Saturday, March 26, 2011

Armies and Hordes

War, in real life, is waged by living things - most often humans. Usually, there is a winner and a loser. These are clearly established concepts: some people live, and some people die. For every kill gained on one side, there is a death on the other. This is the basis behind "PvP", or player versus player, combat. Sometimes, things that should be depicted as fair and equal "PvP" combat is broken down into PvE (player versus environment) combat. This is combat where, instead of intelligent, complicated humans, the enemies are simple, stupid, and perfectly okay to mow down by the thousands.

This is something that I've talked about before, with a bent towards inter-human conflict twisted towards a non-human perception (i.e. "you're killing humans but they're dumb and evil"). Today, I want to talk about something different - "armies" versus "hordes", or essentially "PvP/PvE on a larger, setting-mandated scale". This refers to a difference in perception between entire groups, and justifying the nature of either intelligent or unintelligent tactics. It also focuses on concepts of sympathy, and whether or not the member of the larger group is truly an "individual".

Armies
The major thing about "armies" is that they are composed of individuals. It doesn't matter whether these individuals are soldiers, mercenaries, militia, or civilian, the concept of an "army" in this particular sense is referring to groups made up of human beings. Therefore, armies are sympathetic, because they are populated by sentient beings. A soldier in an army was born, raised as a child, and grew up into an adult. They developed skills and traits over their lives. Even if these traits are barely (or not) touched upon, they can be extrapolated. An army may be an enemy, but every death in an army is the death of a sentient being; another mother's son senselessly slaughtered, another father who'll never come home.

Another important note is that armies are numbered and limited. Every death in an army is one less soldier to fight. Armies are not infinite, and they have to deal with things like supply limitations and monetary costs. If the recruitment, training, and equipping of a military unit is shown in detail, it's an army. Armies exist as part of a logical, rational chain, whether it's training soldiers (from a limited population) or providing equipment and gear (with finite production). The key word is limitations: every death in an army matters, and (at some level) exact numbers can be pulled up to show casualty percentages and current strength. Any combat unit with limited numbers and supplies is an Army. Hence, Armies are found in real life and Hordes are not. 

To sum up:
1) Armies are sympathetic in an individual level, because they're regular folks just like you and me. They were kids once, they have or had families, and now they're part of a larger militaristic whole.
2) Armies can be depleted. Every death matters, at the very least because now there's one less person to fight. Replacing the dead involves recruiting new people, which may not always be feasible.
3) An army runs on an actual chain of supply. They can be starved, or made bereft weapons or armor. They are a machine that requires constant fuel and attention, and without it they will fall apart.

Hordes
Hordes are numerous, if not numberless. Hordes are comprised of creatures who barely even register as sentient or sympathetic - they may as well spring up fully born out of holes in the ground (and some do). The goal of a horde is to be an antagonist, usually a perpetual one. Members of a Horde are little more than teeth-gnashing monsters, even if they're "human", and obtain weapons and armor from a vague source (often improvised from scrap metal). They are generally suggested to pillage and plunder to account for their supplies. If defeated, they slink off to their holes and re-emerge some time later with replenished numbers. Their members are irrelevant, because they exist (both in the meta-sense and in-universe) to fight and die.

Hordes are the ever-nipping teeth on the heels of civilization. They are not numbered, and they are rarely sympathetic. They can be turned back for a time, but do not operate on the same laws of resupply and recruitment that armies do - and hence, before long, they will be back. Hordes are like waves crashing against rocks - they might not make a huge impact, but there's enough of them that they're effectively infinite versus to a finite army, and thus can wear them down through attrition. Their members are unimportant, and if they receive any background it will generally be along the lines of "fighting and killing".

Of course, Hordes aren't limited to the traditional mob of orcs or barbarians. Any enemy that (a) is never shown to worry about supplies and (b) is effectively infinite and unsympathetic falls under the general purview of a Horde. This means that, for example, zombie scenarios are about Hordes, usually because of the imbalanced threat they present to PCs and NPCs (PCs easily mow through thousands of zombies, NPCs are swarmed and eaten immediately to reinforce the undead population). Numberless bugs like those found in Starship Troopers (the movie) or Warhammer 40,000 are also a sort of Horde. Finally, "evil armies" (such as stormtroopers) may also constitute a Horde if they are faceless and characterless - i.e., bereft of humanizing elements, but this status is generally at odds with what the army in question is meant to represent (human beings fighting for an organization).

To sum up:
1) Hordes are unsympathetic because they're not "human beings".
2) Hordes aren't supplied, at least on-screen: it's just sort of implied that they get their materials and reinforcements from "somewhere". Often they will "spawn" members, rather than "recruiting".
3) Hordes are usually an antagonist because they're infinite and unsympathetic, and thus must lack in skill and finesse to be "balanced".

Gameplay Differences
An "army" versus a "horde" is like a SRPG versus an RTS. The former is based on working with limitations - limited weapons, limited equipment, and above all limited soldiers. Armies foster investment and care, because even though death in battle is highly likely, they're still human beings. They're worth more alive than dead because the skills they've learned through their life are hard to replace. Even if units are treated as being disposable, they're shown in a light that suggests they're "real people", rather than abstracted combatants with no backstories or lives of their own. The fun of playing an Army comes from investment in the well-being of the soldiers combined with the preservation of veterans and their valuable experience.

In contrast, when playing as a Horde, units are meant to be massed and thrown headlong at foes. The enjoyment comes not from caring about individuals but about seeing giant groups overwhelm their foes. Yes, many may be lost, but they are unimportant - and hence, instead of a heart-tugging battle for survival, it's more about the player having fun winning battles. In a lot of cases games that are meant to be treated like "armies" are viewed in a more "horde-like" way, but in general it comes down to whether or not you can relate to (and care about) individual soldiers. If you can, and you're motivated to keep them alive, then it's an Army. If you can't, and you're just meant to accept that your charge will result in huge numbers of casualties, then it's a Horde.

Army versus Army
When two armies fight, the motivation and intent of the conflict is going to be tempered by the need to keep people alive. Hence, two limited armies fighting each other are going to use whatever tactics and strategies they can out of the need to avoid losing resources. This is the true form of "PvP": Two sides that both have reasons to use tactics and preserve the lives of their soldiers. If resources aren't infinite, the life of a soldier matters more. Why throw them into a meat grinder when they're better used to ambush or distract? In such cases the traditional scenario of a bridge or breach may occur (i.e. a chokepoint where many soldiers will die), but attacking it is an unpleasant necessity, not a matter of course.

Skirmish-level games, such as Mordheim or Necromunda, generally fall into this category if the players care at all about winning. The harder it is to replace the dead, the more motivation players have to keep them alive. That is the basic logical concept here: not of abstract naming concepts, but about whether the player (or commander) is motivated to keep individual soldiers alive, either through veterancy or sympathy. The further out the perspective is, the less sympathetic or important individual soldiers are.

Army versus Horde
This is the classic PvE setup: protagonists versus antagonists, or plucky outnumbered heroes versus faceless masses. On the one side you have humanized, recognizable characters. For them, every death is important, but they can be sure they're taking dozens of their foes with them for each one they lose. People love this sort of thing - from Rorke's Drift to Helm's Deep, it emphasizes the heroics of the Army at the expense of the Horde. The less individuals there are, the less expendable they are, and vice-versa. When a Horde member kills an Army member, it's a huge deal - when it's the other way around, it's just another marker on the kill-count.

Of course, this becomes an issue if both sides are meant to be human. It's one thing to mow down the masses of incoming bugs, but if both sides are supposed to be equally intelligent and capable, then it's a total mismatch. In general, the "superior" side (numerically superior, anyways) has to allow itself to be cut down in droves in order to emphasize the strength of the few, proud soldiers. In reality, having more troops is a huge advantage, not just in direct strength but in the number of maneuvers you can execute and plans you can deploy. It's possible to beat a larger force with cunning and wit, but that's reliant on the other force not also having cunning and wit.

Horde versus Horde
This is probably the most common multiplayer mode: two sides with near-infinite resources throwing troops at each other with little to no regard for preservation of lives. HvH can be the most fun mode because there's no sympathy to slow you down. Both sides consist of fighters with no individual backstory, and the game is just to kill as many of the other guys as you can. It's guilt-free gaming: you can take as many losses as you like and nobody, not even the characters in-universe, really cares. It's intentional sociopathy, sometimes to the point of comedy. It's not Joe Somebody who came from the town of Whatever and had a family and friends and all that, it's a "unit".

