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Category: Tabletop Board/Card Games

Safety, Security, Atrocity

I have been thinking a lot lately about security and safety. In our non-fictional world we can’t stop talking about it. We bring our desire for security into our fiction-based games. After all, what is the point of defeating evil necromancers or eldritch space horrors if not to secure the safety of the ordinary good people in that fiction? Today I will be using an example from EVE Online to explain how risk cannot be eliminated while maintaining reward except by atrocity. There is a bit of a preamble, but don’t worry, I will as always ensure that I am writing in plain English rather than EVE-specific jargon (tooltips will be provided).

In our non-fictional world, safety and security are usually spoken of in positive terms. We generally want children to return from schools and employees to return from workplaces without serious or life threatening injuries or exposures. We expect to be able to walk out of our homes and not die by malicious action or careless negligence. Yet it is impossible to truly perfect our safety and security. Everyone who leaves their house consents  to a level of acceptable risk. You know you could lose your life simply by walking out your door, but you do it anyway because the chances are low while the rewards are seemingly endless. You don’t proceed to run into opposing traffic because that kicks the level of risk into being unacceptable: being late for work is not worth your life. You feel safe enough, secure enough, that you would not go to bizarre lengths to drive the chances of something going wrong down to absolute zero. Yet that residual chance of a drunk driver defying the traffic safety rules and laws and causing you harm always remains no matter much more enforcement is applied. As a society we work out where to set the limits, and when we do well the risk is practically zero but not absolutely zero with as few restrictions on individual liberty as possible. We can chase that absolute all we want with ever-increasing zeal for draconian rule enforcement, but somehow we never get there. We know that if there is ever to be any reward, there is a non-zero risk.

Even in a game mostly based on rolling numbers on dice, there is an element of risk vs. reward.

Risk vs. reward lies at the core of the mechanics of the finite games we play. Our level of acceptable risk can go sky-high when there is no risk to our physical safety and no real money is involved. Where we are risk averse when it comes to the risk of termination of infinite play, we are perfectly happy to play finite games where we rush headlong into danger and get destroyed when we lose. The boundaries of the game provide a safe space for us to indulge the kind of risks that we would never take if the consequences were not contained within the game. We can construct terrible totalitarian regimes where no threat to our Civilization’s hegemony can go unanswered by military force. We can fly spaceships deep behind enemy lines knowing that we could be blown up at any time. We can take four points for twos at risk of losing our bonus on the top half of the Yathzee card. Depending on the game and the player’s style, finite games played for fun involve different risk profiles. Yet wherever our tolerance lands, we know that a game with rewards but no risks is completely broken.

So what happens when a player doesn’t understand this? This week I have a great example coming from New Eden, the fictional universe in which EVE Online takes place. Since the last time I wrote about this game, I took the plunge: got the subscription, joined a corporation, and moved out to null sec. Security here is different. I no longer rely on CONCORD’s omnipotent but reactionary justice. But I still read Miner Bumping with amusement. That is the blog I referred to in this post about emergent gameplay. Many days it’s more of the same: player in a mining ship in high security space gets blown up by a space mafia enforcer, space mafia engages in a little bit of light roleplaying (the blog being the central source for the in-game propaganda), the miner goes berserk and engages in toxic behaviour, the whole thing gets posted to James 315’s blog where the man himself makes entertaining wisecracks and reinforces his mythology. After a while that starts getting a little old, but then every few weeks something interesting and different happens. This last week Miner Bumping introduced us to a player named Starterrorprime (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). This miniseries is exactly why I read that blog.

