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TO THE DEATH!

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problem with killing creatures in tabletop roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t think the problem is the violence itself. We play these sorts of games to escape into a different world and engage in heroic conquest in ways that we couldn’t (and/or wouldn’t want to) do in real life. As much as I loved Undertale, I’m not wishing that every roleplaying game was committed to making the case for pacifism. But I am thinking that those of us who run tabletop roleplaying games as the GM/DM/storyteller/etc. really need to rethink the way we set our players up for combat. I think this could apply to video games too, but the consumer is less often also involved in designing scenarios.

I have a confession to make: I ran two major campaigns in 4e D&D, and in each of them I railroaded the party into fighting a lot of things. The worst part is that I lead them into evil, “the termination of infinite play in unheard silence” (p. 32, Finite and Infinite Games). Evil, not just in the pitched battles with the “boss” creatures, but in the process of killing enemy mooks for experience to gain the levels they need to go toe-to-toe with higher-level enemies. Too many monsters or generic cultists were willing to fight to the death without having any purpose in the story except to be designated targets. If there is one thing I regret in my “A Trip to Castle Stirling” campaign, it was not setting a breaking point for all of the enemies (with appropriate punishments for good-aligned clerics and paladins who go for the kill after a surrender).

If I kill this, I will gain XP, which will make me better at killing other things, which may be guarding magical treasures I can use to kill progressively stronger things. I am living the murderhobo dream.
If I kill this, I will gain XP, which will make me better at killing other things, which may be guarding magical treasures I can use to kill progressively stronger things. I am living the murderhobo dream.

It makes sense, though. Take a look at your published modules for your favourite sword-and-sorcery tabletop game. See how they provide a wealth of statistics involving hit points, armour, movement, damage, attacks, etc. What don’t you see as often? How to defeat rather than fight monsters to the death. Will lizard people respond well to bribery? Dryads to flattery? Are demons actually quite cowardly? A skilled and determined DM would be able to improvise something, but the default course of action is to fight the minotaur until its HP reaches zero, it is dead, and the players gain XP and treasure. I did a little bit of experimenting with NPC-surrender with named NPCs and one group of snake-people in my last 4e campaign, but in retrospect it is kind of terrible that this was a variation rather than what usually happens. I can do better. We can do better.

I just finished playing in a tabletop campaign run under the Risus system. It’s better suited for short one-session games, but my regular tabletop group has found out that it is possible to keep it running as long as any D&D campaign. One of the most interesting ideas I came across in this system is that there is no such thing as HP. You run on cliché dice, and once you have been brought down to zero, you are out. Defeated. Not dead, unless it is explicitly a fight to the death, and the winner chooses the consequence to be death rather than some kind of last-minute mercy).

I ran a one-night Risus game a little while back, where the premise was that there is an annual scavenger hunt at a fictional university which everyone becomes irrationally obsessed with. Except one year when a mad scientist type became so obsessed with winning a broken version of the contest he ended up holing up in the abandoned areas of the basement and playing out a Phantom of the Opera sort of trope. The game ended when the party of player characters was able to outmatch him at his game. In the end, they defeated him more decisively than they could have if they killed him and made him the tragic protagonist of his own story. They responded to his outrageous villainy by handing him the old trophy and declaring him the winner of the impossible contest. He was left speechless, dumbfounded, and completely lost. The sense of pure and unadulterated defeat was palpable. It was wonderful, possibly one of the finest moments I have ever had as a GM. I want to do more of this, and less guiding players into the kill-XP-level-kill cycle. My future campaigns will have a Mercy button.

So, I propose that for the purposes of determining defeat conditions the DM/GM/storyteller/etc. should consider enemies in combat encounters as being part of one of three groups based on function:

  1. Robots: things that are designed or built with the specific function to fight and kill the players, includes not just mechanical robots but also reanimated skeletons, raised zombies, etc. They may be able to speak and understand language, but for them it is more like how computers understand input.
  2. Animals: creatures which are alive, likely sentient, but not capable of higher reasoning. This would include traditional animals, fantasy beasts, as well as anything else that runs primarily on instinct. Creatures such as zombies could also be this if they are created by a natural phenomenon rather than a person. They can communicate emotions but not ideas.
  3. People: sentient, intelligent beings capable of abstract thinking. These are not necessarily organic, bipedal, and humanoid. These are characters with agency, judgement, feelings, beliefs, values, and motives of their own. Sometimes we want to populate our fictional towns with people but end up putting a lot of human robots in there instead of human people. Where possible, people should be made to function as people.
Sans the skeleton and Flowey the flower are not people in form, but are people in function.
Sans the skeleton and Flowey the flower are not people in form, but are people in function.

For this purpose, the finer points of what constitutes the difference between an animal and a person at an ethical level are up to your group to decide. By all means, consider a cat to be a person, a cultist to be a robot, or a feral clockwork automaton to be an animal. I am not suggesting that this classification be used to determine whether or not it is ethical to hurt/kill/destroy the creature if it is attempting to coerce the players in some way. That is up to the players to decide. I am only drawing this distinction for the purpose of suggesting how each should be defeated other than a fight to the death:

  1. Robots should be able to be defeated by circumventing their programming or mechanics. Robots, if sufficiently provoked, will attempt to fight the player to the death unless specifically prevented from doing so. Of the three, it should be easier to justify destroying these than either of the other two types of creatures. By all means, smite the necromancer’s summoned undead without a second thought.
  2. Animals, when provoked, will try to fight to the death unless they become scared. Fight or flight. To provide a solution to avoid a fight to the death, the DM should back up one step and make the encounter with an animal not lead to a fight unless specific conditions are met. Additionally, the conditions under which the animal will submit or run away out of fear should be spelled out in your notes. The players should not be too harshly punished for killing the owlbear if they really felt like they had to.
  3. People should rarely try to fight to the death if given the chance to be spared, unless they are true believers in a cause. These are the hardest creatures to plan for, but that is what makes the tabletop game such a great medium. You can improvise a little at the table. People should always have a breaking point. Perhaps it is fear and self-preservation, perhaps it is greed, or perhaps it is an appeal to their conscience. Players may choose to execute defeated enemies who are people, but that should lead to more consequences than an experience point reward. Killing people should always require justification. Defeating them should be more satisfying than killing them.

