Asymmetric Gaming in an Age of Forced Equilibrium, Part 1

If you’ve followed the progression of roleplaying games since their early days, you may have noticed a trend towards equality in every area of play for every role a player may choose. There is a huge problem with this, however. One glance may make you dismiss this view or feel confused by it, but here’s how that view is misleading: the streamlining and flattening of the rules systems towards a mathematically balanced approach destroys the very thing people are trying to achieve and strips out critical elements of the sandbox notion of roleplaying games.

The greatest offender of this drive towards equilibrium is the genre’s flagship property. Dungeons & Dragons has, through its many incarnations, tried to address one mechanical issue or another to make the game feel balanced. In the earliest versions, the solution was to create individual experience point (XP) tables for the classes. On the whole, this looks crude and can lead some players to avoid playing one class or another out of fear that their character will be outclassed quickly. These classes look like they’ve been cheated.

Incremental changes to the game gave more meat to these classes outside of combat, but at what cost? Wizards are exceptionally powerful and clerics aren’t far behind. In a fantasy game, this makes a lot of sense that magic eventually becomes the star of the show. It’s the defining element of fantasy. That’s a huge problem in cooperative play, though. It’s also what’s driven the changes over the years.

Some of the overhauls in the 3.x games tried to fix these issues in one fell swoop beginning with a single XP progression table for all characters that then had the classes balanced to reflect comparable prowess. Wizards lost a large number of spells compared with earlier editions in this offset. The result had clerics on top and wizards still just a step behind. Mathematically speaking, the versatility of these classes (and most spellcasters in general) outweighs that of the others. Sure, wizards’ spells do more damage, but the flexibility in casting and domain spell slots give clerics the upper hand in so many instances that it’s no surprise there are some complaints about game balance. All of this results in an imbalance in parity the designers sought. One of the problems here is the mechanical assumptions that these classes will create magical items and expend XP in the process. That’s a huge problem.

Instead of making item creation an incentive for gaining XP as a form of insight gained in the character’s pursuit of power, the opposite has occurred as a result of metagaming (you can’t escape this, it’s human nature). Why waste resources if you don’t have to with no visible long-term gain? This is one of the Achilles’ heels of 3.x games that causes the breakdown in the mechanics and shows how the balance in the game isn’t there.

4th edition tried to correct this problem by designing all of the abilities using the same template. This completely removed asymmetric play from the game and is at the root of the “sameness” complaints despite the tightly defined prescribed roles classes were stuffed into. This is a major design flaw for a roleplaying game outside a box housing silicon and circuitry. But as the point was to get the attention of the MMO crowd, the idea seemed durable. Nice try, but not good when put in practice as computers aren’t people.

Now we have 5th edition and it’s plagued with the same legacy issues compounded by the design flaws from 3.x on. The game tried to remove a lot of the bloat and detritus of all editions to date. But, it kept a lot of elements and concepts so deeply synonymous with the brand that they only furthered the flaws that will continue to destroy the asymmetry integral to roleplaying games. The remnants of a balanced approach have changed the roles of the classes, the source of which is combat. More on that later.

General progress updates.

Wrote nearly 1,000 words today.  I know that’s not much, but given the holidays and a few others things, that’s a significant number considering some of the circumstances.  But, it wasn’t just writing words that made today awesome.  I finished a few things:

  • turned in some additional material for the upcoming Republic of Texas book
  • Finished the layout for Castle Builder Reforged, Chapter 4
  • Started working on a new blog post (no, not this one)

So, while it’s not a lot of detail or anything, it’s a good start for the latter half of the month that I’ve managed to increase my writing production to close to 1,000 words a day.  I’m hoping to sustain that everyday going forward.

A new addition to the family.

Okay, so despite the title, this post doesn’t mean what most people think it means.  I didn’t have a kid, rather I found out I have a sister I didn’t know about.  She got in contact with me shortly after the new year and I’ve been chatting with her ever since while also trying to tidy up a bit of work for one project or another.  So, that’s where all of my time’s been going and why you haven’t seen anything on a daily basis.  I’m hoping to get back to daily posts again, but that’s something I may have to work up to.

Anatomy of Game Design: The Social Contract/Magic Circle

There is a persistent myth amongst theorists of a construct enacted amongst groups to explain the relationship between group members and the acts that unfold before/between them.  The concept is known as the “magic circle.”  It is an unseen and inexplicable boundary that can be traversed without movement. All one has to do is agree to participate in any given activity to enter into this liminal space.  That is the core of the magic circle’s purpose: to facilitate transition across the barrier; what underlies it is the rules by which it operates.  All magic circles are temporary social contracts, which use rules that supersede a culture’s normative behavior.

To make sense of this, this piece will look at what social contracts are and how they function.  Social contracts are comprised as much by codified laws as they are the unwritten scripts that inform a culture of its standards.  They are arbitrary systems by which a group defines what it means to not only be a member, but also what governs acceptable behavior that ultimately promotes the group’s survival.  Games are no different in this regard as they operate under similar rules as any other social contract.  In a game, the rules define acceptable behavior and the limitations on how one can conduct himself.  Anything outside that code is a violation of the group’s trust of the individual, just like in society at large.  This is effectively the definition of cheating.

