Skip to content

Almost Infinite Posts

Token Caricatures and Character Tokens

Six days ago, I was discussing representation in various media, including games, with an ad-hoc panel of friends and new people I just met at the local comic con because we just weren’t ready to let the conversation end when the scheduled panel discussion was over. During one of these discussions I stumbled upon a turn of phrase that I think is pretty clever: there is no such thing as a token character. Today I will explore that and contrast it with the character token, a practical craft for the tabletop roleplaying game such as D&D.

Tokenism certainly exists, I won’t deny that. But if a depiction of a person is a two-dimensional inauthentic caricature of a gender, a culture, or a sexuality then one can hardly call it a full-fledged character. Likewise, a well-rounded character with their own strengths, weaknesses, hopes, dreams, fears, and role in the narrative does not become a token simply by existing while being something other than the “default” straight white cis-man. Our ad-hoc panel was unanimous in declaring our frustration with increased representation being tagged as tokenism. When you look at an all-white all-male starship crew that is supposed to draw from the whole Earth and perhaps beyond, you aren’t engaging in tokenism when you take a character and make them something else. You’re just looking critically at what the “default” is and deciding to more accurately reflect the human race as a whole.

And so, when it comes to the cast of characters in tabletop RPGs that I run, I encourage crossplay around genders, colours, and cultures. Stepping out of your usual demographic is part of the cool thing about playing customized characters: you can be something else without making a token character. That brings me to the character token. In my post where I proclaim my love for the grid map, the photo I use also shows what I consider to be an essential accessory for the grid map: the character token. When I run a D&D game I like to make one of these for each player as a way to complement the map visually, for the practical purpose of tracking each character’s position on the map, and because it is a tangible representation of the character. “Pen and paper” tabletop RPG in the age of the video game may be about eschewing the finest graphics in favour of the theatre of the mind, but the tangibles are nice and if your character isn’t “default” then it only makes sense to have a token reflecting that rather than just settling for the white-skinned archer you found in your dad’s collection of AD&D miniatures. Because playing 4th Edition D&D was the first time I got to sit down with a group to play a real tabletop RPG, the tokens became even more practical than the miniatures because of the highly tactical nature of combat encounters and the rules that allowed player characters to share a space. Tokens stack much more neatly than miniatures.

Well, Ser Donathon doesn’t ride a horse, or wield a sword, but sure I can use this mini for my knight.

Before the first session of a campaign, I ask the players for character names, backstories, and general concept. I don’t get into character sheets and numbers until the first session, which is often more character creation night than it is the start of the plot. But I also ask for a picture. As someone with almost no talent in sketching I’ve never felt comfortable with the demand that I draw my own character. So I don’t ask that. I ask for a picture whether it is a scan of original artwork, copyrighted material we don’t own the rights to that the player found on Google Images, or just a detailed description that I can use to come up with something. In today’s example I will only be using copyright-free images and original work that I created or commissioned, but you can see from “How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Grid Map” that some of the tokens in my collection are obviously taken from other sources for private use.

So how would I go about making some character tokens for the players? Suppose I ask for pictures, and from one player I receive a link to an image of an elf from Pixabay (a wonderful site offering copyright-free images where almost all the stock photos and illustrations used on this blog come from) and a description from another player: “She is a humanoid, with a head like a cat, and an eerie green glow.” The submitted image is easy to handle. Open up the good old word processor and insert the image on the page. I don’t need software that is any good for page layouts, just something to ensure that the scale is close enough to what I need. Most word processors can handle the task of drawing simple shapes at specified dimensions, so for use with a 0.5″ grid map I can draw a circle or square at that size on top of my image to make sure the scale is correct.

Caption
I will want to scale the image down a little bit more if I am making a token for a 0.5″ grid

For the second one, I will take a picture from my own media library of a suitable cat and fire up a good image editor. In case you haven’t noticed by now, I am a big fan of cheap or free stuff whenever it is made available morally and legally above board. One of the reasons for this that the 90/10 rule of program optimization also applies to usage cases: it is likely that 90% of Photoshop users will use 10% of the available features. I know I am firmly in the 10%. I don’t do advanced image editing; I just need something that isn’t as appallingly featureless as MS Paint. Sensible methods for cropping, basic colour adjustment, and the ability to do some simple masking is all I need. Paying for the latest version of professional-grade software seems pretty steep when all I want to do is take my picture of a cat, crop it, then mess around with the hue and saturation a little bit. For my purposes I find that paint.net is fantastic because it does all of this and it’s a free download. So I open a photo of a cat, crop it, then adjust the hue to emphasize green and crank up the saturation. A cat with an eerie green glow.

I will lay out as many images as I need to make the tokens, then print the page. I find my consumer-grade colour laser printer produces a high enough quality of image for this purpose, but I could take it over to a local shop if I had no printer at home or a truly awful inkjet. Then I apply two-sided tape to the back of the page well beyond the edges where I will carefully cut them out. This, for anyone not familiar with design terms, is called using a bleed. It means that your image is printed first, then cut down to size allowing the image to go right to the edge. I will affix the image to a small piece of cardboard taken from my household recycling bin. The finished token will look something like this.

Ca[tion
Preparing the printed image for cutting. Tape works much, much better than craft glue. I learned my lesson when producing this beauty of a dungeon tile. Nothing, neither weights nor a steam iron, has ever been able to fix that piece of work.
So, if your fictional character is as simple and flat as the character token I would use to represent them on a grid map, perhaps it is worth reconsidering how you portray the character in general. But there is indeed more to your elf than being slim, glamourous, and skilled with the longbow then I think its worth celebrating the character with a unique visual element even if you yourself lack the skills of an artist. Like the grid map or the graphics that give you an impression of the world, so too can your tokens represent the diverse array of characters in your game. I hope today’s foray into practical tablecraft had provided a little bit of inspiration even if it’s not something that you’re going to do for your group and your game.

