Stories in Novels Vs Difficulty curves in games (and idiot RPG authors who say you can do the former)

I wrote this recently as a comment on reddit and it warrants it’s own place rather than being buried amidst a pile of comments.

The situation was the GM had a group of ‘bandits’ (actually a political faction causing trouble under the guise of bandits) . The players run right into the group and get defeated, one captured the others escaping. The players weren’t happy. And here is my reply to this:

The problem is in Venn diagram terms, what the players find fun is one circle and what you presented is another circle – they really didn’t overlap.

Imagine you’d done this instead – they ran into outlier camps of the bandits, who are in small groups that are more balanced to the PCs and wont be calling the main group. The players would win the battle – which they were looking for at least once otherwise they feel their new PCs are chumps.

Further imagine you make larger and larger groups, with an increasing chance of calling the next group along.

The players would encounter tougher and tougher resistance until they question whether they can take the next group. Maybe they should see if anyone in town can help – sellswords, for example? Exactly as it turned out, but with players being happy about it.

This is a smooth difficulty curve, rising from low to challenging. What you had was a difficulty spike – nobody can really handle that and enjoy it, precisely because it’s too realistic – if realism was fun, why are we playing fantasy rather than being out in the real world?

That said, the author of the books give the impression you could run the game exactly as you did (or so I guess – most RPGs do). And the authors are idiots for it. You were told what you did would work but you were told something that does not work because it’s not actually compatible with human psychology.

So many new gamer’s try to use the aspiring novel writer method of designing games – but it doesn’t work, because as a novel writer you can screw your characters over royally and no one bitches about it. What you did would work as a novel. As a game it doesn’t work. But you were given bad advice, so it’s not your fault.

 

Have a plot but you hate having passive players?

I’m posted this recently: I’d like to explain that having plots makes players passive lumps. Why is that? Because if a player ever goes to do something that would screw the plot up, the GM does one or both of the following A: Subtley or obviously chastises the player or B: Makes events stop the player from doing the action.

The thing is, the player is never sure what action will cause the plot to break. So what’s the best solution for the player if they don’t want the plot to break and to suffer A or B? Well….do nothing. Be a passive lump. That way you can’t break the GMs precious plot.

GMs who use plot but loathe passive players are their own worst enemy.

Let Slip the GMs of War!

So the thought exercise is this: each player would take a slip of paper from a container without looking. Then they can look at the slip and hide it under something in front of them.

One of the slips says they are also a GM at the table! Lets say the number of slips of paper are equal to three times the number of players – so there’s about a one in three chance of a player being a secret GM – because they do not declare they are a GM. They sit quietly, as if just a regular player.

The point is, though, that the GM cannot try to just ‘run a story’, because if the ‘player’ who is actually their co-GM decides to reveal themselves, they can act like a GM just as much. And if the second GM tried to ‘run a story’, how would that work when it’s not the same story??

It wouldn’t. And that’s the point of this thought exercise – to show how each player is already like a mini GM, because they control one ‘NPC’ each. And you can change a lot of setting with one (N)PC – and more to the point, the player can attempt to run a story.

How will that work out? Well players already play their characters with the expectation that like in real life things don’t always go your way, it wont always go their way for what they do with their character/what they do with the story they run. This leaves players fairly flexible in regards to all of them running their own stories around each other.

Again, that’s the point of the exercise – it shows up whether a GM could handle there being another GM/is flexible like a player. The randomness of the slips would mean you can’t be sure there is another GM but you also can’t be sure there isn’t. You would have to bring together game world elements, but you couldn’t be sure you could just try and run ‘your story’.

What if the Main Quest became a Side Quest?

What if? Here we’re talking about the idea of playing in a sandbox or something like that. But maybe you’ve brought a Main Quest in…anyway?

But say in video games like the elder scrolls series, some people play them and never engage the ‘Main Quest’. They play, do the things they want to do – and those things they do are, by dint of the player just wanting to do those things, the Main Quest! Then they stop playing or they stop playing that character and start the game again with a new character, happy either way. And whatever was the Main Quest as intended by the designers becomes a side quest. And more than that – a side quest never done!

