Monday, March 29, 2010

Bioware Bazaar

Bioware is having a contest/psuedo-auction to celebrate their anniversary (15th, I think).  You can click here to find out more (That's a referral link to get me extra "tokens" to play the game, so feel free to send your friends here to click on the link)

EDIT: Looks like I'm not eligible for the prizes.  If you wanna help someone, click on the link in the comments below.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Emergent Narrative and the Problem with MMOs

So, whenever players start to argue over which RPG is better, invariably someone claims whichever game is more "Fun" is the better game, and then someone demands to know what "Fun" means, and invariably, people claim that fun is too nebulous to define.

I think that's bollocks.  Raph Koster, in his "A Theory of Fun" defines fun as "a learning experience."  Sid Meier describes games (which are presumably fun) as a "Series of Interesting Choices."  I like both, but I'll go further and put both together: Fun is the interactive study of emergence.

Humans like complexity.  We like it in our music, our art, our poetry and our humor.  When something is too simple, we quickly grow bored of it (a stick figure), when it's too complex, many of us can't comprehend it, and it becomes gibberish (Picasso, who often did things like attempting to convey 4 dimensions on a 2 dimensional surface).  The ideal varies from person to person, but we want to see as much complexity as we can comprehend unfold before this. This is the core of what Raph Koster was trying to say in his book, and "a series of interesting (interactions)" is precisely what creates emergence.

All good games have good "mechanical" emergence.  Consider Weapons of the Gods.  In every turn, you have many variables to contend with.  Your martial arts interacts with your opponents martial arts.  Your chi values vary, forcing you to change which style you favor.  Your river rises and falls, forcing you to make new choices.  The patterns constantly change, forcing you to adapt.  You don't know for certain what will happen next turn, but being able to predict it is the key to winning, so you struggle to understand.  That is, you have fun.  The same is true of D&D, GURPS, Yomi, Chess, Go, and so on.  It's not true of World of Darkness, as you can generally predict what will happen during any extended roll (for example, combat), so it stops being interesting and becomes the mechanical equivalent of a stick figure.

So why would people play WoD?  Or, worse, Risus, Wushu or others?  Partially, some of these players are very simple.  They take delight in simplistic games, like Tic-tac-toe and Hangman.  Large books filled with rules and complex interactions scare them, the way Picasso scares most of us.  But others, the majority I'd say, would argue that "mechanics get in the way of a good story!" which is certainly a sentiment I disagree with, but actually the point of this post.  RPGs provide another form of emergence: Narrative emergence.  In addition to having fascinating mechanics, most RPGs have fascinating, complex stories.  Through a series of simple choices, the players find themselves lost in a world of intrigue.  The princess in love with the hero cannot marry him because she is betrothed to a wicked man that the hero cannot (should not) kill because he is the key to defeating the dire Necromancer who is, in turn, a life-long friend of the hero, and interested in supplying the hero with power and aforementioned princess!  What's a hero to do?  We struggle through the interesting patterns of the narrative which, because it stems from the players themselves, seldom becomes too complex or too simple for a group's enjoyment.

From this, we have "roll-play vs role-play," the enjoyment of tactical emergence vs the enjoyment of narrative emergence.  D&D encourages a great deal of the former and little of the latter, while WoD is the reverse.  I personally don't see why both can't coincide, and thus I enjoy WotG.  Many indie games follow suit.

MMOs and CRPGs generally excel at tactical emergence. They offer us complex systems and encourage us to unravel them.  City of Heroes and Dragon Age have hundreds of possible builds.  Most MMOs rely on an interesting mix of characters, and limits the number you have going in, requiring group and tactical (in a more classic sense of small-unit combat) management.  They tend to fall down on narrative emergence, though.  Final Fantasy and World of Warcraft has the same story every time you play through it.  Mass Effect and Dragon Age have some flexibility, but I'd be hard pressed to call  it true emergence.  The closest we see to true narrative emergence in a computer game tends to come from simulation games, like the Sims, which often have unsatisfactory narratives as they fail to follow "dramatic" conventions (which matter just like artistic conventions matter.  People enjoy particular tropes.  Simply randomly dropping lines and shapes on a canvas does not generally create beautiful art, and randomly generating events does not create interesting stories.  Stories follow rules, just like art does).  A few RPGs try to get around this by being more simulationist: most of the Ultima games and Eschalon try to do this, but in the end, their stories are the same each play-through as well, and the simulation just leads to funky tactical emergence.