White People Talking

In this post I’m going more game-of-life, philosophical, and political than usual. A few things have happened in the past few days: my local university had another case of deplorable posters. Twitter user @jaythenerdkid posted an excellent sequence of tweets on how social justice work isn’t always just. Another man in the USA was executed by police for the crime of being black. About all of these things, white people will be talking. We will be talking about racism in the media, about policing, about political correctness, about what makes “us” good white people as opposed to those “bad” ones for whom making America great again is making it white again. Last week I wrote about when it is better to not play than it is to win or lose. This week I will talk about what that means in some very serious games.

Full disclosure: I am white/cis male/straight/middle income/no specific disabilities. When I speak of “white people” I am not talking about someone else. I’m talking about myself, most of my friends and family, and others who make up the majority in Anglo-North America.

Yep, this is basically what all my dinner parties look like while we discuss the world’s problems.

One bad habit white people have is to to criticize “political correctness” as a failing. It may be true that there is something there to criticize if you use a very specific definition of it, but the way the term is thrown around generally doesn’t refer to a nuanced critique of insincere theatrical performance of opposition to bigotry. In general, being opposed to “political correctness” equates to the deliberate normalization of dehumanizing terms and false assertions against anyone who doesn’t fit that demographic I belong to. It requires a person to believe that life is a finite, zero-sum game in which the winners rightfully exploit the losers, and it’s right to put winning before any other ethical principle. If it wasn’t white people doing the winning, then we’d be doing the losing according to this wildly defective way of thinking. When talking to someone who rants about “political correctness” it is not worth trying to win arguments with then because the facts won’t matter when fundamental principles clash. I implore my fellow white people to choose better principles, and to “win” against those who choose the zero-sum game by depriving them of an audience rather than pummelling them into submission. Agreeing to and playing by their rules will not lead to anything good.

But what about those people, often white self-styled “progressives” who seem to have appointed themselves the language police? The ones who delight in the gotcha moments of showing how good they are at finding and denouncing bad white people for using the wrong words and phrases. They aren’t interested in the messy work of improving our society and our culture. Their concern is about burnishing their personal reputations and those of the institutions they manage. This is what I think @jaythenerdkid was calling out in that series of tweets. Criticism and discussion should be about understanding and improving the societal and cultural environments in which we live together, not about sorting out the good people from the bad. The winners from the losers. Being an even better racist prover than Señor Chang. This is a game we should not play.

I agree with her that it is particularly odious for a white person to seek the mantle of the saviour, as if it is possible for us to be so liberal, so progressive, so free of the “problematic” that we can solve all the others’problems without having to actually make any room for the people for whom we presume to speak. That’s just not the way it works. Sure, I’m white and I here I am saying anti-racist things, but I claim only to speak for myself and not for the people who suffer from systemic prejudice. They can speak for themselves. They don’t need me to speak for them. My responsibility is to speak for myself and into the spaces which they do not have access. I am concerned with keeping my own house in order, not in winning titles.

So, what does that have to do with white people talking about acts of evil, both small and large? I think we can reasonably come to two conclusions:

  1. White people must accept that there are some ugly realities about our society and culture and that it is our responsibility to do our part in making things better. A failure to do so, and seeking to debate the problem out of existence, doesn’t just perpetuate the unjustified termination of life. It ensures that such happens in unheard silence, and that is evil.
  2. Doing our part to make things better doesn’t mean getting into a pissing contest to see who is the wokest white guy there ever was. In fact, that is counter-productive. Don’t even try. People of colour don’t owe you a stamp of approval for proving yourself worthy. You don’t even need one in order to work on making things better, so just keep making it awkward anyway. If you have the chance to do good without getting an award for doing so, just do it.

So, that’s me, a white person talking about racism. Take from it what you will, feel free to criticize me all you like, but whatever you do please don’t stay silent while this kind of thing keeps on happening. The problems large and small are all getting much harder to ignore. If we keep going the way we are going, allowing people to be dehumanized and killed in silence, we’re gonna have a bad time.

The Difference Between Not Losing and Not Playing

If you are losing at a finite game, there are two ways you can win within the rules:

  1. Change your opponent: defeat them by circumventing their advantages, coerce them into make fatal mistakes, or overpower them by whatever means are allowable within the game. For example, in a political contest, you change your opponent when you are able to stick a label on them like lyin’ or crooked or racist. In a war, you change your opponent’s resolve by killing their forces. This doesn’t always work because some games are pretty tight with the rules; I don’t know of many things one can do within a chess match to change the opponent aside from dubious methods of “psyching out” the opponent.
  2. Change yourself: this is the generally accepted method of defeating your competition in future instances of the game you are either losing or have already lost. You change your own tactics, practice your own skills, train harder, and so on. Become better somehow.

The third way is to change the rules of the game. Whether or not this is successful depends entirely on the consent of the other players in the game. This happens all the time in online multiplayer games where an update “nerfs” some aspect of the game to improve balance or when you are playing a friendly game and need to improvise a little bit to keep the game going. Either the players agree to the rule changes, or they stop playing. More likely, the game is played to its end and then the rules are changed for the next iteration to prevent the same strategy from winning again. When participants in a political contest talk about campaign finance reform, it’s always for the next election rather than the one taking place right now.

When one tries to change the rules in the middle of the game and does not receive consent from the other players, that is cheating. However, if you see that your opponent is breaking the rules and consent to keep on playing (perhaps the rules provide for some kind of penalty), then the opponent is not cheating and you are still in play. A professional hockey player who drops his gloves and starts punching an opposing player is not breaking the rules of the game. The rules allow for that. Of course, he’s going to receive a penalty or other sanction. But if hockey fights were truly against the rules, then the moment one breaks out, the game would stop and the local police would be called and the assailant would be facing criminal charges. Although this can happen in extreme circumstances, it’s not a common outcome of a hockey fight.

