Sunday, January 30, 2011

Grounding fantasy

Wizard courtesy of Jack Monahan
One justification for "lack of realism" that I hear a lot is this: fantasy is escapism, so doesn't need to be realistic. Obviously, I try not to focus just on realism in this blog - that's why it's "believability", after all - but the essential gist of my counter-argument would be that even fantastic things are based on amalgamations of understandable "real" elements. From human elements like knights and castles, to magic spells like fireballs and lightning bolts, to monsters like gnolls and dragons, there is always an undercurrent of "something real". They may be used in unrealistic ways, but they're still based on real things. Connecting the audience to those real things brings about the sort of sensory understanding and tangibility that we've discussed in the past.

Magic and Technology
One of the most contradictory elements of fantasy is that it often attempts to be "separate" from realism, and yet relies on realism in terms of things like weapons and armor. This is because of divergent aesthetic choices: fantasy is associated with "medieval stuff", but as things get more and more magic-oriented, it makes less and less sense. If magic is common, people who still use swords and spears need to be justified. AD&D, for example, balanced them out by making fighters tougher than wizards, eventually to an unrealistic extent. Other games take similar measures - making normal people unrealistic so that they're not outshadowed by wizards, who are meant to be the "fantasy" element.

To quote Warren Ellis' Crécy: "We have the same intelligence as you. We simply don't have the same cumulative knowledge that you do. So we apply our intelligence to what we have". Powerful magic should change the world. Why are people still using swords and armor - which are pretty hard to make - if there's magic available through vague and indeterminate methods? The more powerful the magic is, the more "normal people" have to be scaled up to deal with it. Suddenly, a fighter is no longer a regular human with a sword - now he is "magic" in his own non-magical way. Believability has been sacrificed for the iconic image of "a warrior with a sword" or "a knight in shining armor", which is fine if that's all you want, but not if you want to establish a universe that makes sense.

Even simple "low magic" would be a big deal for a fantasy universe if it was reliable. There are so many relatively mundane uses for something like a fire spell or a wind spell that it would change the setup of a culture. Technology is based on exploiting available resources in a reliable and effective way, and magic is, essentially, a new resource. Of course, many settings don't bother to show the "resource" aspect of medieval life, except in the sense that, for example, there are smiths and people buy swords from them. The intricacies and time investment of making a sword is overlooked in favor of a "new weapon every level or two" mindset so that there can be constant improvement.

Medieval technology is not an enforced aesthetic choice, it's an attempt to use what works. In contrast, fantasy often has knights and armor for their own sake, rather than "because they make sense". Can you imagine an actual smith in the universe of World of Warcraft, Record of Lodoss War, or Fire Emblem? There's such a difference between "metal" and "whatever faux-plastic cartoon armor is made of" that it's difficult to even imagine connecting the two. Yet those settings still have blacksmiths, because it's an expected fantasy concept. It becomes an issue of drama when people are forced to either (a) use "natural" abilities that aren't representative of normal humans or (b) use weapons that are inferior to magic in every way.

This can be balanced out if there is a reason not everyone uses magic. In the Warhammer and 40k universes, magic can have critical backlashes and summon demons, and thus is not trusted by the majority of people - hence there is more reliance on technology, with magic kept on the sidelines as an oddity. If magic is clean and reliable, there's no reason not to incorporate it into the world's technological systems. If it's questionably safe or overtly hazardous, there is.
Spell Effects
It's true that spellcasting is, by definition, unrealistic. It operates on its own set of rules. It generates something from nothing. It messes up a lot of physical laws in ways that aren't immediately visible (semi-permanent changes in the environment and so on). However, one thing about most magic is that it exists in an understandable state, such as fire, water, lightning, rock, and so on. Unfortunately, this can be abstracted to an almost meaningless level due to poor or unrealistic representations of it.

For example, would you ever connect fire in a video game to a real fire in terms of "being hot" and "burning things"? A character can be set on fire, but it's just a flickering orange aura that doesn't affect their character model at all. Lightning consists of big, cartoonish bolts and don't convey the actual power and effect of lightning. Even something as simple as an earth-based spell tends to throw a clod of dirt, rather than a convincingly heavy stone. It's stuff that audiences and players are used to, because those elements are common and poorly represented in so many games. It's fine for a mage to hold a fireball in their hand and throw it because the audience/player can't see the heat, and as such the heat doesn't exist. When it explodes, it does damage, and that's it.

This is true in non-magic situations, as well. Compare the damage done by a flamethrower in Far Cry 2 (one of the only games with actual spreading fire effects) to a flamethrower in real life. The former feels more like a set of effects, rather than actual heat and fire. You're just spraying a fire effect, things don't react to it like they would to an actual flamethrower. Obviously the limitations of technology have a lot to do with this, but even when it comes to peoples' imaginations, those representations are going to affect their perceptions. It's more of a concern for spells because unlike a flamethrower there's no way to see a "real" spell.

Despite their failings, at least things like fireball and lightning bolt are appealing to an existing concept. Spells like magic missile that do "arcane" damage are even more difficult to connect to. In some situations, a magic missile does "force" damage, which is at least connectable to an impact of some kind, but what is the audience supposed to make of "arcane" damage? In-game, of course, it's perfectly serviceable, because all you need to know about it is how it applies to the other numbers in the game. In-universe, though, it's difficult to get a sensory understanding of what just happened.

Basically, a spell does something - it burns, it freezes, it shocks, it melts, and so on. Connecting the fictional and abstract concept of a spell to a tangible feeling like heat or cold can make it more intense and immersive for the audience or the player. Underplaying these concepts may be a necessity of the medium at times, but repairing those concepts would do a lot of good in terms of tangibility, especially when it comes to how audiences understand and imagine those things in other venues.

Monsters are a questionable element in fantasy because they're not biologically sound. Generally, a fantasy/mythological monster is either "some animals mashed together" (Chimera, Manticore, Pegasus), "an animal that's weird and different" (Unicorn, Cerberus), or "an animal crossed with a human" (Minotaur, Mermaid, or any of the countless animal-themed races found in fantasy RPGs).

One reason that animals show up a lot in mythology is that they're conceptually familiar. It's the kind of term that can be used to verbally describe an unknown concept - it's been suggested, for example, that a unicorn is based on descriptions of rhinoceroses as being essentially "a horse with a horn". Animals provide a baseline that can be understood and connected to already-known things. They also provide a ready-made design - just throw a bull's head onto a human, bam, you've got yourself a monster. Even Cthulhu, a beacon of interstellar incomprehensibility, was basically described as being "squid-faced", and that's the part that people remember.

Even with less directly "realistic" monsters, there are still a lot of sensory elements that can be used to make them feel more tangible. A monster's skin can be slimy, leathery, scaly, or coarse; their breath can be foul, fetid, rotting, or noxious; their roar can be piercing, deafening, or rumbling. The use of such adjectives connects the fictional construct of "a monster" to real, understandable concepts and allows them to aggregate together to form a larger whole. The more the description and art can convey those senses, the more "real" the monster will feel. The monster itself doesn't need to be realistic - that's not what we're concerned about right now - but it should feel tangible and comprehensible.

Basically, any given monster - from a troll to an ogre to a gelatinous cube to a beholder - is made up of recognizable parts. In some cases it might be a bit of a stretch to connect the "real-life" equivalent to the monster, but it's still helpful to have a point of reference. Making use of real descriptors can overcome the barriers between having a monster who exists only as fantasy and a monster that feels a lot more "real" to the player. It allows the player to bring their real-life experience to bear when trying to comprehend a largely unrealistic world.

What fantasy treats as "magic" isn't really that abstract. It's generally a reliable, observable phenomenon due to the mechanics and rules of the game system. If you combine elements x, y, and z, you can throw a fireball. In addition, what magic actually does is generally based on real things, whether it's freezing someone or creating a gust of wind or making someone stronger. Magic is based on concepts that exist in real life, and by leveraging that general fact sensory elements like touch and smell can be reinforced.

When people say "it's fantasy, it doesn't need to be realistic", they're undermining the senses that cannot be portrayed. A cartoon has no smell, a film has no taste, a game has no touch (at least not yet). Even these fantastic elements, though, can be easily connected to real-life things through these simple methods, and this will give the audience and the players a greater appreciation for what's being shown. This should aid in their immersion and their suspension of disbelief.

