through their power within the game), or as an infinite game by those who seek to find new stories (or who oppose the closure of existing storylines).

In vector theory, a finite player seeks to make a vector convergent.

An infinite player seeks to make a vector divergent.

The interplay between these two can cause friction, but the dominance of either can be just as detrimental. Too much convergence shuts down a game before it can get interesting. Too much divergence lacks focus and can cause a game to peter out.

I didn't recognise it at the time, but there is also the play of the moment. Immersion in a situation. I had been a part of these situations where the rest of the world falls away and the only reality is that of the game, but I had only seen these moments as a manifestation of quality within a session.

This means that there are convergent players who aim to resolve storylines, and these link across to games that are designed to reach a logical conclusion. Players could competitively get their own ideas into effect as the storyline draws to it's conclusion (playing against the other players to accomplish this) or they could compete against the story as though it is a riddle to be solved. They tend to favour mechanisms where strategic advantage can be manipulated.

There are divergent players who aim to create and renew storylines, and they link to games where methods of generating new plot lines are prioritised. Such players might trying to push their characters and themselves into new situations to simply see where they might go and what changes occur within the character (or across the world). They tend to favour mechanisms where interest and diversity can be revealed.

And there are the vergent players who don't necessarily seek to resolve stories, nor do they seek to open up new storylines. These players play for the moment, regardless of whether others use those moments to open new tangents or close existing paths. They tend to favour mechanisms that remain consistent with their vision of the setting (whether that setting mimics reality, a particular genre or simply remains internally consistent).

The way many people seem to understand the terms, the following correspondences might be easy to make.

Convergent players seem to follow gamist agendas.
Divergent players seem to follow narrativist agendas.
Vergent players seem to follow simulationist agendas.

I didn't really want to link vector theory with the big model, but since people keep bringing it up, then I hope this post will clear it away and I can now move in to new exploration.

10 January, 2010

Vector Theory #2: Vectors and Nodes

The essence of the Vector Gaming Theory comes down to a simple concept.

There are story vectors where narrative flows from one place to another in a straight line.

There are game nodes where the direction of the narrative is diverted through the actions of players or mechanisms within the game.

At any stage in a roleplaying session; one of these two modes of activity has been engaged. These two may never be engaged simultaneously, but the degree of rapidity changing between the two modes may give the impression that they are occurring at once.

Let's look at this from a macro scale.

Many early computer games (especially those designated as "computer roleplaying games") have a clear delineation between the two modes. In this style of game, the user was capable of controlling the character when the designer believed that their actions would not interfere with the story they were trying to tell. You would have a cahnce to interact with the environment, kill enemies, pick up vital pieces of information, then the control was taken away through a cut scene. During the cut scene, the actions of all characters followed a script, the narrative was furthered, the player was given a new open playground to explore.

Many current computer games follow the same pattern, especially those which are designed as multiplayer games but which have provided a single player campaign to acquaint a player to the the game mythos.

A few games take a step beyond this, and these have tended to be the highly regarded games in recent years. Jade Empire is an example that comes to mind because it's one of the few games from the last couple of years that captured my attention long enough to actually finish it. Another example is the game Fable.

These games have specific decision points along a journey; and these decisions allow new storylines to unfold depending on the choices made. A story is still told, but the game has the potential to tell a variety of stories depending on the way it is played.

The first style of game is very similar to early module based roleplaying.

a) Play encounter.
b) GM describes outcome of encounter and links this to the next encounter.
c) Repeat, Wash, Rinse...until the final encounter is met and confronted.

The second style of play is closer to a flow chart.
a) Play encounter [go to "b" if encounter is successful, or "c" if not successful.]
b) GM describes an outcome which leads to encounter "d".
c) GM describes how the situation leads to encounter "e".
d) New encounter based on earlier success [go to "f" if successful, or "g" if not].
e) New encounter based on earlier failure [go to "h" if successful, or "i" if not].

In this second option, a diversity of stories develop; but the player experience remains basically the same. Game, Scene, Game, Scene.

Discussions in game design circles have spent the last few years analysing and re-analysing the concepts of scene framing and mechanism interaction with narrative.

From the perspective of Vector Gaming Theory these are just a tiny part of the whole picture. Very important parts, don't get me wrong, but there is a lot more that could be percieved and considered.

Scene framing is purely a look at how a story vector approaches a node, and the initial choices presented to the players when the interface between modes is crossed.

Mechanism interaction with narrative (using different mechanisms to tell different types of stories) is a way to describe the way a new story vector is created when a game node is exited.

A lot can happen within a game node, and a lot can happen along the vector path of a story.

This is one of the key concepts I'd really like to explore with this year's series of blog entries.

03 January, 2010

Vector Theory #1: A New Weekly Blog Series

Last year it was all about mechanisms, how they interacted with one another, what they've been used for in the past, why they sink or swim, and where I'd like to take them in the future. It was a series of components.

This year is a series of processes; observing the way mechanisms link up into interactive storytelling media.

Just like last year, I'll be casting my net far and wide. I've already had thoughts about live roleplaying, computer gaming, miniature wargames and tabletop roleplaying.

My aim here is to generate a clear and precise terminology for the description of games. I'll draw on the concepts of many who have gone before me, but I'll try to avoid many of the loaded terms that hamper discussions about roleplaying game design.

In this regard I'll also generate a few of my own terms, linking more closely to the gaming vector theory being developed.

Just like last year, I encourage comments from anyone who might be reading; I'm certainly not infallible. I truly believe that no single person has the truth and it's only through collective endeavour that an accurate approximation can be established.

On with the theory...

Axiom 1: Traditional narrative is linear.
Axiom 2: Games involve choices.

Corollary 1: Story Oriented Games follow a linear narrative until a choice is required, at which point the narrative can divert in multiple directions.

To expand on this we need a better term for "roleplaying games" or "story games". The system in question will often be compared to the concepts of narrative, gaming, immersion, or other frequently used pieces of terminology. For the purposes of this blog series, the actual game will be referred to as a "vector" (while the effects that manipulate the vector will be referred to as a "vector system", the "vector path" will be sum of the final direction and the twists that occured along the vector's journey from start to finish.)

A "node" is a point where a vector might change direction, such a node may be a decision point on the part of the players, or it may be a point where the system intrudes on the proceedings. Like atomic particles dividing up into protons, neutrons and electrons, which are then further split up into quarks, muons, gluons and stranger fragments, nodes can be split into subnodes (and can be further split and analysed). Different types of nodes will be explained in the upcoming weeks.

Those vector systems that lean more toward the narrative side of things tend to allow the players fewer meaningful choices, this ensures that the story progresses toward on of the predetermined endings provided by the author.

Those vector systems that lean toward the game side involve far more choices, often with an ending that cannot be predicted by any of the parties involved in the process.

Diagramming a vector system can be simple or complex, choices can lead along different axes. A simple 2D cartesian chart could be drawn with time along one axis and a simple "Success/Fail" across it (with the possibility for varying degrees of success). Perhaps 2 axes could be drawn to explain different methods of task resolution within a narrative, Combat vs Diplomacy, Active choice vs Reactive Choice. A vector path across the first chart would always progress in a single direction (in accordance with the flow of time), while a vector path across the second might criss-cross all over the chart.

I'll stop there for the moment. I don't want to lose everyone when I'm just starting to establish the ground rules.