In light of the above, why is the magic circle so special?  In part, it is because it lets us suspend social and cultural norms.  The magic circle is also a temporary social contract that can be broken with few to no stigmas attached to withdrawing from the contract.  The magic circle is truly magical because it makes everyone equal in the activity undertaken.  Despite all appearances, everyone’s participation carries the same weight no matter how small an individual’s role may be.  Artistic performances, sports events, religious ceremonies, and other forms of play all require participation by everyone in attendance in some form or another.  Sermons are ineffective without a congregation, for example.  Plays do not carry the same meaning if no one outside the cast and crew see the performance.  So, by virtue of attendance alone, an audience is equal to the speaker or performer, and a member’s silence gives license for the person(s) at the center of attention to continue.  Historically, this hasn’t always been the case (patrons regularly shouted out at one another and the actors of stage performances in the 15th-17th centuries), which is what makes such instances of the social contract seem so magical to us today.

Pointing to an earlier installment of this series in which I discussed issues of game balance (Precision Games), there has to be something that provides an incentive to make players want to repeat the experience.  The necessary conditions that provide balance are the same that give the players a feeling of equality.  After all, it is the rules of the game which establish the conditions under which the game behaves, not the respective roles participants must enact.  There is no incentive for following the rules; or rather, there are no punitive measures that dictate how players behave while in the play space.  The former is only partially true.  The reward for following the rules is in knowing that you are more adept than your opponents by winning the game.  By agreeing to follow the rules, a player is accepting the conditions of the magic circle and tacitly a contract with one’s fellow gamers to extend to them that only skillful actions within the narrow confines of the rules will be used to best one another.

One of the reasons for why the magic circle is a myth is the ease in which one can walk away from the performance at its core.  The circle is that fragile.  This is why suspension of disbelief is critical.  To lose that is to lose the erstwhile magic inherent in the activity.  Suffice it to say, magic is fragile for all its power.  It is why in some stories a kiss can break a spell.

What if one wants to play with the magic circle rather than abide by its strictures?  Certain activities are often held sacrosanct by the majority of a population, like ceremonies.  Most people would be unwilling to disrupt these outright, but playing with those rules is another story.  It is like laying another magic circle atop the one which everyone else has agreed to.  Sneaking food into a movie theater, ducking out in the middle of a performance or even walking in front of the stage while the speaker or performer is playing the role the audience came to see are examples of transgressing the rules of the magic circle without completely breaking them.  Doing this in a church is likely to get more attention than at a sporting match or concert.  Granted, the audiences are often larger at the latter two, but the fact remains that it will disturb those around the transgressor to some degree.  With games, there is even less of a chance that this will draw ire from an audience, although it might anger the other players.  By playing with the rules, gamers are playing something else entirely.  It is this sort of behavior we commonly refer to when speaking of metagaming.  For some, this is where the magic circle may take a weird twist.

Other than fudging the numbers on a die role, there are few ways to “game,” or cheat, the system in an RPG.  But that leaves open the door to play with the rules and their intended meaning.  Rules lawyers do just this.  Technically it isn’t cheating.  Language, being a fuzzy thing, makes an easy target for those looking to get a word in edgewise for their benefit.  Grammar, which includes the procedures in a game, can’t be questioned unless there is a flaw somewhere in the logic.  The exact meaning of the words used to describe the grammar can be, however.

Playing with the social contract of the play space is still a form of play and can be the focus of the game.  Games like Fluxx and the recently released Metagame are prime examples of games that play with the rules and make transgressing the liminal barrier part of the game (Metagame does this by making other games the subject of play).  As such, the actions of rules lawyers and supposed cheaters are still within the scope of play.  Where they differ with other players is in what game they are playing.  These various levels of play show that none of the elements of the magic circle are sacrosanct, regardless of the venue, as much as we would like to believe.  That said, failing to observe the social contract that makes the space possible disrupts the illusion of equality within the magic circle’s power enough to anger those who would like to preserve the circle for the duration of an event.  In this regard, cheaters never prosper as repeat offenders often find themselves without an invitation at worst and on the outside looking in at best.

This is a complex topic and further discussion will be forthcoming to cover other aspects of the magic circle.

New Zealand: Australia’s Canada

I wrote this paper in 2006 for a linguistics class.  So, there are a couple of long paragraphs.  Sorry they look so meaty here.  That said, this essay still cracks me up and I don't know how I got away with turning it in and getting full credit on the assignment.  I hope it amuses you, too.

 

As strange as the title may seem, for an American, this sentiment sums up how New Zealand is viewed by Australia.  It is also the view that many English-speaking nations have as well.  The effect is that as Canadians are seen as an extension of American culture, New Zealanders are viewed as just another group of Australians.  New Zealanders resent this comparison as much as Canadians do.  It does not help matters when the distinctions between dialects of the two nations are nearly undetectable.  This is the point at which the comparison between Canada and New Zealand begins to break down.  Because of the nation’s short history, there has not been enough time for New Zealand English to develop into a dialect in its own right.  The result is a nation’s unique voice that is just beginning to emerge.

For a nation with such a short history, it is of little wonder that its language has yet to diverge from its parent.  Although settlement of New Zealand occurred around the same time as Australia, the low numbers and social class of the British who were a part of the initial colonization had a large impact on the use of English.  Australia served as a sort of dumping ground for the British who were looking for ways to rid London of groups they felt were undesirable.  No other colonial territory looked as promising as Australia.  One could debate that this was due in part to the distance of the island continent from the British Isles.

