I watched Bruce Lee's first movie, Fists of Fury, with Sushu recently.
(Fists of Fury is not the same as Fist of Fury, an entirely different movie also starring Bruce Lee. Fists, plural, is also called The BIg Boss, and is also known by its Chinese title 唐山大兄 (Tang Shan Da Xiong) meaning "Canton Big Brother". Of course neither movie has much to do with fists anyway, since Bruce Lee mostly kicks people to death. Confused yet?)
Anyway, whatever you call it, Fists of Fury is a really well done movie. The dub is TERRIBLE (and such inappropriate background music!) but the kung fu action is great; except for a few fake high jumps, all the fighting is entirely believable and convincing. More importantly, the plotting is excellent. It's very tight, tense, consise, and well-structured.
I've been thinking about what this movie can teach us for Jiang Hu - that's right, I've started thinking about Jiang Hu again! - not so much in terms of the kung fu fighting, but rather in terms of how to set up a situation that gives people a lot of interesting things to fight about. The scenario creation rules, if you will.
Spoilers follow, but the movie's 40 years old so whaddya want?
Bruce Lee is moving to a new town to work at an ice factory along with some of his family. Dialogue reveals that he got into a lot of trouble by starting fights in his old town, which might be why his family had to move. He's made a Very Serious Promise to his grandparents not to get into any fights.
Gee, how long do you think that promise is going to last?
There's an early scene where honorless thugs beat up and take advantage of good honest people. Because of his promise, Bruce Lee has to watch and do nothing about it. There's a closeup on his face so you can see how bad he feels about that.
Lessons already: Promises are very serious. We can put characters into dynamic situations right out of the starting gate by creating them already enmeshed in a web of promises to important relationships. You get interesting internal conflict when such a promise goes against a character's sense of justice. As the audience, we know that of course he's going to fight eventually! So the question on our minds is: what's going to be the thing that makes him so mad that he breaks that promise? Even though we know what's going to happen, the situation creates tension because we don't yet know why or how.
Continuing with the plot:
The existing power structure (in the form of the ice factory management) is thoroughly corrupt. In fact, they're using the ice factory as a front for a drug-smuggling operation. The factory managers play the same role as a corrupt provincial magistrate or an occupying foreign power might play in other time periods: the initial situation is one where bad guys hold all the cards. We see how bad they are, and we want to see them taken down a peg so that justice can prevail. But since the political power is in their hands, justice can't be restored just by talking to people or by appealing to legitimate authority. A hero has to arise to restore justice with his fists. And we get to root for the underdog, which is always fun.
The bad guys have a hierarchy, with the Big Boss at the top, some henchmen under him, and an endless supply of nameless thugs at their command. The Big Boss is the greatest both in political power and in kung-fu power. There's a scene early on that establishes this by showing him practice-sparring with some of his men. (We see him hide some long, nasty daggers in his boots, which of course we know we'll see him use later.) Is it realistic that the factory leader also happens to be a kung-fu master? Probably not. But it sets the stage for an epic showdown at the end, so we go along with it.
The good guys have their own hierarchy of sorts, with a benevolent big brother figure named Hsiu (or Xu) Chien watching over and protecting the poor, honest, hardworking factory men. These men make up a group called, in Chinese, a 帮 (bang) - like a labor union but not as organized; such groups are a staple part of the Jiang Hu world. Bruce lee is a newcomer to the situation. These relationships are established in a few short lines of dialogue before the plot moves on.
The workers discover quite by accident that their factory is a front for a drug-smuggling operation when Bruce knocks a big chunk of ice off of a railing, and it breaks on the ground, revealing a bag of white powder hidden inside. This is the spark that sets off all the potential conflict in the situation. It's the "Bang" - this time in the Sorceror sense, not the labor-union sense.
From this point, the whole movie is nothing but an ever-escalating series of reprisals. The men who saw the drugs are brought into the manager's office, where he offers them bribes and offers to bring them on board the operation in order to secure their silence. They refuse, and so they get "disappeared". The rest of the factory workers try to find out what happened to them, and they get stonewalled. They protest, and management clamps down on them. These reprisals can't end until one side is thoroughly defeated in one-on-one combat.
I can see just how this would work in gaming - a scenario would be created before play that set up the relationships between the groups involved, with plenty of potential conflict; then at the start of play, the GM throws out the Bang with the drugs; and from there on, the GM needs only to play the bad guys as they respond to the protagonists' actions. You'd need a system that encourages escalations; then the rest of the story flows out naturally as a sort of chain reaction.
