Friday, July 25, 2014

Prototypical FRPG Character Classes?

My friend Jeffro (Jeff Johnson) writes a column about classic science fiction novels related to role-playing games. In his discussion of Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade ( ) he briefly discusses what character classes most fit in medieval fantasy and which ones have a weaker place.  This set me to thinking.

Just about everyone would agree that the archetypical medieval fantasy characters are the fighter and the wizard. I don’t know whether clerics were part of the Chainmail rules, which were the first stab at adding fantasy elements to miniatures battle games, out of which grew D&D. At some point before publication of the original three D&D books the cleric became the third class in the game, and as Jeffro points out, clerics are major participants in the Middle Ages, though not clerics who cast spells per se. The first supplement, Eldritch Wizardry, added the thief class.

In many role-playing games the cleric is forced into the role of a mobile hospital, dispensing healing and not doing much else. Hardly anyone wants to play that kind of character. Fourth edition D&D got a whole lot of things wrong, but one they got right was to have the clerics be militant types who could do a little healing on the side; but at same time the vast amount of healing through “healing surges” available to everyone tended to ruin a great many things.

I disliked the thief class from the moment I started playing D&D (with those three books plus the one supplement). I disliked at first because I think of D&D is a cooperative game, and these are naturally uncooperative characters. They are loners, they are the ultimate expression of self-interest, and that doesn’t fit.

Perhaps more, I didn’t like the thief class because many of its powers were ones that by right some fighters ought to have, and two of its major powers - move silently and hide in shadows - were easily replicated and improved upon by Elven boots and invisibility rings. So in a game where there was much magic around the thieves soon found themselves obsolescent. In my games I turn the class into archery-expert Scouts, but they still did a lot better when they had invisibility rings and Elven boots.

For me, fighters ought to fall into two groups in rather the same way that strikers in soccer fall into two groups. First there are the big strong guys who rely on their strength to push around the defense, though they also have skills. Second there are the smaller fast guys who probably have more technical skill, and need to find ways to get around the defense rather than bull their way through it.  I divide the first kind further into two groups, the prototypical center-forwards like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Andy Carroll, and those who are more athletic but nearly as big and strong like Cristiano Rinaldo and Gareth Bale.  The latter are downright frightening when they get up a head of steam with the ball at their feet. The smaller strikers often play on the wings, though the prototype here, Lionel Messi, tends to play in the middle.

So some fighters should be big and strong and perhaps not very fast, like the prototypical center-forwards, some should be faster and more athletic, and some (the smaller ones) should be using many of those powers that were assigned to thieves. You could convert thieves into fighters of this type by giving them more hit points and better combat ability.  (I never understood why the original D&D thieves were not great with bows - as I recall they couldn’t use them at all.)

For those who’ve read Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, the Mouser is the prototypical little guy fighter and Fafhrd is the prototypical center-forward fighter.  (Chewbacca on the one hand, and Luke on the other, can be seen as the big and little types.  Han Solo may have been the Cristiano Ronaldo type.)

Perhaps there should be a place in RPGs for little sneaky guys, con-men, like Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo.  But if you play D&D with the idea that you’re the Good Guys, as I always have, these guys just don’t fit. And if you play it as a highly cooperative game, as I try to, their entire attitude doesn’t fit.

Someone at Castaliahouse remarked that the thief tends to be the primordial character for third edition D&D. If 3e tends to be a game for showing off, a game of every man for himself ("look at me, I'm a one-man army"), then that makes a lot of sense.  Thieves are the quintessential loners out only for themselves.

Going back to clerics, to me clerics are leaders, a kind of combination of fighter (but not as good) and spellcaster (but with less powerful, or often defensive spells). And shouldn't those guys who ultimately have a direct connection to some of god's greater minions (through that wonderful commune spell), and who will ultimately have access to the greatest play in the game, raising the dead, be seen as the leaders of adventuring parties in a world where gods are REAL and manifest in the world?
If first edition AD&D is all about cooperation, you could make an argument that the cleric is the primordial 1e character (if the cleric isn't reduced to a medic).

What's the primordial fourth edition character? Perhaps it's all those character classes that seem to be combinations of archetypes.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

July 2014 Miscellany

Thoughts about some game-related topics that are not long enough for separate blog posts.