Regionally speaking, however, New Zealand and Australian immigrants hailed from the same areas of Britain.  The result may directly be the cause of why many view New Zealand English as being Australian.  David Crystal (2003), in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, states “New Zealand English is the dark horse of World English regional dialectology.  It has long been neglected, mentioned only in passing as part of a treatment of Australian English or assumed by outsiders to be identical with it in all salient respects” (p. 354).  When the history of the country is taken into account, it becomes clearer as to why people view New Zealand English in this manner.  One would expect the dialectal variances to be minimal at best with an immigration of people stemming from the same locations within Britain.

To get a clearer picture of New Zealand and its emerging dialect, one must look at how the country was founded.  The islands that comprise the nation were discovered by European explorers in the late seventeenth century.  Whaling and sealing were the primary interest of the Americans, the French, and the British in the 1790s.  According to Wikipedia.org, the British wanted to forestall any possibility of another European power from getting a foothold on the islands and to also help curtail lawlessness in New Zealand waters predominately by English traders.  Known as the Treaty of Waitangi, this document paved the way to set New Zealand apart from Australia culturally and linguistically.

New Zealand’s colonial start is much different than Australia’s on several different levels.  The treaty described above is just one example of how different the two nations are from one another.  In addition to granting permission for the establishment of settlements on New Zealand, attempts were made to recognize Maori rights from the beginning whereas Australians took time to grant rights and recognition to the Aborigines.  The geographical differences between the two nations are significant for the reasons behind New Zealander efforts to have a peaceful coexistence with both cultures.  According to the website for New Zealand Tourism Online Ltd. (2006), both of the main islands are dominated by mountain spines (“New Zealand Geography”).  Thus, there are few places for people to live in New Zealand.  There is a great deal of incentive for the people to get along contrasted against the relative flatness of Australia.

The original European settlers did not begin to colonize the country in earnest until after the Treaty of Waitangi.  Before that point, it was mainly Christian missionaries, traders, and whalers who called New Zealand home.  David Crystal (2004) points out in The Stories of English that much of the missionary work begins in 1814.  This is important in seeing the differences between New Zealand and Australian English.  Where the main body of colonizers of Australia was criminals that had been exported, the initial settlers of New Zealand came from a higher class and willingly moved to the new colony.  Donn Bayard notes that after the signing of the treaty, settlers came from Ireland, Britain, Australia, and America in increasing numbers; however, more importantly the accents were mixed in Australia before being imported to New Zealand.  This probably accounts for the lack of distinction between the English spoken in both nations.  Even David Crystal is guilty of addressing the two nations together under an entry for Australia in The Stories of English.

Much of the information on the history of New Zealand English seems to be limited as much from the nation’s short history as it does from its relative closeness to Australian English.  South African English also bears striking similarities to New Zealand English as well.  Donn Bayard (2001) states that “the ties go back to southeastern England and RP [Received Pronunciation] … and the Cockney accent of London” (“Origins”).  He also points out that there are more differences between these English dialects than the markers they share with Cockney.  It is easy to see why New Zealanders would be upset with the belief that their use of English is often mistaken for Australian English, even by Australians.  While they share similarities, the histories of language usage and social class differences have helped define the approach to national identity that these neighbors have taken.

New Zealanders have striven to separate themselves linguistically and culturally from Australia in numerous ways.  Where Australians have a habit of looking to America as a source of influence, the New Zealanders prefer to look towards Britain.  David Crystal (1997) points this out in English as a Global Language by stating that the nation has “a greater sympathy for British values and institutions.  Many people speak with an accent which displays clear British influence” (37).  With American English and British English being the two dominant and oldest sources for world English to draw from, the comment essentially asserts that the drive to distinguish between the two nations is as much deliberate as it is based on the reasons for the establishment of the original colonies.  Similarly, Canada had a much friendlier relationship with Britain when it achieved nationhood compared to America.  As a result, New Zealand and Canada are similar in that while they strive to use an English dialect closer to British usage, they are influenced by their larger neighbors.

A key characteristic difference between New Zealand and Australia comes in the form of the languages of the indigenous peoples of each nation.  Where Australians were slow to giving rights to Aborigines and recognizing their language, the New Zealanders were not.  Neither nation could escape the linguistic borrowings for geographic formations, flora, and fauna that have characterized the development of English.  New Zealand has a crucial difference that marks it as distinct from other English dialects.  David Crystal notes in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language that “New Zealand has more loan words from Polynesian languages than any other variety of English” (355).  With the amount of trade and exploration of the Pacific, and even Hawaii as part of the United States, it is startling to see how little other English-speaking nations have absorbed words from these languages.

When one considers how English as treated many languages as it spread across the globe, the actions of New Zealanders stands in contrast to other English-speaking nations.  The Australians, for example tried to extinguish the languages of the indigenous people.  Wikipedia.org states “a concerted effort by past Australian governments to eradicate Aboriginal culture and languages, through punishment, forced relocations, sterilization, and forced removal of children from their families” (Wikipedia.org).  Although these actions have ceased, it clearly indicates the stark differences between the Australians and the New Zealanders.

As far as English usage is concerned, there are a few differences that mark the speech and writing of a New Zealander as separate from his Australian counterpart.  In addition to preferring the British –ise ending over the –ize, the New Zealanders use it at nearly all instances.  According to the New Zealand English webpage for Wikipedia.org, this preference is more rigid than the British, who have dictionaries and style manuals that favor –ize endings (Wikipedia.org).  One peculiar trait is the spelling of “fjord” as “fiord.”  While both are acceptable, New Zealand is perhaps the only place to find the latter as the accepted form.  The spoken differences are less pronounced outside of the Maori influence.  There is a concerted effort to use the Maori pronunciation of Maori words over their anglicized form.  With differences in Maori dialects on the North and South Islands, there is confusion over whether the pronunciation of a word is a southern Maori or anglicized one on the South Island (Wikipedia.org).  It is difficult to imagine how non-New Zealander English speakers would have trouble recognizing the difference between Australians and New Zealanders.

