Friday, February 19, 2016

Video (screencast): Devising RPG Monsters – Do's and Don’ts (2 parts)

Following is the text of the slides:
Devising RPG Monsters – Do's and Don’ts
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
From the “Game Design” channel on YouTube

In the 70s and 80s I made up lots of monsters for White Dwarf and Dungeon magazines (as well as for my own campaign)
I designed several monsters for the original Fiend Folio
“The Princes of Elemental Evil” are particularly well-known (even have their own entry in Wikipedia (Archomental))
Some of this screencast will draw on a panel discussion I attended at GenCon15 including, among others, Wolfgang Baur and Jeff Grubb

NOT “Bosses”
I have never thought in terms of "boss monsters" in tabletop D&D, that's a video game mentality
I tend to use numerous monsters (with several different kinds) at a climax rather than one super monster "boss“
It varies, of course
But in tabletop RPGs, unlike video games, if you die you don't have a "save game" to go back to (well, barring a Wish)
Video game bosses are designed to kill you several times before you succeed
You can't play tabletop RPGs that way – even with the easy healing prevalent nowadays

No Save Game?!
So in video games, the purpose of the monster is often to kill the character(s) the first several times
Whereas in tabletop, the purpose is to scare the snot out of the players by threatening, but not killing, their characters
So a video game “boss” tends to be much tougher than the monster(s)-met-at-a-climax in tabletop RPGs

A Fundamental Difference
Video gamers would be disappointed if, almost every time they hit a climax, they won first time
They’d feel cheated
It’s a matter of expectations, as much as of game functionality
Of course, there are many ways that tabletop RPGs are unlike computer RPGs, because of that same lack of Save Games

The Major Element - Surprise
Some game designers say that the major objective in any game is to surprise the player(s)
So, perhaps the most effective way to design RPG monsters is to surprise the players
Many of my suggestions derive from surprise
Of course, surprise may work only once
Which is one reason why so many people keep making up new monsters!

So What do we Look at?
The Unknown
One unusual characteristic (kind of a loop)
Two Types of Monsters Cooperating
Characteristics from two types combined into one
“Worse things than killing you”
Really Smart Enemies
Time Pressure
Relentless Hordes

The Unknown
A major reason to make up new monsters is to surprise the players with the unknown
Yet the players will feel it’s more fair, and perhaps more true to real life, if they can divine some of the characteristics of unknown monsters
From past experience
From appearance (if it looks like a giant, it may be about as tough as a giant)

One Unusual Characteristic
This may work particularly well with well-known monsters that have a single, surprising, quirk
But a single characteristic can be the focus of unknown monsters, as well
Some refs won’t want to go to extremes, such as “flying orcs”
We don’t mind the flying monkeys of Wizard of Oz . . .

Unusual . . .
I made up a group of several kinds of lightning-spitting monsters (roughly analogous to military tanks!)
They were big and looked dangerous (and were) even without the lightning
The cat-like ones were fast, the slug-like ones were really hard to kill, and so on
But it was the lightning that set them apart – and scared the players

Part 2

Two Types of Monsters, Cooperating
There’s hardly anything original “under the sun”, but combinations of things can provide new experiences
We see this whenever a monster type normally employs a different monster type as guards
And powerful monsters may enslave entire groups of weaker monsters
Who can nonetheless provide good interference when heroes come after the masters

Characteristics from two types combined into one
Classic: the owlbear, chimera, gryphon, dragon turtles
Normally unintelligent monsters with human intelligence
Or normally intelligent monsters, that aren’t . . .
Some combinations may not be very believable
Though in this age of TV and movie silliness, not too many people care

Play on the expectations of the players:
Change appearance
Pretend to be another monster
Change the stats – but it’s easy to overdo this

“Worse things than killing you”
Monsters don’t have to kill, to be frightening:
Turn bones to rubber
Rust monster eats equipment
“Permanent” level drain
Capture (slavers are monsters too)
Theft (lots of monsters that nick your items, such as leprechauns)