Could players take over the steering wheel on what is important?

But you made it about saving the world, didn’t you? So they can’t just ignore your Main Quest, for if they do, the world blows up and destroys everything they did – ie, it destroys everything they found important. So it’s just a waiting game – the players can mess around with their Side Quests for ages – but they have to get to your Main Quest eventually, or doom all their side quest accomplishments to destruction. The steering wheel is firmly in your hands. It’ll just be awhile before you can turn it.

Or what if we avoided ‘save the world’? And a campaign finishes on what the players found it important for their PC’s to have completed or attempted to have completed?

But what do players find important for their PCs to complete? Do the PCs have any goals the player has made up for them?

Glove puppet game systems

It struck me how to phrase it.

 

I think a game system, if it’s going to have a group play any different than they do normally/be worth playing, needs to be like another player at the table. In fact the game system need to be like another GM at the table. A GM who comes ahead of the human GM.

In traditional designs, the system is like a glove puppet.

Like someone, typically the GM, holding a little glove puppet at the table and talking out of the side of their mouth “Okay, I’m the system, and I say…s’alright, s’alright!”

What you get with gamers is early in their careers, they buy this. Even the GM buys it!

Latter they say “Hey, we don’t need to listen to the glove puppet! Were REAL roleplayers if we just do what we want!”

At which point everyone puts on a glove puppet.

I mean, if your just doing whatever the hell you want, why are you rolling? Why? Because it’s a glove puppet – it’s a make believe the roll somehow controls something, when it’s your hand inside.

A game with a complete procedure isn’t a glove puppet. Actually a few indie RPG’s with complete procedures have come out. Capes (or atleast the quick start, as far as I know). I think 3:16. Spione (assuming I’ve read accurately). Oh, and except for a tiny bit, escape from tentacle city.

Are you trying to tie real world morality to in game actions?

Here’s an idea – gamers have real trouble seperating their sense of morality from a games fiction. One example was in a browser game I had played, where the text itself described an option to loot other players as ‘not being very fair’.

Even the designer himself couldn’t really seperate his moral notions from the fiction he had overlayed onto the game.

No,  it’d be about as unfair as checking someones king in chess.

If in a roleplay game you have some ‘rape a person automatically’ power, then it isn’t nasty or unfair or wrong of you to use it. It’s just part of the game. YES, fictionally it’s rather strong, perhaps over powering. This is exactly why as a designer you have to take responsiblity for this yourself – do you want a game with this? It’s no good putting it in with some sort of stupid idea that the players morality aught to keep it’s use in check. Real world morality doesn’t apply to gameplay itself – it’s stupid to think that. Otherwise taking someones rook is like mini murder or something stupid.

Don’t try and apply real world morality to in game actions. It’s entirely missplaced.

On a side note: I thought I’d give a link to a browser game I’m slowly building up : http://www.driftwurld.herobo.com/login.php

Roll when you want to is not the bees knees

Okay, looking at a forge post on ‘the pool’.

I think Ron admired it as having more structure than traditional RPG’s. In a way it does – it’s kind of like it has had all it’s limbs dislocated, while other RPG’s have had all their limbs dislocated and drawn and quarted the body.

It all hinges on : You have a capacity to roll. BUT you don’t have to.

So why do it? Because it’s fun? You don’t know it’s fun before you roll, and when you roll, what you say your rolling for and how you or someone else describe the outcome are the significant parts of whether it’s fun. It’s like if I say you roll and if you fail, you get a beef burger, and if you win, you get a chicken burger. Know why the rolls tasty? Because I didn’t say on a fail you get a turd burger and on a win you get a flem burger.

The roll is hardly significant as how it’s set up. So if anythings good, it’s how good GM Herbie is at doing this.

“But the outcome can change many things in the future, and that stuff latter on might be fun!”

And that’s getting into fun latter territory.