One of my favorite examples of HvH combat is Orks versus Tyranids in Dawn of War 2. It's pointless fun - both sides want to kill each other, and neither is concerned about their own well-being. You could say that about every faction, of course, but there's no reason to get attached to either faction in the same way that one might be attached to Space Marines or Imperial Guard. They're limitless and they don't care about dying. Units can still distinguish themselves through veterancy, but it's just that they're better at killing, not that they've earned a rest or something - they don't want a rest, they want to fight more. It's perfect for a game that doesn't treat characters like real people in any case.

So, To Sum Up:
1) If a group is limited, the attention focuses on individuals, and they become more sympathetic to the audience or player.
2) If a group is unlimited, then it's impossible to think of them as human beings, because human beings are not "unlimited".
3) The former rewards investment, the latter rewards immediate action.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Analysis: Demon's Souls


I've talked about Demon's Souls a few times before in a few different contexts, such as its armor design and its difficulty curve, but I've never really analyzed it as a whole before. Demon's Souls is pretty classic "dark fantasy" - a Gothic medieval design, a crapsack universe, and, naturally, demons all over the place. It's viciously cruel, but generally in a way that the player can overcome with skill and quick reflexes, rather than simply being stuff to screw with the player. Of course, as cruel as the game is, the world it takes place in is crueler still - not that this affects the player.

Setting & Story
Demon's Souls takes place in the Kingdom of Boletaria, which was once a great, thriving nation but is now overrun by demons. There's not a huge amount of backstory given in the game itself, but the general idea is that an ancient order of powerful beings sealed an evil god - the Old One - under Boletaria a long time ago. It is this god's presence that allowed for the use of magic, which caused Boletaria to prosper and grow. However, some time before the game starts, the King of Boletaria sought more power and awakened the Old One. This backfired, blanketing the land in a colorless fog that spawns demons and drives humans insane.

The player takes the role of an outsider from one of Boletaria's neighboring countries. Like many other heroes, their goal is to investigate what happened to this country, which apparently disappeared off the map. The player-character's origins and motives are up to the player; the only solid fact is that they have come to Boletaria (and are inevitably trapped there). The rest of it can be filled in by the player's imagination. There are many starting careers such as knight, thief, magician, and hunter, and there are four general racial archetypes (North, South, East, and West), so there's actually some room for the player to roleplay on some level even though very little information is provided. Like Half-Life 1, the player's "personality" is largely expressed through decisions about aiding or hindering others, rather than through dialogue.

One notable thing is that the game starts with the player as a fairly normal adventurer. However, after the requisite "first death", the player is tied to the nexus of power that binds the Old One, and hence becomes trapped until the demons are wiped out. In addition, the power of souls collected from the demons allows the player to become more powerful. These are the player's two advantages compared to the rest of the universe. It's interesting in a PvP/PvE way because it justifies why the player is "better" - and even with these advantages the player will probably die often. The difference is not that the player is superior to non-player characters, but that they have specific in-universe benefits.

Largely lacking in a concrete "story" other than "kill demons", Demon's Souls is more concerned about the setting in general, specifically when it comes to characters. The prologue establishes that many great heroes have come to Boletaria, and naturally the player is likely to meet (and, in many cases, fight) them. In addition, the worlds are littered with the corpses of adventurers much like yourself who did not make it (and do not possess the advantage of eternal rebirth like you do). Like the origin paths, I thought this did a good job in establishing that the world is larger than it seems - many great warriors from across the world had come to find out what had happened to Boletaria, and the only difference between you and them is your ability to "respawn".

Demon's Souls' setting is about a scale that humans cannot comprehend. Like any story involving the phrase "Old One", it is about powerful forces that make humans look like mere insects. We never see the cataclysm that engulfs Boletaria (since our character shows up after the fact), but it certainly seems horrific. Bodies are piled everywhere, and the presence of ferocious demons and monsters suggests that the average citizen or soldier did not stand much of a chance. Even the player, with the powers of the Nexus behind them, is hard-pressed to triumph in Boletaria. The world is cruel and uncaring, and even though we never see it, the transition from a gleaming kingdom to a blood-drenched warzone is a pretty jarring one.

Design and Aesthetic
Demon's Souls is "realistic" in that it uses materials and designs that are based on real things, but it exists in a scale that is largely unrealistic. There's metal armor and stone castles, but they're designed in such a way that they're hardly believable. This is a good metaphor for Demon's Souls in general - it's grounded, but it's also fantastic. It uses the "real" elements to make the "unreal" elements feel more powerful and impressive - a phenomenon I've discussed before. It's a world of giant monsters and dragons and magical beings, but the simplest elements (the way people move, the way the character reacts to damage, the design of normal equipment) creates a contrast.

Armor in DS goes from grounded, sensible stuff like leather, mail, and plate (all starter gear for different classes) to more stylized armor found in Boletaria itself, whether light or heavy. Even the stylized armor feels reasonably grounded in terms of material - it's the design that's unrealistic. Weapons are the same way - they start off as realistic weapons (like swords, spears, and axes) and end up as far more supernatural-looking weapons. A neat touch about the weapons and armor is that they require strength to use, and strength is gained through the justified process of "converting souls into better stats". This really adds a sensible touch to the process of "gaining more strength", which isn't just how much damage you do, but also the ability to swing a two-handed sword with one hand, or move around easily in heavy armor.

One important thing to note regarding design is that, unlike the armor, the weapons are generally wholly unnatural, rather than partially unnatural/implausible. The advanced armor looks silly, but it also looks like it was made by human hands - as in, a blacksmith decided to make a giant silly head crest (which isn't totally implausible). On the other hand, the advanced weapons generally look like magical artifacts hewn from some powerful being rather than "conventionally forged". Hence, it's plausible, but based on a different set of circumstances. It also clearly establishes that they're magic, or at least "not normal", using obvious visual language. Again, the grounded equipment makes the un-grounded equipment look more alien and fantastic.

The levels and architecture share a similar concept: basic, grounded designs escalated to unrealistic or unfathomable levels. There's castles made of stone and mortar, and shanty towns made of wood, but they're so huge that it becomes amazing when you think about it. Actually, I should say that if you don't know about castles or the process of assembling stone into structures, it might not be that impressive - but if you do, or you can imagine what goes on in the castle-building process, then the sheer scale of things becomes astounding. The ability to comprehend the "real" process helps make the "fictional" process more fantastic, and without that it's just another video game level.

Naturally, the foes and enemies of the game operate on the same principles. The game starts in the Boletarian palace, a very "human" area, and then branches out to shrines infested with the undead, tunnels full of worms and giant beetles, and sickening plague-villages filled with goblins and ogres. The "real" base provides the foundation, and then the other things are allowed to be more fantastic because of it. It also provides a brief moment of assessing a new situation: you're going from fighting logical things like "a soldier" or "a goblin" to fighting some sort of Grim Reaper or giant manta ray or something.

The bosses are represented especially well. Going from intimidating (but still human) knights and soldiers to the gargantuan tower knight really gets a sense of scale across. The larger bosses suffer from the usual "big creature moves slow" thing, but their giant reach and damage potential sort of makes up for it. There's one important exception to the "big & slow" rule, and that's the Flamelurker. The Flamelurker is a creature that's emblematic of Demon's Souls, to me - it's got a recognizable pattern, but even when you know it, it's still reasonably difficult in terms of reflexes and managing your endurance. It's not a pushover, but it allows you to bring your skills to bear against it. That's the important part.

Gameplay and Combat
Demon's Souls, unlike a lot of fantasy games, operates on rules of physical space and movement. Shields are based on intercepting attacks, and weapons are swung or thrust. This sounds simple, but it's actually pretty rare in games, and contributes a more concrete sense to what's going on. Things rarely clip though the environment (weapons scrape or bounce off of walls if their swing impacts it), and in close quarters the difference between a swing and a thrust can be vital.

There's some limitations, naturally - every weapon basically has a light attack and a heavy attack, and that's about it. That's a limitation of the control system, and it does make some artificial problems (like swinging too hard and sliding off a cliff). On the whole, though, weapons attack in ways that make sense.

In addition, Demon's Souls has a pretty good movement system, with dodge rolls, sprinting, and, most importantly, stamina. There's a sense of weight to things: diving out of the way of an attack feels like effort, especially in heavy armor, and even in light gear you can't leap around indefinitely. Even if you manage to block an attack with your shield, it still impacts (affecting your stamina) and you can only keep your guard up for so long. The modeling and animation feels natural, and it adds a physical element to the proceedings when your character moves and behaves like a real person.

