Monday, August 29, 2016

When Trade Tables Go Bad

One of the systems that became part of the lessons dialogue, described in the last post, was my own, an implemented version of my trade table.  I feel, therefore, that I'm a bit responsible for problems that arose surrounding that table - specifically, that while the numbers were consistent and related to one another, they weren't affordable.

This is likely because of the generalized production numbers that I included in my wiki descriptions of the trade system - those numbers that described such and such many tons of ore or timber divided by the number of references (those numbers can be found at the bottom of this page).

Those numbers really matter, since although they are pulled from the air, they affect the price of everything.  I built my trade system from actual production numbers from the world, gathered from the United Nations Industrial Commodities Statistics Yearbook and from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.  I took numbers from 1988 and then adjusted those to reflect more of a 17th century industrial production, for the most part dividing the numbers by 500 or, in the case of some very technologically developed products (like metals that weren't isolated until after 1650), by numbers between 1000 and 5000.  Over the years I have tweaked these numbers, to adjust for problems like a lack of affordability, taking a hard line with some things (like metal industries) and a very soft like with others (like chemical industries).

I kept meaning to post the original numbers that I had based all this, but it got forgotten and those numbers never were added to the wiki.  It's taken me an hour just to find the original files . . . on a secondary drive of a computer I keep for its memory capacity (because it is still running on windows 5, believe it or not), under about seven different folders, the last two of which were marked "unsorted files" and "old trade tables."

I've cleaned the files up to get good screen shots of the details, but these two files are so old they predate microsoft windows, being initially created on a Mac Plus that looked exactly like this:

Seriously - I remember staring at the little logo next to the disk drive
as this little thing would sit and think and think and think

I can only hope that these numbers will be helpful.  I do encourage people, with their games, to adjust those production numbers, before dividing them into references.  I'll post these on the wiki too, after I finish with this post. (where they will be much, much easier to read for most readers).

Oh, sorry.  For some reason, the animals are on the ICYB table when I know they came from the FAO.  Ah well, so it goes:

FAO Numbers

ICYB numbers

It will be noted that I don't use the numbers for a lot of these because I found a different way to do industrialized goods on the system.  I spent a lot of time trying to make the industrialized numbers above work, wasting my time really, before foregoing them and basing prices completely on the availability of only raw materials.

In all honesty, these numbers can be anything you want them to be.  It is important to remember that reducing the number will make the product more expensive; growing the number will lower the base price (which then can be raised again by increasing the number of references, so the user of this system wants to look for a sweet spot).

First Night of the Campaign

The first day of any new campaign is always tough; sometimes its a lot of mumbling around and disjointed details that have to be delivered to the players and sometimes just the process of getting the characters rolled and set up with equipment takes all night.  The more complex the system is, the more likely it is that the latter will be the case . . . and it is easy to focus on that, particularly after the session, because everyone wants to run and make things happen right from the start.  If we're not killing goblins in half an hour, we're doing something wrong.  That's what a lot of DMs are taught to think.

Truth is, DMs are not the only ones who need time to get their feet wet.  The argument about the goblins works if all the players are genre-savvy and have played plenty of games before.  It is particularly true if we're speaking about players who don't care about character, who see every generation as fundamentally the same character, "John the Axe XXVII" and such.  Everyone else has a legitimate stake in the character creation and the buying of materials - and on the whole, it doesn't matter if that takes all night because the players are having a good time.  It's easy for a DM to lose focus about that, largely because there's a lot of pressure to perform at the beginning of a campaign, there are a lot of rules/ideas that feel like they're being put on trial and virtually nothing about the process is new, since the DM has been working on the process for a long time, likely months, sometimes more than a year.

Compare the perspective of the film-maker at the opening of a film versus the audience.  The audience wants to be pleased with the film, they want to have a good time.  The film-maker wants that too - but the stakes for the film-maker are so much higher than they are for the audience.  The film-maker desperately needs the film to go well, the film-maker's whole career and reputation rests on the audience's reaction . . . and because of that, every tiny, minute detail is desperately felt and, afterwards, in failure or not, is put under a microscope and painfully, exhaustively examined.  A moment that may make an audience member shrug is a lightning strike to the film-maker . . . and it is this lack of perspective that drives people in the performing arts to crash and burn.

One casual remark from a player, said casually and then forgotten, can ricochet in a DM's head for days or even weeks; it can cause a DM to abandon a world or a feature of that world, convinced that the player's comment is solid, irrefutable evidence that the world or the feature is BAD.  It takes so little because the stakes are comparably so high.

But it serves us to remember that players almost never like anything new the first time, even the second or third times.  New things, new systems, new games take time to settle into a person's consciousness.  The brain works by first acknowledging a piece of data, then beginning to build pathways that enable the consciousness to access that data when  it is needed.  With time, the pathway gets shorter or wide or better travelled (whatever metaphor satisfies your need to translate what the brain does into familiar visual cues), until we become so adapted to something that we cannot live without it.

It takes longer than one session for something as unfamiliar as a character generation system, a trade system, a DM's personal style or any other part of a new campaign to achieve this kind of familiarity and, inevitably for those who keep coming back, the desired love for its presence.  For the noobies, who have seen nothing, everything is goofy and weird and takes time.  For the savvy, everything that isn't what they've been used to is goofy and weird and takes time.  And when people are asked for their initial opinions about something that is goofy or weird, their impressions are unreliable.