Some of the fights in this movie start with a series of show-offy displays of kung-fu awesomeness and flashy tricks. They're not intended to do damage, but to intimidate. They're warning shots. (It's like bucks locking horns in mating season -- they don't want to actually fight, they just want to prove that they could win so that the other deer will back off.) I wonder how this could be made to work in a game context? Narrating them would be tons of fun, but does it somehow give you an advantage over just attacking immediately? (Maybe if the opponents' actual kung fu power levels were in fact concealed from each other? like poker hands? And so you do a move that shows some of your cards, in order to convince the other player to fold... but you might be bluffing... )
A big contrast is shown between the character of Hsiu, who is a real wuxia, and Bruce Lee, who is more of an ambiguous anti-hero. Hsiu is completely dedicated to his bang from the beginning, and always willing to fight to protect them. Bruce is reluctant to betray his "no fighting" promise, but he's also just not particularly heroic.
At various points, the bad guys try to bribe various good guys with money, power, liquor, and sexy prostitutes: things that a true hero is unmoved by. We get to see what people are made of by who refuses the bribes and who takes them. Hsiu is unmoved; he sees dishonorable behavior being rewarded with money and power, and he is merely disgusted. Bruce Lee, on the other hand, totally gets drunk and sleeps with the prostitutes and makes friends with the bad guys and is pretty much ready to sell out.
There's pretty fixed ideas about honorable behavior, what a man must do to maintain his honor and how he must avenge it if insulted; I imagine the code of honor could be hard-coded into the game. Like, "A true hero is unmoved by money, power, and sex" could be a rule. Not the kind of straightjacket rule that prevents a player from doing something, but rather a guideline that helps players know when they're living up to the ideal and when they're failing it, so that they can explore motivations and situations on both sides of the line.
In the end, Hsiu, the original Big Brother, pays for his unflinching honor with his life. He did the right thing at all points, but his kung fu is simply not strong enough to overcome all of the bad guys, and he is killed. (This movie is slightly on the cynical side.) Bruce Lee is not as morally upright but has much stronger kung fu. (Why? It's never really explained why his character is so strong, other than "he's played by Bruce Lee").
So the real climactic conflict of the movie is about when Bruce's flawed character will find the moral courage to step up and fill the Big Brother's shoes. The people cry out for a champion to save them; their champion has fallen; Bruce Lee is the only one who can do it; yet he is reluctant.
In the end, he goes and fights the Big Boss only after his entire family has been killed in a reprisal by the Big Boss's thugs. It's very sad. He steps up too late; and when he does, he steps up for the wrong reasons - when he finally does kill the Big Boss in the final battle, it is an act of mere vengeance, and not of protection. (And the very end of the movie shows him being taken away by the police, arrested for all the bad guys he killed; he wasn't a hero, so he didn't get a hero's ending.)
So there's an interesting theme in this movie that the most morally upright people are not always the strongest in kung fu. But you better have somebody who's both strong enough and good enough to fight the big bad guy! A community ultimately needs someone who is willing and able to use violence to defend their values: as Winston Churchill or possibly George Orwell put it, "We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm."
In a game, as I see it, Hsiu and Bruce Lee would both have been player characters. The meaning of the game emerges from the choices that each of those players makes about who and what their character is willing to fight for.
"A mysterious force is holding back the Pioneer probe". They've tried out a lot of possibilities - instrument malfunction, gravity from an unknown body and nothing else seems to account for it. Something is pulling the Pioneer probe back towards the sun with a force 10 billion times weaker than gravity (meaning, barely perceptible except over the course of the decades that the Pioneer probe has been traveling). The force is apparently constant, not getting weaker or stronger as Pioneer moves away from the sun.
Maybe we don't understand gravity as well as we thought? What are the implications for dark matter, cosmology, the inflationary big bang model, etc. if the forces attracting objects to each other are stronger than we've been accounting for?
Not only that, but also the proton is smaller than we thought. A ten-year experiment has shown that it's 4% smaller than predicted by the Standard Model. So that's interesting. What's going on there? Do we have to re-think quantum electrodynamics, as well?
This is all really exciting because advances in science come from encountering stuff that our models can't explain, which leads to new and beter models. Science is boring when everything behaves according to prediction and old theories are simply re-confirmed. Being wrong, on the other hand, is exciting because it means new things to discover.
Also: Michael Duff, of Imperial College London, says he has a testable prediction of string theory. This is exciting because thus far nobody has come up with an experiment that could confirm or deny string theory (at least not at any level of energy we could reach on Earth in our lifetimes) so it's been forever stuck in the realm of conjecture (or as some critics like to say, "numerology"). Duff says there's a mathematical similarity between the string theory representation for black holes and some math from quantum computing, so maybe there's an experiment we can do involving quantum computing? (I'm a bit skeptical because it seems like all of string theory is built on "mathematical similarities" which could very well be coincidences.)
Finally, and this is the most exciting one in terms of potential impact on human civilization, Fusion researchers at Lawrence Livermore labs have made a breakthrough! They've been trying to achieve fusion by focusing 192 powerful laser beams onto a tiny blob of deuterium and tritium. The big problem with this approach is laser-plasma interactions or LPI, which cause the blob to destabilize. But in January, the smart guys at NIF (National Ignition Facility) at Livermore figured out how to use LPI to their advantage by dynamically varying the wavelenths of the lasers to achieve highly symmetrical compression.
