Sunday, December 30, 2018

Tabletop RPGs offer living, infinite worlds

I enjoy computer RPGs (CRPGs) like Skyrim, but one can't escape their finite maps or even just pick up a grain of sand. Tabletop RPGs (TTRPGs) lack those limits.

TTRPGs don't just offer a 'higher level' of world detail than CRPGs. They offer practically *infinite* world detail. I teleport past the 'impassable' mountains, exploring the great continent beyond. I reach an ocean; I build a boat and sail to new lands. I circle the globe, and look to the stars. I travel to entire new planets, exploring them each in detail. I pick up three grains of sand. What do they look like? What minerals are they made out of? What are their histories? I shrink down, and explore their surfaces as if they were entire alien worlds. I shrink down further, and break off individual molecules with my hands. There is no limit on the breadth or level of detail to which a TTRPG can go. This is absolutely extraordinary, and IMO it doesn't get enough attention.

CRPGs also lack mechanics for an almost infinite number of things which can easily be attempted within a TTRPG. In most CRPGs, you can’t chop down a door even if you’re carrying an axe. In a TTRPG, you can easily attempt that – whether there’s a written rule for it or not. You can also tell the GM you're measuring that door to find out its exact height and width. You can ask what kind of wood it's made out of, and examine the grain on its planks to try and figure out what year the tree was cut down. You could try to drill a peephole through it with a dagger, and on and on. Because in a TTRPG *that door is a real door with all of the characteristics of a real door*. You are in a real world, where things behave like real things. It is going to be a long time until CRPGs get anywhere near that level of immersion. If ever.

This is not an attack on CRPGs. Like I said, I enjoy them *and* I enjoy TTRPGs. I’m bringing up some of the limitations of CRPGs in order to highlight the unique, practical strengths of TTRPGs.

TTRPG GMs need to understand, and own, these astonishing capabilities. I’ve used the example of picking up, examining, and sorting three grains of sand - which would be incredibly irritating if my players actually did it. The point is that they *could*, and dealing with that is part of the GM's job. Which is how this post ties into, and is a continuation of, my previous post about what a GM is.

A GM who's just running a cookie cutter out of the box adventure, and not breathing life into it by treating every pebble and blade of grass whose existence is implied (but not specifically described) within it as an equally real detail, and limiting their players’ actions to things which are specifically covered by the written rules,  is failing to take advantage of the major things which make TTRPGs uniquely awesome in the first place.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Tabletop RPG GMs Need Good Mechanics

Another tabletop RPG design rant...
No set of RPG rules can be completely comprehensive. Its been tried, and the result is always a bloated, cumbersome set of rules which *still* don't cover every possible thing. So instead, most RPG rule sets only provide detailed resolution mechanics for the most common situations. One of the main reasons to even have a GM at the table, is so that they can provide an impartial ruling on things which fall outside of the published mechanics. However (and here's where I'm about to say something which may be a bit controversial), a common attitude exists in the hobby that even detailed, published mechanics are 'just guidelines' - so the GM is often expected to over-rule even those kinds of mechanics on a pretty regular basis. This, IMO, has become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy in the hobby - because designers who expect that even their most carefully designed systems won't be taken all that seriously are not particularly motivated to make sure that those systems perform in a robust manner when played as written - resulting in GM fiat being needed to take up the slack, even when written rules are available.
My personal view is that, while the GM is there to handle things which fall outside of the written mechanics, the written mechanics are there to take pressure off the GM 1) so they don't have to make up absolutely *everything* (particularly not all of the most common things, which can be incredibly draining), and 2) to help the GM be impartial (and not be held personally accountable for every single outcome, especially the most controversial ones, like PC death). The more a published mechanic requires GM fiat to 'fix' it during play, the less well it fulfills either of those two reasons for its existence. If a GM applies the rules as written, and gets results which seem inappropriate, then the fault may lie with those mechanics first, and the GM second. The GM *should* be able to retreat behind 'well that's how the rules are written' to escape blame for an undesirable outcome, but when the rule in question is broken then GM should take on the responsibility for correcting it. And then maybe replace it with a house rule, or even toss the rule altogether and accept that they're going to have to make a personal call in such situations from now on, since the written rule isn't handling it well.
In summary: Tabletop RPG rules are there to assist the GM, and this is best achieved when those rules consistently produce reasonable results when played as written. The oft-repeated meme that "RPG rules are just guidelines" works *against* the goal of providing GMs with the kind of well-designed rules sets that would actually benefit them.