This is why some films are better the second time than the first.  This is why sometimes we become addicted to films that we initially hated.  The first time through, they were too challenging, or we spent too much time focused on the wrong things, or knowing how it ended meant we could be better relaxed about the positive, well-fabricated scenes that we first saw with trepidation and distrust.  It is why some "bad" films become "cult" films - not because they speak to a particular type of person but because the film actually has great parts that could only be understood by people prepared to see the film two or three times.  Things grow on us.  We can't ever be sure that something is "bad" until we've given enough time to prove that it isn't going to grow.

Most times, when we plant in May, the first shoots don't appear until June.  Even then, we have to weed the plants, yes?  So have faith, give it some weeks, three or four instances of the system being tried and experienced, with knee-pads ready for picking weeds and pruning shears for long after that.  A first session isn't an opening night, it's planting season.

Still Running Classes

For those who are interested, yes, I am still running classes online as the opportunity arises.  I've accumulated four students now and I can say without reservation that the classes thus far have been a roaring success.

These classes have distinctly featured original content for each of the participants thus far.  That is because people and campaigns are wildly different in both their purposes and their weaknesses.  While one person may need to communicate their difficulties surrounding the management of data and information during a session, another is more concerned with how to communicate more effectively with the players.  While this person may want to focus on presenting a game that is more fluid and less mechanical, another who manages this without any difficulty needs work on setting up the game to better empower the characters.

The classes, as I conceive them, must be tailored - and because I don't know what the players' issues or weak points are at the start of the first session, I have to diagnose those issues in the first twenty minutes and then get started, at once, with offering strategies and insight on what's not working and how it is possible to make it work.  To do this, I have to think fast on my feet - which is precisely the concern I had before launching the class.  Would I be able to provide the tutoring necessary without hesitating.

Yes.  Yes I can.  That's no longer a concern.  In fact, I am now thinking about adding 'tutor" to my resume.

I strongly encourage people who feel that they are wallowing in their game design or their DM thinking process to buy in, or at the very least write to me at to work out some kind of arrangement where we calculate for half an hour or some preview experience, so that you can try me for fifteen or twenty minutes for free to see if I'm comfortable to talk to and if I can't give a strong sense of just how powerful it can be to talk to someone who is interested in making you into a stronger DM and not either puffing you up or missing your point completely.

I am going to be at the Edmonton Expo come the end of September, all paid in advance nine months ago; I want to communicate the strength of the classes there, so if you will be there and you have the time, maybe we can arrange a sit-down for fifteen-twenty minutes (though I am pretty busy at these things, my daughter and I sell steady and we're almost always talking to someone).  It might be enough to settle your concerns about what a class with me might play like.

I'm going to write some posts addressing content/issues that came out of yesterday's class, which ran about 88 minutes (because hey, I have time to let these things run long).  These are general issues that I think a lot of people are feeling about their games.

Sunday, August 28, 2016


One of the realities about writing, where it comes to standing for something, is the simple acceptance that we will fail with most people.  We may feel that we have a reasonable, even an obvious position, but for whatever reason - tradition, reluctance, discomfort, bloodymindedness - by far the vast portion of any set of readers will deny that proposition out of hand.

As of late I've written a bunch of posts about game theory, quoting experts on the subject and linking the hell out of my arguments. But people aren't going to embrace that RPGs are about decision-making!  RPGs are about storytelling and fun, and about people being able to live their fantasies.  And of course they're games!  No matter how we play them!

Last post I pitched the argument that rule-making and world-building isn't the DM's task alone, but of course we know it is, right?  We know it is.  Any argument to the contrary is . . . well, it's just crazy. Pure nonsense.  Because things are as they are and one guy writing a bunch of words strung together does not make an argument.  Sorry.


I am Quixotic, however, about these things.  I've written six or seven posts now about getting rid of the DM's screen.  I've gone on several tears, the last one longest and most successful, I think, about player-vs-player, because I was able to change one notable blogger's mind.  That's how we record success in the writing business: by the number of minds that get changed.  Football [soccer] scores mostly produce higher numbers than writing.

I've argued that DMs should not be telling "stories," that games are meant to be run to give the players agency and not purpose.  I've written that mega-dungeons are deathly dull and should not be included in campaigns.  I've long argued that campaigns should be run for years, not hours, and that running different systems from session to session because the players want to try something "new" is evidence that all the games the DM is running are obviously crap.

I preach work, I preach education and reading, I preach sitting and working every day at a campaign, I preach brainstorming and going back to talk to your players time and again to find out what sort of campaign/rule set they want.  DMs should treat all their players with equal consideration, DMs should be honest and the campaigns they run should demonstrate consistent, predictable characteristics that the players identify when they sit down to play.

None of this has been a waste of time and I'll go on fighting these windmills . . . but I'm not pretending anything.  It is hard to change.  Very, very hard.  It is easier to rationalize not changing.

It does get strange, however.  When I float arguments grounded in facts, evidence and studies that demonstrate that successful games are those that enable decision-making and payoffs that count, it is somewhat baffling to receive resistance.  Like those people who argue that fudging - deliberately misleading their friends secretly, autocratically, with a lie that is supposedly for someone else's benefit - is good.

Change is bravery.  People are not brave.

I understand that.  Yet I feel that I have to make use of the tools I have to fight those incongruities and encourage courage.  If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the morning, I'd hammer in the evening.  I do have a keyboard.

Saturday, August 27, 2016


I've been thinking about the large scale changes that I brought about in my world that were inspired and developed from an exchange of ideas with my players.

In 1981, my players expressed a desire to play in a world that was more "traditional" and "less empty" than the one I had been running.  I had been trying to base my world on a sort of minimal sword battle technology with elements of heavy social responsibility and it just wasn't working as far as my players were concerned.  As such, I backed off and designed a world that was based on a series of lands encircling an inner sea, with predictable gradations in climate, social organization and more common themes of dungeons, greed, vengeance, dungeons . . . dungeons . . . yeah, that's about it.