I usually refer to stone soup design around about now. Where people put in a ton of effort into the soup, then claim the soup was already delicious and just a great soup!

Pratically all RPG’s hinge on alot of “uh, roll whenever. Or don’t”. It’s crap. If this really is the way into a nuanced, affecting system, why the f’k is it optional then? Why leave it to chance whether your written system matters at all? This whole ‘roll when you wanna’ is hopefully, and at best, simply a stage where we figure out actual rules for triggering rolls. Instead of making it up every bloody time.

Okay, I’ll water that down. Having some rolls where you decide if you want to or not, just some of them, and the others have rules that tell you roll, that’s cool. A mix! I’m sure the forced rolls will influence the optional ones. But only having optional rolls?

I mean if I said here’s a ball game, but you don’t have to touch any of the balls. Even if you touch none of them, your totally playing the game! Would that make sense!

“But we would roll at some point”

Again it goes back to you deciding when, about what, and what happens. This is you providing the vast bulk of content! What are the rules actually providing? At best they are making you think of two different paths (win and lose) rather than just one. That’s it. Your the one making up the path though!

And in terms of two different paths – it’s only going to happen when you basically decide there should be a split point. What, your going to forget what the mechanic does? So this isn’t a big surprise moment – your deciding when the split happens. So you are, by default, only going to have a split happen where you want a split to happen. Your play isn’t going to be really jerked in a new direction – your only introducing a split when your happy to do so. Whatever direction you go in – you decided on it anyway and the dice are just a faux ‘oh it’s totally wild’ illusion to perpetrate on yourself. Again it’s like fail=beef burger, pass=chicken burger – it’s not wild. You like beef burgers. You like chicken burgers. Your not going anywhere different than you want to, but now you’ve got a die roll to pretend you are. You are not going to choose anything you don’t like – whatever you choose, you chose it cause you like it. The story is ending how you want it to end, just you have two ways you want it to end and your prepared for it to be random which? This is as stale as just deciding the ending.

“We all just decide”. If we wanted that, we’d just do that. What have we got here – we all just decide twice. Then we flip a coin.

“Oh, but if we roll enough we wont be able to predict the ending”

Okay, cool, how many times is that? We’ll write it down as a rule that you have to roll that many times a session, before the session is done.

“Umm, errr, I don’t want to be fixed in this or forced…”

Yeah, I know. That’s my point. A truely unpredictable ending would be fixed upon you and forced upon you. It’s supposed to be unpleasant in that ‘I have no control’ way. That’s how surprises are. Real surprises.

You’ve got too much control to genuinely have an upredictable ending. And I’m obviously not just a negative nelly – tell me how many rolls it takes for a genuinely unpredictable ending. We’ll make it a hard and enforced rule. I’m up for a constructive way out of this. Perhaps roleplay design could move on from this.

I just don’t think this sort of mechanic really contributes, even if it feels really different for a antagonist to die a bit latter. I’ll grant that is different from just deciding it yourself. I just don’t think it’s that different or different enough to be considered a contribution by the ruleset. Or to put it in a possitive frame, if that feels really different, imagine what it’d be like if you had rules you just had to use?

Yah, maybe I should have framed this from the ‘hey, if you like this, perhaps…’ possitive angle…ah well.

Simulationism – gaming with the front of the brain turned off?

I was watching something on the brain by Susan Greenfield (she’s a baroness, lol!).

It was on a different subject, but she was describing how a three year old child, if asked what ‘Out, out, brief candle’ means, they’d say it means if you blow on a candle hard enough, it goes out.

There is no dimension of symbology and metaphor for them.

And then I happened to be thinking about simulationism and how people get uptight about ‘it’s not realistic!’ or such. I happened to be thinking that, because I had a dream where the landlord had put our house up for rent. Except the house in my dream wasn’t quite the same as the house I’m actually in. Yet that wasn’t the point, was it?

Except perhaps for gamers heavily inclined towards sim, as much as the three year old has no further dimension to the saying, a simulationist just imagines without any further dimension. Just literalist imagining. No metaphor, no symbology. Indeed Susan Greenfield says the frontal cortex is to do with metaphor and such – so simulationism? Gaming with the front part of your brain turned off?

