Sunday, 30 March 2014

Bandit Country: Why?

I am turning my attention to laying down some serious track towards getting Bandit Country written. I see the roleplaying blogoverse is brimming with nostalgia as the Northern hemisphere begs for Spring time so I have decided to join in.

I have always loved espionage stories. The depth of commitment, the price paid, the marginal reward and the lack of recognition. The first Roleplaying Game I ever bought was Top Secret 1st ed from TSR in 1982. I realize that every game I have ever run has really been an espionage story.

But espionage is a hard genre to find in fiction and film. That might seem like a strange statement but almost everything that claims the espionage genre is just themed action, mystery or conspiracy. Bourne isn't espionage, Bond definitely isn't espionage and neither is Jack Ryan (at least in the films). A good test is whether the protagonist recruits someone to perform a task, usually by lying to them. Another test is whether the protagonist's key objective is to solve a mystery that is actively being concealed from them. If so, it's probably a conspiracy story. If the protagonist is fully aware of their objective but is unable to immediately attain it (thus the recruiting of assets who can bridge to the objective) it is probably espionage.

Bourne is action/conspiracy with espionage trappings. Recent Bonds are the same. Older Bonds are Action/mystery. Burn Notice isn't espionage, it's procedural investigative mysteries (conspiracy for some episodes) with pithy tradecraft voice overs.

Espionage is pretty much anything written by John le Carre; try `The Little Drummer Girl'. It is rare to experience a spy story from the point of view of the asset. `Spy Game' is a great espionage film that also proves that you can incorporate action sequences without breaking the convention. Same with Munich.  

My favorite espionage film isn't even generally thought of as being one. It is categorized as an action drama and was generally disliked and poorly reviewed. It has 40% on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB rates it at 6.2/10. On the other hand it meets the criteria to actually be an espionage film and absolutely sets the template for what a Bandit Country consultant is and does. 

Bandit Country: The Risk - Consequence - Opportunity Loop.

After completing my latest work on Rocket Age I am turning back to Bandit Country. If you are new to the blog and you don't know what Bandit Country is, check out this link and check out the back posts.

One of my goals with Bandit Country is to be able to express the game as a series of flowcharts. This is what I call the Big Picture, the primary play loop as a whole.

The Big Picture works like this. The Player selects an Objective for their Consultant and goes through the Risk phase to Assess, Address and Apply a solution. Moving to the Consequence phase we discover the outcomes and apply them. Shifting to the Opportunity phase we find the exploitable circumstances that have emerged from the Consultant's solution and a new Objective is selected. The loop iterates until the Player has achieved their Mission Goal or has been captured and is being tortured to death.

Network sits at the center of the Big Picture because it is informed by each phase of the loop and is protected and enhanced by the Risk Management process. Bandit Country is not a heroic game in the genre meaning of the word and Players will need to recruit, manage and organize one or more networks to achieve their goals.

Risk, Consequence, Opportunity and Network are the four key modules that define a game of Bandit Country. I have written the Risk module and I plan on writing the Consequence and Opportunity modules before the next play-test, 2 weeks.

I am also thinking about how the Network module will work because I want it to be a mini-game within the game as a whole that is simple, strategic and deep. I suspect that I will be looking at card and board games for inspiration there and that will be fun because I don't have much experience with either.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Horse or Rider: Plot Vs Character?

A recent talk at Games Developer Conference really got me thinking about writing for tabletop RPGs. Titled Death to the Three Act structure it proposes an alternate approach to delivering story to Players. This link, you will notice, is to the slides from the talk because there is no video or transcript of the talk in the public realm. To gain more context check out this video from IGN and this post at Gamasutra. This MS power point file includes the slides and the discussion notes of the talk, well worth it if you have the time.

The short version is that there is a mystery that the multi-billion dollar video game industry is trying to solve:

Why do so few players complete a game?

So why does this matter for tabletop games? The longevity of your favorite campaign is all about engagement. If you can't engage your players you will not sustain your campaign. It really is that simple. But figuring out how to engage your players - that's the hard part.

The short version of the talk, contextualized to RPGs, is that successful story telling is all about Characters. Your Plot, no matter how clever it is, will always take a back seat to the Characters. The Player Characters and the Non Player Characters. Ten years later, if your Players remember the campaign at all,they will remember it in terms of the Characters they played and the characters they interacted with. Microsoft spent a bunch of money to prove this, see Slide 21. Players have a hard time explaining the plot of a game compared to explaining the plot of a film or book. They have invested in the Character not the Plot. The following slide provides the four key findings of the study and they are quite telling. 