In 1984, my players were losing interest in the combat system, particularly in the repetitive nature of the initiative roll, which as written was an annoying element that seemed to detract from the experience rather than adding to it.  We had dozens of discussions about it.  Seems like every time we ran we were talking or complaining about the combat system.  And then the particularly brilliant Mike that I played with proposed a solution from some article he read, maybe it was the Dragon, where the defender's ability to attack was based on how successful had been the last attack against that defender.  From this came the stunning rules, that we tweaked for a few months before settling on the best way for them to work.  I have played my combats like this ever since.

In 1985, again the players were expressing a dissatisfaction with my world, not because they had an idea that it should conform to a traditional ideal but because the traditional ideal had grown to be boring.  It just wasn't enough.  Again there were round-table discussions on it, where people proposed all kinds of ways that elements of the real world could be injected into the fantasy construction to make it more "real."  And then one day I was looking at a high detail map at the university (I hadn't started university yet but I was a regular visitor to their library) in something like 1:20 000 scale, and I realized that where it came to detail nothing could really beat the real world.  That led to my running the real world as my campaign and throwing out any further notions of running a setting that was made entirely from scratch.

In 1986, my players were talking about the difficulties of buying and selling things for the purpose of making money from trade, like they were able to do in the Traveller campaign that I would run from time to time.  Traveller had some simple but practical rules for trading, though they were easy to break if they weren't carefully managed (leading to players easily making millions of credits), and the players wanted to have something like that for D&D.  This led to me realizing that the encyclopedia my parents had owned had references to things that individual places in the world created; I found a set of those encyclopedias cheap from a used bookstore in late '86 and started working on my trade system.

In 1989, the appearance of skill systems everywhere encouraged my players to ask me to do some kind of reboot on character secondary skills.  That led to one bad table after another for years and years; I never did solve it for that campaign, that ended in '94, but eventually I did keep working at the problem until additional skills and an expressed desire for backgrounds in general resulted in my character background generator.

In 2004, after a long sabbatical from running players (while I worked on my world in abstentia), my players were quibbling about my world maps being difficult to relate to.  Like most maps, the ones I used were big sweeps of empty space, divided only by geographic borders, rivers and topographical features.  The dissatisfaction these maps produced (one couldn't call them aesthetic) led to my developing hex maps that were based on elevation, not topography.  By plotting the elevation, I reasoned, the topography would be revealed one hex at a time and I'd have a grittier world.  I came across and began to copy the data from that site, one page at a time, for the whole world, in order to have the ability to plot my present day maps.

In 2007, the players were expressing their dissatisfaction with the amount of practical explanation associated with the various spells in the spellcaster's canon.  This led to my beginning to rewrite all the spells (not my first time, but now with a lot more experience) as duotang books that my players could use, take home and study at their leisure.

In 2009, my daughter in particular expressed her desire for me to start writing down as much of my world design as I could, so that it would be available to her in the event of my death.  I had started this blog by then, but given that the blog seemed to be a poor way to organize the information, I began thinking that what was needed was some kind of wiki.  I had edited wikipedia more than a few times (of course!) and I had been working with large databases with the magazine I worked for in the 00s.  A friend in Seattle proposed creating a wiki for me and for a while I loaded information onto the "Same Universe Wiki" - until technical issues and other difficulties ended that.  It would be two years between the death of the old wiki and the creation of the new, "Tao at Wikispaces," which is now going strong with over 1,000 pages and 4 contributors besides myself.  This wiki has now become central to regular discourse between the players and I, with it being modified and adjusted in game, when a ruling is made on some circumstance.

After all this . . .

Those are the major alterations that I've made with the player's encouragements.  I don't include little adjustments here and there that have come up from time to time.  Note how every one of them began with the players expressing their satisfaction, following by my willingness to change, usually followed by a moment of clarity in which I figure out how to change.  At each stage, I tell the players about the changes I'm suggesting and ask them for their input.  Do you think this will work?  Does this sound like a good idea?  Is there some aspect I'm missing?  Do you want to include this or is that going too far?  And so on.

This is what I meant in the previous post about the DM not acting alone (I hoped for a discussion on that; all I got was crickets).  I mean listening and then corresponding with the players on ways to solve their problems, keep them interested, bring new ideas to the table and keep adjusting and changing the campaign given the resources and tools that arise from an increase in technology.

In every way, D&D is like the phone industry: we want to keep adding features, even if the phone works fine and the features are already interesting.  There can always be more.  More and more and more.

Friday, August 26, 2016

You're Not Alone

The takeaway from yesterday's post seems to be, We're not making a world by ourselves.  I understand how that notion got started and how it has endured.  We've been told this from the beginning: the DM makes the world for the players and the players participate in the world.  The DM gives and the players are grateful.

If we give it a moment's thought, we can easily see how idiotic this is.  Seriously.  Give it a moment and think about it.


I must be the only one, then.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Creating the Game

Continuing from the last post on problem-solving vs. decision-making, how do we move from the first to the second?  This requires a change in thinking.  We need to move away from scenarios that ask for an explanation towards those that ask for some form of accumulation.  There might be a final, game-winning requirement that serves as the goal of the game (or adventure), such as ultimately checkmating the king in chess; but until that happens, it matters how many squares we control and how many of the enemy's pieces we acquire.  The goal (achieving checkmate) is related but distinct from the strategy.