Clues signaling danger
Even something as simple as noises
Helps foster fear of the unknown even as it may provide some information
One of the best things about foreshadowing, is that it can be used with any monster, well-known or not

Really Smart Enemies
Face it, classic movie enemies are often DUMB
This is why the Evil Overlord list of vows exists
Do read it if you haven’t:
Even relatively dim monsters can be cunning
(Muhammed Ali was often said to be a dim-brained man, but a cunning boxer)
YOU have to put YOUR brain into the monster preparation – if you’re not trying to be smart, how can they be smart?

Time Pressure
This is the classic video game way to make things harder – there’s NOT ENOUGH TIME!
Time-stress leads to mistakes
“Watch out, it’s going to blow up!”
Or they’ve diverted water into a room that’s filling up
Or there’s a fire spreading
Or the monster itself has some time limit associated with it

Classic: Balcony protects otherwise-wimpy archers
Simple barricades
Very low ceilings (with/for short monsters)
Burrows can also be hard to move about in
Water barriers

The group as a whole may be more effective than the sum of its individual parts
I often find that a group of monsters, even if individually weak, is more effective than one powerful monster
Especially if they’re subordinate to a powerful leader, the “commander” (or “master mind”)

Relentless Hordes
Sheer numbers can be terrifying, even if individually weak monsters such as orcs or kobolds
The D&D 4e “minions rule” is quite brilliantly simple, in this connection
Any damage kills a minion
This is the opposite of the video game “boss syndrome” where an often-lone monster is super-tough

Remember, depending on game type (TT or VG), monsters have a somewhat different purpose: to scare, or to kill at first. But surprise is the key.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Triptych VI: Three different topics in one blog post

Triptych VI
Three different topics in one blog post. 

"The game must be fun to play"

I've been looking at tabletop publisher submission guidelines and often see some form of this ridiculous statement:  "Game must be fun to play"

Why is this ridiculous?  Because how enjoyable a game is depends so much on the preferences of the target market that there's no such thing as a "fun game", period.  I don't use the word fun at all, because I think fun comes from the people you play with, and the circumstances, and that's how people can have fun playing a dire game like Monopoly, or even a super-serious game like chess.  Lots of people enjoy playing chess, but half of them wouldn't call it fun (yes, I've asked chess players).

Look at the movie reviews at and you'll see how two people can have entirely opposite views of whether a movie is good.  With more genres, more variety, games are even more subject to variable opinions.

So to say "fun game" is so personal that it's no guide to a designer who may want to submit a prototype.

Occasionally I'll write to the publisher who's done the "fun thing" and try to get them to explain what they like.  Sometimes it's hard to pin them down, sometimes not.  They all know (or think they know) what they think a fun game is, but do they consciously know?

Game Shops

I am rarely in a game shop, both because they're scarce and because I live "out in the country".  I recently went to one for a game designers' guild meeting, and took time to look at what was on offer (other than comic books).

First, I saw lots of boxes, large and small, containing miniatures, including games using miniatures.  Star Wars X-Wing, War Machine, War Hammer, and others.  A 2 inch tank was discounted to $11.51!  To me, never in sympathy with miniatures prices at the best of times, the prices were breathtaking.  But that means big profits for the shop.

It also showed how much game shops are driven by hit games, hardly a surprise.

I also saw lots of CCGs and accessories, also providing great profit margins to the shop.

More than half the square footage of the shop was devoted to game playing space.  I was told that on Wednesdays, boardgame night, the place was full, which would be 50 people I'd guess.  The Thursday I was there, with no formal organization, there were 10 in the game area.

My experience is a little different in Gainesville, Fl, where there's one boardgame shop, and another I haven't visited that is comics and so forth (and Magic) and not much in the way of boardgames.

There are game events every evening (7 days a week) at this shop. But what dominates the shop's revenue is Magic: the Gathering, and many of the events are Magic tournaments or casual play.

