My Gaming Roots: Master Plan and its influences
Lately I've been reading people's reminiscing about their early days with original D&D boxed sets and such. It has inspired me to share my own gaming origin story, as it were.
I'm about half a generation to a generation younger than the original D&D demographic -- I was born in 1980. I think the first time I heard the words "Dungeons and Dragons" was from the saturday morning cartoon. Yes, the one where they ride a D&D themed roller-coaster at the amusement park that dumps them into a fantasy world, where the Dungeon Master has a physical presence as a tiny Yoda-like man, where the characters were totally dependent on overpowered magical items (ok, that part is realistic).
My early gaming experiences were board games; and video games, starting with stuff like Centipede and Joust on Jake's Atari 5200, then soon graduating to the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System which had just recently come out. (My family got the SMS -- the Beta VCR of video game consoles -- while I only played NES at my cousin's house, so my video game nostalgia is a little different from most people my age. Zillion! Alex Kidd! Fantasy Zone!)
The first time I encountered the term "Role-playing game" was on the box of a Sega game called Phantasy Star. It was a real eye-opener: way more in-depth story and world exploration than any game I had seen before; first-person viewpoint dungeons that required mapping to solve; turn-based combat with a menu interface and hit points -- very different from the arcade style violence I was familiar with, but I soon figured it out. Also the very Japanese anime stylings of this game soaked pretty deep into my young brain, though I didn't know what they were at the time. The shameless mix of fantasy and sci-fi elements in Phantasy Star (magic axes! hovercrafts! commercial space flight! manticores! Huzzah!) would also be a big influence on me.
Around the same time, i got heavily into a board game called Hero Quest. (Turns out this is published by MB but developed by Games Workshop, so it was marginally related to the Warhammer world, but I didn't know that at the time.) It was a dungeon-crawling board game with nicely detailed plastic miniatures and cardboard furniture/scenery. A wizard, a barbarian, an elf, and a dwarf go into a dungeon to kill anything that moves and take anything not nailed down. The GM, called "Zargon", who is instructed to try to kill the PCs in order to "Win", has a quest map behind a screen that shows him where to set up stuff on the board when the characters enter each room; also the traps and secret doors. You could play a 'campaign' by doing each quest in the book in sequence, your characters getting more powerful by collecting treasure cards.
Another big influence was the Legend of Zelda series. I love the nonlinearity of these games, the huge size of their worlds, and the fascinating interactivity of the pieces that make up those worlds. They were light on story, heavy on exploration and puzzle-solving, and if you took the time to experiment with the effect of using different items on different objects and enemies, you would be rewarded by discovering secrets and opening up new areas to explore. I loved roaming around the world, burning bushes, picking up rocks, making discoveries, getting myself into trouble, finding the fairy springs and the dungeon entrances, and gauging my strength to decide when I was ready to tackle each dungeon level. These Levels, especially in the SNES game and afterwards, are quite devious and ingeniously designed, with puzzles within puzzles, so that you have to grasp the big picture of the dungeon construction in order to figure out what to do next.
So, it was about 1992 or 1993, I think. Phantasy Star + Hero Quest + Zelda was swirling around in my head. Then one day I saw some big kids at the high school playing what I think was 1st edition AD&D in the cafeteria after school. "Can I play??" "No." "Can I look at this book while you guys play?" "Ok, sure". So while they had an argument about whether a guy with a morningstar could swing it around to hit multiple enemies at once, I skimmed through the hardback PHB. I remember seeing the list of player races (including half-orc) and a conversion table for coinage (including electrum pieces).
A light went on in my head. I went home that night, got some paper, and set to work on making my own version. Buying the books didn't even occur to me; there was no hobby game store in my town, and I didn't have any money. But who needs to buy books? All I need is a list of races, a list of classes, some stats, some dice, and then a quest map on graph paper like the ones in HeroQuest, and I could start playing this with my cousins! It wouldn't be much different from making up board game rules, or inventing video game levels on paper, two things I used to do a lot.
My game was called Master Plan. Like many other first attempts, it was entirely Gamist, with no concessions to either story or realism. Dungeons needed no other reason to exist except that they provided a challenge to PCs, and towns needed be nothing more than a place to heal up and buy supplies. Unlike many other first attempts, it was very low on direct D&D influences. I had experience levels and hit points and stuff, but I got those from video games (which had got them, through many steps of influence, from D&D).
I think the only things Master Plan took straight from D&D was the idea of rolling dice to determine your stats (though I did not keep the names of the stats or the dice ranges), and the fact that there were five denominations of currency with fixed exchange rates between them. (Don't know why, I just felt like stealing that detail.)
For classes, I had fighter and wizard (wizard having many, many sub-specialties, of which healing was one) plus, if I remember correctly, Martial Artist, Engineer, and Spy. The last three existed only in theory, since none of my core players was one. Races were human, elf, dwarf, hobbit (cuz of course I had to have all the LOTR races; and what's a halfling? They're hobbits, duh!). And ents, and dragons, and slime creatures. I remember worrying that the scale of my graph paper maps would be screwed up, because if I made it big enough for dragons and ents to walk through dungeons, it would be too big for everybody else, and if it was the right size for everyone else, then dragons and ents couldn't walk through dungeons. I don't remember if I ever found a good solution, but stuff like this bothered me a lot.
My cousin Jacob was a slime wizard named Globble D. Gleep. My other cousin Bobby was a dragon fighter (of course you still pick a class, even if you're a dragon! duh!). I forget his character name.