Simply by considering what the function of the enemy is can help determine how we let players go about defeating them without a battle to the death. You can only go on so many super-hammy rants of to-the-death defiance as a DM before it starts losing its impact. By the time you hear it from the main villain of the campaign, it starts to sound the same as when the hobgoblin deckhand swore to end you at any cost because you wrecked his ship. If the hobgoblin is functioning as a person, let the players convince him to give up piracy instead. And don’t just bring him back to assist in the battle when you later fight the pirate lord to make it harder than if you had simply executed him earlier, either. That reduced him to a talking robot. The players should also have the option to stab him in the back on his way out of a holding cell. I am not calling for DMs to enforce morality, but rather to provide for the existence of a reasonably tenable morality that players can play with and around.

So, when you are designing encounters in a tabletop roleplaying game rather than a combat simulation game, consider making combat and death a part of the game but make it the means to an end rather than the goal itself. I think it makes the game more interesting whether the players have the choice of finding a non-violent solution, fighting only to submission, or choosing to go all the way. Giving players the choice of how to solve problems allows for a wider range of play and that fills me with determination.

First Impressions in Game Worlds

“A finite game takes place in a world… A world provides an absolute reference without which the time, place, and participants make no sense.” – James Carse, pp. 89-90, Finite and Infinite Games

There is a lot that can be said about the importance of the world in a game. Today I will be talking about the importance of visual elements in making first impressions, and one of the first games where the world itself made a big impression on me, Commander Keen 4: Secret of the Oracle.

First, let me be clear about what I mean by “world.” This word is often used as a synonym for the planet Earth, but that’s not helpful for looking at the worlds that games take place in. The world, to any given group of humans, is how we collectively make sense of what we see around us. This is how you can have a “world economy” or a “world war” or a “western world” that do not encompass the entire planet Earth. Some of those come very close, while some exclude most of the planet. The point is, the world is everything a game’s audience could possibly interact with in the context of playing that game. In Pong, the world is comprised by two paddles, a ball, a centre line, a scoreboard, and the boundaries of the screen. It is not a terribly compelling world, but it does not detract from the game because it’s a simple amusement; people don’t play Pong to escape into another world. If a game is designed to be large and meaningful in some way, the world needs to be many times more complex and engaging than that.

It’s not just a matter of appealing graphics, nor the absence of apparent boundaries that make a world seem interesting right from the get-go. Visual elements (such as screen graphics, printed cards, boards, tokens, etc.) are usually the first thing that introduce a player to a world. That’s why they’re not just there for the wow factor or to make marketing easier, though they do help with those things too. The look of a game is the first tool the audience gets for making sense of the game’s world.

That brings me to one of the first video games I ever played a lot of, the Commander Keen series. For those of you who haven’t reached age level 30 by now, this was an episodic series of games for the PC in the early 1990s, a time when PC gaming was a niche interest compared to the popular consoles like the SNES and Sega Genesis. I, however, was not among the kids my age who had those consoles in their homes. We had no consoles newer than the Intellivision until I was in grade seven and the age of the Nintendo 64 had arrived. I did not grow up playing Sonic, Super Mario Brothers, or Metroid. My PC gaming nostalgia is brought to you today by the letters D, O, and S. Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Ultima Underworld — these are the games I remember from the 1990s. I played plenty of demos and shareware, but Keen was to me what Link or Mario was to most gamers close to my age. And it was playing Commander Keen that gave me the first experience of truly appreciating the world in a video game based on the visual elements of the levels.

Mars, as presented in episode one of the Vorticons trilogy. Landscape features also include climbing barrels and molded plastic walls in other colours such as lime green.
Mars, as presented in “Marooned on Mars,” episode one of the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy. Most of the game looks a lot like this. Landscape features also include climbing barrels and molded plastic walls in other colours such as teal and lime green. This blog does not receive any advertising revenue from multinational beverage corporations.

Before the age of DLC, there was a way that game developers could release part of a game and then charge for the rest. It was called shareware. The additional content, whether branded as sequels or additional episodes, were not truly distinct games. You copied a game for free, then you (were expected to) pay for the remainder of the content beyond what the developer deemed to be enough of a teaser. Commander Keen is ostensibly a series of six episodes, but it’s really two games: the Invasion of the Vorticons trilogy and the Goodbye Galaxy trilogy. For the sake of simplicity, I am counting Aliens Ate My Babysitter in the second trilogy because it plays the same as episodes 4 and 5 even though there were differences in story arc and license/distribution that set it apart from episodes four and five. Six episodes, two distinct games. At one point I had both of the shareware episodes: “Marooned on Mars” (#1) and “Secret of the Oracle” (#4). I was offered a choice: my parents would pay to complete one trilogy and not the other. I had to choose between sticking to the chronological order and continuing Invasion of the Vorticons, or getting the rest of the newer games. I chose the latter. If you asked me at the time, I would have told you it was for aesthetic reasons. I wouldn’t have used those words, but that’s what I would have meant when I said “better graphics.” It’s actually quite remarkable how far things advanced between December 1990 and December 1991. But the appeal is not just in the fact that the Mars presented in “Marooned on Mars”looks kind of like a maze made of molded plastic, while the Shadowlands of “Secret of the Oracle” contain diverse biomes rendered in stunning 256-colour VGA graphics.