An important aspect of the game is that location matters. Combat in Demon's Souls is about preventing enemy attacks from hitting you, and hitting enemies in whatever way is best for the area. It's got a lot of "physical space" to it, whereas in some games the graphics are fairly static animations that have nothing to do with whether an attack hits or not. The basic objective is: stay out of the way of attacks. Dodge, roll, block - whatever you have to do to prevent an attack from hitting you. Shields are useful for the same reason they're useful in real life: they're a thing to put between you and an attack. It's not some arbitrary bonus, it's portable cover.

One thing I'd like to comment on is the fact that regular human enemies, such as guards and knights, are probably the most interesting enemies in the game, because they have tools at their disposal. Like the player, they can block or (in some cases) roll. They have plausible attack patterns. Some can even heal with items or throw firebombs like the player can. Their diversity makes them more interesting threats, because they're more unpredictable. In contrast, the most boring enemy in the game is a giant slug that lives in volcanos and takes like five solid minutes of whittling down. During this time, its only "attack" is an occasional stab with its tongue. It's the exact opposite of the human fights - slow, tedious, and simplistic. It's just two sides swinging at each other.

Conclusion
Demon's Souls is one of the rare games that tries to make the player feel like a human being in a fantasy situation. You're not a "level 5 fighter" or something, you're a human being who's enhanced by the power of souls. There's as little "meta-game" as it can get away with while still being an RPG. It's an action game first and foremost - better stats don't win fights, although they certainly help. Everything about the game seems designed to reinforce the idea of being a normal, but augmented, human. The scale of things is such that the player is meant to constantly be simultaneously amazed and on guard. The grounding elements help establish the transition from "real" to "fantastic" by easing into the concept, instead of starting out with fantastic and having no way to connect to it.

So, To Sum Up
1) Demon's Souls is a prime example of grounding fantasy well. It uses its realistic elements to make the fantastic parts more awe-inspiring.
2) Gameplay in Demon's Souls feels more "real" than many other games because it's based on concepts of physical space as well as concepts of human limitations and endurance.
3) Neither of these things would be anywhere near as important or impressive if the game was easy, because a human who can take 500 sword blows to the face is not actually human.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Generic versus Niche


It's hard to be original in this day and age. Established tropes are so pervasive and all-encompassing that escaping their grasp is difficult for developers and writers, and many simply give up instead of trying. Whether it's the standard fantasy setup of humans, dwarves, and elves, or the standard sci-fi setup of humans, "warrior race", and "smart race", developers seem loathe to explore new options outside of familiar genres. Instead, they attempt to subvert or invert existing tropes - our dwarves are different, our elves have new traits, and so on. This ends up being less "original" and more "minor modification that still takes a basic pre-existing concept instead of creating something new".

This is an attempt to escape the idea of being "generic" by creating a setting that differs in some way from what people are used to and carves out a niche for itself. However, this approach is often done in a way that's far too small, failing to make the setting specifically stand out as being independent. The difference between a "generic setting" and a setting that fills a niche is that the former can be swapped and replaced easily, and the latter is absolutely connected to its concepts.

A Major Theme
To start off, a game needs to be designed around a consistent theme and tone, whether it's serious or silly, fantastic or realistic. There needs to be an immediate establishment of mood and an understanding of the way the universe works - whether the brave hero will soundly beat the foul villains and laugh about it, or whether it'll be a grim and gory fight that leaves him exhausted and wounded and them dead and bloodied. It affects the audience's understanding of what to expect and how the universe works in this setting.

However, another important aspect of "theme" is the setting's hook. What is it about the setting that sets it apart? What's the major difference that makes it worth exploring? Here's some examples: The Warp in Warhammer. The Force in Star Wars. Post-Scarcity in Star Trek. The Spice in Dune. Augmentation technology in Deus Ex. Element-bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender. The Immortals in Highlander. Mutants in X-Men. Airships in Skies of Arcadia. The Zone in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

While not all of these ideas are entirely unique in their own right, the way they affect the setting is key. It's not a disposable element. You cannot have the setting without that element. In many settings, on the other hand, the universe could easily exist without a key element. What's Mass Effect without the relays? It's still Space Opera, they'd find some other way to get around in their generic swooping spaceships. What's Halo without the Forerunners? Still basically "humans fighting aliens". What's any given fantasy setting without its primary threat? Basically a recycled view of Tolkien. They're important to the lore and background, but not to the series itself in a meta-sense.

Obviously, there's reasons this happens. Sometimes people just want to mess around with a theme similar to one they've see before and don't want it to be wholly different. Sometimes generic is good or comforting: I don't care to learn a new setting, I just want my elves and dwarves and halflings. On the other hand, these settings are hard to defend in their own right, because they borrow so much from other things. They provide basically the same "service" that a lot of other settings provide, and don't corner the market. You could go to any number of other settings and get the same thing. There has to be either (a) something about the setting that you can't get anywhere else, unless it's copied, or (b) something about the setting that makes it immediately definable and is absolutely essential to the setting.

Design & Style
The way a game's visuals are designed is more important than a lot of people give it credit for. I've discussed this in the past, but suffice to say a game's presentation largely affects the way the audience thinks about it. Design can be absolutely instrumental in making a world or setting more believable, or drawing the audience in with its fantastic nature. No matter what the intention is, artistic direction is a major, important aspect of how a world is perceived.

Of course, as much as people like to suggest that fantasy is basically "medieval Europe with magic", the truth is a bit further off than that. The "standard fantasy visual style" is less based on "actual designs" and more on a cannibalized, recycled concept that relies on fantastic stylization. Yet, despite this, the same "fantastic style" has been reused so many times that it's become generic itself. There's an underlying design that permeates most fantasy series and makes them essentially interchangable - from Warcraft to Dragon Age, from Neverwinter Nights to Oblivion, from D&D to LOTRO, from RIFT to Fable to Guild Wars. It's not realistic enough to take advantage of the benefits realism provides (feeling more tangible and weighty), but it's not really visually distinct or exciting either. It's just another round of "standard fantasy" - there's swords and plate armor and chain armor, but it's neither detailed nor creative.

Of course, standard design isn't limited to fantasy. Sci-Fi has plenty of standardized concepts, from spaceships to aliens to the ubiquitous space marines. Again, I could find plenty of pictures of grey-brick spaceships or sleek speeders or space marines, but the point is pretty clear: artists and designers take a lot of inspiration from each other and recycle these concepts. There's sort of an ongoing theme of "I could easily take stuff from one setting and dump it in another and it would work fine". There's nothing unique about the designs, they're just pre-existing patterns that are altered slightly for the specific universe.

One of the rare fantasy series I can name that hasn't been wholly aped by copycats is Warhammer Fantasy, which is really weird because, in design terms, it's just Renaissance-era stuff combined with the usual mix of Tolkien fantasy. The nature of this design became apparent when Warhammer Online came out, and had a much more cartoonish and exaggerated style (while still using the same basic visual concepts). It didn't feel like Warhammer, because Warhammer is built on grit and tangibility. Even a slight artistic change to the setting made it "not the same". If fantasy was really based on medieval Europe, Warhammer's style would never be considered so distinct or important, and yet there are relatively few competitors in the genre of "Dark Fantasy" (Demon's Souls and Berserk both spring to mind, but lack the high fantasy elements), which makes it unique in some form or another.

A distinct art style can make or break a setting. People remember the "used future" of Star Wars and Aliens versus the "raygun gothic" of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Warhammer 40,000 is undeniably "space fantasy", in contrast to the flashier "space opera" of games like Mass Effect, Metroid, or Halo. The more an aesthetic stands out, the more likely it is that the setting will be visually memorable. It's about supply and demand - if people want power armor and chainsaw swords, they have a different set of options than if they want power armor and generic blaster weapons. It's something that groups the series into one style or another, and putting it in a style with less competitors makes it more memorable.

An Interweaved Setting
One problem that often arises when a new setting is developed is that elements are sort of haphazardly added to it. For example, here's a fantasy world, let's populate it with dwarves and elves and humans. Then let's assign some traits to those races so they're not boring or standard. This means that the same procedure could be done in any other setting - just drag-and-drop those "different dwarves" into a new fantasy setting, and they'd still work. Yes, you can have desert elves, but there's no reason that "desert elves" would be specifically unique to your universe. They're not intrinsically connected to the setting, they just sort of exist in it. There's no sense that they're the way they are because of the setting, but instead they're a fully developed culture dropped into a setting. They exist in their own sense and interact with the setting on the barest possible level.

