Aesthetics of Play: Sports and Spectacles

I recently re-read Roland Barthes’ essay “The World of Wrestling,” in which he draws a distinction between a sport, which is an event based on the “demonstration of excellence,” and a spectacle, which is a ritualized narrative embodying a struggle of moral values.  He identifies professional wrestling, in which the show is compelling despite its outcome never being in doubt, as a spectacle.  Its counterpart, boxing, is a contest of strength and skill, and thus its outcome cannot be predetermined without obviating the whole point of the match.

I think this distinction illuminates a dyad of aesthetics of play: an RPG can be either sport or spectacle (or neither), and which it is to be has profound effects at every level from rules design to actual play.

The sportsman aesthetic perceives the realm of play as a field for achievement.  Players pit their characters against challenges, test their skills, and win victories (or suffer defeats).  This may be an adversarial competition between the players and the GM, or even between players, but it need not be: RPG as sport can equally easily be a contest of each player against themself.  In every case, however, the point is to play well: to build an optimally designed character, to plan the best heist, to select the best tactics.

Now consider, by comparison, games in which the player characters are never really in jeopardy, and their ultimate victory is never in doubt.  These games confuse and disgust the sportsman; one might wonder why they even bother to roll dice if it doesn’t actually matter.

To the lover of spectacle, however, the point is the experience.  The players come together not to test their skill, but to participate in a ritual narrative.  You don’t worry about whether Robin Hood is actually going to get captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham; Wile E. Coyote is not going to catch the Road Runner by optimizing his ACME purchases.  In this mode, randomizers aren’t a factor to struggle against, but an infusion of the unexpected which permits the players to be simultaneously actor and audience.  They know, more or less, what will happen, but they don’t know how.  The essence of spectacle is the satisfaction of seeing events unfold as you knew they would, leavened with the joy of surprise at exactly how they did.

Adapted from an essay originally published on LiveJournal

Uplift in heroic fantasy RPGs

I reread Startide Rising and The Uplift War recently, and it occurred to me that that interspecies dynamic would be an interesting way of handling the profusion of intelligent races in an “everything in the books”-style D&D campaign.  Sure, maybe bugbears and ogres are basically the same thing, but that’s just because the illithids thought the aboleth had too good a thing going with ogres to let the idea go unswiped.  If you have a problem with that, I’m sure the beholders will be happy to field your complaints about their client race.  Or their patrons, if you can find the right Outer Plane.

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

Aesthetics of Play: Catharsis

Many players bring an aesthetic that I think of as cathartic play to their relationships with their characters . The cathartic playstyle approaches roleplaying as a venue for players to take risks or indulge impulses in ways that might have unpleasant consequences in real life. The satisfaction of cathartic play is the chance to blow off steam.

Consequently, cathartic characters are often similar to their players, but with certain traits amplified and certain inhibitions muted. In a more extreme form of the aesthetic, these characters may be wholly designed around the traits to be amplified. I’ve known people who used short-tempered characters to work through their anger issues; I like to play impulsive people from time to time as a break from my usual overthinkery.

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.”

Experience Points and Plot

I have a thesis about one of the reasons that earned experience points are so persistent in roleplaying games.

Experience points provide an irreducible floor of plot.

As is traditional in RPG theory, I’m using an idiosyncratic and non-intuitive definition of “plot”. What I mean by “plot”, in this connection, is the occurrence of events which cause a lasting change of state in the characters or setting. Put more simply, plot is when something happens that matters.

Ideally, in every session of an RPG, there would be plot. PCs would advance toward short-term or long-term goals, gather information or assets necessary to advancing toward goals, move along a character arc, etc. However, we’ve all had sessions where nothing happened. Maybe there was some beating on orcs, but nothing really happened. Nothing changed, in the characters or the world they live in.

Experience systems, however, guarantee that the PCs will be changed by every session, regardless of that session’s content. Whatever else happens (or doesn’t), you get XP, and now maybe you can get that new ability you’ve been saving up for. They turn otherwise narratively vacant sessions into training montages.

Originally published on LiveJournal

The Trouble with Taxonomy

I’ve just finished Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, and it has me thinking about one of the major quagmires of RPG theory — namely, player taxonomies.

It is very common for RPG theorists to begin with a player taxonomy — some way of dividing gamers into a set of archetypes. The earliest example I’m aware of is the Adventurer/Problem-Solver/Roleplayer scheme in Douglas Niles’ Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986), though I’m not sure how old the Real Men/Real Roleplayers/Loonies/Munchkins scheme is. Arguably, however, the taxonomic approach achieved its golden age with the emergence of the RGFA Threefold in the late ’90s, soon to be followed by the GNS scheme which is popular at The Forge, and a slew of other less-popular ways of dividing things up (including, for example, my own spectator/sportsman dyad from a few months ago).