Fusion power might just be what solves the energy crisis and saves civilization from peak oil, air pollution, global warming, dependence on authoritarian middle-eastern regimes, and all that other bad stuff. So this is kind of a big deal. The joke is that fusion power is 40 years away, has always been 40 years away, and will always be 40 years away; but hey, we put a man on the moon, broke the sound barrier, built the Internet, and we know fusion is possible; I think we can do this.
(Hey, I wonder if we've been failing so far because we thought the proton was bigger than it is... there's a thought...)
This is an absolutely fantastic interview - thanks to Chris for the link (and thanks to Clyde for doing it!). Major David Wesley, now in his 60s, ran a little game called Braunstein way back in 1967 for his historical wargaming club in Wisconsin.
In the interview, he talks about how, in pursuit of realism, his wargaming club used more and more complex rule sets for resolving combat. Besides taking a long time, the complex rules sets exacerbated the problem of Rules Lawyering to the point where people were spending more time arguing than playing. To fix this problem they appointed referees to arbitrate disputes. The referees got bored because they weren't getting to fight, so to have something to do the referees would come up with more and more elaborate scenarios, launch surprise events mid-game, or have hidden information that players would need to send scouts to discover.
And then he ran a game set in the German town of Braunstein. Instead of just two opposing armies, he created lots of non-combat roles, such as the mayor, the leader of a rebel student group, etc., each with their own agendas, and assigned these to his various players. The idea is that they could do a lot of Diplomacy-style secret dealmaking which would influence what the situation was when the main armies entered the town. It sounds like the negotiation was intended to be just a prelude to the wargame, but it took on a life of its own.
A referee creating a scenario with various roles in conflict, and then having people play them out, negotiating between their various agendas, and allowed to announce any action they liked, which the referee would interpret. (He even made up a rule on the fly when two people wanted to duel with swords.)
Sound like anything you recognize? That's right, Braunstein was the first recognizable ancestor of the role-playing hobby as it exists today. David even came up with the idea of using pythagorean solids as dice to generate different probability curves (although he denies any credit, assuming that other people surely came up with the same idea independently of him).
Anyway, the interview is a historical treasure and should be required listening for every RPGamer.
Braunstein inspired another Dave, Dave Arneson, to do something similar, but in a fantasy setting. His campaign was called Blackmoor, set in and around the Castle Blackmoor. For his combat system, he used a medieval miniatures wargame called Chainmail created by one E. Gary Gygax.
(Arneson and Gygax later got together and created Dungeons & Dragons as a sort of fantasy-role-playing add-on for Chainmail; and the rest is history. Gygax is well-remembered, Arneson slightly less so; but David Wesley is almost unknown among gamers, even though he predated both of them. It's a shame; he seems like a really cool guy.)
Greg's character, Sven, a simple man-at-arms, was the sole survivor of the first ever dungeon adventure, which Dave Arneson ran on his basement ping-pong table in St. Paul, Minnesota over Christmas break of 1970-71. Check out that link (it's a quick read) and find out how the rest of the party met their grisly fates.
Two interesting things stand out. One is that the scenario involves the baron of the castle sending 30 men-at-arms down into the dungeon. In modern terms, that's a party of thirty first-level fighters. Pretty weird, but a totally normal thing for wargamers. (And think about it -- isn't that about who you would send on such a mission, if you were a baron?) Only six of them were player characters; the rest were NPCs under their command.
The other interesting thing was that the DM (Dave Arneson) assigned players for the two villains (the evil wizard and the balrog). I guess, coming from a wargame background, it's only logical that you would have two sides playing against each other, and a referee to arbitrate things. It's not clear from the write-up just how much of what happened in the dungeon was the result of decisions by the villain players, but I suspect it was a lot.
Also note that they were already introducing LARP elements like turning off the lights and screaming...
If you want to track the history of role-playing even farther back, before Arneson and Wesley, read
Rob MacDougall's article "Dungeon Master Zero". He talks about Charles Adiel Lewis Totten, a crazy 19th-century military tactician who wrote Strategos: the American Art of War, the book which David Wesley found in the library that inspired him to try appointing a referee...
Sushu ran an amazing game of Trollbabe with me as the sole player. Recap and discussion about it is up on her livejournal so I won't repeat it here. Suffice to say it was the saddest game ever, in the sense of "most poignant" - it almost made me cry. Not because I wasn't having fun, but because -- well, read my comment on the livejournal entry to find out why.
Trollbabe is a good couple's game, not only because it's well-suited to one-on-one play (Trollbabes are typically loners) but also because so much of the content is about relationships (character relationships are the only way to earn more re-rolls than you start with) and gender roles.
