Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Magic Wands That Work

If I were to cast about for a metaphor to describe the amount of work that many so-called participants in the OSR put into their worlds, I couldn’t do better than to fall back upon Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.  The moment comes where the jock is standing in front of the whole school, squirming as he tries to squeeze out something intelligent about history.  He knows he sounds like a complete goof.  The seconds spin out and he grows anxious and frustrated ... and then all at once his face clears as he realizes what to do.  He raises a fist in the air and chants out, "SAN DIMAS FOOTBALL RULES!"  And the crowd goes wild.

It's the crowd going wild that the reader wants to concentrate on here.

A couple days ago I received some sincere statements about worldbuilding from a friend who was focusing on how far he was prepared to go in order to create his world for D&D.  Not as far as me, was more or less the jist of it.  Farther than most, though.  I understood between the lines what he was saying.  There is only so much time, there are other things in life, this degree of world creation is enough for his purposes, etc.  And I thought, as I read what he said, how interesting.

His response came as an answer to my question, which was whether he felt there was any possibility that - given time - a single force could rise out of the maelstrom and disconcordance of the RPG universe that would bring everyone together under one system.  Naturally, my friend took this to mean, well, what I was trying to do.  I haven't been quiet about it.  But Alexis, he explained, people aren't willing to work that hard.

No, they're not.  But in the end, they won't have to.

Let's go back to the football player.  I know nerds are very fond of high school football players, since they tend to be A) assholes and B) stupid and C) aggressively dangerous.  The three aspects are not ranked.  Nor are they necessarily universal.  It's only that, while the occasional high school football player might have none of those characteristics, an increase in football players that happen to be present at any fixed geographical position usually means an increase in A, B and C ... with the increased likelihood of getting seriously fucked up if you happen to be A) conspicuously intelligent or B) physically weedy or C) a known D&D player.  So better to stay away from football players altogether.

But no one - seriously - works harder in high school than football players.  No one undergoes greater pressure to perform, no one risks permanent bodily injury to a greater degree, and no one of that age has more of their lives scheduled, observed or literally stolen away from them.  It makes it easier to stay away from football players when so much of their time is spent in the sort of prison they experience.

If I had understood that better at age 16, I would have had more sympathy for football players.  But I was focused on the aggressively dangerous part.  Yes, I would eventually play at 18 and 19 in non-high school organized games ... but we didn't have to practice.

Football is organized, and loved, both by the players risking themselves and by the organization that religiously fixes its existence into the fabric of the universe.  Boys may spontaneously gather together to play football.  Boys do not spontaneously gather together to practice football.

If the gentle reader can forgive me, there is a comparison here between playing D&D and working on D&D.  Most do not do much of the latter ... and if they do, it is usually a few hours sketching the outlines of an upcoming adventure, a floor plan or two, rolling up NPC's or working out the guts of a puzzle or a trap.  A smaller proportion takes it into their heads to construct a world, which usually consists of planning the scale, drawing one map according to that scale and then never quite getting around to doing more about it.

This is the nature of worldbuilding.  It is more fun to conceive of a world than it is to painstakingly draw one.  When people conceive of a magic wand, they imagine waving it and something instantly appearing.  No one proposes a magic wand that works by being waved and waved for six or seven weeks at a time.  Sadly, these are the magic wands that actually exist.

It should be understood, however, that there is a very queer group of people who do wave these existing wands for weeks, months or years at a time, creating out of the very air things like World of Warcraft or DDO ... awful, terrible horrors that no decently minded RPGer would play.  Except that they will, with more wand waving.  It is only a matter of time.

See, it isn't the pathetic bit of work that I put into the creation of a world that is very important.  I am a half-rate, lazy creator that barely pokes my way along with a few maps and tables that no one really understands except me.  The truly frightening designers are the footballers of the RPG world, who have sacrificed their lives in endless wand-waving, who can't speak rationally for three seconds in front of a human crowd except to shout "DDO!" when they run out of words.  And millions of little creatures go wild.

You will too.  You and I and every designer of D&D worlds on the planet are going to be overtaken in the next forty years and made to look like silly, stupid fools mucking about with pencils.  We are the dinosaurs.  And this dinosaur is waiting and hoping for some brilliant fellow to come along who can take my data and my maps and pile them into a matrix that will not only generate the world in three-D, but will help me make it more interactive than I can consciously dream of doing.

