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I've been thinking a lot lately about gaming and free will, particularly as it relates to the 7th Sea game I'm running with C--- and L---. 7th Sea is a game of high adventure that can support a number of different story types. Though the default game presented in the core book is one of swashbuckling adventure, it can encompass a great deal more. I believe one of the flaws with the game that directly resulted in its market failure was its refusal to embrace any given genre. Each supplement, including the nation source books, was intended for an almost entirely separate game. For example, the Eisen book focuses a great deal on mass combat and how to depict military relationships while the Montaigne book is about high culture and courtly life, however both books are largely limited to their respective countries. The implication is that all Eisen games are military games and all military games are Eisen; likewise for Montaigne/courtly politics, Vodacce/intrigue, Castille/guerrilla warfare, etc. and doubly or triply so for the Secret Society supplements.

That said, it's certainly possible to run 7th Sea picking and choosing the elements we like and transplanting them as we see fit, and we're attempting to do just that, but there is one aspect from the core book that we have wholeheartedly embraced: heroism. 7th Sea is a game about heroes, a fact which is even reinforced in the mechanics. Examples include:

* When PCs perform "evil" actions they lose Reputation score. When their Reputation reaches a certain point they become NPCs under the GM's control and the player must create a new character.

* NPCs are divided into Brutes, Henchmen, Villains, and Heroes, each of which has separate mechanics and are treated differently.

* Characters are not killed by default - even the strongest attacks will only knock someone unconscious unless another character deliberately takes a separate action to kill him or her. Thus even the most thuggish warrior subdues his or her opponents rather than resort to lethal violence.

Leaving aside all the various genres depicted by the supplements, this is very in line with the heroic swashbuckling genre depicted in the core book. The problem, however, comes about when players can't step outside that genre. Is it heroic to play a hero if one doesn't have a choice?

In "Grand Theft Auto and the Problem of Evil," Stokes makes the claim that morally correct actions without the free will to choose them are morally neutral and therefore it is the ability to choose good, or at least refrain from choosing evil, that demonstrates morality. He puts it quite succinctly, "... Grand Theft Auto is the most moral video game ever created. After all, no other game allows us to choose not to murder prostitutes."

Now 7th Sea doesn't give you that choice. One can murder prostitutes once or twice, but very quickly the character is taken away as an NPC and the players is forced into playing a hero. By Stokes' standard 7th Sea characters are amoral because while they are defaulted into doing good they never have the opportunity to choose good, and it is the choice that ultimately matters. This directly contradicts John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism that states the most good for the most people is good regardless of what caused it to arise.* Mill would say so long as players aren't murdering the prostitutes, it doesn't matter why and players are good for it. We might imagine that Stokes would counter with the argument that the player is no more moral than a dustbin: the prostitute is not murdered as a result of impotence on part of both the player and the dustbin, not because of any moral choice.

This is not a merely academic question but one that pertains to both how the game is written and how people enjoy the game. It is the difference between a novel where the plot occurs exactly as the author intends and an interactive experience where the participants make choices that affect the outcome. By definition, this makes the characters important because their actions - the actions they choose - are important in as much as they affect the world. A character who can choose to engage the pirates with cannon fire or a boarding party of marines is only choosing method, but the engagement itself is only significant if the character could also have chosen to allow the pirates to ransack the town or even sell out the town and join the pirates. In this example, the player is destined to fight the pirates no matter what.

The limitations need not be that extreme, however. While 7th Sea prohibits morally negative options, it does permit morally neutral options. Thus the player cannot choose to join the pirates (although he could pretend to join them so he could work as a spy or saboteur), but he could choose to pay the pirates a ransom, recruit others to fight the pirates, or let them sack the town while he works on a long-term plan to stop them further down the line. He could even choose to ignore the pirates. In this sense the character has free will to make choices, excluding a certain limited subset of villainous or evil choices. As such, the character has as much free will as people in most modern societies: able to make whatever choices they like within the boundaries prescribed by their societies; in other words, I have free will though I'm no more free to murder prostitutes than the 7th Sea character but my limitations are enforced by police rather than a GM.

This does restore a sense of significance to the players' choices, though the significance is more limited than total free will. How much that appeals to a given player will vary by players' taste but that brings up the concept of meta-morality which forms the crux of my argument. 7th Sea is a moral game, even more so than Grand Theft Auto, because the player has chosen to play it.

As a player I can choose to play whatever game I like. I can play an evil D&D game and portray a burning, pillaging, evil necromancer, during which it is probable I will murder a great many people, prostitutes among them. I can play Grand Theft Auto where I may or may not murder any prostitutes. Or I can choose to play 7th Sea wherein no prostitutes are murdered. If I choose the latter, I have preemptively saved those (fictional) prostitutes, whereas in GTA I am exposing them to my unknown future whims.

Consider vehicular homicide in conjunction with drunk driving. We recognize that a person cannot be held accountable for actions they did not have control over, but we still consider drunk driving a morally negative action. It doesn't matter that the driver did not have the motor coordination to avoid an accident nor does it matter that the driver lacked the inhibitions to restrain himself from driving while lacking said coordination. We hold the driver accountable because he did not restrain himself while still sober. A driver who turns over his keys to a designated sober friend prior to drinking is moral because he is making a choice to limit his future actions in such a way that precludes potentially harmful actions. It is the self-imposed limitation that is moral in this instance. Comparably, a player who chooses to play 7th Sea is self-imposing a limitation on his ability to choose villainous actions.

7th Sea characters cannot be moral but the decision to play a character in 7th Sea is highly moral.

This is where the crux of most of the player disputes we've had in 7th Sea have come from. As I've said before, not every character is right for every game, but that also means not every game is right for every character. Given how invested players become in their characters we may extrapolate that not every game is right for every player and thus not every player is right for every game. If a player wants to play a "grim and gritty" game of high drama where the PCs are constantly having to make difficult choices, 7th Sea is absolutely the wrong game, if only because the character can't necessarily make that choice. But if a player wants to play a game where he or she plays a hero and, even when the character is tempted will still do what's right in the end, 7th Sea is just about perfect.

* With extensive supporting arguments that say why it's not okay to kill 1,000 people in order to benefit another 1,001 people, which is basically the anti-Nazi qualifier.
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[a href=""]Big post[/a href] on the AEG message boards about moral philosophy in l5r. Come join the conversation.
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This post was inspired by Feminist Frequency's video blog post regarding the Smurfette Principle, the central concept of which is that literature tends to depict groups that are predominantly male and then include a single token female character to give the illusion of diversity and/or equality. This is a particularly egregious problem in gaming and roleplaying games in particular where the majority of developers, including writers, editors, designers, artists, producers, publishers, coders, et. al., are male.

An acknowledgment first: there are exceptions. There are games that depict female characters in a real and positive way (Syberia) and that were developed by women (Assassin's Creed). This is much more common in paper-and-dice RPGs (Dragonlance), perhaps because the barriers of entry are lower meaning that if a woman can't get a job creating RPGs there is nothing stopping her from starting her own company. It should further be acknowledged that paper-and-dice RPGs especially, which will be my principle subject for discussion in this post, have improved dramatically in the last 5-10 years in terms of depicting gender, but I will discuss that at length in the post.

One more note: while most of my statements regarding gender breakdown and participation are anecdotal or based on my own personal experiences, the Wizards of the Coast gamer survey in 2000 provides substantive data. I highly recommend reading Ryan Dancey's analysis of the survey, available on Sean K. Reynolds' site.