Master Plan was so thoroughly video-game inspired that the first couple adventures included save points. Then Jacob proved how abusable they were ("OK, I save my game, buy one of every mystery fruit, eat them all, see what happens, and then reload my game.") so I took them out and declared that everything was auto-saved.
When I went looking for polyhedral dice, I somehow ended up with a lot of d12s and not much of the others. I have no idea where they came from. But I had a lot of d12s, so I made up mechanics that used them. Resolution was mostly "roll d12 under your stat". There was no skill system, only stats. For opposed rolls, including attempts to hit people, it was "add d8 to your stat, other side does the same, compare numbers." (The d8s came from Bobby's copy of the Dune boardgame. Not the good Dune boardgame, the 1984 movie tie-in one.) To find out how much damage you did on a hit, you rolled a dice pool (more d12s) and counted the number that were above the target's armor value. Magic weapons used d20 dice pools instead, and especially difficult tasks require rolling a d20 under the appropriate stat. The number of experience points you needed to collect doubled every level; going up a level gave you some amount of bonus points to distribute among your stats.
The magic system was bizzare, but it seemed perfectly intuitive and obvious to me at the time. Spells cost magic points , but in order to cast one, just spending the points wasn't enough. I required the *player*, not the character, to correctly recite any magic words and correctly draw any runes involved in casting the spell. (As well as burning physical components in some cases.) "Learning" a new spell meant that I would literally tell you what the magic words and runes were. The player was allowed to write spells down in a physical book, which would be their "spellbook", but to consult the spellbook would take up a turn of game time, to encourage players to memorize.
The idea of using runes I swiped wholesale from the Earthsea trilogy; the magic words were literal descriptions of the spell effects rendered in rather bad Latin (which I was studying in school at the time). The whole player-memorization thing was, if I recall correctly, inspired by that one charcter on disney's Gummi Bears cartoon who was like an absent-minded old wizardy dude who kept forgetting the words to his spells. There was possibly also some influence from Schmendrik in The Last Unicorn, who botched spells a lot. I remember thinking that Schmendrik was a really cool character -- but how could a game possibly simulate a character who wants to be a wizard but isn't? Surely, if you make a game character, he's either a wizard or he's not, right? I saw no solution to this.
To my mind, the player saying the right words literally caused the spell to happen. Therefore, it was only logical that saying the wrong words would cause a spell misfire effect based on the closest literal meaning of whatever you said. Conversely, if a player ever correctly guessed the words for a spell that their character hadn't actually learned, I would let it work. That just seemed fair to me. I never really considered the many potential problems with this approach.
The main storyline, such as it was, consisted of pitting the player characters against a group of evil, undead/demonic Real Estate Salesmen, with plans for world domination. They had airships and death rays and stuff. I don't think I even knew what a real-estate salesman was, I just knew they were evil. If you killed one, it would keep regenerating back to life unless you doused it with Holy Hydrosulfuric Acid, which was their one weakness. (Luckily there were bottles of this stuff cached in treasure chests all over the place.)
When we got a situation where there was no rule to handle it, I'd ad-hoc a new rule, then write it down and try to enforce it consistently from then on. If it seemed like a player should be rolling against a stat, but none of the existing stats covered it, then I'd just invent a new stat! Need to know how long you can hold your breath underwater? OK, there is now a Lung Capacity stat. (I was quite fond of giving things extremely literal names.) I go and decide what dice range each race should have for starting Lung Capacity, then you roll yours as if we had done it at character creation time, then we use your new Lung Capacity to resolve the current situation.
My point is, I was continuously inventing new rules to handle whatever new situations came up. (In other words, it was absolutely typical of the Old-Skool D&D experience that my elders had been having since 1974.) This approach worked quite well, because it meant we didn't have rules we didnt' need, and the rules automatically became more detailed in the areas the players were interested in engaging with. I had exactly the same approach to mapping out areas (towns, dungeons, wilderness) -- we'd figure out where the player was going to go next, and I'd take some time to draw the map on graph paper, and then we'd get back together and play out the section I had just made up.
It was fun! But looking back on it now, I have a different understanding of what made it fun. Back then, I believed that by making up rules and dungeons as we went along, I was doing it wrong. I thought I was half-assing it. I thought the correct way to play would be if I had rules to cover every imaginable situation, and if the whole world existed ahead of time, mapped out in detail down to the last square of graph paper (which were 1 meter in Master Plan -- I was very pro-Metric). Only then would the players be let loose in this setting, to do whatever they wanted. And wherever they went, and whatever they did, I would know exactly what they found there and what happened. Looking back on it now, I think that my ad-hoc approach was exactly what made it playable and interesting.
But remember, I was trying to recreate a computer RPG on paper, so my ideal was non-linear exploration of a fully pre-existing world. Concrete, complete, logical, with data in place to determine what was hidden under every last rock and tree in the world. That was the sort of detail and concreteness I expected, and was disappointed in myself when I couldn't provide.
I didn't even like the idea of wandering monsters. I read about it somewhere and recoiled in horror at the idea that a monster could just appear out of nowhere as the result of a die roll. That monster had to come from somewhere, right? So I thought that the right way would be to include those monsters on my initial map of the dungeon, along for rules as to how they move from one place to another outside the players' awareness.
You could call it a strong simulationist impulse, but what I was trying to simulate had nothing to do with reality. For instance, I saw nothing wrong with a dragon walking into a store and buying a large mecha. As long as he had the money, right?