That this will result in a trip to the penalty box does not mean it is against the rules of hockey; it means that the rules of hockey allow for this to happen.

Not playing is the fourth way to go, and it should be distinguished from accepting a loss. Not playing is walking away from the table without conceding a loss, even if the other player(s) yell “forfeit!” as loud as they can. It’s also the hardest thing to do in many serious games. It’s easy in recreational games. I barely have a handle on the rules of Go. I’m not going to play in a highly competitive game of Go. Isn’t that easy? But what happens when it’s a political contest? A war? Isn’t political apathy a bad thing? Doesn’t pacifism mean the fascists/communists/fundamentalists win? Hey buddy, my human rights are on the line here. The only requirement for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

How, then, can we ever listen to the Buddhist monk telling us to let go of suffering when the struggle is real? How then can we respect Ghandi when his commitment to pacifism is strong enough for him to tell the British to let the Nazis slaughter them?

“I do not want Britain to be defeated, nor do I want her to be victorious in a trial of brute strength, whether expressed through the muscle or the brain.’ Your muscular bravery is an established fact. Need you demonstrate that your brain is also as unrivaled in destructive power as your muscle? I hope you do not wish to enter into such an undignified competition with the Nazis. I venture to present you with a nobler and a braver way, worthy of the bravest soldier. I want you to fight Nazism without arms, or, if I am to retain the military terminology, with non-violent arms. I would like you to lay down the arms you have as being useless for saving you or humanity. You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. ‘If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”
― Mohandas Ghandi, 1940

How can a good progressive liberal not participate in a shouting match on the internet with a proud Brexiter or Trump supporter? It’s difficult. I am still working on wrapping my head around this. But I know there is value in taking this fourth option, and I can understand it in the context of one of my favourite games being referenced on one of my favourite television shows. In the Community episode “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons,” the party does not defeat Pierce through changing him, themselves, or the game. It’s when they stop playing. Pierce is defeated not by dice rolls in the AD&D game or by an out-of-game display of superior charisma, but when he loses his audience.

It is one thing for a person or faction to lose a contest according to accepted rules, but true defeat comes not with infamy but with irrelevancy. It’s difficult to understand and even more difficult to practice, but the art of not playing is perhaps one of the most important to master.

All Hail the Mighty Fog Cloud!

One of the great things about the tabletop RPG is the tales that players tell of games past. Today I will tell you about how my recent experience in restoring the world to its rightful balance as the almighty fog cloud got me thinking about the time investment we make in those games.

I had the distinct privilege of being invited to a one-night Pathfinder session away from my regular group. I played a pre-generated Kitsune sorcerer. It’s a standard practice for “one-shots” to have pre-generated characters rather than sitting down with blank character sheets and rule books. I value character customization quite a bit when it’s practical, but for a one-night scenario it’s just not practical. We could easily have spent more time generating characters than playing them. So we got a choice of four characters: a sorcerer, a rogue, a fighter, and a cleric. I was excited to find that nobody else was in a rush to claim the sorcerer. I enjoy spellcasters in general, and especially the sorcerer in editions of Dungeons and Dragons which use Vancian spellcasting.

This affected my experience in very specific ways. Vancian spellcasting refers to rules about magic in games based on memorizing spells which are “forgotten” upon casting rather than having a “mana” or “energy” pool which can be used to cast any known spells. The sorcerer, unlike the standard wizard, does not conform to this Vancian system. They have a spell list and a number of spells to cast per day. What this means: more versatility in what my character can do in a day. More room for experimentation with less need for preparation. If this was a longer campaign, I might not have chosen “fog cloud” or “ghost sound” as spells that my new character knows. And even if I did, I would not necessarily have memorized these ones in particular just in case there was a need for a distraction. But as a sorcerer, I had them on the list that was handed to me. And so, when the big bad evil cult decided to lay waste to the innocent village our party happened to be passing through, I had what it took to make a snap decision: enter the mighty fog cloud.

All hail!
I spent more time summoning a fog cloud and trying to intimidate enemies with a booming voice like a vulpine Wizard of Oz than I did doing the usual D&D stuff: magic missile enemies to death and loot their bodies. Of course I did some of that, including turning a water creation spell into a weapon against fire elementals. Yeah, the ones I would soon find out were born of sacred fire and were actually there to rejuvenate the local temple. Oops.

So, what’s the point here? I enjoyed myself immensely without investing very much time at all compared to a full campaign. With a great group and a fantastic DM, I was able to take an assigned character and make it my own, complete with a sassy personality and a sense of kinship with actual foxes. While I do think that being involved in a longer story is a matter of getting what you give, it’s not a linear relationship. Playing a little bit, even just a single session, can still yield a tale to tell.

Whenever we engage in a finite game for recreation, we expect a return on the investment of our time. Whether it’s Dungeons and Dragons or cribbage, it hardly seems worth playing if we have to spend a lot of time to get a small amount of enjoyment. What really made this one-night Pathfinder session work for me is that despite the need for pre-generated characters and a simple plot to make it possible to complete in one night, I was able to put my own spin on the character that wouldn’t be the same as another person playing the same character in the same scenario. The amount of time spent on rules was minimized and offering choices to players was maximized. A diverse array of actions were available to me and allowed me to do things that would not be possible in any other sort of game. Pathfinder‘s rules are relatively streamlined, especially in the hands of a good DM. Everything worked out just right in a way that highlights the potentials rather than the pitfalls. It was among the best two hours I have ever spent on games. I hope that the next adventure I run can hit as many of those points as possible in order to make the time spent by the players worthwhile.

Space, space… going to space!

