Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sufficient, Unsatisfying

Amid the crickets, I feel we're ready to start our campaign and bring the players into an adventure.  We should have a structure in mind that describes the game's rigidity.  We should have an idea of how we want that game to function, and what sort of user experience, or player behaviour, that we want.  I have taken the time to explain some of the pratfalls that are bound to result, regardless of your game's rigidity, and I have suggested strategies to overcome those troubles.  Finally, I have thoroughly argued that what we're seeking is a degree of inefficiency in our system that will encourage gameplay, through player/user efforts to overcome obstacles and achieve success.  Going forward, we need to better understand how we want to make a game that, at that same time, blocks success and enables success.  Good games are those that find the sweet spot between these two goals.

In starting the campaign, we have two hurdles to overcome: we need a structure that will enable the players to have characters, and we need some sort of interface with which the players can interact.  This latter, we will call an "adventure."

Note, I did not say, "roll" characters.  Rolling characters is a process, not a goal.  We need characters; we don't actually need to roll them randomly.  We could as easily assign every player the same value digits for all their characters, absolutely balancing the abilities of every player with every other player.  We're not going to do that ~ but I want the opportunity to ask, why aren't we going to do that?

Rolling the character randomly produces a user experience; we need to ask ourselves, what is that user experience and what do we want it to accomplish?  The players, naturally, want to roll high, because they feel that the desired user experience is to have high numbers.  If we follow some proponents of user experience, those who have little understanding of human behaviour, they would tell us to ask the players what they want and then give them what they want.

That is 100% inconsistent with creating inefficiency.  Where it comes to rolling up characters, and any other random die roll, we must make the players understand that there is no promise of any kind that they can have what they want.  They must accept, we tell them, to take what they can get.  This may be hard.  Sometimes, we will slice the ball into the woods.  It sucks.  Everyone hates it.  Golfers break clubs.  Players swear. That's how it goes.

However, in making a random character-generation system, we want to ask ourselves, how hard do we want that system to be?  We can, of course, make it harder and harder until one player in a thousand can produce the highest possible score in our character-making "mini-game."  We can also, however, adjust the mini-game any way that we want, to produce the highest possible experience for both success and failure. That is in our power.

To take D&D as an example, we can force the players to roll 3d6 for every stat.  We can force them to roll the stats in order.  Or we can enable them to roll 4d6 and discard the lowest die.  Or we can settle on a standard that the total die rolls must be higher than a certain average, or that the six rolls must include, at minimum, a 15 and a 16, or a single 17 or 18, or else all six dice must be thrown again from scratch. Whatever method we use, we must make it clear to ourselves that our goal is to be inefficient, not efficient! We don't want everyone to do super-well.  But we don't want to be excessively inefficient.  We don't want players participating with scores so poor they may as well turn their weapons on themselves.

As well, we want that inefficiency to be more or less consistent across all the participants.  We want bell-curve results.  At the end, all the players should possess results that make them feel sufficiently successful, without necessarily completely satisfying them.  This is what most game-makers interested in creating user experience totally misunderstand.  They presume that the goal is to satisfy wishes or to force excessive hardship.  No.  The goal is to compel the player to look at the final result and then do what humans do: find things that they can put a silver-lining around, to make them thankful that at least that stat came out all right, because this will make them identify with a character that isn't perfect.

Super-bad stats will be hated.  Super-good stats will soon become tiresome.  Both will create an experience that will bear little resemblance to a human person (and yes, elves and dwarves are still psychologically human) and will therefore fail at their purpose: to create a character that will meaningfully interact with our adventure.  Meaningfully?  In a manner that makes the time spent in the campaign worth the player's interest.