It’s apparent when you walk around the first few levels in Secret of the Oracle. The backgrounds imply a bigger world than the maze you are currently navigating. You can go in and out of doors. And most strikingly, there is a new feature: you can look up, look down, and see that are other areas in the level where life goes on without you needing to be there, right in the middle of the screen. The difference a year makes is not just in aesthetics, but also in the little mechanics that help me believe the world exists outside of the boundaries of my screen.

The rich visual splendour of 256-colour VGA graphics make a good impression. The picture shows the same stretch of path looking up and looking down.
This game was released one year after the game pictured above. Shown here is same stretch of path with Commander Keen looking up and looking down.

The visual elements of a game’s world doesn’t have to involve sprawling, highly detailed landscapes in order to make a good impression. The blocky worlds of Minecraft and Terraria do just fine without realism. If the game world gives me the tools I need to feel like my place in it is meaningful and relevant, then it becomes something I can get invested in. Sometimes that can involve beautifully rendered landscapes with the appearance of horizons. Sometimes that can involve something as simple as being able to look up and look down. And so, to conclude, I leave you with the recreation of the Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket I built in a Terraria world I named Gnosticus IV. The concept of a world in that game is really neat, but will have to wait for a future post.

The skull statue is placed to mark the world spawn point. I may not be an accomplished Terraria artist, but this is a few steps beyond the first noob hut I ever built.
The skull statue is placed to mark the world spawn point. I may not be an accomplished Terraria artist, but this is a few steps beyond the first noob hut I ever built.

 

Hell, Titles, and Houses

Four blocks, I should mention in a song if I want to get along with change, who doesn’t wanna change this? – Tegan and Sara, “Hell” (2010)

Ten years ago, circa 2006, Tegan and Sara wrote “Hell” about a neighbourhood that was part of the infamous downtown east side in Vancouver. It’s a song about a place with some real social and economic suffering going on. If I were to ask you where in Canada you’d pay a king’s ransom to live, you’d think that a place once dubbed “Hell” by the Vancouver Sun wouldn’t make the list. But now it’s 2016, and it costs over a million dollars to buy a house there. Or, if you are lucky, you can spend $300,000 on a condo there. And no, there was no rampant increase in wages and salary nor a magic cure for poverty and homelessness applied in the last decade. Housing prices and rents have skyrocketed and income has not. This in turn creates upward pressure in the suburbs, with the area of effect slowly increasing as people have to go farther and farther to where they can afford to buy. Meanwhile, it becomes harder and harder for regular people to put a roof over their heads. It’s crazy unsustainable.

But what does the outrageous inflation of a real estate bubble in Canada’s most famous city on the west coast have to do with my thoughts about games? In a word, title. What do you get your name on when you buy a slice of dirt with a house on top? A title. What does a person win in a finite game? A title. Considering this aspect of personal finance as a game might sound like a really odd thing to do, but remember that I’m the sort of person who chooses to write ~1000 words per week comparing games to obscure philosophy texts. And one of the reasons I do that is to look at things from a different angle in order to understand them better. So, home ownership vs. renting as a finite game. This helps me make sense of what would otherwise be an inscrutable case of people desperate to sink their own financial futures. I don’t live in Vancouver or Toronto, so I don’t feel the effects of this nearly as much. Yet even here I can hear the marketers and salespeople singing the siren’s song: stop throwing your money away on rent. The effects are less spectacular and headline-grabbing outside of Canada’s two hottest markets, but the sickness exists here too.

My preciousssssss...
My preciousssssss…

So why is it that the title of homeowner is so coveted? It’s considered uncouth to obsess about expensive clothes, big flashy jewellery, and luxury cars. Sure, it’s not necessarily unfashionable to buy those things if you’ve got the cash, but to focus your life on acquiring those things will earn you labels like materialistic. And so too will obsessing about ensuring your house is gigantic with all kinds of features unimaginable to middle income families in the 20th century. Yet it seems there is something magical and different about owning your dwelling rather than renting it. Taking on large debt to buy a car is considered irresponsible while going into epic debt to buy a house is rationalized as “good debt.” That makes sense, since the expensive car is usually an accessory for the title of rich while homeowner is a title unto itself. It is a title won in a game of life rather than a recreational game or other form of structured play. I think of it this way:

  1. The beginning: A person has to accumulate enough money for a down payment, which is presumed to be a reasonable measure of one’s value to society. Obviously a problematic one, but for the purposes of this game, people who have lots of money are presumed to be hard working savers and people who don’t are presumed to be on their way to that state, suffering as a result of poverty, or maybe they are just hard partying wastrels. In any event, we all start with nothing then begin accruing through various means.
  2. Consent to play: We consent to play this game by addressing issues of income inequality by looking for ways in which people who can’t afford to buy houses become able to rather than questioning the premise in the first place. When we congratulate our friends on their (illusory) equity gains. When we weep and gnash our teeth because affordability is a train to success that is about to leave without us, and consider long term tenancy as a state of failure.
  3. Rules are externally defined: we play by the rules of the industry and the banks, and can know what they are, though many choose to remain oblivious.
  4. Played within boundaries: houses in New Glasgow just aren’t coveted like they are in Kitsilano. Your title, in both senses, is worth more in Vancouver.
  5. The purpose of the game is to win: by being clever in your choice and timing, having the right stuff to be able to secure the deal, and being diligent and determined while you pay off the mortgage leads to you being a winner while I am a loser because I will never escape making a monthly payment. Nobody pays over a million dollars for a crappy house just because they just need a place to sleep.
  6. The game ends when someone wins: when the person who has captured the homeowner title either sells and pockets huge capital gains, or they hang on forever and reap the benefits of never having to make a monthly payment for their shelter again and the equity becomes a treasure hoard for their heirs. Assuming, of course, that a correction or crash does not wipe out the gains.