For those who don’t speak EVE jargon, here is a brief synopsis: dude approaches one of the most powerful groups in a very large game and offers to build their ships rather than pay into their racket. They’re like no, we build our own ships, please pay into our racket. He doesn’t want to, so he buggers off to the area of space (null sec) where CODE. doesn’t operate. Wants to sell ships on the open market to a powerful null sec alliance. The same ships they build themselves and give out to their members for free. He complains on the official forums when his plan for pre-ordained profits fails to materialize. Then he comes back to high sec and goes back to forums with his tale of woe and asking people to donate (in-game currency) to his for-profit enterprise. If he is doing this as a scam, that’s the most perfect EVE gameplay I have ever seen. But if he believes his own BS, if he believes that there is actually something wrong with the game when he can’t just roll in and start making profit at the expense of large groups, that’s where he has a really serious problem. The game would have a serious problem if it rewarded players who are looking to get risk-free rewards, but that’s not the case. If he keeps on trying to mine minerals and build ships out of those minerals in high security space, he is going to continue to face player pirates (CODE. and otherwise) and the heartless reality of the open market where much larger and more efficient operations will be able to undercut him. He is not ruining the game because he is unable to completely remove the risk that he will either get blown up or beaten in the ship market.

Now, if he wants safety and security and the opportunity to take progressively bigger risks for progressively better rewards, he can always give it a try in a different null sec alliance. Do what I did: inquire about who is recruiting, find a good bunch of guys to play with, and be there for the group when they call for help to defend fellow alliance mates. Be there for their team mining boosts, be there for the corporation-level small fleet activities. Sure, my killboard will show that I have lost many, many more ships after leaving the safety of high security space. But my ability to build up and participate in something bigger is far more secure than it would be without being a part of a team.

Nullsec Corporation life means deriving your safety and security from being a part of something bigger than yourself with other players, not just having the biggest shiniest dakka-est pwnship in the game. The best ship in EVE is friendship.

And this is where we finally get to the part about atrocity: assuming it’s not a swindle, what would it take for Starterrorprime to be able to realize his dream of making profit without interference from opposing players? Would CODE. need to be banned holus bolus? Would a single player be able to find a way to take down a decaying Pandemic Legion? To do this without astronomical risk would take a lot of power, but not just any kind of power: it must be accessible to him but not his opponents. It may not be impossible that he is simply that much of an exceptional player that he could eventually find the hidden path to becoming John Galt in space faster than anyone else, but it seems quite unlikely. How does a one-man corporation reliably take on the masses and win every time (on the battlefield or in the marketplace) when the masses are able to change strategy and have been at the game much longer than our new bro? It is easier to imagine this power coming from some kind of exploit which CCP would make a bannable offence as soon as they are made aware of it. In order for him to use an exploit to dominate very large groups of skilled and intelligent players he would need the developers on his side to allow the exploit to continue. This would be, within the boundaries of the game, an atrocity. Now let’s think about things other than video games: if I came up with a risk-free way to win at board and card games, nobody would want to play with me anymore. I would be banned from tournaments. Casinos would kick me out. In order to keep “winning” I would somehow need to force others to play with me, which is in some ways impossible. The “players” would not really be playing the game, they would be maintaining the facade of a game to keep me placated. I would have to keep changing the rules to keep myself on top, always. The more extreme the drive to zero risk / increasing rewards gets, the worse and more bizarre the situation would have to be in order to make it possible. This why guys like Starterrorprime must be allowed to lose. Hopefully they come back better next time with a little bit more humility and a better plan. Things would need to be really crazy for it to be any other way.

So, the next time you see an embittered player pleading for more safety and security, be wary of what they might have in mind. Are they looking to bend rules to create an unfair advantages for themselves? What would it cost everyone else to see that player get their way? Are they looking to cooperate with others towards a common goal, or to exploit the good will of others and climb to power on their backs? If that kind of behaviour is allowed in the game with a risk of failure, great. But if they have the means to eliminate risk entirely and still get the rewards, some kind of atrocity is sure to follow. If it’s in the context of a finite recreational game then maybe it is time to quit and do something else. If it’s someone who wants to eliminate risk to their real-life fortunes it is important that they are denied the means to make it happen.

