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Month: March 2017

Myth and Place

Every game occurs in a place. Each instance of a finite game, certainly, has a very specific place it occurs. Superbowl LI tool place at NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas. In general, American football takes place not in a specific place, but at any number of places that can be considered football fields. But we know that American football, especially at the college and professional level, is not just a matter of a ball and players on a field with goalposts. It is a cultural phenomenon. To really be what it is, it must either take place in the USA or if it happens somewhere else then that place must be seen as an other place, a different place, considered in relation to the USA. In Canada, we have Canadian football, which is a very similar game. It is not the same game, not just because of the small differences in rules, but also because the places where it happens are different.

The American election of 2016, a political game, also took place in the USA. There are many differences between that and Superbowl LI, but the thing they have in common is that both are, to some extent, affected by the fact that their place is in the USA. The existence of such a place rests on its mythology. It is therefore inevitable that the game is affected by American mythology. The word myth does not mean “false.” It means “story.” Specifically, a story that explains why something is, with more regard to meaning than to historicity. Every game has a place, every place has a people, and every people has a myth. Therefore, to understand a game, one should be aware of the mythology that surrounds it. Some games are affected more than others: a game of chess is more easily divorced from its context than the Rose Bowl Game which is more easily divorced from its context than a general election.

American football isn’t American football without American mythology.

Turning our attention to the sort of games I spend more time writing about and playing than football, the typical tabletop RPG is saturated in myth by design. It needs to be, because in construction of a fictional world we have to explain why the kingdom is good (and therefore the current evil king is an aberration rather than a normal leader), or why life is so rough under imperial rule, etc. In games where the place is either the real world itself or a fictional facsimile we can assume certain things: we usually don’t have to explain what Britain or China is in order for us to understand that the games which take place there. We do have to do that for players pretending to be characters in a fictional world. It is not necessary for every DM to do world-building to the same extent as Tolkien because of the metamyth that most people who play these games are already aware of. We have assumptions about the existence of wizards and elves and dwarves and fair folk that ease us into the particular mythology being created for games like Dungeons and Dragons whether in famous settings like the Forgotten Realms or the DM’s own creation.

Joeseph Campbell identifies four functions of myth:

  1. The Mystical: connecting us as individuals with something much larger than ourselves, whether it is considered formally divine or secular awe and wonder
  2. The Cosmological: explaining how and why things came to be the way they are in form and function
  3. The Sociological: shaping and justifying the power of society
  4. The Pedagogical: teaching what is and how to live a good life

Some games are very limited in scope, and therefore do not interact with all of the functions of the mythology of their place. American football, for example, has very little to do with cosmology. It does, however, have a lot to do with American beliefs about social order and how to live a good life. Other games try to build an entire universe, and must therefore concern themselves with all four functions. The bigger, richer, and more detailed the universe, the more time and effort must go into constructing the mythology of the place.

There are different ways to go about building a world and I am not here to tell anyone how to do it, but the approach I am taking right now to the world I am building for tabletop roleplaying is to consider the mythology of the place using Campbell’s four functions, in order to guide where the details need to go. I will try not to get too bogged down in the practical aspects (names, maps, pantheon, characters) until I can see the need for each of those things to serve at least one of the four functions. The goal is to make the tabletop adventure as inseparable from its setting as American football is inseparable from America. It’s a bit more work, because players don’t enter the world with as much experience with the mythology, but success in this endeavour will be a place that endures by the power of myth.

Puzzles and Players

The Fellowship of the Ruby Amulet (oh, so original, guys!) enters the temple ruins and finds a pile of rune stones in the middle of the room, with a others occupying zones indicated on the floor around the edge of the room. These runestones are actually tactile elements, just like the player tokens and the gridmap. The DM obviously spent at least fifteen minutes making those.

“20, total;” says the player behind the Dwarven cleric, making it clear that he doesn’t mean to say that he rolled a critical success (20 on a 20-sided die) but 20 with all bonuses included.

“Not quite what I had in mind,” says the slightly disappointed DM who had hoped that the players would try and figure out the clever puzzle amongst themselves through in-character dialogue rather than reaching straight for the dice.

“Oh, great. Another one of these,” complains the player behind the wizard. He is frustrated because he would rather be lobbing fireballs than sorting runes and he is really not looking forward to another session that boils down to guess what number the DM is thinking of?

Why does the only door to the alchemist’s lab have to be locked with a rune puzzle?