So, To Sum Up:
1) If magic is reliable, then it's a resource or tool just like any other part of the environment, and should be used as such. If people aren't using it that way, there should be some explanation of why that is.
2) Spells generally try to simulate some real, understandable concept even if they do so in an abstract or "unrealistic" fashion. By evoking the intended reaction or material, the spell's effect can be made more impressive and tangible based on the audience's understanding of it in real life.
3) Monsters are almost inherently unrealistic, but by taking aspects and concepts used in real animals, a connection to the monster's sensory nature can be created.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The player/character relationship

A key element for writing a convincing character is to convey the idea that their universe is real to them. Their decisions have weight and impact - their losses are tragic, their victories are triumphant, the sensations they feel are connected to what's happening to them and around them, and so on. This comes from a direct, fully-sensory link to the universe: what's happening to the character is, well, what's happening to the character. If they get slashed with a sword, then all the associated baggage of being slashed with a sword should occur to them unless there is a reason not to. The drama of the story hinges on the idea of the character actually caring about what happens to them - if they aren't interested, then why should the audience be?

The player, on the other hand, cannot be as invested, due to the combination of lacking sensory detail and "real-life" consequences. A player, like any member of an audience, can be deeply invested, and they can roleplay, but it's never going to be the same for them. There are a bunch of ways to try to make the player care about what happens - likable characters, events with consequences, all the aspects of believability discussed in previous articles - but ultimately "the game" is not reality.

However, one interesting correlation about this is that dissension usually arises in cases where a character cares and the player who controls them doesn't. In Grand Theft Auto 4, Nico Bellic switches from "concerned individual with friends and comrades that he cares about" to "guy who just ran over a sidewalk full of people for no apparent reason". In other sandbox games, like Saints Row 2, the sociopathic nature of the protagonist matches the player's usual actions much more closely. Of course, this isn't absolute - there are plenty of people who play games in a "character appropriate" way, but the issue is that it's not important or notable to the story. There's "the character" and there's "the player", and ne'er the two shall meet.

There are a couple different ways to approach this situation, going from most-divisive to most-immersive.

Independent Character / Controlling Player
This is the scenario described above. The character is their own person, and when not being controlled by the player they make decisions as they see fit. When the player is in control, they may act totally contrary to the way they see themselves and choose to act. The player is the character, for a given definition of "is", but the character is also their own person. One of the issues of believability regarding this setup is the fact that there's no repercussions for the player-controlled sections of the game. Perhaps the character will quip or remark in response to a situation, but there's no real commentary on what's happening. The rules tend to work differently, as well - the usual mix of "cutscene bullets kill you in one hit" and "dying is a big deal" and other gameplay/story segregation concepts.

An approach on this that I feel would be interesting is the idea of this divide existing in-universe as well as in the meta-sense. That is, the player represents a spirit or entity with no connection to their realm. Occasionally, the character allows the player to control their body and imbue it with superior speed, strength, etc. This addresses the issue of motivation (the player acts as a spirit that acts according to their own whims rather than consequences) as well as justifying the difference in action. Perhaps the player and character could even come into conflict depending on how their viewpoints differ. "Deadly Premonition" plays with this concept, but does not create an adversarial relationship out of it. It is less "direct possession" and more of an advisory role.

Dynamic Character / Choice-Making Player
Not all games make a character "independent". Some games, such as the majority of Western RPGs, make characters variable in differing ways. These are limited by the reactions that the developers include, as well as any existing meta-systems like a good/evil meter. In short, though, it seems like having decision-making aspects should make the game more believable - after all, now the player is invested in the character, and the character isn't simply an immobile, unresponsive part of a linear story.

However, I'd say that there is a downside to this concept, and it is that "there is no longer a protagonist who is part of the universe". The protagonist is now motivated by the player's decisions, and the player remains unconnected to the universe in terms of consequences and senses. It's more like the character is now an avatar for the player; even if the player is establishing roles and making decisions based on their conception of the character, their motivations are still based on whims, rather than consequences. Death is "Oh, I lost" and not, you know, death. Again, there's nothing you can really do about that - it's just that extending choice to the player character includes them in that disconnected state.

Essentially, the "RPG character" is a strange hybrid. On the one hand, they exist in the universe and are supposed to have all the sensory/consequence issues that real people have. On the other hand, their choices are made by a person who doesn't have any of those. This means that their choices aren't going to be made for the same reasons that real choices would be made except as a coincidental bit of roleplaying. Proper immersion can aid in the player making decisions that the character would be motivated to make, but this is by creating sympathy or evoking similar emotions. It's a complicated scenario, but "making the player care as though the world was real" is the goal of a lot of RPGs.

I should note that, theoretically speaking, there are two kinds of DC/CMP setups:
1) The character exists as their own person, but the player influences the kind of person they are (think Shepard from Mass Effect). This is often used to try and make up for the limitations of video games: you can't really make an "open-ended" protagonist, so the next best thing is to make a linear one with branching paths. You have to be Shepard, but you can choose how Shepard acts and what he or she looks like. You can't choose their voice though. The voice is there forever.

2) The character is created by the player (think any pen-and-paper RPG). This allows for the player to adopt a far broader range of roles even within the confines of the setting, but is difficult to execute in a game that relies on premade dialogue. In a P&P game, the "dialogue" is naturally generated, so it's okay to do that. In a video game, it has to be written out beforehand (with some room for dynamic generation), so a few "personalities" develop (Good Protagonist, Evil Protagonist, etc) which is the most likely cause for the first category's existence.

"The Player As A Character"
Similar to the scenario I described above where the player is an advisor or spirit, some games go with the idea that the player and their interface directly represents a character in its own right. For example, in "MechCommander", the game display and HUD and so on are explained as being the MechCommander interface. The player is a Mech Commander, and the "game" is the program they're using to command their mechs. This can be seen in the opening movie, where the (non-player) commander uses an interface similar to the game's interface to direct his units. The hacking-based game "Uplink" is another example: the interface is meant to be directly equivalent to an in-universe program. Even fantasy games can get in on it - in "Dungeon Keeper" and "Black and White", the player represents an ethereal spirit disconnected from the "real world" but able to influence it in various ways. When the player is "damaged", what's being damaged is their connection to the world.

In terms of immersion, this can be the best concept (if properly explained). There's as few unexplained game things between "the player" and "the player's role" as possible. The lack of connection might even be noted - what risk is there to the commanding officer throwing their soldiers' lives into combat? The relationship between a player and their troops might well be the same as the in-universe relationship between a commander and their subordinates. Like in previous examples, they may care and take things seriously, or they may not - it's all up to their whim. Unlike previous examples, this is something that makes sense in-universe, because now there is a reason for all the disconnected elements. Of course, there are still limitations on content and dynamic generation, but in general the link between the player and their role is much stronger.

So, To Sum Up:
1) The character cares about things in-universe because they're happening to the character. The player cares about things in-universe in a detached or isolated way - at best sympathetic, at worst sociopathic.
2) This divide means that players and characters make decisions for different reasons - even if both have a reason to do things in "the most optimal way", the different factors mean that "optimal" results in a different set of choices.
3) One way around this is to make the character the same as the player, sharing the same limitations on sensory information and the same disconnect from events. This explains the player's decision-making process in-universe, because they're a powerful, untouchable being whose whims determine their course of action.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Role-playing mechanics

A tabletop RPG, in the hands of a sufficiently dedicated gamemaster, can do a lot of things. It can allow for freedom of expression in terms of social interaction, character development, and improvisational decision-making. The adaptability of a human being creates avenues for dynamically generated content that computers cannot hope to match. Every "computer RPG" lacks the fundamental "role-playing" aspect, instead being forced into a combination of increasing statistics and canned responses.

However, tabletop does have its weaknesses (or potential weaknesses). A tabletop RPG is constrained to a turn-based system because of the limitations of pen, paper, and dice. In addition, what computers lack in creativity they make up for in calculation, as even a simple computer game contains computations that would take hours to accomplish if done by hand (imagine playing a game of Starcraft and having to roll for every shot). The nature of the game, as narrated by the GM, differs from the gameplay concept of modern games. These are the kinds of elements that can reduce player immersion, even if the story is well-executed and reacts to player influence.

The basic assumption here is this: for roleplay purposes, it helps if the gameplay supports what the characters are meant to be doing. This is a topic I have addressed before (in this post), but I did not analyze the direct issues of tabletop limitations. Therefore, the concepts I will be looking at all relate to that basic thesis.

Turn-Based Systems
"Taking turns" is a nigh-unavoidable part of a tabletop game. Naturally, it's also a part that doesn't make much sense with regards to visualization. Initiative works well as an immediate concept, but the longer the turn, the less sense it makes. For example, in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, each character's turn consists of one full action or two half actions. Some examples of half actions are swinging your weapon, moving your normal distance (8 yards for a human), or taking an item out of an accessible location like a pouch or scabbard. While this may not seem like a lot, the fact that you can do two of these things without interruption (for the most part) can complicate things, making it possible to run eight yards past a person and stab him in the side.