This aspect of life fits the characteristics of a finite game. The big question that I would like everyone to consider is this: should we consent to play this game? And if the answer is no, what does that look like? I choose not to play. Regardless of whether I remain a renter or somehow become a homeowner, it will never be my goal in life to own a house. My personal financial stability will remain paramount and I will not sacrifice it on the altar of real estate. Shelter is a need; owning is not. I am not saying there is inherently anything bad or wrong about buying a house, especially if you think of your house as a place to live rather than a guaranteed source of wealth and prestige. There are lots of good reasons and circumstances where it makes perfect sense to buy. I am saying there is something inherently wrong when prices start flying away from wages and salaries because of FOMO.

It’s been hard for me to come to the conclusion that never buying a house isn’t a fail condition. It’s been hard to listen to people talk about real estate like it’s a magic wealth machine that never fails to deliver long term wealth and happiness. But I’m up and over it and over them.

Diversions and Doorkeys

I don’t know what I would say about Undertale if I was a video game reviewer. I have mixed feelings about the procedure of playing the game, as many of the puzzles aren’t very interesting and there are an awful lot of long walks with nothing happening through faux-retro 8-bit scenery. As a fun little diversion, the crunch of this game served its purpose but wasn’t any more exciting than Hook. I picked up that game for what I expect is the same reason most of its users did: I was browsing the free section of Steam, not finding anything interesting, then decided to see if there was anything they had that was available for almost free. It is a lovely minimalist puzzle game that took me about three hours from start to finish (including breaks). It’s a fun diversion, but makes no pretence about having a plot or making any commentary. If you’re into puzzle games and low prices, Hook may be a good buy for you. If you act within the next two days (until July 4, 2016), it is 10% off on Steam. That will save you the princely sum of $0.11 CAD. Get to it before that hot deal is gone!

Press the buttons (black circles) to retract the pins (thick lines), but do it in the right order so that you don't snag any parts.
Hook: press the buttons (black circles) to retract the pins (thick lines), but do it in the right order so that you don’t snag any parts. 

Back to Undertale: after starting the game with a bizarre interaction with a flower who turns out to be a supreme asshole, I was introduced to Toriel. She is the NPC who goes out of her way to tell the protagonist to not to go on an adventure instead of delivering the standard but thou must speech. It was at this early stage that I could see for myself that Undertale wasn’t going to be a standard dungeon crawl. Whatever was to come in terms of combat encounters and puzzle games to reward me with the key to the next room, I knew that Undertale was created for reasons other than passing the time with challenges and rewards. It’s not just a matter of overcoming the enemies, solving the puzzle, advancing the plot, and winning a title (with or without a “score” number) at the end.

The value of the education the player receives from Toriel isn't obvious at first, but it reveals a lot about what Undertale is all about.
The value of the education the player receives from Toriel isn’t obvious at first, but it reveals what Undertale is really all about.

Undertale is, in addition to being a game, social commentary about gaming and that’s why I find it interesting and worthwhile. Undertale’s visual style reminds us of the games of the 80’s and 90’s that usually railroaded the player into combat. For example, Konami’s 1991 arcade brawler The Simpsons puts the player into a setting that does not lend itself to wanton violence and then steers the player into fighting a mass mob of goons as an archetypal suburban American family from a TV sitcom. This might have made more sense if it was a Treehouse of Horror game, but the Springfield that most people know outside of the Halloween episodes is a generally peaceful place. Why fight there? Because The Simpsons was a massively popular TV series, video games were an emerging market, and so it made sense to make a Simpsons video game. And in 1991, making a video game meant either making a sports game or making a fighting game. A game set in Springfield where nobody had to be beaten in a contest or in a fight would have been inconceivable at the time, but turning The Simpsons into a fighting game was par for the course.

So, in Undertale we are quickly introduced to an 8-bit underground dungeon full of monsters. Anyone who has played a video game that looks like this is going to be expecting some hack and slash if nothing else. When faced with an enemy the character is presented the expected options of attacking with a weapon, using items, and trying to run away. This is very normal for a game about escaping from the spooky underground ruins. But Undertale also offers the player the act and mercy buttons. The one action almost always available during a fight is check, which hopefully reveals something about which of the other actions might have a desirable effect. The other actions are entirely context-dependent based on the target. For example, Froggit is the only enemy that can be complimented or threatened.

Thankfully, checking Froggit gives you a useful hint about how to proceed without killing it or running away from it.
Thankfully, checking Froggit gives you a useful hint about how to proceed without killing it or running away from it. “Check” isn’t always this helpful.

There is usually some kind of hint that can be gleaned from checking an enemy as to which actions will affect it the most. Many enemies can be rendered uninterested in continuing the fight, which opens up an option when you hit the mercy button. There are only two things available in Mercy: flee, and spare. The latter usually only works after sufficiently pacifying the enemy through some combination of low hit points (from attacking it) or lack of willingness to fight (choosing the right type of action). You can try it at any time, but that may just earn your enemy a free attack. Even if you are determined not to hurt anything, you can’t get through the game by doing nothing but fleeing. Unlike games where dialogue and non-combat actions are secondary to the play of the game itself, Undertale puts them front and centre.