Back when I wrote Diversions and Doorkeys I stated that I was not a video game reviewer at the beginning of the post. The comment on the post then praises my review of Undertale. I propose to resolve this apparent contradiction by talking about what I meant when I said I am not a reviewer.

My objective when I started this blog was to talk about the ideas behind games, not necessarily the games themselves. My intention is not to for this to be a rinky-dink self-published version of what Gamespot, IGN, Polygon, Kotaku, etc. do professionally. I don’t want to try and keep up with what’s new or the most popular. I want to write about games I find interesting even if they are several years old and/or somewhat obscure. A video game reviewer might have to be familiar with how new games compare to others in the genre or other games released in the same time frame, while I don’t intend to keep up with all of that. Sometimes I might want to skip over talking about some aspects of the technical gameplay to focus on why a person might play a game over how. A good reviewer would have to make some comment on several aspects of each game, which means that they would have to actually play the game in order to give it a fair review.

That brings me to a game that is fairly recent and that grabbed my interest fairly quickly with one of my favourite watch words: infinite. As soon as I heard a little bit about No Man’s Sky, I had to find out more. And I did: I found out why I’m not actually as excited to play the game as I was initially, before even trying it out myself. I’m not reviewing it because I haven’t played it, but I’ve watched and read some things about No Man’s Sky that has knocked it off the top of my list of video games I’m eagerly anticipating.

At first, I was as excited about the prospect of peaceful exploration of a vast and beautiful universe as you might expect the space core to be. “Procedural generation” is the buzzword that most of the hype I’ve heard about No Man’s Sky revolves around. It means that the game world that isn’t designed and drawn by a developer or development team. It comes together in a new way each time a new instance of the game is started. That’s not new; I still remember playing through Diablo II’s procedurally generated dungeons sixteen years ago. What’s new is the scale: No Man’s Sky promises us 18 quintillion planets, which is more than any human can possibly explore in a single lifetime.

The observable universe, containing an estimated 100 billion stars, or 1/1,800,000 of what is said to be possible in No Man’s Sky.

If you only spent one second on each planet, and did nothing but explore planets for 100 years, you’d fall short of 3.2 billion. Spending one second on each of 18 quintillion planets would be like taking the approximate age of the Earth, multiplying it by 1400, then by a million, then by a million again. My math is heavily simplified, but the point is that No Man’s Sky is almost incomprehensibly YUGE. I’ve heard it described as “infinite,” though I think that is a mistake.

No Man’s Sky seems every bit as finite as Andariel’s Cathedral: you may never see the precise same thing twice, but the limitations still exist. They’re conceivable even if we can’t reach out and touch them, and to be truly infinite is to be beyond the conceivable. In both Diablo II and No Man’s Sky the player can’t rely on specific knowledge of what monster or mineral deposit lies around which corner, but can know exactly what to expect conceptually. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; in fact I would be really worried about any game that was indisputably infinite. That’s getting into The Matrix or OASIS territory. That No Man’s Sky is a finite game is not the problem I have with it. It’s that I was hoping for something that would push more boundaries, spatial and otherwise, rather than simply having well-defined boundaries that just happen to be far outside my reach. From what I am led to understand from watching play-through videos, it’s an exploration game where the main antagonist is your inventory management system, sort of like a massive multi-planet 3D Terraria but with less emphasis on building construction.

Caption
The eternal struggle in Terraria: keeping your inventory clear of garbage such as blinkroot seeds, waterleaf plants, and 999-stacks of dirt blocks.

So, what would excite the space core in me? A spiritual successor to Hyperspeed, a game from 1991 that I picked up on Steam a few months back for a cheap nostalgia trip. It’s a game where the player is sent out in a Trailblazer class starship, which though huge and powerful, is capable of being piloted by a single person. The idea is that you have been sent out ahead of a colony ship in order to gather resources, find a suitable planet for a colony, and ensure the neighbourhood is safe for colonization through some combination of peace treaties and warfare. As the player, you manage exploration, resource gathering, diplomacy, ship-to-ship combat, and the ship’s engine configuration. The limits in this game can be quite harsh due to the design standards of its time (remember, this is a game that was available on 5.25″ floppy disks). I can certainly forgive it for being limited compared to what is available today. One example of these limitations is as follows: my impression is it is almost impossible to honestly roleplay your way through the first trip into the Cerberus cluster and win. I tried. I explored, I gathered as many resources as I could find, secured the right alliances, and defeated my mortal foes. Even after turning on my allies and going on a resource-hungry rampage through the cluster I came to a dead end in being able to find what I needed to start my colony. To win, I would need to metagame: know which unknown star was the Athdalde homeworld, beeline it for that system, then commit swift genocide before I could even see what they do to solar systems (the only thing they are good at is strip mining at the planetary level). Without taking this step it may very well be impossible to gather enough resources before the rapacious Athdalde turn too many systems into barren husks. And perhaps even then I might have to do more. Knowing that I had to have the foresight that can only come from a previous run at the same cluster made the whole thing a little less fun, though I still thoroughly enjoyed the nostalgia trip for what it was worth (less than $5).

Caption
The Trailblazer’s navigation display showing the Cerberus cluster.

This is what I imagine is possible: start with the same concept by giving me an awesome ship and tell me to go on a single-player expedition in an unexplored region of space. Except with the magic of procedural generation, unbind me from having to know what sequence of actions leads to success and create new star maps and alien races for each new instance of the game. But don’t stop there. Randomize the plot elements too. Does one of the generated races enslave a quadrant? How many previously unknown human colonies does the player come across? What possibilities are there for war and/or peace? Do I need to find a habitable but unclaimed planet to settle on, or can I impose (or peacefully negotiate the place of) my people on a populated world? What happens after my new colony is established? Am I even obligated to support the mission of resettling humans from Earth? In addition to the amount of space that can be covered, several other boundaries can be explored and played with. I know that’s asking a lot, and No Man’s Sky may well be a masterpiece in its own right and I still do want to play it, but I know it’s not the near-infinite space exploration game that I thought it could have been when I first heard of it.