The campaign was fun while it lasted, but eventually it died, mainly because the other two players were sick of me taking so long to make up dungeons. At the time that they quit, I was hard at work on my biggest dungeon yet, which was actually an airship that the players were supposed to sneak aboard, sabotage, and eventually take over for their own use. (I spent so long on this that "Making up the airship" became Bobby's shorthand phrase for my massive overpreparation syndrome.)
So Master Plan ended, but my approach to world-building and game-mastering continued to be influenced by that first campaign for many years afterwards. Part of the reason that it was hard for me to make the leap to the narrativist, fully improvised gaming that I now enjoy is because there has always been this little voice in the back of my head that says: nothing really exists in the game world unless it's been mapped out on graph paper ahead of time.
The Menu Approach
Ponder this: We're playin' a game. It's got four classes: fighter, mage, cleric, thief.
I can play a viking raider, a samurai, a knight-errant, a barbarian, a hunter, etc. etc.; they're all covered by the "fighter" rules. Or, I can play an alchemist, witch, necromancer, etc. etc., all using the rules for "mage". They may not be differentiated by game mechanics but they're certainly differentiated in how I role-play them. And I don't just mean color, either; it could very much affect how I fit into the society of the game world, how other people react to me, how I approach problems, and even what sort of expertise I have outside of fighting. A samurai would be trained in classical poetry forms, a barbarian would not; they'd both know how to ride horses, the viking wouldn't, etc. That's just, like, duh! You don't need a rule that says that. You just need a halfway functional game group with a baseline level of creative collaboration.
But then, guess what! A new supplement comes out for our game, that adds a "samurai" class. He's got specific bonuses to poetry and horse-riding skills as well as feats that let him catch blades with his bare hands and cut through seven peasants with a single stroke! Suddenly, my prized samurai, made with the fighter rules, is now demoted to a generic fighter, because he's not part of the new 'samurai' class. In fact, if samurai is a class now, then viking and barbarian and knight ought to be classes too, so our fighters can't be vikings or barbarians or knights anymore. Fighters are just, um, fighters. I guess we can make up rules for viking and barbarian and knight classes -- but oh look! There's another supplement coming out next month with a "barbarian" class in it, so we shouldn't make up our own version, because it might be different from the "official" one.
And remember last week how you jumped on that fleeing thief, pinned him to the ground, wrestled the jewel out of his hands, and threw it back to the wizard? Yeah that was cool. But the new supplement has grapple rules! Jumping the thief last week *should* have been done with the grapple rules. From now on, no grappling without using the grapple rules, OK? Unfortunately the rules make most of us really bad at it unless we buy specific combat maneuver options during chargen. A whole range of fun, interesting, cinematic actions that we used to be able to do whenever we could convince the GM that it was dramatically appropriate have been rendered completely ineffective except to characters specifically pre-optimized for them.
I'm not saying that rules kill imagination -- not exactly. I'm a firm believer that some kinds of rules can be a tremendous aid to imagination. But the philosophy that says a game should list every possible option, like a menu, with a price and specific dice bonuses for each one: That kind of rules design kills creativity.
This is my biggest problem with the design philosophy of 3rd and 4th edition D&D. I understand it can be seductive for both designers and players; around 96-97 I went through a whole period of abortive homebrew designs that did the same thing -- tried to lay out a specific rule for every possible thing you might want to do. None of them ever got played beyond a couple of playtest fights.
I hope I'm not shocking anybody when I say there's no mystery why WotC era D&D has embraced this style of design: It creates demand for additional sets of official options, which enables WotC to sell more sourcebooks. There's nothing wrong with that; they're a business, they need to make money. They put out quality products with solid design that lots of people enjoy, so more power to them. I have defended WotC and their games in many arguments. But my perspective has changed, and I'm moving away from this type of gaming.
I guess I'm making an argument for rules that touch lightly on the fiction, and let me fill in the interesting details myself. Don't give me a menu -- give me a cutting board, a vegetable knife, and a saucepan. I want to do the cooking!
Do Role-Playing Games Need Social Conflict Mechanics?
The Oldest Argument in Role-Playing, Act I, Scene 4
Player: I convince the guard to let us in. I've got +11 to fast-talk!
(Player reaches for dice)
GM: Hold it. What do you *say*?
GM: To the guard. What do you say to the guard? He's all like "What business have an elf and a halfling in the keep at this hour? Identify yourselves!"
Player: Umm... "Out of my way! Your boss is under a spell and we gotta knock some sense into him!"
(Player rolls d20)
Player: Look, I got a 17! Let's see those guards beat a 28!
GM: No way are they going to let you in! You just said you were going to beat up their boss! That goes directly against their orders. "Get out of here, you scoundrels, before we decide to use you for ballista target practice."
Player: But the rules say that they have to make a Will save or else they do what I want!
GM (getting angry): I'm not rolling a Will save! You can't just game your way through everything without role-playing!
Player (getting angry): You're just trying to railroad me into solving some stupid puzzle to get into this keep, aren't you?
Does your favorite RPG have social conflict rules? E.g. a game mechanic for determining whether one character can convince another character to do what they say? If so, how do you use them? How do you decide when to use them and when not to use them? If there are no such rules, how do you decide what happens in such a situation?
This seemingly minor point can be very contentious. Thing is that to most people I've met, the right way to handle it is perfectly obvious... except to some, it's obvious one way, and to others, it's obvious the other way.
There's two schools of thought on this.
