Alternate Alchemies

May 27th, 2005

I’ve just been reading an article on alchemy which suggests that the Arab alchemists’ development of mineral acids — that is, acids stronger than the vinegar derivatives which were their predecessors — was far more valuable to civilization than if they had succeeded in transmuting base metals to gold.

It made me imagine an alternate world where alchemists did indeed learn the secret of transmutation, and metals are thus completely fungible, but where the strongest acids possible are highly concentrated solutions of acetic acid.

On the one hand, many technological applications would be eased — there would never be shortages of metals — and if transmutation could be applied to finished objects one could fabricate in a soft metal and then transmute to a hard one. On the other, chemical fertilizers and explosives would be impossible. No batteries, and some plastic would be impossible. Come to think of it, certain metals — aluminum, for example — might be unavailable; sure, they could be achieved through transmutation, but if the alchemists don’t know that a metal exists, they may never figure out how to make it.

It seems like an interesting way to kick alternate-historical industry in the rear right up to the beginning of the industrial age, at which point you’re screwed.

Aesthetics of Play: Masquerade

May 10th, 2005

The masquerade aesthetic is an aesthetic of character design, like the cathartic aesthetic. The masquerade playstyle approaches roleplaying as an opportunity for the player to try on new personalities, to be someone that he isn’t. Masquerade play draws its fun from novelty.

Masquerade characters are therefore little like their players, except sometimes in superficial ways. The core of the character — the element around which the character forms — is selected for its very alienness. I, for example, often design impulsive masquerade characters; they make an interesting contrast to the reflective types that are closer to my everyday self.

There can be an escapist dimension to masquerade play; sometimes people design characters as a refuge from parts of themselves of which they’re not so fond.

Aesthetics of Play: Catharsis

May 4th, 2005

Many players bring to their relationships with their characters an aesthetic that I call cathartic play. The cathartic playstyle approaching roleplaying as a venue where players can take risks or indulge impulses in ways that might have unacceptable consequences in real life. The satisfaction of cathartic play is the opportunity to blow off steam.

Consequently, cathartic characters are often much like their players, but with certain traits amplified and certain inhibitions muted. In a more extreme form of the aesthetics, these characters may be wholly designed around the trait in question. I’ve known people who used short-tempered characters to work through anger issues; I like to play con men and Secret Masters from time to time.

More commonly, however, a cathartic character is simply a version of the player who kicks more ass and isn’t afraid to be a jerk. This milder form of the aesthetic is extremely popular — at its root, traditional “hack and slash” gaming boils down to “It’s us, but we’re killin’ orcs and takin’ no guff from nobody.”

Initiatory Societies and Character Class

April 29th, 2005

Lately I’ve been reading Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict, a sort of popular introduction to anthropology. The chapter on the Zuni, one of the three cultures covered, includes an interesting discussion of three superimposed forms of ceremonial practice: the priesthoods, the cult of the masked gods (or kachinas), and the medicine societies.

These three cults serve different purposes. The priesthoods, most distant and sacred of the three, are primarily concerned with communal issues — rain, and the rule of the community.

The cult of the masked gods is more personal; its rites are dances where the kachinas are incarnated by their worshippers. Initiation into one of the kivas of the cult of the masked gods creates a bond with the supernatural which strengthens and fortifies the initiate, but confers no esoteric knowledge. The initiation rites which take place at puberty are complete, and all men (and a few women) participate.

The medicine societies are also personal in nature; their tutelaries are the beast gods, and the societies’ members impersonate their patrons just as the masked-god kivas impersonate the kachinas. The societies, however, possess secret mysteries, into which their members are initiated over the course of their lives. Most interestingly, initiation into a medicine society serves to resolve some major life event. Someone who is healed from a major illness by one of the medicine societies is then obliged to join that society. There is a war society which anyone who kills must join.

As with any social science from the 30s, I take all this with a grain of salt. However, I thought Benedict’s account of the medicine societies provided an interesting rationale for d20 character classes. It can explain the clear distinctions between classes; the accumulation of powers and abilities over time; and even the distinction between PC and NPC classes. In such a world, the town guards who’ve been on the job for years and pummeled many a wrongdoer into submission have warrior levels; only once they kill and join the society of fighters to cleanse the blood from their hands can they take fighter levels. Adepts serve in the universal cults of the priesthoods and the masked gods, while clerics serve the gods of the societies.

It also compels the player to provide some sort of character hook for how they joined their society. Did a cleric join their god’s cult after a plague? Severe injury? Possession? Who did a fighter kill to necessitate his initiation? Benedict also mentions hunting and clowning societies, which seem like clear analogues of the ranger and bard classes; I’m not sure what drives initiation into those societies, though.

Dinosaur Mind

April 12th, 2005

At the GDC this year, I went to the Casual Games Summit, which wound up discussing a variety of markets underserved by the hardcore-centric status quo. One of the speakers noted, “People think that games for children have to be so simple. Have you ever looked at Pokemon? *I* can’t figure all those critters out.”

There’s an interesting issue there about the nature of complexity. Pokemon is intimidating to the uninitiated — there are several hundred of those little critters, with weird names and subtle distinctions between them. But it’s not really that *complex*; mechanically, it’s pretty simple (a little baroque, maybe, but not complex). Its complexity lies in the *diversity* of the game assets, and the fact that children can master this complexity is basically the same phenomenon as when six-year-olds memorize every dinosaur of the Jurassic through Cretaceous periods; kids are good at absorbing massive swathes of systematized trivia.

