Necromantic Checkers

Playing games with my son is always a bit of a Calvinball enterprise.  However, when he insisted this weekend on playing checkers, the result was actually kind of interesting.  (The following, like its predecessor the 94-penny pie, is edited for coherence.)

The game begins like an ordinary game of checkers.  However, once a player has captured any of her opponent’s men, she may use her turn to place a captured man on any light square of the row nearest her (assuming that square is presently empty).  A man captured on a light square is removed from the game permanently. The interesting thing about this variant is that you wind up playing two overlapping and interlaced games of checkers, playing both colors at once.  It becomes much more challenging simply because the state of play is much more difficult to evaluate.

Originally published on Google Plus

Ghulhunds, and other dungeoneering breeds

Today, as I was unsuccessfully trying to get my dog Finn’s attention to get him out from underfoot, my wife tried to observe that Finn “was interested only in leash”, but it came out “was interested only in lich.” It made me wonder what sort of specialized monster-hunting dog breeds exist in heroic fantasy worlds.

Does the city watch descend into the sewers with a pack of ghulhunds, bred to root out undead in close spaces? Are there wyvern-tolling retrievers? Are dungeoneers perilously close to a TPK ever unexpectedly rescued by a St. Bernard/blink dog hybrid with a cask of healing potion around its neck? Do some parties bring along specialized trap-sniffing dogs?  (If for no other reason than to be able to say “What do you mean we didn’t say we check for traps?  The f&$(%ing dog always checks for &#)(%ing traps, it’s literally the meaning of its existence!”)

Inquiring minds want to know.

Originally published on Google Plus

Game Idea: Negotiated Chess

I’m preparing for my Negotiations class, and I had an interesting idea for a Chess variant in which each move must be negotiated by the players. The player whose turn it is proposes a move, and the players bargain until they agree on the current player’s move. If the players cannot agree within 5 minutes, each player loses one piece of their own choice.

The negotiation dynamics would be interesting. On the scale of a single turn, you could only come to agreement if the players found a move that they each thought improved their position. However, it would also be possible to negotiate for concessions over time — “I’ll give ground here, but you need to reciprocate on my turn”. There could also be situations where one player has an incentive to run out the clock because she feels that the other player can less afford to lose a piece.

I think the endgame would be a problem; as the tactical situation became simpler, it would be harder to find perceived win-wins, and the downside of not honoring long-term agreements is reduced. No one would ever agree to allow an opponent to move out of check. (I suppose you could have a rule that moving out of check is always permissible, even without an agreement.)

Originally published on LiveJournal

Experiences That Have Shaped My Thinking: The National Security Decision Making Game

Back in 1994, I went to the Origins game convention, which was in San Jose that year. One of the things I did was to play a game called the National Security Decision Making game, which was a simulation run by a couple of guys who had taught at the Naval War College. It was intended to model, in abstract form, most of the major players in international politics and their important interactions. I was all set to mix it up international relations style. However, upon drawing my role, I got to be a region of the United States.

This was 13 years ago, so I don’t remember the game’s details terribly well. I do, however, remember the basic dynamics of the US’s domestic politics in the game, because that was what I mostly had to deal with. There were, I believe, five regions of the US — New England and the Mid-Atlantic, the South, the Midwest, the Plains States, and the West Coast. I was New England. The main objective of the regions was to secure national resources for themselves, in the form of a share of the national budget, which was refigured regularly. A region could accomplish this by lobbying the President, who determined the budget.

There were also three politicians, whose base condition was to be a Senator, but one of whom would be elected President by the regions every so often. I don’t remember the politicians’ names, but let’s call them Senator Gravitas, Senator Unctuous, and Senator Nonentity.

At the beginning of the game, we had a choice to make, and the senators made their pitches. Senator Gravitas seemed intelligent, trustworthy, and possessed of good plans for the nation. Senator Unctuous, meanwhile, mostly seemed ambitious. He said the right things, but his eyes were a little too clearly on the prize, and he just seemed a little sleazy. Senator Nonentity I don’t remember at all; I merely assume he must have existed because I’m pretty sure there were three senators, and we shall not speak of him again. Instead, let us assume he retreated to the ranks of those elder statesmen who are always discussed as potential presidential candidates, and whose chances always seem quite good except for their inability to excite either donors or voters. Needless to say, President Gravitas was elected, and it was morning in America.