WFRP has some ways to try to deal with this. A character can delay their turn, reserving a half-action for later use at a time of their choosing. In addition, attacks can be parried either through taking a defensive stance or through the presence of a shield or parrying dagger. These are little touches, but they help establish the idea of "action-reaction" rather than each person taking their own individual turn with no potential actions taken. A similar concept was attempted with "attacks of opportunity" in 3rd Edition, but those were complex enough to be distracting for a lot of players.

Still, the idea of a "long turn" doesn't connect well to reality. Let's look at the most basic initiative concept in real life: a gunfight. Two gunmen are staring each other down, and each moves to draw his weapon. Whoever gets theirs out faster gets a shot off first. This is a basic concept that can be connected to initiative: both try to draw, one goes first (or they tie), they shoot. However, think about how small the time-frame involved is. Both men are moving at the same time - it's just that one gets their gun out first. The longer the turn is, the less realistic it is. In WFRP, for example, whoever won initiative would be able to move a full 8 yards and draw his gun, or draw and shoot, before the other person was even able to touch theirs.

Imagine we cut that down to one "half action" per turn. Now each person can draw their weapon, move, or shoot. Less will be accomplished per turn, but hopefully the increased speed of each turn will make up for it. Of course, there's still the meta-issue of thinking time - that is, the amount of time a player can spend determining what his or her move will be. The game "Paranoia" addresses this by giving the player only a few scant seconds to make a decision, leading to scenarios where a player's surprised reaction to an event essentially becomes the same as a character's surprised reaction to that event.

Armor and Damage
Properly representing damage is a questionable aspect of a game. On the one hand, people are relatively fragile - not as fragile as they might be made out to be, but not as tough as games make them, either. The problem with this is the issue of random chance: in pen-and-paper, "try not to roll low, and hope the other guy doesn't roll high" is the best you can do most of the time. The player can influence probability, but cannot directly ensure avoidance of damage. Therefore, "hit points" act as a sort of abstract buffer representing a combination of near-misses, minor scratches, and glancing blows.

Still, there's a divide between those "glancing blows" and a direct hit. Say, for example, you're sneaking up on a guard. You manage to get behind him and stab him in the throat. How do you justify that damage? Even if you're talking about normal, non-stealthy combat, there's always the chance someone's going to catch a spear in the throat. Guns have it even worse; a gun battle is entirely based on "probability", meaning that even if you're taking cover, with enough bullets someone's going to hit you. This is why it's okay for Demon's Souls to have low hit points, but why most single-player FPS games generally wouldn't have it. Even a skilled player can't really do anything about "getting shot", there's no hard counter to it.

Armor in games seems like it should have a pretty simple role. If you get hit in an area with armor on it, you take less damage depending on the type of armor and the type of weapon. D&D, on the other hand, popularized the bizarre "armor class" system - wearing armor makes you harder to hit. The end result of this decision was that armor became like dodging, and by 3rd Edition it turned out you could dodge more easily using dexterity bonuses instead of bothering to wear armor that slowed you down. Shields are treated even worse, providing a measly 1-or-2-point bonus despite their huge importance in real combat. The misrepresentation of these defensive items makes them seem worthless, and in game terms they are. The issue is that there's no believable reason for them to be so worthless, so it only works as a meta-concept.

Damage issues are excusable as a necessity of the genre, since it's hard to allow for survival/defensive tactics if you die in one hit (and that one hit is entirely based on luck). However, armor seems like it should be rendered more sensibly. As with any other gameplay mechanic, changing the role and purpose of armor changes the overall dynamic to the point that it can no longer be connected to real life. Providing reasons to wear armor that are similar to the actual reasons that people wear armor will solve this problem.

Calculation and Detail
Let's say we've got an interesting mechanic to put into a game: a stamina meter. Emulating games like Demon's Souls or Vindictus, we create a way for a character to be "tired out" by taking action, requiring some rest after strenuous activity. It wouldn't be too hard to implement it theoretically - different actions cause different amounts of fatigue, and your maximum stamina is determined by your toughness or constitution. However, there is one problem with this idea: it would be a major hassle for people to keep track of. Players would have to constantly adjust their stamina level every turn, and the value of representing reality would be overcome by the slowdown in the action.

This is a pervasive problem between tabletop and video games. Video games handle calculations automatically, so it's no problem to throw in more detail - the computer can deal with it. In contrast, the GM has to deal with everything. There's only so many elements that can be introduced at a time, and having too many is likely to not only slow down combat - not to mention the fact that the GM might overlook something and not include it in the calculation. The GM is only human, and cannot be expected to keep track of every single potential factor.

In essence, a balance must be struck between "how many things are influencing an event" and "how long it takes to calculate/deal with that event". It's important to include tactical bonuses for the environment, because that's a strategic decision on the player's part - failing to give bonuses for things like using concealment or cover would go against the whole point of thinking tactically. However, all the different factors are added up, and GMs should find some way of maintaining awareness of what factors apply to what people. Singling out the factors that matter in a strategic or tactical sense maintains some sense of connection while still allowing for human fallibility.

Here are some other situations where a potentially-immersive mechanic might end up overwhelming the GM and the players:
- Ammunition and food in a non-survival campaign.
- Money below a certain threshhold (such as copper pieces in most games).
- Spell components in a game that doesn't include them as part of the adventuring process.
- Wear and tear on equipment (weapons and armor).
- Traveling distance and minutiae.

All of these things, I suspect, would make a game more immersive, and be easily included in a computer game. However, in a game that forces you to manually keep track of them, any time spent on items like this is going to end up diverting from game time. Therefore, it is the GM's responsibility to decide what concepts are important enough to be worth it and what concepts would just slow the game down.

One thing I appreciated about AD&D versus a lot of newer games is the amount of stuff that's just there to be looked up if necessary. AD&D has fairly few mechanics, so the Dungeon Master's Guide is full of stuff like "how much it costs to build a castle" or "how to deal with hirelings" or "where to find certain kinds of herbs and what they do". It's reference material - stuff that won't be necessary for standard game, but provides an answer if a player tries to do something unorthodox, but logical.

This is a key element for fleshing out a setting. It doesn't burden the main game by adding additional mechanics for standard concepts, but it does provide a way for the GM to have an answer when it's necessary. Think about it: the GM is basically running the entire world. If something happens, the GM needs to know how it happened. If the game can't provide that information, where are they supposed to get it from? This article by S. John Ross (recommended reading) details all the demographics and scale of a medieval country - but how is a GM supposed to deal with that much information in the normal course of the game? Should a GM be knowledgeable about every conceivable subject in case it comes up?

By providing a suitably large reference area, these issues can be mediated in a simple, game-connected way. This connects to my article regarding tools and their usage: by having all this information at hand, the way that "tools" interact with "environment" can be logically understood. It helps the GM know what to expect and makes locations and places seem more plausible. The Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, for example, is an entire book dedicated to caves and mining. It's not something that introduces new rules or classes or anything - it's just information about cave-related activities as expressed in game terms. It's an entire book of "things that might be helpful to consider and include in your game".

Here's the important thing about this: the core game is not made more complex. Instead, this information is highly situational, meaning that it's only necessary if it actually comes up. A lot of games, I think, introduce new content that gets used more often, which ends up being unwieldy and unbalanced as every new class is sort of awkwardly forced into the main game. "Reference information" exists when it needs to be relevant - no more, no less.

A good rule of thumb for reference material is "if a skill is available, it should have an associated list of tasks or uses". Lots of games allow character to take esoteric proficiencies like "mining" or "survival" or "trade" without really going into what those skills can do. If a character can smith, then they should know what they can smith, how much material is required, and what tools are needed to carry out the task. It's easy to just write down Trade (Blacksmith) and leave it at that - but what's the point if neither the GM nor the player reasonably know what to expect from it, or what it can do? What's the point of taking the "herbalism" skill if there's no list of herbs and where they would be found? What's the point of taking the "alchemy" skill if there's no list of potions and elixirs that can be brewed? Reference material exists to answer questions, and one frequent set of questions is "what am I supposed to do with this skill?"

The two main obstacles to a plausible tabletop RPG are the limitations of the medium and the idea that information is unwieldy. Dealing with the first is a manner of crafting a system that attempts to overcome these limitations by reducing the unrealistic or unbelievable aspects of the game. Dealing with the second is a question of doing so in an efficient, streamlined manner that operates under a consistent logical concept.

One of the thing that continually baffles me is that games continue to use "real-time combat" as the standard when it comes to cinema. The intros for many MMOs, from Final Fantasy 11 to Warhammer Online, are represented with dynamic, action-based combat. In practice, their combat is, well, MMO standard. What's funny to me is that "real-time action combat" is held up as the exciting standard that the game wants to live up to, but in practice it's still two guys swinging at each other's general directions even though we have games at this point that could easily replicate the kind of action found in those opening cutscenes.