Games can be used for social good and to understand ourselves. Not all games are very good at that, whether they are a peaceful and serene recreational experience (Hook) or a logic-defying rampage (The Simpsons). Undertale is amazing at this because both violence and pacifism are available options, and the choices the player makes are important. By the end of the game, the player is explicitly asked to evaluate their own choices they made with respect to violence. In general, we are socialized to reject violence and murder as methods of solving problems and getting our way except where all other options have been exhausted and it becomes a matter of preserving life. We expect armies and police forces to make room for diplomacy or talk down a gunman if they can, and social unrest ensues if there is even the perception that they didn’t do enough to prevent violence. In games, especially dungeon crawling video games where you encounter monsters, the expectation is to kill things and be rewarded for that killing with experience points and in-game goods and/or money. There is a dissonance there, and Undertale boldly shoves it right into the player’s face. It proves that games can be made to challenge us to see gaming in a different way, and to examine how that affects our lives. That’s what I hope to be able to do in any game-related creative pursuits I engage in. Playing through Undertale for the first time did involve some tedious puzzles and corny dialogue, but it also made me think and filled me with determination.

Roles, Titles, Names, and Fatherhood

In Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse defines some dichotomies other than finite vs. infinite in order to speak more clearly to real life situations, particularly things that fall outside of what we normally call a game (recreational, relatively inconsequential pastimes) but can still be understood with a broad enough definition.  Things like war and romance. I find that thinking of these aspects of life in terms of games is not a purely intellectual exercise. It helps me make sense of real-life things and events, provides a neat way to discuss ideas with others, and I think that how we live life influences the kind of smaller games we play and those in turn loop back and influence how we live.

One of these dichotomies he draws is between the theatrical and the dramatic. Like finite and infinite, one of these is not better or more important than the other. We are both of these things in everyday life. Theatre is analogous to the finite: there is a beginning, a sequence of events, and an outcome. Drama, in this context, is analogous to the infinite: it is not confined to specific points in time or specific outcomes. Theatre is dramatic while you are experiencing it, because the outcome is not yet known. Once the actions have been taken and can be fixed into a narrative or a script it becomes theatre. In order to play theatrically, a person assumes a role. In order to play dramatically, a person does or becomes the role.

For example, last Sunday was Father’s Day in Canada. In order for the designated celebration day to be about more than increasing sales figures for greeting cards, fashion accessories, and hardware store gift certificates it is necessary for us to wonder what a father is and why we should celebrate that. It is abundantly clear that siring offspring does not qualify a man as a father. The men we celebrate are often stepfathers, adoptive fathers, or other father figures. To be celebrated as a “real” or “true” father a man must assume the role of father and all that entails. When a man has, as a matter of record, met the expectations and obligations associated with the role this is theatre. The fathers and stepfathers who do this well are winning in finite play. They receive the title of father, while those who fail to meet the standard are said to be undeserving of the title. A title is only as good as it is recognized and deferred to by other people. Our society ensures this by attaching powers to and celebrating that title. That is what we did on Sunday the 19th. We, as a society, reinforced a theatrical role. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this at all, as long as we are aware of what we are doing. Perhaps it was most appropriate then, that my brother and I celebrated this with our father by attending a movie at a theatre.

Mother and father are titles; mom and dad are names.

In section 25 of Finite and Infinite Games, Carse introduced the infinite and dramatic counterpart to the title: the name. When you address a man as dad that is not a title, it is a name. It is not something that can be won or lost. It does not matter than you may be the only human being in existence who refers to a particular man by that name. It carries no inherent power, as any power that man may have in your life depends entirely on the level at which you recognize his title of father. We don’t celebrate the name of dad on Father’s Day, we celebrate the title of father. That makes sense because the sort of things we do on those designated celebration days are often more theatrical than dramatic. To celebrate someone’s name is not to have a specific day, it is to use that name in everyday life. I celebrate the name of dad simply by calling him that and engaging in the drama (the word drama itself derived from the Greek word for action) of being his son. That can mean different things to different people, but again I think we do well to recognize how we honour our dads in the dramatic as well as the theatrical. The drama and the theatre are linked, but distinct.

So, that’s how I see fatherhood in terms of playing games. It’s not something that is normally thought of as a game, but the celebration of fatherhood becomes more meaningful to me to recognize the limitations of our societal recognition of a title and to see that there is much more to it than that. We can look at many other roles and aspects of life in a similar way, and discover more about what we’re really doing when we use a name or recognize and defer to a title.

Evil, and Why I Blog

A few hours less than a week ago, a man committed the atrocity that defined the news for the past six days. Although I made a deliberate choice for this blog to have a particular focus rather than being an independent news source or a constant stream of random things I have to say about anything that seems interesting at the time, I find myself unable to avoid addressing this. It is simply too big in my world to ignore. I can, however, approach this topic from the perspective of games and philosophy. I am not doing this to be glib, nor do I think of myself as being one-dimensional in my obsession. It’s because lots of smart people have already covered that ground, and I will express my feelings about this in different facets of my life. It’s also a bit too late in the news cycle for it to seem appropriate for me to tear my robe and shave my head in this space. I am now in the stage of figuring out how to live in the world where it happened, and I believe my hobby and creative pursuits can play an important role.

So how does a person go about making sense of the world we live in? We adopt philosophies and religions to help us sort out what is good, what is evil, and how we can be as good as possible and minimize evil. There is a great deal of diversity in how we define good and evil, and what the appropriate responses are. The reason I added philosophy to the mandate of this blog rather than sticking to reviews, rants, and fun tales from my table is that reading Finite and Infinite Games gave me the idea that the gaming hobby and the desire to create content for and about games can, and should, be a part of something bigger than entertainment and passing the time. They can be tools of good, against evil. And that is how I relate blogging about games to the Orlando atrocity: we can talk all day about racism, cultures glorifying violence, and the politics of gun control but all of these are merely trees growing in the soil of evil. There was a body count before Sunday. The count will continue to increase long after this incident in Orlando is just another datum on the great big chart of atrocities. In moving forward from and with our grief, we must take hold of the tools needed to dismantle evil: our ballots, our online outlets, our donations, our voices, our pulpits, and I would argue our games as well.