The Gravitas administration was probably quite successful; he threw himself into foreign affairs with a will, and things seemed to be mostly going his way. I, however, was not paying that much attention, because I wasn’t allowed into some of the most important stuff, and I was mostly concerned with the fact that my share of the federal budget was not what it could be.  I managed to wheedle some concessions out of the President, but the other regions were pushing hard too, and he had a lot to do.

Shortly before the election rolled around, Senator Unctuous asked if he could have a word with me, the Midwest, and the West Coast. “I have a proposition,” he said. “If you three vote for me, I will give you the entire federal budget.” We were startled. We were a little scandalized. We could do the math. Thus began the Unctuous Administration.

Sen. Gravitas was really pissed off. Here he’d been doing a good job, getting things done, treating everyone fairly, and we had straight up stabbed him in the back. I felt a little bad about it, but I was getting a much bigger slice of the pie, and pie is a wonderful cure for guilt. The South and the Plains States were pretty ticked off too, but there wasn’t a whole lot they could do about it. Unctuous wasn’t about to throw them a bone, because if he annoyed one of the regions in his coalition enough to lose it, he was going down for good.

I don’t remember how the game went from there; it had been running a long time, it was late, and I think I went to bed before we got through another term. Still, I think about that experience a lot when I think about national politics.

originally published on LiveJournal

Playtesting is hard

My friend Brian came by yesterday evening to test out a board game I’m toying with. It went pretty well, all things considered (which is to say it successfully illustrated several ways in which I failed dismally), but it reminded why it’s so easy for a game design project to bog down.

It’s easy to design a game — logistically, anyway. All I need is my brain and something to write on. I may need to spend some quality time crunching numbers, but that’s a process that I can fit into my life without too much difficulty. To playtest, however, is another process entirely. I have to find someone interested in playing a game that is, as I like to put it, “not guaranteed to be in any way fun”; we need to find an adequate slice of time that is available for both of us; we need to avoid the temptation to gab on about whatever comes to mind.

And when all is said and done, all that’s accomplished is a handful of data points. With card games, an evening usually gets two or three sessions in; last night we didn’t even finish a full play-through. This is OK for a first prototype, as even a partial play-through reveals all sorts of stuff that needs to be tinkered with that will change the gameplay pretty radically, but as you move closer to a final version, it’s damn hard to get in enough play hours to really put a design through its paces.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Wreckers!
A knights-and-knaves puzzle
(April 1, 2005)

Production Brigade 189 has had problems with slowdowns and sabotage of late. The brigade’s security staff has narrowed the problem down to three work teams of three workers each. They believe that there are three counterrevolutionary saboteurs hidden among the nine members of teams X, Y, and Z. To identify them, they need the aid of a political commissar like yourself.

For a trained commissar, ferreting out class enemies is simple. A good party member invariably speaks the truth, while a counterrevolutionary always twists the truth into lies, in an attempt to resist the dialectic of history. Ordinary workers mean well, but can be confused by enemy propaganda; they sometimes tell the truth and sometimes parrot counterrevolutionary filth. (In any conversation, an ordinary worker will tell at least one truth and one lie.)

Each member of the three suspect teams was interviewed. They were first asked to describe their own status. Next, the cadres in charge of each team were asked to evaluate the other members of their team, while the team members were asked to evaluate their leaders. Finally, the cadres were asked to comment on one of the other teams, while the team members were asked to evaluate the other subordinate member of their team.

The interviewees’ responses were as follows:

Alex (Cadre, X Team)
1. I am a good party member.
2. The members of my team are not good party members.
3. The members of Z Team are not good party members.

Boris (X Team)
1. I am an ordinary worker.
2. Alex is an ordinary worker.
3. C is a good party member.

Chiona (X Team)
1. I am a good party member.
2. I denounce Alex as a counterrevolutionary.
3. Boris is a good party member.

Dominika (Cadre, Y Team)
1. I am a good party member.
2. The members of my team are not counterrevolutionaries.
3. 2 members of X Team are counterrevolutionaries.

Eva (Y Team)
1. I am a good party member.
2. Dominika is a good party member.
3. Felix is an ordinary worker.

Felix (Y Team)
1. I am a good party member.
2. Dominika is a good party member.
3. Eva is an ordinary worker.

Gabriel (Cadre, Z Team)
1. I am a good party member.
2. I denounce the members of my team as counterrevolutionaries.
3. X Team is entirely composed of ordinary workers.