This is largely what bothers me about "new editions" of D&D. What they focused on was the flawed parts - things like alignment and character class and armor class that served an iconic, but unrealistic, purpose. Then, in order to make room for more things like that, they got rid of a lot of the reference concepts and the few remaining bits of grounded combat systems. It's clear that what's being attempted is the kind of cinematic combat that those intros represent, but games seem almost afraid to address them directly, instead preferring to sink in a mire of self-referential mechanics. The game becomes more and more complex, but in a way that's opposed to believability, instead of supporting the developing story.

To sum up:
1) The shorter turns are, the more immediate and "real-time" the events will feel, and the more adaptability the player will have in response to new stimuli or threats.
2) Damage and health in games is connected to the randomness of combat. However, armor in games should logically serve the same function that it does in real life - absorbing damage, rather than aiding evasion.
3) Including more detail connects players to the results of their actions, but may overwhelm the GM. Deciding what information is important and what is not, or how to maximize the important information, is a major step in being a GM.
4) Having extra material "on-hand" is a good way to make sure that creativity and exploration are encouraged by establishing ground rules for carrying out unorthodox activities. Making sure that these extra rules only exist when needed is a way to keep the core game simple.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Analysis: Warhammer Fantasy

To follow up on my previous analysis of Warhammer 40,000, I thought it only fitting that I should address its source: Warhammer Fantasy, one of the most grim, down-to-earth "Tolkein-esque" settings there is. Unlike Warhammer 40,000, Warhammer Fantasy has a lot less to justify: It's the world of the 1500s with monsters and demons overlayed on it. No, really, look at the map. While many fantasy settings use existing cultures to influence their fictional ones, Warhammer Fantasy is "1500s Europe" in all but name - and even those names aren't fooling anyone ("Tilea" is "Italy"? I never would have guessed!). This means that it essentially has an existing framework for everything and can justify a lot more - unlike 40k, which required a lot of explanations for why society is basically in the dark ages when they're zipping around in spaceships.

This, I believe, is one of its strengths. We already know the Warhammer world, because it's ours. Sure, it's our world from a few hundred years ago, but it's still our world. We can identify that the Empire is Germany, or that Bretonnia is France (combined with the Arthurian Myths), or any of the other connections. Other settings have their work cut out for them when it comes to connecting to the audience. Warhammer Fantasy just has to sit back and let history do its work for it. Of course, this is highly connected to the established artistic style that has accompanied Warhammer throughout its lifespan, but even that artistic style was made easier through that historical record. Instead of having to extrapolate what people of the future would be wearing, Warhammer Fantasy just goes ahead and gives everyone period-appropriate clothing, weapons, and armor. It all works because it's already "made sense" once before in real life. It also allows a lot of existing aesthetics to be used in a new context, that being the context of magic and monsters and other fantasy elements.

Because of those historical origins, Warhammer Fantasy is probably one of the most grounded fantasy franchises. Everything feels like something "real" interacting with something "fantastic": peasant levies with bows and halberds going up against monstrous rats, flamboyant Landsknechts fighting demons, or winged hussars battling ogres. Everything feels like steel and cloth and wood and leather, without delving into the more fantastic materials that many "High Fantasy" franchises explore. In the past I've talked about how armor design can influence believability; since Warhammer's armor is based on actual armor of the period, it naturally does quite well. Everything feels solid and real, even the fairly impractical (but justified) armor of the Chaos Warriors. In fact, I would say that the "normal" elements actually make the "fantastic" elements a lot more believable, in a similar manner to Demon's Souls. By establishing that the universe runs on "real rules", it feels much more impressive when a dragon or a demon or a giant is brought out. It's immediately visible that a normal human being is going to fight a monster, and more than likely they are going to lose one-on-one.

One important thing to note about Warhammer Fantasy versus Warhammer 40,000 is that the latter is an attempt to fit the former's dynamic. Everything takes place at incredibly short ranges, thus justifying the presence of melee weapons like the infamous chainsword. Space Marines are essentially "space knights", complete with heraldry and religious devotion. The armies of the Imperial Guard could easily be considered like the conscript armies of Fantasy shifted forward in time (although their weapons are kept roughly the same in terms of range). The Orcs or Orks are brutal and primitive in both settings, but in 40k they have to explain why they can make guns and spaceships (hence the "they innately know" explanation).

In Fantasy, however, the baseline standard pretty much works. The ranges are what they need to be, and the rules match the setting. The only thing that really needs to be explained are the Bretonnians, who operate on tactics and technology a few hundred years behind the setting's standard (maille and bows instead of plate and guns). This is justified by magic within the setting, but it's nowhere near as much of a stretch as "Orks literally make machines work by thinking they do". Magic in Warhammer is fairly subtle, and like 40k has negative consequences associated with its use (thus explaining why it hasn't replaced technology). In Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, for example, wizard characters (rare as they are) will only be able to use a few cantrips until they hit an advanced career - but making use of those cantrips is part of the gameplay.

One aspect of this difference is the nature of the uniforms. Much like actual uniforms of the period, uniforms are bright and colorful, declaring the allegiance of the wearer right out in the open. This creates a function similar to that of the Space Marines, where a player can easily customize their own units and heraldry, or use an existing pattern. However, the uniforms worn by most troops are stylistically similar, but not actually uniform. In the game "Warhammer: Mark of Chaos", this is represented by having randomized parts for each unit, like so. This creates a sense of variety, but maintains the sense that everyone's in the same unit (in part due to the bright, identifiable colors). I thought this worked well in multiplayer matches, where the presence of things like banners made it easily identifiable whose troops were whose (which is the real purpose of having such bright uniforms), but the individual differences made them all feel like people.

One field in which I feel Warhammer Fantasy is inferior to Warhammer 40,000 is the issue of scale. In 40k, I liked the fact that there were a limitless number of worlds with different cultures, united by an underlying Imperial creed. In fantasy, there's certainly a large world (extending far beyond the reaches of Fantasy Europe), but there's a limit to it all. Not a huge limit, mind you, since most of the world is still unexplored, but still a limit. If you want to play Empire troops, they're going to be Empire troops. There's no room for the variety of 40k's Imperial Guard. Perhaps the variety of uniforms makes up for it, but that was one aspect of 40k that cannot be replicated in such a limited world.

However, a way in which Fantasy makes up for this is the use of mercenaries. Warhammer 40k is one of the most black-and-white settings, not with regards to morality but with regards to allegiance. Other than the rare Eldar-Human alliance, everyone pretty much just sticks with their own side. In Warhammer Fantasy the only real "permanent" enemies of humanity are Chaos and the Skaven. The Dogs of War can be hired by anyone except Bretonnia (for honor-related reasons), and their numbers range from the reasonable (crossbowmen and pikemen) to the unusual (ogres and giants) to the outlandish (a renegade elf mounted on a dragon). This makes the setting seem a lot less divided; war's just war, there's not necessarily a huge moral concept behind it all of the time.

Characters in the Warhammer universe usually seem more relatable than most 40k characters, as well. Perhaps this is because of the comparative simplicity of the world, but it's established that everyone from the lowest peasant to the highest wizard or king is still essentially a person. A heroic, powerful person - but a person nonetheless. In 40k, the presence of things like personal force field and genetic mutation make the difference between "weak" and "strong" much more noticeable. There's no Space Marines in Fantasy, and while knights naturally take their role, they're simply more trained and better equipped than normal soldiers. Even an experienced character in WFRP can die in a few lucky hits. Despite the presence of magic, there's nobody who's really "superhuman" to the extent of 40k. Everyone is operating under the same rules of reality, even if they can use magic.

Given all these concepts - the realism, the grounding, and the lethality of the setting - I'd like to briefly examine Warhammer Online. While I felt that Mark of Chaos did a good job of trying to maintain the feel of the setting despite graphical limitations, I can't say the same about WHO. Compare this picture (from Mark of Chaos) to this one (from WHO). The proportions and materials are noticeably different; everything in WHO seems cartoonish and exaggerated, almost like it's trying to imitate World of Warcraft while still technically being able to call itself Warhammer. The gameplay doesn't really match up with the setting either. Warhammer is about things being difficult, but overcome through hard work and risk. Warhammer Online is an MMO. It takes iconic characters and classes and uses them, but it's nowhere near the same feeling as the rest of the universe. It lacks the same base of reality, which is not only an aspect of "believability" but also one of the series' identifying characteristics.

To sum up:
1) Warhammer Fantasy uses familiar history and transposes it with monsters and magic. This establishes familiar, grounded material and concepts while still allowing for more "fantastic" elements.
2) Unlike 40k, Warhammer Fantasy's gameplay is largely in line with its background, due to the established limitations on technology and development.
3) The grim lethality of the game emphasizes its basis in reality, rather than seeming like an artificial construct to make things more "dark and edgy".