"Do I have to hit the guy to mark him or can I mark him if I miss too? OK, so he was marked. So don't I get a free attack? Oh right, that's only if I'm in an adjacent square. But doesn't he get -2 on his attack roll for attacking somebody who's not me? Oh, no, because it's a burst attack that also includes me as a target. Never mind, I guess, take your turn."
Making characters is slow. There's a Character Builder program for Windows you can download from Wizards of the Coast, and I actually needed it. It prints out dense three-page character sheets and almost all of those three pages are combat statistics and move descriptions. Reading and understanding all that stuff is slow. Setting up the battlemat is slow. Waiting for each player to decide what to do is slow. Adding up all the bonuses and penalties to hit and damage, then rolling and applying the results, is slow. One combat takes forever. I could take a nap waiting for my turn to come again.
"My encounter power says it slides the target one square. Does sliding provoke attacks of opportunity or not?"
And the worst part is, when you're in a fight, there's basically no room for role-playing, or even creative descriptions of stunts or whatever. You're in this purely tactical, mechanical game where everything is so precisely defined and laid out that the DM doesn't have any room for interpretation. All your mental focus is on figuring out what square you want to stand on to make the best use of your daily power and stuff like that. I feel like the miniatures and squares aren't supplementing the fiction, they're replacing the fiction; by physically representing everythig, they're using up all the oxygen that the fiction would need to breathe. All the table talk becomes pure game mechanics questions and the fiction gets forgotten.
"Is that 14 damage before or after applying the damage reduction I get from standing next to the runepriest?"
And because of how long fights take, you're pretty much in a fight all the time. Last night we had one fight with three myconids and that was most of our session right there.
Because the mechanical so thoroughly dominates the playtime, we really haven't had any roleplaying to speak of in two sessions. (Unless "making cow jokes because one character is a minotaur" counts as roleplaying.) It's like, I could come up with a backstory for my bundle of stats and abilities, but why bother? It would be like coming up with a backstory for the thimble in Monopoly. It's not what the game's about, and if it doesn't give me +2 on a roll somewhere then it's not going to affect anything.
There are one or two people in the group who seem like they want to role-play, like the guy who professes a hatred for Elves, and the guy who really wanted to not have any languages in common with the rest of the party; but they're stymied by the structure of the game, because hey guys? We need to work together to beat this dungeon, and that includes you working with the Elf, so like you can say you hate Elves as long as you don't act on it in any way, OK?
I wanted to like 4e; I've defended it from its detractors before; I've tried to see it not like an edition of D&D but like a completely new game. But I finally feel like I've played enough 4e to give it a fair shake, and I don't like it. I don't understand why it's so popular (yea, even on Story Games!). It's just a slow, slow, slow game full of boring mechanical fiddliness that discourages role-playing.
If character optimization and Krunchy Kombat are what you crave, why not play an MMORPG where at least the computer is doing all the math for you? Trying to make D&D compete with WoW seems to me like a fatal blunder on WotC's part: a tabletop RPG is never going to be as good as WoW at the things WoW is good at, and the things that only a tabletop RPG can do are severely de-emphasized in 4e.
But people seem to be playing 4e and liking it, so what do I know.
Maybe someone could design a game that takes the good parts of 4e combat (team tactics, you can pick a move that sets up your ally's move to be more effective, positioning matters a lot, etc) but combines it with a much, much simpler system for faster handling, with more room for creative fictional stunt descriptions and GM judgement calls.
Sushu and I went up to Emeryville (it's between Oakland and Berkley) for our first Taiko drumming lesson on Saturday.
The Emeryville Taiko Dojo is run like a martial arts dojo: it's VRY SRS BSNS. We take our shoes off, sit seiza, bow to the sensei, yell ONEGAI SHIMASU!, and so on. There are warm-up stretches and exercises. We have to do all these hand exercises and sit-ups and planks before we even pick up the bachi (drumsticks). That's right, sit-ups! For a drumming class! I think the idea is to have strong core muscles because the movements when playing the O-daiko (the biggest drums) are supposed to originate from the core muscles, much like throwing strong punches.
So, yeah, I pretty much felt right at home. It was so similar to Aikido that the fact that we were hitting drums rather than throwing people seemed like a minor, incidental difference.
One thing that threw me off was the fact that the greeting when entering the dojo is OHAYOU GOZAIMASU! and when leaving the dojo is OYASUMI NASAI! Which is a little weird because that means "good morning" and "good night". I don't think I'm going to get used to saying "Good night!" in the middle of the afternoon. Our sempai said that these are the traditional greetings in Japanese Taiko practice; I guess I'll take her word for it.
(I wrote the following article over a year ago, but I left it in a file on my hard drive and forgot to post it. I was reminded of the idea by the D&D 4e campaign that I joined yesterday in which the DM is trying to be as much a neutral referee as possible.)