The factors that are perhaps most responsible in causing other English speakers to be unable to distinguish between New Zealanders and Australians is that their textbooks were imported from Britain and the overwhelming majority of the people are confined to cities.  In English as a World Language, Robert Eagleson states that while settlers had spread out, industrialization has been one of the greatest contributors to the retraction of rural living and spurred by World War II (416).  It is easy to envision how concentrating the population to a few locations in both countries has helped to create a lack of regional differences as well as contributing to the problems distinguishing between speakers from both nations and helped to preserve the Received Pronunciation as the model of speech and writing to emulate.

Vowel shifts in New Zealand English help a listener determine which country a speaker comes from.  The New Zealand English webpage on Wikipedia.org lists the short “i” sound has become a schwa found in Scottish English, causing the short “e” to take its place and the retaining of the British English broad “a” (wikipedia.org).  These changes appear to be influenced by Scottish dialects as much as the changes in vowels.  Eagleson quotes P. R. Hawkins concerning the “a uvular fricative [r] found in parts of Southland and Westland, a throwback to the Scottish ancestry of the inhabitants” (426).  With a higher number of Scottish immigrants, the differences between these two nations are easier to discern.  In both nations, however, this has given rise to sheep jokes that play on the pronunciation of words.  Wikipedia.org’s page concerning New Zealand humor gives the example of “a farmer who is having unnatural relations with a sheep is asked if he should rather be shearing his sheep (Wikipedia.org).  Where a New Zealander would hear “sharing,” an Australian hears “shearing.”  This play on accents is useful in illustrating on just how distinguishable the English of both nations truly are from one another.

The concentration of the people in so few cities, the vowel shifts, and linguistic ties to the British RP has kept the English usage of both nations relatively close.  There is a divergence between New Zealand and Australia emerging as New Zealanders cling to British usage and Australians being more open to American variations.  Though it borrows from Polynesian languages, there is still relatively little adaptation of the language of the indigenous people.  The Maori pronunciation and usage of English has influenced the way New Zealanders treat Maori words, but it is unclear as to how this may affect spoken English.  The differences in their histories and drive of New Zealanders to be distinguished from their more numerous neighbors help fuel the changes in their English.  Too many forces are in play for this relatively young nation English-speaking nation’s emergence of an accent that the world English community can recognize as being unique.  One can speculate on what may arise as the quintessential traits of this dark horse, but not enough time has passed to see if accent leveling with the Maori people and Polynesian linguistic influences will become the national characteristic of New Zealand English.  Until then, people are likely to treat the New Zealanders linguistically as an extension of Australia (as Canada is for Americans), a problem that has plagued many nations with regional variances of a common language much to their chagrin.

 

Works Cited

Bayard, Donn.  2001.  Origins of New Zealand English.

http://www.ualberta.ca/~johnnewm/NZEnglish/home.html

 

Crystal, David.  2003.  The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language.  2nd Ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

Crystal, David.  1997.  English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

Crystal, David.  2004.  The Stories of English.  New York: The Overlook Press.

 

Eagleson, Robert D.  1983.  In Bailey, Richard W. and Manfred Görlach (eds.). 1983. English as a World Language. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

 

“Indigenous Australian Languages.”  Wikipedia.org  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Aboriginal_languages

 

“New Zealand English.”  Wikipedia.org.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Zealand_English

 

“New Zealand Humor.”  Wikipedia.org. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Zealand_humour

 

New Zealand Tourism, Ltd.  2006.  New Zealand Geography: New Zealand Landscape.  http://www.tourism.net.nz/new-zealand/about-new-zealand/geography.html

Anatomy of Game Design: The Technology Involved

Perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of game design is the level of technology involved.  Whether we recognize it or not, this is a very technologically-driven job.  Game designers do not develop new technologies; they repurpose devices that already exist.  With this, they change our relation to the technology employed in the game.  The results are such that new applications may be found, which furthers the life of a device in fields it was not originally intended to support.  Games are a way of breathing new life into a concept as much as other more recognized art forms.

Games force players to experience objects in new ways and to imagine the experience as legitimate uses of the devices as such.  For example, in a game of hide-and-seek, players may be called upon to envision a tree, lamppost, telephone pole, etc. as “home.”  This is a mental construct that stands in for the object envisioned: a zone of respite.  While not a complete analogy, it is similar to what games do when integrating devices into the fabric of their rules.  To show how the change occurs, let us look at some actual “technological” devices to set the reference point into this inquiry.

Two devices based on similar properties are the Eye Toy and the Kinect.  Both are effectively webcams.  One is stereoscopic, which lets it take advantage of technology used by other fields.  The Eye Toy is little more than a webcam that uses collision detection from one two-dimensional object with another two-dimensional object.  The device could not do much more than turn the image of a player in the camera’s line of sight into a flat graphic.  In fact, this has long been the problem of remote imaging systems for most of their history.  From photography to cinematography, we have relied as much on our experiences as we have the scale and relative plane an object is on in relation to others (basically how near or far by what is on top of other objects in the frame).  When stereoscopic cameras were first employed, the use was for military and scientific application, such as the Mars Rovers.  The Kinect uses the same principle by linking two webcams and using the data to read body motion and depth to then turn it into instructions to relay how the screen should change from the input.