Grief

In Finite and Infinite Games, Carse defines evil as “the termination of infinite play… in unheard silence.”  In this context, infinite play means life in general rather than any specific person’s life. Evil is therefore not defined by death, but rather by the lack of listeners for the voices grieving the fallen and objecting to the evil that caused the loss. Evil did not win when bullets killed and injured people. It won when others made the decision to ignore it. Or if they did not ignore it with their words, ignoring it with their actions. It’s easy to get outraged when people say outrageous things, but evil’s greatest triumph comes not in incendiary declarations but in the silence of business as usual. In some ways, quietly musing about how to protect the USA (or Canada, or the UK, or the EU) from “Islamic extremism” in the wake of an atrocity that is anything but Islamist terrorism (while erasing the identity of the victims) is much more evil than waving one of Westboro Baptist’s tacky signs. They’re one of the top two whipping posts when it comes to Anglo-North Americans talking about evil without mentioning the Nazis, and they certainly get people talking in absurd disproportion to their numbers. Evil loses when the opposite happens, when the atrocity does not fall into unheard silence. The overwhelming response in the news and social media has shown me that evil is strong but has not yet triumphed.

How, then, do we get to the gaming table? In stories like The Courage of Being Queer, by Alexander Chee, we get a glimpse of how games can be a part of the solution. Where evil thrives on silence, a game gave two young boys a new way to have a voice and be heard. I want to be a part of that. I want my hobbies and creative pursuits to destroy boundaries and break silences. I want to be a part of the larger culture that has been anything but silent in the face of this evil. I might also have specific ways in which I would want to influence government policies or specific cultural narratives, and I will get more political in political spaces and righteously indignant in religious spaces and so on. But in my gaming spaces, I seek to use the finite games we play to support infinite play. That is to challenge toxic notions such as the one that history and the progress of civilization inexorably leads to the inherent righteousness of my nation-state exercising lethal power to obtain and retain dominance over all others, or that mine are the chosen people whose privileges are unquestionable. Finite games can do that in little doses that prevent the silence from taking over when we’re not actively mourning the dead or criticising others. When I engage in creating stories, I will be very intentional in opposing fundamental evil. If there is something I can learn from this event, something I can change, it will be to do this with gusto and no apologies. It’s easy to refrain from the crass display of aligning oneself with evil, but even more important to do it when there might be a cost and/or a risk associated with causing an argument or a social rift. That, I think, is better than making a big show of my grief over one incident and then moving on with business as usual. I will do it in every space I have access to, including this one.

A Tale of Three Castles

It’s hard to discuss Dungeons and Dragons as a game without hearing the name Tolkien. It’s like a special case of Godwin’s Law, except that Tolkien is generally well-regarded by the people making the comparisons. Worlds full of wizards, dragons, dwarves, and elves tend to be given the label Tolkienesque. It’s not wrong, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The elven alphabet in the illustrations in your official D&D rule books might look like it comes from Middle Earth, but the game certainly did not start there. It started in two castles: Greyhawk and Blackmoor.

These two castles were the settings for the first fantasy roleplaying games that lead to the development of the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons. David M. Ewalt, whose book Of Dice and Men I mentioned last week, tells us the history of how two wargaming enthusiasts created the first settings for fantasy story-driven roleplaying games. This was a radical departure from the traditional wargaming settings, which tended to focus on American military history from the revolutionary war, to Civil War conflicts between the union and the confederacy, to World War 2 battles between allies and the axis. And there we have it, a reference to the Nazis. Thanks, Godwin.

The third castle I allude to is one that never inspired thousands upon thousands of games. Castle Stirling is the one I cobbled together for the second campaign I ran in 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons. As I read the histories of Greyhawk and Blackmoor in Of Dice and Men, I smiled and felt proud of myself. It’s not often I feel like I can compare myself to the legendary fathers of D&D, but in a small way, I can here. These settings, unlike Middle Earth, were not created for the sake of a linear plot. They were designed for play. That is what Stirling has in common with Greyhawk and Blackmoor. I didn’t start with a place and make a game of it; I did some research so that the outline of the castle would make sense, then designed a series of encounters (combat and otherwise), then detailed the castle to accommodate the game.

The process for outlining Castle Stirling was deliberately anachronistic: I got on a bicycle, rode to a public library with a notebook, looked up some books on castles, and drew some rough diagrams by hand. This might not sound novel to people who have been doing this since they were teenagers in the 1980s or 1990s, but I was a twenty-something working in the late 2000s it was already in the age of Wikipedia and vast repositories of professionally designed D&D modules, and I could have driven my own vehicle if I wanted to. But I wanted to see if I could tap into the excitement with which men of my dad’s generation recall their AD&D adventures. That meant I needed a memorable setting in which legends can be forged, itself born of creativity rather than consumption. While I did do a little bit of homebrew in my first campaign, Castle Stirling was part of my first attempt to create a truly engaging setting rather that linking published modules together into a longer campaign.

Tales of adventure may start in taverns, but sooner or later, they lead to castles. 

Once I had a castle in mind, I started thinking about how I could capture the excitement evoked by the phrase “dungeon crawl” without making it a procedural check for traps, kill the monster, get the treasure sort of thing that would bore the roleplayers in my group to tears. None of the rooms in my castle were empty save for cobwebs and a single pressure plate that triggers a hidden blowgun, because that doesn’t leave a lot of room for players to push any limits. Allowing the players to negotiate with sentient Yuan-Ti henchmen is not innovative in the fantasy roleplaying world anymore, but some of the players had never been involved in the sort of game where sarcastically mocking the enemy’s hissing speech could actually have an impact on how the game proceeds. Further into the castle, the players came across a massive iron golem acting as an automated gatekeeper, demanding a blood sacrifice as the price of admission. I knew there were some obvious solutions (refuse and fight the iron golem, give a small amount of one’s own blood to an evil demon god, or go find one of the hapless henchmen outside the door to sacrifice) but fully expected that someone could try and circumvent the whole setup, at which point I would have to improvise and bend the rules to keep the game going. What ended up happening followed one of the standard solutions, which I expected from the black sheep assassin in the party of otherwise pious characters. What I didn’t expect was for a priest of Pelor to help harvest the bodies. Our group still fondly refers to him as the best cleric ever.