How do you run / GM a role-playing game? This seems like a pretty basic question, right? We've all had experiences with great GMs and terrible GMs, and if we'e been a GM then we've probably noticed that some games have gone great and others have fallen flat. So we know there's an important skill there. But there's surprisingly little information about how to get better at it. Sure, lots of people share miscellaneous tips or general philosophies, but what about the actual moment-to-moment decision-making during the game?
I've found the idea of stances pretty useful when talking about the mental state of playing a character. But what about when you're the GM? Is there an equivalent set of mental attitudes you can use to make sense of your enormous power and responsibility?
Here are a few such GM stances that I can recall using at various times. Remember, these are not "types of GMs" but rather attitudes that the same GM can take towards the game at different times (even in the same session). I'm also not saying that any of these techniques are absolutely good or absolutely bad. It makes no sense to judge them in a vacuum! They can be evaluated only in the context of a particular group playing a particular campaign of a particular game.
Referee Stance is when the GM acts as neutral interpreter, enforcer, and arbiter of rules and procedures. The GM decides what should happen based on the rules — when they apply " and based on his or her sense of fairness and objectivity, when the rules are vague or incomplete. Example:
"He's bigger than you and he's got the high ground so your grapple check is at -4. If you fail it, he gets away. I know it sucks, but them's the rules. Now give me a roll."
Antagonist Stance is when the GM actively opposes the wishes of the player characters, and puts obstacles in their path. The GM decides what should happen based on what would make life hardest for the protagonists. Example:
"You didn't think the Solaris Knight could really be killed, did you? His spirit lives on! And it posesses the body of... hmm, let's see... How about... YOUR BOYFRIEND!! Mwa ha ha ha ha ha!"
World-Builder Stance is when the GM is mainly paying attention to the invention of the setting and its ongoing internal consistency. The GM makes events happen based on the way the setting should work, without a care for the ambitions of the player characters. It's different from referee stance because the rules bend to the game world, instead of the other way around. Example:
"I think we established that the people on this planet are freakishly neat and tidy, so no, I don't think you'd be able to find any discarded energy cells, even in a back alley -- they'd all have been repaired, recharged, and reused."
Mover Stance is when the GM focuses on pacing and keeping things from getting boring. The GM makes decisions about events based on what would make the game most exciting, or at least keep it moving. A GM in this stance doesn't neccessarily care how a given event resolves, only that the players have something interesting to react to. The GM is an engine, not a steering wheel. Example:
"If nobody wants to do anything else, let's move ahead to that night. OK? You each go to your separate rooms. It's about 2am, everybody's asleep, and then: Kira? A creak of the floorboards wakes you up. Someone is trying to sneak into your room. What do you do?"
Psychiatrist Stance is when the GM focuses on getting to the heart of what makes the PCs tick, by creating dilemmas, situations where players must make hard choices, choices that reveal a character's true nature. The GM makes events happen that will force player characters to face their issues. Example:
"You're sworn to aid anyone in trouble, but you're also sworn to kill dark elves on sight, huh? OK, so when you get to the river of lava, the bridge has collapsed and there's a dark elf maiden hanging from the edge by her fingers..."
Novel-writer Stance is when the GM has a cool potential scene in mind and is trying to direct play towards it. The GM makes events happen with an eye towards setting up such future scenes. Example:
" Critical hit! You hit the mob boss square in the chest with you revolver and he goes down. (Thinking: Oh crap, I need this guy to be alive later for the climax) ... then he stands up again, laughing, like 'youse guys didn't think I was dumb enough to come here without a bulletproof vest did ya?'"
Some random observations:
Some of these stances quite obviously conflict with each other. If the dice say a player character dies, what do you do? Referee stance says let them die, since those are the rules. Novel-writer stance says fudge the dice to save them, since your story needs its protagonists.
There's lots of bad GM advice out there which basically picks one stance and describes that as the One True Way of Role-Playing. You ought to learn how to do many different GM techniques and figure out when it makes sense to use each one.
A lot of "indie games" are designed to work mainly with Psychologist stance. Dogs in the Vineyard for instance has explicit and very useful instructions for how to set up interesting dilemmas and push on them hard. Running that game is a good way to learn psychologist stance, which is then a skill that you can apply to other games. I haven't played Apocalypse World yet but Vincent Baker keeps talking about how it will teach you a new way of GMing, which from what I've heard sounds a lot like my concept of World-Builder. The D&D 4e game I'm in now is West Marches style, meaning the GM is almost exclusively Referee and World-builder.
Similarly, playing Polaris or Shock can help you practice to be a good antagonist. (These are both games with distributed GMing responsibilities, but I think GM stances still apply -- you're playing Antagonist when you're the Mistaken and Referee or World-builder when you're the Moons.)
More random observations.
World-builder, antagonist, and novel-writer could be described as "playing to make something happen". Referee, mover, and psychologist could be described as "playing to find out what happens".