Next week at this time I will be rather busy. Last year’s modest proposal has lead to next Saturday being my wedding day. I have said before that this blog will always be free; that you won’t ever be pestered to sign on to give me money via Patreon, etc. just for writing posts. That is still true. However, I did reserve the right to use the blog to promote other projects asking for your money. If you appreciate my work and want to contribute, I do have a suggestion. My fiancée and I have requested of our friends and family to not give us physical things as wedding gifts (we already have enough dishware, thanks) but instead to make a donation to the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute. So if you, wonderful reader, are the sort of person who’d be inclined to support my work right now please take that money and make that donation instead. To do this, please go to the Universal Hospital Foundation donation page and select “Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute” from the “designation” dropdown.

Almost Infinite will continue to publish while I am away, but comment moderation may be very slow. It should be fine if you have posted before, but new commenters may have to wait a while before their posts show up. And if you are wondering why to care about comment moderation when you don’t post any, I encourage you to make a change there. I hope everyone is enjoying Alastair’s series Full Steam Ahead which will return with “Arma II – Operation Arrowhead” on the 22nd.

Life Isn’t Monopoly

It’s been almost a year since I wrote Hell, Titles, and Houses in July 2016. In this amount of time things have gone from crazy to ludicrous and now, finally, to precarious. I’ve been a fan of Garth Turner’s blog The Greater Fool for a while now, much longer than it has been fashionable to question the sustainability of an economy based on perpetually increasing house prices. Reading that blog every day might be a weird thing to be passionate about, but it helped me build confidence in the belief that not being in a position to buy a house doesn’t make me a loser or a victim. I had to change my beliefs. I knew the “responsible adult” thing to do was to get an education and a good job, pay back debt as fast as possible, then make the most important purchase of my life. But after putting in the work to get the education, the job, and slay the debt I came to realize that I had been doing the right things for the wrong reasons. I was being a responsible adult because I saw a game with winners and losers, and I intended to be a winner: the guy who owns a modest-but-nice house and therefore never has to suffer the indignities of pet restrictions and rent increases. I was to become wealthy over many years by virtue of owning, a sort of petit-bourgeois privilege afforded to me on account of being smarter and more clever than my less responsible peers (aka the losers).

Of course, a number of things are wrong with that way of thinking. It was based on erroneous assumptions about economics, as the month of May 2017 has shown us that things are starting to turn sour for everyone who has gone all-in on real estate in Canada’s hottest markets. But even if it remains the case that buying a house at any cost is a sure way to win, I now have to admit that it would be morally repugnant to “win” that way. Think of the board game that every self-respecting board game geek loves to scoff at: Monopoly. That’s the game where you throw dice and compete to see who can extract the most wealth just by being lucky to land on the right places at the right time but passing your combination of malice and good luck off as big league business savvy.

Nobody admits to liking Monopoly, yet it’s ubiquitous and continues to sell copies without an end in sight. It’s basically the Nickelback of board games.

The object of the game is to bankrupt the other players through charging ever-increasing rents. There are a lot of things that make this game less fun, and one of them includes keeping other players in play. To properly play the game, it’s not enough to “add value” to the board by assembling your sets and building houses. You have to kick the ladder out from underneath you if you want to score a timely victory. This is all fine at the board game table; nothing is wrong with some make-believe wheeling and dealing among friends and family. But could you really feel good about yourself if, in real life, you aspired to play like a Monopoly player, whether by swift domination or by squeezing your opponents slowly by keeping them in the game just so you can get more from them later? I wouldn’t think so. I would give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you don’t wish that reality was more similar to Monopoly than it is. If managing to buy real estate meant winning, and being among those who never caught the right break meant destitution, that’s not a game I would want to win.

Fortunately, the economic game in the real world doesn’t work like that. I am writing about this topic now because the markets in Vancouver and Toronto are faltering. May 2017 looks like the zenith of the madness that inspired people to blame foreigners for domestic problems in Vancouver, push and shove each other to scramble into an open house guarded by a police officer in Greater Toronto, and for people my age to feel like this music video is the most relatable thing we have heard in a long time. It is a cultural sickness we have in Canada that enables us to rationalize that behaviour in the face of a reality that is quite unlike Monopoly. It makes me hope that Garth Turner’s daily posts in this past month are accurately chronicling the unravelling of the economic assumptions that fuel the madness of this Monopoly mindset.