RPGs originally developed from war games. The earliest ancestor that can be clearly tied to Dungeons and Dragons was a miniatures wargame where Gary Gygax simply used a figurine of a wizard in place of a catapult, supposedly casting fireballs rather than hurling boulders. While there are female miniatures wargamers, the hobby then and now, primarily appeals to a male audience.

I believe there are two factors that influence this, the first is that while it is often claimed that women don't want violence in their games, that is blatantly untrue (sit in on an all- or mostly-female gamer table and see). The tendency, however, is that women tend to have less tolerance for out-of context violence than men (see: Geek Girl What Rules' "Gentler Sex My Ass - The LARP Version"), and miniatures wargames are largely about out-of-context violence. The second reason is that because men and women perceive wargaming as a male activity, they tend to treat it as a male activity, often marginalizing female players; Magespace has a great rant about this. I cannot count the number of times I've been in RPGs where male players try to dictate how female players should play the game, including in-character roleplaying decisions, character development, and most especially tactics and rules. In a wargame, where tactics and rules are 2/3 of the game (the other third being painting), that means these male players are trying to play the game for the female players. Who would want to play a game like that?

When RPGs evolved from wargames the primary-male creative force and player base remained. I've commented on this before but allow me to quote myself:
it means you've got mostly men buying the books in what's already a male-dominated hobby.

And that means the books are going to be marketed towards men.

Now this becomes a Catch-22. The books are marketed to men who buy the books and remain the dominant sales audience so the books are marketed to them, etc. etc. ad nauseum.

One of the results is the real subject of this post (at last!): male game designers trying to depict women and failing.

Now it should be obvious to everyone that men can and do write women well and women can and do write men well. We've been doing it for hundreds of years and almost every great work of literature requires the author to depict the other gender at some point. While this can be difficult, it is hardly impossible. Problems arise when the authors won't even try. While there are many examples of failure, I want to concentrate on two specific types of failure. I will touch briefly on game designers who don't even try to depict female characters and go on at greater length about authors who don't make a sincere effort.

Authors who don't try include those who write games that are entirely populated by male characters, or nearly so. These can be professional designers or gamers running home games. Early games were replete with such examples, though they've become much less common. Usually they were restricted to dungeon crawls and other context-less RPGs, but frequently showed themselves when such games left the dungeons and all significant NPCs were male, while female NPCs were limited to specific cliches. Comparatively, when was the last time you saw a male as a server in a tavern who wasn't the bartender?

The second problem arose out of a failed attempt to address the first problem: authors not making a sincere effort to depict female characters. How many female characters are depicted in a way where it matters that they're women? Could you change their gender without changing the story, or are they just male characters with longer hair and who you can make a roll to seduce without weirding out the rest of the table?

The original Metroid was considered progressive at the time because the main character was a woman. In fact, this reveal at the end is considered one of the major , a D&D setting based on Gothic novels, featured primarily male Darklords; while Jacqueline Renier may appear to be a female villain nothing would change with her back story or development if she were male. Likewise, the story in 7th Sea remains unchanged if Bonnie Magee were male. Legend of the Five Rings fares a bit better with Matsu Tsuko and Bayushi Kachiko, both end up as stereotypes of the woman scorned and a tiger woman respectively (though props to the l5r writers for making Matsu Tsuko's woman scorned trope based on revenge for her lover's death rather than rejection. It's almost enough to make her a dynamic character, except she has no motivation other than honor and revenge).

I saw this as an enormous problem in most of the fan-written modules for Heroes of Rokugan II. Gender rarely mattered for characters, male or female, except to determine who was eligible for marriage and/or seduction, though there were some notable exceptions. Interestingly, the modules I consider exceptional were usually either written by someone married or in a long term relationship - in other words, someone who had regular contact with someone of the opposite gender in a variety of situations.

Even more important than depictions of NPC characters, however, are the options afforded player characters. Games are, by definition, about the PCs. While modules usually afforded equal marriage opportunities to both male and female PCs, they usually only afforded sexual opportunities to male characters, often punishing female characters with Glory and Honor penalties, while male characters only suffered such penalties if indiscretions were made public. The module Charge of the Baranghuar was the most egregious such case, actively targeting female characters for seduction, then penalizing them with Honor loss, Disadvantages, and Shadowlands Taint if they couldn't beat a roll that would overwhelm most characters.

When Wynd and I wrote our module An Arranged Marriage we specifically sought to address this issue. The central question of the module was, what happens when a female character acts like a male character? The module, which we'd originally titled, "Judgment," builds to a climax whereupon a female NPC commits a discrete infidelity which then comes to light, and the PCs are asked to decide the NPC's fate. The NPC's younger sister pleads to the PCs:
She knows all too well the pressure samurai-ko find themselves under, and she has enjoyed much greater freedom than her elder sister. She tries to appeal to everyone’s sense of fairness: how many of them have been caught in difficult situations where they appeared to be guilty of indiscretions?

In our original version we were even more explicit:
She knows all too well the pressure samurai-ko find themselves under, and she enjoyed much greater freedom than her elder sister. She appeals to the PCs’ sense of fairness: how many of them, particularly the men, had affairs and were not caught? How many of them got away with indiscretions? She will openly compare forced marriage to rape.

I will fully admit that we stacked the deck with metagame sensibilities (e.g. 20th century feminism, character history, etc.) and from a gaming point of view the final version, as edited by Rob Hobart, is probably better. That said, the point remains: male characters were allowed to sleep around while female characters were heavily penalized for it, and our module was an attempt to address that issue and make players notice.

When I write l5r modules I follow a very simple procedure to establish gender: I flip a coin. Or more accurately, I use to select the gender. Only when the gender is known do I design the character, or gender is by definition interchangeable and irrelevant. How gender is relevant is admittedly inconsistent, as it should be. In the real world not every woman is driven by notions of motherhood, nurturing, romance, or other traits historically considered female, just as not every male character is driven by historically male traits. It does, however, give a starting point to consider how strongly those traits are portrayed in the character.
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Around July I started planning a 7th Sea larp and this past January we kicked off with an amazingly well-received first session. At this point we've reviewed all characters and mechanics, in addition to NPCs, which has had me thinking about game balance. Generally, game balance is seen as a good thing but there is very little discussion of what balance means, though things we consider out of balance are "unbalanced" while particularly egregious offenders are "broken." I want to talk a bit about the distinction.

I think it's easiest to set up a definition of game balance. A balanced game is one in which no given character option or set of options (i.e. classes, skills, powers, spells, special abilities, merits, flaws, etc.) has an unfair advantage over any other set. Most gamers I know would agree with that definition, although we might argue over the particular wording, but the crux of any disagreement would be the word, "unfair." What makes an option fair or unfair?

Accessibility is a big factor. If I'm playing D&D and all the spells in the Tome of Ultimate Badassery (Vol. 6) are more powerful than the spells in the main book, then any player who buys ToUB6 has an innate advantage over players who just buy the core book. If access to this supplement is limited, such as it being a limited print run, expensive, or some players just not having the time to comb through each supplement to find the best options, then those who do have access have an unfair advantage because they have something that other players do not.

Campaigns that allow character development between sessions, such as larps with blue-booking sessions or living campaigns that give free Advantages or treasures in exchange for player-written fictions can be considered unfair and thus unbalanced. The former gives advantage to players with a great deal of extra time while the latter gives advantage to players with greater skill at writing.