Helena (Z Team)
1. I am an ordinary worker.
2. I denounce Gabriel as a counterrevolutionary.
3. I denounce Jaroslav as a counterrevolutionary.

Jaroslav (Z Team)
1. I am a counterrevolutionary.
2. Gabriel is a good party member.
3. Helena is an ordinary worker.

Who was purged?

Originally published on LiveJournal

Review: The Two Towers
(Dec. 13, 2002)

To begin with … this ain’t a movie review. I haven’t seen Two Towers yet, so don’t get all excited. This is a review of the video game, which came out some time ago.

I was looking forward to this game. Friends who’d seen it spoke glowingly of it, advance screenshots were beautiful, I like Lord of the Rings, and I like tactical fighting games. I was looking forward to it a lot.

Sadly, I am disappointed.  EA did a lot of things right, but they got a few things wrong – woefully wrong – and those things cast a shadow over the rest of the game. There is probably an audience for this game, but it isn’t me. Let me explain why.

Every level of The Two Towers follows the same basic theme: after selecting a character (you can play Aragorn, Legolas, or Gimli), you move through a linear level wherein you hit things and kill them, followed by a boss fight which has some secret which you must figure out in order to win. There are slight variations: some levels give you an ally to fight beside, and others give you a time limit, but these changes rarely make a difference to gameplay.

This scheme is a classic model for a side-scrolling fighting game (which The Two Towers essentially is, despite its 3D environment), but frankly, it bugs the bejesus out of me. The linear mook-thrashing is unimaginative but harmless enough; boss fights with secrets, however, always seem to me like a ploy to keep the strategy guide publishers afloat. Boss fights with slightly unorthodox challenges are one thing, but they should never make your normal moves and tactics useless. The best boss fights combine your normal tactics in new and unusual ways, requiring you to think a bit without completely changing the skill set that the game requires.

These boss fights are particularly aggravating in The Two Towers because its boss fights often have multiple stages – one which is relatively straightforward, followed by a stage which is unbeatable until you figure out the secret. If you die, you must repeat both stages; one level even forces you to repeat the entire level!

The higher-level design is also uninspired. The game is essentially linear. You can play any of the three characters (indeed, I think you’re meant to play each of them through each level), but every character gets the same series of levels. There are a handful of unlockable levels and special features that depend on getting your characters to certain levels, but it’s pretty much a straight shot from beginning to end.

Aside from the level design, the game has uselessly deep tactical gameplay. It has a wide variety of moves and combos, but they don’t readily come into play. New moves are introduced very poorly. After a brief tutorial level which explores the basic three moves – fast attack, strong attack, and parry – you’re on your own. Every button press initiates a fairly long animation, so it’s difficult to tell exactly what combos are doing. Gameplay is sufficiently fast and furious that there’s never really a good time to experiment and figure out how to make best use of your combos. It’s possible that long practice would allow the full range of attacks to come out, but the learning curve is steep — too steep, for my taste. I found myself mostly just button-mashing, as did everyone else I know who tried to play.

Ranged weapons, too, are frustrating. There’s no first-person view mode, and aiming is unintuitive. Sometimes your bow or axe locks on readily, while other times enemies seem to be out of your field of fire entirely.  It’s particularly annoying when you consider than the game has no jump ability: an orc archer can be standing on a short stump, shooting you repeatedly, and yet for some reason you just can’t hit him.

At this point, the game’s problems start to have second-stage effects. The issues with combos make the advancement system, otherwise clever and well designed, essentially useless. After every level, you earn experience points. These points seem to be based on how many kills you get, and how clean the kills were. When you kill an enemy, a word appears on screen – either “fair”, “good”, “excellent”, or “perfect”. The end screen for each level counts how many of each type you got, and awards points accordingly. Unfortunately, it doesn’t explain how it rates your kills, but it seems to be related to how many hits it
took to kill the enemy, and possibly whether you were injured in the process. Experience points enable your character to gain levels and become more powerful; in the process, you get to spend points on buying new combos. But because the combos aren’t really useful,
spending those points is pointless.