The feedback loop used in the video game works the same way as the programming instructions for the rovers.  The distance involved necessitates that the vehicle be semi-autonomous to avoid hazards in real time that the earthbound operators cannot foresee.  In the play space, we have turned the technology back on ourselves by making the machine observe us as the objects of study for our own amusement.  This is a case of how we change the relation to the object from tool to toy.  Just about every device has undergone this transition outside of the most complex industrial machines.  But, even then, they have given rise to recreational devices.

The wheel has become a hoop to toss objects through or to keep in constant motion.  The mallet and club has become the club for golf, baseball, croquet, and cricket.  Dice and cards also fit in for their various roles as tools, games, and religious/spiritual objects.  Even pen and paper falls into this repurposing and relational shift pattern.  Other than record keeping and communication purposes, writing has been used to codify social edicts, codify laws, and even create art.  While a roleplaying game falls under this type of game, it is not the only one.  Before Battleship, the game was played on a 10 x 10 grid on paper.  Lest one forgets, there is also tic-tac-toe.  The latter probably predates paper given its simplicity.  The point being that the vitality with pen and paper make it a good example of how technology is repurposed.  It is not longer the canvas in which an image is sketched and an emotion is experienced, it is a map that a gamer can interact with for an entirely different experience.  The image is no less a form of art, only a new relationship to it.

War games shrunk the battlefield so that officers could explore strategic and tactical plans and test them against real world data.  Over time, these games evolved not only to take advantage of new innovations in technology on the field, but also the data of each engagement reported.  Along with the measures of weapons from precision tests, rates of fire, and field operations, the collected data of all equipment and troop readiness helped build the strengths of a given army.  Adding effects of terrain, weather, and the unforeseen, reliable statistics for chances of success emerged.  What changed were the ways in which wars were fought.  Conflict was now mathematically governed and required greater precision by the orchestrators of troop movement and deployment.  An example of some of these developments in games would be the use of boxes, curtains, or other obscuring devices to hide the composition and number of troops in a player’s forces as seen in H.G. Wells’ Little Wars.

In repurposing technology, game designers take on the role of artificer by forging new links, often between concepts and seemingly too disparate to rate as sharing commonalities of any sort.  Such combinations are often confusing at first.  The play space and each player’s cultural and social experiences become the site of a generative first.  Game designers effectively provide an engine which players discover what they can do with it.  Therein lays the secret: you change yourself by connecting to others within the narrow confines the rules impose and the devices you have to see anew to overcome the game’s varied obstacles.

Don’t Tell Me About Your Character

One of the techniques that writing instructors stress time and again is “show, don’t tell.” Yet, no such piece of advice exists for gamers. In fact, more often than not players tell the gamemaster what their characters are doing while the gamemaster tells the players about the world their characters inhabit. It seems weird that something that would bore an audience to tears in a written format is how many players derive satisfaction in the heat of the moment.

Something that strikes me as being just as strange is that when people talk about their most memorable sessions, they show almost as much as they tell. The characters are more alive with details of what they were doing compared to the actual game session. In many ways, their descriptions are like stories of true events. But, again, this is not the most exciting way to tell a story.

What can gamers learn from this? There are ways to interject showing into the descriptions of the events that occur in a game without taking away anyone’s agency. This is why players are able to describe events as a story rather than a report after the fact. But there should be a way we can draw from this to move beyond a report style of gaming.

If you are unfamiliar with the difference between showing and telling, consider the following descriptions of events:

“My character walks up to the door and I want to check for traps. I rolled a 16.”
“I walk up to the door and examine it for traps with a result of 16.”

The differences are subtle, but one is more active than the other. The first example is a play-by-play report of what the character is going to do and the second is a smoother rendition of the same event that shows. There is nothing inherently wrong with the first method, and this is often the way most game sessions go as there is a need to pause to let people know what is going on in any particular game.

If you trust your players or gamemaster enough, you can show these actions and trust that neither side is trying to circumvent any of the rules. After all, if there are any adjustments due to situational circumstances, there should be little reason to believe the gamemaster is cheating. This also requires the gamemaster shows rather than tells what the world looks like.

In this instance, it requires the gamemaster does not just provide a list of details for what the room, town, or dungeon looks like. A 10’ wide corridor with moss is boring after a while, but if you say that the moss is growing or creeping up the walls, you give a description that feels alive and more active. One of the techniques that keeps descriptions from moving from a showing to a telling is the verbs used. Do the objects interact with one another, or are they just present? If they interact, then you are showing.

Telling is often passive and does not come across as vividly. Veteran gamemasters are often great at doing this, but when players make the transition to the other side of the screen they often tell as that is the mode they have learned to operate from when playing a roleplaying game. Showing is a skill that people have to develop as we are used to reporting what has happened in the past. This is as much caused by how we learn to receive news as it is the way our brains process stimuli and weed out the information it doesn’t think is important, like how things interact with each other unless the event affects the observer.

Another area where showing and not telling comes in handy is in interior dialogues with a character. We might not be able to show the interior of a character’s thoughts, but we can show how he acts as a result of them. Even if the process is mostly in the character’s head, there are a few tricks to help make these moments dramatic and active. Most of these tricks are the same as those outlined above. What is important to remember is that the events have to be actions if you want to retain the excitement.