The Artist is Present

I am about to ask you to do something I have to admit I didn’t do as much of during my academic career as I should have: do the reading before getting to class. Or in this case, I want you to watch a video on YouTube. Which is something I did more of during my academic career than I should have. Anyway, I need you to take about half an hour and go watch Ian Danskin’s excellent video The Artist is Absent: Davey Wreden and The Beginner’s Guide to understand where I’m going in today’s post. I want to put forward an argument that there are some games where the author is present.

I think the absence of the author is partially true of tabletop roleplaying games in some important ways. It is most certainly true of the rule books, supplements, and literary fiction that uses the same setting as the game that your GM/DM/storyteller wants to run. It is not true of the story the players are at the table to play through, though, because the DM acts as an author-figure during the play of the game. They can adjust the narrative in real time to make things clearer to the players, answer questions at the table, and confer in between sessions. The difference between this and the campfire storyteller is that the players are active participants in the procedure of creating the narrative rather than an audience that is expected to sit and listen quietly. This is what makes the tabletop RPG special. I did not say unique because I recently heard of a collaborative storytelling game called Storium which eschews solving problems with polyhedral chunks of plastic and other elements of what we normally consider games and really zooms in on the process of creating a narrative. I haven’t played this yet, but am very interested in doing so.

“The introduction of so powerful an agent as polyhedral dice to a collaborative narrative with players will make a great change in the situation of storytelling.” – Thomas Jefferson in Made-up Quotes Falsely Attributed To Founding Fathers, p. 133 

If, in the person of the DM, the artist is present, what does that change? Well, it ends the debate over authorial intent. Danskin argues that interpretation trumps intent when the author cannot be present. When creating a work, the author must think in advance about how the work will be interpreted. For example, if Beginner’s Guide included a sequence where the player was beset by enemies who look like they came straight out of a minstrel show, it most likely would not matter to us what Narrator Davey says or even what Davey Prime says about how the work is supposed to be a critical commentary on racism. If the game has us saying out loud and/or in our heads “holy shit, this game is super-racist and that’s awful” then at best the author had great intentions but failed as an artist if it really is that hard to see through to his critique. That’s the main beef I have with Bayonetta: it’s not that I can’t understand the argument that it’s not objectifying women, but it comes off that way so much that it’s not possible for me to come away without feeling that it does even if that wasn’t the original intention. Likewise, I wouldn’t blame people around my game table if I submitted official character portraits that depicted characters (particularly female ones) in a way that needlessly sexualizes them.

Caption
Why won’t anyone believe me when I say that I intended my druid to be a strong female character?

This is where the tabletop RPG is different from other kinds of games: if I have a femme fatale NPC that I hear from my players sounds more like creepy fan service than legitimate character, I have some options that I would not as a published author. If the character is straight out of a published module, then maybe that author ought to rethink the portrayal of women, but I as the DM can take the basics and rework them as I see fit. Or I can choose a different module, or homebrew something less offensive. Or, I can run with the character and do a session on peeling back the layers to show that she’s actually a person underneath the mask if that’s something that would interest the players. Or, I can just have her exit stage right and never appear again. There will be many options available to me, which will render the question of intent moot: if I proceed to play out something the players don’t like, and the players know it, then I alone am responsible for it and can’t hide behind some other author’s intent.

So, what does that mean for aspiring authors and dungeon masters alike? Be aware of your presence or lack thereof. In partially or non-interactive media (from video games to paperback novels) remember that authors are responsible for making sure the content they put out there can be interpreted in mostly reasonable ways by the target audience. There will always be people who insist on being exceptionally unreasonable, but the people who are never happy with anything are few though loud. In general, reasonable people will make reasonable interpretations but should not be expected to perform impressive feats of mental gymnastics to discover the artist’s cryptic intent. We create things to be interpreted by audiences and there is nothing we can do if they just don’t get it except create something else that does a better job of expressing our original intent. In fully interactive media where the author is present, remember that you are responsible for the content you use to shape the world. In the wrong hands, tabletop games can be used to create some pretty horrific situations for the people trying to play. Done the right way, the rules and the narrative can change during the course of play to facilitate additional play. That is why I find the tabletop RPG to be interesting enough to play, run, and write about. It’s the only kind of game I know where the author is present.

A Modest Proposal

This week I will be taking a break from writing about video or tabletop games due to something big that happened in my personal life. On Wednesday I asked someone special a very special question. I went to the coffee shop where we first met three years ago, secured the table we sat at, and when my partner arrived I proposed marriage.  Today I will be talking about the silly games that were played leading up to this fateful event — not personal drama, but the things that our culture and society have built up around the tradition of the marriage proposal.

Ring shopping was an exercise in reminding me why financial literacy and thinking critically about non-recreational games is so incredibly important: because without it, I might have been to play by an insane set of rules. Three months’ salary? One month’s salary? Nope. Such rules are hokum invented by the people who want to relieve you of as much of your salary as possible. “There will always be the question of who has the bigger ring, with girls comparing and boys not wanting to be outdone.” Count me out. That is a game I refuse to play.

I knew going in ahead of time that my budget was much lower than what might otherwise be expected, and that salespeople would try and upsell me because it is their job, but I was surprised at how viscerally I felt when that happened. It is frightening to think that I would ever have considered monthly payments. I don’t think I was ever the type who would go have overboard on a massive rock, but I have only recently become the sort of person who must restrain himself from projectile vomiting all over the display case when hearing the words “investment” and “financing” come up in this context. It is terrifying to think that I might have signed up for something like this if I was in this market even just three years ago. Like war, there are some games best won by refusing to play. This is one of them. I think more people ought to speak honestly and openly about how terrible this show-off contest is, and hopefully it will come to be seen as antiquated as a dowry. I happily made a purchase of something shiny and beautiful to imbue with sentimental meaning, but neither I nor my fiancée are competing with anyone in the process.