When I looked at Warhammer 40,000, for example, I noted that the Imperium exists the way it does specifically because of the Warp. It causes the cultural divide between planets, it causes the fervent paranoia that dogs their society, and it necessitates its all-encompassing religious dogma and technological stagnation. Without the Warp, the Imperium doesn't exist. You cannot remove the Imperium from 40k because every single aspect of the Imperium is influenced by the Warp. The same goes for almost every other race in 40k, with the exception of the Tau (who largely ignore it). Along with their differing visual style, this has become a point of contention that makes the Tau one of the rare "easily transferred to another setting" factions in 40k.

Frank Herbert's Dune is a setting that specifically relies on a set of traits to establish its character: it's feudalism in space, people fight with swords because they have personal force fields, spice is used for space travel, and nobody uses computers because of a past uprising. These are the rules of the setting. They are what separates "Dune" from "generic sci-fi". If you took factions or events from Dune and set them in another universe, they wouldn't work, because the nature of the setting has influenced everything within that setting. Everything is interconnected - the universe works the way it does because it's been shaped by events, and everyone within the universe is affected by the way the universe works.

So what would happen if you introduced a faction that used guns and computers and was a reasonable space-democracy? What would that do to the setting? It wouldn't mesh at all, for one thing, and because it doesn't draw upon the background of the concept, it would undo the "unique" nature of the universe. Because it doesn't rely upon the nature of the setting, it would be easy to transfer this new faction into any other fictional universe, because it would be just as out-of-place there as it would be in Dune. It's not custom-tailored for anything, which makes it generic.

There's a few more examples I can think of. Star Trek is based around the idea of a post-scarcity society, so introducing a race like the Ferengi sort of messes with that premise (although they do fulfill the thematic Trek requirement of being a reflection of human nature, so they get a pass). Star Wars is based around a very black-and-white view of good and evil (Jedi and Sith), so taking that out would fundamentally change the nature of the setting. The issue is: "If you took out that concept, would the setting be the same? Would any faction be unchanged, or are they intrinsically connected to the nature of events?"

When something's accused of being "generic", that's generally what's meant: it can fit into any basic genre-standard setting without incident. There's nothing about it that makes it unique to the setting, because it doesn't interact with the setting. So is it impossible to have "new ideas"? No. You just need to work them down to the most basic level of the setting and intrinsically connect them to the history and development of the world. There are plenty of ways to make a race that fits anywhere, but it's actually much harder to make a race that doesn't.

So, To Sum Up:
1) Settings should have an identifiable hook and theme - something that affects every event and inhabitant of the setting and that majorly shapes the nature of the universe.
2) Production styles, whether art, music, or voice, are an important factor in making a setting stand out - far moreso than simply reversing tropes.
3) The important part is that the setting should be memorable and unmistakable. It shouldn't be possible to mistake one setting for another - the setting needs to exist on its own merits by being built from the ground up.
4) If your setting or its components could fit seamlessly into another setting without modifying anything, then it's not going to be memorable or unique for your setting.
5) It's okay to have a "generic" setting - just realize that what you're peddling is the kind of stuff that people can find in hundreds of other games, if that's what they're after.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Investment and connection

 I'd like to share a personal experience that I had recently. Earlier, I picked up "The Guild 2: Renaissance", a game that can be best described as a life simulator. You pick a class like "scholar" or "craftsman" or "rogue" and try to make a living in a medieval European setting. It's dependent on one of the major concepts I've talked about in the past - individual businesses contributing to a larger economy. Your role is to buy cheap and sell dear whenever possible (unless you are a rogue, in which case your role is to skim off of the rest of society without being caught). Even personal things like romance and marriage can be thought of as means to this goal, through having children and making family connections.

As believable and logical as this concept feels, it was ultimately unsatisfying. I enjoy a lot of "mundane" games like city sims, so this was kind of surprising. It simply felt like there wasn't enough to do; it was "work" without the immersion or choice necessary to round it out. There was no excitement to it, it was just a grind. It burned me out before I had a chance to really get attached to it. I had a similar experience with Mount & Blade, but that was after a huge amount of playing, after I'd been "on top" for a while and it was really just an unending battle to keep my position. With The Guild 2, it felt like that pretty much from the start, even before I'd started actually making money.

This can be connected to a combination of personal attachment and player motivation. In mundane games, the player's goals are generally based on simple goalposts: own a business, get married, have a child, own a city, and so on.  In other games, it's more directed, and the player can sort of hitch along for the ride: defeat enemies, take their stuff. The player might not care about it as much, but it's something for them to do, and they can be caught up in it. Giving players the choice to do anything can be rewarding if an individual is sufficiently motivated, but it's also got no safety net if they don't want to do anything - it gives them no natural direction to go in, and so they gravitate towards concepts like building a house and raising a family because those are things you can't normally do.

However, mundane goals can fall short because they are generally the same goals that one has in real life, except in simulation form. In games like Fable, for example, it's possible to get married, buy a house, and start a family, but there's very little interaction possible so it all feels very shallow and simplistic. Other games, like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, have more in-depth romance concepts, but they also tend to feel shallow after a while because it's not real interaction, it's just picking choices and getting canned responses. It's the kind of stuff that would be great in real life, but as presented in a game (a limited medium reliant on pre-fabricated conversations) it seems pointless.

In essence, games tend to be about the journey, more than the destination. When the destination is reached, the game is over, and yet there must be a destination so the player feels that on some level there is a reason to keep doing things. This is one of the reasons I felt Mount and Blade was fun until I'd beaten it: there was always something new to do, something to improve upon, some new concept to interact with. I was psyched when I captured my first city and strolled through the streets knowing that they were my streets, but by the fifth one I couldn't have cared less. Once I'd beaten it, there were no rewards. In real life, of course, a rich man has all sorts of tangible benefits to play with, but perhaps even those become boring after a time. In a game, "marking off the accomplishment" is all you can really do, because actually having the thing isn't that great.

Does this mean that things like realism are necessarily bad or inadequate? I would say no, because I don't think doing these things in a fantastic setting would help, either. Instead, it comes down to elements that are universal, and that people tend to identify with. I'm going to identify three concepts that I think are important regardless of setting, genre, or method: objectives, advancement, and emotion.

Objectives: What You're Doing, And Why You're Doing It.
An objective varies in composition. It can range from a very linear and direct "go here and do this" concept, to an overarching "defeat the major evil through whatever means you see fit" goal, to the essential non-objective of "do whatever you feel like doing". In this case, the real goal of an objective is to keep the player focused on the game. Like any media, games need to fundamentally hide the fact that they are fiction in order for the player to get immersed and really care about what's happening. Objectives provide a way to do that - the player is so busy thinking about the character's motivation that they can essentially latch onto it. By doing so, they avoid the fact that their own goals (as hedonistic as they usually are) cannot be fully expressed in terms of game content.

This is a major roleplaying concept. A proper objective can mean the difference between "yes, this is something I want to do" and "well, why bother, it's not like I personally have any stake in this". The player and the character fight for drastically different reasons, because the character has much more stake in what's going on. It's a concept of player/character separation: the player must be content that the character has achieved their goals, regardless of what those goals are, because they themselves are not going to benefit in the same way (nor suffer for failure). The barrier of a character-based objective, rather than a player-based objective, can be helpful in maintaining the veil of plausibility that keeps things feeling "real".

Advancement: Novel Stimuli For The Player
This is a concept that can be split into two types: "new content" and "moving the story along". New content is easy to understand - you level up, you get new powers to play with and new gear to wear. It brings things in so it doesn't get old or boring for the player, and offers upgrades in a way that gives them some time to get bored of it before a new one shows up. It's not just "shiny things to look at", it's also new tools to work with, and it expands the game. Of course, some games don't bother with that second part, and turn into an unending grind of higher numbers to deal with the same foes (that also now have higher numbers). The important part here is to actually give a sense of movement so the player feels like they are doing something and it stays interesting. If the game becomes stagnant, the player will not strive to do things in order to basically stay in the same place.