Not surprising about Magic, it is much more than half the CCG category, and CCGs are much more than half the tabletop game category, in the US (by revenue). Magic is about a third of the whole.


Instant Gratification, Generational Differences

I can record a hockey or basketball game and watch it a day (or two) later; as long as I haven't heard the score, it's just as "real" as at the time it was actually played.  Many people absolutely don't understand how I can do this.  It's because I have an imagination, and because I'm not wedded to Instant Gratification.  But also, I don't rely on social media for my enjoyment of the game; I have other things to do during a game, if I'm not going to just watch it.

I always hated ABC for those NASL soccer games interrupted by commercials.  Not the interruption, but the fact that they didn't tape delay so that you saw the entire game.  Instead they'd come back occasionally and say "while you were away a goal was scored" and show the replay.  DUMB!  I didn't care if it wasn't quite "live", I did care not to be told what happened "before" it happened!

Life in general isn't a matter of what's new, it's a matter of what's new to you at the time.  Yes, the hockey game is "old news" to some, but to me it's new at the time.

The game Stratego is new to someone first playing it even though it's been around for more than 70 years, and its nearly-identical predecessor (L' Attaque) has been around for more than a hundred.

The whole notion of “innovative mechanic” or “innovative game” is so wrapped up with what players have known before, as to be mostly-useless.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Ruminations on Types of Games and Game Players, Arising from a Sojourn

(When I started to write this, I had no idea it would grow to exceed 3,500 words. But I think those who are interested in game design, and in why people play, will find it useful. LP)

I have been living in Gainesville, Florida temporarily, and with the advantages of being officially retired - no set schedule - I have been attending a variety of board/card game meetings and contemplating attendance at some conventions.

As my nature is to categorize phenomena to help understand them, there’s a lot of categorization below. That necessarily involves generalization over (in the end) thousands of games and game players. There are always exceptions: no generalization is always true (not even this on).

What I found in Gainesville is a lot of small groups, with almost no crossover in attendance. Even the groups with more than 200 people on Facebook have only 10 or 20 attending weekly meetings. There are three separate student groups, none of whom knew of the other two.  Even though the larger group has been around for four years and more, the two new groups thought they were starting the only tabletop club at U. Florida.

There’s a lot of variation in attendance with these small groups; I went to one meeting where no one else showed up (yes, I had the right time and place - and this is the residents group, with the largest number of Facebook followers!).

There is the usual separation of groups for residents and groups for students (University of Florida has over 50,000 students, a very large university, the city population is 127,000). Residents are usually well into adulthood, up to their 50s and 60s, while the students are almost entirely 18 to 22 years old. Residents also usually have their own transportation, while the students are frequently stuck on campus. So the residents tend to meet at the primary local game shop, cleverly named Gamesville Tabletop. And the students meet on campus, usually in the Student Union food court. The one exception is that the residents meet there on Wednesdays.

Game Preferences.  But there’s also a big difference in game preferences. College students tend to like “story games,” games that have a story attached in some way, often one with an avatar representing the player. Betrayal at House on the Hill is very popular. They are also happy with games that are directly competitive, because they are accustomed to playing video games that are often directly competitive if only between the player and the computer opponent. Most of the students (by actual poll) play video games more than they play tabletop games. Many of the students here, and also in Raleigh where I’ve attended the student game club for 9+ years, like RPGs as much or more than board/card games. One longtime member of the residents group here told me that at one time they tried to work with the larger student group but found that people tended to separate into two age groups at meetings. He also thought of the students as role-playing gamers, unlike the residents by and large who play boardgames.

Most of the games I have seen played at the residents group - other than a few of my own - are of the typical Euro parallel competition or multiplayer solitaire game where each player pursues his own course with little to no regard for what the other players are doing. There’s very rarely an avatar in such games. The students are happy enough to do the parallel competititions occasionally but it’s not what they’re accustomed to, and certainly not at all like RPGs, which are the epitome of avatar/story games.