It isn't what anyone will say that will end this stupid infighting.  It isn't going to change by me or anyone else eventually convincing all the gentle readers to play the game my way.  It will change when it seems utterly stupid not to just let the computer do it ... and the computer will do it in the one, total complete way that makes perfect sense.  When we don't have to practice any more ... and we can just get inside the thing and play.  Not just dumb combats, like the computers can manage now, but every kind of human roleplaying interaction imaginable.

Won't that be fun?


Son of a Butch said...

Very interesting... and as usual inspires me to get back to work on my own designs.

Arduin said...

I've had similar thoughts myself for some time now.

Maybe the most interesting part about it is that, ultimately, creating the utopia-space of roleplay is world building on an entirely different scale.

I mean, to accomodate everything that could be roleplayed, one would need a program that could simulate -anything-. You would, in essence, need a model of the blinkin' universe.

The only real stickler here is how to "emote" in 3d space. That's the one that puzzles me. The rest can be managed with sheer doggedness, but creating a usable interface for body language with an avatar is something I'm still boggling over.

A great post as usual.

The Rubberduck said...


You just need the right interface.


Shieldhaven said...

I find your perception of professional game designers for MMOs very strange indeed, because I am one. I still come home at night and scrape for time to work on my own worlds, session plans, and rules hacks. You write as if you think getting paid for one's work is the transformative factor that renders one incapable of speaking rationally.

MMO designers know that MMOs accomplish some things well, such as having ten, forty, or five hundred players all striving toward the same goal. MMOs resolve their efforts in something that is microseconds shy of "real time." No tabletop system could do this, because the table cannot host five hundred players (all of the other problems simply follow from that).

MMO designers also know that MMOs handle abysmally some of the things that tabletop games do well. World of Warcraft has pushed back boundaries in allowing its world to change, from the user's perspective, over the course of gameplay, but at its best it doesn't hold a candle to what even a novice tabletop GM can do. In some regards this will improve over the next forty years, but there are some logical barriers in place that supersede technological barriers: games simply won't allow one team of players to permanently ruin the gameplay experience of a theoretical future population of players. Because of their intended audience size, some consequences of actions are off the table, even if they were technologically feasible.

Oh, and just to complete the trifecta, there are things that live-action roleplaying games do well that tabletop and computer games can't do. I'm not talking about the obvious "play outside" or "get exercise as part of play," though those are handy. I'm thinking of the way that live-action stealth mechanics (that is, hiding in the woods) are better than any simulationist system could hope to create. Live-action chase mechanics are excellent and always will be. MMOs will never have the immediacy of political conflict that LARPs manage (avatars create distance; that's the whole point), while tabletop games cannot really have political conflict played out between two sets of ten players over the course of fifteen or twenty individual, short conversations.

None of these styles of play are going away. Doomsayers will be disappointed for decades to come. MMOs, oddly, are the most endangered, as they are the most expensive to create and maintain, and are therefore the most subject to the whims of the masses. Oh, and if the IRS ever really decides that it can lawfully tax the Ironforge Auction House, MMOs will be in a world of hurt.

Alexis said...

I appreciate all that, Shield, and I'll avoid a snipey comment. I only wish to make it clear that I did not make any connection between 'getting paid for one's work' and waving the magic wand.

I have no idea how MMOs work. For that matter, I have no idea how a computer word processor works, either. But I'm an old man, and I remember very clearly being told once upon a time that things that are in existence right now were technologically infeasible.

That's not to dismiss your argument. There are many, many things that have been said to be infeasible that continue to prove to be just that. So for all I know, you could be exactly right in your statements of what an MMO will or won't do.

But if I may be tolerated for one more paragraph: I didn't actually say that the future of RPG's would be comprised of MMOs. What I said was that computerized game design would make what we are doing now seem pretty stupid. I have no idea - and I suspect that you have no idea, either - what marvelous things may pop up that make MMOs look pretty stupid, too.

But hey, I work on my own world too, don't I? You don't think I'm advocating not doing that, do you?

Shield, I love a long, detailed comment. Keep those coming.