To make it more mysterious, you can limit who gets the information for what goes on in the character’s head. However, that can lead to other problems with players being left out of some of the action. That is where letting the players see the results without seeing the cause comes in handy. It is just like the movies, only better because it is unfolding in real time.

So, when someone gives a dry description, you can tell them “Don’t tell me about your character, show me.”

Lawful Good Interpretations #1: The Intolerant Zealot

If the common concept of the Lawful Good alignment is the saintly figure of the priest who overflows with compassion and has taken vows of poverty or charity, the holy warrior that is the paladin, and the heavenly beings occupying the celestial realms. There is no doubt that these are paragons of the alignment. Not everyone can serve as the epitome of the alignment’s tenets, however. Far and few between could even hold to such a standard. To make your game feel like a living, breathing world, some characters must fall short of the ideal but still retain most of the core of the alignment.

Not everyone can hold to the ideal, so what do others do to exhibit the alignment? The rest of the adherents might strive to embody the ideals, but their shortcomings mean their interpretations as to what they should do and how they act are seen through a lens of the person’s background. This means that what many Lawful Good characters do falls short in reality, especially if viewed by someone else without the same set of experiences. Some of the characters may be fully aware of their failings. To compensate for the difference, they are hyper vigilant.

The intolerant zealot is a character who is ruled by his passion. At his core, he is filled with compassion for the tenets of his alignment. It is through this love of his ideals and convictions that he works to save his culture and the populace from corruption and strengthen the worship others have for his ideals. It drives him to extol the benefits of a well ordered and benevolent society and to police it lest it becomes lost to the ages. When confronted with deviance, his response is not to express melancholic feelings. His compassion becomes anger directed at and borne of the social ills caused by chaos and evil which lead to harm of the individual or the collective.

Anyone on the wrong side of this fury experiences the zealot as being a member of the awful good. The intolerant zealot is so convinced of the rightness of his tenets that he does not see his concerns as an imposition of his views on others. In fact, he may not even be aware of his actions affect on others. The deviation from the “true path” is the blasphemy or heresy that imperils the soul, so it must be stamped out before it takes root.

The intolerant zealot routinely expresses his views at every opportunity. This goes along with his self-appointment as society’s watchdog. The slightest failing is subject to an espousal of doctrine or philosophy. A keen eye is developed for such scrutiny to be possible. What is the purpose of this? It is fear of the damning of the soul or society to irrevocable and eternal loss. With a belief that such is the gravity of what is at stake, what loving and compassionate Lawful Good character would not act on the individual’s or society’s behalf? Thus, the tom foolery must be corrected.

It is possible that this view conflicts with the alignment’s core edicts of compassion and tolerance? Maybe, but the zealot will be quick to point out his tolerance of others so long as what they do is lawful and promotes the greater good. Questioning whether something does this is not a rejection of anything new or different. For the zealot, people or laws are created to serve the greater good in an orderly fashion.

One can easily envision how merely being in the presence of an intolerant zealot can be an insufferably torture. The nitpicking of the wrongs of society and one’s on companions is as irritating as it is draining. Such a situation can lead to a group dynamic rife with tension, which may explain why so few players will consider such a character is Lawful Good. Characters in such a group may find themselves trapped in the uncomfortable position of needing to defend or explain their actions on a near-continuous basis.

Unless the intolerant zealot has a common goal or affiliation with the group, any cohesion the group may have will likely evaporate at the first perceived deviance from the intolerant zealot’s lofty ideals. Amongst a group of player characters, this might be unsuitable as a choice. The problem is the risk that the tension between the characters might carry over to non-gaming interactions between the players that may require the gamemaster to intervene in both the game and outside of it. There are ways to work around this if a player insists on following an interpretation this strict. If there is a lighter tone to the campaign, then a comedic gap between the intolerant zealot’s worldview and his reality can make the game more bearable when such a well meaning but abrasive personality is part of the group dynamic. When the group then encounters non-player characters, there can be a collective groan as the likely outcome is well guessed at in advance. Another option is to involve a lot of character building scenes and even flashbacks as part of the background story to let the other players in on the reasons and motivations for the intolerant zealot’s behavior so that whatever transpires between the characters stays within the framework of the game world.

As a villain, the intolerant zealot makes an excellent choice for Lawful Good antagonists. From an outside perspective, the character’s motivations are too rigid to be recognized as being rooted in the alignment’s tenets. While he might not outright terrorize his self-appointed charges, it does not mean he is not doing just that. Such a character is more likely to visit everyone under his sway to ensure they toe the line. What ultimately keeps the people in line is the fear of punishment. They might have more fear of the retributions of their deity than the intolerant zealot. After all, this is the very retribution which the intolerant is trying to save the people from.

The intolerant zealot might not do much to discourage such a mindset in others – if he is aware of it at all. Depending on the society, the intolerant zealot may be given more power, not less. The populace may very well see the character as an emissary of their deity, making it easier for him to preserve the souls of the people or their culture while risking flirtation in developing a cult of personality around the intolerant zealot. Such a villain is empowered by legal and moral authority to enact his policies. So long as this does not lead to abuse of power, the character is still Lawful Good.