Novel-writer stance is dangerous because it can lead straight to railroading if overused. But a dash of it can add more excitement and story-structure to a game that might otherwise be directionless. Even PTA, which is generally full improv, has a "preview of next week's episode" mechanic that encourages GMs to guide play, to make the previews come true.
Antagonist stance is obviously really dangerous in any game where the GM has the power to set difficulty numbers arbitrarily, or the power to have arbitrary monsters attack the party, etc. Antagonist stance is really fun, though! It adds a lot of excitement to the game when used appropriately. A game that puts strong limitations on what the GM is allowed to do (e.g. "On the first level of the dungeon there can only be Challenge Level 1 encounters", or "the difficulty of the roll equals the number of threat tokens the GM spends", etc.) can paradoxically be really liberating for the GM, as it gives the GM the chance to play full-on antagonist in fair way that doesn't break the game. Note my example for Antagonist stance came from a Polaris game, where GM duties are shared and you take turns playing antagonist for other players' PCs.
I'm thinking back to some of my most frustrating GMing experiences, and I think a lot of them were cases where two stances came into conflict, or where the stance I wanted didn't work well with the game I was playing, or where I was expecting to play in one stance but the players were expecting another, incompatible one. For example, I found Spirit of the Century hard to GM because I, being real excited about bringing the 1920s setting to life, really wanted to play it straight-up World-builder, but the resolution system in that game is really hard to use impartially, and the other players were clearly hoping I'd give them direction. It was a big mess.
Anyway, what do you think? Is this a useful way to think about GMing techniques? When does it make sense to switch stances mid-game, or is it better to pick one approach for the whole campaign and stick to it? Are there more, or fewer, than the six stances I described above?
You should start from the beginning. It's crudely drawn and usually more depressing than funny, but the observations about Afghan society, about the practical aspects of traveling around a war-torn country without getting killed, and about the continually evolving state of things over there are all totally fascinating.
Like, did you know the Taliban have started terrorizing the highways with high-speed, bomb-chucking biker gangs?
It starts kind of slow, but watch the whole thing. The first half is about how the computer gaming industry got totally blindsided by the unexpected success, in the last couple years, of games that extend into the real world in one way or another, as well as games that exploit human psychological flaws to keep people playing and paying.
The second half is what I really want you to see, though. He lays out a vision of the future which is all-too-plausible, horrifying, and yet strangely attractive at the same time. "It's coming", Jesse says, "Because what's gonna stop it?"
At ten years old, Aleksa is already a serious gamer. She discovered an MMORPG for kids called Wizard 101 and asked if I would play it with her. I don't normally like MMORPGs, and Wizard101 looked like a total Harry Potter knock-off, but I thought it would at least be fun to have something we can play together when she's in Illinois and I'm in California.
It turns out that not only is it a great way to play together long-distance, but Wizard101 is actually quite a fun and well-designed game in its own right. The more I discover about it, the more respect I have for the game designers (a small Austin, TX company called Kingsisle, with about 100 employees).
They have over 10 million players - in other words, Wizard 101 is only slightly smaller than World of Warcraft! Given that, I don't know why we don't hear more about it. I suspect it flies under the radar due to the fact that it's "freemium" rather than subscription and the fact that it's aimed at 6-14 year olds.
But under the bright, cartoony exterior, Kingisle have made a pretty serious game, with hundreds of hours of content and surprising tactical depth for obsessive optimizers to explore. Years of polish have gone into this thing.
This is going to be another lengthy post, since I think Wizard 101 has interesting things to say about game design and I want to delve into them.
1. The designers learned the right lessons from Magic: the Gathering.
First of all, the core game system is a turn-based collectible card game; all combat is done by playing spell cards, which makes it feel quite different from the typical aggro-based MMORPG combat system.
There are seven schools of magic: Fire, Ice, Storm, Life, Death, Myth, and Balance. You can pick one, or you can take a Sorting Hat -esque personality test, but either way you are then locked into your choice. (I took the test and got Death School. Awesome, I'm Slytherin!)
You'll be able to learn every spell from your main school if you reach the right levels and do the right quests. But you also get Training Points as you level up which can be used to learn spells from other schools. Training Points are rare, and better spells have prerequisites, so the decisions are tricky. Focus on a single secondary school, or pick and choose cheap utility spells from all over? What will combo well with the big spells from your main school? The possibility for customization means that no two wizards will play exactly the same, even in the same school.
Since everybody is wizards, obviously there isn't the typical set of character classes. Each school has its own specialties -- Death loves life-draining effects, Myth loves summoning minions, Storm has mega-damage with low accuracy, etc. etc. But every character gets enough damage and self-healing spells to be soloable. You don't NEED to form a party of tank/healer/nuker; everybody's a generalist.
