Posts Tagged ‘role-playing theory’

Iteration and progression in games: Progressive/ Entropic games.

Last time, I took a look at some games that have iteration as a core part of their gameplay. Today, I’ve set myself a task that is both easier and more difficult: Finding games that continuously progress or “decay” without returning to the same game state.

This is an easier task, because almost all games have development built into them. I mentioned poker as an iterative game yesterday – but while it iterates, it will also be progressing towards a conclusion: bankrupting all players except for one. At the same time, this is a more difficult task, because I want to find games that have almost no iteration at all, and that is a relatively rare phenomenon.

I’ve called this post “progressive/entropic games”. But while they are similar, I would say that entropy and progression are two different things:

  • Entropy is a term in physics describing the principle that all things in the universe are slowly devolving into heat (put very, very bluntly – I’m using this term for my purposes). More generally, I would determine it as “things decaying on their own”. In game terms, I define entropy as mechanisms within the game that will drive the players away from the starting position, often slowly moving the game towards a conclusion. A turn counter is perhaps the bluntest form of entropy. The pile running out is another form of entropy: no matter how well you are doing, the pile is going to end at some point, and the game is going to end.
  • Progress, meanwhile, means development, maybe towards some kind of goal. If you are constructing buildings that give you more resources, you are progressing. If you are moving towards your goal in a racing game, you are progressing.

Both of these can be reversible or irreversible. I would say that entropy is very often irreversible. Many games have built in mechanisms to make sure the game does not go on indefinitely – and indeed, quite a few games could have benefited from that kind of mechanism. Progress can be either, sometimes in the same game. Take Munchkin – killing monsters in Munchkin gains you loot and levels, both of which are examples of progress. If you die, you lose your loot (so that progress was reversible) but keep your levels (so that was irreversible progress).

And so, without any more ado, a few games that, to my mind, are progressive and/or entropic.


When I played this game as a kid, I seem to remember a game with three little circles and three little crosses that could be moved around on the board. But when playing on paper, you draw your symbol on the paper and don’t erase it. In other words, the game will never take more than nine rounds. After nine rounds, the grid will be full, and you can’t play anymore. A very clear example of irreversible entropy.


Chess is another great example of entropic gameplay, and also one in which the entropy can also be progression. From the first time a pawn is moved, the board will never look the same again, as you can never move a pawn backwards. Soon, pieces will be captured, leaving both players with fewer and fewer pieces.

As a matter of fact, I seem to recall that there is a rule in chess that states that if the same board position occurs a certain number of times, the game ends in a draw. In other words, any player hoping to win the game must drive towards a resolution. Progress or die!

Settlers of Catan

I’ll be honest – I’m not a big fan of Settlers. It is, however, a very good example of a game that progresses. Every time you build a settlement or a city, you will gain more resources (as you will have one more space to harvest from). And as settlements and cities gain you points, you are also driving towards the 10 points that close the game. This is an example of irreversible progress: once something is built, it is not taken off the board again.


I used to play Warhammer Fantasy Battles, and I dabbled in Warhammer 40k. In both games, once you’ve set up your figures, there’s no going back. Moving back takes such a long time, your only sensible move is almost always to go forward, towards the enemy. And once you start fighting, your army starts slowly deflating. The game, then, is about making sure the other player expends all of his resources before you can expend yours. And of course, many of the scenarios you will be playing also have turn counters build into them.

Red Dragon Inn

One thing I’ve always admired about Red Dragon Inn is the way the game is designed to end. There are two ways to lose the game: run out of money (as symbolised by cardboard coins), or have your alcohol content meet your fortitude (represented by a clear and a red stone, starting at opposite ends of the same track). You gain alcohol almost every turn, and lose fortitude regularly through cards played on you. Fortitude can often be regained as the game progresses, but it’s almost impossible to get rid of alcohol content once you get it. As such, you will eventually pass out.

Meanwhile, money is more of a fluent resource that can change hands quite often. There are a number of ways money leaves the game completely: many cards will do it, like having “the wench” take away the pot of a round of gambling. Also, whenever the drinks deck is empty, everybody pays to have the deck reshuffled. And when somebody passes out, at least half of their money will go to the inn. As such, there will be fewer and fewer coins to go around. This means that somebody will eventually run out of money, unless everyone passes out first.