Interestingly she also says the frontal cortex only starts to really switch on and light up at around age twenty.

Out, out, brief candle!

Game Blame

Regarding here.

And here

Messed up: The GM making the player roll and then making up whatever result suits him.
Messed up: Rolling constantly for stuff that doesn’t matter.
Messed up: The GM feeding you information a bit at a time, on his own schedule, to control “the story.”

Now, what else does someone need to say, to indicate they are blaming the GM for the choices he made?

What’s an example of someone actually blaming him? Perhaps “What he chose to do is messed up!”. Surely it could be sympathised that the above reads as blame to someone?

And in the end it bugs me – someone can always say ‘Oh, you read my intent totally wrong’ and how can you prove them wrong on their own intent? But by the same token how could you absolutely know? There’s some level of assumption that aught to get a bit of forgiveness, otherwise the conversation crawls to a snails pace “So when you say you roleplayed, do you mean you played chess…I just can’t assume anything…”

Not to mention the real issue I was trying to raise is that all of this focuses attention on the GM, rather than on the rule system he was working under. Blame, if any, isn’t the issue. The issue is the real problem isn’t being addressed, and that’s true regardless of whether there was blame or not. All of the post is focused on introducing ideas like ‘Say yes or roll’ to the GM or defining stakes really clearly with the GM.

In the end, what does someone have to say before you can safely consider them to be blaming someone?

I dunno, I guess there was some sublime work around for this that I could have instead used, but I think there just doesn’t seem to be an end to learning these work arounds. Keep learning enough of them and you go insane, don’t keep learning them and your a bad apple.

The forge – probably a sign of it’s wrapping up

You know, if I wanted to say that at a gaming session someone rolled percentile and checked whether it got under the weapon skill to hit or not (and if it did, they go to damage), would I then have to go and describe a gaming session in particular detail where that happened or you just don’t get it?

I’d think not.

But I try and say ‘Hey, I hypothesize some people use a process where they only allow rules to be used if it makes sense for them to be used. Any rule is moot if it does not ‘make sense’, do I need to detail utterly an actual play account? Can I even, more than I already have?

That’s where I got up to in the latest forge thread. And I got a line delivered to me I thought I’d only hear in two and a half men (if I watched it) “Quit whining, we respect you!”. Goes along with such, hopefully only comedy classics as “Of course your smart, you dumbass”.

I haven’t been back to the thread for days. I was already moving on in spite of the rudeness and really now – well, they seem to think they deserve a responce even with how they act. Rather than appreciating the work put in it’s just their due.

Worst thing is quite a few people actually seemed to get the general direction I was shooting for, giving examples or saying they were a practioner themselves. So I only had a couple of bad eggs. Of course when one is a moderator that’s a problem.

The requirement is to discuss AP. The sticky post says this can be done vaguely (as I last read it). As much as the percentile roll above basically is actual play and you can’t describe it much more, in terms of the mechanism I’m focusing on that’s about it. It’s just a simple process – it doesn’t require more complex AP account and really, can’t in a way without starting to talk about things that just aren’t related to it. Ie, I don’t want to focus on interplayer relationships and some bigger shebang – I’d do a post on it if I wanted to.

I said in the post you don’t know what someones motive is – but I’d suspect here that this level of ‘moderation’ – I think I kicked a sacred cow. I did with one other poster who just wanted to declare its how all roleplay is done and thus there’s nothing to be talked about, no examination to be made.

One time someone added a bonus to hit to a d20 roll. One time someone used a process where the decided they wouldn’t use a rule, because it doesn’t make sense.

“Holy crap, freaking do the respect of describing actual play!”

I have no clue what triggers this or how it makes sense to be saying/writing it. I’ve met the loose conditions set out in the sticky post. That or the sticky post is shit at describing the conditions. OR you can just decide the sticky is great and fine and I’m deliberately being a bad person.

Wreckage.

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