All the Old School and Sandbox GMs out there are wondering why their eyes are rolling because they definitely don't read this blog. A sandbox GM would claim that Plot arises from encounters and encounters are driven by characters. They are not impressed by any of this and confirm that introducing film narrative structure to RPGs was something that they ignored because it has nothing to contribute to the sandbox or hexcrawl style of play.

For the rest of us, pretty much all of the GM advice printed in a game since 1990 suggests some variation of the Three Act Structure as the proven method for creating and presenting content to your Players. It is one of those `best practice' things that is presented without question. The research within video games (and I see no compelling reason why it isn't equally valuable for RPGs) is that this structure does not mesh with Players. Are we emulating a structure that does not resonate for our chosen medium?

The writers Richard Rouse III and Tom Abernathy end with three points to steer or reconcile Character and Plot.
  1. Focus on character first; align character motivations with player motivation.
  2. Align your narrative with the structural needs of your game's user experience, learn-practice-master loop, and level/mission design.
  3. Use that information to inform your narrative structure – build your story’s dramatic rhythms around those needs.
The first point is interesting to me because tabletop RPGs don't consider the relationship of needs between the player and the player character to anywhere near the depth that video games do. Maybe that needs to change and if so does it gift the GM greater utility?
The second point is one that I think RPGs often do better than video games is not so much a lesson that GMs really need to hear. Your narrative is being told within a game; respect that.
The final point ties back to points made earlier in the talk. If you have an agenda ie; a story that you want to deliver through play, figure out the story before you decide how to tell it. Ideally, don't decide how to tell it, tell it through the characters that the Player Characters encounter both directly and incidentally. 

If, at the conclusion of play, a player can list all the key characters that they interacted with and by telling the story of heir interactions with those characters they tell the story as a whole, you have successfully created a narrative without a three act structure. Imagine that!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

An Interview with Tadhg Kelly of `What Games Are'

One of the key goals of this blog is to learn from and draw context by examining the design idioms of the video game industry, its right up there on the blog banner. I firmly believe that my tabletop roleplaying game design and writing has improved as a result of this and I hope that it is useful for you too.

I have quoted Tadhg Kelly in previous posts and referred to his excellent blog What Games Are. If you are unfamiliar with his blog and you are interested in game design you are in for a treat. I especially encourage you to read through the Glossary. I recently posted some questions to Tadhg and he has replied. 

QTE: In your  What Games Are posts you frequently refer to the Fun Boson and the futility of the hunt to capture it. Is this hunt purely a tool for securing investment or do you believe that there is more to it than that?

Tadhg: No it’s actually mostly genuine. Personally I think the urge to think this way is more to do with general attitudes toward risk and fear of failure. It is also a great story for investors (because they tend to be risk averse by nature) and so they line up. But if it were just about that then you would see most of the companies who preach the method then ignore it, which they don’t.
One of the ways in which games are unique as a medium is that they can be measured. Another is that there are a lot of people both in and around the medium who fundamentally believe that game design is an undiscovered science, a problem to be solved. And once it is solved, they think, it can be replicated. We see this idea manifest repeatedly in many gaming markets, from social through to mobile, and a considerable amount of cloning is similarly driven by trying unlock the boson. And it fails over and over because - like any entertainment medium - the audience’s tastes are always informed by what it saw before and therefore what is considered fun, cool, delightful or entertaining in context.

QTE: A frequent theme in your writing is critical or at least quizzical towards constant industry trends to measure and metricize player experience. If there is no value in solving player experience as an input to iterative design, do you think that by doing so a designer is unintentionally limiting their ability to reach their audience?

Tadhg: Absolutely. A friend of mine likens it baking a cake. When you’re in the middle of baking a cake the dough tastes like a mush of egg and flour, not at all nice (well maybe for a few people). It’s in a protoplasmic state that needs to be brought up to a certain standard of production (baked) before the intended audience can see what it is. Once baked the whole of the mixture has transformed and become something else, something that the individual ingredients would not have predicted.

It’s the same with games. You go into metric and measure and assessment too early and all that happens is you get a lot of people who tell you they don’t like dough mixture. You get a lot of people who complain that it isn’t fun, and also a lot of people who want to tell you how to fix it (often in the cheapest way possible) to get to their idea of what a fun game should be. This fundamentally leads to a fatalist kind of design that ends up simply replicating what seemed to work before because it’s impossible to let yourself think beyond the numbers.

I’ve experienced the result of that kind of thinking far too often in my career to find anything but fault with it. People literally spook themselves out of being creative by not letting themselves just get on with the baking, with iterating for themselves and using their own expert eye to assess what is and isn’t working. Then they lose their nerve and become cloners just like everyone else.