“Dinosaur mind” is a talent that fades for most people over time; I know I find my brain less willing to hold on to information I’m not going to need later, or that I can look up if I need to, as the years go by. Interestingly, I think gamers as a class tend to hang on to their dinosaur minds longer; I can cost out a GURPS 3e character without a book, and I know people who can debate the differences between the spell lists in the first and second editions of AD&D from memory. Probably it’s a matter of practice.

Dinosaur mind has implications for designing games for non-standard audiences. When designing for non-gamer adults, you can assume that your audience can tolerate at least moderate complexity, but not that they’re willing to memorize all sorts of fiddly bits. When designing for children, the opposite is true; it’s probably wise to place the complexity of a children’s game in the data, not the algorithm, to use a computing analogy.

More Gaming Terminology

April 10th, 2005

I’d like to share some personal terms of art I use when talking about game design, because I will probably want to use them in the future, and it would be handy to be able to simply hyperlink to what I mean.

There are three dyads I want to talk about today. The first comprises brittle and robust; these terms discuss the scope of things that a game system can do. A robust system can handle a wide variety of issues and situations without breaking down. The HERO system, for example, is an RPG which places a high value on robustness; the implicit design goal is to be able to handle any concept within the game’s mechanics. Original D&D, conversely, is a brittle system; it’s pretty good for going into dungeons and killing things, but anything outside that scope requires the players to expand the rules somehow. (Arguably, this was a good thing for RPGs as a whole, by demanding large-scale rules innovation and ferment from the get-go, but that’s a different issue.)

The second pair of concepts is simple and complex, which cover, in essence, how much stuff you have to remember or reference in order to play the game. A system in which you have to roll a die and exceed a certain number to succeed is simple; one where you have to roll a die, apply a raft of modifiers, cross-reference with the difficulty of the task on a table, then roll another die, apply a different set of modifiers, and check another table, depending on the results on the first table, is complex. Some of you may know what I’m talking about here.

Finally, we have elegant and baroque, which refer to the relationship between the other two quantities. An elegant system has high robustness relative to its complexity; it is no more complex than it needs to be. A baroque system, on the other hand, is more complicated than it needs to be for its expressive power. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; some systems are deliberately baroque in order to convey a certain flavor. Original Deadlands, for example, is extremely baroque, using all the major polyhedral dice, playing cards, and poker chips in its resolution system; some of this baroqueness, however, pays dividends in setting a tone for the game.

Aesthetics of Play: Introductory Matter

April 5th, 2005

Theorizing about roleplaying poses me a difficult challenge. I’m generally dubious about totalizing theories of playstyle like the GNS scheme or the older Adventurer/Problem-Solver/Roleplayer triad — I think they all tend to highlight real and interesting issues, but they tend toward the Procrustean, trying to cram all game styles into a fairly limited space with questionable success.

On the other hand, I gravitate to stylized categories like a moth to a stroboscopic bonfire. It’s a character flaw.

The way I’ve decided to wrestle with this particular issue is to keep my theorizing on a lower level, focusing on value clusters that prize particular types of gameplay experience. Borrowing, folding, and spindling a term from the MDA framework, I’m going to call these clusters aesthetics of play. These aesthetics are not intended to be exclusive; multiple aesthetics can be, and usually are, operative for any player at any time. I’m going to try to avoid constructing opposing pairs of aesthetics, as I’ve had limited success with that in the past, but I may present two different approaches to a single issue at one time.

I’m also going to take this opportunity to note some stylistic ground rules. In all Aesthetics of Play essays, I’m going to be using *asterisks* for emphasis. Italics are going to be reserved for introducing terms of art. I’m certain that my choices of terms of art are going to seem questionable to someone at some point; I recommend Jargon and Definitions before writing me snide emails about my choice of terms. You can write the email regardless, but I’m going to ignore anything along the lines of “That’s not what X means!”

April 1st, 2003

Tacos El Grullense
El Camino Real at James
Redwood City

Tacos El Grullense is a small, scuzzy-looking taco stand near the Redwood City Caltrain station. In accordance with the Law of Taco Stands, therefore, it has really good food.

The menu is simple: tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and tortas pretty much exhaust the options. Lest you think you’re in some sort of downscale Taco Bell, however, they offer many of the more exotic Mexican meats — sesos, tripas, and the like. (That’s brains and intestines, for the non-Spanish-speaking readers)

Jen got three beef tacos, for a dollar each. They were small, maybe three inches across, but the price was right, and I’m told they were excellent.

I got a torta, for $3.75. Tortas are Mexican sandwiches — not entirely unlike a taco on a grilled roll rather than a tortilla. They’re really good; tortas have become my measure of a Mexican place in the last few years. This may shed light on why I don’t like Chevy’s; they don’t have ’em.

The Tacos El Grullense torta is really, really good. The roll is a nice hefty round number, probably a good six inches across, grilled to just the right point between crispness and chewiness. The onions, lettuce and tomato are nice and fresh. And the beef is superb. Seasoned and grilled to perfection, and chopped coarsely. The salsa is excellent, too; hot enough to leave a low burn in your mouth, but not hot enough to make you stop eating.

Unusually for a torta, it doesn’t come with sour cream or guacamole. I was a little disappointed at first, but it does make the dish healthier, and I didn’t miss the fatty goo when all was said and done. The only real downside is that the beef is chopped small enough that some is prone to fall out; a saucier torta avoids that.

On the whole, however, I was mightily pleased. Good Mexican food for less than five bucks including drinks (sodas are a dollar each), close to home. I’ll definitely be going back to try some different dishes and different meats.

Probably the carnitas, though.