Friday, January 21, 2011

Improvisation resources

In the last post, I discussed the nature of creative improvisation with regards to establishing believability. The key point was that doing things "in-universe", in an explainable or justifiable way, makes the action more tangible for the player. As a follow-up to that concept, I think it's only fair to discuss how such improvisation can be aided and benefited. Certainly it's easy enough to say "you should do things that make sense", but it's not exactly fair to do that without some sort of guideline or examples.

In this post we'll be looking at resources as grouped by general type. Resources play a lot of different roles - in addition to a direct tactical role, the concept of "improving" these different things can also play a part in motivating or rewarding players. It's one thing to give your players a chest full of gold, but then the question becomes "what do they spend it on?" and "how does this help them flex their creative muscles?"

"Equipment" in this context means the character's main methods of attack and defense: weapons and armor. This is probably the most directly important resource, and generally receives the most focus. Equipment serves as a "character upgrade": if a character puts on better armor, then they can take more hits. It's generally passive, rather than active - while there might be tactical options for different weapon and armor types, throwing a "high-quality" or a "+1" on it won't really change the dynamic. It will, however, create a sense of marked, notable improvement.

However, apart from "magic", there's not always justification for things being better. In more "realistic" games, an artificial divide is created so that the sense of direct improvement can be sustained. "Assassin's Creed 2" had the protagonist buying improving weapons and armor through the course of the game; the armor is somewhat justifiable, but the weapons seem less so (especially since things like weapon type are largely unimportant). "Far Cry 2" went through the same thing - two guns that fire the same round in real life were made artificially different to serve as the "low-level" and "high-level" assault rifles, which made the game feel fake and ungrounded despite the amount of detail work that went into it.

While there is advancement in real life, it's primarily a matter of quality and situational value. This gets brought over to video games in a sort of vague way (shotguns and SMGs for close range, rifles for long range), but has to be way more extensive due to the longevity of the game. The less "realistic" weapons are, the more they can be specialized into their own niche roles. While weapons in real life have different uses and can be customized in many different ways, these differences are often subtle enough that they simply don't register in an abstracted game.

Essentially, equipment choice is going to come down to attributes. This includes things like range, damage, and speed. In an action game, the actual method of attack is part of this as well - swords slash, spears stab, and so on. In an RPG, the mechanics of actually swinging a sword are usually abstracted, so it's not part of equation. If attributes are properly represented, then weapon choice can be an avenue for a player's tactics. If they aren't, then players are going to be restricted (hence my griping about the hand weapons in WFRP). Also, enchanted weapons include more opportunities than a simple "+1" bonus; magic also includes the addition of various properties, such as fire or lightning, that serve as another resource for the player to draw upon.

If equipment represents the passive arm of the player's inventory, then "tools" covers the active part. Unlike equipment, tools must be used in a given situation. If it's dark, use a lantern. If there's a wall, use a grappling hook. If there's a lock, use a lockpick. If there's a chest, use a crowbar. It's a simple mechanic dating back to adventure games, although the limitation of adventure games is often that there's only one use for each item.

Ideally, tools should be examined in terms of their effects. A crowbar provides leverage. A lantern provides light. With magic items, one can get more creative, but the basic concept is the same: This is an x. It does y. Having a consistent effect allows for creativity by applying it to a problem. In that way, tools are essentially verbs added to the player's arsenal. When looking at a situation, each tool adds to the repertoire of what the player can do: fire can burn, ice can freeze, and so on.

One of the most prominent examples of a tool-centric game is, naturally, "The Legend of Zelda". In Zelda, every item you pick up has some use outside of direct combat. Bombs can open secret passages, shields can reflect beams, bows can shoot switches, boomerangs can retrieve items, and so on. Every item has some way to be applied, and while the dungeons may be very specific about what things are used where, it's still a lot more creative than "slash everything that's in your way". The main limitation is that each item applies to a specific type of area - you can only bomb cracked walls, for example.

With pen-and-paper games, that limitation should be gone (for the most part). Programmers can only implement so many ways that items interact, but a human being's adaptability means that a DM should be able to react to new information on the fly. If a character wants to use some string to set up a tripwire-based trap, or use explosives to collapse a tunnel on some enemies, then the DM should be able to include that in a reasonable manner.

Tools aren't limited to items, naturally. Spells are tools of a sort as well: they provide a reliable effect that can be applied to different situations. This is most obvious with cantrips, because their low-power abilities are really only useful when applied to something. If you've got a fireball spell, you can launch it at a crowd of foes, but if you've only got a little tiny flame, you're going to have to find something creative to do with it. In that way, "magic" isn't necessarily a detriment to realism - it's just a way to create effects that wouldn't otherwise be present. 

One aspect of both equipment and tools is creating and improving those items. In many games, this is done simply through purchasing them: there's enough ways to make money that it's no big deal to say "okay my character spends some gold on the miscellaneous stuff I'd need to cast my spells". However, the idea of this update is finding more ways for the players to interact with the game. Materials provide a way to do this.

In a fantasy RPG, for example, most player-characters will spend their time hacking through monsters and looting dungeons. However, killing a monster can be based too much on the loot they're guarding. Many games try to deal with this by assigning value and use to the monster's body itself, as spell components or potion ingredients or what have you. This creates a direct link between "killing a monster" and "getting something out of it", as opposed to the more vague concept of a monster guarding a valuable item.

Skinning works best as long as the monster is reasonably threatening, and the value of the item is appropriate to the reward. As long as there's risk to the player characters, then the option of hunting a specific monster kind is more of a weighted tactical decision. In contrast, if there's no risk, then it's just grinding: "We need four yeti pelts, let's head north". The risk transforms it from an inevitability to a choice. If you're going out to hunt a powerful monster, there's a balance of risk versus reward.

Monsters aren't the only source of materials, though. Materials can be gathered in less violent ways, such as simple collection. Herbalism, for example, relies on the idea that there are plants in the wild to be identified and harvested. Spell components cover a wide variety of materials, but the most famous is probably "bat guano", necessary to cast a fireball in AD&D. It's one thing to buy that in a town, but actually having to scrape bat droppings off of a cave wall ensures that an enterprising wizard will make every fireball count.

Some games go for the "skinning" option, but don't necessarily follow through with the "doing something with it" part. There's plenty of games where you can turn in skins or body parts for cash, but not all of them include the option to use them for something. That's the important part here - the use of materials to construct new tools, whether as improvised weapons, gadgets, or spell components.

Making an environment work for you is one of the basics of tactics. From simple concepts like cover and concealment to advanced projects like defensive earthworks, there are plenty of ways to factor one's surroundings into the game plan. Using the environment is just as important as any other tool or ability, although more specifically "the environment" is a thing to use tools and abilities on. For example, at the battle of Crecy, concealed pits and sharpened logs were able to hold back the impetuous French knights who charged headlong at the English archers. Trenches and earthworks have long been used as defensive positions. The practice of "mouse-holing" changed the dynamic of urban warfare. Adapting tactics and items to the environment is a key part of planning.

In most video games, the environment is just sort of there. It's best described as a set of impenetrable outer walls holding objects and characters. Concepts like "GeoMod" attempt to do something with this, but it's not always feasible. All the permutations necessary - deliberate and otherwise - might be considered too much to pull off. However, when it does happen, it's usually a pretty intriguing gameplay mechanic. If the terrain's destructible, then that becomes as much a part of the dynamic as anything else. What was formerly unimportant is now a major part of the game, and cover that was formerly reliable now breaks apart or collapses.

For example, in "Company of Heroes", destructible terrain results in things like a garrisoned house suddenly gaining new firing ports, or an artillery crater that's usable as cover, or walls being blown apart by explosives. This reshapes the battlefield and changes the tactical dynamic, meaning that what was once a vulnerable section is now exposed, or what was once a secure area can now be flanked. Company of Heroes also allows the opposite: building up defensive positions with sandbags, barbed wire, tank traps, and land mines. Both creation and destruction use the environment in a dynamic, shifting manner.

In the realm of pen-and-paper, the improvisation of the DM once again comes to the forefront. These sort of tactics require adaptability and flexibility that most video games simply can't handle. Whether it's using spells to knock down trees and rocks or just using a shovel to dig a ditch, there should always be ways to affect the environment. Once rules for the terrain involved are established, it's just a matter of considering how long it takes and what it will accomplish. It can range from the short-term (whip up a quick plan in a dungeon) to the long-term (build a defensive position against orcish invaders).

People who talk about AD&D often underestimate how important henchmen, hirelings, and retainers were. Almost every class gained retainers eventually; fighters became lords, clerics became abbots, mages gained students, and so on. The important thing about underlings is that all the other resources apply to them as well. Every decision that is made for a single PC is also made for the PC's subordinates. People who have played games like X-COM or Jagged Alliance will understand easily: it's not just about making one person the best, it's about upgrading everyone as well as they can be upgraded.