Another unfair advantage is if access is available to all players but not their characters. For example, in Legend of the Five Rings the schools of the Great Clans are significantly more powerful than those of the Minor Clans (though this was even more egregious in 1st edition). A player who wants the roleplaying challenge of portraying a minor clan samurai is thus also stuck with a mechanical penalty.

Still another unfair advantage is when some mechanical options are so powerful or low cost that any player who doesn't use those options is placed at a disadvantage (a dominant strategy). This is particularly common in games that use merits and flaws/advantages and disadvantages, which give incentive to players to take the most powerful merits with the lowest costs that they can while taking flaws that give many points but at a relatively low or rarely-occurring penalty. An example would be the Unbondable merit in Vampire: The Masquerade, which for only a few character points negates one of the most powerful tools in the Kindred's arsenal.

Now there are several responses to an unbalanced game which I'm going to briefly touch on.

Fix it: This is one of the most common solutions, wherein the GM tries to adjust the mechanics so that the advantage is no longer unfair. This may mean increasing the cost of a certain option, making mechanics universally available, or otherwise changing the situation so that no option is favored over the others. The problem is that this fine-tuning requires constant adjustment and GM awareness, and due to Chaos Theory may have unforeseen consequences and end up unbalancing other areas of the game.

Ban it: Probably the second-most common solution, though extremely prevalent in large games where the GM has too many players to keep track of to fine-tune them all. Simply banning certain character options makes it impossible to use them to unbalance the game. In 7th Sea, for example, we tried to ban all non-core book mechanics until the game had been up and running for several months (a ban that is still in effect on paper but has had so many exceptions made I call it a failed effort). The problem with this approach is that it upsets players who wanted to use those mechanics, and some players will always be tempted to try to have an exception made just because they want to be the exception; I'm guilty of this myself - after I got an exception made to play a Brotherhood monk in Heroes of Rokugan 3 I started plotting how to get the GMs to let me play a Heichi Bushi.

Ignore it: This is the easiest option though it can have the greatest consequences. The GMs say, "Yes, the game is unbalanced. Accept it and move on." The downside of this solution is that players can become upset if their supposedly bad-ass character is overshadowed by other characters due to unfair mechanics.

When it came to 7th Sea, I encouraged option 3. Even the core book is unbalanced so all banning supplements did was limit how many unbalanced options we'd need to deal with and how many new mechanics we'd need to learn. Furthermore, we were upfront with the players. This is a first edition, never updated, RPG written over a decade ago: gaming has made a slough of advancements since then, none of which had been incorporated into 7th Sea and we were not going to go back and re-write the system to provide balance. The system was there to allow us to tell a story, nothing more. If that would get in the problem of you're enjoying the game, this was probably not the right game for you. You want to know the most powerful options: here you go.

And this is the difference between unbalanced and broken: something that's broken makes the game less fun. Take the Minor Clan Schools from l5r mentioned above: while they are unbalanced (weaker) than the Great Clan Schools, they also allow one the opportunity to portray a very different character than normal in l5r. Now note that in this example the player is choosing to portray a character unbalanced to be less powerful than the standard counterparts. This is a key distinction; unbalanced options become broken when they allow one character to outperform the other characters, at which point the game becomes less fun for the players who are being overshadowed. It is the reaction of the other players that determines whether a character option is broken, not the mechanics of the option itself.

This is one of the reasons we did the post about why we would not be attempting to balance most of the 7th Sea mechanics: there would be too many. The work of balancing them would be arduous and keeping track nigh impossible; this is a new game for the GMs as well as the players and we can barely keep track of the real mechanics, let alone twenty pages of house rules. By warning people about this approach we were adjusting (or attempting to adjust) attitudes so that elements that might be considered broken were merely unbalanced.

Another aspect of the relationship between unbalanced and broken is how such things are introduced. If we accept brokenness as how game balance relates to fun rather than an extreme case of skewed balance, then we can take something unbalanced and keep it unbroken as long as it makes the game more fun. An example of this would be our introduction of a Crescent character. We out-and-out banned Crescent characters (and all associated mechanics) for the start of game but one player approached us asking for permission to play such a character. She did so with a backstory that justified her presence in the game and a concrete plan for how her character would interact with others in a way that would make the game more fun for everyone involved. Knowing the player and her gaming habits we trusted her and approved the character. In just one month this character has become one of the most heavily-involved characters in the game, creating an extraordinary amount of plot for herself, despite the fact that the GMs have had almost no opportunity to write plot to get her involved. Does she have access to character options other players don't? Absolutely. But that has enhanced the game for a dozen other players and given them more fun. Ergo, not broken.

In the end, it all comes down to what you consider the game to truly be. As I've said before, "anything that makes the game more fun is the right way to play the game, and anything that makes the game less fun is the wrong way to play." Game balance is simply one more tool in the arsenal of fun.


Oct. 22nd, 2010 12:53 pm
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Lately I've been having an argument discussion with a player on the AEG message boards about the proper role of mechanics in a game (link).

I'm frustrated with him, not because of his attitude about mechanics-before-all - that's not the type of game I want to play but more power to him if that's his preferred game - but by his attitude of "this is the right way to play and everyone else is wrong." I won't sum up the discussion here (check the link if you're interested) but I'm astounded at the naivete displayed.

A game is played for fun. There is no other reason to play. Anything that makes the game more fun is the right way to play the game, and anything that makes the game less fun is the wrong way to play. That's it. That's the whole kit and kaboodle. In 3rd ed. D&D there was even Rule 0 printed in the Dungeon Master's Guide that said as much, in nearly those words. Whenever players would complain about my rulings, I loved whipping those out: having fun is in the rules, bitches, and Monte Cook says I can change them to make the game more fun.

This is where my beef is with this guy: there's no acknowledgment that what constitutes "fun" is different for different players. There are many players, players I respect, for whom fun is number crunching, building a powerful and/or intricate character, and they rely on the rules to be able to play those characters. A GM who arbitrarily changes the rules on that player has negated the players' ability to play that character, making the game substantively less fun. Any GM who wants to maintain fun for these players has an obligation to run the rules as written (including house rules) and to do so consistently.

On the other hand, for many players "fun" is getting into character, portraying dramatic situations, and roleplaying them out. Often these characters have little interest in dice or character stats (I know one such player who challenges herself to see how long she can play a game without actually writing up a character sheet. I believe her record is nearly two semesters). For these players, being forced to roll dice for what they're doing as a character breaks the scene and thus breaks fun. Any GM who wants to maintain fun for these players has an obligation to put story and character before mechanics.

Now here's the kicker a lot of gamers don't want to acknowledge: both styles of play are equally valid.

A gamer who likes mechanics is guilty of nothing more than playing the game written in the book. A gamer who ignores mechanics when they're not needed hasn't done anything except tell the tale the mechanics exist to support. You cannot deride either faction, regardless of which side you come down on without doing disservice to the game as a whole, and inded to the gamer community. Doubly so because most gamers will find themselves somewhere in the middle (it's like sex that way).

Instead of arguing over how a game "should" be played, gamers should acknowledge that there are a variety of styles in which games are played, then find the games that match their playing style. GMs should tell players how they tend to run games and let the players decide for themselves if that's the sort of game they want to play.

This is as true for larps as it is for table top games. When I tell potential players about my upcoming 7th Sea larp, I'm pretty specific about what it's about: adventure, swashbuckling, and personal development. Games will focus on PC interaction and cooperation. Intrigue will be a large factor in the game but politics will not be. Rules will be light and used only where needed, largely because the GMs are still learning them and they're unreliable.