On the up side, the game is beautiful. And I mean stunning. They’ve done a really good job with the graphics – from the behind-the-scenes movie, it seems that they used set designs from the actual movies, and they apparently were able to get the original actors to do the voice work for the game. There are a few decisions that initially seem odd, but on reflection are very clever. For example, the game frequently goes from a scene from the movie to an animated cut-scene of the quality you’d expect from a good video game, and from there into actual gameplay. Sometimes, the EA cut scene recapitulates things that happen in the movie. It seems perplexing, but it makes the transition between game and movie much less jarring. The EA animation is sufficiently good that, while it doesn’t compare to the actual movie, it doesn’t give you the sense of having changed mediums. Similarly, the transition from game animation to game is smooth enough that it isn’t jarring either. Indeed, the game sometimes takes you by surprise.

The graphical implementation isn’t without its flaws. The game is really dark – physically dark. I had to turn up the contrast and white level on my TV in order to play it comfortably. The game also runs afoul of one of the demons of modern 3D games – collision.

The Two Towers, like most contemporary games, is lovingly detailed, with rubble and gnarled trees and rough terrain everywhere. However, it would take too much computing power to deal with characters and objects interacting on the same level of detail. Hence, while a tree looks like a spindly and warped sapling, the game engine treats it like a simple cylinder. This discontinuity between the visible shape of objects and their “real” shape leaves you in a bind. If the collision object is too small, characters pass through objects. If it’s too large, characters run up against invisible walls. If it’s too angled, characters get stuck on things for no apparent reason. The Two Towers has the latter two problems. There are several levels in which your character moves along a path with seemingly arbitrary boundaries; sometimes, there isn’t even a change of incline to mark the boundary of where you can go. In other levels, it’s possible to get stuck for a few seconds on an invisible outcropping. This can be crucial when fleeing bosses with powerful attacks.

One last quibble: graphically rich games are usually the best single-player games to play with spectators. The backgrounds, which the player can’t pay attention to, are worth the price of admission for the spectators, plus they get to kibitz and give the player advice. The Two Towers is impossible to do this with. When you’re watching someone play, it looks like there’s a completely obvious thing to do that the stupid player just won’t do. Then you pick up the controller, and you learn that you just can’t do it, and your aggravating friends are backseat playing until you want to throw the controller at them. It’s frustrating on both sides.

The Two Towers has things to recommend it. It’s very pretty; the unfolding plot is satisfying; the advancement system feels right; there are some fun interviews with the movie cast to watch. I wanted to have fun playing it. But I just couldn’t get past the random chaos of the
fighting, and the maddening boss fights. The tactical gameplay is too clumsy to be anything but a button-mashing game, and the difficulty is set too hard for a button-mashing game.

The last time I read The Two Towers, I thought to myself “You know, a tactical fighter set at Helm’s Deep would be really, really cool. Like Dynasty Warriors set in Tolkien.” EA almost made that game.

But not quite.

Review: Sovereign Stone

Sovereign Stone is a solidly designed fantasy game with a well-executed setting behind it. Unfortunately, competence alone isn’t quite enough to distinguish it from the hordes of fantasy games on the market, nor to bring it out from the shadow of the 800-pound gorilla of fantasy gaming, Dungeons & Dragons.

The game comes from a consortium of former TSR heavy hitters–Larry Elmore, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, Don Perrin, Lester Smith…the list goes on. These are people who made D&D what it is today, and with Sovereign Stone, they’ve done more of what they do best. That’s both good and bad: these folks’ craftsmanship is evident, but the result has trouble getting away from the feel of a D&D setting, and I wonder if the game’s world was really best served by being presented as a standalone game.

The rules that Perrin and Smith have dished up are pleasingly simple, perhaps the most attractive thing about the system. Attributes and Skills are rated in dice, with d4 at the low end of the scale and d20 at the high end (a rating of d30 is possible for NPCs). For almost any task, you roll the appropriate Attribute die and Skill die, comparing the sum either to a fixed difficulty number or to the sum rolled by your opponent. You can also accept Stun damage in exchange for an extra exertion die. It’s a good mechanic if you like using polyhedra, but want to avoid complicated rules and handfuls of dice.

Character generation is point-based, though a semi-random system for generating attributes is provided. Each stage of character generation is balanced separately; attributes are paid for out of one pool, skills out of another, and advantages and disadvantages must be paired up to balance one another. Further skills, advantages, and disadvantages go along with your character’s race or nation. Advantages and disadvantages can add or subtract from certain task rolls, or can provide more intangible benefits like speaking to animals or being able to detect magic. Like the core mechanic, it’s simple, but players might chafe at its limitations.