Subordinates must often be equipped and given items, which affects the economic role of the player. It's easy to advance if you're buying swords and armor only for yourself - what about if you're paying for a whole armory? There is a Japanese anecdote where a lord is reprimanded for buying an expensive sword when its cost could have paid for thousands of spears. The same principle applies here: most games escalate to the inclusion of magic because the influx of money is only used on one person. How hard is it to collect some gold to buy some mail armor or plate? In a "realistic" setting, though, you've pretty much hit the top at that point, hence the need for magic to provide all the bonuses that keep things escalating. On the other hand, you could hire a bunch of friends, and make sure that they all have good equipment as well. The focus on small bands of player-characters generally prevents this in most RPGs.

Subordinates are also useful for carrying out plans, because they increase the scale of the endeavor. The planning stage of a battle goes from "deciding what to do" to "giving orders to a small group" to "giving orders to entire armies". Each new hireling is an addition to the tactical dynamic, requiring more and more complex plans (and more and more people to carry them out). For a lone PC, "gathering materials" might just be some herb-gathering; for an army, it could be staking out mines and setting up operations. For a lone PC, "using the environment" means a few well-placed snares and spells; for an army, it means intensive construction and planning.

Subordinates also allow for a lot of roleplaying. I've talked in the past about making soldiers believable, and subordinates are a great place to put those concepts to use. A subordinate should feel like a real person with their own loyalties and mannerisms, not just a robot for the player to order around. This deepens the experience - not only does the subordinate feel more like a real person, but the player should feel like they're interacting with a real person, which adds weight to their command position. One thing I liked about Warhammer Fantasy was the hireling system, where different factors would influence whether or not a hired subordinate would be willing to do something for you. A simple request would be most likely done, while a request like "throw yourself at that dragon" would require some major loyalty to even attempt.

In the movie "Kingdom of Heaven", the main character, Balian, gains some territory and some followers. He is thus able to interact more meaningfully with his environment, either through civil means (helping to construct irrigation systems on his land) or military ones (leading his men in a charge to help save civilians). Some of his men are around fairly frequently, and the audience sees if they live or die - although they didn't really get enough characterization to make that effective. In a game, that's not a problem: a player interacts with their subordinates more often, and thus has more time to identify and characterize them.

Essentially, improvisation is just the application of "real logic" to different situations. However, it can mean the difference between a "normal" game, where everything just proceeds as usual, and a "special" game, where the players have a chance to really make a difference. Allowing for player input should draw the player in more than if they were just playing "by the rules". It's a question of believability by the nature of the interaction. If the DM or developer says "no, you can't interact with that", then it calls attention to the fakeness of the experience. Of course, it's not always possible to let everyone do everything, but if someone has an idea it's the role of the improvisational DM to react to that idea in a way that makes sense in the universe.

So, to sum up:
1) Choosing weapons and armor is part of a passive tactical dynamic, which should allow for player choice in terms of defeating a specific enemy type or playing to a character's strengths.
2) Tools represent the ways that a player interacts with the game world. Making these interactions logical and simple is an important aspect of connecting the player to that world.
3) Giving players a way to gather resources as part of their normal adventures provides a new perspective on resource accumulation, making it more intricate and personal than simply buying them.
4) The environment in a game represents an area that can be acted upon by tools. Making these actions logical and grounded rewards players who use creative thinking.
5) Subordinates reflect points 1-4 on a larger scale, which can represent power accumulation in a more direct way than simply "being stronger". In addition, subordinates provide an avenue for roleplaying and attachment, at least if they're fleshed out sensibly.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Improvisation and creativity

An M4 Sherman with sandbags as improvised frontal armor.
Improvisation is at the heart of innovation. Technology develops when people find new ways to improve mechanics. In any game, winning is a matter of using the environment and rules to your advantage. However, there can often be a divide between "the game's rules" and "the setting's rules". Something that's logical to the player may rely on a set of rules that don't actually exist in-universe. This is part of the necessities of abstraction: what the players are doing does not necessarily reflect what the characters are doing, and thus a gap is created between "in-universe" / "real" logic and "meta" logic. To put it bluntly: when you do something in a game, what does the character see? If your actions make sense as something the character is doing, then it's "real". If they're reliant on abstracted rule systems, then it's "meta".

For example, turn-based combat is a necessity of pen-and-paper role-playing games. Unlike a video game, it's almost impossible to make a P&P game "real-time". However, the worlds depicted in pen-and-paper games generally don't "see themselves" as being turn-based: it's an abstraction used to simulate real-time combat, in the same way that dice rolling represents a combination of the luck and skill of the combatant. Therefore, an action that makes the most out of the turn-based system will have good results in the meta-game sense, but not in the "roleplaying" sense.

The more complex and abstracted a rule system is, the more ways there are to exploit it in a manner that wouldn't make sense to the characters. One of the prime examples of this is the peasant railgun. The idea here is that the nature of the turn-based system means that an object can be passed hand-over-hand over 2 miles in the course of six seconds, which by real-life logic would accelerate it much like a railgun. It's a joke concept, and D&D doesn't have any rules about object acceleration anyways, but the point stands: this concept is possible because of the turn-based system, and would make no sense to the characters because they don't actually operate under those conditions. This is the difference. If a mage throws oil on an enemy and then uses a spell to set him on fire, that's "real logic". If the same mage exploits the turn-based system in some way, then that's "meta logic".

"Real Logic" is best described as an amalgamation of systems and reactions. There are specifically noted chemical reactions, and it is the use and exploitation of these reactions that leads to development. In real life, guns don't just "happen", they're a collected set of reliable sub-systems that produce a desired result: the ignition of gunpowder resulting in a controlled detonation, which propels a projectile, which is guided by the barrel to increase the accuracy (or reliability) of the event.

Almost every form of technology works along these lines: first there is a phenomenon, and then there is a use for it. First someone notices how sound can be carried, then someone figures how to use it for reliable communication. First someone notices how combustion can lead to mechanical motion, and then someone finds something to hook up to it. From the outside, it may appear that these items are innately complex, but in reality it's a lot of simple, fairly understandable reactions connected to form a much larger whole. Real logic can thus be described in terms of "problems", "tools", and "utilization". A problem is identified, and different tools are tried in different ways.

Arguably the most famous fictional improviser is MacGyver. While the memetic image of MacGyver suggests that his solutions were illogical or "magical", all of his solutions were based on at least some kind of logic. That's the appeal of improvisation, not just for MacGyver but in every sort of media: to come up with creative solutions within the confines of the setup. It's not about "doing anything with anything" so much as it's about problem-solving. Of course, the number of solutions present in the show mean that a huge number of them rely on some sketchy logic themselves, but at the time they're meant to make sense.

Another famous use of improvisational logic comes from Home Alone. Again, the realism of those traps is questionable on a lot of levels, but many of them are quick and easy conversions of normal items to obstacles, such as the shattered ornaments or the swinging paint can. The setup is: "Kevin needs to defend his house from robbers. At his disposal he has everything in the house." It is from this simple setup that Kevin creates most of his traps. Again, this is part of the appeal; the audience can connect to the simple household items that Kevin uses, and that makes it more believable. Of course, once floors start getting removed, it loses a lot of that plausibility. The whole point of Kevin's character is that he's finding ways to get the job done in creative ways using the resources he has. If "what he actually pulls off" exceeds "what should be expected of him given the resources he has access to", then that concept is undermined.

"Resources" are a big concept when it comes to real logic. This includes not just physical items but skills, spells, and abilities as well. Everything a character can do or use can be considered "important" when it comes to real logic, because "real logic" is the act of improvisation based on known reactions. An improvised explosive device, for example, is simply "something that creates an explosion" + "something to provide shrapnel" + "a way to set it off". Booby traps in Vietnam were made out of a hand grenade combined with something as simple as a tin can and a length of tripwire. Of course, when they had actual mines, they used them, but an IED is a way for guerillas to make up for a lack of "real" weapons with mundane items. Games can be the same way. In a tight spot, players can learn that everything in their inventory can have some value.

Some video games have managed to include improvisation, but to a limited extent due to the nature of the medium. In Dead Rising 2, you could combine items together, but only certain items, and only in certain ways. Therefore, it was less about "actual improvisation" and more about "figuring out what works for the programmers". The same was true of "Jagged Alliance 2" - you could make some gadgets out of mundane items you find, but what you could make was totally up to the developers. In both of these games, though, part of the gameplay is that there's a huge number of objects available to use. In Dead Rising, everything in the area (the mall or the strip) can be picked up and used, so "combining items" was a reasonable next step. In Jagged Alliance, there's not quite as much "normal stuff", but there's enough of it that finding ways to use them together makes sense.