The Just Role-Play It Out! school. Some gamers and game designers I talk to look down on social-conflict rules. They believe that social-conflict scenes should be resolved purely by in-character arguments/threats/bribes/begging/trickery. Mechanics are at best an unwanted intrusion into such a scene, and at worst are part of a sinister plot to turn RPGs into board games by replacing all role-playing with dice. The natural extension of the just-role-play-it-out philosophy is that randomizers should be used only for things that can't be done by the players at the table -- such as fighting and other physical challenges.
The Your Character Is Not You! school points out that mechanics are useful. What if, in real life, a player is shy and not very persuasive, but they want to play a silver-tongued character? (Or vice-versa?) Letting the numbers on the character sheet influence the outcome of social conflicts makes it possible to play someone who is very different from yourself in personality, wit, etc., and have your character concept backed up by the authority of the game system. Besides, role-playing out the argument may sound good in theory, but sometimes neither player wants to give in, and then what do you do? A bad GM will use resolution-by-fiat to punish you any time you do something he didn't expect -- better to have an impartial rule to resolve the disagreement.
In Just Role-Play It Out style play, if there is any disagreement about whether a character should get their way or not, the GM decides. The GM can override any social mechanics used. In Your Character Is Not You! style play, if there is any disagreement, it is ultimately resolved by the game mechanics. The rules can override the GM. So another way of looking at the question is, "Does ultimate authority rest with the GM, or with the rules?" The answer to this question affects every aspect of the game, not just social conflict resolution.
How they influence different schools of game design and play
Old-school game designs (GURPS, for instance) typically have social conflict mechanics... often not-very-well developed and hidden away in some obscure chapter of the book where they can be easily ignored. (Old-school game designs usually have mechanics for everything, if you look hard enough!) That means it's the group's decision to use the social conflict mechanics or not. Such games support both Your Character Is Not You play and Just Role-Play It Out play.
(Want to have a totally dysfunctional gaming experience? Get together some people who assume you're playing one way, with some people who assume you're playing the other way, and then start playing without discussing the issue! Guaranteed arguments and hurt feelings all around!)
Indie-style game designs (PrimeTime Adventures, for instance) typically have a single conflict-resolution mechanic. A fistfight? Hide-and-seek? A public debate? You're trying to make somebody feel guilty about abandoning you? The game mechanics don't recognize any difference. You state your objective and what you're doing, then you invoke the game mechanics, and they tell you if you accomplished it or not. In some games of PTA, almost every conflict is social in nature. The indie school comes down pretty hard on the side of Your Character Is Not You and ultimate authority is with the rules.
In contrast, free-form, LARP, and online forum role-playing all come down very hard on the side of Just Role-Play It Out and ultimate authority is with the GM, for pretty obvious reasons. I have little experience with these styles of gaming so that's all I'll say about them.
My gaming experience and preferences
These days I play almost entirely indie games, so mostly I play with rules that are strongly Your character is not you oriented. I've been pondering how I feel about that.
When I'm GMing, I very much like having clear and fair game mechanics to fall back upon. I strongly dislike having to be sole arbiter of whether or not a PC's demands are persuasive enough for a given NPC to go along with. Sometimes I just can't make up my mind, you know? Then I just want to be able to roll some dice. (This is closely related to my previous article about my preference for conflict-res systems that allow me to play hard and fair while improvising.)
But at the same time, I think the concern of the Just Role-Play It school is justified. The danger of missing out on role-play because it's been replaced with mechanics is a real danger.
Indie-style game designs tend to have clear rules and procedures that cover everything you do in play. That's great! It makes them user-friendly and keeps a lot of frustration out of my gaming. But it's got a dark side: A game where the rules and procedures are too clear and cover every case too well is a game that can be played without reference to the fiction. D&D 4th edition combat is like this -- you can play it as "I move here. I use this ability against this enemy. Roll to hit. Roll damage..." It's board-gaming, or war-gaming. It's not role-playing, at least not by my definition.
In an indie game with a really well-developed social-conflict system, you can war-game a social interaction! You could play Dogs in the Vineyard and say "OK, I'm going to convince the sorceror to repent and seek God's forgiveness." and then roll dice, raise, see, block, take blows, reverse blows, escalate, and finally win or lose, all purely on a mechanical level, without role-playing what your character says or does. You "can" do this in the sense of "The game won't completely fall apart if you do", but dear gods it would Suck So Bad! You'd be missing out on everything that makes the game fun. You'd be creating the outline of a story instead of the story itself. You'd be creating crappy fiction.
So, I guess my advice is: don't do that!
Just because you can do something via the game rules doesn't mean you should. If the game rules don't force you to role-play, then you have to police yourself. You gotta have some discipline. I'd go so far as to say one of the key skills you need to develop when playing Your Character is Not You style: The discipline of not rushing into the conflict mechanics too soon.
My current group has had some problems with this in the past. In Primetime Adventures, Spirit of the Century, and in Polaris, whenever we activated the conflict mechanics too fast, the result was lackluster. It played more like a synopsis of a cool scene than the cool scene itself. (The conflict mechanics are very... tempting in these games. Especially Polaris, because the way you resolve conflicts is just so cool!) It was much better when we forced ourselves to slow down and role-play, add details and let the scene develop more before we engaged mechanics. You know the rule in writing that says "Show, don't tell"? That.
"I demand the guards let us in. Conflict! If I win, they let us in. If I lose, they apprehend us. Roll! I win! They must have seen the steely glint in my eye and known not to mess with me. We go on into the keep..."
That's playing the synopsis of the scene. And maybe that's OK, if the scene wasn't very important. But if it wasn't important, why were you playing it?