Between battles, you can customize your deck. You can put in up to three copies of any spell that you know; you start each battle with a random hand of seven cards. Like Magic: the Gathering, each school has color hosers against its enemy schools, and monsters are often resistant against one school, so there's good reason to tweak your deck based on the enemies you're facing. Unlike Magic, you can discard freely and you always draw up to 7 each turn, so there's little penalty for including very situational cards as you can always cycle them.
Each spell has a "pip" cost equal to its mana cost. You build up pips one per round. That means you can cast a 1-mana spell every round; or you can pass three times and then cast a 4-mana spell, for instance. There are also 0-cost spells, which typically don't do damage but instead buff and debuff, cause or remove conditions, etc. So you can cast 0-mana spells for three rounds and then cast your 4-mana spell. Much of the fun lies in choosing 0-cost spells that will set up effective combos for your big spells, so that you can do something useful while charging up.
The pip system accomplishes something similar to the land system in M:tG (but without mana screw): gives you a reason to include a mixture of low-cost and high-cost spells in your deck, and ensures that the basic cheap spells you learned at the beginning of the game always remain useful and are not eclipsed by the bigger, costlier spells you learn as you level up.
(PvP is allowed, but only by mutual consent within a special PvP arena. I haven't tried it out yet.)
2. Grouping is low-cost, low-committment
Battles take place in a magic circle, clearly visible to others; if you enter it, you join the battle. That means that if you're running by and somebody calls for help, it's very simple to pop in and help them out; if you don't want to fight, you just avoid the circle. Joining the circle generally causes another monster to join the circle as well, keeping the encounter balanced at about the same difficulty level no matter how many players are working together. If you're collecting monster drops for a quest, *every* player who participated in the battle gets the item; that means there's no fighting over loot. Finally, everybody's a wizard -- in the absence of the usual healer/tank/nuker paradigm, anybody can make a useful contribution to any group.
All of these design choices add up to an environment where helping out a stranger is a very casual, low-cost decision. Nobody ever has to wait around town spamming "L32 rogue LFG"; you don't have to stop playing when your healer signs off for the night. You just start soloing your quest, and while you're battling maybe you run into someone else on the same quest and help each other out; when the quest is done you might friend each other or just say thanks and go your separate ways. Easy breezy.
3. No Death Penalty
When you reach 0 hp, you can't fight anymore. You have the choice of fleeing, or waiting around in the battle for a friend to heal you (any healing spell will put you back in the fight). If you click Flee, or if you die alone, you instantly respawn in a safe location with 1 hp. You lose nothing but the time it takes to recharge your health. Health regenerates while you're in safe areas, so you can do some quick run-around-talk-to-NPC town quests and earn XP while you're waiting. Or you can drink a potion for an instant refill; potion bottles are a tightly limited resource, but you can refill a bottle by paying gold or playing minigames. The minigames aren't bad (they're mostly re-themed versions of old arcade classics), they're a nice change of pace, and they give you mana and gold too.
You can always teleport to anyone on your friends list, so if you have a friend in the dungeon, you can heal up and then rejoin the quest instantly. Sometimes you can even rejoin the very same battle that killed you! "Hey, I'm back, what did I miss?"
So the worst you ever suffer from dying is having to play a round of Dig Dug or Tetris Attack. Think about how not frustrating that is compared to typical MMORPG design: No corpse runs, no equipment damage, no XP penalty. Obviously, when you're aiming at kids it's important not to be frustrating. But ask yourself: why do we think "serious" games need harsh death penalties? Wizard101 proves that treating death lightly does not, in fact, ruin the rest of the game. So why do game designers feel the need to punish players?
4. Cool Setting
The game's multiverse, called "The Spiral", is pretty cool. The spiral is a collection of floating-island worlds which reflect different mythologies. The first world is Wizard City, built among the roots of the World Tree, and serving as this game's Hogwarts / Diagon Alley; I've also unlocked Krokotopia, an ancient-Egyptian world of talking reptiles, and Grizzleheim, a Norse world of bears and wolves. I hear rumors of Marleybone, a steampunk Victorian London of cats and dogs, and other worlds like Dragonspire and Celestia. It's almost like a cartoonier version of the Planescape multiverse or something.
The initial "wizard school" setup is extremely Harry Potter-ish, true, but as the story goes on it draws on a wider range of fantasy tropes and inspirations. It's not exactly the most original thing, but so what? Some of it may be old hat to us jaded oldsters, but the implementation is pretty good. And for the target audience, it may be the first time they've seen some of these tropes in action.
5. Seamless First-Run Experience
The technical implementation is amazingly well done (aside from only running on Windows, cough). They made the path to start playing as seamless as possible. You can start playing without paying anything. You can start making your character using a flash app on the website. While you're doing that, the game installer starts downloading in the background and installing the absolute minimal data to start playing. By the time you're done making your character, the game client has your information and is ready to go. It dynamically downloads the rest of the game content while you're playing around in the starting areas. Mad props to the programmers who pulled this off; it's the kind of achievement that sadly most people won't even notice or think about -- except when they play another game and wonder why it takes so long to start.