Story advancement is similar, but subtly different. It's the same basic principle ("something's happening, I'm not just running on a treadmill here"), but rather than pretty things to look at and bigger swords to hit things with, which are largely issues of player concern, it's more about the idea that the character's actions (and hence the player's actions) are having some effect on the world. I wouldn't play a perpetual X-COM game, for example - my attachment to the characters hinges entirely on the idea that at some point we will be able to defeat the bad guys. The same goes for a lot of games, and this ties into the issue of an objective: part of advancement is the idea that there is an objective to COMPLETE. Not just "participate in", but soundly resolve. When games go beyond that, they tend to drag, because a game cannot adequately explore the spoils of victory in the same way that real life can.

Emotion: Investment And "The Veil Of Fiction"
Ultimately, "emotion" is the key point of every part of fiction. Emotion is what separates rules and systems from the attempt to create a fictional world. Chess is certainly fine as a game, but to make it immersive it would be reliant on the emotions and associations of the characters - the fear of the pawn being crushed by the rook, the thrill of the knight smashing the bishop, the overbearing dominance of the queen over the whole board. Of course, these things are rarely depicted in chess, which is why it largely remains a calm, purely tactical game - except where the player's emotions are involved.

Essentially, emotion is what "sweeps up" a player. A player can think that a universe is neat or well-designed, but it is emotion that makes them a part of it. To get psychological for a minute, there's plenty of research about emotional mimicry and sympathetic responses even for fiction. The emotional response is so strong that for a minute the player's body (and hence the player) forgets that it is fiction, and is drawn to care about it anyways. This is why suspension of disbelief is so important: because emotion creates the subconscious idea that this isn't fiction, and to care about events the player needs to nurture and support that idea.

Obviously, this isn't limited to fiction. A good piece of music can induce emotions, too, whether it's excitement or rage or tranquility. The point is that it's a largely subconscious response that the audience allows themselves to be overwhelmed by. This is the heart of immersion: to create a solid, airtight bubble of emotional manipulation that provides emotional responses even in a situation where they are not "warranted", per se. The goal of a horror movie is to terrify the audience even though they are not at risk. The goal of a romance movie is to gain the audience's sympathy even though it's actors on a screen. The goal of a heroic action movie is to pump the audience up and get their blood boiling even though none of it's real.

In game terms, there are plenty of games that try to sweep the player up in what's going on. Games, like movies, are rarely content to "let things be", as it were, and more likely to use music and acting to convey a more solid sense of emotion to provoke the desired effect in the audience. On the other hand, even games that don't (or can't) do this can create emotional responses through the player's imagination (such as X-COM or any other game where you have the opportunity to become attached to generic, semi-disposable characters). This needs to tie into objectives and advancement, though: nobody's going to get emotionally attached if they don't think they're accomplishing anything, or if their battles are going to go on for eternity.

Analysis: "The Guild 2"
With these elements established, let's look back at The Guild 2. I think the reason I disliked it is that it didn't connect on any of those three concepts. Obviously I'm not trying to say that it's a bad game or that it's impossible to like, I'm just analyzing why it felt boring and simplified to me despite being very detailed and intense.

I. Objective
The objectives of The Guild 2 are "survive" and "profit". It may seem like a scenario with barely any objectives (the free-form "do what you want"), but those are both clearly established as being objectives. The problem is that it's the kind of stuff that I do in other games to supplement the main gameplay. The goal is to make money, but there's nothing really to spend the money on other than making more money. There's no ideological or hedonistic reason to pursue wealth - it's just the point of the game.

II. Advancement
One thing I didn't get out of The Guild 2 was a sense of improvement. Now, to be fair, the game is about moving up from a single entrepreneur to a massive dynasty, but it never felt like real landmarks. You start the game being able to put down any business in your class, and then as the game progresses you upgrade them. However, these upgrades don't feel particularly noteworthy - there's no sense of "Yes, I've finally reached that landmark", it's just more income.

III. Emotion
The main source of emotion in the game, in my opinion, is found in courtship. However, even this tends to be very dry and simplified. The rest of the game's "emotion" is more about morale than a real drive to succeed - even the game's combat (armed thugs, bandits, and hostile takeovers) lack a sense of drama. The problem with this isn't just that there isn't emotion, but that the audience can see there isn't emotion, and that prevents us from filling in those gaps using our imagination. If it was just like "a bandit convoy seized some goods" then we could imagine the blanks being filled in, but because it's fully depicted in a lackluster or limited way, there's no room to do that.

So, To Sum Up
1) A game needs to keep the player preoccupied through emotional attachment in order to maintain the idea that what's happening is important.
2) A game that fails to make that connection, or that has a stagnant story, cannot support such a concept.
3) A game with no direction falls prey to the fact that doing mundane things has less payoff in a game than in real life, which points out the fictitious nature of the game.
4) The veil of fiction must be maintained in order to elicit the emotional responses that cause player attachment.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Analysis: Kane & Lynch

"Kane & Lynch" is a particularly divisive series. On the one hand, it's a grim, gritty look at bank heists and criminal dealings, and it doesn't pull any punches when it comes to depicting those things. On the other hand, the characters and their deeds are so gruesome that players become disengaged from the narrative and stop caring about the protagonists. It's notable because it's so unpleasant in thematic terms that it stands out among a fairly populated set of crime-based games like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, both of which have you doing similar things.

The issue is one of theme and presentation, not of content. There are plenty of games that have you mowing down civilians with machine guns. There are plenty of games where it's perfectly acceptable to be a total sociopath. There are plenty of games where the characters are unpleasant to be around, or at least they would be if you were around them in real life. The issue is that it ends up being unpleasant for the player, not just the characters, which games like GTA try to avoid. The difference between K&L and GTA is that GTA focuses on a sort of protagonist-centric morality, where only main characters are important and everyone else dies without much fuss, while K&L shows its characters as being as horrible as they would be in real life.

Characters
The two primary characters in K&L are, naturally, the titular pair. Kane is a former mercenary whose past has caught up to him. In the first game, he's told to retrieve a stash of money that he hid from his former partners - if he doesn't, his ex-wife and daughter die. Kane's daughter is his main motivation, and he doesn't really care who he has to be unpleasant to if it helps her. He's a classic example of moral myopia: he's an unpleasant person who does unpleasant things to people, but he's got his one focus that he tries to keep happy. He's undoubtedly evil, but he has an important attachment - in this case, an attachment that actually hates him because of his moral failings and irresponsibility.

Lynch, in the first game, is Kane's warden - there to make sure that he doesn't run off when he's told to go find his stash. He tends to simultaneously be the voice of reason (or, at least, disbelief) and the unreliable element that makes everything go to hell when he loses his medication. What's believable about his character, to me, is that he's not totally defined by being insane. He's got other motivations and can form attachments (as in K&L2), it's just that he's willing to do evil things most of the time and occasionally has lapses of psychopathic behavior. Notably, he's also an uncharismatic psychopath - he's not some badass sociopath, he's a creepy guy who kills people in gross and unpleasant ways.

The thing that sets them apart from, say, Niko Bellic or any other GTA protagonist is that Kane and Lynch theoretically exist in a "real" world. When they gun down civilians, it's meant to be as tragic as if they'd done it in real life. In GTA, the world is a sandbox full of jerks. Every sound clip is meant to reinforce how stupid the average civilian is, so it's okay to run them over with your car and it's no big deal. Friendly criminals can have wacky personalities and it's meant to be fun to watch. If someone the character likes dies, it's meant to be tragic, because you - the player - were attached to the character.

Kane and Lynch doesn't have that; crimes are depicted as being as cruel as they would be in real life, with little to no "gloss" or "glamor" to cover it up. It's all the same things that get done in other games, but it's presented in a way that shows that the characters in-universe disapprove as well. In most crime-related games, it seems like the running concept is that crime is totally awesome and fun and should be enjoyable. So what if the average person doesn't like it? Haters gonna hate. K&L, on the other hand, takes a more objective light, and by that light the player is allowed to see that these actions are actually pretty reprehensible, and even other criminals don't really like Kane or Lynch because of it. It's the same stuff, but presented in a way that doesn't hide the nature of their deeds.

Story & Narrative
K&L's narrative is largely defined by "things going wrong". In K&L1, the simple objective of "retrieve the money Kane stashed" is complicated by a bevy of other issues that arise. In K&L2, the game starts with something going wrong and then things never actually stop going wrong. This can be a bit of a "Diabolus Ex Machina" - i.e., things being bad for the sake of being bad. It stretches out the game's content, sure, but it feels fake to the player. It's certainly a change from the protagonists effortlessly accomplishing things without trouble and automatically getting a happy ending, but it's ultimately just as contrived.