"We put George on a makeshift stretcher, right? He moans and stuff like he's badly wounded. The rest of us carry him towards the gate, and when the guards stop us I say 'Have you no decency? This man is in desperate need of a doctor! If you don't let us in, it will be your fault when he dies!' I look the guard straight in the eye and glare, like I'm daring him to stop me."
Now we're playing the scene, not just the synopsis.
We haven't gotten to the conflict mechanics yet. Maybe we'll engage them -- maybe we won't. Maybe my character's actions and words are just so persuasive that you don't feel like challenging me: You role-play the guards being persuaded, and we continue. If you think the guards are not persuaded, then you role-play them not being persuaded. Maybe you make a counter-threat, and then I decide whether to keep arguing or admit failure and try something else. If neither side gives, and the argument goes on to the point where it would be tedious to keep playing it, only then should somebody say "Hey guys, I think we should do this as a social conflict." Then we go to the game mechanics.
Thus, the persuasiveness of your fictional statements AND the rules of the game both have a chance to influence the outcome.
The Override Button: why every RPG needs it
Subtle but important point, above: There has to be the option to use or not to use the conflict rules, or to modify them, depending on human judgement about the state of the fiction. That option is what allows fictional statements to influence game-mechanical outcomes. It creates the space wherein role-playing happens. Every RPG needs this kind of "override button", because without some way for fiction to influence game mechanics, you have a board-game or war-game. (Or computer RPG.) The override button doesn't need to be pressed every time -- but the option to press it must exist.
Different games implement the override button in different ways. In Dogs in the Vineyard, for instance, either side of the conflict has the option to Give instead of Seeing a Raise. Giving usually means that you're so impressed by your opponent's Raise that you lose the will to keep the conflct going. In fact, conflicts where that happened are some of the most memorable scenes in my Dogs experience, because they involved Raises that were so emotionally powerful.
In almost every traditional RPG design, the GM has the ability to put arbitrary modifiers on die rolls depending on how likely they think a plan is to work. This serves the same function: Human interpretation of the fiction has the power to influence the game mechanics. Traditional RPG designs have lots of override buttons randomly sticking out here and there; often they have a great big override button on page one that says "Rule Zero: the GM can ignore any rules they want for the sake of the fiction."
PrimeTime Adventures is an interesting case. In PTA, the number of cards I draw is determined by my traits, my screen presence, and how much fanmail I spend. I don't get bonus cards for persuasive role-playing! Therefore, how well I role-play my character's argument has absolutely no effect on my chances of success. There is human judgement, though: it's in deciding whether the guards are a conflict or not. If I'm persuasive enough, the Producer may decide that the guards wave me through. That's why I say there has to be the option of when to use the conflict rules -- it's the only override button that PTA has. In games like PTA, where the rules are very concrete, it's extra important to discipline yourself to play to the fiction, and not just play to the rules.
I've wandered rather far away from the original question of social conflict mechanics, haven't I? Sorry, I've got a tendency to ramble. But really there's no way to answer the social conflict mechanics question without getting into all this stuff about the relationship between mechanics, fiction, and authority. There's some really hairy philosophical questions lurking in that relationship, and much potential for game-ruining disagreements. I've barely scratched the surface in this post.
But anyway, to answer the original question, I guess this is my preferred compromise for social mechanics -- and for everything else:
Rules have ultimate authority, but they include override buttons to allow human interpretation of the fiction.
Random Landmass Generator
It assigns random heights to each point on the map, then smooths them out by repeatedly averaging each point with its neighbors, then makes everything above a certain height land and everything below that point water.
The four settings you can tweak are:
- Volcanic activity: the number and severity of random events that put randomly high spikes (or deep pits) in random locations around the map. Higher volcanic activity makes a map with more and bigger "clumps", for lack of a better term.
- Ruggedness: the amount of random variation added to every point on the map in addition to the volcanic activity. Higher ruggedness tends to make more mountains and less plains.
- Erosion: the number of times the averaging algorithm is run. Higher erosion means each point will be more like its neighbors, so smoother coastlines and less sudden changes in height.
- Sea Level: where the cutoff is between land and water; higher sea level means less connected landmass and more isolated islands.
All this is extremely unrealistic, of course. Real mountain ranges tend to be more linear, because they form along tectonic plate boundaries, whereas mine are more clumpy. Also my planet is a torus, not a sphere (you'll notice it wraps around east-to-west and north-to-south). Also it's lacking rivers, climactic zones, vegetation, etc. But play around with the settings and see if you get a map you like! (At which point you'll have to save a screenshot, since there's no other save feature at the moment.)
[Edit: Updated! I added a fifth parameter for tweaking, Fault Lines. It makes large-scale linear features, which add some backbone to the eventual continents.]
I wish Avatar was on TV when I was a kid
Cat has gotten me and Sushu into Avatar, the Last Airbender, a Nickelodeon quasi-anime serial adventure cartoon set in a pseudo-Asian fantasy world.
I'm generally skeptical of any Western production that tries too hard to be "anime"-ish. So much utter crap has been created by cynical types trying to cash in on the popularity of a visual style without bothering to learn anything from anime storytelling.
But on the other hand, I know Avatar has a huge and dedicated online fanbase of people who are way too old to be in its target audience, so I expected it to be of some quality.
Now that I've seen the first season, I'm happy to report that I quite like it. At first I was like "Hey, this is a pretty well-done kids show that doesn't insult my intelligence", but it gets better and better as it goes along. By the time I got to the two-part Season 1 finale, The Siege of the North (cool name!) I was going "Holy Crap, This Is AWESOME!"
