Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It's Not Just About "Fun"

Let's say I'm talking to some coworker or new acquaintance about one of my many different endeavors (possibly medieval wargaming, or music, or even mathematics). Maybe we're not quite making a connection about why it's important to me. How can I make them understand why I spend time on these projects? As I struggle for a conclusion, I might say something like, “So yeah, we're having fun”. And the other person will then say, “Oh, all right then”. Apparently, they'll achieve closure from that, and walk away untroubled.

And you know what? I'm trying really hard to stop doing that, because for the most part it's just total bullshit.

I know a lot of us have the same problem. Our art and our gaming are important to us. We feel it in our gut. But when it comes time to explain it, we routinely say “It's just fun”, or “As long as we have fun,” or “The only important thing is having fun”. We wave the word “fun” at the problem of explaining ourselves and assume that it suffices.

But I hereby choose to resist that temptation. Our gaming and our art are so much more important and multifaceted than that! The “fun” explanation is really just a convenient cop-out. It leaves mute the vast majority of our experiences in any of these deeply-felt projects. Like the best literature (or theater or movies or TV), they may be: sad, scary, inspiring, informative, arousing, inflammatory, tragic, dramatic, elegiac... without necessarily being "fun".

You can see one iteration of this in the “AngryMath Manifesto”, on my math blog (over here). Most mathematicians tend to describe their work as “a play of patterns... a wonderful beauty... a crystalline serenity”. But that's not an accurate representation of our actual work in math – it's trouble, it's a problem to be solved, it's a barrier seeking destruction, and it's the jolt of relief and excitement when the light-bulb clicks on.

Consider the experience when I'm playing drums with my garage-punk band Victor Bravo (blog over here). If I'm weak-minded, I might describe the experience as “fun”, but that's not really truthful. It's hard work, and it's pre-show-anxiety, and it's also the overcoming of all that in myself. It's fast and hard-hitting, it's incredibly precise, and yet it's totally chaotic at the same time, too. We're singing songs about people's failings and disgust and destruction – and the heartfelt desire for things to be better. I'm trying to hit, I'm trying to listen, I'm trying to move my wrists and fingers properly, I'm trying to track what instruments are being damaged, and I'm trying to simply breathe properly. People are jumping and dancing and shoving each other in our mosh pit. Sometimes I'm trying to dodge stuff being thrown at us, and occasionally I'm trying to track how badly I'm being damaged (for example). That's many things, but “fun” is probably the weakest, faintest of all approximations of the experience.

Now let's come back to our gaming hobby, which is all of these things all at once. Whether players or DM, when we're at the table, we're trying to: Solve problems, support our teammates emotionally, improvisationally act out our character personalities, remember rules, crunch probabilities in our heads, decide whether to use our resources now or later, gauge risk-versus-reward, and consider a simulation of near-medieval life and technology. We're trying to manage our own emotions and come back from a bad beat or a difficult situation, and find some way to fight on (!) to victory. We're listening and parsing language and narrative descriptions for meaning. It's a puzzle and math and theater and history and a sporting event all at once. I've seen players go directly from sputtering anger to cheering joy at the roll of a single die or the discovery of a puzzle's solution (and vice-versa).

Is all of that “fun”? No, I don't think so. Much of it is heartache and uncertainty and struggle against overwhelming odds while the game is in progress. And that emotional, intellectual test is so very much more than just “fun”.

So, if “fun” is so miserably incomplete, what would a fuller explanation look like? Obviously, I can't pretend to think that I have a complete answer. But let's say, just for a moment, that we consider Aristotle's famed analysis of “Tragic Poetry” (and if he's not completely right, we can at least take this as a carefully-considered initial hypothesis). He specifies six components: (1) Plot, (2) Character, (3) Thought, (4) Diction, (5) Melody, and (6) Spectacle. Now, isn't that an almost eerily prescient description of our fantasy role-playing games? (And possibly even moreso, good rock'n'roll?) The Plot is meant to contain “reversals, recognition, and suffering... arousing horror, fear, and pity”, and meant to effect catharsis of same; the Characters are expected to “change from happiness to misery because of some tragic mistake” (see here). Is that not a fair description of our games that have no “win” condition for our avatar-selves, but only, ultimately, ways to lose?

(Now, obviously, there's another volume of Aristotle's analysis lost to us over time; but I think it's rather obvious that our RPGs are more like “Drama” than they are “Comedy”.)

