Saturday, January 16, 2016


I've tried this post a couple of times now - and it always begins to wallow.

I want to say first that the social contract in a game does not depend on the DM.  All the various things I've written about DMing - pacing, focus, mind-fuckery, trust - are there because we have no alternative to someone acting as judge, intermediary or interpreter between the players and the world.

The DM has to make decisions about what is possible, because the rules cannot account for every idea or innovation that occurs to a player in every situation that might occur.  The gameworld is too complex and multi-dimensional to ensure every contingency is managed.  This is the 'judge' aspect.  Still, I make very few new judgments in a given game.  Most of the time, I am reminding players of judgments I've made in the past, which I've remembered or the players have forgotten - or the players are reminding me, because my memory isn't perfect.

If we had some sort of device - let's call it an Interpolator - that could remember all these judgments and keep track of them, along with the remaining rule structure that has already been put in place, that could ease my burden considerably.  Once in place, we could agree as a group to modify the Interpolator occasionally only for new things.  This could be done as a group.  No single person would need to do it, though one person in a group may be more imaginative/creative/aware of issues that came up.  Once the new idea was logged in, however, the Interpolator would handle it.

We could then apply the Interpolator to the mechanical elements of the game.  Not only would the Interpolator know what die needed to be rolled or what the results were, it would not be necessary to roll a die at all.  Once the player decided to do something - stating the player's intention - the mechanics of 'effect' would be managed and the result would be instantaneous.  This would massively increase the pacing of the game, since all the mechanical detail would be eliminated and made faster.

The DM's second contribution, the intermediary, mostly works as describer for the players.  The room looks like this, there are this many people on the street, the sun is going down so there is this much level of light, etc.  There's also a considerable element that the non-player characters in the setting talk like this, they have these agendas, etcetera.

Obviously, an Interpolator could handle all the imaginable visual details.  It would be clear how deep the chasm was, how long the road was, how green was the grass and so on.  Once again, this would massively remove a lot of burden from me.  Since this would also be linked with the mechanical aspects of the game described above, the players would be interacting with the environment in real time, so that in game/out of game elements of play wouldn't be necessary.  The focus of the players would be on what they saw.  While yes, they would probably still joke around and make mock of things, now they would be doing it while standing in a forest or visually seeing the NPC standing three feet away, giving them cues that the NPC could hear and understand what the players were saying (and making judgments about them).  This situational awareness would considerable cut down on the amount of inter-player dialogue (tell the guard he's attractive) that goes between players, as they would be aware that such dialogue was being overheard.  This would greatly cut down on meta-gaming and vastly increase the immersive quality of the game.

Probably, the non-player characters would be necessarily simplistic, at least for a time.  Still, there could be formulas that were designed to let players 'teach' the closer non-player characters how to act.  So that if the character told a friendly NPC to stay behind the party and use their bow, rather than running into the fight, this would become the default action of the NPC.  The next time the party battled, the player would turn to tell the NPC to use their bow and see the NPC pulling out a bow already.  Or the player could give some other order to the NPC and these orders together would be managed to encourage a sort of contingency program that NPCs would follow.

Non-friendly NPCs might have a wide range of programmable elements that could give them 'character.'  It would be best if this were accessible to the players, however.  Corporations, no doubt, would sell characters, but ultimately some sort of youtube-create-your-own-content would be far stronger in the long run, since tens of thousands of individual creators would be more imaginative than oh, say, Mike Mearls.  If it got online, we could fill our towns and worlds with characters stolen from the net - and even if many of these characters were duplicates in behaviour and purpose, for the most part in most games they already are.  Made individual personalities for thirty attacking orcs, lately?  Hell, if said orcs had two random personalities sprinkled between the 30, we'd be stunned.  In any case, there'd always be room to tweak a personality very slightly - and everything we did would be remembered and automatically carried forward.

This might mean starting up a game and suddenly watching NPCs randomly killing NPCs, like spontaneously mixing a base and an acid without realizing the result - but such things could be planned for (and noted, so that it didn't happen again).  In any case, no single player would need to be 'the DM' in this emplacement . . . a group could decide how to seed a town with individuals or simply let the Interpolator do it.

The DM's third role, that of interpreter - well, we've already covered a lot of that, haven't we?  I wouldn't need to explain rules or explain the motivations of the NPCs because it would be right there in front of our eyes.  I wouldn't need to mind-fuck the players - just being in a visual environment that was full of sensory information would manage to make everyone feel overwhelmed and out of their element.  Most of the mind-fuckery is immersive in its intent and the Interpolator - even operating at a pretty dumb level - would do that nicely the first time the player encountered an actual door with an actual uncertain, visual possibility behind that.  So I'm off the hook there, too.