Let's consider RISK, since that's a game virtually of my readers will know.  The goal is to conquer the world; the strategy, however, is to consolidate ones' position in order to accumulate enough armies and production as to be unbeatable.  In games with more than two players, it is also to correspond with other participants in order to ensure trust and exploit opportunities, as three or more persons wait for a moment in the game when one of the players over-reaches their position or suffers heavy losses due to bad luck.  Although the goal is static, the strategy adjusts from turn to turn according to circumstances - and it is this change that makes the game interesting.

The take away is this: the goal is the least interesting part of the game.  To consider a role-playing example, the discovery that the water in the well has turned to blood is usually seen as the impetus for discovering why . . . but the why is static.  The more interesting "game" is the acquisition of water in a town where there is no well, the factionalism that results as different groups in the town fight to retain the water they possess against the frantically thirsty and the fierce looting that results as refugees from the town seek to leave and take as much as they can.  None of this 'adventuring' requires that any explanation for the blood is found - it is just interesting to be forced into a position where water is scarce among five or six thousand people, as if they had been magically teleported to a desert.

And because the answer to the problem of the blood in the well is academic, why not simply tell the players why?  The blood is discovered and instead of it being a mystery, all the townspeople know why: it is because of this horrible thing that will now descend upon the town, about which the players can be told in detail, compelling them to choose their actions according to their personal belief that they can plan for and withstand the coming event.

Let's try a different example, this time from film. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade deals with the problem of finding the Holy Grail, solving a series of mysteries that eventually leads the hero's party to the uncovering of the object, whereupon the film ends.  We can think of this as a thoroughly typical table-top adventure.  The McGuffin is learned about, searched for and eventually found, whereupon it is kept, given away or returned to its resting place, depending on the nature of the item (the order of what happens to all three items found in the Indiana Jones series, incidentally).

Suppose we start with the Holy Grail being found in the first five minutes of the film.  It is plainly, unequivocally possessed by the characters, who are not at home with the Grail on their kitchen table.  From this premise, we can assume two philosophies to which a filmmaker might turn in order to create the story:

  • One, the film can transform the Grail into a problem: a) the Grail can be lost, necessitating that the item must be recovered, as if it had never been in the player's possession; or b) the item can possess a series of severe, adverse effects, creating a reason why it must be destroyed/returned to its origin.
  • Two, the film can explore the ramifications of having eternal life and perfect health - how it might be shared, what influence it might have upon the possessor, what does it mean to live when so many others die, what social structures form as the protagonist moves from hospital to hospital, letting as many people as possible drink from the cup and so on.

Which film would we rather see?  Which provides the opportunity to explore decisions made by the characters?  Which has scope?  Which is much, much harder to write?

More to the point, which film proposes that the catalyst for events originates within the characters and which originates from outside the characters?  Which, to be blunt, is DM-oriented and which is Player-oriented?

If I am running a game and the players are solving a problem of my devising, this is a manner of forcing the game to be played on my turf.  I know the lay of the land, I know all the available options, I know every answer to what the players might try, I am running my game with narrowly confined perameters that makes the game easy to run.

If I am running a game where the players might do anything, anything at all, I'm in trouble.  I don't know what the players are going to do!  I don't know the ground, I don't know what the options might be, I am floundering for answers to what the players want to try.  I'm running my game in blue skies and when I look down, I see the ground rushing up at me in a most discouraging way.  Running a game this way is impossible.

Or so it is perceived.  I run my game this way - but to do it, I make considerable use of the players as resources as well as participants.  When I am stumped, I ask the players to make suggestions on how the choices might play out in a given situation.  I admit openly, "Wow, I don't know what effects that would cause - I'm thinking that while people might start coming from far and wide to drink of the cup, there would also be a segment of the population who would see this as a challenge to their authority.  Yes?"  Whereupon the party and I would talk, until I felt that we all had a clear idea of the probable results . . . and then I might ask the party for a few minutes or even more to think about what they've just set in motion.  The players that I have are invariably understanding; they trust me to come up with something that will change the situation and encourage further player strategies without shutting them down by making the situation into a problem.

I couldn't run this way without them, without their patience and without having the freedom to say, "Damn, I'm going to have to think about this.  Would the players prefer a side quest or could we end the session here for tonight?  Maybe this might be a good time for everyone to check out the local market or we could do an accounting session."  This latter is where the players and I deal with investments they've made, long-term plans, debating or discussing the rules, addressing small issues having to do with character details that may have been lost or forgotten and 101 other things that have been bothering the players but haven't been directly addressed because they're incidental and not pertinent to the immediate campaign.

These being the sort of things that arise when the players understand that what's going to happen in the far-flung future is up to them.

We can see why, then, that most DMs prefer the problem-solving framework and why they will argue vigorously that their players prefer it.  Part of that is the paradox of choice I talked about in the previous post - that saying to a party, "Do what you want," is like being told by our roommate to buy mustard and finding ourselves looking at 300 brands of indistinguishable yellow-paste.  Everyone has faced this and been forced to admit, "I didn't know which one you wanted, so I didn't buy any."

When a DM sees a party thus stymied, it is easy to presume that the party wants the problem-solving, railroading campaign.  I argue, however, that IF I take you to the supermarket and we talk about mustard for the length of a session, say five hours, allowing you to taste the brands as we discuss them, you'll feel quite capable of making a decision - and even say to your roommate, "I bought this one called 'Seed of the Gods.'  You must try it."