QTE: This final question is more of a Devils Advocate. Imagine that someone, however briefly, captured the Fun Boson and intentionally and deliberately used this knowledge to design an absolutely fantastic game. There was no coincidence or lucky intersection of emergent market trends. How did they do it?

Tadhg: Oh probably through a combination of trial, error, inspiration and contemplation. But there isn’t a boson so it’s a rather redundant hypothesis. 

There’s a reason why most game designers actually only have one or two successes in their entire career. The best games never come about because of a formula, they tend to emerge over time according to rules that we can’t quite decode. To give you an example, I recently played quite a lot of Cards Against Humanity. This is a game that I wish I had conceived of myself because when you look at it it’s just so darned simple, but at the same time has a rhyme and reason to it that belie real game design smarts. You look at Flappy Bird even and it’s the same. 

QTE (*Bonus Question!*): The Story Vs Game debate is heating up again. I find it fascinating because I can't think of any other creative medium that seriously doubts that it can meld or at least reconcile both. Is Story Vs Game an Identity Crisis for video games or is there more to it than that? 

Tadhg: It’s more a battle of perspectives. In an article I wrote a couple of years ago (The Four Lenses of Game Making) I argued that dualities are easy to digest but rarely have any real truth to them, and really games are better analyzed through a quadrant graph structure of frame/fantasy and emergence/experience. Sure, mechanically driven games are a part of that as are narrative-driven games. But so too are simulations (which are neither) or behavioral games (likewise). Thought of in those terms the variations of what kind of game is popular in the moment tend to make more sense and be more easily mapped.

Does it say a lot about the legitimacy of the form? Yes. I personally believe that one of the hard truths of the video game form is that it is very poor at telling narrated stories (as in the manner of a movie or book) because player agency is part of the package, and players are unreliable. Take that away and you have simply linear media with dressed-up page turning, or a kind of interactive artifice which the player doesn’t really affect. Yet many of us still cleave to the idea that games are supposed to somehow be better than movies.

I believe games are an art form, up and down the line, but I also believe that that art form is about state and place and urgency and moment and dynamism and the sense of story rather than the telling of a story. I think game makers from all quadrants essentially sense that too, that the art of games lies somewhere in the middle of these polar opposites, and that the unique capacity of games to pull us in and make us believe in their space is connected to that. 

I think that the legitimacy issues come more from being looked down upon by the outside world, and so sometimes we try to mould ourselves to look at sound more like what the outside world considers “art” (such as co-opting the language of drama, say) but really it’s a problem to be solved internally. Games are an art as they are and we should use language of our own derivation to describe them, and to hell with what the rest of the world thinks.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Escaping the Heliosheath: Story Vs Game

I have been following a debate that is raging within video game circles currently that is interesting because it does not have an analog in tabletop games. Specifically: Game Vs Story.
Greg Costikyan wrote about the competitive tensions between Game and Story. This is a must read for anyone interested in game design. During his time at West End Games Greg wrote the Star Wars RPG and co-authored Paranoia. Both of these games are significant waypoints in the history/ evolution of tabletop RPG design. His argument is that (video) games are not inherently a story telling medium. He posits that Story and Game are repellent objectives so that the more of one, the less of the other. Any attempt to reconcile this results in discordance in the play experience and a poor design. He writes that "story is the antithesis of game".
My first reaction to this is to reject his thesis because it denies the core goals of my design brain that wants to reconcile the Art Brain and the Play Brain. I don't want it to be so. But I think he makes a compelling point and the fact that I have no counter argument instructs me that he illuminates a key tension in game design. I have fielded a question raised by Greg's article to a games theorist who I greatly respect and hope to publish his reply soon.
A reply to the Game Vs Story issue can be found here stating that games are about participating in a story, not producing a story. It also points to story being irrespective of quality or scope, meaning that the shell story of Mario rescuing the Lady from Donkey Kong is as much a story as the tale of Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us. They are both Stories and they are both Games. This is a neat reply and it chips away at the inconvenient and jarring points that Greg makes but it doesn't address the core tension.
What does all of this mean for tabletop RPGs? Is it a thing to think about when designing or writing for RPGs? Is it just an identity crisis for video games, growing pains that will be surpassed as they shift from being a discrete activity to an incorporated experience in day to day life? One of the frequent comments about my recent game Acceptance: A Game about Winning, Losing and why it Matters is to question whether it is actually a game or a group story sharing activity. It is basically all story and no game. Of course, my plan is to build game elements into it as I iterate but the point is valid. 
I feel that Story Vs Game is a compelling tension in Game design. It is as important for tabletop games because otherwise the responsibility for dealing with it is shifted to the GM. Maybe that is for the best? I plan to write more about this in the future.