The combat system is elegant; one attribute+skill roll determines both initiative and success. All combatants declare actions, then roll. Then each character performs his action in descending order of the sum rolled. If attacked, a character may choose to abort her action and defend, opposing the attacker’s roll with her full combat roll, or to persist with her original action and oppose with only a reduced defense roll. Damage is equal to the amount by which the attacker wins the opposed roll, and is divided into Stun and Wound points; when the total of Stun and Wound exceeds a character’s Life Points, she passes out, and when Wound exceeds a character’s Life Points, she dies. There’s a mechanic called Second Wind whereby a character can shake off in a single combat round Stun damage that would ordinarily take hours to recuperate from; I’m a little dubious about this one, but I suppose it reflects a heroic view of combat.

Magic is organized along the four classical elements–air, earth, fire, and water, as well as the element of Void, which is primarily the domain of evil. Magic is a skill, resolved with a normal attribute+skill+exertion roll. Different spells have different difficulty numbers. Magic use also inflicts Stun damage on the caster above and beyond any taken to gain an exertion die. I like the magic system; I think it’s one of the game’s strongest points. It’s simple and elegant, and the spells are interesting and flavorful. It makes me want to play a mage.

Elegant mechanics aside, however, a fantasy game lives or dies on the strength of its setting. I’m of two minds about Sovereign Stone in this regard. There’s great potential here, but the book needs more detail in important places, and the world of Loerem (which, for the record, I would take more seriously if it weren’t an anagram of Elmore) feels like a D&D setting.

By that, I mean that while the authors have created a setting with multi-layered action and intricate political interplay, it’s a world populated with humans, elves, dwarves, orks, and critters suspiciously like halflings. It works, but I can’t help but wonder why they chose to stay within traditional D&D tropes when they weren’t writing for D&D. Add in the distant gods, the evil reptilian race bent on world conquest, and the magic item that can save the world, and it seems like Weis and Hickman are returning to familiar ground (and the first person to say “universal mythic themes” gets the back of my hand). Again, it works, but I wish they’d broken the mold a little bit more.

Within this traditional framework, though, Loerem does novel things with its races. The Elves are a clan-based society deeply concerned with honor and restraint. The Dwarves are a nomadic horse-riding people who believe themselves destined to rule the entire world. I particularly like Loerem’s Orks, a superstitious bunch of seafarers with an abundance of odd customs. Finally, we have the Pecwae, a diminutive, retiring race with an unusual empathy for animals and a talent for magic. The book also describes the Taan, dreaded reptilian menace from the West, but they aren’t presented as a player character option, and they’re pretty much your typical evil warrior race anyway. I’m disappointed that while humans are divided into multiple cultures and nations, each nonhuman race gets only a single culture and nation. However, many fantasy worlds maintain that humanity is an unusually culturally diverse race, so I can’t be too harsh on Sovereign Stone in that regard.

A larger problem with Loerem’s cultures, to my mind, is the face that most of them are pretty strong analogues of Earth cultures. The Elves, for example, are clearly modeled on the feudal Japanese, to the point that the Elven political system, with its dual seats of power, almost exactly duplicates the feudal Japanese shogun-and-Emperor system. The Dwarves are Mongols, the human Karnuans are Arabs, and so on. The cultures are well-implemented, but they’re not exciting; we’ve seen these before. The most interesting human nation is Nimorea, a pseudo-African matriarchy warped by generations of exposure to the pseudo-Japanese Elves. That’s how I’d like to see more fantasy nations done–start with real-world cultures and ideas so the reader has a touchstone, but mix them up a little. This is another reason I like the Orks–they aren’t a direct analogue of a real-world culture.

Quibble though I may at Loerem’s cultures, however, its geopolitics is first-rate. The world situation is ripe for adventure on a variety of scales. On the epic scale, the evil mastermind Dagnarus and his Taan army have just appeared, their intentions unknown. They are ripe for the intervention of some meddling kids. On a less epic scale, tensions and conflicts between and within the different nations abound, from the near civil war of the Elves to the standoff between the two human superpowers to the struggle of the Orcs to win back their holy mountain. And on a still smaller scale, the game provides a variety of interesting assortments of creatures and places to discover and explore.

Some of the smaller-scale elements could stand a little better integration. I thought Loerem’s dragons were really interesting, and I liked the gigantic, magic-hoarding Bahk, but where they fit into the setting as a whole was unclear. Similarly, there are plenty of monsters, but their role in the world, other than making it more dangerous, is vague.