It isn't enough to throw the choice at the party.  The choice should then be discussed.  As a DM, here's what I can do.  If you want to go to sea, there are options to trade or explore, purchase a small ship and then upgrade it, fight off or deliberately pursue pirates, become a pirate yourself, help build up a port or establish a long-distance communication with a far colony, studying the party's faces for the option that seems to create interest.  If it is the last mentioned, I can name a bunch of distant places, the Sandwich or Spice Islands, Argentina, the shores of Hudson Bay or the slave coasts of Africa, to see what might arise interest, then describe how the party would be the sole lifeline between those places and the civilized world, the influence that would bring, the wealth, the fame and the knowledge that failure for them could mean the death of hundreds of people.  And if that isn't to their liking, I'll suggest something else, then something else again, giving a taste of each adventure, until the party feels confident to make a choice.

When players understand the choices they have, they want to make choices.  Players only prefer a lack of choice when the knowledge they need is distinctly lacking.

I hope this helps explain why decision-making is vastly more important in making the players immersed in the game than they can ever be with problem-solving.  When the game strategy is the player's decision, it is the player's consequence, the player's good fortune, the player's achievement. 

When the only strategy is answering the DM's question, solving the DM's problem, the player can have little to say afterwards except, "That was a very good question."

We can do better than that.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

What Game?

Whew.  I feel like today started yesterday morning.  Things are not sorted out, my partner Tamara unfortunately needs a root canal.  Thankfully, we have more time to arrange for that, whereas the events of today came out of nowhere, like a traffic accident.  Sigh.

Coincidentally, I was going to write a post about decision-making and problem-solving as it applied to game design - but after a conversation I had this morning, I realized that I was going to have to write a post about just problem solving first.  Now I am thinking I really need to just start with the word "problem."  On the whole, the ease with which those around me have fallen into misunderstandings on the question shows just what a problem it is to talk about problems.  Not to mention having them and then getting bailed out.  Once again, thank you to everyone who helped.

Very well, what is a "problem"?

Since a dictionary will tend to defined a problem as something requiring a solution and a solution as an answer to a problem (look it up for yourself), we have to go back to the etymology of the word.  This gives us the 14th century meaning, "a difficult question proposed for solution."  So a problem is a question; a solution, an answer.  Pedantic, I know, but we're going to get nowhere if we don't start from the basics.

That's because I'm trying to establish a difference between a question that has an answer and a question for which no definite answer exists.

I'll reduce it to this: a problem-solving question could go, "what is 2+2?"  There could be any number of answers to the question, depending on the number system used or how creative we want to get with algebra, but fundamentally we're working in a framework where the solution can be proved.  An unprovable solution counts as an error.

Contrariwise, if we ask a question for which no proof is possible, such as, "would you like four apples or five?", we can theoretically receive an answer of any number of requested apples.  We're not limited by the question in our response, nor is any response distinctive to the question.  We can't be in error because every answer we could make, even, "I don't like apples," is equally valid.

Making a decision is not solving a problem.

All day long, people have been arguing with me that it is.  This has everything to do with the inability of people to make a choice, in keeping with the vastness of choice that has been perpetrated by the manufacturing and marketing culture in which we find ourselves.  Faced with a level of choice that surpasses our comfort level, "choice" itself has become the "problem" - and proof or not, validity or not, people caught in this emotional trap are unable to look at the choice/problem paradox in any other manner.

Some days ago in writing about games I made the point, based on game theory, that the fundamentals of a game feature "decision-making."  To express this, let's start with some simple board games, which I trust most of my readers will understand.  In Monopoly, though the board is static, we're faced with a choice of whether or not to buy a property, whether or not to buy houses, whether or not to mortgage this property or that one.  In RISK, we're faced with choices about where to allocate armies or which territories to invade. In the Game of Life, we're faced with the choice of going through University or taking the short cut.  In Settlers of Catan, we're faced with a choice as to how to allocate our resources.  And so on.  All of these choices are seen as positive elements of game play, exchanging risk for reward to accumulate excitement, interest or immersion.

We can argue that the "problem" is how to win the game, but in fact there's no set solution for how to win any particular game, because we're thwarted by the dice or the strategies of others in ways we can't predict, so the "problem" is really a series of questions for which there is not distinct solution.

Compare the decision-making process of how to count off the movement of your piece in Trivial Pursuit, to give some control in what sort of question you're going to answer, with the problem-solving situation in which you must answer the question.  Here, there is no choice.  There is one answer, that which is written on the card.  Even if the card is wrong, the rules state that you're wrong if you don't reply what the card says is the answer.  There is no choice!  Either you have the solution or you don't.

Failing at that answer is very different from failing to take the Ukraine from the Middle East in RISK. You can blame the dice in Risk.  You can blame yourself for having tried to go too far with too little.  You can measure your success and failure in gradations of gray.  You could have stopped at any point.  You can make a mistake but you haven't failed to solve something.  But if you don't know what book ended, "It was a curious dream, dear, certainly - but now run in to your tea; it's getting late," then you don't.

Assuming any of my readers are getting my point here, why does it matter?

I have become aware of late - not because it is a trend, but because I have reached a state of observing it - that virtually all the examples of "role-playing" that exist in the table-top gaming world fall into the category of the Trivial Pursuit problem rather than the RISK problem.  You are faced with a hallway in which there is a trap - you must identify the trap or it will kill you.  You are faced with a guard who will not let you pass.  You must convince the guard to let you pass or you will fail in your quest.  It is discovered that that the water in the village well has turned to blood.  The close friend that your character has known for years has disappeared.  There is a secret lair in the wilderness that no one has ever been able to find.

Have a look at this page.

These are all problems.  They are mysteries or difficulties or moral crises but not a single one of them proposes a decision except, "Do we or don't we?"