This was especially prevalent in K&L2: almost the entire city is after you, and even though you mow down over a thousand people by the end of the game, nobody's ever like "yeah I think we should just let them go". It's one objective from near-beginning to end: Get out of Shanghai. The forces against you escalate so much that it's almost laughable, and lacks any sense of plausibility ("Wait, you mean they're sending soldiers against me now? Like, for real?")

Kane and Lynch's main problem is that there's not a lot of logical buildup to things going wrong. After all, "things going wrong" is a pretty solid plot motive, but in this case it's not supported. It just turns into guaranteed failure after guaranteed failure, with no real hope of redemption or success. It's fine to subvert the audience's expectations about the character's automatic success, but that requires that they think that "automatic success" will occur. As it is, K&L's narrative is just as predictable, but from the other direction.

Presentation
Kane and Lynch is a gritty game. It knows it's a gritty game. It desperately wants to be a gritty game. The entire style of K&L2, for example, was patterned after camcorder footage ripped straight from COPS or some similar show. The desire for "grit" becomes even more obvious when you factor in the trailers, which attempt to depict gore and violence as "realistically" as possible. Everything about the game, from level design to character modeling, is meant to evoke a very realistic sensibility similar to a live-action gritty crime film. If you just played the game without shooting, it would seem pretty damn immersive, especially when it comes to stuff like the nightclub level in Dead Men.

For me, though, this fell apart as soon as gameplay actually started. As I've discussed before, it's hard to create a game that establishes concepts like "realism" and actually follow through with it. In this case, the game is so gritty that I was actually surprised in K&L2 when the game actually started being a game. The game up to that point had felt so immersive and realistic that as soon as all the usual game stuff showed up (ragdolls, regenerating health, bullets that don't damage clothing or flesh but just explode in globs of red jelly) it felt ridiculous and disconnected from the narrative.

It's even worse because the trailers focus on a very grounded sort of gunplay, where the sounds and impacts are emphasized and a bullet wounds someone fairly realistically. If you watched the trailers, that's the kind of stuff the game would seem to be about. If you played the game, on the other hand, it's a genre-standard Gears of War cover shooter - and it has to be, because it's first and foremost a third-person shooter. It's like that for the same reason every other game is: because if you make a game about shooting, there's not enough you can do to avoid getting shot while still actually having a lot of content.

These issues can be divided into necessary and unnecessary. For example, the horrible guns in both games were unnecessary: giant globby yellow tracers that moved too slowly mixed with inaccurate, poorly-handling guns just made the whole thing feel extremely fake. It's hard to buy into the idea that guns are realistically deadly when it takes a full magazine to down someone a few yards away from you. It's the kind of little thing that takes away from the game's overall presentation: here we are led to believe that this is like reality, and then the necessities of gameplay and stylistic decisions start to aggressively intrude on the concept.

Conclusion
To me, Kane and Lynch is a good movie attached to a bad game. All of the bad parts come from gameplay, including the narrative "things go wrong" problems, which are necessary to stretch out the gameplay from a very thin premise. In every respect except the gameplay, it's excellent - presentation, design, characterization, and so on. It presents a grim and gritty look at criminal heists in the same way that movies like "Heat" do, and for once it seems like criminal protagonists are being treated like psychopaths instead of jokingly tolerated. It's the necessities of gameplay that drag it down, because as much as it would be nice, games aren't "real" yet. People who get shot look fake, the bullets look fake, the guns feel fake. Everything that has to do with gameplay feels totally unreal and it just drags down the rest of the game with it.

So, To Sum Up
1) Kane and Lynch is a good movie because it presents an unflinching look at traditional notions of the "heroic sociopath" and can actually make jaded gamers feel awkward about blood and gore and murdering civilians simply because of how it presents them.
2) Everything about the actual "game" parts of K&L undermine this by feeling fake and unimmersive.
3) Some of those things are necessary technical limitations (ragdolls), some are necessary gameplay choices (regenerating health), and some are just kind of a pain (the way guns handle).

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Minor Update (Site Archives)

For your convenience I've just compiled a list of the articles on the site by theme - it's in the "site overview" page over on the right-hand side of the screen, and should be easier to browse through than the chronologically listed normal archives. Thank you for all your support thus far and all the links that people have been giving out.

In addition, I may be slowing my updating down a bit unless anyone has specific requests for topics. Feel free to comment on any old articles or ask for a specific series analysis. At this point I believe I've given you all the tools to figure out what I think about it yourselves, but I'm always game if anyone wants something talked about in detail.

Thanks,
J. Shea

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Role-Playing Elements

Before, I talked about role-playing in terms of mechanics contributing to a game's realism. However, there's more to that issue than simply making things "realistic", per se. The way a game presents itself affects how players think about it, and think about what's happening. For example, the institution of an armor system can affect how players see combat - either blows glancing off armor or the armor absorbing the blow, depending on whether armor is used as evasion or damage reduction. Health and "hit points" play a similar role.

The role-playing process (or how players understand it) can be broken down into a few key questions: "Who am I", "What am I doing", "What can I do", "What's going on", and so on. It's a translation of "the rules" to "the universe": the rules exist to determine what happens, but to really roleplay the characters must understand what's happening to the characters. The more things are thrown in the way of that, the less useful it is to determine how such an event would affect the characters.

This is the kind of stuff that can end up being intimidating to a person new to the hobby. It's one thing to say that they're taking on the role of a character and doing things, but it's another to introduce a huge number of rules and regulations about it. Improv acting is relatively easy, but doing so in an unfamiliar setting is hard, and "playing a game" at the same time is harder. 

Character: "Who Am I?"
There are several different concepts of characters as they exist in RPGs, but there's two major concepts I think can be identified. The first of these is the "iconic" character, which is usually associated with a class-based system. In this setup, the class defines the character - the brave warrior, the cunning thief, the pious cleric, the scholarly wizard. That's not just for fantasy, either; every genre has a standard set of archetypes, whether it's western or pirates or spies or sci-fi. There's always some character concepts that people can quickly go "oh, right, he's an x" or "yeah, I remember, she's a y, like in that movie".

The more realistic setup is an "experience" setup, where a character's experience and background informs their skills. This is the system used by Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Traveller, for example. A character's background, home, and career affect their skills: a blacksmith would know how to mend armor and weapons, a sailor would know how to crew a ship, and so on. The buildup here is based on a logical understanding of the background: "This character has x experience, so they can do y". The issue is generally that this leaves less room for "fantastic" aspects like character abilities. These things are easily justified by archetypes, but don't always make sense within the realm of a logical human-like character.

Problems can arise when the former is used to try and connect to the latter. Archetypes are not all-encompassing, and neither, for that matter, is "character alignment" in D&D. They serve very limited narrative functions, because in a logical setup "this class gets x class abilities" does not make sense. Therefore, attempting to explain normal people's logical backgrounds as classes does not make sense either, because it's an abstraction for "heroic fantasy" purposes. An iconic character requires suspension of disbelief in favor of genre consistency. This makes it useful for quick identification, but less so for in-depth analysis. The same is true of alignment: it's easy to go "Chaotic Good = Robin Hood" but it's harder to actually look at the components of it under a stringent light.

The difference can be summed up thusly: One's easier to describe, and the other's built up logically but has less room for abstraction.
Iconic character description: "He's a barbarian - you know, like Conan. He's strong and tough and also has a bunch of related abilities like tracking, but he hates magic and doesn't like wearing armor. He can do berserker rage, like most barbarian types. He's chaotic good, so he hates authority but still wants to help people."
Experience-based character description: "Your character grew up in the wilds, so he knows how to hunt and find food. He's physically strong and has worked as a sellsword, so he's got some combat experience. The culture he comes from prefers direct combat to 'cowardice' and values personal freedoms above all, so that would affect his beliefs (but not wholly determine them)."

Interaction: "What Can I Do?"
If you asked a player (without setting up any rules or statistics) what they would do in a situation, how do you think they would respond? Say, for example, that you were in a room with three levers and a skeleton advancing on you. What would you say? Would I need to say what system it is for you to say something like "I pull one of the levers" or "I attack the skeleton"? What factors would you want to know more about to make your decision?

This is the realm of logic and meta-logic. The player's understanding of what they can do is going to be a combination of the tools they have available and the targets they can use them on. In an improvisational scenario, this is very clear cut: "I have x, I will attempt to use it on y". Games, on the other hand, up the ante by including a great deal more tools in the form of character abilities. Furthermore, they change the scenario such that using "real-life" logic no longer applies, because the world temporarily becomes turn-based, or ignores something that would simply make sense.