Now that I think about it, Avatar has more than a little in common with The Mysterious Cities of Gold, a Japanese-French co-production that was on Nickelodeon when I was about 6-9. They're both epic adventure stories about a multicultural gang of children on a journey through an exotic land under threat of hostile invasion.
It's good to see Nickelodeon can still do good, original stuff once in a while.
In my first paragraph, I called Avatar a "quasi-anime". That's because it does such a good job blending the good stuff from Eastern and Western animation traditions that it's hard to classify. As influences continue to flow back and forth, I hope we see more high-quality melting-pot stuff like this, until we can just call good cartoons good cartoons without classifying them into boxes.
Anyway, the reasons Avatar is good include:
- Way cool martial arts battles. The elemental manipulation powers which are the main fantasy element in the setting are not just used in crappy stock-footage attacks, but are organically integrated into realistic martial arts styles in all sorts of cool and creative ways. According to Wikipedia, Waterbending was based on Tai Chi movemens, Firebending on Northern Shao Lin kung fu, Earthbending on Hung Gar, and Airbending on Ba Gua. (No, I'd never heard of the last two either. Cartoons are educational!) The fights are surprisingly well-choreographed and well-animated.
- Character development. Even the incidental characters get personality, and even the filleriest of filler episodes involve some issue-driven growth for the main characters. Sokka is going from useless comic relief to brave warrior; Aang is going from a goof-off kid who just wants to ride random animals to being an ambassador of peace; Zuko going from relentless antagonist to sympathetic villian to... not sure what yet. I mean, a lot of it is fairly standard adventuring party character tropes, but it's done well.
- Culture. Westerners seem to have a hard time doing "asian"-inspired fantasy without resorting to stereotypes, exotification/fetishization, and general forehead-slapping ignorance. I'm happy to say Avatar does it right. They've got a lot of actual Asians and Asian-americans on the production staff, they get their Chinese characters right, they have a respectful attitude to the source material, and in general they did their homework. Almost every episode teaches us new things about the cultures of the places they travel through, which makes the setting come to life; each nation is a blend of imaginary bits with real-world inspiration. So for instance, the Air Nomads are sort of Tibetan, with flying buffalo; the Fire Nation is sort of Imperialist Japan, with giant steam-powered navies; the Water Tribes are sort of Inuit; etc. etc. Dealing with the beliefs and customs of each place they visit is often a major part of the episode plots. I like how each elemental nation is not a monolithic culture, but has all the variations within it that you would expect in the real world. (Seeing as how in most settings, all Dwarves are Dwarvish, and all Vulcans are Vulcan, etc... yeah.)
I wish Avatar had been on when I was in its target age range; it would have been My Most Favoritest Thing Ever. I bet the kids who are watching Avatar today will be super nostalgic about it when they get to be my age!
Spider-Man vs. Teen Pregnancy
Andrew Farago (Curator at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, and husband of Shaenon Garrity of Narbonic fame) has a blog post about a head-explodingly wrong Spider-Man special feature, co-produced by Marvel Comics and Planned Parenthood, wherein Spider-Man fights teen pregnancy. Specifically, he fights an alien who hypnotizes teenagers into having unprotected sex and getting pregnant so he can use their babies as slave labor on his home planet.
I am not making this up. It's... wow. I am at a loss for words.
It's a sad comment on superhero comics that when they tried to take on Issues of Relevance to Society, they were more likely to do it an awkwardly tacked-on and anviliciously preachy way, like this, than to make the issues a part of the lives of the main characters, like in mainstream fiction.
Yesterday, Aza suggested racing Go-Karts to celebrate me and Sushu's engagement. He recommended a place in Millbrae but I wanted to go somewhere closer, so we went to Malibu Grand Prix in Redwood City.
Malibu Grand Prix turns out to be pretty lame. I don't recommend it. The first WTF is that the "racetrack" is a single lane, they let you out onto it in single file spaced ten seconds apart, and you aren't allowed to pass anybody even if you could catch up to them. Zero player interaction! WTF?
The second WTF is that due to the way the track is set up, you have to get back in line between every lap. Then wait for all the cars in front of you to go. Great, a go-kart traffic jam. The line was extra slow because karts kept randomly stalling out, blocking everybody until a minimum-wage teenager could run out to them with a car battery to jump-start them.
Despite all that, I still had fun just driving around and powering through curves (a lot of the fun of go-karts comes from the fact that you can make turns at a proportional acceleration that would make a real car flip over) but seriously, people, is this any way to run a go-kart business?
Tigris and Euphrates
I've played a lot of Eurogames: Settlers, Carcassonne, Puerto Rico, Power Grid, Alhambra, Caylus...
A lot of Eurogames suffer from Eurogame Syndrome. Eurogame Syndrome goes like this.
1st game. Wow this Eurogame is cool! It has innovative game mechanics, doesn't take all day to play, and there are tricky strategic decisions to make every single turn!
2nd game. Gee, that game developed just like the last game. Well it was still fun. And it came down to a really close nail-biter ending on the last turn!
3rd game. I will try to improve my skills and figure out innovative new strategies for this game!
4th game. Gee, it seems like doing anything other than tiny variations on the standard script leads to crushing defeat. I guess the optimal strategies are pretty narrow, eh? But narrow and deep? I hope?
5th game. Oh man, I'm going to get my revenge on you for beating me last game! ... ... oh, wait, this game has absolutely no way for me to act against you directly. Hmm. Well, I will still get my revenge by BUYING THE LAST PURPLE CUBE THAT I KNOW YOU WANTED TO BUY! MWa ha ha ha ha! ... somehow that was not very satisfying.