Dans le love game

And so I managed to obtained a ring to rule them all without getting sucked into trying to prove anything to anyone. Now let’s talk about venue for the proposal: I’m not out to judge other people, but what works for some people would be abhorrent to my sensibilities. I realize that once you get to the point of asking this question you should know that the answer is going to be “yes” unless there are some serious communications problems going on. However, it’s not a question if there is only one answer.

There was no way I was going to put her on the spot in front of a stadium full of people or anything like that. I would not have gone in with the expectation she would say no, but I would consider it a simple matter of respect not to ask the question in a way that “oh, um, can we take a little more time on this?” would have caused extreme public embarrassment. “Yes” is the only answer when you are put on the spot like that, which is why I was so appalled when I heard what happened to He Zi on Sunday. I am sure Qin Kai meant well, and they both looked extremely happy about it, but this is truly the antithesis of what my modest proposal was meant to be. Rather than labouring to produce a moment, or capitalizing on someone else’s moment, why not allow the moment to stand on its own? I can’t imagine looking back on that moment at our favourite café and wishing I had done it in a way that proved I was more clever and powerful than every other man alive at the timeParticipation in that sort of contest ultimately endorses the finite view of sexuality where the winner’s prize is not just won by defeating the opponent but where the prize is a defeated opponent (Finite and Infinite Games, p. 79). Although I may relish the titles of fiancé or husband, obtaining a title is not the endgame. It’s not about winning her hand in marriage. I do choose to make certain traditions part of my story, but I seek to make the story about chasing a horizon rather than crossing a finish line.

I also don’t understand why some people think they have to deliver an award-winning speech when keeping it simple will do. If you are successful, you will have the rest of your life to weave flowery purple prose in honour of your partner. If not, well, then you won’t have written a speech for naught. Either way, in the heat of one of the most emotionally stressful moments in your life, why not just get it out? An infinite view of sexuality is not serious but joyous, and revels in open and honest self-discovery (Finite and Infinite Games, p. 84). There is therefore no reason to get it perfect in the moment, and every reason to be more dramatic than theatrical. I was far less nervous about the whole thing precisely because I had no lines to flub. There was no success or failure to be had, only a simple question that would define how we proceed with the stories of our lives.

I refused to play silly games according to rules that would have seen me make a much bigger, more expensive production over something that was simple and every bit as meaningful. Declining to compete with others in a crass display of wealth consumption is allowing me to focus on what’s really important. All in all, I think we decisively won this round in the game of love. I’ll be back to writing about storytelling and rolling dice next week.

Going on the Depression Quest

Interactive fiction strikes me as a combination of the internet and the choose-your-own-adventure novels that many people my age borrowed from their elementary school libraries. They aren’t games in a pure sense, but share some characteristics with games. That brings me to one work in particular from 2014 called Depression Quest. In case you aren’t already painfully aware, this is the game around which the shitstorm known as Gamergate originally formed. But this post isn’t about that. It’s about the game, if we can call it that. Interactive fiction is somewhere in between the linear story and the plot-heavy game. And this interactive fiction game might just hit you very close to home.

I have to admit, for being as interested as I am in the possibility of games being used for social good (or social evil), I have remained shamefully ignorant about Depression Quest. I knew the gist of it, and followed the Gamergate fallout in the news, but I didn’t play Depression Quest until a few days ago. The game is fairly simple: a grainy polaroid sits at the top of the screen, a closeup of some object relevant to the current scene which is described by the text below. Sometimes the only option is to click “next” to continue, while other choices are presented at some points. Right away, you notice that the best choices are dangled in front of you but are then crossed out in red, like this:

depressionquest1

It’s, well, depressing if you pardon my word choice. I kept trying to choose the best of the blue choices, but found myself wandering into progressively more dreary situations. It quickly becomes apparent from the changes in the status fields, the top one in particular, that reaching out to people and asking for help is the way to go. If there is one thing that Depression Quest is not, it’s being subtle in making its point.

I made many of the "right" choices, and it tells me I am doing better, though I clearly have not won the game yet.
I made many of the “right” choices, and it tells me I am doing better, though I am clearly not out of the woods yet.

And then, suddenly, it was over – as much as Depression Quest can be be over. It leaves the reader/player with a message thanking them for playing and reminding them that life is just about moving forward and provides helpful links to mental health resources. Neat. Now, being a person who likes games, I would be remiss not to try at least one other path if I know there is more than one ending. I went back to the beginning and started a new run where instead of choosing things I either know are the right thing to do or are the thing I would do/have done in the given situation, to go ahead and choose the ultimate path of self-destruction.

depressionquest3
The increasing/decreasing static is a neat visual effect.

Yikes. I made some bad choices, refused to open up, and more and more of the choices I made last time came up crossed out. As I keep going down this path, several times I am given only the “bad” option and other times what looked like it might be a path back up to the light but sometimes it’s already too late to change some future events. Keeping on the dark path leads to a bleaker conclusion, though no more decisive than what seemed like the “good” ending.

Have I missed the point of the game? Perhaps the author wanted the audience to focus on relating to the emotional content more than trying to achieve objectives with their actions. While I can’t deny that this game is disturbingly relatable, at times seeming like it was spying on my own life, I can’t just look at it as a piece of literature I can relate to. If my actions didn’t matter then I would not feel like I needed to be offered the choices in the first place. But the player’s choices in Depression Quest do matter within the context of the game: it’s not just your well-being at stake. Your parents, your brother, and your girlfriend are all affected by your actions. If you choose wisely, they become happier people. If you choose poorly, they suffer. The difference between those two outcomes is up to you. If that’s not making a point about our real life choices about how we deal with depression, I don’t know what is.