A new player should be given a very simple start, with a limited inventory, spell list, or whatever. That way, they can work out the application of those items to their situation, in the same way that they might do so in Zelda or an adventure game: "The way is dark, but I have a lantern", "There's a thing stuck on a high shelf, I'll knock it over with a push spell", and so on. It's a pretty simple concept: you want to give them things that connect to uses, but you don't want to give them so much stuff that they don't know where to start.

Combat is a bit more trouble. It's hard to represent combat "believably" because of the necessary abstractions. Still, some concepts are simple enough, depending on how they're presented: get hit with sword, lower health. The question becomes "how do I visualize what's going on", and "how do I deal with combat options other than 'I hit them with my sword'?" This is sort of a strange hurdle to overcome, because logical actions don't necessarily make sense in a turn-based setting: "The ogre strikes at you" "I block with my shield!" "You can't, it's not your turn", or something along those lines. In essence, the game should exist in a way that the universe being represented (in real time) is made as close to game logic as possible.

Setting: "Where Are We?"
The way a setting is represented is key in a tabletop RPG. While the GM is capable of describing things, the ability to draw upon existing imagery cannot be underestimated. Therefore, a GM should try to find a setting that the players are familiar with. If they're fans of Westerns, then they'll know all the classic Western concepts (the creaky old saloon, the hard-bitten prarie, the local sheriff's office) pretty well. If they're thrown into an unfamiliar setting, they won't have those automatic images to rely upon. The more players know about a setting, the more they can automatically fit into it. If they don't know about the setting, then they'll miss details and have to spend time asking about things their characters ought to know about.

Take Star Wars or Star Trek, for example. A person who doesn't know about the aliens in those series would require an explanation of them every time they came across a new species, and for reasons of brevity that explanation would be lacking. If a fan of the series saw an Ithorian or a Sullustan or an Andorian, they already know what that is. Existing imagery is drawn upon in a way that helps further their understanding of the setting. Fans of Star Wars know the distinctive noises of blasters, lightsabers, and TIE fighters. They're familiar concepts that are automatically drawn upon when they encounter one in the game.

A tabletop RPG can be a great way to introduce people to a concept by getting them involved and really helping them feel immersed in the setting. However, that feeling will be augmented if they have existing ideas to work with. Games work with almost no senses - everything has to be described, rather than shown directly. Most media works with two senses (sight and sound), and thus has an automatic advantage in terms of connecting to their audiences. Even the use of prose and narrative in books can help create a lasting image more easily than a beleaguered GM can.

In short, either find a setting players can relate to, or encourage players to look at media outside the game. If you're running a campy spy-fiction game, have them watch old James Bond movies. If you're running an action-packed modern game, have them watch Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Most gamers will have a thematic soundtrack to play during games for this very purpose. Reinforcing concepts of tone is as important an issue as anything else in the game when it comes to sensory connections.

Roleplay: "How Should I Act?"
The concept of roleplaying is pretty diverse. It can range from simply "driving" a character (i.e. using an avatar) to actually attempting to "be" a character (first-person dialog, making choices based on their motivations). This is going to connect to the previous three concepts, because those are going to influence how the player thinks about their character.

Just as there are archetypes for characters, there are also archetypes for players. Some players, for example, enjoy the social aspects of role-playing games, and thus will focus on that part. Some players may enjoy making mechanical decisions using in-universe logic, but will shy away from actually "acting" like their character. Some players may prefer the "game" aspects to the "role-playing" aspects.

Whatever their goals, a player's expectations should be established from the start. The important part is that they're interacting with the world in one way or another. A player who's shy of "talking like their character", for example, can easily convey similar concepts in third person ("My character does x", "my character says y"). This can convey the same information while being less "intimidating".

Players shouldn't feel obligated to play characters that they don't want to - and by that I don't mean in terms of classes and combat roles. A character's motivation should match the player's motivation: if a player is out to get gold and indulge in hedonism, they shouldn't be playing a paladin. If they want to do that, they can (that's roleplaying, after all), but it seems odd to create a divide between "the character's motivation" and "the player's motivation" when the player's motivation is what's actually reflected in the character.

In essence, things like "class" and "perspective" should be considered carefully rather than being prescriptivist or unrelated to the player's choices in the first place. Not every player is "good", and they shouldn't write down "good" on their character sheets if they don't want to play like that. It's perfectly reasonable to play a band of self-indulgent folks who want to get more money as long as there's no illusions about being noble heroes out to save the world.

Conclusion
When a new player is being introduced to a game, they tend to deal with things in very simple ways. This is because that's how hypothetical scenarios are generally treated: based on the use of real-life logic. It's up to the players whether the goal of a game is to create new logic or use existing logic, but by default most people are going to assume that a scenario is something like this:

"Say you're a Sheriff in some border town. Some punks just came into your local bar and they're tearing up the place. What do you do?" "Well, I'd kick their asses and throw them out." "Okay, let's go into the combat rules. What are you going to do first?" "I'll punch one in the face." and so on.

The rules in that scenario would exist to determine whether they managed to pull it off, and the scenario would hence develop from that point. The rules exist to fairly moderate events. However, in a rules-heavy situation, the expected answer would be something more like "I'll use my class ability to do something about them", which is less intuitive of an answer unless you are dealing with a situation where those abilities are understood. A person playing a Jedi, for example, would probably know about the hand-waving hypnosis thing. They would not necessarily know about abilities exclusive to the campaign.

So, To Sum Up:
1) Most players are going to go into a tabletop scenario with the understanding that it's like improv with rules.
2) Being able to draw upon existing concepts of logic and expectations, whether real or fictional, can greatly help the players to understand their role and choices.
3) Every aspect of a character's existence should be considered and related to the player's understanding of the game, and a tone should be established.
4) Basically, imagine yourself trying to play the game with a person who doesn't know the rules. Imagine explaining their class to them, the options available to them, the setting, their motivations, and so on. See how easy it is to translate their "uneducated" choices into the game's rules.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sourcebook rundown

One aspect of most roleplaying games that I enjoy is the concept of a sourcebook, a supplementary tome usually centered around a single area of expertise or geographic focus. This is a necessity because of the depth of an RPG compared to other types of games. In most computer games or wargames, there is a limited focus on elements outside of the immediate purview of the gameplay, and everything else exists as backstory or context for the main setup. In an RPG, on the other hand, the depth of the concept means that everything can be brought into play at some point, down to the most basic elements of how the universe operates.

To that end, I'd like to analyze some of my personal favorite sourcebooks for various systems across the years, and explain how I think they help flesh out the universe either in a concrete or immersive sense. If you have any books to add please feel free to discuss them in the comments - sourcebooks are naturally improved when there's more of them, after all.

Dungeoneer's Survival Guide (AD&D)
Probably my favorite sourcebook, and to this day a major defining feature of many things I enjoy about RPGs, the "Dungeoneer's Survival Guide" is an essential classic. While it deals in a fairly specific niche (adventuring in underground environments), it brings the kind of design principles to the table that are indicative of a more widespread approach applicable to every aspect of an RPG.

In essence, the DSG deals with every conceivable aspect of underground adventures. This includes the creation and layout of cave systems, proper methods of navigating caves, how to set up mining operations, and so on. It's really in-depth, too, but in a way that relies almost entirely on common-sense logical concepts. For example, the section on mining is really just a list of different types of real-life mining and how one would go about them - from placer mining (i.e. pioneer-style panhandling) to tunnel mining (which requires shoring and infrastructure). I wouldn't say that you could literally learn how to mine and spelunk by reading this book, but the basic concepts are established enough that the details can be comprehended.

In essence, that's the kind of stuff I value when I'm talking about sourcebooks: details. It creates a situation where an unknown is reached and provides an answer for it. If a PC says "okay, well, I want to start up a mine", there's your answer expressed in game terms. If a GM wants to know how a cavern would be set up rather than simply making it "a hole in the side of some rock", there's the answer. It's reference information that exists to round out the nature of the game world and make it so that the GM isn't forced to make up information. That's an incredibly necessary component when it comes to an open-world game, because eventually the choices are going to be limited by the knowledge the DM has access to.

The DSG isn't even limited to that kind of knowledge, either. A full chapter near the back of the book is dedicated to things like story structure, player motivation and rewards, and differing goals for individual players (i.e. the "roleplayer" versus the "power-gamer"). It's detailed enough that I would feel comfortable giving this book, and this book alone, to a potential GM and expect him to be able to craft a decent story from the tips it gives. It's well-written, concise, and full of helpful tips to encourage creativity and expand the player's toolset. By itself, it's probably the single most useful book for a prospective GM to have.
 