Now the genius of this game is that each character in the game has one or more strengths. Some are good at gaining money, some are good at dealing damage, while others are good at avoiding getting alcohol. As such it will often be a matter of having enough of one resource while trying to protect the other resource. In a way, this feels like progress – while it really is entropy.

Geiger Counter

The story-game Geiger Counter contains two inbuilt countdown mechanisms: First of all, the menace slowly increases in size until it reaches the maximum, after which it can be whittled back down. Secondly, every time someone loses a challenge, they gain a condition – a certain number of conditions and you’re out. This means that there can only be so many confrontations in the game before it ends. Either the menace gains a die or loses one, or one or more players gain a condition. This will inevitably lead to the end of the game.

Fifteen Men

Fifteen men is a Fastaval scenario about pirates. There are five players in the game, each of whom will get to play a number of characters throughout the game, until all fifteen characters have been played by someone. As such, each time somebody dies, we will be one tick closer to the end of the game.

At the same time, the game has an inbuilt compulsion to progress: at certain points, you can’t progress the game without killing someone. This seems like a double-edged sword: on the one hand, you force the players to do something they may be hesitant to do. On the other hand, if they don’t do it, the game is stuck.


One of the neat things about RTS-games like StarCraft, Warcraft and similar, is how the resources drive the game onwards. There is progression in the game – but you can easily be reduced to rubble. You can’t continue building indefinitely, however. Eventually, your minerals will run out or your Vespene Geyser will run out, and you will have to go find more resources. This means that any game of Starcraft (and Warcraft, and – if I remember the game correctly – Command & Conquer) will have to end, at the latest when the map has been drained of resources.

Other progressive or entropic games

  • Racing games: In racing games, you may be taking several laps –but the more you progress, the closer you get to the finish line.
  • Sid Meyer’s Civilization: in the game, you progress through research and years towards the inevitable ending of the game.
  • Bausack/Bandu: Each time someone pays gems, he’s a little closer to being broke. Each time someone puts a piece in their tower, they get a little closer to toppling their tower. Each time a tower topples, you get a little closer to ending the game.
  • Race for the Galaxy: The game ends when someone has 12 cards in their display, or when a certain number of VP have been gained.

The golden is mean

All the games above have progression as a core thing in the way the game is constructed. But very few, if any, games are completely devoid of iterations. And why should they be? The best games happen when a designer hits a perfect combination of the two. Some way the player progresses with each iteration, some way each iteration ends for another to begin.

But that’s for next time. For now: does this make sense? Is it a useful distinction to make? And do you have any great examples of entropy or progression within a game?

Iteration and progression in games: Iterative Games

Lately, I have been playing a number of little games on my computer: Reus, FTL and Now Boarding, among a few others. In all three, you play a series of relatively short games. But each game will impact the next game in some way. That made me think of how important iteration is in many games. Thus, I’ll be doing a small series on iteration, progression and entropy in games, both computer games, board games and roleplaying games.

Iteration means repetition. From Wikipedia:

Iteration is the act of repeating a process with the aim of approaching a desired goal, target or result. Each repetition of the process is also called an “iteration”, and the results of one iteration are used as the starting point for the next iteration.

Many, many games use iteration – the basic turn-taking that is present in a vast majority of board games, and in the combat system of many, many roleplaying games, is one example of this. Take a game like Race for the Galaxy: You choose a role, reveal all roles, then go through the phases selected from lowest to highest. Rinse, repeat.

Today, though, I want to look at what I would call “iterative games” – games where a central part of the game is playing it several times, often in a row. Usually there’s a mechanical effect of one game on the next, but sometimes the effect is very subtle. The spill-over might just be each player’s feeling for the social dynamics of the group – like which player is more likely to bluff, or to fall for a bluff. I’d like to give a few examples below.


One of the best examples I can think of is poker. The game as written is roughly this: the players are dealt some cards, they bet, then change or add some cards, then bet some more. Players may fold if they don’t want to follow the betting. If there’s more than one player left at the end of the round, the players compare their cards and see who has the best hand. That’s it – the winner takes the pot.

But you can’t really play just one game of poker. The real game of poker is what emerges after you’ve played a few hands: chips are redistributed and players start getting a feeling for each other. The real game ends when only one player remains at the table.