I think, however, that the taxonomic impulse is fundamentally flawed. Dividing the world into X number of types is a good way to form a prescriptive scheme for characterizing fictional characters in the building (and an even better way to round out a game line with splatbooks); as a way to describe the infinite multiplicity of real people, it invariably fails to cover someone. And no matter how much the author hems and haws, saying that the types are general, and encompass only the majority of players, excluded people will always be pissed. If there’s an ongoing discussion, it devolves into definitional arguments; if there’s a fixed piece, anything which builds upon the taxonomy will not ring true to anyone who disputes the taxonomy.

This is, to return to where I came in, why I think Robin’s Laws is a good book, but not a great one. A player taxonomy is the foundation of the book, and if you find the taxonomy not entirely satisfying, it makes everything which follows a bit tenuous. It’s still packed with tidbits and ideas which are excellent stuff, but it’s very hard to build a satisfying core on a player taxonomy.

In a nutshell (though I recognize this is subjective), I can’t find myself in Laws’ taxonomy, nor most of the people I usually play with, and it makes the whole thing a bit suspect. And I suspect that many people will have trouble finding themselves adequately described in any system which divides the whole of gaming experience into three to six chunks.

Now, I think it’s important to analyze play styles for the very real insights they give, but lately I find myself more drawn to identifying aesthetics without trying to place them in an exhaustive schema. For example, the simulationist aesthetic is real and important to any understanding of RPG play style, but I’ve never seen any attempt to resolve the question of what the opposite of simulationist is that ended well. Nor do I feel that an examination of simulationism needs to be flanked by an exhaustive study of other possible aesthetics, or that the simulationist aesthetic must coincide with or exclude any other aesthetic.

To put it another way, analyzing playstyles in terms of X and not-X enables anyone who doesn’t see themselves in X to put themselves in not-X, and thus to receive the analysis without feeling excluded by it. Not-X is big and all-inclusive; it’s the House Ex Miscellanea of critical theory.

Originally published on LiveJournal

System flexibility and the first generation of RPGs

This morning I’m thinking about the eternal debate about whether the earliest RPGs were crude and primitive messes which only enabled mindless hack and slash or whether they were clean and simple open-ended toolkits which permitted far more creativity than the hand-holding megatomes gamers expect today.

As is the obnoxious and predictable wont of screeds like this, I’m going to suggest that the truth lies somewhere in between. It’s true that people have done some amazing things with those early, thin books; I think there’s a great truth to the maxim that any supposedly ground-breaking innovation in roleplaying was being done by somebody back in 1979 with either D&D or Traveller. (For some reason, Tunnels & Trolls doesn’t seem to have drawn the avant-garde crowd). It is indeed possible to do all sorts of wacky stuff that isn’t remotely suggested by the core rules of those early games.

The point where the cognitive split happens, I think, is the great preteen D&D boom of the early and mid-80s. From that point, a vast influence on the gaming hobby and industry is groups of preteens with poorly disciplined imaginations and a slavish devotion to the Revealed Wisdom of the Book. This is where we get those horrible and legendary rape-fests; this is where we get people who learned most of their advanced vocabulary from the Dungeon Masters Guide. (This is where a generation of children got very confused about the distinction between aestheticism and asceticism). For many of these kids, thinking inside the box was sort of the point — that’s why you bought the box (there’s a different musing there about developmental needs, but I need to do some reading and thinking for that).

And it’s that stream of the hobby that many later games attempt to deal with. When the mainstream of the hobby is, in fact, playing the games as a killemall, and constraining their play to the letter of the rules, publishing games which more strongly encourage a different sort of gaming makes sense. And that impulse is what has motivated a great deal of development ever since — the desire to encourage play styles not encouraged by existing rulesets. They can’t be as open as the earliest games, because they explicitly seek to channel players into play styles which, in theory, they might not be able to find on their own.

There’s another musing in there about the terms “enable”, “encourage”, and “permit”, I think, but that had better percolate a bit.

Originally published on LiveJournal

The Proceedings of the Rock Springs Society
(October 8, 2003)

A Setting Element for use with GURPS Deadlands

This piece uses the book rules described in GURPS Deadlands: Hexes and the Designer’s Notes for GURPS Deadlands: Hexes.