Now think: Where is “fun” in this analysis? Has it been overlooked? Is it fundamentally unnecessary? Is it implied by the last and least-important item of “Spectacle”? And are the other rewards from our dramas, from our own Tragic Poetry, not immensely deeper than just “fun”? Let us be courageous and assert all of these deeper aspects, together, and not be satisfied with talking about the merely consolatory notion, which is to say, “fun”.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Coddling Players

The recent issue of Game Developer magazine has an article called “Our Cheatin' Hearts” by Soren Johnson (May 2009, p. 46). It starts by observing that the game Puzzle Quest (a player-vs-AI version of Bejeweled) suffers from the fact that sometimes a lucky drop may occur for either player. When it happens for the AI, the players routinely accuse the game of cheating against them. At the end of the article, the author comes to this conclusion:

Returning to our original example, the developers of Puzzle Quest actually should have considered cheating – but in favor of the player. The game code could ensure that fortunate drops only happen for the human and never for the AI. The ultimate balance of the game could still be maintained by tweaking the power of the AI's equipment and spells, changes that appear fair because they are explained explicitly to the player. The overall experience would thus be improved by the removal of these negative outliers that only serve to stir up suspicion.

When the question is one of fairness, the player is always right.

I say: Bullshit.

A few comments: (1) I consider this to be utterly antithetical to the old-school D&D sensibility. We say: Here are some simple, equitable rules for both sides; the DM will adjudicate them neutrally; it is up to you to figure out a way to survive/succeed, based on your playing skills. You may either win or lose. (2) Is this not similar to the requirement that all big-budget Hollywood movies have a happy (and predictable) ending? Perhaps the actual claim is that for maximal sales, play-act as though the player is always right. And perhaps as hobbyists (instead of a corporatist stance), we are more free from this restriction. (3) As I say to my colleagues and math students: “Random numbers will mess with your head”. I encourage developers of games to confront this head-on; use the game as a learning tool for dealing with randomness, and unexpected setbacks, and our built-in intuition leading us astray. Do not surrender to just feeding back to players their own advance expectations all over again. We must use games as training for the real world, not for life in the Matrix.

Halfway through the GD article, another example is brought up favorably: the technique of “rubber-banding” cars in racing games (that is, giving whoever is behind an automatic speed-boost). This strikes a resounding chord in me, because my first game-industry job out of school was as a programmer for Papyrus Racing Games in Boston (a branch of Sierra/Vivendi at the time), where we made racing sims like Nascar Racing, IndyCar Racing, and Grand Prix Legends.

The emphasis at Papyrus was on racing simulations, and I loved working there in its heyday. Many of us went to racing school for practical experience. Indeed, we routinely received complaints from players, publishers, and reviewers in the vein: “The game is too hard. The cars are too difficult to control. It's hard work to keep from spinning. If you have one collision you cannot win the race.” And we as a company would say: "Tough." That's exactly what real racing is like; the cars are powerful, easy to spin, and there is no comeback from an engine-shattering wreck. There is no save game. Sometimes the greatest challenge in racing is the concentration and endurance necessary to withstand a 2-hour race without damaging your vehicle in heavy traffic. If you want to truly learn racing, this is your game. If you want a cartoon that strokes your ego, it is not. Would we have ever implemented “rubber-banding” in a Papyrus racing sim? Hell, no.

And let me say this: In all the games that I've played heavily (D&D, Nascar Racing, Starcraft, Poker, etc.) the most interesting part – practically the only part I find of interest any more – is this: What does a player do under an enormous, unfair setback? Do they crumble and give up? Do they yell and complain after a bad beat (as in poker)? Or do they have the fortitude to gather themselves up, get creative under adversity, and fight back? Can we learn to be cool under pressure?

If we make our games coddle players – if we start cheating in favor of the players, so that they never have unfair setbacks – what we will actually cheat them of is this critical opportunity to grow and learn about ourselves through gameplay.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Sleep Analysis

Let's consider the OD&D sleep spell for a moment (you can see me grappling with the spell in my last game, below). First, imagine that the game originates with just some 4th-level Hero fighters and a few Magic-Users. Assume we're playing in a game where the Heroes get 4 attacks per round (for example, they likely fell 4 normal men each round). Consider designing a reasonable offensive spell for the accompanying Magic-User; since his spells are limited, they should have a more potent effect. Say, perhaps, that the spell is equivalent to 2 rounds worth of the Hero's attacks -- so, the spell should drop about 8 or so 1st-level creatures on average.