Where does this fit into the big picture? Games, or game-like interactive stories, can illustrate important messages in different ways than linear stories or personal interactions. That is not always necessary, but sometimes it can be helpful. That’s why I think we, people who love games, have a responsibility to push back against the misconception that games are for simple amusement and wasting time. We also have to stand up to the toxic elements of gaming culture who want to reduce gaming to finite contests that exist only to stroke their egos. I don’t  always hate power fantasies that give the player the ability to shoot things, blow things up, or wage wars from above. I couldn’t play Civilization if I didn’t enjoy a good power fantasy. Rather, I hate the idea that games, video games in particular, are thought to be limited to that sort of thing when games like Depression Quest also exist to make people think.

So, if playing this game can teach us anything, it’s that sometimes you have to reach out and call for help. If you need it, go to therapy. If you need them, take your meds. And, unless you’re allergic, don’t say no to a kitten. I’m glad I didn’t.

Alignments and Absolutes

If you’re into Dungeons and Dragons and are a general pop culture geek (at least in Anglo-America) then you’ve probably had the conversation where you take various characters from your favourite movies and TV shows and try to classify them according to the nine character alignments. While it may not be a true infinite game, debating which character is which alignment can certainly fill an infinite amount of time. It can, however, be fun when taken in reasonable doses. Naming a character’s alignment helps us establish some common ground when imagining how the character would react if put into a new/different situation. It’s not just a matter of whether you are looking at a “good guy” or a “bad guy” but also of how the character is good or evil and why they make the choices they make.

If you read this blog or see me in person on a regular basis then you’ve probably heard me talk about Undertale a lot. This week I had these two conversations converge on each other: my partner asked me where I would place the characters in Undertale on the D&D alignment scale. This was actually quite difficult, since Undertale’s morality just doesn’t work like that. It employs an absolute morality in contrast to the relative morality described by the nine alignments. In plain language: D&D doesn’t care what you do, it cares why you do it. In Undertale your intentions are completely irrelevant. It does not matter why you killed a monster, it only matters that you killed a monster.

Advice from sans
The advice you get from Sans if you grind for EXP

So, why does this distinction matter so much to the discussion of alignment? Because although moral absolutism is rarely practical advice for our own lives, it is still very useful in making a point. In Undertale’s case, it was a point about violence in roleplaying games. In explaining to my partner how Undertale morality is different, I gave her an example of a D&D scenario that is for “good guys” and conforms to the relative morality of the nine alignments but is actually terrible. Think of an old school dungeon crawl where your lawful good paladins and clerics are delving into some old ruins to liberate the long-abandoned temple from the orc henchmen who are their to guard it for the big bad guy. The orcs can speak “common” (read: English), but why would you want to speak to orcs? They are inherently evil and that means they will incessantly come back to kill you and ruin your quest unless you righteously smite them. Of course, if your rogue has motivations related more to treasure than to righteous smiting, she may be of a different alignment but share the same goal of killing the orcs. Your paladin, though, remains lawful good if it is legal to slaughter orcs and he is doing it for the benefit of his people and his faith rather than his own selfish interests.

Going in and killing every last sentient being in your way, in real life we call that genocide. In Undertale it’s called a genocide run or the genocide route. In other roleplaying games, it’s called grinding. Your choice to kill every monster (and the DM’s choice for them to be willing to fight to the death) can be good relative to the morals established in that game world while being uninspired at best to our critical eyes. If your DM is awesome there will be other ways to solve problems in addition to hacking monsters to death, but it is still presumed that combat is still on the table as a valid option. In Undertale’s absolute morality it doesn’t matter how necessary you feel it is to kill in self-defence. You kill, you’re bad, end of debate. It works to make the point that the way we approach role-playing games is often pretty messed up, but no matter how much I adore what Toby Fox created I have to admit that it’s very heavy-handed. Perhaps it needed to be in order to be what it is, but that doesn’t mean it will always work. In particular, I think an open-ended tabletop game would suffer greatly if as the DM I was so hard on players for fighting. I find that tabletop RPG players typically don’t want a simulation (sorry, your paladin has trench foot from too many nights camping in cool damp dungeons) but want enough verisimilitude to make the fantastical story seem sufficiently believable.

Thinking further about how to rate the alignments of Undertale characters, I have come up with four absolute morality alignments that can be used in a comparable way to D&D alignments. These are named mostly according to the options for the protagonist’s choices, but I have inferred from dialogue which monsters are actually trying to kill you and which ones merely block progress of the story unless you can win the fight (either by fighting or by figuring out how else to win). Of course this all revolves around violence because unlike in other games where morality and choices matter, there are no opportunities to lie, cheat, or steal. The protagonist always follows the rules, even if it involves following the rules for killing everything in the world. The absolute moral alignments are as follows:

  1. True Pacifist: will not kill anything. Killing is wrong. It doesn’t matter why you did it, the fact you did it means you are a bad person.
  2. Neutral Pacifist: avoids killing at almost all cost, but has a breaking point after which they feel it finally becomes necessary to kill in order to stop an atrocity in progress.
  3. Neutral Killer: still heavily frowns upon killing, but is absolutely willing to do so if they feel it is necessary. May have killed between one and six times before the game started.
  4. Genocider: in this world, it’s kill or be killed. In order for mercy to be successful on genociders you must somehow break their will. You can’t just refuse to fight them.