I also wish the book provided more detail on some elements of the setting. Take the Sovereign Stone of the title, for example. It’s a holy relic, split into one part for each major race which permits the races to create supercharged paladins called Dominion Lords. It may be Dagnarus’ ultimate goal; it may be the key to defeating him. We don’t know. Indeed, we know very little about Dagnarus, his goals, or his resources, at all. More discussion of these issues, which are important to any game using the Taan invasion as a major plot element, would be really helpful. Obviously, individual gamemasters can answer these questions to their own satisfaction, but while elsewhere the setting is full of unresolved issues that seem ripe for development, Dagnarus and the Sovereign Stone just feel…unaddressed.

I wonder whether Sovereign Stone’s future includes a metaplot. I hope not; I think a setting with as many and as diverse possibilities as Loerem is not well served by the tendency for metaplots to fix in stone what a world’s focus is. I’m pleased that Weis and Hickman set their trilogy of Sovereign Stone novels two hundred years before the current game date. However, the aura of mystery surrounding Dagnarus and the Sovereign Stone smells of a tease. On the other hand, the supplements released to date don’t seem very metaplot-oriented. We’ll see.

Another welcome addition would be some detail on daily life in Loerem; there’s excellent material on politics, military matters, and general cultural traditions, but not so much on, say, the day-to-day life of an Elf. The few exceptions, like the Trevenici barbarians, were really compelling and created a much fuller picture of the situation in Trevenici lands than of the situation in other parts of Loerem. I hope Sovereign Press chooses to detail the different cultures further in sourcebooks.

Physically, the book is very nice. It’s an attractive hardback, and seems sturdy (though I haven’t had a chance to put it to the test). The interior design is excellent: the layout is clear and readable, the text is divided into manageable chunks, and there’s just about the right amount of interior art for my tastes. One touch I particularly like is the fact that the ink seems to be a very dark brown rather than actually black, which gives the book a distinctive look–sort of antique without resorting to illegible design effects. The downside is that one of the interior artists has a watercolor-oriented style which, when combined with the brown ink, gives their pieces a somewhat washed-out look.

I’m a little less enthused about the editorial layout. The book’s organization is a little haphazard. The chapter order makes sense, and individual topics are reasonably well organized, but it’s unclear how the editors made the decision to put any particular topic after any other. Perhaps as a result of this, the authors repeatedly refer to things that have not yet been introduced. In the world section, we get repeated references to characters, people, and places which won’t be introduced for several pages. The combat section has detailed discussions of turn order and lost actions before it introduces the basic combat mechanic. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it makes you wonder if you missed something. I often flipped back looking for things I should have been flipping forward for. Finally, the book divides player and gamemaster information oddly. Instead of a general player section and a general gamemaster section, there are player and gamemaster sections for each individual topic. This makes it necessary to repeatedly flip from player stance to gamemaster stance, which can be confusing.

In the end, I think Sovereign Stone is promising, but incomplete. With the right supplements, Sovereign Press could have a really excellent game; specifically, the game would benefit from a more in-depth treatment of the different cultures in the setting, and it needs a more explicit treatment of Dagnarus’ goals and capabilities. It seems that the sourcebook The Taan may cover some of the latter problem, but a really full treatment of Loerem’s cultures is yet to appear on the horizon.

Originally published on Gamers.com

Raiding the Good Ship CRPG
(June 6, 2000)

The relationship between computer RPGs and tabletop RPGs has long been uneasy. This is, I think, largely due to the perception, widespread in the tabletop community, that computer RPGs are a parasite which rips off ideas from tabletop games and, more insidiously, captures the minds of the young and prevents them from becoming tabletop RPG fans. Hence denying the tabletop industry its rightful Phat Cash and forcing its best and brightest to go over to the computer RPG juggernaut.

One might be reminded of the Windows/MacOS rivalry back in the pre-Linux days, and indeed, I am compelled to remind one of it, because that’s where this article properly starts.

I am a Mac person. I make no bones about it. However, like most Mac people, I have had to use various incarnations of Windows for work purposes. I also spent a year selling computers of both types, which compelled me to dive into the relative benefits of each platform. And one of the opinions that I have formed on the matter is that a significant contributor to the huge success of Windows 95 was the fact that it was actually innovative. Windows 3.1 didn’t really do much of anything that you couldn’t do on the Mac, while the Mac had its own array of features not duplicated in Windows, leaving the PC platform to compete mostly on price and the corporate-market dominance that entails. Windows 95, on the other hand, had some really useful features that the Mac just didn’t have. Alt-Tab and the Taskbar, to name two. For the first time, one could actually believe that Windows was an easier platform to use and not be lying to oneself (we will ignore the Plug-and-Play debacle).