The game, as it is conceived of right now, as it is designed by most DMs, fails the players because it fails to be a game.  Fundamentally, at this level, it is on the order of a really complicated jigsaw puzzle or crossword.  Granted, these things are played by millions of people and many of those people do call Sudoku or word-searches "games."  Inaccurately, by definition. They're not games, they're puzzles.

It isn't just that we're talking about railroading.  The fabric of the experience within the railroad still lacks a choice.  The only reason the fast path or the slow path matters in the Game of Life is because there are other players.  If every path in a game solves the same problem, for all the players equally, the decision of which path to take has no meaning.  It isn't a game.

Perhaps the reason why so many D&D campaigns embrace player-vs-player comes from that being the only game-like quality in their campaigns.

If we participate in our table-top campaign in this way, we're not "gamers," we're "puzzlers."  To be gamers, we have to offer a choice.  A meaningful choice.  One in which there is no wrong answer, just a different answer.  An answer that creates a different sequence of events, without that sequence of events feeling the restraint of failing to have solved a problem.  It isn't wrong to attack the Ukraine with too few armies; it's a choice; and as long as the party accepts the consequence for their choices, it matters not if the choice was an answer to a question.  The choice, in itself, justifies itself, without needed to be answerable to anything.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Hat in Hand

I apologize for this, all.  We've been struggling to get our house together and as such I have been able to refrain from turning to this as an option for a couple of months . . . but my partner Tamara has to see a dentist.  There's no two ways about it.  If some of you could help with a $5 donation, we'd really appreciate it.  It's clear that it isn't going to wait, she's in continuous pain right now and she's going to have to go see the dentist tomorrow.  We need to raise around $150.

Small donations, please.  I don't want to hurt anyone's pocketbook.  If some of you could share it out just a little bit, we could get through this hiccup.

Okay, stop.

Thank you, we have the money.  I've just gotten notice that I've sold a round of my classes, so it is almost for certain that the dentist is covered - assuming it is not a root canal, and all signs point to that not being the case.  This thing came up so fast and out of nowhere; we were just congratulating ourselves on managing everything and crash.  Tamara never got to sleep last night.  She's just left for the dentist with a friend and she's feeling better.  Thank you all so much!

The Prisoner's Dilemma & Your Campaign

Many of my readers will be familiar with the Prisoner's Dilemma, but let's cover it quickly just to be sure we're on the same page.  This post isn't about the dilemma itself but upon its application - which, I'll just say, is a virtually ignored subject in most game theory books, which are mostly concerned with its mathematical proof - and believe me, there's a lot of math.

Two jewel thieves work together to steal a large gem from a jewelry store and hide it together in a corn field.  Both jewel thieves are caught by the police, who have evidence enough to hold the pair on a lesser charge.  The pair are interrogated separately.  The same deal is offered to each: confess to the crime and be set free, while the partner is given a hard sentence; don't confess and go to jail on the minimum charge.

There are a number of things at play here: the amount of time spent in jail is one: the fact that confessing and going free will mean that the object hidden in the cornfield will be found is another.  There is, therefore, an incentive to tell the truth and be set free and an incentive to do the time and get the jewel.  If both crooks keep quiet, they'll both go to jail on the minimum charge and they'll split the money.  If either crook rats the other, that crook will go free and the jewel will be lost.  If both crooks rat, both crooks will be in jail a long time and the jewel will be lost.

The key to the dilemma is not what the crooks do, however, but how the element of time affects the equation.  Let's suppose that both crooks keep quiet and begin their sentence.  Even if this is their decision, it is an unstable situation.  At any time, either crook can decide the sentence is too unpleasant and choose to rat out the other.  The longer the time on the minimum charge, the less stable the situation is and the more likely it becomes that it will fold, leaving us with one crook having given up the jewel.

Once the confession is made, however, the situation becomes more unstable.  Now the betrayed criminal has no incentive to keep quiet and plenty of incentive for revenge.  While the proposition of the dilemma may be seen as a closed puzzle, in actual life we know that the second crook will try to seek ways to take revenge, revealing anything possible to ensure that the first criminal is arrested for some other, previously unknown crime - or potentially using influence to harm or kill the freed criminal.

Therefore, the only stable situation is one where both criminals are severely punished.  The reason this matters has everything to do with nuclear war.  The prisoner's dilemma was first proposed by two employees of the RAND corporation in 1950, a think tank whose commitment at the time was to intellectually address the Cold War.  If we think about the situation described above in terms of two nuclear powers, the best possible situation is for both to refrain from total war.  However, since both powers have interests throughout the globe, the desire to drop the bomb to solve the problem is always there, meaning that the situation is unstable.

One power might try to avoid the use of atomic weapons through the use of capital or conventional weapons - whereupon the other side, like the second prisoner, will join in and perhaps go a little farther.  If one side or the other begins to lose, the desire is to escalate the conflict - and thus the unstable situation becomes increasingly unstable until, boom, total nuclear war makes the system completely stable.

It is this escalation that makes the prisoner's dilemma interesting, as one prisoner tries to confess some of the crime while holding back information on where the jewel is actually located; or tries to ascertain what the other prisoner has already confessed, in order to improve their individual advantage.

This is the game we all play, all the time, because in every relationship we have we are always seeking advantage over those people we perceive are seeking advantage over us - with an understanding that at any time, we can drop the bomb by revealing some secret that will ruin the other person's life at the risk of getting ourselves fired or otherwise escalating the situation until total mayhem results.  Intellectually, we understand that we're in the best situation possible when we all agree wholeheartedly, but that's not how we function instinctively.  Instinctively, where there is instability, we strive for stability and that ultimately ends in disaster.

