Tuesday, November 29, 2011

6 words about wargames

According to tweetdeck, one of the trending:worldwide topics on twitter is 6 word stories.

I've asked for 6 words about game designers and 6 about programmers, with interesting results.  Now I want to ask about a type of game.

Can you say in 6 words what makes wargames interesting--or not?  (You'll have to decide what "wargames" are.)

Sunday, November 27, 2011


A young friend of mine asked me if I was interested in going to a mutual friend's house one evening to play Munchkin.  There were several reasons I could not, but one was "it's too silly".  Munchkin is a deliberately silly game.  This is amusing for a little while, but after that it just gets in the way.

Yet, when I was playtesting one of my zombie games I said to the players, "it's a silly zombie game after all".  But the silliness is of a different kind, and I asked myself what made the difference.

What it amounts to is that zombies are silly, but they can be played "straight".  Zombie movies sometimes play them straight, but the strongest example I can think of is Max Brooks' book Zombie Survival Guide, a relentlessly straight (yet reasonably humorous) treatment of the possibility of a zombie apocalypse.  (I imagine his "World War Z" is also straight, haven't read it, but I see it is being made into a movie...)

In other words, you can pretend that zombies exist and play it "for real".  The silly humor in Munchkin just doesn't translate to even a pretend reality.  Not one I can believe in, anyway.

Obviously, other people don't have that point of view, as Munchkin is very popular.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

November 2011 Miscellany

Miscellaneous thoughts:

There is a longer version of my blog post "Too Many Choices?", called "How Many Choices are Too Many" on Gamasutra.com.  http://gamasutra.com/blogs/LewisPulsipher/20111025/8731/How_Many_Choices_is_Too_Many.php

Dragon Rage was recently near the top of "The Hoteness" on Boardgamegeek (#3 that I saw), MUCH to my surprise given the niche nature of the game.  I was even more surprised, when I switched to the "Thematic" sub-section, that it wasn't in The Hotness at all.  If Dragon Rage isn't a thematic game, what is?

A lot of game design amounts to project management.  Here are a couple of Lew's Laws of management:

The level of chaos is proportional to the square of the number of people involved.
The level of chaos is proportional to the cube on the number of people in charge.

Can we please stop calling games played over social networks such as Facebook "social games"?  They are solitary rather than social, and you don't play with friends, you use them distantly to get ahead.  (You "use" them, you don't play with or against them.)  These games are the opposite of "social".  They should be called "social network games".

I reported (http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2011/07/origins-2011.html ) how Origins drastically changed my schedule of talks this year.  I found the missing correspondence I mentioned (it was in an email address I don't use much), and by that time I'd learned from John Ward, Executive Director of GAMA, that the person who was the likely culprit no longer works for GAMA (though I don't know why).

I've also learned in the interim that Origins attendance was 6,545 full passes and 4957 day passes, for a total of 11,502 people, a 7.8% increase over 2010.

In case you missed it, Origins has moved to the end of May, from the end of June.

Video games for some people are "graphics bathing" or "twitch bathing" in the same way that some people (especially those with iPods full of 10,000 songs) are "sound bathing".

Some video gamers like "the new" (the cult of the new) because they like the interactive story, and once they know the story, it's on to the next game.

 I don't at all appreciate the "gamer lifestyle", which so often amounts to "let's fritter our life away trying to be a bad-ass gamer even though that means nothing in the real world".  OK for kids, not for responsible (we hope) adults.

Euro gamer types say they want new mechanisms, then buy rethemed games that are hardly changed at all.

I think they want different puzzles (combinations of mechanisms), not different stories.

Wargamers don't mind similar mechanisms as long as the game is a sufficient model of reality.  It's a different mindset.  Most wargames are models of some part of warfare.  Most Euro games are abstract, not models of anything despite the atmosphere that has been tacked on to help sell the game.

Of an interesting Euro game we might say "clever".  Of an interesting wargame we might say "good model".

In the end Britannia is a strategic game, and if you can come up a simpler standalone strategic game of that era, why not?

Anyone know of studies identifying the "profile" of people who spend $$$$ playing free-to-play games?  Why do they do it?

If you ask people why they like to play a particular game, they often respond "because it's fun".  But that doesn't tell me anything, so the real question is, what makes it fun or why is it fun.  And then they struggle, because they haven't tried to analyze it or even think about it.  As a game designer I'm cursed: I can't play or watch a game without thinking about how it does what it does.  (I understand novelists have the same curse, they can't read a novel without thinking about how the author succeeds (or fails) at what he's trying to do.)