In other words, a play-session of poker consists of playing a string of games; with one game determine the starting layout for the next game. If one player has more money than the others, he can afford to be bolder, while someone who has lost most of their chips might be forced to take desperate measures, going all in on a mediocre hand to try to get back into the game. Which might of course lead to the next game having one less player.


In the computer game, Reus, you play a planet-deity, expressing your will through four elemental giants. Each game is called an “age”, and the idea is that you and your giants go through periods of activity interspersed by periods of sleep. While you sleep everything reverts to a flat and barren state.

Each age starts with an empty planet. The giants can add terrain and resources to the land, attracting people to settle and build on the planet. Each age lasts a set amount of time before the giants (and you) fall back asleep. At the end of each age, you earn achievements which unlock things for future ages: more advanced resources, more advanced projects that the humans can build, and longer ages, allowing you to achieve more in each age.

As such, each game starts with a blank slate. But you will be able to do more things than you could in previous games, and you will be faced with more difficult achievements to fulfil. Each iteration of the game is both a game in itself, but also a part of a larger arc of playing the game.

Spirit of the Century

Roleplaying games are not usually thought of as iterative in the sense that I just described – you play a campaign that keeps progressing, or you play a one-off thing. But there are actually a few of them out there. One example is Spirit of the Century. The game is designed to accommodate a string of linked but independent stories. At the beginning of a campaign, you get everybody together to make characters. Before each session the GM will find out who will be part of that session, and design a scenario to fit those heroes, taking cues from the aspects on their sheets.

At the end of each session, you don’t hand out experience points, but players may change their aspects to reflect things that happened during the game. There are some progression rules in the game, allowing players to add one more aspect every two games, and also a new stunt once in a while.

Spirit of the Century could be used to play the “big plotline” campaigns that traditional roleplaying games often excel in. But the strength of the game is in the episodic games, where you get a group together and play a game based on those characters. In TV-terms, this is more like the Simpsons or Star Trek than it’s like Lost or 24. It’s important to note, though, that that doesn’t mean it has a static starting point: each episode will change the backstory of the character, giving him new facets, reflected in new aspects.

Magic the Gathering (or Pokemon, or Netrunner, or…)

When Magic: the Gathering came out, it created a whole new genre of games unto itself: the Collectible Card Game, or CCG. What defines this genre is not something that is written in the actual rules of the game. That is because, just like in poker, the real game of a CCG is not what is written in the rules – it is what happens as you play the game over and over. Thus, CCG is a whole genre of iterative games. Lately the genre has evolved into the Living Card Game (LCG), and most of what I say about the CCG goes for the LCG as well.

In the basic game of Magic, two people sit down with each their deck of cards. They keep playing until someone loses all their life or runs out of cards.

The real game of Magic is on a larger scope, however. While you can get a readymade deck and just sit down to play, really playing Magic means collecting cards and assembling your own deck. You buy cards in random booster packs, and then select ones from your collection that complement each other to make a well-balanced deck. When you have a finished deck, you take it out to play with it, then take it home to tune it based on what worked and what didn’t.

This also means that success in Magic doesn’t necessarily mean winning more than you lose. The designers of magic have described three personas of magic players: Timmy, Spike and Johnny (read the very interesting article defining the personas here). Two out of the three care more about how they win than how often: Timmy wants to get out his huge cards and smash his opponent, while Johnny wants his carefully constructed engine of cards to kick in and do what they were designed to do. Only Spike wants to have a deck that can beat them every time.

Magic shares this meta-game with other CCG’s and LCG’s, like Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh and Android Netrunner. For the people who seriously play these games, sitting down to play is as much a way to test your deck as designing a deck is preparation for play. In this way, these games are iterative: you play, then reset, adjust, and play again.