So, like the fountain of snakes in Greyhawk, I had a bunch of nifty things that at face value did not seem to add up to something grandiose. A long hall which contained an invisible maze that starts filling up with water (and then sharks) when the players make it halfway through just doesn’t evoke the same majesty as a rich description of Rivendell or a long legend of how the old gods delivered the dwarves to salvation from the fire giants. The reason I focused on the little things is that they were all things that players could interact with in many ways including ones I could not possibly control. In some ways, within the walls of the castle, there were fewer boundaries than being outside in a majestic world where the plot proceeds inexorably to a predetermined end.

Of the various highs and lows in my campaigns, I think the design of Castle Stirling was one of the high points. Of course, having only used it once in a home campaign, about six people at the time of publishing this post have ever heard of Castle Stirling. But the magic of the fantasy tabletop roleplaying game isn’t in the rules or the famous settings or the particular one I made for my friends. There are thousands of other castles, pyramids, palaces, towns, forest groves, ad infinitum imagined by the game runners (dungeon masters, game masters, storytellers, whatever they’re called in your rule set) for their own campaigns. What other type of game offers such a wealth of opportunities to engage players in new and interesting ways? That’s not entirely rhetorical. If a game other than a tabletop RPG offers that kind of potential, I really do want to play it.

Potentials and Pitfalls

Of all the kinds of games I am aware of, there is one type that stands way out front in terms of potential to be used for social good and to understand ourselves. That is the dice-based tabletop RPG. Or, for those who aren’t already well-versed in the lingo, Dungeons and Dragons should ring a bell. I am talking about that, as well as the widely varied alternatives that are directly or indirectly derived from D&D. As recently illustrated by Josh Kramer in the Washington Post, it is now firmly established as a bona fide cultural phenomenon. I don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining this to you, as David M. Ewalt does this quite well in his book Of Dice and Men (I would recommend it especially if you are one of those people who only subscribe to one or two geek fandoms and find yourself curious but unfamiliar with this thing your other friends are raving about).

Instead, I’m going to tell you the story of how I got into it and why I think it has such great potential and also why I think it could also be monumentally disappointing. My first experience with D&D didn’t involve a basement room full of teenage boys with dice and character sheets. Although my social circle certainly qualified as “nerd” or “geek” or whatever label you might apply to a boy in grade 7 who skips school not during classes but during the school dance to go play Starcraft, nobody I knew owned a rulebook or had the idea to put something together. And then in 1998, my parents bought me a game called Baldur’s Gate. Never before did I get to play a game with such an intricate character options. It was loosely based on the third edition of D&D (with a few elements of 3.5 folded into the sequels and expansions), but Baldur’s Gate wasn’t quite the same as D&D. It was good, but then Baldur’s Gate 2 was amazing. It was largely more of the same in terms of game mechanics, but the quality of the writing, the visuals, the dialog, everything was given a huge upgrade. I had sunk 200+ hours into that game by the end of high school. Yet for all of its splendor, it was very limited: there were several distinct plot branches, but there were only so many areas to explore and specific conditions for winning or losing. After playing through every possible path, I briefly visited the modding community. I downloaded and played through a few, and enjoyed them, and toyed with the modding tools in the hope I could create my own adventure. I lacked the skills and commitment at the time that would have been required to create something that works, but it was certain that I wanted more. I wanted to be able to keep going to other places and seek other stories limited only by the imagination of creators (myself or otherwise). I had boundaries, and wished for horizons. During the time I spent on the modding forums, the regulars spoke of “PnP” (pen and paper) as an ideal rather than an alternative. I learned on an intellectual level why a lot of people found the video games to be neat but no substitute for the real thing. Almost two decades after Baldur’s Gate, I eventually came to understand this concept for myself.

Most tales of adventure from the D&D table hinge on the effects of throwing chaos orbs at a flat surface.
Most tales of adventure from the D&D table hinge on the effects of throwing chaos orbs at a flat surface.

By the time I finally got to play true D&D, I had completed an academic degree and wasn’t living with my parents anymore. 4th edition had just come out, so that is what our DM (dungeon master, person who organizes and runs the game) wanted to run. Arguing about editions is a very strange blood sport that only makes sense to a few particular subsets of D&D enthusiasts, so I am not taking a position here. The only reason why I mention it is because I don’t come at this from the perspective of someone who has been playing since the 1980’s or 1990’s. I’m not part of the newest cohort, but I’m newer to it than people might assume. It wasn’t until the late 2000’s that I had, in a game, played a character who could try and break, jump over, or seduce anything that wasn’t intended originally to be interacted with in such a way. No door was sealed shut, no waist-high bush could contain me. I don’t love BG2 any less, but getting to play in a potentially infinite fictional universe was freedom rather than a newer, nicer, bigger cage.

And I loved it. I got to try different things, and run a few campaigns. Games started and ended based entirely on the group’s desire to play, not on any externally defined plots and stages of gameplay. We could go anywhere the DM was able to come up with a narrative space for. Characters had objectives and end goals, but the only thing that ever ended a campaign was a satisfying end to a story arc combined with the desire of the players to do something else with their time or move on to the next campaign. And move on we did, despite several comings and goings, the core group is into its ninth campaign (of which I have been involved in seven). We also played games in World of Darkness and other rule sets geared more towards modern and horror settings rather than swords and sorcery. The appeal of the game wasn’t just in one setting or iteration of the rules, it was in the fact that the game could go anywhere we wanted it to go.