We have the same problem with every other facet of the character's creation.  Appearance, special abilities, defenses and equipment must be managed in a fashion that produces enough, but not great, results. Appearance should correspond to abilities, but not in an extraordinarily fixed standard: just because someone is super-strong doesn't mean they always fit one stereotype of how we envision super-strong. Special abilities should be weak and insignificant in the beginning compared to upgrades that will come later. Defenses should be expensive to have, maintain or endure, until such time as the player acquires greater skill and actual in-game experience.  The best equipment, on the whole, should be too expensive to buy; players should always wish for something they can't have easily, as this gives them direction.  In short, we're looking to make disappointment a standard, in order to make achievement measurable and, again, meaningful.

If the character generation system we're using doesn't achieve this, get rid of it or fix it.  Poor character generation will produce a bad, bad user experience and the game will fail.  If we do have a good system, we must be very careful how we mess with that system.  Any adjustment has the potential for moving out of the groove we want ~ with the understanding that, in a complex game like an RPG, it can take weeks or even months to see solid evidence of that fail.

Most often, as a DM, I will be the first to see it; often it will take much longer for the players to understand that it's happening.  For a certain type of player who is enjoying the benefits of having too much power and not enough inefficiency, the resistance against adjusting the rule can be very high and can produce considerable resentment.  Always, however, I can see that the given player is isolated in that resistance; the rest of the party, not having the benefit of the flawed rule, will support my decision.  But it is always a difficulty to rein in the power, which I have to do by a series of clawbacks and adjustments, since full-on stops are hard on the player.  I prefer to avoid getting myself into these situations, but as someone who tries new rules all the time, now and then problems arise.

Sometimes, the whole rule has to be thrown out, much to everyone's discontent.  There's nothing for it, however.  The game's integrity is compromised and, overall, that inefficiency is lost.  Eventually, if the correction isn't made, the campaign will die.  Often, the campaign is already dead, and there's nothing I can do.  This has happened to me online several times now.

That is because, I believe, my standards for inefficiency in a r/l campaign don't work as well when applied online; and yet, I refuse to change, because I don't want to offset my groove.  It is more important to me, at this point, that I keep with my principles than I make things easier for online players just because the campaign moves more slowly.  That may be unfair and unreasonably inefficient.  I am able to recognize that.

If I am wrong, it is because I am cherishing processes and game structure, whereas I should be more concerned with the player's needs and the dynamics of DM-player interaction.  I should be flexible enough to tune my game to the difficulties of the online interface.  Were I able to do so, I would experience less online troubles, my games would move faster, the campaigns would die with less frequency and I could probably streamline the amount of prep and work that I'm doing.  For example, I could get rid of things like CLO, encumbrance, the daily temperature and wind conditions, tactical combat [indeed, all combat] and an excessively detailed world, substituting instead more interactive role-play and puzzle mechanics. That is what I see other DMs doing who play games with participation through chat or skype.

I see online games, however, as a way to increase the degree of my complexity, and online players as guinea pigs upon which to test new rules an ideas.  My goal is not to create the best possible adventures for players, but to create the best possible game design for me.  My online players understand this, and as such give me exactly as much interest as they care to, since they can't feel the visceral pleasure of truly playing in my game.

This cannot be your goal, if you want your campaign to be successful.  I can get new online players; you, most likely, cannot replace the r/l players you have.

Therefore, you must find the sweet spot in your sufficient-yet-not-satisfying structure.  Your players must be close enough to satisfaction to deal with being unsatisfied, while feeling sufficiently empowered to believe that one day they will be satisfied.  If either of these are a fail, your campaign will fail.

Once you've built the characters, you must approach your first adventure in this same manner.  What counts as the bare-minimum amount of equipment and abilities to count as "sufficient"?  The closer we are to the bottom of the scale, that still enables the players to believe they can succeed, the better.  What counts as the bare-minimum amount of achievement that will count as "satisfying"?  We can always give huge amounts of satisfaction, but we have to always be thinking of the next adventure.  If we pile on the amount of satisfying once this adventure is accomplished, then our next adventure won't meet the pre-requisite of sufficiency that we want.

We always want the players to be hungry.  When they're not hungry, we want to be sure they will be hungry again, and soon.  Not right away; they should enjoy their full bellies a little while.  But soon, we want them to be feeling that maybe it's time to be off again.