It wasn’t too long ago that conventional wisdom held that rants such as this one were pointless and esoteric. But nowadays, Canadian politicians (especially in BC and Ontario) seeking to maintain their positions in their own political game are scrambling to be seen as “doing something” to cool the market. Of course, I doubt that they want to succeed: almost 70% of Canadians own homes now. Successfully bringing prices back in line with incomes would be logical, fair, and absolute political suicide due to the number of people who have a lot to lose if the measures actually work. I don’t know what the politically tenable solution to our national housing crisis is. All I can do is take care of my own home, stay grounded, and hope that the storm of fear and greed eventually subsides and people start seeing houses as places to live again rather than get rich quick schemes. Life isn’t Monopoly.

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).

Characters and Kayfabe

Professional wresting isn’t something I normally think of as being a thing I enjoy. I understand it for what it is, and I feel like I gave it a fair chance in my younger years. I watched a little bit of it, and got to go see it live with a friend (who loved the whole spectacle) when the WWF came to my home town on a tour. I even made one of those little signs to get into the fan rivalry. My sign proclaimed Kurt Angle to be “our Olympic zero” riffing on his gimmick of Olympic hero. It was fun, but even at that peak I never fell under the spell of wrestling fandom in the way I could be drawn into science fiction and fantasy. If I was going to do pretend violence, I wanted to do it with fireball spells rather than folding chairs.

So, when I was offered the chance to play World Wide Wrestling, a tabletop RPG based in the world of wrestling kayfabe rather than one of magic or spaceships I wasn’t sure how much I could enjoy this if it has been over fifteen years since I last felt compelled to engage with this kind of show in any way. But at the table with my group that usually plays World of Darkness or D&D, we started roleplaying as professional wrestlers. It turned out to be loads of fun.

This kind of scene does not occur in my usual tabletop games (source)

One thing I would recommend for anyone who isn’t already a wresting fan who wants to play World Wide Wrestling is to have a cheat sheet of professional wrestling moves handy so that you can narrate your character’s actions in the language of professional wrestling. Like the theatrical performance of professional wrestling, WWW is heavy on the narrative side. Reading your character sheet and the rule book give you a lot more information about who your character is than about the specific techniques he or she can employ. It’s up to you to know how to describe the thing you want to do, and it’s helpful to have an extra reference if “seated senton” is not part of your usual jargon. There are a couple pages of this in the WWWRPG Final Play Aids document, but I found that having Wikipedia’s list of wrestling attacks to be more helpful.

What I found is that while the real-life performance of this art is theatrical, the tabletop game plays out surprisingly dramatic. Yes, as it is in the real thing, management plans out who is going to win each match before it begins. However, how we arrive at that conclusion develops spontaneously based on dice rolls, and the narrative arc that connects the matches changes in unpredictable ways based on character choices. It’s up to Creative (that’s the role equivalent to DM or GM) to line up the matches and decide the outcome, but to weave the matches together into a coherent show is an interactive process that includes the players. The end result cannot have been predicted by Creative before the players arrived. It’s not unlike the process of sketching out a plot for a fantasy RPG and then having it warped and twisted by the schemes and actions of the players.

In many ways, this is a gaming experience that is not fundamentally different than what I consider to be more typical tabletop roleplaying games. Like the theatrical performance, I don’t think I could get into this one week after week, but every once in a while I think it’s good to try something a little bit different and I have found World Wide Wrestling to be a good way to do that.

Good Times With Bad Games

Last week, to celebrate the conclusion of kitchen renovations, I had a dinner party featuring a game I had never played before. Seeing that the name of the game is “Top Trumps” and the theme is Marvel heroes, I came to the conclusion that it was time to make Captain America great again. As you should know by now, the Trump name means quality. So I had some people over. Smart people, who like to play card games. Nobody hosts a dinner party better than me, OK?