And as far as trust, well . . . this is interesting.

Most legitimacy is established by making sure all the players are treated equally.  But the Interpolator does this automatically.

Consider the trust between players.  Jim, Wilma and Quentin all must make decisions that will keep them alive individually and alive as a group.  In a normal game, Quentin looks down at his character sheet and sees only that - his paper.  He looks at Jim and Wilma and sees them as people sitting at a table, perfectly safe in the face of three orcs, so it is all a game to him and he is free to treat it as a game.  Having this freedom, he can quickly justify the game's lack of personal meaning by reducing the immersion he feels and can from there begin to fuck with the other players, breaking down the social contract.

However, if we are visually seeing the Interpolator's world, it becomes pretty obvious to Jim and Wilma that Quentin is doing this.  They're looking at the world, making plans, while Quentin is acting out.  This pulls Jim and Wilma closer together and ousts Quentin from the core group.  Quentin can't appeal to the DM because there is no DM - and the Interpolator doesn't care.  Quentin is alone.

The strongest punishment invoked by reality against the Quentins of the world, those who won't play well with others, is that they will end up alone and unprotected.  This encourages most Quentins to at least try to play well with others situationally (though sometimes they become successful movie directors).  The impress of the Interpolator's universe, both visually and in its cold-hearted nature, would encourage Quentin to 'pull together' a little if he wanted to survive the game.

True, he might still see it as a game - but with so much sensory input, he would be more easily fooled into thinking that he wasn't.  This would help build a better team dynamic and thus a stronger party and game experience.

Where it comes to social pressure and the social contract, the greatest element fucking up the balance is always the DM.  The DM has more power and knowledge and does not have even remotely the same motivations as the remaining players.  The more personally the DM becomes invested in the outcome of the game, the crappier that outcome becomes.  Removing the DM and replacing him or her with a device that can manage the other elements to a satisfactory degree (so long as the players can screw with the system to tailor it to themselves) would vastly improve the role-playing game.

How would any of this work technically?  No idea.  Not my problem.  I'm just using this whole thing to point out that DMs need to withdraw from the system as much as possible while enacting the bare minimum of control on the players.  I will embrace anything - even something that would replace me utterly - in order to better accomplish that.

Hell, if I were replaced, I could gird on my own dagger and play.


Ozymandias said...

World of Warcraft, Star Wars: the Old Republic, Everquest, EVE Online, etc.

All of these (and many more) are striving toward this concept of an immersive gaming simulation. However, there are several impediments:

1) They're driven by basic economic concerns. The investment of time and resources requires a steady income. The game owners/designers acquire this income by presenting a product that plays to our understanding of human nature. This is not the say that the game companies have adopted the best methods for securing their empires, simply that they've chosen a method that's proven to work - and it works so well that it'll be damn near impossible to overcome it.

I'm referring to the micro-rewards method, whereby the game rewards players in small amounts, frequently (and often with a display of color and sound), for specific actions like exploring the world, gathering resources or even acquiring enough XP to achieve a quarter-level. Combine that with the extremely fantastic nature of these games and we have a game world where any semblance of verisimilitude is abandoned in favor of securing the players' attention (thus securing the cash flow).

2) Training and travel time are condensed. The real world is huge and, therefore, quite boring. My experience as an infantry Soldier leads me to conclude that 90% of the effort is in training, 9% in travelling and 1% in executing. And that 1% is incredibly exciting - it's why we're playing this game - so we don't want to deal with the other 99%.

A way to overcome this problem would be to allow a group of players a range of group options, like skipping overland travel (with, perhaps, a series of options or parameters for dealing with encounters along the way).

2) A.I. options for NPCs are extremely limited. You can't change an NPC by simply conversing with them; and if you can change an NPC, it's through a strictly enforced script. Further, the actions of a single player have no impact on the script an NPC presents to another player. Again, you might overcome this by implementing group rules - a group of players all trigger the same quest that, once completed, cannot be opened again. But this wouldn't address the issue that NPCs are scripted ahead of time.

What we really need is something like the... well crap, I can't remember what they're called and I can't seem to find them on Google. They're these short paragraphs with missing words and you're supposed to fill in things like, "noun," "verb," etc. and then read them aloud. They're silly and fun for kids, but pretty useless for adults. And yet... if you could program a computer to recognize the meaning behind the language/phrases/words... which is something that we're working on, I'm sure.