A living campaign is slightly different, though only on a matter of scale. Some living campaigns are very strict about rules, while others are very loose. When someone signs up for a living campaign, they should have a sense as to the game's style, but they must also acknowledge that because the game is being interpreted by dozens, if not hundreds or even thousands of GMs, that there is an inherent variability. So what should the player do? The same thing he would do for a home game: talk to the GM about what type of table she runs. Ask her if she requires people to roll social skills for IC conversations or insists on knowledge checks for things the player believes the character would know even if the player knows OOC. If you don't like the GM's style, find another GM to run that game. If you can't ever find one, you may be in the wrong campaign.

Not every character is right for every game and that means that sometimes a player isn't right either. Or more accurately, the game isn't the right game for the player.

And once you've committed to a game, don't keep arguing about how it "should" be changed. Just shut up and play the game the rest of us are playing. That's why we're all here.

Even you.
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I did a lot of gaming this past weekend, both l5r and D&D, the vast majority as the GM. Combine this with the release of another mod that I wrote (this one co-wrote with Wynd), the upcoming l5r fourth edition, and the design of another campaign setting (more details later) has be thinking a great deal about game design, and in particular how to make a mechanically interesting game while preventing abuse of the system.

The first thing we need to address is what a role playing game is. I don't mean the, "you create a character then pretend to be that character," aspect but what it means to actually play the game. Generally, I break the game down into four areas:

1) Mechanics
2) Dramatization
3) Simulation
4) Socialization

Mechanics refers to the actual rules of how one plays the game. A player who really enjoys deciphering the grappling rules in [any system ever] is taking pleasure in the Mechanics of the game. Mechanics might be considered the opposite of Dramatization, which is the assumption of role, acting, etc. Simulation is the intersection of Mechanics and Dramatization, where the rules are invoked specifically to represent some aspect of the game being described; usually this is combat but anything where the GM says, "Roll to see if X" is a Simulation moment. Finally, Socialization is everything that's not actually part of the game but that takes place when we play games, such as ordering pizza or chatting about Star Trek vs. Star Wars.

For the record, it is possible to create entirely different breakdowns, but this what works for me.

One of the biggest problems when trying to decide how to design a game is estimating how each group likes their balance of these four aspects. Some games lend themselves very well toward one aspect or another. Nearly every edition of D&D, for example, is very interesting from a Mechanical perspective to the point that many people "play" the game entirely by designing characters, traps, etc. because their fascinated by how the game rules interact with each other. Larps tend to be very rules light because they're largely focused on Dramatization so the rules that make Mechanics and Simulation function are less relevant. Other examples quickly become apparent.

While game design encompasses many aspects in each area, I want to talk about rules in specific because of their tendency to influence and be influenced by each area. In particular, I want to address the issue of rule complexity.

Rule complexity is an aspect of Simulation that directly affects both Mechanics and Dramatization. The more complex rules are, the better Simulation becomes possible (notice that I say "possible." Also note that I don't say "realistic") because the rules more accurately represent what the game designer is attempting to express. In Shadow Run there are very detailed rules about the effects of cyberware because one of the themes of the game is the definition of humanity. In 7th Sea there are complex rules regarding each magic system because the differences between each style of sorcery is an important part of the metaplot. Again, examples of games creating complex rules to create a more intricate Simulation become obvious.

Complex rules don't just draw attention to their area of Simulation, however, they also draw attention to the rules themselves. Thus the more complex rules the more emphasis on Mechanics and the less emphasis available for Dramatization. This is not to say that Mechanics and Dramatization are opposed, but it is a nearly-inevitable effect of rules to shift emphasis from one to the other because the more complex the rules are, the more the players become aware of those rules which breaks into the player's awareness, "Hey, I'm playing a game." At that point the player is less likely to think about what's happening in the game but rather how it is happening.*

Now there are many roleplaying purists, gamers whose favorite part of the game is Dramatization, who lament complex rules for this reason. I know a great many players who are incredibly intelligent and capable of understanding complex rules but who favor simple systems because it avoids the distraction of Mechanics. That's fine. Their games are largely about Dramatization and rules are only invoked when absolutely necessary for Simulation purposes.

Dana's 7th Sea larps at Gen Con are a great example of this trend. Dana has created his own system in which each character "sheet" is reduced to three or four numbers that can fit on half a playing card. For something like a duel, players each draw a card, add the number on their card for Combat, and whoever scores higher wins. That's the whole system and it works damn well. Does it leave out the intricacies of all the Swordsman styles that are part of 7th Sea? Absolutely, but his larp isn't about those styles, it's about the conversations between the people who pratice those styles.

The counterexample is 4th edition D&D, an incredibly complex (though not difficult to understand) game in which the mechanics are so pervasive that entire aspects of the setting have been altered to reflect them. While the formalization of roles within the party of leader, defender, striker, and controller has done wonders for balancing game play it specifically affects how the characters think of themselves within the game. This isn't a bad thing, however, as one of the main joys of D&D is small-group tactical combat. That's why people like to play D&D and it works for them. If you enjoy taking apart mechanics and looking for the most effective or the silliest or the most intriguing combination, D&D 4e is not a bad way to go.

When one is designing a game, one most consider what type of game one is creating and who is expected to be playing it. One must consider what sort of experience they're playing to have and what sort of experience your rules are going to give them. The ending of The Gamers II when Joanna has Daphne use her wish to advance Dramatization and Cass is incensed at her for not using it to advance Mechanics illustrates the conflict that can occur when the designer guesses wrong.

There is another issue of rules complexity that needs to be addressed, one that was actually my original idea behind this post and I've been trying to work my way around to the entire time: that of interaction. A min-maxer is a player who tries to find an optimal combination of rules and character options to achieve a specific effect, stereotypically combat effectiveness but I've seen other min-max builds such as social dominance, or even a single ability normally out of reach of most PCs. The more complex rules become, the more min-maxing is possible.

Let's consider a simple game. In our game, every character has one trait. Let's call if, "Effectiveness." A character's Effectiveness is compared to the Difficulty Rating of a task, such as climbing a wall, out-witting a sphinx, or beating an opponent in combat. Both Effectiveness and Difficulty Rating are numbers on a scale from 1-10. If Effectiveness is higher than the Difficulty Rating, the character succeeds. If not, he fails.

This seemingly simple system - there aren't even any dice! - actually affords quite a bit of complexity. We could introduce abilities that allow the character to boost his Effectiveness in certain situations, to lower Difficulty Ratings, to give a bonus to the next check if the character beats the Difficulty Rating by different amounts, to allow characters to add their Effectiveness, and so on. Each of these areas is something that can be manipulated. What it doesn't allow is min-maxing because most of it is out of the players' hand. This system may do very well on Simulation (in fact, I'd say such a system is perfect to simulate Jedi), but very poorly on Mechanics because it's not very Mechanically interesting.

We could make it more Mechanically interesting by dividing Effectiveness into three traits: Physical, Mental, and Spiritual. Now the GM needs to decide which to use for each challenge. The game gets more complex with abilities that swap or temporarily boost each score. Min-maxing becomes possible as players build up one score at the expense of others.

We can make it even more complex by splitting the traits down further or adding dice rolls to each trait when comparing against Difficulty Rating (the system used by most tabletop RPGs). Dice rolls allow for entire new set of complex mechanics based on interacting with the dice rules - think about all the rules to roll and keep dice or affect how they explode in l5r.