What does this have to do with RPGs?

Much of the analysis of the computer vs. tabletop situation focuses on the inbuilt limitations of the different media. Tabletop games are social; computer games can be played any time, and by yourself. Tabletop games are more flexible; computer games can have really cool visuals and audio, and they don’t get irritable or boring when they have an off day. These features are the equivalent of “PCs have more software; Macs don’t collapse every time you add a new piece of hardware”. It’s just part of the landscape. Barring major advances in the underlying terms of the discussion (which in the case of roleplaying will probably come from the massively multiplayer end of things, but that’s another essay), these factors will not change. If the foundation isn’t going to change, you might as well dink around with the bells and whistles.

The computer RPG industry has learned this lesson well. They license popular tabletop games to make computer games — AD&D, Vampire, and so on. They’ve been looting the pantry of good ideas.

It’s time to turn the tables.

There are a bunch of computer games which have structural ideas in them which are both good and not, to my knowledge, duplicated in any tabletop game. So I’m going to ruthlessly excise those good bits and talk about ’em for a while, that you may use them in your own tabletop games. Fight the power and all that.

Magic in Final Fantasy VII

In FFVII, magic requires little hunks of crystallized energy called materia. The energy to cast spells comes from your own personal reserves, but the spells you can cast depend upon the materia you’re carrying. This is a pretty nifty, if non-revolutionary, concept. Magic which requires objects to cast has several advantages.

First, acquiring these objects is a fabulous plot hook–not unlike vis in Ars Magica. Acquiring new spells can be the plot of an adventure, not just the reward for it.

Second, objects can be stolen, which can be either a plot hook or a way to cool down overheated character advancement. They can also be broken, which isn’t possible in FFVII, but no one says we can’t expand a little here. Being able to break the source of a magic-user’s power adds more strategy to magic duels, and adds just a little bit more to the stakes of a rough ride, a long drop, or a severe beating.

Third, you can restrict the number of magic doohickeys a character can use at once (in FFVII, the number of materia you can use is dependent on the number of “slots” in your weapon or armor, so finding equipment with enough slots to let you use your materia is another important task). This kind of restriction allows you to give out increases in magic power without letting the power levels get out of hand–if the PCs are limited to five doohickeys in use, having thirty spiffy powers is better than having five, because the variety gives them flexibility, but it’s not as insanely better as if they were allowed to use all thirty at once. Plus, you get all the Christmas-morning new-magic-item bliss for each of those thirty doohickeys.

FFVII’s materia also have a few variations which are pretty cool too. Materia gain experience just like PCs, and as they go up in level, they gain more powers, and eventually divide, giving you a baby materia which you can sell or keep around so it too can go up in level. Some materia, when they get enough power, can be combined into extra-powerful materia. Some materia have interesting special effects in combination.

Lastly, FFVII has summoning materia. Instead of casting a spell, these summon a supernatural being to kick ass on your behalf. All the roleplaylicious goodness of a magic item and an NPC in one. It worked for Disney in Aladdin; it can work for you.

Magic in Final Fantasy VIII

I didn’t like the magic system in FFVIII that much as a computer game. However, it’s got some goodness to loot for tabletop.

Spells work strangely in FFVIII. You can suck magical power from creatures you fight or from rare natural locations which happen to be a source for magic (again, a bit like vis in Ars Magica). When you do, you get a certain number of castings of a certain spell. When you cast one, it’s gone. When you run out of castings of a given spell, too bad. Now, depending on factors which are not relevant here, you can “junction” spells to certain characteristics. If you junction a spell you’ve got a whole lot of to an attribute, it goes up a bunch. If you don’t have many castings of the spell, it goes up less. The end result is that casting spells can make your attributes go down.

This was a little frustrating in the computer game because it made for a little more min-maxing than I like to indulge in in front of my TV. However, these kinds of choices are ideal for a tabletop game.

First of all, having to choose between augmenting your powers and fighting something that’s trying to kill you is one of those tough choices on which drama is made. It can even be poignant if the choice is between augmenting your powers or fighting something that’s trying to kill one of your friends.

Secondly, having to choose between elevated abilities and immediate magical whoop-ass, while a less dramatic choice, allows a variety of strategies as well as tending to rein in the munchkiny instinct to bring all weapons to bear.