3) The rules are not subject to debate (and change) by the players. And really, the only way to change this is to give the players the ability, but the more players you have in your game/server/world, the harder it will be to get consensus. But there is a solution: a closed server. In other words, you need a system that can create the vastness and detail of MMORPGs (WoW, EVE, SWtOR, EQ, etc.) while limiting that server to a handful of individuals.

Currently, I don't think we have the computing power for that kind of system. But I could see it coming about very soon.

4) Going back to the economic model that drives current MMORPG standards, it's the Quentins of the world that support business. They're assholes and no one really wants to play with them, but they can still play the game because the game can't be so hard that it pushes anyone out. That'd be bad for business...

Alexis Smolensk said...

Granted on most counts, Ozymandias,

But, as youtube proves, eventually the tech becomes so simple even four graduate students can play around with it in their spare time. Economic models only apply when there's scarcity - and we foolishly educate people until that scarcity goes away.

Mujadaddy said...

I have the background of how this particular post arose available, and I see this as the two-part question which I encounter every day in my profession as a software developer. Simply put, the questions are "Can we?" and "Should we?"

"Can" is generally straightforward: a matter of scoping the request, planning the tasks and budgeting the labor required. This is a measure of the possible.

This particular request is something called in fiction an Agent and in academia a Daemon, or more likely several of these systems working together, with the goal of setting out some parameters for interaction for multiple concurrent players, into something that ingenerously might be described as a VR-RPG. "Can" this be done? Sure, and you've outlined a lot of the (extremely major) challenges, but the long-term issues in such a system you mention but might not be weighting properly:

"The DM has to make decisions about what is possible, because the rules cannot account for every idea or innovation that occurs to a player in every situation that might occur. The gameworld is too complex and multi-dimensional to ensure every contingency is managed. "

This is the bane of software development: shifting requirements. There might be a compromise possible which keeps the game engine's rules list accessible for updating, but in the real world it is much easier (read: cheaper) to develop to a set of requirements than to plan for every contingency.


Mujadaddy said...

"Should we?"

All of us want help at the table. You've made the ultimate leap at the end of the post of being free to game WITH your players. Sometimes, we don't want to run, we'd like to see what happens in our worlds from a more human perspective. Understandable, and to me not really debatable.

So let's say we actually have this Interloper or whatever; we took up a collection and the commons contributed effectively unlimited funds, we solved the management & requirements problems, and now we have it, it's a free tool for all, it's easy to use and upgrade.

All our problems solved?

Trust? You can't eliminate human nature/griefers, but you can kick bad players out, and you have action logs to prove dickery. A clever GM ("Interpolator Technician"?) can still probably find a thousand ways to disappoint you: personal investment in the outcome of the game used to craft a railroad. You can't eliminate the need for the GM and the players to trust that a few hours enjoyment is everyone's goal. Ask MMO players if their game has eliminated trust issues that the company isn't just trying to squeeze fees out of them, much less trust between players.

Now, tension, focus and pacing?

I don't think you can achieve these with the Interpolator beyond the most basic combat encounter. I also think that the definitions of the above you're using are extraordinarily narrow.

You say that "pacing" is a problem of the rules getting in the way, because of the "judge" function, and all the judgments of the applications of rules that need to be made. To me, "pacing" has to do with the perception of the passage of time at the table. My main function in this regard is to ensure that talkative players aren't the only actors, that everyone feels they have had a chance to contribute.

You say that "focus" can be achieved with sensory input. I can invalidate this instantly by having players come around a corner, present more sensory input than they can process in a second and then throw monsters at them before they've had the chance to notice the one detail which would help them properly interpret the scene. (The point isn't the unfairness of the example, but the possibility thereof.)

"Tension"? Disagree that the detectable impression of impending bodily harm can compete with a good description.

These three are, to me, an advantage of tabletop, oral-tradition RPGs. The advantage can be summed up with one word: Time. We lose the option of time for thought, time for consideration, time to clarify, time to declare free actions, time to turn over our options in our head before drawing our weapon and rolling the dice.

Does the Interpolator pause when a player needs clarification? What are the rest of the players doing in the meantime? At the table, this is a fundamental operation to which everyone gets adjusted. In a computer, the immersive quality becomes harder to enjoy if Tad O'Malley has to run to the loo once an hour.

What is better? A play or a book? I submit that we are the kind that likes books better. Think about how much work it is to produce a showing of a play as opposed to writing down the script. The Interpolator requires perfect production to realize its advantages. The GM's fallibility at the table is a given, and is generally forgiven.