6th game. Every game still develops the same. They all end with a really close nail-biter ending on the last turn. Is this clever game-balance enhancing mechanic actually just an artificial way to create fake tension by ensuring our scores stay close no matter what we do?
7th game. This game is about interacting with the game mechanics, to the near total exclusion of interacting with the other players, isn't it?
8th game. Ugh, not (Eurogame) again. Let's play Boggle instead.
Tigris and Euphrates does not suffer from Eurogame Syndrome. And that is why it's my favorite Eurogame.
Tigris and Euphrates can be very daunting at first. It has a lot of rules, some of them unintuitive, and you have an almost overwhelming number of options to choose from, right from the first turn. You can play tiles anywhere, or save them in your hand as ammo, or exchange them. You can move your leaders around, you can start internal conflicts or external conflicts, you can drop one of your disasters on the board, if you meet the prereqs you can build ziggurauts. You can go after treasures, you can build up a mighty kingdom and use it to attack others, you can try to knock rival leaders out of their cushy spots and steal their jobs for yourself, or you can just sit tight in the corner peacefully earning income from honest work.
But the amount of freedom you have, and the number of interesting options and possible strategies to follow, is exactly what makes it fun. You're not stuck on a single development path trying to squeeze out maximum efficiency from small optimizations like in some Eurogames I could mention. The possibilities are wide open. And you have so many ways to directly harm your enemies or screw with their plans! You're not limited to just forcing them into a premature coffee shipment.
T&E combines some of the best features of a Eurogame with some of the best features of a traditional strategy game (i.e. chess or go), AND some of the best features of a civilization-building game. It's much more abstract than a true civ game, but this level of abstraction allows it to be finished in under two hours, which is a very nice consolation.
And with a little bit of imagination, you can see a very civ-game-like drama unfolding in every game: Dynasties outsted from power, sent into exile, and setting up shop elsewhere; kings getting overly greedy and extending their kingdoms too far, only to be laid low by drought and famine; provocateurs starting war between two kingdoms so that a third can sweep in and pick up the pieces; zealous priests sacrificing the lives of slaves to build monumental ziggurauts, only to be laid low by the gods for their hubris.
Oh man, those ziggurauts. So tempting, so powerful, so hard to keep control of. I'm starting to think the best use for a zigguraut may be to talk someone else into building one, so that I can then steal it from them.
Curse you, bull tribe! If only I had one more green cube I would crush your people into the dust of history!
Glistening Chests: More fun than it sounds!
Glistening Chests is an RPG my cousin Jake made up, almost as a joke, based on emulating cheesy barbarian fantasy fiction. (See: The Eye of Argon). Actually, it's really based not so much on the content of said fiction as it is based on the tropes of the cover artwork. Thus: big rippling muscles, fur loincloths, swords and axes, evil wizards turning into snakes, and most importantly, crazy sexism that depicts women as helpless submissive objects to be fought over!
I got to play it with him on my last visit to Connecticut. Jake kept calling it "The horrifying game", like he was ashamed of what he had created. But approached with the right spirit, it was a lot of fun! Jake, you should stop selling your game short.
Although the rules are constantly encouraging you to act out stereotypical tropes, it's not in an unthinking or celebratory way. The game, at least when I played it, was about questioning and exploring and (sorry, pretentious word coming up) "problematizing" such stereotypes, and thereby creating your own deconstructive parody of the genre.
It could be renamed "Glistening Chests: An Exploration of Gender Roles in Premodern Society". I dunno how much of this Jake actually put in on purpose and how much was me reading stuff into it, but I thought it was neat.
(I played a woman, of course. If I was going to suggest a rule to add to the game, it would be that everyone should play the opposite sex from themselves.)The game system treats men and women completely differently. They have different skill sets, and even a different interface to the combat system. It's way funky, but there's a kind of insane genius to it.
F'rinstance, as a woman, my character Tangara of the Amazons couldn't do much directly, but she could be hella persuasive. So in order to carry out her mission of revenge against the dark wizard Beltz-Narr, she had to find a man -- A.K.A. a big, dumb, arrogant meatshield -- and get him to do her dirty work by leading him on, playing to his ego, feigning victimhood, etc. etc.
In actual barbarian-lit, I would have been a minor secondary character and my meathead would have been the main protagonist. Flipping it around makes a really interesting dynamic. After all, the barbarian's behavior is pretty tightly constrained by the genre conventions -- we already know the arc of his story, we know how he's gonna behave in most every circumstance. Letting him be an NPC while I role-play a secondary character lets me play around the edges of the standard barbarian plot, where I'm free to do my own thing.
As far as the rules go -- here's an example that conveys the spirit of the system: Women don't have HP, because they can never take physical damage in the system. They can only take clothing damage. You roll a hit location, and only if it hits somewhere that you're wearing clothes do you take clothing damage; hits on bare skin have no effect whatsoever. Therefore the less of your body something covers, the better protection it provides; chainmail bikinis are the best... which explains why you see so many of them on fantasy novel covers. Isn't that just wonderfully twisted logic?
But you're not allowed to wear the best (i.e. least) clothing unless you put a sufficient number of points into the skill of Indecorate Mettle. (Oh yeah, every single skill has a hilariously thesaurus-tastic name.) I did not have good Indecorate Mettle as I put most of my points into skills like Beguiling Parlance, Enticing Beseechment, and Funambulistic Poise. That's why Tangara dresses like this: (Jake insisted on a sketch)
So, yeah, the main thing I learned from this game is that I can't draw tigers. I really, really can't draw tigers at all.