So, when does D&D become a terrible disappointment? Aside from malicious dungeon mastering, it also becomes rather anemic when people try to win the game. There are many ways this can occur, but the thing they all have in common is that they limit the game right down to one individual’s desire to be seen as a winner. Whether it is a DM forcing characters through a story without giving them any agency, a rules lawyer determined to mathematically prove how much better his character is than anyone else’s, or a player character seeking adoration by proxy of a character, everything that imports unnecessary limitations takes away from what makes the tabletop RPG special.

That's not how it works. That's not how any of this works.
That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.

That’s simply not how D&D became the phenomenon it is today. It is because it has more characteristics of a game than sitting around a campfire taking turns doing collaborative storytelling, but is so much more than finite dice games. It is a dice game, but one that runs on its own time and establishes its own boundaries during play. It can, at the discretion of the participants, keep on being played with the rules changing in order to allow the continuation of play. Every boundary is mutable (according to rule zero of every tabletop RPG). That’s why I characterize it as almost infinite. It isn’t quite, but the tabletop RPG is much closer than anything else I know, and that’s why I continue to play and continue to dream up the next campaign.

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.

OASIS

There are at least two things that you could have learned from my last two posts: I spend way too much time playing Civilization, and I like cheap/free stuff. The latter of which brings me to my next post, about another book that I didn’t pay for. If you identify as a geek who likes geek stuff, there is a reasonably good chance you have a copy of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline somewhere in your home even if you have never even opened it. This is because you might have subscribed to, or like me received a Loot Crate subscription as a gift, and there was a copy of that book included back in February 2015. The cover raves that it’s a “new Harry Potter” and “revolutionary.” Well, it’s not. At least not in my opinion. I read it as a standard hero’s journey of teenage male wish fulfilment. The writing itself is executed competently, but the writing itself didn’t have any special powers for grabbing my attention. There was no point to be made or lesson to be learned in the plot. So why, then, did I enjoy the book and find it interesting enough to write about? Because I loved OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). In the book it is the vast MMO game that seems to comprise all of video gaming and the internet in general in the novel’s dystopian near-future. It is both a game-within-the-game and a setting for much of the story. It’s a cool idea. It’s not a new or unique idea, but I think OASIS is an interesting iteration because:

  1. Culturally, it seems to flow from what we have now. The Matrix, or Star Trek’s holodecks/holosuites are virtual reality environments in science fiction, but introduce a few elements of science fantasy. A lot of the pop culture Ready Player One based on is dated, but there is a good in-universe explanation. The creator of OASIS grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and was pathologically obsessed with the pop culture of that time, not as much that of the new millennium. So despite being a near-future setting, there are more references to D&D and Rush than there are to Reddit memes or Harry Potter or anything else more solidly embraced by millennial than by GenX. It works because the reason for this is explained, and the characters are aware of how dated the pop culture references are. Still, it pushed a lot of the right buttons to entertain me as an older millennial and felt more genuine than the other fictional VR environments I mentioned.
  2. Despite having a beginning as a system, each player logging in for the first time enters a game already in progress. For most young people in the novel, OASIS didn’t really have a beginning for them.
  3. The big bad evil empire corporation pushes the boundaries of the players consenting to play, because the other players never consented to a game involving real-world violence and harassment, but it mostly holds true. Not everyone has to be an egg hunter (participate in the contest that is the centre of the whole plot), not everyone has to play OASIS (which is perhaps reasonable if one is rich enough that the real world isn’t a complete nightmare all the time). As far as most players were concerned, OASIS was not played to reach an end; the end of making money was to be able to stay in OASIS longer or with better in-game advantages.
  4. It is implied that unlike the video game worlds we know where extreme slopes, waist-high bushes, or invisible barriers all provide a limit to the space, there are actually no boundaries in OASIS, as even specific locations can have hundreds of cloned copies.
  5. With the possible exception of the egg hunters, nobody else seems to be playing the game with a particular win condition in mind. Some people do it for work, some for escape from the awful corporate dystopia outside, but very few to “win” because for most people there is no specific victory condition.
  6. There is no end. The game-within-the-game, finding the easter egg and winning the prize, provides an end to the novel, but not to the game-within-the-book of OASIS. All of the surviving main characters still have OASIS accounts at the end of the book.
  7. The rules of the game can be changed within the game to ensure that play continues. This is where huge games like EVE are still finite in many ways. While space may be vast, somewhere outside of the game itself, there is a CCP employee working on new content at a computer. Even The Matrix appeared to require externally defined boundaries as long as you’re not Jesus The One. OASIS appears to be programmable from within OASIS.

Points 2-7 on my list all make OASIS look more like an infinite game than a finite game. And, while Carse (the philosopher who defined the terms I am using) asserts that only real life can be an infinite game, I am not sure something as robust and believable as OASIS would have crossed his mind back in 1987 when Tron defined what most people thought of when imagining a virtual world inside a computer.

As much as my praise for the novel overall is equivocal, I have to admit that it was entertaining and has been well received. I was at a book store on Sunday and saw that it was still a “staff pick” which tells me that there are a significant amount of fans if it gets pride of place and a sticker instead of being buried in the discount bin. Although it’s hardly a life-changing experience, I enjoyed the book and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as long as the expectations are correctly set. It was yet another stroke of the ego for the stereotypical gamer and didn’t push our social boundaries in ways that were not entirely predictable, though OASIS pushed those boundaries within the society of the setting. The book was also good entertainment and explained a neat idea without being boring. So when I think of my decision to keep reading this book through to the end I won’t look back in anger, at least not today.