"Hitman: Blood Money" included improvisation, but not in the same way. In Hitman, the player is given a limited area to work in, a specific number of people and tools in that area, and an objective. Finding ways to combine the tools and the environment often relied on real logic that was, itself, surprising. For example, Agent 47 carries around a syringe of poison. I was surprised to find out that, in one level, I could poison a cake that the target was going to eat. In real life logic, it might seem understandable, but in game logic this might not have been an option in many other games. The areas are large enough (and your methods vague enough) that actually figuring something out takes some level of creativity. Discussing methods with other players generally results in a lot of "oh, I should have tried that!" or something along those lines, because the exact methodology is so diverse.

Of course, I would be remiss in talking about video game improvisation without mentioning The Incredible Machine. This was a game all about the "basics", using simple machines and reactions to create more complex sequences. Depending on the scenario, more or less tools would be available, so often the player had to accomplish an objective given only tools x, y, and z. While there was some abstraction, most of the game could be accurately described as "using physics and chemistry to get things done". It's simple processes that are put together to create a chain reaction. Because it's working "from the ground up", it has a lot more leeway than a game with a wider focus.

In a video game, the logical reactions are limited by what the programmers include. In pen-and-paper, on the other hand, the improvisational capacity of the gamemaster is supposed to make it so that anything that makes sense is possible. It is the job of the players to figure out solutions based on what items and abilities they have on-hand, and this can be complicated by the capacities of their enemies. For example, in Dungeons and Dragons trolls can regenerate if not hit by acid or fire. Therefore, it is the players' job to find some way to apply acid or fire to the troll's body. Dealing with a monster is a process that involves either prior knowledge ("it's a troll, use fire on it") or trial-and-error ("it's not dying, try something else!"). Depending on how it's used, a monster's traits can be almost like a puzzle, rather than a tactical roadblock. Figuring out a monster's weakness while under pressure can create tense, memorable gaming situations.

A correlation of this is that the more powerful the player-characters are, the less likely they will be to try and improvise. Improvisation is a last resort, after all - why pick up a table leg if you have a perfectly functional mace? There's still some creativity when it comes to powerful magic, but the really creative stuff, when it comes to tabletop, involves the use of low-level magic spells like cantrips. How do you use something simple like "the ability to mimic a sound" or "the ability to summon a ghostly light" to overcome enemies? It certainly involves a more complicated setup than "throw a fireball at them". Yet, for a high-level party, there's no need to bother, because they're already got the solution. The less things they have, the more they'll have to make do with what they've got - and the more likely they'll find a creative solution. However, to make that feasible, you have to have enough mundane items for them to actually use creatively.

For example, one problem I had with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (a game I otherwise enjoy) is that certain things are simplified. Swords, maces, picks, and axes all fall under the general category of "hand weapons", and in stat terms they're all the same. In real life, of course, this is far from the case. Each of those weapons has a specific role, along with advantages and disadvantages - at the very least, swords and axes slash, maces crush, and picks pierce. By simplifying that aspect of weapon selection, a tool has been taken from the player. In a D&D game, a character might tote around a mace in case they encounter anything that's weak against bludgeoning damage, like a skeleton. By ignoring this, WFRP has removed a simple-but-effective player choice.

"Meta Logic" comes as a result of more complex rule systems that don't accurately represent what's actually meant to be going on. For example, when Dungeons and Dragons moved from AD&D and 2nd Edition to 3rd and 4th Edition, there was a flagrant switch in the nature of the game. 3e and 4e introduced a lot more rules about the specifics of combat and playing the game. This was meant to draw in players by making them more engaged with the direct mechanics of the game - to gain bonuses in the system. However, by doing so, focus was taken away from "real logic", and while there was a lot of overlap, the very nature of the game as being turn-based meant that a lot of the mechanics didn't have a "real" equivalent.

In 4e, this is most obvious with the nature of "powers", which are divided into "at-will", "encounter", and "daily". The nature of these powers is kind of ambiguous; generally, they're just sort of something that your class has, and as you level up, you get more. There's a lot of things abstracted in most RPGs - at the very least, "why does killing things make you directly more powerful, rather than just more wary or skilled?" However, 4th Edition powers get a remarkably low level of in-universe explanation. This is not helped by the nature of their usage. "At will" seems simple enough, especially when magic is involved, but how does a character justify an "encounter" power? If it was something like "they need to have a rest before they can use it again", why didn't they just make it like that?

Powers make plenty of sense for the rules. Here's how they work, that's how you use them, end of story. However, the question of "what do they actually do and why do they work like that" nags at the believability of the game. I've asked players what they think is happening, and the general response I get is that it's "narrative" - as in, the GM is weaving a story, and the players occasionally decide that something exciting should happen in the form of a move or maneuver. Maybe it's just me, but I can't see how this is more helpful than just saying "it's game mechanics", because it still doesn't explain what the characters see. Perhaps in a wargame it would be understandable to let that go, but the fact is that it's a roleplaying game: how can you play a role when you don't know what that character is actually doing?

This is actually kind of a staple of RPGs at this point. Everything from "hit points" to "challenge rating" is expressed in terms that don't make sense to the characters. A character knows "I'm hurt", but they don't know "I have 4 HP left" - and if they said something like that, it would be unusual. People invest so much in the "numbers game" that the issue of explaining what the characters are doing is less and less important. This is a question of gameplay and story segregation, which is understandable in a computer RPG, but baffling in a pen-and-paper one. The point of using a human DM as opposed to a computer is that a person can improvise, and improvisation can lead to new and exciting story developments that would not have happened normally. "Meta logic" simply relies on following the established rules, which is something that computers can already do perfectly.

Now, I should note here that if you enjoy playing games that use meta-logic, then I have no problem with that. However, it does seem to undermine the role playing process, at least in terms of creative solutions. If you have all the answers right there on your powers list, then why would things like "improvising" ever be important? I don't even like particularly powerful spells, even in older editions; it's not a question of "mechanics", it's a question of "doing a lot with a little". If you don't have everything laid out in front of you, then you end up figuring out what you can do with the little that you have.

What I enjoy about low-power RPGs like "AD&D" and "Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay" is the simple nature of the concept. It's not about getting the most out of your stats, it's about "applying this to that". The stats exist to reflect things like your training and background, and thus how likely it would be for you to pull something off. All the sourcebooks for those sorts of games aren't about establishing more rules and systems, they're about presenting a new dynamic or adding to the toolbox. Yes, the games are unbearably simple if you stick to the default hack-and-slash, but once you're forced into a new situation and you have to figure out how to get something done in unusual circumstances it's a lot more exciting. The rules exist in support of that thinking, not as an end to themselves.

This brings up another note: making a turn-based system more complex and intricate doesn't help the believability or tangibility of the game. The "reality" being simulated is almost always not turn based, so investing more time into that aspect of the game's rules creates even more of a split between "what the characters are doing" and "what the players are doing". Again, this can make a good game, but not a good role-playing game. It's like how Chess is a complex and detailed strategy game, but it's not particularly good at telling a story because of how abstracted it is. The chess pieces all relate to some concept, but nothing about the rules connects to any real battle or concept. It's just a game.


Like many earlier updates, the point of this post is to connect the player or audience to the character. In RPG terms, using "in-universe" logic can be beneficial to roleplaying, in the same way that equipping the character sensibly or being immersed in the setting does. Obviously I focused on improvisation in this update, but previously I've analyzed ways that "how a game is played" differs from "what a game is supposed to represent". RPGs are the same way, but being that they are role playing games it seems like that part should be much more important.

Here's one important disclaimer: I don't think the introduction of powers and abilities is necessarily a bad thing. Implemented properly, they're another tool in the toolbox, just like any other item or skill. One of the primary reasons for the huge diversity of the Superhero genre is the fact that superheroes can use their different powers in different ways, from Spider-Man's webs to Cyclops' eye beams to Storm's control of the weather. Their specialization means that they find ways to improvise using their powers. However, they have reasons for their powers.

In D&D, you can be playing a "human" and still end up with all these abilities, even if you're basically just a regular guy with a sword. This gap in logic can be a huge problem in sensory terms - how do you identify with a "human being" who doesn't react to things in the same way you do? In addition, the shared understanding of events found in "real logic" can create more understanding between a player and a character, in the same way that Kevin from Home Alone was more understandable because he was a "normal kid".