Other iterative games

A few other iterative games, off my cuff here:

  • Las Vegas: In this game, you play three rounds. Each round is basically the same, and the winner is the one who earned the most money at the end. Only difference is the knowledge of how much money everybody else has.
  • Meyer and Cheat: small bluffing games with dice often played while drinking in Denmark.  It is customary to play more than one round of either
  • Rummy, Whist, Bridge, Hearts, Oh Hell!: In these games, you play a number of games, totalling the number of points you get in each round. The winner is the one who earns the most (or least, in the case of Hearts) points at the end, or the first to a certain number of points.
  • Classic D&D: In classic D&D (which I’ve never really played, so I have some reservations) you make a party, go down the dungeon, come up, divide loot and level up. Rinse, repeat. Plot-arcs optional.
  • Hinterlandet: Morten Greis’ remake of classic dungeoncrawl is even more so. You bring your character, then go out to a dungeon, hopefully returns to town with loot and experience, say bye bye, and take your character home. Next time, you may play with someone else, and your character is better for having been out before.
  • Kingdom of Loathing: In KoL (as it’s known among friends) you play through 13 levels of questing and levelling up. When you are done, you can “ascend”, which basically means starting over with a new character class at level 1. You get to keep your stuff (though you can’t access all of it), just as you can make skills carry over from ascension to ascension. Each time you ascend, you can modify your next run-through of the game, restricting what you can do or gaining special items to help you in this incarnation.

The march of progress!

That’s it for purely iterative games. Tomorrow, I’ll post something about games that do the opposite: progression and entropy in games. The third post in this series will deal with ways of mixing iteration and progression/entropy in games.

The Tyranny of Screaming Orgasms

I have just come home from Forum 2012. Forum is a Danish convention with a focus on talks and workshops, not least inspired by Knudepunkt. I was there for the first time in a while, having been enticed by Jonas Ellemand, who wanted me to help organize the execution of Project Særimner, a short form scenario competition. I’m not going to talk about Særimner here, except to encourage you to check out the great little gems it spawned.

But being there, I also attended a number of talks. One of them dealt with debriefings, particularly after big larps, given by Frederik Berg Østergård. In the discussion afterwards, we talked about framing the play experience – how certain scenarios debrief in a way that underlines how tough and deep the game was, while others underline how great a game it was, thus priming the way people remember and discuss the game.

This discussion lead me to a startling realization:

We’re being tyrannized by Screaming Orgasms.

Screaming Orgasms

Let me explain what I mean by Screaming Orgasms. My basic premise is this: Who’s more likely to talk about their sex life – people who have good, enjoyable sex, or the people who have wild, earth-shattering Screaming Orgasms? My claim would be that in the kinds of circles where people share the details of their sex life, people are likely to brag. In other words, they are going to tell war stories of either hilariously bad sex (particularly when others are to blame, or if there were funny mishaps involved) or of Screaming Orgasms. The person who just had good, enjoyable, average sex is much less inclined to talk loudly about it.

This means that the discourse surrounding sex is dominated by the Screaming Orgasms. So the people who “just” have regular good sex think they’re supposed to be having those Screaming Orgasms they’re hearing so much about, and start wondering what is wrong with them. In this way, a Tyranny of Screaming Orgasms seems to reign.

Bleeding Immersion

In the “mature” section of the Danish role-playing scene, there is a significant focus on powerful play experiences. Seven years ago, when I attended the LARPs System Danmarc and Society 41, we were talking about “immersion”: becoming your role and feeling what they feel. Today, games like Totem, Delirium, Just a little lovin’, Fat Man Down, etc. aim to cause “bleed”: the bleeding over your emotions and experiences to your character, and vice versa.

And people have amazing, powerful, life changing experiences. Experiences they talk about, loudly and excitedly. And all the other people, those who didn’t immerse, those who didn’t have the powerful experiences, listen to the Bleeders talking about their Screaming Orgasms, and they think to themselves: “Why didn’t I feel like that? What is wrong with me?”

The Tyranny

And thus, all the people having a good time at the larp, without reaching the powerful heights of orgasmic bleed and immersion, start to feel inadequate, deficient. I have experienced this myself on a number of occasions. At Society 41, I was bored. There was almost nothing to do in the scenario, except sit around and feel. I remember one girl who sat around in a windowsill for most of the game, staring into space; after the game, she pronounced that she’d had one of the greatest experiences of her life. Faced with this, how could I not feel inadequate?

This is potentially a problem for the hobby as a whole. For me, certainly, it has meant that I have been loath to join many of the scenarios that I really would have liked to go to, because I have been afraid not to feel adequately, and not to be able to honour the demands of the scenario.

Now, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: the Screaming Orgasms are not doing anything out of ill will. In fact, the problem is not that they are talking about their experiences. Instead, the issue is that the averages are not speaking up, keeping their experiences to themselves.