Now, to my understanding, the first part of this is exactly how the original fantasy RPG began play under Dave Arneson -- players took the parts of Heroes (worth 4 figures) from Chainmail, and advanced them to Superheroes (worth 8 figures) through play. In those rules, your basic Hero did in fact make 4 attacks for each normal man figure.

Sometimes we lose sight of that fact, since it's unstated in the OD&D books, which presume we're referring back to the Chainmail man-to-man combat system. But the point was reinforced in the article "Questions Most Frequently Asked About Dungeons & Dragons Rules", from The Strategic Review #2, p. 3 (Summer 1975, Editor: E. Gary Gygax):

Combat Example: 10 ORCS surprise a lone Hero wandering lost in the dungeons... Note that he is allowed one attack for each of his combat levels as the ratio of one Orc vs. the Hero is 1:4, so this is treated as normal (non-fantastic) melee, as is any combat where the score of one side is a base 1 hit die or less. Hero: 19; 01; 16; 09. Two out of four blows struck...


Now, it's made clear in this passage -- and again elsewhere -- that the multiple-attack rule is here being limited to opponents who have 1 hit die or less (and that's why you see the rule appearing in AD&D the same way). Nevertheless, it's clear that the game assumes that the PCs are facing down very large numbers of normal opponents, and hewing through them quite rapidly (even in a 1:10 ratio, as seen here). Consider also Arneson's "Temple of the Frog" in the Blackmoor supplement, where the first level of the dungeon contains barracks housing 50, 100, 250 men each, etc.

The point is, the original play of the OD&D game assumed that your Fighters were cleaving through enormous numbers of non-fantastic enemies, and obviously the Wizard-types had to have something to keep up with them. The sleep spell as we see it in OD&D exactly matches this situation -- 2-16 normal men affected (9 on average), a bit more than the number of attacks that a Hero would dish out in 2 rounds. (And you can also see why Greyhawk stipulated the first no-save rule for sleep; the number of saves you'd have to roll would otherwise be enormous.)

So if we switch to a system where Fighters are not getting these Chainmail-esque machine-gun attacks, then this wouldn't make sense anymore. Certainly, I play with everyone just getting one attack all the time. If I were to read the OD&D books by themselves, that's certainly how I would interpret the combat system. And after playing 3E for a number of years, I'm solidly in the camp that the multiple-iterative-attacks mechanic there was really a huge mistake. Let's proceed with the more elegant rule of one basic attack resolution for all PC-types.

If our OD&D Heroes only get one attack against normal foes (1:4 original), then our sleep spell must also be reduced in the same ratio to remain balanced with it. Say, take the basic effect (2-16, average 9), divide it by 4 (9/4 = 2.25), and find a reasonable die for that range (d4, perhaps d6 if we prefer the shape?). And do the same thing for the other hit die categories (2HD: average 7/4 = 1.75, say 1/2 d6; 3HD: average 3.5/4 = 0.88, say just 1 creature; 4HD: average 1/4 = 0.25, say no creatures affected). We do this while acknowledging that the D&D Fighter, under the TSR #2 rule, doesn't get multiple attacks against higher-level foes (it would be very odd to give sleep a greater number of upper-HD affected).

So that's what I think I'll do for my game's sleep spell. We'll have sleep affect 1d6 1HD, 1/2 d6 2HD, or 1 3HD figures (and none of higher level). That's in harmony with the reduced number of Fighter attacks and presumed number of enemies, as compared to Chainmail. It seems about fair to me, and in the same spirit as the original environment for the spell.

Finally, here's some other comments. There's no need to impose Greyhawk's no-save rule here, so I'll continue to afford saves to the targets of the spell. Flavor-wise, I feel that sleep-enchantments should be generally more difficult to break out of than normal sleep. Therefore, I see no reason for more than a 2-in-6 chance to wake up a victim by way of shaking/slapping, etc. It should also last a fairly long period of time (duration is unstated in OD&D), perhaps a full sleep cycle -- I'll say 12 turns (a common duration in Vol. I), although if you said 12 hours I'd be quick to agree with that, as well.