In application to our role-playing campaigns, both the DM and the Players have a nuclear potential: either can quit outright and the game is wrecked.  At the same time, it is difficult for the DM or the Players to fully trust the other, because the game is rigged in the DM's favor, while the social contract is rigged in the Player's favor (there are many players but only one DM).

IF each side respects the other and carefully bows to the needs of the other, the game continues.  But as the DM seeks for an edge on controlling the players or as the players seek for an edge on the DM, or as each tries to restrict the behavior of the other, the small amount of instability grows and . . . boom.

The only practical strategy is to accept the instability and try to keep it at a minimum.  The game will never be 100% stable as long as its ongoing; habitually, without thinking about it, both DM and Players will take actions with increase instability because we're built this way.  The solution is a formula of open, friendly discussion, where no one tries to bull anyone else, where a frank discourse of needs and expectations is wholeheartedly addressed by both parties and where everyone is completely honest, all the time.  Any and all behavior to the contrary is a risk.

If the reader would like a little more insight into the RAND corporation and game theory's influence on modern day culture, see Adam Curtis' The Trap, a documentary that aired on the BBC in 2007.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Fitting RPGs into Game Theory

I want to come back around again to Akio Matsumoto and Ferenc Szidarovsky's Game Theory and Its Applications:

"As every scientific discipline, game theory also has its own language.  The decision makers are called players, even if the decision problem is not a game and the decision makers are not playing at all.  The decision alternatives are called the strategies, and the objective functions of the players are called payoffs or payoff functions.  Game theory can be divided into two major groups.  If there is no negotiation or mediation between the players, and they select social strategies independently from each other, then the game is non-cooperative, otherwise cooperative.  The most simple situation occurs if each player knows the set of feasible strategies and payoff functions of all players, in which case we face a game with complete information.  Otherwise the game is incomplete.  In the case of repeated or dynamic games with perfect information, the players have complete knowledge at each time period about the complete history of the game with all previous strategy selections and payoff values.  Games with imperfect information occur if some of the above mentioned information is not available to the players.  In most cases, the missing information is considered as a random variable and therefore probabilistic methods are involved in the analysis.  If the game is played only ones [sic:once], each player selects a strategy simultaneously with the others and they receive the corresponding payoffs instantly, then the game is static.  However in many cases the game is repeated and the set of feasible strategies and payoff values of each time period might depend on the previous strategy selections of the players, in which case we face repeated or dynamic games.  The overall strategy of each player consists of his decisions at any time period and in any possible situation of the game at that time period."

Sorry about the length of that.  I wanted to be sure I got the whole section because all of it is relevant. Matsumoto and Szidarovsky do not mention role-playing games a single time in their book, so it falls to us to fill in the gap.

Let's start with "payoffs."  It must be clearly understood that what's meant here does not include the touchy-feely sentimentality of a game's positive feedback.  There are plenty who will argue that this is a "payoff," but we're talking about game theory, where the definition of the word within the context of the subject matter is specific.  It's a number.  It may represent profit, quantity, any measure that can be used to determine a hard increase describing the player's progression.  The payoff is the chief motivation of the player.

Therefore, if we are talking about a GAME (and I presume that's what we're talking about, because we keep calling it a game when we role-play), then no matter what nonsense anyone, ever, tries to feed into the system that experience points, levels, wealth, hit points or any other number in the game doesn't matter, spit in their eye.

A game is about numbers.  Anyone who ever tells you different is trying to sell you something.

That is a mighty difficult pill to swallow, particularly since there has been so much propaganda surrounding role-playing games to the contrary that most of the participants have been well and truly snowed.  We're told that the game is about 'story' so often that we're inclined to believe it, even when any clear-eyed examination of that statement reveals that it's so vague and insubstantial that we're forced to recognize that it's a jackalope that can't be found.

Yet, saying the game is about "numbers" seems to suck the joy out of things, nyet?  Well, trust me, I'm not saying the game is about numbers.  It isn't about "story" or "simulation" or "fun" either.  Games - all games - are about decisions.  It is right there at the lead of the quote.  The players are the decision makers who apply strategies to accumulate the numbers or to prevent the loss of the numbers.

I must admit, I find it very hard to define RPGs in the standard terms used to describe games.  For example, "cooperative" games are those that emphasize participation, challenge and fun over winning and losing.  Usually, a judge is placed in existence who can enforce cooperation among the contestants.  This is certainly a description of role-playing.

At the same time, "non-cooperative" games are those in which the players make decisions independently, where any cooperation is self-enforcing.  While the DM may prevent player-versus-player, this is not the same thing as making one player help another in a bad situation. Nor does the DM have unilateral power over a player like an umpire has at a baseball game.  In many ways, a player and a DM can play "chicken" with one another - a classic non-cooperative game.

Consider "complete" information in a game versus "incomplete."  Complete information is that where the knowledge about the other participants and players is available to all, specifically the strengths and objectives.  An example of this would be Battleship, where the information is complete but not perfect.  We know how many ships the other player has, we know what the other player's objectives are.  A more perfect information game would be chess, in which all the pieces are evident and the other player's moves are explicit.  This is certainly not a description of role-playing.

On the other hand, games with imperfect information are those where the players are simply unaware of the actions chosen by other players.  They will know who the other players are, what their strategies are and the preferences of these other players, but beyond that the information is incomplete.  The common example is the prisoner's dilemma, where two players each have two options whose outcome depends crucially on the simultaneous choice made by the other.  However, role-playing is not played in the dark like this: in many ways, like chess, the game is played sequentially, so that the players do have knowledge of what other players are doing and are made aware of the DM's intentions when the DM reveals the actual thing about which the players are to make a decision.  Moreover, unlike the prisoner's dilemma, the DM has nothing to win and nothing to lose.  So this is not a straight-forward description of role-playing, either.