But when it all comes down to it, I do believe that it is to the detriment of our hobby if the Screaming Orgasms are allowed to dominate the way we talk about scenarios. It sets them apart as a small elite who share the same kind of experience, and it makes the rest of us feel inadequate, making our good, enjoyable, and to us very memorable experiences seem like failures. And who wants to keep doing something if they keep failing at it?

Archetyping classes: why the wizard can hog the spotlight.

Nis has spotted one of the big problems with the way AD&D was put together: a Wizard would start out as the wimpy apprentice, but end up as an all-powerful master of cosmic forces – think Elmister, Gandalf or beyond. The story of Raistlin Majere in Dragonlance is a very good example of this journey: he starts out as the sickly kid who is brought to the academy of magic by his strong and attractive brother, but ends up travelling the time-stream to go up against the mightiest wizard in all history, and ending it all by making a bid for divinity.

So, what’s the issue? Raistlin’s story is a very traditional story of the nobody who becomes a somebody, a very typical tale in fantasy literature. You can find the same tale in Wizard of Earthsea, in the Pern books (though they are rightly science fiction), Star Wars, both the old and the new (which are rightly fantasy). A true Hero’s Journey!

Yes, and that is all well and good for the person playing the mage. But the problem is that it is very much a story with the mage as the clear main character. And in a campaign with four or five players, you want four or five main characters, unless the point is expressly to have one character as the lead. Take a look at the place left for Caramon, Raistlin’s Brother: he starts out as an able warrior, but ends up as a chubby tavern-master in an insignificant little village. And while that could be a good story if told right, it pales when it has to compete with Raistlin and his play for power.

The problem, when viewed within the scope of D&D, is exaggerated because the character class of wizards have their own sphere of activities within which they excel, AND they can excel at all the other classes’ areas of expertise as well. Their fireballs and magic missiles can out-damage the warrior, while their knock, clairvoyance and invisibility can out-sneak the rouge. Furthermore, none of the other classes have much of a chance to beat the wizards at their own game: it takes a wizard to detect magic (a priest could probably do it, but they are in many ways on the sideline of this equation, being the “healer” who is indispensable, but in a support position).

Having identified this problem, Nis suggests a number of ways to scale down the wizard s0 that the others will still be able to shine. Some of these are: allowing non-wizards to detect magic, requiring concentration for keeping spells going, imposing risks of failing spells, requiring longer summoning times for spells and restricting the domain of spells each wizard has access to. Much of this has already been done in other games. Warhammer FRP 3rd edition restricts wizards to one of eight rather different schools and requires summoning spell power before casting your spell. Summoning too much power risks invoking the Ruinous Powers, with potentially horrible consequences. Shadowrun, on the other hand, requires a roll for casting a spell, and casting a spell deals an amount of damage to the wizard.

In many ways, I agree with this approach: in D&D, magic lacks the feeling of dealing with arcane and mysterious forces. With boring names (Summon Monster I-IX, anyone?) and no-flavour castings, wizards have become Reality Technicians rather than Wielders of Arcane Forces. Many other systems capture this element of wizardry far better, like the above mentioned – and Mage, of course. But I do feel that there is something else that could be done.

Re-archetyping the heroes

Morten identifies this other approach, although I disagree with his suggested solution: Wizards are so powerful compared to fighters and thieves because of the way a fighter and a thief is perceived: a fighter is someone who fights, and maybe breaks bars and lifts stuff, while a thief sneaks, steals and back-stabs. The domains covered by their archetypes are very limited, and so they are easy to replace.

If that is the case, we should change and broaden the archetypes, giving them more to work with, and making it more difficult to replace them. Morten suggest the “adventurer” as a replacement for the fighter and the “soldier of fortune” (or rather, the Danish equivalent, “lykkeridder,” which is far less soldiery) as a replacement for the thief. The adventurer is all about fighting monsters, exploring dungeons, talking to people on his way, and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, the Soldier of Fortune is all about using what Lady Luck sends his way, using sleigh of hands, deception, attention/intuition, sneakiness and a skill for talking to people. This would retool the characters in a way that still gives them a relatively clear domain, but one that covers many activities instead of a few. The adventurer is not JUST the fighting machine, strength powerhouse, and the Soldier of Fortune is not JUST the lock-smith and go-to sneak.