I'll be giving a game design talk at WBC in early August, and four at GenCon in mid-August.

I am all for using games in education.  But not for what so many "experts" mean by "gamification". *Shakes head*.  The bandwagon for "gamification" (which I call scorification) is immense.  I would not want to be associated with the word.  Use "game-based learning" when you're using actual games for learning. Leave the word "gamification" to  applications that don't use actual games.

GenCon now clearly as much a story convention as a game convention: writer's panels displaced the independent game seminars from the convention center.

Recipe for disaster?  An English-language Kickstarter pitch for a Dutch game, but they haven't finished the English translation of the rules.  What about testing them?

Can you call something a "block game" if it doesn't use steps (rotate)? If it doesn't use dice?  Is Stratego a "block game"? No, I'd say.  What seems to characterize block games is hidden identity and the rotation to show different strengths.

Why do people pay $4 for a  coffee, not for a mobile game? Maybe because there is no cost to making more of the video game, while there is a cost to making more coffee.

Games often show a typical misunderstanding of pirates. Pirates used small ships full of men to board, not guns, lousy for commerce.  Pirates were NOT merchants, nor could they profitably live as merchants using those small ships.

Moreover, piracy tended to be a democracy, not highly disciplined.  And pirates did NOT like to fight, by and large.

(Vikings had that fame and Valhalla thing about fighting, but mostly they avoided fighting, as well.  And when they did fight a pitched battle, they lost as often as they won.)

Narratives - accounts of what happens - are often NOT good stories, not interesting unless you're the person it happened to. If I were a professional story-maker I'd never call myself "narrative consultant."

I’ve never seen a plastic meeple.  Surely when mass-produced they’d be cheaper than wood.  (What brought this to mind was the idea that plastics are cheaper from China, wood cheaper from Germany/eastern Europe.)

I suspect there's a pretty strong tendency for new publishers to prefer unknown designers to someone who is well-established/well-known.  First, they'll pay them less.  Second, the new designer will be less demanding/have lower expectations.  Third, the publisher will be the most prominent part of the package, not the designer.

I keep reading about photo-realistic video games that nonetheless sound more and more abstract in actual play. . .  So many gaming conventions (that's things typically done, not gatherings of gamers) that have no correspondence to reality (such as weapons and med-kits lying all over the place, switchable skills).

"Replayability is a primary quality of the greatest games. Product sustained by the cult of the new only has to be good for a few sessions."  -Jeff Johnson,

Odd email request: someone making a game for his girlfriend.  Asked for the astronomical photo I used as background for a prototype, minus the grid etc.  So I sent it to him.

TV/fiction tropes: Interesting reading for aspiring writers (and, sometimes, game designers):
There's more to designing games than the activity of designing games, especially for video games.  Usually video games are created by groups, and the designer must clearly and accurately communicate with the programmers, artists, and others making the game.

For tabletop games it's more solitary, but you have licensing, marketing

The heart of a novel is characterization, though there's more to it than that (plot, dramatic tension, etc.). The heart of a game is gameplay, though there's more to it than that (interface, appearance, sometimes story, etc.)  We might add here, the heart of an interactive puzzle (such as many one-player video games) is challenge, though there's more to it than that.

Quoted from my "Game Design" book (McFarland 2012)

“Gamification” in practice amounts to scorification of *contests*, not use of actual gameplay techniques.  There is no game. . .
 Contest: each competitor does something separately, without being able to affect the other competitors through gameplay.  Compare results.

I see people designing lots of tabletop fighting games an even shooters and equivalents of MMOs.

Just because it's a game, doesn't mean it's suitable for the tabletop.

Lots of fundamentally repetitious video games don't translate well to the tabletop.  Those video games are quite long or don't have a well-defined end at all (fighting games are an exception).  And most of those games are essentially athletic contests, sports.  Neither of those characteristics translates well to the tabletop.  Moreover, the computer can keep track of details, and provide "fog of war", that are very hard to reproduce in tabletop games.

When I need to change something to improve a game, I look for an historical/modeling reason first, rather than simply look for a good mechanic.  Those accustomed to making essentially abstract games, even if they have a so-called "theme", think of mechanics first, not modeling.