Opposite Poles.  Game preferences have at their poles two kinds of games: races on the one hand, and direct competitions on the other (like chess, checkers, go - many classic games). Parallel competition/multiplayer solitaire is a form of race because as in most races you can do little or nothing to hinder or help the opposition. The opposition cannot oppose you, they can only outdo you. In direct competitions the opposition can oppose you, can hinder you or cause you harm within the game, or help you significantly in some cases.

There’s another set of poles, closely related, between games that have always-correct solutions - another term might be closed games - and games that are open and have no such solutions. The extreme of the closed game is a formal puzzle with one solution. In the open games, if there is a dominant strategy, which is to say an always-correct solution, then we say there’s something wrong with the game design. In the former kind of game a dominant strategy is expected, and “multiple paths to victory” is a way to provide a multiple choice of strategies that would otherwise individually be dominant. When those multiple paths to victory are well-known (which is typical and often deliberately designed), it’s sometimes possible for players to slow down another player following one of those paths, and that’s the kind of indirect competition that one sometimes sees in what are otherwise race games. It’s somewhat like NASCAR or Formula 1 where you can block a car behind you for a while. In open games, the good lines of play often are not obvious, may intentionally not be obvious, supplying the gameplay depth we sometimes talk about but which is not present in pure parallel competitions. There are not “multiple paths to victory”, there are all kinds of ways to achieve victory, and which one works best depends on how the players interact.

The field events in Track & Field are another example of parallel competition. In most cases every competitor knows the correct strategy, it’s a case of who can execute it best. In open games, many players never figure out the best strategies, partly because they change from game to game - they depend heavily on the actions of the other players.

Of course, another word for an activity where you have an always-correct solution is “puzzle,” and for me these closed games are a form of interactive puzzle. Just as in a formal puzzle, the obstacles to be overcome are mostly or entirely provided by the game, not by the players. In an open game the obstacles/opposition are provided more by the players than by the game.

As long-time readers know, I strongly dislike most puzzles, though I have been known to play single-player turn-based video games with procedurally generated situations that alter the puzzle somewhat with each play. If I solve a typical puzzle, I am only doing what I ought to do, so I get no satisfaction from it.

Transparency/Opacity. Parallel competitions are often quite transparent, that is, designed so that after one play a player can know how to win (or at least thinks he knows). Those “multiple paths to victory” in Euros are usually easy to see. That’s also a characteristic of party and family games. Many of the more competitive games featuring lots of direct action are much more opaque, you have to play several times before you get a good handle on how to win - and many players never do even when they play many times.

Maneuver and Spatial Relationships. Another strong differentiator in game preferences is whether or not the game involves maneuver (or placement) and spatial relationships (M/P & SR). Wargames and many RPGs are at one extreme in this spectrum, actual races (cars, horses) come after (“after” because the maneuver is severely constrained by the track), tile-laying is in the middle, and at the other end are most standard-deck card games and many so-called board games where the board is used as a status tracker rather than a field for maneuver and spatial relationships.  (Keep in mind, virtually all ancient and early medieval games were M/P & SR games, dice being the obvious exception, cards and tile games not existing at that time.)

So to come back to game preferences in Gainesville, I think the fundamental divide between students and the residents (though with many exceptions) is a divide between open and closed games. People accustomed to “big” video games are also accustomed to using maneuver and spatial relationships, while many other video game players primarily play games without those attributes. (Yet even “Match 3" games use M & SR.) RPGs usually rely heavily on M & SR. Many of the more well-known Euros include some form of M/P & SR, such as Carcassonne and Power Grid, but most Euros do not.