Save Points

Death in RPG is one of the mighty dilemmas of the genre. If a character cannot die, taking physical risks means nothing, and the game can come to feel flat. On the other hand, the death of a long-played character can be a sad occasion, and can make a game more depressing than some people enjoy. If different members of the group have different tolerances for risk and death, the problem only gets worse.

Computer RPGs deal with this quite cleverly with the concept of Save Points: if you die, you can start again from the last save point. Thus, you always risk something when going into danger; death means losing a significant amount of progress. However, you don’t risk losing everything.

Translating this to the tabletop is a challenge; we put up with all kinds of violations of suspension of disbelief in CRPGs that tabletop games can’t get away with. The best solution I can come up with so far is an order of sage-priests who record the life-works of individuals who they feel are important to the flow of history, and recreate those individuals if they are prematurely removed from the mortal world. Of course, they can only restore the person up to the point at which their life-works were recorded. This might still niggle at suspension of disbelief, and also could create problems with separating player from character knowledge (“Well, we went that way last time, so obviously that wasn’t a good idea”). On the other hand, introspective players might have some fun having their character obsess over whether the recreated them is real, or whether they are simply simulacra. At this point, the cruel gamemaster has the recreated character discover the character’s original body. This doesn’t happen in CRPGs, but why limit ourselves to the source material?

Another possibility would be to posit that true heroes have prophetic dreams. Hence, whenever a character dies, the party has the opportunity to declare, “No, that was Ragnar the Bold having a prophetic vision. He awakes in a cold sweat, and next time we’re not going to pee in the sacristy.” This has problems; for one, it’s hard as a GM to pose challenges if the PCs can just reset and try again. On the other hand, you can always change the adventure — Ragnar’s dream may not have been literally accurate, you know. However, you still waste the work. This solution can also lead to intra-party friction; asking the whole party to sacrifice a session or more worth of progress so that Ragnar can not have died for being an idiot can be a lot to ask.

Thousand Arms

Thousand Arms is one of my favorite CRPGs ever. Admittedly, I have a taste for the odd, but even so, I think Thousand Arms is a spectacularly innovative game. Your main character in Thousand Arms is a Spirit Blacksmith: in addition to doing your regular CRPG wackiness, you can reforge your own weapons and those of your friends, giving them new and exciting powers. However, it seems (though they don’t go into too much detail in the game itself) that the process of forging a magic sword requires the application of the male principle (you) and the female principle (someone else), properly attuned. The upshot of this is that in order to forge a powerful weapon, you have to go on dates with women and become close to them so that they can help you forge more powerful weapons.

We got the game because the notion of a CRPG with dating seemed so wonderfully whimsical, but it works really, really well (I’m not quite so pleased by the gender politics of the game, but you can’t have everything). The dating system facilitates actual roleplaying better than I’ve ever seen in a CRPG. In most CRPGs, the roleplaying amounts to different spins on a character–you can say different things, but basically the character is a certain way and there’s nothing you can do to change it. In Thousand Arms, you can make decisions about your character’s personality and have his conversation reflect that–there’s enough leeway in the options to permit that sort of customization (of course, you can also be a big munchkin and tell every girl exactly what she wants to hear in order to maximize your power. But roleplaying is about options).

Love-feast for Thousand Arms aside, what I find so fabulous about this is the fact that it links character power to developing the character’s personal relationships. Perhaps more importantly, it links the hero’s quest to the development of personal relationships. In a tabletop RPG, this could have two effects. One, it allows you to channel a game from raw acquisition into roleplaying and character development without outright railroading (in case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a big fan of using the base desires for power, money, and magic items to fuel roleplaying, epic story, and other stuff that satisfies my inner dramaturg. Kind of like taxing pollution. I am of the opinion that every gamer has an inner munchkin and an inner artiste. When both can be satisfied, all is right with the world). Two, it reduces the conflict between a desire for characters to have more meaningful connections to the world than their police contacts and their fences, and the circumstances of the traditional hero type. Typically, the time for relationships is after the world has been saved and you can retire. Among other things, getting involved with people is like painting a target in villain-visible ink on them. Most PC heroic types have buried too many friends to make new ones. Which is all well and good, but dang it, meaningful relationships make for a more interesting story. If making friends and influencing people is a prerequisite to doing the hero thing, we can get those interesting entanglements properly on center stage where they should be.