These are the boundaries in which we are making characters and chasing adventures.  The actual rules and processes we create must be slaves to this principle of individual experience and effective interaction between players and the campaign.  Rules and processes are important; but they are NOT why we play the game.


Drain said...

I'm... so much in agreement that I feel like I'm getting pangs of cryptomnesia, as I've been mulling over this very same issue recently.

My consonance of thought with you strengthens the feeling that I'm on the right track. Very good exposition, Alexis.

Maliloki said...

Well thought out and worded, as usual. It's a tough balance, especially since there's no real standard as every groups tolerance is different.

It's something I have to make sure to keep solidly in my mind as I go back over my house ruled version of my rules.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you, Maliloki.

I retrospect, we probably shouldn't call it a "balance." We're not actually looking for equal shares of either, or even both at the same time. Most of the time we want players to feel that they are in a state of sufficiency; it is very rare that we expect them to achieve satisfaction. The player follows the carrot for a really long time before getting to eat it. The eating is then quite brief.

This would suck except that human beings are used to this. We work for weeks before we see a paycheque. And how long does the money last?

Maliloki said...

It may be weird, but "balance" never means "equal" in my brain when it comes to gaming. I say balance, but I mean whatever the word is for "that sweet spot" regardless of how far out of balance it actually is.

I also realise a big problem the gaming community has is improperly using words to suit whatever needs they have. So, yeah, I should probably not use balance here either.

Alexis Smolensk said...

In the text, I say balance too.

Shelby Urbanek said...

As I was reading the paragraph where you theorized dropping things like CLO, encumberance, etc to make running online smoother, the thought in my head was this: "No way! Running online is the perfect place to have all that in play" - a slower format means more processing time for a wider variety of constraints for (at least my) slower than microprocessor speed brain. I'd love to be able to run all that in my face-to-face games, but I'm just not able to keep up with all of that complexity yet.

I guess that's one of those things I'm hungry for, my carrot to chase...

JB said...

I'm curious, Alexis: do you ever include "super weapons" in your game? Things like vorpal swords and holy avengers and whatnot? I know you're not adverse to creating a huge string of challenging adventures for the players who are bent on acquiring a particular thing (you just like to make them pay through the nose for it)...but then, after many months of hard-fought campaigning to acquire such an item, then what do you do if it drops the efficiency of the game to a record low?

[keep in mind, such a token might not be a vorpal sword...perhaps a devastating spell that a mage wishes to research but that is entirely to powerful given the rules of your particular game. Here I'm thinking of something like cacodaemon...]

Are there some magic items, spells, etc. that simply fail to exist in your campaign (so as to not disrupt the challenge once they're acquired)? Or is everything viable until it isn't? When you talk about ridding yourself of things that render the inefficiency level too low, I figure you are referring mainly to home rules that (in play) are found to be broken. However, I've certainly found during my years of gaming that some "normal" aspects of D&D, in proper combination, can lead to a breaking of the game. While I realize this may be a little off topic for the general nature of this series, perhaps you can give your take on such things as an example? Just to illustrate the point.


Alexis Smolensk said...

I once gave a sword of sharpness and a +4 godentag; I once gave out a rod of power. I have given out a number of small artifacts, lots of wands and enough protection armor and equipment to make a paladin AC -5, once. I do hold back magic, but I don't believe there's much I wouldn't give eventually, if the right situation called for it. Kind of a gut instinct, thing.

But we're talking about characters of 10+ level. In my game, it takes a long time to get there, generally 3-5 years. I like a very inefficient campaign.

When you add equipment, you have to increase the temperment and difficulty of the game being played, as a cacodaemon would not fight like an orc in my world. Players have to be ready for that stuff; it gets pretty hairy when enemies are popping in and out of existence and half the party is already stone or dead. So I would say that I don't have a problem keeping the game inefficient even when the players have lots of power.

BUT ... there's no hurry to get there, so long as the game continues to satisfy.