Finally, we have "repeated" games and "simultaneous" games.  Repeated games, like Battleship, Chess or even Chicken, are examples where although the play is repeated, the manner in which we play alters according to the past decisions we've made and what we now think about our opponents.  If we play chess again and again, we won't just play the same single game, each of us making the same moves; we will try different moves, creating different "games," though the dynamic of the game will remain unchanged - we will have the same objective each time we play.  In some ways this describes role-playing, as we will use the same kinds of attacks or the same strategies, both as players and DM; in most ways, however, it does not, as sessions of an RPG cannot be seen as repetitions of the same game.

Repeated games are sequential, in that the players take turns.  This is different from the simultaneous game, where both players choose their actions at the same time, without being sure of the other's.  An example of this would be rock-paper-scissors.

Again, in many ways role-playing fits the sequential formula.  The combat system takes turns, the players wait for the DM to describe the setting and situations and the DM waits for the players to explain their intentions.  At the same time, considerable parts of the game are definitely simultaneous; the DM withholds a ton of information from the players, forcing the players to act in the blind, while the players are able to do the same to the DM, not revealing their full intentions or plans until the critical moment.  In a lot of ways, role-playing can be like rock-paper-scissors.

It is no wonder with all this lack of clarity that there are endless arguments about what role-playing is, how it fits into game theory, what the objectives are and so on.  Because it is so mutable, it can shift from one type of game to another, depending on the player's decisions and the DM's proclivities.  A particular campaign can emphasize the sequential element and present nearly perfect information for the participants, whereas another campaign can do the exact opposite, with both campaigns presenting the same game.

Once again, this helps me to understand why I love this game so much.  It is clearly superior to the lexicon of games that others have created and is clearly only in its formulative stages in terms of our understanding the game.  As I pointed out, the game theory book that I've been quoting does not mention RPGs or role-playing a single time - though it was published this year, in 2016.

Such an opportunity for some would-be doctoral student!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Let's Talk About Games

This is also in answer to Ozymandias' request on the previous post, but without the need to address the source of that request.

In the interest of setting the stage for the discussion, let's quote a real book about games: Akio Matsumoto and Ferenc Szidarovsky's Game Theory and Its Applications, found here:

"In formulating a mathematical model of a decision problem, there are two conflicting tendencies.  In one hand we would like to include as many variables, constraints and possible consequences as possible in order to get close to reality.  However, on the other hand, we would like to solve the models, so they must not be too complicated.  In creating a decision making model, we have to identify the person or persons who are in charge, that is, who is or are responsible to decide.  There are two major possibilities: one or more decision makers are present.  In order to decide in any choice, the set of all possible decision alternatives have to be made clear to the decision makers."

It is in this that we see the core elements that make table-top role-playing more than a superficial reading of giving descriptions and giving answers.

First, the variables, constraints and possible consequences that can be taken into account and the consequences resulting therefrom can transcend the number of variables that can normally be managed in a model . . . because human beings can process incredible amounts of information and make agreements on the spur of the moment to account for variables that a pre-fashioned program could not predict or for which the programming feat necessary would be impractical.

Role-playing is not managed through a lack of rules, but through precedent - the understanding that as decisions are made in game, those decisions are expected to apply for all future circumstances that follow a like occurrence.  Like the way that the law is tailored for a complex society that is constantly changing year by year, role-playing is vastly more flexible than a rule-system can account for.  But understand, precedents are rules.  Judges and judgments in the law are subject to precedent and every DM in every game that has ever made a ruling puts into force something that will be called into question later by the players if the DM fails to obey that same ruling.  Some old school role-players understood this; others did not.  Those that did not ran games that did not last long.  Games that lasted did so on the basis of an ever-growing legacy of rulings that made clear to the decision makers what the boundaries were, as the quote above stipulates.

Secondly, role-playing provides for the presence of not one, not two, but multiple decision-makers, more than or potentially equal to any other game or program that has ever existed.  All players and the DM too are "responsible to decide."  In turn, this places a far higher requirement upon the responsibility of presenting choice than might exist in a game like monopoly.

This is also the reason why tabletop continues to compete for time against video games.  While most of the people in my life are hardcore gamers, they're willing to give that up as soon as I'm willing to run.  Why?  Because unlike video games or board games, role-playing is mutable.  The potential for changing the goals of the game, adjusting the rules as necessary, tailoring the context to the participants and so on can be potentially done in minutes of "programming" - something impossible in any video game, no matter how detailed or expensive the game is.  The game is pre-made.  Role-playing is present-made.

Those who argue that the format for decision-making is clear and defined between players and DM, that my role is this and your role is that, fail in the extreme where the potential of the game exists.  Anyone at the table is a resource for decision-making that deserves acknowledgement.  The players, as much as the DM, should feel free to propose rules for situations that they feel are unclear where it comes to their abilities to make a decision. The players, as well as the DM, exist to ensure that precedents are followed and supported, because in a legitimate game both players and DM have worked together for symbiosis of play.  The players, as well as the DM, are part of the game's constructive process.

Without this symbiosis in place, we have a shit game.  It does not matter what tradition has been, or what old-style players played - this is the future of the game, because this is the only sustainable future the game can have.

Those who fail to learn this lesson will forever lack for players.  Those who do learn this lesson will have a self-sustaining game for the rest of their lives.