Whether such powers were usurped or not is of no consequence so long as the means to gain that power were not overtly dishonest. After all, the zealot prides himself on his honesty and likely used it to secure his power base. The confidence he and others have in his morality is how he got here in the first place. For the intolerant zealot, this confidence is often resolute and unwavering, allowing the character to exude it in his speech and mannerisms. So long as the intolerant zealot has not transgressed, the illusion is the lie perpetuated by those believing it. Should he be able to do so, the intolerant zealot will use what he sees as a self-delusion as a method to guide the person to the correct path. The justification for this is that he did not create such a view; if it can be used to promote the greater good and an orderly society, then it is a loving gesture on the intolerant zealot’s part. Eventually the scales should fall from the individual’s eyes.

Discipline is an oft used tool for the intolerant zealot. Both components of the alignment require it, with it being known as restraint when referring to good. Not all intolerant zealots will use such a tool or love to do so. It is only a necessity to enforce discipline when an offender cannot keep his ways upon the purity of the alignment’s ideals. Nobody enjoys pain and the intolerant zealot knows this. That said, he resigns himself to the task out of a belief that punishment of the body teaches the mind the lesson of restraint. The intolerant zealot metes out justice in the same manner as a parent disciplining a child. In fact, the intolerant zealot may view his stewardship of his society as a parental one.
Another way in which the intolerant zealot remains Lawful Good is that he never pushes for a punishment that exceeds the law or surpasses the crime. The point of serving the greater good would be lost, rendering the effectiveness of the lesson to a diluted state. Keep in mind that the character desires to curb chaos and evil tendencies before they take hold in the community. The intolerant zealot is afraid of crossing a line wherein any punishment carried out becomes an act of evil.

Given the propensity to seek out and quash behaviors that threaten the social order and greater good, it would be easy to believe that the intolerant zealot would use any means at his disposal. This is not the case. Some acts are so abhorrent that not even the intolerant zealot can justify. If he can, he is no longer Lawful Good. At best, the character will use questionable methods, but they must still be legally acceptable when rooting out the bad seeds. Again, the methods are used to prevent moral decay and corruption that helps his fellow citizens keep the faith in the value of the Lawful Good tenets.

The intolerant zealot has to view the administration of justice symbolically in order to carry it out. Otherwise it feels too personal. If he is carrying out the corporal act, he is not flogging an individual; rather he is flogging the deviance out of the person. Yes, this is dangerous territory. The intolerant zealot cannot take solace in the symbolic role. Giving in to that temptation is a form of justification used to distance himself from the violence he is parceling out. The key thought behind this must remain that the use of the rod applied justly and as needed serves as a lasting reminder that the pain the transgression caused others will be visited upon the offender. They received a taste of the suffering the lawbreaker’s actions caused as a lesson; hence the reason the justice cannot be personal.

Up until this point, the focus has been on the visceral. Is this what the intolerant zealot defaults to? Does the punishment have to be physical? No. The intolerant zealot prefers verbal instruction and correction. Physical punishments are seen as a last resort. They received so much emphasis because the intolerant zealot must not shy away from the hard tasks. The severity of the infraction must be weighed, but the effectiveness of the disciplinary methods must also face the same scrutiny to see if they will prevent future instances of the infraction. The intolerant zealot wants to bring the wayward back into the fold, not drive them further from the flock.

When Good Zealots go Bad

You probably noticed how tenuous this position is within the Lawful Good alignment. Most zealots eventually go too far in their methods. When this happens, people remember why they cannot stand the character. The problem is that ultimately for many zealots nothing is good enough for the intolerant zealot’s exacting standards of purity. Zealots are still mortal and subject to all the flaws that entails – another reason they try to be impersonal when carrying out some offices. When they can no longer keep their emotions from overruling their reason in pursuing their ideals, they cease to be Lawful Good.

Such individuals may admit that their actions are harsh, but claim that they are misunderstood. They are often blind to their own faults. Many intolerant zealots reason that if people only knew the truth the way they do, it would be clear how much they love their faith and country and they have the best of intentions. The intolerant zealot is quick to point out that there needs to be someone to watch over society and protect from being frayed. The best way to do this is a vigilant policing from within and without. When the intolerant zealot takes it upon himself to shoulder the deity of holding the line for the community, he often does so without anyone to reign him in. This leaves him to judge what qualifies as an evil or chaotic element seeping into his beloved community should his vigilance fail.

Perhaps, then, it is fitting that the intolerant zealot is aware of the challenges and that he cannot hold back the darkness on his own. Like-minded zealots will thus band together in order to increase their efforts and as a means of protection. Thus it is rare that an intolerant zealot will be encountered alone. Worse, such insulation serves to unmoor the group from its original tenets and creates a gap between the zealot and their society. Banding together serves several functions: it keeps the intolerant zealots from giving in to temptations, a way to receive moral support, and a method by which they can organize. All of these things further isolate them from the very people they believe they are saving.

While all zealots have a dim view of the world’s moral state, those who have gone too far (and thus make suitable villains) have an exceptionally grim outlook. They have all but abandoned their alignment. These zealots feel they must do whatever it takes to fight against the moral decay at all costs. Such characters are close to becoming irredeemable fallen heroes. Once they cross the line to use any tactic to get their point across, the character stops being Lawful Good. Justifying the razing of a town to save the nation at large is neither lawful nor promoting the greater good. Even the possessed can be redeemed. The only way for this character to return to the alignment’s tenets is to give up the ghost to rid society of its ills. To continue is folly and eventually will lead to the character losing himself.

Anatomy of Game Design: A System for Every Occasion?