Each step to make the game better at a Mechanics level opens it up to abuse. An ability that says "You may add your Spirit to your Physical scores whenever you roll a die" may be powerful, and an ability that says, "Three times per session you may add your Physical score to your Spirit" may be fine, but taken together that means once per session that character is adding 3x his Physical and Spirit to a roll. This game doesn't even exist yet and we've already broken it!

This is why RPGs need to hit a reset button every few years and release a new edition. Seemingly innocuous rules become abusive once it's seen how they combine with existing rules. Core rules that were tested over and over in playtesting and found to be perfectly balanced and functional as core rules become unbalanced or overshadowed when less-tested rules are introduced in supplements (I'm looking at you Hojatsu's Legacy Duelist!).

The end result is that while a game may be established with an optimal level of complexity and balance between the four areas - or at least an acceptable amount of customization available for each group of players. With each new supplement, however, the complexity of the rules goes up by definition as new rules and character options are introduced. There is thus an inevitable creep toward a Mechanics-intensive game over time.

My response to this as a game designer, at least for my home games, is to simply not care about Mechanics. I expect players to have broken characters and I don't concern myself with that. If that's a part of the game they enjoy, if that's what makes the game fun for them, why would I want to fight that?

Rather than try and "fix" their character, I strive to recruit like-minded players who will enjoy that area of the game as well. This isn't to say that I will never jump in and block something with GM fiat (I'm looking at you every feat from Book of Exalted Deeds but as a GM who's their to have fun as much as all the other players, I'd rather say, "yes," then move on to the parts of the game that interest me.

This becomes much more difficult when designing games blind. When I write a module for Heroes of Rokugan, I don't know who's going to play it. Now each of the modules that I've contributed so far has, admittedly, been written with different players in mind. In fact, if you look over "Touch of Death" (the rejected module) you can figure out exactly who each scene was written for. That said, it still needs to be playable and enjoyable by people who've never met me.

The key to blind design is to put the focus on Simulation. Rather than writing mechanics, write for theme and story and tell the GM what they are so that she can adapt on the fly based on the group she has. As a game designer I don't want to have to list Target Numbers for every delegate in "An Arranged Marriage" in response to persuasion by coercion, bullying, bribery, seduction, deception, philosophical argument, enlightened self interest, etc., but GMs may need that information, and in fact they probably will because if I list just one method it's pretty unlikely to be the one the PCs try. On the other hand, I can say, "This character response very well to arguments based on moral virtue. A PC may roll Awareness/Lore: Bushido at TN 40," create appropriate listings about the best argument for each NPC, then a note at the end that says, "The GM should adjudicate other methods of persuasion as appropriate, but the TNs will be at least +10 higher." Thus players can use whatever methods they like rather than my reminding them they're playing a game by telling them what to roll every time.

There is one last area that affects all of this, and that is house rules. House rules are changes to the game specific to a given group of players, a campaign, etc. One of the things I'm loving that's been promised about 4e l5r is a section on house rules in the core book along with a description of what effect each will have.

As a GM, though, I try to keep my house rules rather flexible. At D&D on Sunday, for example, I adapted the rules of called shots (striking a particular location on a target) from Mongoose Publishing's Quintessential Fighter.

Most games handle called shots by saying something like, "You may voluntarily increase the difficulty of your attack by 4 before you roll. If you succeed, you hit the opponent's arm." There are two things I don't like about this approach. One, it makes no sense to me that if you're aiming for a particular point on a subject that you either hit them there or miss completely - if I miss my opponent's eye because I roll a 22 instead of a 23, why don't I hit the rest of his head? Second, it means that for upper-level characters there's no reason not to make a called shot every round, at which point they stop being special and start being paperwork.

Mongoose had a particularly creative solution to this when QF was published back in 2001. They said if you made a critical hit, you could choose to waive the extra damage and instead make it a called shot instead. What type of called shot you could do was limited by your Base Attack Bonus, but there were great rules for the effects.

I loved this approach because this is exactly what critical hits are supposed to represent: a strike to a vulnerable point. A standard critical hit that did extra damage now represented a called shot to the torso or head or other point vulnerable to wounding, but a player might forgo that extra damage to instead turn it into a called shot to the leg to slow their opponent down, to the hand to cause a penalty to attack, etc. Furthermore, because it was still dependent on those rare critical hits, high-level players couldn't abuse their high attack bonuses to make critical hits every time they attacked, thus keeping them special.

For my game I partially adopted the rule. On a critical threat the player can choose to make it a called shot (if they're going for the eye, groin, or other small, target area I may increase the opponent's AC; if the confirmation misses they still get a regular hit for the surrounding area, but an eye should be harder to hit than a leg). The effects of the called shot, however, are completely at my discretion as GM. This makes them more risky for players, who still have the option of just doing normal critical hits for extra damage, because I may have it do a weaker effect than they'd like, but it means I can adjust on the fly to keep the game balanced, while still allowing dramatic combat. Ergo, Mechanics, Dramatization, and Simulation.

Then if someone gets me hot wings we get all four areas.

* Note that I use a great many qualifiers in this paragraph, such as "nearly-inevitable" and "less likely." I am describing trends, not immutable laws. Each group - indeed, each player - may buck these trends, but the overall tendency will remain outside these counter-examples.
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If you're a girl and you're a gamer, the zine RPGirl is looking for essay and article submissions:
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Fantastic time at Spycraft larp. Barely more than a half-dozen players showed but still a truly excellent game. In addition, larp + tux = awesome.

Half-Weekend in Roküggin: The Cheap Gaijin Knock-Off did pretty well. 8 out of 10. Close to a dozen players, two tables, and despite some last minute shifts we got the games out and people had a pretty good time. Unfortunately things ran over so Wynd and I didn't get to go swing dancing with [ profile] d33pthought and his girlfriend as we'd intended, but still a good time.

L5R larp. Sadly it's winding down, but after three years (though I've only been playing for one) it's time. My character made a lot of progress and I think he'll have a good ending for this game, and there are some good possibilities for the next game.

Not the weekend, but still gaming-related. Some good news from Rolla about HoR III. Can't talk about it here, but I wouldn't be surprised if we have an official announcement at SynDCon.
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This wasn't supposed to be a two-part piece but due to a conversation last night I wanted to do a follow up.

This conversation was with my friend C---- and was regarding the Heroes of Rokugan campaign. HoR is a living campaign, which I like to describe as an MMO RPG, but without the O. You create a character that can be used and developed in any HoR adventure (module), whether run with a home group, a local play group, or at a convention. Moreover, HoR is based on Legend of the Five Rings, a fantasy roleplaying game based on feudal Japan.

Now before we get into this, let me talk a bit about L5R. The best way to describe L5R is feudal Japan as the Japanese wish it had been. It's a world where samurai really are noble warriors, where knowledge of the Tao really does lead to magical power, and where Japan actually has an empire (What's the difference between an empire and a kingdom? An empire is a grouping of otherwise independent political states ruled by a single body or figure. This is why Japan is historically described as having an emperor but no empire - it was only one country). While I cannot claim to know everything about the setting I have researched it extensively, both as a player and GM, but also in academic settings: my final paper in Japanese literature was about Rokugan as an amalgamation of east Asian archetypes, Americanized for western understanding. My conclusion was that their use of archetypes was the key point of the setting, because it allowed a rapid understanding of how to play in the setting even if one did not yet understand the details.