This is why some of us who run Dungeons and Dragons games (or similar tabletop games such as World of Darkness, etc.) are nervous about putting puzzles into our campaigns. We want to seem clever and give the players a problem that can’t be too easily solved (or too easily rendered impossible to solve) by a single roll of the dice. Yet we don’t want to be seen as wasting time, distracting from the real game at hand, or being too cryptic. Here are some suggestions for Dungeon Masters who wish to strike a good balance:

  1. Read your group. To make this easy, you can ask them directly if they like puzzles or hack-and-slash. Surprise them with the puzzle itself, not the existence of puzzles. You can’t please everyone all the time, but some groups just aren’t puzzle-solving groups. And that’s okay. If your friends want hack and slash and you don’t, then don’t invite them. It’s okay to not invite all of your friends to all of your things (see also: Geek Social Fallacy #5).
  2. Steal. Borrow. Make homage to. Whatever you want to call it, there is nothing new under the sun. If you take the time to read up on previously published puzzles, whether in pure logic puzzle form or already adapted for tabletop RPG, then you know that it’s solvable by someone other than your own clever self. It is not hard to adapt a good published module to fit any setting, but one of the things I want to do in the next few months is read though Wikipedia’s lists of logic puzzles and games in game theory to see if I can come up with some innovative if not completely original ideas.
  3. Use puzzles as deliberate diversions or for earning extra rewards. If players can abandon the puzzle and carry on with their lives, they may just do that instead of spending hours getting frustrated over being unable to unlock the only exit. Maybe they will decide to go without those extra spell scrolls or self-sealing stembolts or whatever in-game items would be helpful in your setting. If you are feeling especially maniacal, pack a container with useful items and if the players skip it then give the items to the enemies later to make things harder.
  4. Build stages of difficulty into the puzzle that can have dice rolls for giving hints rather than solving everything at once. The inherent difficulty for the DM here is that it means taking extra time to build it into the game, and I have sure had those sessions where I’ve figured out the plot and the tactical encounter mere minutes before the players arrive. I think it is worth it, though, especially when you have someone roleplaying a very intelligent character who wants to feel really smart even if they are actually struggling to get it. I’ve been that guy a few times.
  5. Throw in immediate consequences to not solving the puzzle in a timely manner. Putting a timer on a puzzle is useful because it pushes the players to try solutions rather than overthinking it, allows action-oriented players to have a chance to shine. The guards/kobolds/etc. that have been chasing you catch up if the lock isn’t opened in time. The container explodes after a set number of failed attempts. This also encourages the DM/designer to keep the puzzle relatively simple rather than going overboard on trying to be clever.

I don’t think puzzles are necessary or always desirable in a tabletop RPG, but a good one can result in a better story than “I solved the thing because I rolled a really high number on this die.” I will be trying to follow my own advice over the next few months as I finally get around to taking some of those ephemeral campaign ideas and putting it into a coherent set of DM’s notes. If you have anything to add, please leave a comment somewhere (here, Facebook, Twitter, wherever you post the most).

CAGEO: Drama In New Eden

“Fake News” is today’s hottest buzzword in real-world current events. We all want to think that other people, whose political opinions we disagree with, are the stupid ones. Being on the correct side, we are immune to being taken in by fake news because our opinions are based on facts. Last week I learned that I’m not smarter than that, I was taken in by a ruse that I wanted to believe in. Fortunately, I learned this in EVE Online rather than in the real world. Last week, James 315 confirmed that the massive theft from his alliance that I mentioned on February 18 was a ruse. In my own defence, I started to suspect something was amiss when he kept posting his daily blog without even mentioning what should have been a huge event. But really, to be honest, I fell for something I read on reddit because I wanted to believe that I was witness to something really big happening in the EVE universe. It wasn’t true, or at least what I believed was happening wasn’t what was actually happening. The space mafia is stronger than ever. Thank goodness.

Reports of CODE.’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

At this point one might be wondering why, as an Alpha clone and something of a high-sec carebear I care so much about CODE. and vacillate between describing them using terms normally reserved for organized crime, then heaping praise on them for being in the game. It’s because nobody sold me on EVE properly before I started this series. It was sold to me as a game about spaceships and industry, which I don’t think it really is at a fundamental level. It’s a game about drama, framed by a risk vs. reward gambit. That there are pretty starfields and spaceships with lasers that go pew-pew is just the package it comes in. It’s not fundamentally about that any more than 7 Wonders is fundamentally about building classical monuments. The CODE. alliance plays a big role in making high-security a place of drama rather than a place of mindless grinding for ISK. There are other groups out there, this just happens to be the one I continue to find to be the most entertaining.