Fixed the bug with the comments
They work again. Sorry bout that.
RPG fun times: Why I don't like GMing task resolution games
I've been doing a lot of good gaming lately! Since I got a gaming group together in the south bay, we've done Primetime Adventures, Spirit of the Century, and now Polaris. I also played a really good game of Trollbabe in the car while driving to the Grand Canyon and back, a one-shot of D&D4e, a one-shot of Maid RPG, and a one-shot of Jake's barbarian game Glistening Chests. Good times!
Each of these games is quite a different experience, and each requires a different set of skills. It's giving me a lot of grist for the ol' brain-mill: What I like and don't like from various systems, what I want more of out of gaming, and how to improve my skills.
For this post, I want to talk about what it feels like to GM a game that uses task resolution -- e.g. Spirit of the Century vs. what it feels like to GM a conflict resolution game -- e.g. Trollbabe. My experience is that this very subtle difference in the rules philosophy leads to a huge difference in what it feels like to run the game.
What's the difference?
I'm skipping over a lot of theory and jargon here, but basically:
- in a task-resolution system (D&D, GURPS, Spirit of the Century) your character wants to apply their Mad Skillz to a task: hit a dude with an arrow, pick a lock, hack a computer, seduce a guard, etc -- and roll to see whether it works.
- in a conflict-resolution system (Dogs in the Vineyard, Primetime Adventures, Trollbabe) you have a clash of wills between two or more characters, so you roll to see which side gets their goal.
- (When I say "you roll", I really mean "you engage the game mechanics". It may include multiple rolls, mechanical decisions, spending of points, paper-rock-scissors, etc. etc. The details are not important here.)
Like I said, a subtle difference on paper. But what do they feel like to use? Crude diagram time.
Conflict resolution tends to resolve more stuff in one go (leading to a faster-paced game), but it doesn't have to do so. CR tends to be less mechanically specific about the details of how the scene plays out, leaving the details up to the narration instead. CR is often found in games that give the players besides the GM a chance to narrate things once in a while, but it doesn't have to be.
The essential difference is that in a CR system, when you resolve something, it's resolved. The dice have spoken. The player character got the key or they didn't get the key; now you have to get on with the game, and there's no take-backs or do-overs. In a task resolution system, the GM has a huuuuge amount of leeway to interpret results and introduce complications (as shown by the thought clouds in my diagram). The skill might have succeeded, but what does that mean in terms of the advancement of the story? For all practical purposes, it's completely up to the GM.
What I want when I'm running a game
These are completely subjective; I do not assert them as universal positives -- merely my own preferences. If you have different preferences, the rest of this article won't apply to you, simple as that.
- To play fair. I want to be able to play hard and still know that I'm playing fair; to throw as much opposition and as many plot twists as I can think of at the PCs, and know that they still have a fair chance to overcome it; and to know that whatever they achieve, they earned fairly.
- To not have to put in two hours of prep work with rulebooks and graph paper for each one hour of game play. Screw that. I've got a job and a girlfriend. This means I want to be able to improvise, not have every contingency mapped out.
So my problem with GMing TR games is paradoxically that such games give me too much power. Power I don't want! They constantly ask me to decide things that I don't want to have to decide.
For instance (to take a real example from a Spirit of the Century game), the hero is trying to stop a couple of gangsters from pouring a dangerous alien liquid into a bowl of punch that's about to be brought out to a party full of V.I.P.s. He rolls to punch one of the gangsters! Now I have to decide the gangster's defensive stats (because I am improvising, I don't have them written down anywhere). The game is asking me to decide what the player's chance of success should be. Next, I have to decide if there's additional opposition. It's within my rights to insert an arbitrary number of gangsters at any time, any place. Maybe while you're punching guy A, guys B and C appear and complete the nefarious plan anyway. Even if you punch the guy, so what? Is he out of the fight? If the guys spike the punch, then do we go right to the guests drinking it, or do I give you another chance to stop it after it leaves the kitchen?
Too much is left up to me. I can, without fudging a single die roll, make it nearly impossible for the player to achieve a result that I don't want. It's very difficult for me to figure out what it means to "play fair" in a system that makes me sole judge, jury, and executioner. I certainly can't play as hard as I want and expect it to be fair.
In contrast, in a CR game it would not be "roll to punch a dude", but rather, "Roll to stop the dude from poisoning the drinks." If you succeed you stop them, period. If you fail you don't stop them, period. Either way we go on to discover the consequences. If it's not what I expected, then I get over my surprise and improvise a way for the story to continue.
Now, I could make the TR game feel fair if I limit my own resources by planning things out ahead of time: deciding that there are exactly X many gangsters dressed as busboys in this hotel, that they each have the following stats and equipment, and that the hotel has such-and-such a layout, with the following obstacles in it, etc. etc. If I did that, then all those thought bubbles in my TR diagram? Those change from "GM makes it up" to "GM consults notes to decide plausible result given fixed setting". Basically, you have to give the task-resolution tasks something concrete to work against.
But if I did that, then I would be back to planning out everything on graph paper for hours ahead of time. And maybe that's fine! TR is an appropriate part of a game system that operates in a highly specified, constrained, prepared-in-advance environment. Like, say, a dungeon.
But with TR, I can't improvise and still play fair. I have to choose one or the other. CR systems support my desire to do both at once. And that's why I would rather GM those types of systems.