Thus, this is my goal: to find a way to create narrative emergence in a computer game.  It must be different every play through.  It must have a series of interactions that result in ongoing fascinating complexities for the player, and they must have a general shape that is appealing to the player (the Heroic Journey, for example, and romance should feel like romance).  I can see now that I've been trying to create this for a long time in my previous games, and, in an epiphany, I finally have a name for what it is I'm trying to do.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Happy GM Day

On March 4th, anyway ("March Fo(u)rth on GM day!").  What have you done for your GM lately?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Slaughter City Session 3 After Action Report

The last session left me unsatisfied and disoriented, though I'm not entirely sure why.  It might simply be my lingering insomnia, actually, because overall, I thought it went really well.

We dragged Cass kicking and screaming into her story, but she quite enjoyed what she saw when she got there.  She didn't do much, but that's not the point.  She's there to be an outsider looking in, watching all the cool drama and then, if she wishes, interacting or not interacting or bemoaning her situation or what have you.  The point is, she now has material to work with, and that's good.

Roomie and Dave went crazy.  What is it with Dave?  Just because you can kill someone doesn't mean you should.  And so, we have our first major named NPC death (with a mortal.  The other named NPC?  Also Phillip's kill.  Stop pumping your fist and notching your belt, Dave, I can see you!), Danny Devlin, major mafioso.  Funny thing, though, that might actually work out really well for the story.  It's certainly extraordinarily dramatic, and Roomie once commented on how he'd love to see how much damage he caused.  Well, there ya go, some serious damage.  I tell you, I'm seriously glad I statted everything up, because otherwise, this would have left me completely at a loss, but now I find myself mentally counting up the impact this will make on the world.

The group is really having a hard time adjusting to the game.  Shawn saw a serial killer nabbing someone and, without thinking, without hesitating, threw himself (unarmed) into the situation and, shock of shocks, nearly lost a limb, and sped out of there.  Likewise, Dave and Roomie just pounce on a major crime lord without thought of repercussions, and even Byler just walks up to a girl he knows belongs to someone else and tries to put the moves on her (while I'm sure it was unintentional and Byler was just trying to nom on pretty women, his complete disregard for the fact that the Crassus clearly belong to Marion and that, while Esther has been offered, she has not been given to him, really fits with his whole "spoiled bastard prince" persona. Daisy needs to raise him better, but she's not really big on rules or discipline).  I spoke to Roomie about this, and he says we haven't played at this power level in a long time.

Which isn't true, our GURPS game as about this power level, possibly lower.  Of course, even there, Byler tried to kung-fu a guy who had a gun to his head executioner style with his 150 point character and was surprised when, shock of shock, it didn't work.  Mad too, though he got over it.  I think it's just the culture of the group: we play high-powered, epic games.  The guys are used to being uber heroes who answer to no one and seldom suffer consequences beyond dramatic, hilarious, soap-opera/comedy consequences, similar to much of the anime we like to watch.  I wasn't kidding when I called vampire a "Dark, survival horror," though, and the group is only slowly starting to grasp exactly what I meant.  Yes, you have kewl powers, but you're not an Exalted vs a Mortal, you're a former mortal with a curse.  Vampire is not a game about glory, it's a game about consequences.

Plus the format is very strange for the group.  I generally only hit players with opponents they can handle.  They don't expect, for example, that Porcelain, the pretty Korean woman draped all over Master Tiger in the very first session, is actually one of the most combat-capable mortals in all of Metzgerburg (up there with two of the characters the players faced yesterday).  That's not generally how my games work.  You expect such a character at the long end of a line of increasingly bad-ass NPCs.  Instead, Metzgerburg is a sand box, the dragons are mixed in with the goblins, the bad-asses rub elbows with the mooks.  The guys really aren't used to this.

In fact, I've noticed they're really struggling with the whole format: they don't investigate much, they don't sit up and ask to do something much, they don't think ahead and plan and ponder the deeper implications or this or that.  They watch, they wait, and they react.  They're treating it like an action game when it's a game of mystery, intrigue and horror.  But that's to be expected: we're a few sessions in, it's a very different style, and they're still adjusting.

I'm going to keep at it.  Now that we've established a base of the setting and sufficiently involved everyone (It would have been nice to involve Dave more in storyline material, but every time I do, he kills the people I'm offering him as hooks O.O), and we can get back to killing vampires and figuring out just who the Mother and Mortimer Tooms really are.  Once the arc is finished, we can sit back and reassess and see how people are or aren't liking the game.
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