My first issue with these two examples is that they are both very clearly oriented towards adventuring. The good thing about the wizard is that he will graduate from his travelling life into a life of traversing the planes, being political and tending to his magical menagerie – there is a vision of maturity build into the archetype. In AD&D, the Fighter had a built-in assumption that he would eventually settle down as a castle lord somewhere, and most of the other classes had similar built in assumptions. But an adventurer is not an adventurer if he’s not adventuring. In other words, the adventurer is stuck as the travelling, restless guy for ever. Similarly with the Soldier of Fortune: if he’s not living on his luck, what is he?

My second issue is that these two classes don’t have clear appeals to archetypes of what we are striving to become. The Wizard is striving to become Gandalf, Merlin, Elminster or Raistlin. But what about the Adventurer? Marco Polo?

Instead, I’d like to suggest some other archetypes, and thus replacement classes, for some of the standard D&D classes. I’ll also try to indicate a starting point for them, on par with the wizard’s feeble apprentice.

The Fighter: The Hero/the Knight/the King

To my mind, the problem with the fighter is that he is more or less just a brute fighter. But if we look to literature, who are the great warriors? It’s Hercules, it’s Conan, it’s Achilles. In Norse mythology, it’s clearly Thor, the great god of thunder. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Robert Baratheon is an example of this archetype at its disgraceful end. They are the great martial heroes, wielding their powerful weapons, conquering their enemies. At the same time, they have a certain charisma, inspiring both fear and respect, seducing women and making boys want to be them.

There is another aspect of the warrior archetype, one that could either be perceived as part of the fighting class, or as its own class: that of the more strategic warrior, keeping a cool head and using strategy and wit to best his foe. Think of Tyr from Norse mythology: the god of war, not of fiery fights but reasoned battles and calculated sacrifice. In ASOIAF, it’s Eddard Stark, the intelligent, conscientious warrior. This is the archetype of the Lord, the General, or indeed, the King.

Which brings me to the one and only King, and no, it’s not Elvis: it’s Arthur, of course. Arthur bridges two fighter archetypes: he is the King, regal, authoritative, wise. But he is also the Knight: brave, courteous, inspired by Duty. Arthur’s Knights all represent this archetype, as do Joan of Arch, St. George, Jaime Lannister and many other people from ASOIAF. You could probably point to many people from the Saga’s, and I’d say that Beowulf sits somewhere between this archetype and the Hero

Now, in D&D, the Knight sits somewhere between the Fighter and the Paladin classes. Which gives me an opportunity to ask: does the Paladin have a place as a separate class, or is it just a fancy way to allow a Fighter/Cleric dual-class? Sure, Holy Warriors are a stable of many mythologies – but does it require a separate class? Not only that, a separate class, only for knights who can ALSO conjure miracles. In many ways, I like the Paladin, but if I were designing a role-playing system without any consideration for traditions within the genre, the Paladin, as a class with tight restrictions on morality, background and equipment, wouldn’t stand a chance. I’d consider it better to encourage people to multiclass as Fighter/Clerics (or possibly Knight or Hero instead of fighter).

As for starting out point, fighters in classic D&D start out as fairly competent warriors. But I would perhaps start them out a little lower in the hierarchy: maybe as militia, as young squires, hoodlums, or young men, just setting out.

The Rouge: The Trickster

In D&D 3.0, WotC actually broadened this class considerably, rebranding AD&D’s Thief to the more catch-all “Rogue.” Nevertheless, more could be done with this archetype.

So, who are the icons of this archetype? Off the bat, Loki seems the obvious poster boy for Tricksterdom. Varys the eunuch spymaster from ASOIAF is another good example – one might include Littlefinger as well, but he is a far less clear-cut case. Wormtounge is more clear-cut, I’d argue. From Anansi Boys, Anansi is a very good example of a (largely) benevolent Trickster. For some very benevolent rogues, see most of the (main character) hobbits in LotR, not to mention Bilbo in The Hobbit.

The Trickster is the manipulator and the sneak. This archetype is all about hidden dealings and tricking the other party. He is the spy and the thief, but he might also be the scheming courtier. In this way, one might perceive Cercei (from ASOIAF) as a rouge. In fact, retooling the Rouge to being about all kinds of hidden agendas would mean that both the Thieve’s Guild and the King’s Court are teeming with Tricksters.