In short:
1) Improvisation creates a way for players to exercise their creativity within the constraints of their characters' abilities, provided that the players have enough items and abilities to actually do something creative.
2) Using logic that makes sense in-universe connects a player to a character in the same way that diegetic music does: it creates a shared experience between them, rather than separating "gameplay" and "story".
3) "Real logic" doesn't mean "non-supernatural". It just means there has to be an understanding of what the magic or power is actually doing, whether it's burning, freezing, cutting, piercing, crushing, and so on. If it's just "damage", then there's no way to connect it to anything other than gameplay.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The role of communication

There's no doubt that our world is changed by communication. Like any other technology, the development of communication is an attempt to find ways to overcome obstacles and transmit information from one person to another across great distances. Whether this is done with drums, smoke signals, carrier pigeons, or radio waves, the basic concept is the same. However, the ease with which this information is transmitted, and the amount of information that people have access to, radically affects the members of a society affected by that information. In games and movies, communication can either be "too easy" or "too hard": the former to create a comprehensive environment for the player/audience to interact with, and the latter to isolate one area from the rest of the world.

This seems like a good place to note that the Exploring Believability twitter is currently up and running, and all future updates will be noted there. In addition, I'd like to take this segue to thank the individuals who have linked to this blog on forums or articles. This, too, is a kind of communication: how can people judge or assess something if they don't know it exists? All advertising has the purpose of not only convincing the audience that the product is good, but letting them know that the product is there to begin with. Something as simple as a forum link can bring a concept to people who would have no way to reach it otherwise, and for that reason I'm deeply indebted to everyone who's shared my articles with someone else. With that said, let's look at some concepts.

Battlefield Communication
A real-time-strategy game is a strange thing. Even if the tactics and logistics are depicted realistically, there is generally one thing that remains consistent: the nature of the commander and their connection to their troops. In a real situation, a commanding officer receives information from their subordinate and must manually assemble it into a larger "picture" of what's going on. Though the use of aerial surveillance and satellite imaging has improved the understanding of the battlefield, there's still a large gap between what the troops know and what command knows.

In an RTS, this is not the case. A strategy-game player can see everything their soldiers can, without exception. There is no "data transmission" or anything along those lines - it's an instant communication that cannot be interrupted in any way short of death. If you send a scout off and the scout dies, you (the player) know everything the scout saw even if he doesn't make it back. There is no way for a unit to be cut off from command and be forced to make their own decisions. The player can directly command every single unit on the battlefield, even making decisions like which rock to hide behind and when to throw grenades.

In real life, communication difficulties make up a huge part of war. Artillery units have to fire without ever seeing the rounds hit, relying on the corrections of forward observers and grid-labeled maps. Aircraft have to be able to tell who's friendly and who's not when everyone on the ground looks like specks. Tanks and infantry can't see the battle as a whole from their low perspective, and thus must rely on their commanders to piece information together from all their connected units. This is the real "fog of war" - the gap between each individual unit that creates different understandings and perceptions of a situation. In a game, units might as well be part of a hivemind. Everyone reports directly to the player, and the player can see everything they can. It's almost a sci-fi concept, in some ways.

One example of an in-game "communications blackout" comes from "Chromehounds". In Chromehounds' multiplayer, there was an entire class ("Commander") devoted to managing and dispersing communications. It is the commander's job to detect and identify enemies and relay that information to other units. This short narrative establishes those concepts, as well as the role of "communications towers" (without which microphone communication is impossible). The entire role was based on the idea that only those people could really organize and command their comrades, and everyone else relied on them for information.

Penny Arcade's Tycho discussed this in one newspost, noting how the commander's role was almost intrinsically connected to the limitations of the game: "When I sent a player - or multiple players - to get one of these things, I lost communication with them the moment they went out of range. It was often the case that, in a rush to secure the front, my entire team would be out of range." He notes that the addition of an internal "group chat" program to the console creates a way around this, destroying a valuable and interesting game mechanic. The same is true for any PC game - the presence of chat programs and Ventrilo would pretty much override any "internal" justification for limited communications.

Information Dispersal
Another aspect of communication can be found in the concept of "aggregate characterization". Information, or lack thereof, is a major defining trait in a person's life. Education, morality, culture, language - the list goes on. Everything about a person has a source, and information generally serves as that source. How does someone know how to do something? There is a source for that information. In modern times we can look up almost anything with the internet; how does this differ from a situation where your only sources of information are local villages and traveling merchants? When everyone says that people from a neighboring country are torturing and killing everyone they come across, how do you check that for yourself - and what do you do if it happens to be true?

Think about how this relates to propaganda: if you're given inaccurate information from a source like your own government, how are you supposed to obtain actual "accurate" information? This is the key issue with regards to freedom of the press, for example. One could ask why a Wehrmacht soldier in World War 2 didn't simply give up if he knew he was working for the "bad guys", and the question is: how is he supposed to know that he's the bad guy? Sure, the Allies send over pamphlets saying that they are, but then the Axis sends pamphlets to the Allies saying THEY'RE the bad guys, and the Allies laugh off this obvious German lie. It's a more complicated situation than an observer might assume. (As a response to that Mitchell and Webb skit, I offer this quote from Heinrich Himmler: "I know there are many people who fall ill when they see this black uniform; we understand that and don't expect that we will be loved by many people.")

There are plenty of examples of opposing units working out their differences once they're given a chance to communicate. The Christmas Truce is probably the most well-known example of improvised communication and understanding on the battlefield, though similar arrangements have occurred between units in other wars, as well. In a war, both sides are generally given reasons to hate their opponents by their high command - it's not usually conducive to morale to say "Yes, we're totally in the wrong, but please fight our noble, righteous enemies anyways". The difficulty comes in separating the reality from the propaganda. Witold Pilecki is one man who found this difference all too well: his reports about the Holocaust were considered "exaggerated" by the Allies, despite the fact that had willingly sent himself into Auschwitz to provide information about it. Once lies are expected, overcoming those lies with the unbelievable truth can be difficult - the classic "boy who cried wolf" scenario.

In fiction, misleading an audience can be an important part of the proceedings (as with the unreliable narrator), but in general the audience serves as an invisible observer whose connection to the movie or book is related to their detached point-of-view. If the audience knows something, it seems unbelievable that people in-universe wouldn't believe it. After all, it's the "truth". This is the realm of several cognitive biases, such as the bias blind spot and the Dunning-Kruger effect. The concept of what is known and what should be known is a point of contention in real life. In fiction, the audience's access to information not normally accessible (such as people's thoughts) seems to make the situation much more clear to them.

Communication Isolation
In some cases, the opposite must occur: a person who is normally connected by numerous gadgets and devices to the rest of society must be isolated for purposes of drama. This is a concept used by countless horror movies with regards to individual phones, but is also occasionally done for an entire town. There's a very good reason for this: the drama of the situation requires that only a certain number of people be involved. Why should the protagonist solve the problem if they can just call in the police or the military? A lack of information access, or a disconnect from the outside world, can justify this sort of isolation.

This reiterates the point that conflict makes drama. In real life, all these systems are convenient. It's possible to drive to an entirely new place and not get lost or put in danger at all thanks to things like GPS and satellite phones. However, "danger" is what makes things exciting. It also creates more exciting cast dynamics: an isolated environment means that nobody's getting in and nobody's getting out, and thus all the characters visible will play some part. In some cases, a non-isolated cast means that there's no reason for the protagonist to be important: it's easier to be the most capable person in a small group, but not when the entire rest of the world is available. It's important to be "the right man in the right place", and isolation ensures that "the right place" is much more reliant on that "right man".

In short, isolating an environment can serve as a focusing mechanism for a series. The limited environments and characters receive more screen time, and thus get more fleshing out. An isolated location can have quirks and strange aspects that would not make sense without the idea of being separated from the rest of society.  However, as people become more and more connected, the ways of establishing this become limited. For example, in Twilight, the ending of Romeo and Juliet is echoed (in the sense that a man thinks a woman has killed herself and intends to kill himself as well). However, in this case, the man destroys his phone for really no reason other than to necessitate the woman's following after him. The classic setup doesn't work, because there should have been plenty of ways to communicate with him. There are, of course, ways to become isolated in real life - batteries die, coverage fails - but they're not nearly as common as cinema requires.

To put it more simply: isolation is a dynamic. It justifies a smaller cast and area when the world itself is huge. There are plenty of examples of "naturally isolating" environments: islands, airplanes, boats, prison cells, etc. The idea that there is a natural separation between "this place" and "everywhere else" makes it easier to flesh out the area without worrying about the possibility of the cast being intermingled with the general population, or the focus moving to a new area. Compare the sprawling maps of Grand Theft Auto to the smaller, more detailed maps of Hitman: one's grand, but simple, and the other's small, but fine-tuned. The smaller area has a lot more development, and the characters have more in-depth routines, because of those limitations.

In summary:
1) The audience's understanding of information is often going to differ from characters' understanding of information, simply by the nature of the medium (though there are exceptions).
2) Communication connects a smaller group to a larger one, and how encompassing this is can affect the nature and direction of a story or narrative.
3) Communication is part of a dynamic, just as any other part of a story. It should therefore be given the respect and care that any other logical part of the story would receive.