The other thing that was key, however, was the Americanization of these archetypes. This is not something that has been limited to L5R but has been occurring for decades in Asian and pseudo-Asian literature. My favorite example is how many of Kurosawa's movies, most notably Seven Samurai and Yojimbo were Japanese translations of American archetypes, particularly from westerns, which then went full circle and were remade as the westerns The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars respectively. Because L5R is based on archetypes it uses these types of movies as inspiration, and consequently includes Americanization at a very basic level.

Furthermore, because many (though not all!) of the writers for each edition came to know L5R from the RPG rather than by directly researching Japan, with each new edition the depiction of Rokugan becomes more and more Americanized. First edition had a very mythological feel. Many of the stories were about otherworldly spirits, the description of the setting was exotic but often confusingly so, and the clans were much more insular and isolated. Comparatively third edition is almost New York cosmopolitan. Even the introductory mood fiction in the third edition L5R core book, in which a Kakita duelist dies saving a town from thuggish bandits, feels more like a western gunfight than a samurai duel.

But is this a bad thing?

One of the great things about HoR is that not only can anyone play in it, but anyone can create content by writing an adventure - a module - for it. Player-written mods may not be a staple of the campaign, but are one of the best ways for players to increase their participation. C---- was talking to me about a mod he wanted to write. I reiterated much of my previous game writing post (he doesn't read my blog, to my knowledge) but was getting a lot of hemming and hawwing from him. Finally I asked, "What experience do you want players to get out of this?"

"I want them to understand what Rokugan is about."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I wanted this one section [scenario where the PCs are presented with a situation where if they interfere based on morality will have massive, permanent backlash]."

I replied that I didn't think this was a good idea for several reasons. The first is that it's passive. People play a game because they want to play it, not observe it, anything that penalizes players for taking an active role is a serious design flaw (and, though I didn't say this, usually a sign of a designer masturbating over his or her ideas by forcing the players to sit back and watch the "grand story" they've created). The second, and more serious problem, is that the scenario he was describing, while very true to historical samurai values, was one that ran counter to much of what was presented in HoR.

"But that's the way it should be!" C---- said. "I see people playing these mods and... they're wrong. And it pisses me off!"

"Maybe so," I replied, "but right or wrong, that's the game."

Rokugan is a hard setting to get down. This is why it's based on archetypes: one can comprehend a cultural archetype much quicker than learning all the nuances of a foreign culture. There are a lot of players who like those cultural nuances, and they tend to play appropriate characters that let them utilize their knowledge of such nuances. Learning those nuances are part of the game for these players and make it more fun. Many players, probably the majority, however, don't have time for that. They have busy lives and don't even have the time to devote to reading a core book before playing. If the game is good - if they have fun and see themselves continuing to play it for awhile - they may read the core book, but they're not going to devote hours of academic research to mastering a dead culture in order to play a game. Instead, they'll use the archetypes they're presented and the gaming techniques they're familiar with to make their way through. It's not perfect, but it works and it results in fun.

The problem I had with C---- was that he was trying to force people to play "better." "Better" itself is a problem because it means very different things to very different people; i.e. it would be more historically accurate and true to literature to end every adventure with a tragedy, but how many people would consider that sort of game fun? Rule 0 states that fun comes first, and anything that makes the game less fun is, by definition, worse.

I've talked before about how you need to bring the right character to the right game. Monte Cook has a great blog where he talks about how players have a responsibility to "bring a character to the table motivated and able to get involved with the story." This goes even more so for living campaigns where there's less flexibility about how you can shape the story. A mod that runs counter to the feel of the campaign is a bad mod, even if it's accurate. And at last we get to the crux of this post: GM's have a responsibility to run an engaging game, players have a responsibility to create characters that can take part in the adventures, and designers have a responsibility to create a game that can be enjoyed.

In HoR this means that GM's should be prepared when they run their modules by knowing what it's about, who the NPC's are, and capable of keeping the table flowing smoothly. Players should create characters who are worthy of the campaign title: Heroes of Rokugan, so that they can take part in the adventures. And designers should set both GM's and players up so they can fulfill their responsibilities.

One of C----'s complains was that PC's should not interact as well as they do, and most should go against the hooks provided by the adventure. "If our clans are at war, dangling a favor in front of me shouldn't make my character put aside the war to help you get whatever it is you're going for." Realistically, no it shouldn't, but from the perspective of a game, particularly an open-ended game like HoR, it has to, and trying to dictate otherwise to the player base is an incredibly elitist attitude.

I hate gaming elitism. Games are supposed to be about having fun. When I hear D&D players making fun of Vampire players for being drama queens, or Vampire players making fun of D&D players for being immature hack-and-slashers, it makes my blood boil. This is why there's very little crossover between the two groups, but both are still valid games and both immersion and hack and slash are valid play styles, as long as you're having fun. You are not a better gamer for running a "gritty" game and any attempt in a mod to penalize players for not conforming to how you view the game should be played is both unfair and offensive.

We finished the conversation unresolved. I ended up telling C---- that I thought he had some great ideas for a mod, and he did, but he needed to reevaluate what he wanted the mod to do.

"These are great ideas and I hope you write your mod, but if you don't like the way they'll be used in HoR, then you probably shouldn't write it for HoR. Honestly, if you hate the way HoR works that much, I'm not sure why you play. The game is what it is, and what you or I think it 'should' be has no factor on that. So what do you want to do: are you willing to sacrifice some of your concept in order to make a game that people will play, or are you going to throw your hands up because they don't, 'get it.'"

I'm sad that he went with option 2.
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Recently I've had several people asking me about game design. Some of this has been since I finished "Masterpiece: Iron Crane Chef," but a lot has been beforehand. I'm not going to go on here about my experience writing games, but I did want to talk a bit about what I do when I sit down to write an adventure, whether for a home game, a living campaign, or a professional product.

Rule 0: Make it Fun

Rule 0 comes from the 3rd ed. D&D Dungeonmaster's Guide. Before I even talk about Rule 0, I want to give due credit to that book: the 3e DMG is the most essential gaming book I've ever come across for anyone intending to write or run a game. I don't care what system you're using or what kind of game you're playing, that book is required reading. It talks about every aspect of design philosophy, play styles, and group interaction you could think of, most of it without referencing mechanics except to use as examples. Go and get yourself a copy: it's only $1.48 on Amazon so money should be no excuse.

Anyway, Rule 0 states that fun comes before everything. If anything isn't fun, change it so it is! Most game books make a similar claim, though they usually state it is story comes before everything. This is different. While D&D is often knocked for not developing story sufficiently, it is correct in acknowledging that story is subservient to, and in support of, fun.

This comes into play when designing for games because everything you do should be weighed against, "How will this make the game more fun?" If it's not fun, cut it out. This can be tricky when designing for different or unknown groups, who may find different things to be fun than you or your play test group do. I recommend using modular design, where each encounter can be expanded or skipped over with a single check or two, so that the GM can adjust on the fly based on her players' reactions.*

Rule 1: Everybody Wants to be Cool

Games are not novels. Novels generally have one protagonist. They may have multiple heroes and may tell multiple characters' stories, but they're usually about one person. Consequently, whatever happens in the novel, whether good or bad, is to make that character's story interesting and engaging; in other words, cool. RPGs, however, are about multiple characters. Not every character is the same type of hero - some are champions, some are support, some are anti-heroes - but every character deserves the game's respect. Imagine Star Wars giving the same credit to Leia, Chewbacca, and C3PO as it does to Luke (and to a lesser extent, Han). That's what a good RPG needs to do.