So, for what it’s worth, this is what I came up with for Undertale characters and their alignments, relative and abslolute:

Character D&D Alignment (relative) Undertale Alignment (absolute)
sans Neutral Good Neutral Pacifist
PAPYRUS Chaotic Neutral True Pacifist
Napstablook Lawful Good True Pacifist
Undyne Lawful Neutral Neutral Killer (I think any normal person on their first time through
Mettaton Lawful Evil Genocider (at least in his initial form, perhaps I might consider Mettaton EX to be more neutral)
Alphys True Neutral (this was the hardest because she is kind of all over the place, but in the end does strike a balance of all things) Neutral Pacifist
Muffet Lawful Evil Neutral Killer (leans towards Genocider, but will admonish you for killing spiders)
Toriel Lawful Good True Pacifist
Asgore Lawful Neutral Neutral Killer
Flowey Chaotic Evil Genocider
Chara Neutral Evil Genocider
Frisk/protagonist Lawful anything (good/neutral/evil based on the route chosen) Player's choice
Temmie Temful Neutral True Temmie

As I reflect on my own alignment I contemplate the balancing act of law vs. rebellion and of benevolence vs. self-interest, and it fills me with determination.

 

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Grid Map

There are many ways to play Dungeons & Dragons or similar tabletop roleplaying games. Some people love power gaming. Some people love drama and political intrigue. Most like at least a little of bit of each. I’m not here to judge your game. If you and your fellow grognards love your old school dungeon crawls and have a special affinity for grease pencils and plexiglass, you do you. That being said, I have a particular way I like to run things and there is a reason behind every one of the choices I make, from race relations in my settings to the crunch of the numbers on the character sheet to the physical elements on my table. I present my choices merely for consideration; I am not out to convince anyone else that my style is better than theirs.

Last week I talked about fighting to the death, and the week before on how visual elements are the first tools given to players for understanding the world. Today I will delve into some of the visual elements I use in my tabletop games (which by volume is mostly D&D, though I will be trying my hand at running World of Darkness on November 5, 2016: more details on that closer to the date). One important element of the D&D game is the encounter. This is, loosely defined in the context of a D&D game, an event where players interact with non-player characters in some way that involves dice rolls and success/failure conditions. Some editions are more explicit than others when it comes to exactly what an encounter is, but in all circumstances it is left to the Dungeon Master to make it work.

So, you are in for an encounter. You have tried to defuse the situation with the best Pelorian apologetics and an epic song and dance number courtesy of the party’s bard-in-residence, but the mind flayer and his ogre associates are having absolutely none of it. Your party is going to have to fight at least a few rounds. It’s time for heroic combat in a space that looks like this:

So, what were they doing in that featureless room at a dead end passage in the dungeon before the plucky heroes showed up?
So, what were they doing in that featureless room at a dead end passage in the dungeon before the intrepid heroes showed up?

Ouch. Someone has gone to the trouble of finding his box of dungeon tiles, but this visual representation of the room is hardly inspiring. If pitched battles in featureless arenas are your thing, then carry on. But if, like me, you want this encounter to take place in a space that the players can believe in, you’ve got to put more work into fleshing this out. You don’t need commercial dungeon tiles, pre-printed poster maps, detailed drawings on grid paper, or indeed any physical encounter map at all. A lot of DMs excel at creating an interesting room with their words. However, I am a fan of the encounter map for the following reasons:

  1. Good graphical maps include elements that I might forget to mention or draw. I might draw a rectangle on a piece of grid paper and label it “dining room table” and I might say something like “in the middle of the cold, dimly lit room there is a foul-smelling feast of various offal laid out on a table that once held fine dinners for the king’s family” but neglect to mention the lit candelabra on the table. It might seem rational to assume that is there, along with cutlery, platters, plates, etc. but a little reminder to both the players and DM that there is a live source of fire in the middle of the table.
  2. It’s good for the wow-factor. Nice maps have people imagining that the rest of the world they are not looking at is similarly detailed. You might even get further with this by detailing a tavern complete with pantry, etc. than you will with a grandiose world map full of nations the players may never visit. What good is it to know that this nation’s main export is wool scarves if the shop you’re in doesn’t have any cues to remind you that there is a wide selection right in front of you?
  3. Sometimes people zone out when it’s not their turn. Any method of keeping track of player and non-player character positions can help them stay focused. This can be done very simply with dry erase mats or grid paper. I just happen to like the look of printed graphics. Tokens and miniatures help too. They don’t have to be elaborate or cost more than a few cents for a large set. In the picture above, the custom player character tokens were created using a consumer-grade colour printer, some cardboard out of my household recycle bin, and a little bit of 2-sided tape. It is a cheap and easy way to make something unique to each character and, along with the grid map, helps keep players focused on where their characters are in the room.
  4. I enjoy the process of making maps at both the micro and macro scale. I also like figuring out how to take an existing location and sew it into my larger setting. The chance to be creative is what drives people to DM.

Horizons aren’t always literal horizons, sometimes it’s being absolutely sure there is a pantry behind the kitchen and that there is flour there even if it’s not part of the DM’s notes and descriptions. It’s also semi-mandatory for keeping the DM’s sanity when running 4e encounters. Other editions and rule sets may lend themselves better to the theatre of the mind, but the system I started out with and have by far the most experience running games in makes it hard to run encounters without a grid map. Some people didn’t like this; I didn’t mind. Either way, it’s become a habit for me and I find it difficult to run a game with no maps. The one-night Risus scenarios I ran last year used maps closely resembling floor plans (in fact they were actual floor plans from a few Canadian universities I mixed and matched to create a fictional college), as that rule set is pretty much the opposite of 4e in this regard. However, I still liked having the layout to go from when coming up with the descriptions for each room as I went.

Now you know why I like my grid maps so much. If you like playing without them, keep on doing what you do. However, if you find that players often get inconsistent ideas such as one player assuming “crate in the middle of the room” means a large but portable box and another thinks of it as something that would require a crane or forklift to move then you might want to consider drawing it out. I’m not writing this to tell the DMs out there that they need to change, but I do encourage experimentation with different styles that help bring out the best of your tabletop RPG’s potential.