The creative process that created this piece was entirely unreasonably byzantine.  In 2002, I wrote a book called GURPS Deadlands: Hexes.  Hexes is mostly adaptations to GURPS of spells (“hexes,” in Deadlands parlance) that appeared in original Deadlands publications, but I created a number of new hexes that appeared with stats for both GURPS and original Deadlands.  It also includes rules for magic books, because I’m a big Ars Magica dork, which I elaborated on the Designer’s Notes for Hexes.

After Hexes came out, my editor, the esteemed Andrew Hackard, suggested that I adapt the new material in Hexes to the Deadlands d20 rules, and that was published in Pyramid Magazine as The Hand You’re Dealt.  The framing device that I used for that article alluded to a book containing the hexes described, and it seemed a) obvious to work that book up using my book rules, and b) kind of dumb to put GURPS book stats into an article of d20 material.  So I wrote the book up, and present that here.

The Rock Springs Society for Games of Chance and Skill

The Rock Springs Society for Games of Chance and Skill operated in Wyoming from 1867 to 1869. To the world at large, it appeared to be a flimsy excuse for the biggest scoundrels in six states to get together and hone their skills by trying to pull their best cheats on one another. That’s true as far as it goes, but like so many things in post-Reckoning America, there was more to the Society than met the eye. Four of the Society’s seven members were hucksters, and damn good ones at that. Besides meeting to exchange their mundane innovations, they exchanged hexes and other occult lore at their get-togethers until that cold February day when the Agency adjourned the Society for the last time.

The Society’s Proceedings, published in 1867 and 1868, are avidly searched after by hucksters and ordinary swindlers alike. Only a dozen copies of each volume were ever printed (and several of those have been captured by the Agency), but the demand for them is great enough to have inspired several unauthorized reprints. On its face, the book is merely a record of what games the Society played, how the games went, and who was there. The attentive reader, however, may notice a variety of swindles and cheats leaving their traces between the lines. Many readers hope to learn some new shenanigans by poring over its pages. For those with the eyes to look even closer, however, the Proceedings contain potent hexes committed to code by the members of the Society.

Some aficionados of the Proceedings claim that there a draft of the 1869 Proceedings existed, and that it included an extremely deadly hex by the legendary “Red” York; the search for that manuscript has become many a huckster’s obsession. Skeptics note that if “York’s Last Hex” did exist, it wasn’t enough to keep the Agency from gunning him down in the bathtub.

Proceedings of the Rock Springs Society for Games of Chance and Skill, Vol. 1 (1867)

Vol. 1 of the Proceedings contains the hexes Burning Death (p. D:H39), Hidey-Hole (p. D:H40), Phantom Amputation (p. D:H41), Rabbit Foot (p. D:H43), and Shift Wounds (p. D:H42). It may be used to study any of these hexes to a maximum level of 10 (the Rock Springs Society were good hucksters, but indifferent teachers). There is a -1 penalty to Cryptography to decipher the hexes.

The 1867 Proceedings is worth a whopping 18 library points in Streetwise.

Volume 1 of the Proceedings is avidly sought after for its relations of the stories the members told and the sneaky tricks they played on each other during the meeting — it’s considered a sort of scoundrel’s primer. It is, for this reason, very difficult to find; non-hucksters are just as eager as hucksters to get their mitts on it.

Proceedings of the Rock Springs Society for Games of Chance and Skill, Vol. 2 (1868)

Vol. 2 of the Proceedings contains the hexes Blink (p. D:H38), Ecstasy (p. D:H39), Hell’s Arsenal (p.D:H40), and I Want Answers (p. D:H41). It may be used to study any of these hexes to a maximum level of 11. There is a -2 penalty to Cryptography to decipher the hexes.

The 1868 Proceedings is worth 12 library points in Streetwise, and 4 library points in Politics.

Volume 2 of the Proceedings is more sedate than Volume 1. By 1868, the members had tested each other’s skills thoroughly and exhausted the best of their stories. They were also concerned with the first stirrings of official interest in the Society, and a hefty chunk of the Proceedings is taken up by discussions of how to get the authorities off their back. Volume 2 is therefore less attractive to scalawags than its predecessor. Hucksters, however, are extremely eager to get hold of I Want Answers! Volume 2, therefore, is almost as rare as its predecessor.

Proceedings of the Rock Springs Society for Games of Chance and Skill, Vol. 3 (1869)

The third volume of the Proceedings may be apocryphal; the supposed drafts and partial copies that circulate have no usable hexes, but the decipherable fragments suggest that the full text would contain hexes called Manitou Gate, Eruption, and Seducing Lady Luck.

Hucksters who believe that volume 3 exists want it bad.

This setting element is intended for use with GURPS Deadlands from Steve Jackson Games. It is not official, nor is it endorsed by Steve Jackson Games. GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy.

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.