As a game designer, you need to plan those moments for PCs to be cool. For combat characters this is easy. Put in a few fights and something cool is bound to happen at one of them. In fact, I believe this is one of the reasons D&D is so popular: because you have to create a combat character in D&D, and most challenges are combat-based, you're bound to be the star at some point or another.

This is not always viable in other games, however. Many Whitewolf characters, for example, are based around non-combat abilities. The lethality of l5r makes repeated combat challenges a dangerous and unpleasant prospect even for combat characters. Thus you should strive to create challenges appropriate for multiple character types. Better yet, you should create challenges that have multiple solutions. The computer game Fallout 2 is a phenomenal example of how to do this. Shadowrun is an entire RPG based around the "multiple solutions" approach.

Rule 2: Build Memories

Think about your favorite gaming moments. Chances are they were rarely the things we normally think of as the climactic highlight of a game. One bit of feedback that's always stuck with me came from [ profile] lex_of_green at the end of a Mage campaign.
Alex’s Mage campaign ended last Wednesday. We saved the world, discovered the 10th sphere of magic, and Awakened the entire population of earth.
That isn’t important. I play Exalted. Saving the world is… uhhh, how do you say “par for the course” without using a golf metaphor? “Normal”? Saving the world is normal.

The not-normal part is that we all wound up happy at the end. That’s never happened to me before. Usually there’s a certain weariness – an emptiness left over, like in order to save the world, you have to break yourself. Zee says that the one thing you can’t give for your heart’s desire is your heart, but I don’t think I ever listened properly. Zee also says that yellow is a pretty color and that she’s never wanted to eat her dice. Psh.

My character figured out how to stop compulsively sewing wings on dead squirrels, and her mom baked us all a batch of homemade cookies. More characters in huge, epic stories need moms with cookies, I think.
Or inventor fathers with books full of limericks.

I hadn't intended to do so, but I accidentally stumbled onto something significant in that campaign, though it took someone else to point out what had happened. We're gamers. We're used to saving the world. That's not what gets us playing. But how many times has a campaign finished and your character ended up happy? Not just for meeting some goal you decided he had but because he did something that made him happy?

We don't remember saving the world because we've done it dozens of times. We remember the things we do differently. We remember a character ending up happy because it happens so rarely. We remember character deaths because they are unique events (and hence they must, must be significant or they become very much not fun). So when you design an adventure and think of those cool moments, think in terms of stories people will want to tell over and over again. Those moments don't have to be accidental; you can make them.

Rule 3: Work Backward

Okay, you have a list of cool things you want to include an adventure. What now?

Now you figure out how to make them happen. I like to start at the end, with a point I know I want the PCs to end up in (i.e. a fight on an oil tanker as it explodes one section at a time) or a reward I want them to be able to earn (i.e. a prominent Crane-trained chef as their personal servant) and work my way back. This is accomplished by asking questions. Why are they fighting on the oil tanker? How did they get there? What will happen if they win? Or lose? What must they do to become the chef's patron? Why are the PCs the ones who have to do it?

As you answer the questions, try and connect the answers to the other cool things on your list. Before you know it, you have the outline for an adventure.

Rule 4: Let Players Enjoy Their Rewards

There is exactly one spell that I hate in D&D. Just one, but I hate it with a deep, burning passion. What spell is it? Antimagic field.

I hate it because it deprives players of their magic items and it prevents them from using their powers. Magic items and power are the main rewards of D&D. They're why you go adventuring: phat lewt and XP. When a GM sets up an encounter with an antimagic field, she is immediately revoking the main resources the players have been developing. That's not fun.

Nothing is more frustrating, as a player, than an auto-shutdown. Anything that says, "You can't use this ability your character is based on and that you've been working the entire campaign to develop," makes the game less fun for whatever player just got kicked in the gnads by it.

Auto-shutdown effects are lazy game design. They say, "I can't find a way to make this challenging other than to make you weaker." Think of stealth missions in fighting games where you instantly lose if an enemy sees you. No one is playing a fighting game to play stealth missions. In fact, you've been playing to get better and cooler fighting abilities, then along comes this mission that prevents you from using any of the fun stuff you've spent all game developing! That's what you do to your players when you shut down their abilities.

If you've designed a challenge that can be instantly solved by a rare ability, don't try to negate that ability. The player who invested the resources in obtaining it should be allowed his moment in the spotlight (see Rule 1). This is not a case of instantly beating the challenge; he's been preparing to beat the challenge the entire campaign, even if he didn't know it, by getting that rare ability. Likewise, challenges should changes as PCs develop. That antimagic field should never be placed over a pit just to stop PCs from flying over it with spells or magic items; they get access to fly at 5th level because by 5th level they should be facing more advanced challenges than pits.

Rule 5: Ask Your Players What They Want

The best adventures are the ones that you'd want to play in, but sometimes you get tapped out of ideas. At that point, ask other players. I'm working on another l5r mod right now that's inspired by a certain genre. The first thing I did? Ask other l5r players (who aren't involved in the campaign), "What sorts of things would you like to do in a [genre]-type game?"

* A note on gender pronouns: Far too many game books have started with disclaimers or explanations of why they use the pronouns they did. Some were offensive (D&D 2e), some were confusing (D&D 3e), and some were vastly overcompensating (White Wolf OWoD). In my game design I use an arbitrary system for clarity's sake: I always refer to the GM as female, single players as male, and multiple players as male and female. This has less to do with equality and more to do with avoiding confusing duplication and switching of pronouns. Suck on that, political correctness.
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... may be a fun game, but it has the most needlessly complex rules I've ever seen. And yes, I am including Champions in that comparison.

For what it's worth, I'm referring to v. 2.0.
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Wynd and I doing our Pirates of the Caribbean paso doble at Gen Con. Starts at 4:50.
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My first adventure has the rough draught finished and sent to the Campaign Administrator. Wish me luck!
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My dad sent me this, so I'm passing it on to you.
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In my l5r larp, the city was recently decimated by an invading Crab army. Most of the survivors are trying to rebuild the city. This means a lot of very basic services: reservoirs, food sources, and so on. While my new Kitsuki is dedicating many of his efforts to restoring order, he's also trying to secure the rebuilding of the geisha houses. I'm trying to use this opportunity to explore an area normally ignored in role-playing games: post traumatic stress disorder.

Most RPG characters see a great deal of combat. Even non-combat characters tend to be exposed to it on a fairly regular basis, but combat characters deal with death and danger fairly consistently. Nor do I mean strictly their own. If I may paraphrase Dan Carlin, the worst thing that can happen to a D&D character during an adventure is that he is killed. The best thing that can happen to a D&D character is that he kills lots and lots of other people. Death is very rarely their motivation, but during at least one part of most adventures, RPG characters are expected to be serial killers. They're expected to be mass murderers.

Now I don't want to give the impression that all games are flippant about this. While old-school dungeon crawls were very direct kill-the-monsters-and-take-their-stuff scenarios, most modern games give better justification. In fact, games often set up very intricate scenarios to make players decide if violence is justified and, if so, on whose behalf. They introduce morality into the stories and are very explicit that wanton killing is evil. Characters may be killers but they are not supposed to be murderers.*

The problem is that even if the killing is justified it should have an effect on the PCs. An American soldier who is fiercely patriotic, joins our all-volunteer army out of a sense of duty, and fights insurgents and murderers in Iraq for eighteen months, may full-well believe in the morality of his actions, yet still suffer a lifetime of nightmares and flashbacks over what he had to do to save innocent lives. Whether his actions are correct or not (and he believes they are), violence takes a very real tole on the human psyche, one very rarely portrayed in gaming. It should be.