The Trickster can start out as a low level thief. However, there might be more interesting ways to start off. Maybe a street urchin, a young courtier or a refugee from the courts could all be ways to start off. I feel like the Trickster’s story should also include a Loss of Innocence: getting used to deceiving people as a way of life.

The Bard: The Storyteller, the Observer, the Orator, the Soothsayer

The Bard is a strange bird. I mean, what on earth is his purpose? To tell the other adventurer’s stories? Be a mediocre replacement rouge? Not particularly impressive.

But that doesn’t mean that he can’t have a purpose. In some way, the bard can act as a counterpoint, or a complementary, to the Trickster. Where the Trickster/rogue is all about not being noticed, the Bard is all about getting noticed. In this way, you might peg him as Friar Tuck of the story of Robin hood, or, in a weird way, Tyrion Lannister and Lady Catelyn of ASOIAF (though the former is perhaps more clearly a Trickster).

I think the argument could be made that this should rightly be part of the Trickster class, but I could accept an argument to keep it alive – moreso than the Paladin.

The Ranger: the Ranger/ the Pathfinder/ the Outlaw/ the Hermit.

Some might think that I’d think the Ranger would better belong with the Warriors. But, no, not at all. You see, the ranger does have a lot of things that sets him apart from the warrior.

Some characters that might be associated with this archetype are: Aragorn (duh), Robin Hood, Faramir, Jon Snow and Artems. Heimdal is a maybe on this: he might be seen as a kind of Hero or Knight, but I’d argue that his primary task is guiding people.

A bit of a dilemma

…and so on. I don’t consider the above a complete list. For one, I haven’t dealt with the wizard, just as I haven’t really mentioned the cleric. One could also consider keeping the Druid (as a mystic/witch/wise man) and the monk (as a mystic warrior/martial artist/spiritual warrior). The Barbarian I’d consider a kind of Hero.

The question is, of course, whether to make very broad, non-specific classes and leave the  fleshing out to the players, or whether to provide very specific and narrow classes, thus also providing a lot of flavour. I am more partial to games that allow me to hammer out my own character with a lot of freedom, and to steer his course on my own. For epic storytelling, however, it might be good to set your hero on a course, and see him move towards a glorious finale right from the beginning.

In any case, I think it’s important to look at the story potential in whatever you want to include in a role-playing game. The game is all about storytelling, after all. And so, to me it is more important to balance story potential than to balance technical game play mechanics.

Gameplay Fictions

I’ve got this concept in mind that I’d like to get out on “paper,” to see if it’s actually worth anything. The concept is “gameplay fiction,” and it covers contra-factual assumptions that a game makes to make the rules smoother. It is derived from the concept of “legal fictions,” assumptions that a legal system may make to make things run more smoothly. For instance, in Anglo-Saxon law, only persons may sue or be sued. But you would want to be able to sue a corporation, and a corporation might be interested in suing you! For this reason, corporations are regarded as persons in American and British law. That legal fiction is actually being used to defeat campaign contribution laws in the States: as persons have freedom of speech, and corporations are persons, you cannot inhibit their ability to take part in public debate.
Similarly, a game might construct gameplay fictions to make the game run better. Most games seem in some way to be simulations of something. Gameplay fictions occur when the system fudges the simulation.

Now, I know that all games are fictions in one way or another, and so the word may be a little odd to use. But if games, in some sense, are simulations of, say, a fantasy world, speculative future societies or entrepreneurship , then gameplay fictions are what happens when the game does something that does not correspond to the simulation.

The example that made me think of this is from the action rpg, Diablo III. From the beginning, a major part of Diablo has been the amassing of items – better and better, so you might defeat more vicious opponents.
But, particularly in Diablo II, there was a little bit of a flaw in this part of the game: whereas some classes – Barbarians and Amazons particularly – based the damage they dealt very directly on the weapons they carried, others – like the Sorceress and the Necromancer – relied far more on spells and summoned allies. This meant that it was far less obvious for them which weapon was the best for them, and the gear mattered less than the skills. Also, this was a system that encouraged sinking as many skill points as possible into a few skills.