Are game designers (or publishers?) following the general trend that it's better to not do anything wrong, than to do a lot of things right and one wrong?  The result tends to be bland games, "pablum".

The story may be a reason or even *the* reason why people start to play a game, but it's gameplay that keeps them playing a game to the end.  For tabletop games, it's the gameplay that keeps people playing again and again.  For video games, the story comes to the fore again as a reason to keep playing after the game is "completed".

 Like most other people, programmers (even programmers who work on games) think that designing games is just a matter of getting a few neat ideas.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Adventures That Assume the Party Will Be Foolish

Many old school D&D adventures from back in the day were written with the clear assumption that a party would go up to a door, make little effort to discover what might be behind it, open it, and all bumble into the room beyond the door.  I say "bumble" because this is a good way to get dead, whether you're clearing houses in the Middle East or exploring dungeons in a fantasy setting.

It's also the easy way to write D&D adventures.  If you start by assuming that the adventuring party is going to do something stupid, it's a lot easier to endanger them.

Now granted an awful lot of D&D adventuring parties do behave in foolish ways with regularity.  The typical adventuring party in D&D is a gang of Chaotic-Neutral thugs, slightly homicidal muggers, looking for creatures to beat up and rob (and kill, if they can get away with it).  (See http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/2011/10/thugs.html ) They would never think to do something like take prisoners to gather information, and the very idea of running away from an encounter, especially one that isn't necessary, seems to be foreign to most parties, even those who are not thugs.

But this kind of foolish behavior is not inevitable (nor is everyone a thug) and should not be treated as so by adventure writers.

What precipitated this rant was a session at "D&D Encounters" recently.  We were led out of the sewers by some guard/guides to an open area in a town, a town known to be a very dangerous place.  The referee, evidently following what was written in the adventure book, said we could set up only in a particular very narrow area in the middle of a broad thoroughfare.  I supposed he would then let us do our due diligence about spreading out--an absolute requirement in a world of area-effect spells and ambushes-- before having the encounter start.  When that wasn't forthcoming I protested at being required to be in the small area when there was lots of room to set up some kind of defensive perimeter.

But then the person we were following, the nominal heir to the throne, but who we knew had been acting erratically and dangerously, turned up and gave a brief badguy's speech and then blasted our entire party from a distance with an area-effect spell.  We had been confined a small area so that everybody could be hit by the spell. No initiative was rolled and we weren't given a chance to react.  This was true even though I said, as she was giving the speech, that I had tried to bail out of the way (spread out).

You might expect the "D&D Encounters" adventures to be written more realistically and intelligently than old-time dungeon crawls, but perhaps not.  We still have the same old assumption that the players are foolish if not stupid.  I asked the referee if indeed his adventure book specified that we should all be blasted like this, and he said yes.  (It's worth noting that our guides/guards were all killed in the blast, conveniently getting them out of the way.)

The equivalent of this in a video game is a cutscene that makes the player(s) do somethng he or she would never do, in order to advance the plot.

But what if the party just won't do what you have planned for them?  If you're a referee, you can wing it (sometimes), make something up that ultimately gets back on track.  If you're an adventure writer for other referees you don't have that option.   In the end you have a different choice: make the party do something that, for some parties, will annoy them no end because whatever-it-is is foolish; or let the referee go "out of character" and say, "if you don't choose to pursue this adventure, the entire sequence is over".  If the players decide they don't want to go further, then your linear plot may not be as good as you thought, and in any case no matter how good a story is, some people won't like it.

What might be my more general advice for adventure writers?  Well, my first bit of advice is don't write a linear adventure that has to follow a particular story.  But that's exactly what a lot of people want to or even need to do.  In that case I suggest that even if you're writing a linear story try not to suppose that the adventurers will do exactly what you expect.  Anyone who has reffed a lot of D&D knows that the party is more likely to do what you don't expect than what you do expect.  There are ways to canalize a party, to force it to follow particular path, without assuming that it behaves foolishly.  Find and use them.  The more often you assume that a party will do a particular thing, the more often your adventure will go awry.

Friday, November 04, 2011

6 words about game design

(You may have seen this on BGG or Gamasutra already.)

According to tweetdeck, one of the trending:worldwide topics on twitter is 6 word stories.  Those can be amusing, and I once asked Britannia fans to write the story of Britannia in 6 words with good results.

But this time I have something harder in mind: say what a game designer does, or what he is, in 6 words.  Or if that's too challenging, try 10.  I have a version of both, but I'll hold off on it for now.