A while back, I did a store visit in Oakland, CA. During that visit, I was in a discussion with someone on the future of roleplaying games who took position that RPGs were growing more specialized and that the era of rules systems that catered to a wide audience had passed. He pointed to the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons and the World of Darkness game systems as proof. For D&D 4e, he claimed that the system was focusing on tactical combat given the specialization roles classes have that players must choose from at various stages of progression. World of Darkness, he claimed, eschewed combat in favor of social conflicts. I have to ask if this was true and if so, how the weight of so many genres and subgenres haven’t fractured the market out of existence. So, why was his argument not on the level?

For starters, one of the problems with the argument is the nature of storytelling. There are two types of plots: those of the body and those of the mind. Of course there is infinite variety therein, but this is the base from which storytellers work. Human experiences are bound within these two realms. As such, it is impossible to write a rules system that only caters to a specific type of story. This isn’t to say that mechanics can’t be designed to support a certain play style, only that no system can exclude story types.

The game rules provide a guideline for method to resolve the most common actions that will crop up in the course of play. Everything else is a result of the story players wish to tell. Thus, the reason for why people create house rules. Those are situations that derive from the one thing a game cannot control: how people tell their stories and the implications personalization implies. In effect, this is beyond the scope of the rules. Players are given a sandbox full of tools, but they get to play with them as they desire.

Another reason why the argument doesn’t hold up is how players use settings with novels that support the product line. For instance, the Dragonlance line is a romance. Not only was it branded as such, but the novels also supported this thought. The adventures players set in that world do not have to make use of any mechanics that support such play, however. Nothing in a rulebook beyond the core mechanic requires players to actually use the rules for any given situation. Then again, there is nothing preventing someone one of using the world, but translating everything enjoyed from that setting into a game system they prefer instead. Here are some examples of that issue: don’t want a world with wizards, ignore spellcasters. The gods aren’t real in your version of the world? Remove any miracles priests could work.

This brings me to the reason why I feel D&D 4e is too limited in design. Too much emphasis is placed on the role of combat in play. It’s one thing to have a cinematic system, such as d6, Tri-Stat dX, and older rules-light versions of Dungeons & Dragons. It is quite another to reduce the discussion to how the classes work in combat and to offer predominantly rules and templates for specialized roles in battle. Very little focus is given to noncombat events. While story is effectively outside the scope of rules (e.g. game masters often do not roll plot lines off a series of tables), it isn’t subject to a game mechanic to resolve an outcome. D&D 4e ignores story, it doesn’t exclude it.

On the other end of the scale my interlocutor placed the new World of Darkness game line. According to him, that system focused on social conflicts more so than the physical variety. This too rang hollow. That said, he pointed out the lack of a unifying guide to combat for the disparate settings using the same system when compared to the old rules line. The core books aren’t concerned with a more tactical style of combat in comparison to the more wargame-esque system of D&D 4e. It is the purview of other books for the game, however.

In a compartmentalized system like d20/OGL games, it is easy to cherry pick the rules one wants to use to define the play experience. For a game like the new World of Darkness, it isn’t so clear when the compartmentalization is already done for players. That’s why there are so many books dedicated to specific topics and the rules that support those ideas in relation to the core game (or genre in the case of books for Mage, Vampire, etc.). In fact, four books focus on combat, all of them as part of the generic line of books designed for use with any of the genres (or a “normals” campaign). Contrast that with the books published for D&D 4e. Unlike the nWoD books, most of the D&D volumes are combat-oriented with the exception of setting guides (few in number, indeed). Both systems do represent opposite ends of gaming design philosophy.

Another reason why the argument didn’t sit well with me is the existences of point-buy systems. They have a tendency to be genre free. If systems that catered to multiple styles of play are part of a bygone era, why do lines like GURPS and HERO System still remain in print along with interest in games like the d6 System, Tri-Stat dX, and BESM? Even if they offer a build-as-you-go system alongside genre-based supplements, the options presented speak to the power and appeal of games that emphasize the players’ creativity over that of the systems’ authors. The work of the authors becomes new ways of envisioning how to use the toys at one’s disposal. It shifts the writer’s role from a dictatorial creator to a co-creator on par with the player.

Finally, there is the question of market share. How can any company create enough products to garner a base without becoming a niche or destroying its base by segmenting it? Perhaps the guy wasn’t aware of the problems TSR faced in the mid-90s when it had too many game worlds in print at the same time. The sheer number of themes that were available fractured TSR’s base and flooded its market until the sheer glut harmed the company’s margins (amongst other issues). As such, it doesn’t make sense to design multiple worlds catering to too many genres when several can be covered by a few worlds at most. The lesson was learned and the d20 Modern and D&D 3rd Edition lines worked to accommodate as many play styles and stories possible without resorting to an inordinate number of game worlds – just too many books, for some people’s tastes. In fact, there were three core D&D worlds produced by Wizards of the Coast with two licensed by WotC to third-parties and limited runs for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and Blizzard’s Diablo II (two books each). The d20 Modern game had period books, but only two that could be seen as genre offerings: an urban fantasy setting and a revisit of the conspiracy fair from the Alternity line.

The lesson learned, and followed by virtually every successful company, is a core system that then has its roots hidden by the trappings of rules that simulate genre staples. Not only does this lower the learning curve for a company’s fans to move from one world to another, but also proves that a sandbox needs to be whatever its occupants want it to be. The experience is beyond the scope of rules, just like the story. Players who like a particular mechanic will find away to express plots of mind and body as suits their tastes, making one system work for all occasions. Fans of Alternity proved this by creating material for fantasy gaming using that system’s core mechanic.