In Diablo III, this is changed. Skill points are gone, first of all. Secondly, the gameplay fiction: all damage is based on the damage of your weapon. In other words, when my Witch Doctor throws a jar of biting spiders at her foe, summons Zombie Dogs to fight them or sends a malicious haunting spirit to harm them, how much my opponent is damaged is a product of the knife I’m carrying at that moment. In terms of in-game fiction, this makes little sense – the damage of a wizard’s fireball should depend on his mastery of arcane forces, not of the kind of sharpened metal he is carrying. It does make loads of sense in regards to the game architecture, however, making classes far more equal in their dependence on, and benefit from, loot.
Another example is the attack roll in the nWoD. In oWoD, you had one roll to hit, and then a damage roll. In the new version, you only have one. In this system, having an imprecise, hard hitting weapon is comparable to having a precise, less damaging one. In other words, a warhammer and a foil are considered to be mechanically very similar weapons.

Gameplay fictions occur in board games too, of course. For instance, in the game Dungeon lords, a troll can be used as an extra imp because they really enjoy working with the imps. You can even put trolls in the magic room (“two imps and a candlelit dinner enter – three imps emerge. It’s magic!”) – because they just love imps sooo much (euch – too much information, Dungeon Lords!).

So, that’s gameplay fiction. Do note that I am not for or against them, per se, and I think they are necessary. But one should consider where the fiction is stretched for one’s players – cause that’s where it’s weak!

So what do you think? Am I on to something? Or is it just silly talk? Can you use this concept for anything?

Rewarded Progress Game

So, today I want to talk about RPGs.

“What’s so unusual about that? You talk about Role-Playing Games all the time on here!”

No, no – I didn’t say Role-Playing Games. I said RPG’s.

See, the term RPG (or rpg) no longer refers to Role-Playing Games. Sure, it used to, and some people would still use the two interchangeably. Many Role-Playing Games have RPG elements, and some RPG’s have role-playing elements. But the two have become very, very different.

I believe this all started with computer “role-playing games.” I know some people who would deny that you can have a role-playing game in the computer; certain muds and  MMORPG’s have made good attempts at doing so. But one thing is certain: a computer is not good at understanding language and human thought. Thus, it cannot easily adapt the game’s story to the player’s response, something a human GM can do intuitively.

What it can do is react to logical, concrete things. Which option did the player choose? Which way did he go? How many enemies did he kill? So this is the kind of things a computer can comprehend, and thus, for which the player can expect a response.

This can be implemented in many ways. Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic and the other games in the Bioware family have done this exceedingly well, creating games that make you feel like there’s a reacting world there, creating a feeling of being an active participant in the unfolding story.

But most games don’t have the resources to do so. Instead they look to Role-Playing Games and they see the part of role-playing games that fit right into the computer paradigm: The numbers. Stats. The “character sheet.” Abilities, hit points, mana* and – XP.

* By the way, it seems to me that mana, while very popular in computer games, doesn’t appear in that many pen-and-paper games. Something I would guess has to do with the difficulty of managing too many large numbers.

The irony is that as role-playing has moved away from this kind of stats, they have become ubiquitous in computer games. Role-playing-like games like Diablo and the early MMORPG’s started the trend, but today it has spread to all manner of games. Particularly online, adding some sort of progress bar seems to be an easy way to prolong a game by making you repeat certain content in an attempt to achieve the numbers required to “grind” some more advanced content.

And the introduction of this grind is what definitively sets RPG’s apart from role-playing games. Grind shows the player that his actions have no effect on the world of the game. He is not part of an unfolding story, but is merely in a game of skill and numbers in a pretty packaging.

Another move away from role-playing is the detachment from a character. Many games have more than one character that the player controls, many others have an abstract, impersonal “commander” or similar, or simply ascribe certain stats to the “team.”

In short, these games have developed away from their role-playing heritage. Now, they are focused on capturing the player’s attention with many small rewards leading to new rewards to strive for. As opposed to many other games, these games usually have no discernible end, but keep you hooked to go on and on and on (World of Warcraft and Farmville are both good examples).

And so, these games can no-longer be termed “Role-Playing Games.” Instead, I would “retcon” the acronym, and call this type of game a “Rewarded Progress Games”. In this way, the “grinding” games can keep calling themselves “RPG’s,” and role-players will know that this kind of game has little in common with what we play, sitting ’round the table.