For more experienced players with fewer restrictions on their gameplay (have more time to put in, more in-game friends, willing to pay for a subscription), drama is still the main attraction. The New Yorker Radio Hour’s piece entitled Populists Stage a Coup in Space provides us with a story about Goons and BoB (two large factions in null security space). I highly recommend giving that a listen whether you are a veteran EVE player or will never play the game and only ever read about experiences on blogs and news sites. They go out of their way to explain what the story is about in plain English, much like I try to do. People don’t play EVE for the same reasons that they play other games.

Although the player in this RPG is a custom character and has choices to make, there are predefined paths to follow and a finite number of win and loss conditions determined by the game designers. Drama exists in the moment, but is in the end a theatrical experience. (Baldur’s Gate Enchanced Edition)

This all stands in contrast to games which are theatrical rather than dramatic. Most other video games are theatrical. Western CRPGs typically feature character customization and branched narratives, but there is fundamentally a beginning and an end to each instance of the game. It can be dramatic during play, but it always comes to a conclusion. Players can make choices, but in mot cases the ultimate arc of the narrative will have been something pitched, written, and designed for the player.

Neither CODE. nor the The Great War were scripted by a developer. These factions and events are 100% generated by other players and therefore have a sort of realness that a scripted story can’t attain. And that’s why the Kusion Ruse is a cautionary tale. Using the magic of science fiction can help people think outside their normal boxes. It’s easy to be smug about being a North American liberal when you see the facts as being on your side. But in this case I don’t get to be proud of myself for being smarter than those other people who believed in the absurd things like Pizzagate. I have never fallen for a player-created ruse within a game like this, but having experienced it myself, it reminds me to keep my pride under control before writing off “those fools” as idiots not worth listening to. It doesn’t mean giving up on having opinions and voicing them, but it does mean occasionally checking to see if the idiot in the room is me. I can’t say that I have ever had this kind of insight caused by playing simpler, more theatrical games.

As I am approaching the end of the road for skills that Alpha clones can learn, the next post in this series will be the last. That is not to say I will never write about this game again, but on a less frequent basis. It is my hope that people have found this series to stand out from the many other pieces written about this game. The resources on how to play the game are vast and mostly indecipherable if you don’t actually play the game. It is my hope that the Casual Alpha’s Guide is a good reference for why a person would play the game and why it’s an interesting concept for study by people who don’t play.

Cultural Diversity

There is a vast variety of recreational games that we humans engage in. So vast that when one claims to be a “gamer” or enjoys “games” it’s usually slang for being fond of particular kinds of games and participation in a particular culture. None of the “gamers” I know are going to pay equal attention to what happened at the GDC Expo and what’s going to happen during March Madness.

Basketball is a good example of a game where I can understand the appeal of the finite iterations of the game but not the infinite aspects of the culture. It is something I could play myself, and could probably have fun doing so if I was matched against people of similar enough skill and athletic level that we could play a fair game. I have tried watching college/professional basketball on TV. I can see that the action is fast-paced and that the game isn’t just about who is tallest or fastest; the players at the highest levels have to be highly skilled.

A game that I can see the appeal of, but just can’t get into.

I can see all that, and yet, I have no plans to watch during March Madness or during any other time of year. I’m just not into it because although I can like the finite iterations of the game, the infinite culture that supports playing that game is not something I am a part of. If I had a reason to make a conscious effort to join that culture, maybe I could get into it. It’s not likely to happen. But that doesn’t mean I have anything against basketball.

When it comes to the gaming culture that I am a part of, I am glad to see the increasing volume of people talking about inclusion and breaking down barriers to participation whether based on ability or sociological constructions. However, I am at times reminded of the need to balance our enthusiasm for our own game culture with respecting that not everything is for everyone. I don’t need to convince everyone of the need to play any particular game or class of game in order to be welcoming of those who are actually interested. So yes, I encourage newcomers to be interested in the kind of tabletop games I run and give it a try. But I am not going to try too hard to convince them, because I know that it will not be effective for the same reasons that getting me out to a basketball game might not be an easy sell. It’s not because I would be turned away, but because I don’t really feel the pull. That I have my culture and that football, basketball, and poker players all have theirs is something I see as valuable diversity rather than a competition for an audience.