Old World Bestiary (WFRP)
This is a somewhat unusual choice, because as a game book goes, the Old World Bestiary is not that great. It's a pretty good list of monster stats, but other than that it doesn't add a huge amount. It doesn't even really analyze their organization and culture the way that early Monster Manuals did. Really, there's nothing in it that isn't just an expansion of the basic monster types in the core rulebook.

What it does do, on the other hand, is provide in-universe analysis and opinions. This, in fact, makes up most of the book's content. Each creature gets two to three types of data, and all of the data comes from sources within the context of the universe. The "Common View" comes from farmers, traders, sailors, and soldiers. "The Scholar's Eye" comes from specialists and professors, and "Our Own Words" comes from the creatures themselves. This provides a multi-layered in-universe perspective on these different creatures, which to me makes them feel much more tangible. It's one thing to hear an impartial narrator describe a monster's eating habits, but it's another to hear a panicked soldier talking about how that monster slaughtered most of his best friends.

It also provides a few different levels: the "common view" is simplistic and basic but generally provable, while the "scholar's eye" is more in-depth but also more prone to censorship and mistaken assumptions. They also tie into the game's skill system by associating either with "common knowledge" or "academic knowledge", where a successful check on one of those skills regarding a specific monster prompts the GM to relay some tidbit of information from the appropriate category. In my opinion, it's a pretty solid way to establish what that knowledge represents, rather than being a general or abstracted list of facts.

The biggest flaw with the OWB is that it doesn't really convey any new information, per se. There's no revelations about Orcish culture or organization, there's no in-depth analysis of any logistics or supplies. It's all the same stuff, but presented in a new and interesting way. While that's kind of bad for a sourcebook, it's still a good read and helps to present a "worm's-eye view" of the battlefield. It really gives a sense of normal humans going up against titanic monsters, rather than the tabletop game's view of all things being relatively small and insignificant. It tries to convey the fact that in WFRP, you're not some omniscient general, you're a regular Joe or Jane who's about five seconds from being splattered if you annoy that giant any further.

Regional Supplements (WFRP)
Covering various parts of the Warhammer world, including the Empire, Bretonnia, Kislev, and the Border Princes, these guidebooks create a united effect as each book goes into detail about the specific land it's focusing on. Each book covers the culture, society, government and traditions of its land, as well as the various provinces and states thereof. What I especially like about it is how modular it is: here's a new book, that book covers an area. You can just make a new book for every area. It's simple and reliable and helps immensely when trying to flesh out the setting.

The details tend to be pretty low-key, too, focusing on daily life within the country, as well as local customs, expressions, and superstitions. For example, the Bretonnian supplement emphasizes the difference between the nobility and peasantry, and shows just how separated the two groups are. It talks about differing speech patterns, differing systems of law, and even the underlying mode of thinking that's lead to Bretonnia being a few centuries behind the rest of the world in technological terms. The Empire supplement, on the other hand, tends more towards inter-provincial rivalries like those between the rich westerners and the poorer eastern provinces. It also introduces a lot of potential adventure seeds in the form of different regions and areas with their own quirks and conflicts.

They also go into pretty amazing depth about what people wear, how they act, what they eat, and so on. It's a pretty great source in terms of establishing concepts of everyday life, which is the kind of thing WFRP tends to revel in anyways. Like the Bestiary, it's a really great way to transition from the higher-level concepts of the wargame to the more personal issues of a role-playing game. It's the kind of thing that, honestly, seems pretty necessary for an RPG; how can you set an adventure in a given land if you've only got vague details about it? You need that meat and bone to fill in the gaps, to actually make it feel like a real place instead of just an amalgamation of real cultures thrown into the Warhammer universe. It helps establish the characters there, as well, since any individual is naturally affected by their culture. My one wish is that they'd made more, because there's so much in the Warhammer setting (Tilea, Estalia, Araby, Ind, and the other countries of the fantasy Orient) that would just be rife for adventuring possibilities.

Imperial Sourcebook (Star Wars D6)
Star Wars, as presented by the movies, isn't a particularly deep setting. Oh, it works for what it needs to do, of course, but as far as details go "the rebels" versus "the empire" might as well be a non-plot. The Empire just naturally has a bunch of Star Destroyers and Stormtroopers and Tie Fighters, and don't worry about where they come from or who's operating them. They're all intimidating and faceless, don't bother thinking about it.

The Imperial Sourcebook, on the other hand, has the somewhat unenviable task of attempting to create a logical, rational government from those vague concepts. It deals with things like the organization, recruitment, and mustering of  the Imperial forces, as well as filling in the gaps with regards to other groups and units within the Empire. For example, the sourcebook is the original source of COMPNOR, the Nazi-inspired human-centric movement that formed the basis for many Expanded Universe novels and assumed concepts.

In essence, the Imperial Sourcebook seems like the first time that the Empire was treated like an actual organization or government, rather than being simply a monolithic group of bad guys. There's discussions of how the Empire manages to keep its power and promote its ideologies throughout the universe, and how the common citizen perceives it. It establishes a lot of the more "general use" Imperial ships and vehicles, like frigates and cruisers that fill roles that the giant Star Destroyers can't. It even tries to encompass the absolutely monumental scale of the whole affair, which is, again, not an enviable task.

One odd thing about the Imperial Sourcebook is that a lot of it seemed unnecessary. Not in general, but for the game specifically. Yes, it's good to know that there's a logical backing to the whole affair, but for most sourcebooks the information is relevant in terms of the player. It's important to know how a squad is outfitted because it's perfectly rational to expect the players to run into a squad of Stormtroopers. Once you zoom out too far, though, it becomes more like "are they really ever going to deal with something on that scale?"

This is especially true because it's Star Wars - yes, there's a lot of detailed novels and comics and stuff, but in general when people think "Star Wars campaign" they're thinking about rebels blasting stormtroopers on a spaceship somewhere. They're thinking about iconic, recognizable imagery, not about politics and nuances. Well, at least, at that point it wasn't. The prequels could certainly have used a bit more sense when it came to that sort of thing. I'm not condemning the writers of the ISB, I just think it's kind of odd.

Colonial Marines Technical Manual (Aliens)
While not actually an RPG sourcebook, the Colonial Marines Technical Manual shares a lot of the properties that I value in a book of that kind. It uses a combination of solid technical details and anecdotal evidence to create an aggregate compendium that is both logical and tangible.

The normal text is standard technical manual stuff - explaining how things work, providing specifications for vehicles and equipment, and so on. However, there's embedded quotes that capture the Vietnam-style feel of Aliens perfectly, giving the sort of quasi-military Cowboy feel that I simultaneously dislike in general but appreciate in Aliens.

The best way to sum this book up would be to say that it's the most natural extension of the Aliens universe I can imagine. It throws out more campaigns, more gear, more battles, and more rough-necked space marines, all while preserving the exact gung-ho theme of the movie. It's jam-packed with the kind of slang, jargon, and general bellyaching that Aliens was loved for. In the same sense, it creates a lot of new scenarios and units that fit well within the wide confines of the series. Aliens takes place in a huge galaxy, and what we see of it in the movies is an infinitesimally small part. Therefore, there's plenty of "room to grow", and the book takes advantage of that in spades.

The one thing that separates this from an RPG sourcebook is, naturally, the lack of rules. In some ways that works to its advantage, because it can give information without having to slow down every five minutes to throw in a bunch of relevant numbers. It's all information that could be used in an RPG system, but it would have to be converted and developed from the data provided. Essentially, though, it fulfills the same function: it expands the universe that Aliens is set in while maintaining the same thematic concepts.

So, To Sum Up:
There's a few things that I think good sourcebooks do:
1) Provide enough detail that a GM can have a definitive answer to most of, if not all of, the situations that would arise within a given game or setting.
2) Introduce new areas and concepts that still fit within the setting's theme and sense of "room to grow".
3) Provide an in-depth look at life from the eyes of the setting's inhabitants, i.e. the people the players are meant to be roleplaying as.

The main goal of a sourcebook, though, should be to answer questions. What those questions are depends on the setting, but inevitably they're going to come up, and it's better for the GM to have an in-depth reference to use instead of having to wing it all himself. Heck, we don't need game systems to do that. "Making stuff up regardless of whether it makes sense" is the primary weapon in the nerd's arsenal.