Top Trumps Tournament

Here is the gist of the game: you spin the wheel in the centre, and do one of three things: receive pegs, steal a peg, or play one of the “mini-games” named on the wheel. The game comes with an ambiguously worded reference sheet that provides some of the rules for each game. In general, the player whose turn it is chooses which “stat” is being played from four listed on each card, and (presumably) the highest number wins. The differences between the four mini-games are in how many players will participate and how many cards each will receive. The main game involved receiving enough pegs for the first player to fill the score board with nine, with the relative amount of pegs each player has determining how many cards they receive for the final battle (which plays out much like the “My Pack” mini-game but with more cards in play).

I said the rule sheet contains some of the rules because it does not address some common game states. Can a player keep calling the same victory condition and playing the same card, knowing it will keep on winning? The player is instructed to call the next stat from their “next card” but does not specify if cards can be played more than once in the same mini-game. Other things are also left unclear in the written rules: in a contest, does the debut year count up (newest wins), count down (oldest wins), or can it go either way at the discretion of the player calling the stat? What happens when players tie on a stat when playing with only one card left (the rules talk about how to resolve a draw with the next card). We ended up making up house rules left and right just to keep the game going. That’s not something you usually do in a finite game, but we did it because the alternative was to declare the game a failure and stop playing. That just wouldn’t do.

While it seems possible that there is a method to the madness when selecting which set of numbers will be used to determine the winner, the whole thing seems fairly arbitrary unless we completely missed something. If there is such thing as a winning strategy, it’s not clear unless one knows each deck of cards backwards and forwards and can therefore tell whether 46 is the highest possible number or if it is pathetic compared to other cards in the same deck.

Iron Fist and Galactus

There were several other design decisions that left my party baffled. For one thing, each deck has a different set of statistics that can be drawn from, such as the Avengers deck which included strength, ancient power, size, and technology. While each card featured nice artwork and neat little write-ups on each character, the numbers didn’t seem to correspond with any sort of logic based on what we know about the characters. I’m not knocking the Iron Fist, but the fact that he outclasses the devourer of worlds in every stat raises some questions such as “do these numbers actually mean anything?” If one tries to apply reasoning based on the character descriptions and/or portrayals in various media, it would be logical to assume that Galactus, whose biography reads more like that of an elder god than an ordinary person with extraordinary abilities, would be a fairly powerful adversary. Yet here he is, losing in every single category to a martial arts master. Captain America has the same strength rating as The Hulk. And then there is the Heroines deck:

Marvel Heroines

Debut year, OK. Intelligence, sure, but why does it only seem to go up to ten while the other ratings have much higher numbers? Oh, then we can explore their mysterious “dark side” of those weird and exotic creatures known as women(!) And then we have outfit. Yeah, while Marvel Knights contend with each other based on bravery and fighting skills we have contests between the heroines based on outfits. Which, as we can see, follow a distinct pattern. Squirrel Girl’s decidedly unsexy fursuit comes in at the lowest rating, far outclassed by a naked Storm whose “outfit” is entirely comprised by a conveniently placed cloud in the foreground. Sad.

Does any of this make me disappointed that I built a dinner party around this game? Absolutely not! From a game design perspective, the game was mediocre at best. It’s War with a few bells and whistles. But there is more to enjoying a game than balancing random chance with strategy. Getting a good group together, sharing good food, then playing a game we’re not the least bit shy about making fun of while we play it made all the difference. I will certainly play this game again, perhaps in the dying hours of this year’s Extra Life marathon when nobody is awake enough to take a game seriously if they tried. I had a lot of fun with this game, and what else could I have expected or asked for other than that?

By playing this game I learned that to be the Top Trumps Tournament Champion, one needs to be lucky on spins of the wheel and draws from the decks, exploit knowledge of a game that seems to defy all logic and reason, then know how to make the best judgement calls on what the heroines are wearing. Facts don’t matter, only having the winning numbers. I guess it does live up to the yuge expectations the name of the game set up for me.