The slickness continues once in the game. The tutorial quests do a really smooth job of teaching you the interface and basic mechanics while introducing you to the main mentor and villain NPCs (aka "Definitely Not Dumbledore" and "Definitely Not Voldemort") and the main storyline. You can break off and explore at your own at any time, but if you just follow the dotted line of the starting quest chains, they'll take you through the first few levels while teaching you everything you need to know. This is pretty important for getting new players into such an open-ended game.
6. No Subscription Needed
The pricing model is "freemium", i.e. you can start playing free, but certain features cost real money. Payment is in "crowns", i.e. you pay (or get your parents to pay) like $10 on the website for 5000 crowns or whatever, then you spend them in-game to unlock stuff. Certain areas of each game world cost like 1000 crowns each to unlock, but once you buy them they're unlocked forever. This ties the cost to the progress you've made rather than to the raw number of hours you've spent.
It works really well, as parents can control the total spending while allowing the kid to make the decisions about what they want. You can sample the gameplay before committing to anything, and there's no feeling of a time limit -- it's not like you're "wasting" money if you don't play for a couple weeks.
Or, if you prefer, you can pay a monthly fee to unlock everything. Whichever makes more sense for you. Kingsisle is happy to take your money whichever way you want to give it to them.
You can also spend crowns on vanity items like flying broomsticks, rare pets, fancy hats, etc., and to "respec" your character (i.e. buy back all training points).
7. Focused Like A Laser
If you read interviews with the designers, it's obvious that they had a very clear vision for Wizard 101. Most of them had just come off of working on a very dark, violent, M-rated, hard-core MMO called Shadowbane (which died in 2009), and they wanted to do something different. They saw that there was an unmet demand for an online game that families could play together, i.e. something kids could play, but with enough depth not to bore adults to death. So they focused like a laser on that concept, and threw out everything that didn't fit.
I think this is one of the most important things for a designer to do; there's so much temptation to put in everything you can think of and try to please everybody, but it doesn't work. In Wizrd101, every decision they made supports their vision of something that the family can play together. Everything from the art style to the interface design to the combat system to the chat filter, like it or not, exists to reinforce this concept. The final product has a level of coherence and consistent feel that you wouldn't get any other way.
Stuff I don't like:
Not everything is roses, of course. Aside from the standard MMORPG gameplay flaws ("Oh how exciting: another kill-ten-rats quest. Sigh...") there are a few "features" that I could really do without.
1. Long attack animations
Every non-trivial attack spell in the game uses a Final Fantasy-esque summoning animation. These animations take.
They're fun the first or second time you see them, but by the tenth time I played a Ghoul I wished there was a way to fast-forward it. And your enemies are also attacking with summoning animations. So the battles move quite slowly. It's good to have someone to chat with while you're fighting.
2. No item trading
With the exception of Treasure Cards, items can't be given to or exchanged with other players, which is lame. You can give items to alt characters on the same account, so I don't think it's a technological limitation; it seems to be a conscious design decision. Maybe they didn't want to worry about kids getting ripped off in unfair trades and then complaining? I find a lot of item drops that I can't use, and it would be more fun to give them to players who could use them rather than just selling them to the auction house.
3. Inaccurate magic names
This is a really minor pet peeve, but the names some of the magical specializations are just wrong. Necromancers and Pyromancers are exactly what you'd expect, but then they go and call Storm wizards "Diviners". What? They're not diviners! Diviners use magic to predict the future and learn secrets beyond mortal ken! Storm wizards don't see the future, they just summon lightning sharks!
And Ice wizards are called "Thaumaturges"? What the heck? "Thaumaturge" is Greek for "Miracle worker", and it's been used for a lot of different kinds of magic in various fantasy fiction, but I've never heard of it being associated with ice or cold in any way.
You're abusing my obscure fantasy vocabulary! NERD RAGE!
4. Severly restricted text input
You can't name your character freely, for instance; you have to mix-and-match morphemes from a list. That's why my character has such a twee name (um... "Corwin Lotusweaver". Ahem.) On the plus side, this does mean nobody's named things like XxX_N00B_sLaYeR_XxX... but it is kind of boring how many Stormcallers and Dragonfires there are running around.
Chat is primarily menu-based. (Thankfully, the menus contain names of items and quests you might be looking for help with...) It's nice for kids who haven't learned to type yet. There's also text chat if it's enabled in the parental controls, but even there, any word not on their whitelist is blocked. That's right, they don't use a blacklist, they use a whitelist.
I understand why they did it that way, but it's still unpleasantly draconian. (I bypass the whole thing by running Skype in the background so I can talk to Aleksa with my actual voice.)