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Invention of the Gamemaster

I personally feel that the greatest contribution made by Gary Gygax et al is the *idea* of tabletop role-playing, and not specifically the core structure of the D&D ruleset itself. Which, if we're being honest, is pretty awkward and clunky. So was the Model T, but that doesn't mean Henry Ford wasn't a frickin' genius.

And IMO, what makes tabletop role-playing such a brilliant new idea is the concept of having a gamemaster. Chess doesn't have a GM. You don't get to say, "this Rook has decided to set off to see the world - what's in that next square past the edge of the board?" or "what kind of terrain in in this square of the chess board, and can I use it for cover to get the jump on that enemy Knight?". There's nobody to ask, and nobody empowered to make up a binding answer. GMs turn what would otherwise be a (possibly very engaging but) strictly limited strategic exercise into an open-ended, endlessly fascinating *adventure*.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Choosy Humans Choose Science

Some folks seem to think that their *ability to choose* between what science says and what their religion says on any given topic proves that there's no conflict between science and religion. What they need to understand is that *having to choose* between what science says and what their religion says on various topics IS the conflict.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Game Design As Art

For years I've been both an artist and an RPG game designer, and as I see it, game design is just another artistic medium. When I draw a picture, I'm trying to depict a certain subject and convey a certain story or feeling, visually. When I design game mechanics, I'm trying to depict a certain subject and convey a certain story or feeling, through the experience that people will have when they play.

Yet for some reason, visual arts tend to be respected as the special creative expression of the artist, while the art of game design tends not to be granted a similar level of respect.

I've been thinking about this since Gary Gygax Day, when someone posted a quote from Gary where he criticized D&D 3.5 - and some of the reactions showed complete contempt for Gary as the ARTIST who created D&D. Imagine if someone took the Mona Lisa and modified it, and then when DaVinci complained he was told that it's none of his business. (I'm not comparing D&D to the Mona Lisa. I'm using the Mona Lisa as an example of a piece of visual art, simply because it's well known. The same principle that I'm trying to get at, here, would apply equally if someone modified a napkin doodle by your aunt Matilda).

I realize that the needs of tabletop role-play require additional GM input to a degree that looking at a picture doesn't, but still. If things were done to works of visual art analogous to what's commonly done to works of the art of game design, we would all be (rightly) appalled.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Sexual Harassment Amongst the Unbelievers

There is a kerfuffle going on in the Atheist community. I've been pretty silent about it, but somebody asked me my opinion so I wrote the following response, which I would like to share. Non-atheists will find nothing of interest here; move along, you folks have your own problems ;-)

Okay. So just to be clear, the kerfuffle I'm talking about is the ongoing flame-fest over the issue of sexual harassment policies at Atheist conventions. So here's what I think.

I think what we're seeing is the consequence of trying to form a community out of a bunch of people who have abandoned our culture's default (Christian) rules of behavior. I'm not saying it was a mistake, I'm saying we all ought to face up to the fact that we have some work to do.

Some who've dumped Christianity feel that in the absence of its archaic sexual taboos, we should now all be free and open about our sexual impulses. Others who've dumped Christianity feel that in the absence of its patriarchal biases, we should now finally respect the absolute equal rights of women and have zero tolerance for unsolicited sexual advances.

I don't think the problem is that one side or the other is wrong. I think they're both mostly right. The problem, in my view, is that we lack a clear new cultural standard for behavior that accommodates both of these views by adopting reasonable limits to enable them to co-exist. Both sides are being a bit shrill and defensive, and that's entirely understandable, because both are fighting to make sure that the new emerging standards of behavior place as few limits on their side of the dispute as possible.

So while it can be unpleasant to listen to this infighting, I think we need to accept it as inevitable. I also think it could be healthy in the long run. Because if we never work through these differences then we won't be one community, we'll be two.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Cavemaster: The RPG that cavemen played is now available!