Morgan Freeman on art :
"I don't think that anything where you start off with something is an art form. If you start off with a blank page or a blank canvas or a blank slab or a blank stone, you're going to create something."

Games certainly qualify by that definition.

At a tabletop game club meeting earlier this year, there were 55 attendees.   Many of them did not appear to recognize Axis & Allies . . .


Friday, July 11, 2014

How do we make players feel fear in games?

How do we make players feel fear in games?

“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself” - Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR)

One of the major lessons for any aspiring game designer is that not every gamer thinks like you and likes the same things you like.  Games are “fun”, or at least interesting and enjoyable, activities.  On the face of it you might think that fun doesn’t involve fear, but for some people it certainly does. For example my wife and I don’t like horror stories/movies and don’t understand why people like to be scared by them, yet many do. Fear, or more likely a release from the tension of fear, is enjoyable for many people.

So sometimes it’s desirable that the player(s) of a game feel fear. Now I'm not saying that every game should make players fearful at some point, far from it.  But fear is (or used to be) a tool in the designer's toolbox, one of many emotions a game can engender in its players. How can we achieve this in a game, which is after all a play activity, fundamentally not serious?

The use of visuals and sound can more or less startle the player into being afraid (much as movies often do it), but that's very sudden and temporary.  It is more a surprise reaction than a fearful reaction. I'm not interested in that here. Fear, as opposed to other forms of tension, requires that the player has something to lose, something they value.  (Otherwise players are in the position FDR talked about, and aren't likely to fear anything.)  This potential loss can be their character lives, loot, or prestige (fear of losing).

In an old-school tabletop RPG what you could lose was your character, and the character's capabilities and assets.  The player invested time in the character, time he or she didn't want to lose.  The referee's job in those games was to scare the player by threatening these valuables.  It wasn't the referee's job to actually take them away but it had to be a credible threat. 

In more modern tabletop RPGs there is very little credible threat that a player will actually lose much of anything, which removes fear as a motivator. In most computer RPGs and MMOs there is absolutely no fear of losing your life or your loot, so the most that players fear is the boredom of a long trip to where their body lies after a death, to retrieve their stuff.

Many have observed that players are much more afraid to lose what they already have, than to lose the prospect of gain.  It's a natural human tendency. Some free-to-play games use this as a lever.  For example, many Facebook games require you to log in every day, or lose some progress you've achieved, for example, you plant crops, but if you don't come back to harvest them quickly enough they wither and die.  (On the other hand, many of those same games offer a daily freebie, and if you don't log in daily you miss out.)

RPGs/MMOs are persistent games, players could be afraid of losing what they've built up over a long time.  Contrast this with boardgames and most other video games. What can the game designer threaten in a game that lasts only an hour or three or even five?   There just isn't enough time and effort invested in what the player has, to enable you to make them afraid.  Instead, the major fear is of losing, and that's not such a big deal in a 1-5 hour activity.  Add to that the de-emphasis of competition in many tabletop games, and that most people only play a game a few times before moving on to another.  There isn't much investment in the game by the players.

Further, there have been few video games where a player can actually lose, once we left the era of the arcade game.  Persistence is usually enough to ultimately "beat the game."

Some video games can play upon a player's fears because the games last a lot longer (more investment), but only IF there is a credible threat - which is rare. In games with permanent death such as rogue-like games there is rarely a long-term investment that you lose when you die. XCOM: Enemy Unknown seems to be one of the few contemporary video games where you can lose something permanently that you've invested a lot of effort into, that is, your squadies (troops).

My takeaway is that in board and card games it's nearly impossible for the designer to make players fearful, because there's little player investment other than the fear of losing.  The game designer cannot create fear of losing, though he can remove much of it by design (for example, a cooperative game). 

In typical video games it's nearly impossible to make players fearful because consequence-based gaming has been largely replaced by reward-based gaming, so no player can actually lose much of anything during a game.

In other words, we're losing fear as a tool in game design, barring exceptional circumstances.  If you want players to be fearful, you'll have to get them to invest in your game so that they have something to lose, but that means you'll be appealing to a relatively small minority of contemporary gamers.


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