In the Akashic Brotherhood source book for Mage: The Ascension, there is a side-bar giving the rules for Do, a near-magical martial art that is (arguably) the most devastating combat skill in the game. It includes the ability to deal lethal damage with unarmed strikes, to block weapons with one's bare hands, reduced difficulties to make its use easier, and numerous other special abilities. But the section closes with a warning for GMs concerned about balancing the use of Do in their games: don't try and restrict the use of Do, but focus on its consequences. A person who can kill with a single strike is a monster, or at least borders on becoming one, and a person who can kill without regrets is not a hero. We use another word for such a person: psychopath.

I am deeply bothered when players - and I include myself among them - portray combat characters who seem unaffected by their violent actions. They may dwell upon the consequences of said actions, but they are rarely affected by the actions themselves. A character who can fight and kill without regret, without empathy, but with a detachment allowing them to only consider the effects of their violence, is displaying the textbook definition of psychopathy. I'm tired of seeing characters like that and the concept of continuing to play such characters makes me more than a little nauseous.

Think about what it really means to be a D&D paladin. Your god calls you to service. You answer the call and a sword is thrust into your hands. You find like-minded, if less high-minded, allies and accept a mission protecting the weak. You journey to a village that is under attack by zombies. Every night, a necromancer summons dark energy and the bodies of the fallen are resurrected into cruel mockeries of their former selves. Each night you find yourself engaged in brutal hand-to-hand combat against these things where the best you can hope for is to mutilate the bodies of those you'd sworn to protect, then you look over and ten feet away see one of your allies losing that same hand-to-hand struggle. Finally you locate the necromancer raising these foul things. Blinded by rage over his crimes you fight your way through more of his creations and bury your sword in the magician's chest. Blood comes spurting out and as he dies he keeps laughing.

I've just described a typical low-level adventure, just with a different emotive twist. What would the dreams of such a person be like?

Shell-shock among RPG characters should be epidemic.

* A quick word here on the differences between fighting monsters and humans. Most RPGs draw a distinction between monsters, many of whom are inherently evil, and humans or humanoid races (i.e. elves, dwarves, etc.). This was a thin veneer of morality tacked onto early dungeon crawl adventurers to justify the rampant violence, and one nearly all players and GMs pass through quickly. It is almost requisite for every GM to run adventure that acknowledges monsters as intelligent beings worthy of respect in their own right, yet even that may not go far enough. The wanton slaughter of displacer beasts should be nor more acceptable than the wholesale extermination of boa constrictors or other dangerous creatures. I could see a compelling D&D or Urban Arcana game featuring the People for the Eathical Treatment of Monsters, or some such.


Apr. 27th, 2009 11:14 pm
suburbaknght: (Default)
I play in an l5r larp that meets monthly down near DC. Last session did no go well. For those of you who know l5r, we're set during the Clan War, based in Ryoko Owari, and were just steam-rolled by the Crab. My character, Togashi Katsuken, walked to his death as the first casualty in the fight to take the city. There is now talk among the players about what will happen to the game, several have said they're dropping out, and so on and so forth. Here is my response, as posted to the game's boards, reposted here because I get somewhat into the theory and purpose of gaming:
It is the possibility of failure that makes success significant.

Yes, the city is a corpse. While it is not leveled, it has been stripped clean. The resources are gone, much of the populace is dead or has fled, the council is a shadow of its former self, and the Empire that surrounds it can ill-afford to bring about its recovery for us.

But isn't that what being a hero is all about? There is a saying among the Lion: death is lighter than a feather, duty heavier than a mountain. It is easy to give up. It is easy to say, "I don't want to play anymore." And that wouldn't be wrong; this is a game, but it is not the game any of us initially expected. Instead, it's a much more compelling game. The question before us now isn't how to protect what already exists but how to build something new. Toshi Ranbo was not created for its opium dens and gambling houses - those came later - but because a trade nexus existed and people gathered there. Whether it is trade, troops, or the resources of rebuilding a devastated empire, much will pass through this site and Ryoko Owari will stand again. Only this time, we have a chance to influence how it's rebuilt.

Some of you will be familiar with the philosopher Socrates. Socrates, as related to us in Plato's Republic, declared that all poets were liars. Fiction had no place in his perfect Republic. Aristotle had a different view. Aristotle said that if a tale is well told, if it is populated by realistic characters who behave in a believable manner, even if the situation of the tale is removed from our daily lives, upon its conclusion we will observe the consequences to the virtuous and the vile and in turn we shall experience "a useful fear." While Socrates saw literature as distracting and deceptive, Aristotle saw something in it that would allow people to experience that which was beyond what they already knew, so when they encountered new situations they would be prepared.

I have never faced down an army with nothing but a sword to defend me. I have never called forth fire from a scroll. I have never traversed an empire on horseback, given religious advice to a governor, or knowingly walked to my death. But I have stood up for what I believe in, and I have worked to make the world a better place, and I fully expect to do so again in what I hope to make a very long life. At the end of that life, however, I want to know that I have left behind something that matters - I'm trying to start a business now, as it happens - and I can't think of a better way to play out the process of creating something than to play a game where I join my mind with those of people I know and respect in order to create something.

Yes, this is a game, yes it's entertainment, but it is also a mirror. If it is your choice to walk away because it has gotten hard I cannot condemn you for it. But I will be there on the 24th with deck of cards and a new character trying to make a better dream.

I hope you will join me.


Aug. 28th, 2008 10:26 am
suburbaknght: (Default)
The pictures are up at last!

Geeks! )
suburbaknght: (Default)
Short rant on l5r, but under cut just in case. )
suburbaknght: (Default)
Good day today. Began with an introductory kendo workshop. It was nice to do martial arts again, though I prefer the sword styles of aikido and katori shinto ryu. After the workshop, Wynd and I registered for the costume contest and rehearsed on a stage that was much larger and more suitable than how we'd been practicing. Then it was lunch time.

I wolfed down lunch in order to make it to Sultry vs. Slutty, a workshop that was supposed to be about female characters in fiction and gaming. Instead, it was about techniques for writing and being published in the romance writing and erotica fields. I was somewhat disappointed. At this point Wynd and I met back up to line up for the parade before the costume contest. We marshaled with the other costumed participants, marched around the convention, and took our places for the contest.

The results from the contest were about what we figured. We didn't place, but we did a good performance that the audience got into (well, for the first half. We need to limit the length next year to about a minute) and though there were two mistakes we recovered and didn't let them phase us. At the moment the only video I have is one a fellow contestant took for us but the perspective is lousy so I'm waiting to see if anyone posts another recording on YouTube before I put up this one. Regardless, it was fun watching the rest of the costume contest.

Dinner was take out from P.F. Chang's followed by the GenCon Dance. This is the third year they've had a dance, and this was probably the best they've had. Wynd and I got our dance on and - here's the part that thrills me - people kept coming up to us all evening complimenting us on our dancing. Some people who'd seen us in the costume contest or larp, but most of whom only knew us from the social dance. And not just a few people; a lot of them. A few of them even seemed inspired.

I'm happy about today.
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