Exceptions.  I say “many exceptions.” One of the officers of the big student group does not want to feel that he’s opposing and being opposed by someone else directly. RPGs, after all, are unique because they are co-operative games where you have actual human opposition (though the referee/DM is neutral or player-biased). You can almost do that in some video games, except with the limitation that programmed opposition is not as inventive and unpredictable (and downright sneaky) as human opposition - though you can get what Richard Garfield et. al. call in their book “one-and-a-half player games”.

Obviously, many people like multiple kinds of games, just as many people like multiple genres of music.  But others want to stick to one kind. And preferences change over time.  Such as, for two+ decades I would very rarely play a game against any person, so I played D&D and some single-player video games. Now I rarely play except solo testing my own designs, but I don’t mind a good “screwage” game, yet rarely play RPGs.

Not surprising that the sports I like (and participated in when younger) are team sports, not parallel competitions. Go Panthers!

Another big separation (reward-based vs consequence-based). Some of the students in one of the new groups appear to be party gamers. Here I differentiate between people who are serious about game playing and those who are not. Party gamers expect to be rewarded for participation - that’s what party games are for, after all - whereas many serious gamers expect to earn their rewards. I’m not using the terms hard-core and casual because there are hard-core gamers, in terms of how often they play, who now expect to be rewarded for participation (thanks to MMOs and F2P games), and casual gamers who may not play very much but who still play to earn what they get in a game. If you had to choose groups to connect then I would connect hard-core and serious, and connect casual with reward for participation, but I do not intend to do that.

(MMOs and F2P: the developers must reward players constantly to try to get them to keep playing the game long enough to make in-app purchases. It comes down to marketing and money, as many things in games do.)  These students, however, are by-and-large game hobbyists who prefer the party game style, rather than people who only play games at parties.

Going back to Gainesville, the students are used to RPGs and to video games where there is direct competition, and where winning (sort of) matters. (You can use Save Games to avoid losing many video games, but not the ones where two or more players take each other on, e.g. Super Smash Brothers or Street Fighter.)

The differences in meeting times and habits between the three Gainesville student groups, and the Raleigh group, are surprising. Raleigh meets Fridays at 6PM, many are present before then, peak attendance is during 7-8, then it rapidly goes down, occasionally people stay as late as 11:30. One student group in Gainesville meets Mondays 7:20 to 9-something, a short, biweekly meeting. Another group meets at 8 Fridays, most people drift in considerably later, and stay until well past midnight (they often get free meals at midnight (“Gator Nights”)). The third group meets at 5 Saturdays, and by 8 more than half have departed, latest stay I know of was 10:20. Not-free meals are available for the last two groups (Union Food Court). (Does food come into it?) I shake my head, I just don’t see any pattern to it all.

When did the players start playing games?  Many of the older people who play Euros appear to have come to them in adulthood.  That is, they weren’t game players while they were growing up. Perhaps they’re attracted to the serious nature of many of the newer-style games.  Or they felt that other kinds of games were “kids’ stuff” (or worse, for RPGs), and here we have games that suited adults.  (Recall the origin of Euros as “family games on steroids”, friendly games that actually require more brainwork than the typical American family game.)

Most of the students, I suspect, have played video games, at least, since they were small children.

Passion? If you watch a Euro game (and I have watched many for many years, trying to understand why people play them), they are calm, perhaps even sedate, there’s little outward expression of excitement. The lack of direct action/competition contributes to that, keeping the game on an impersonal basis.  Many of the people who are used to that kind of game seem to be bewildered when they play a game in which one player can directly and obviously hinder or harm their position.  Contrast RPGs or wargames (or many player-against-player video games), where it’s not unusual to hear someone cheer, where people often stand up and crowd around when the game nears its climax, and it’s not unusual for people to get into “heated discussions.”

Euro players don’t appear to care much who wins - which certainly fits with the puzzle orientation. It’s the activity itself, progress in the puzzle-solving, that attracts.  Also not surprising, insofar as it has always been true (I think) that more people like puzzles than non-puzzle games, going back to when there were no video games. Among other things, you’re not putting your ego on the line, and that also characterizes most of the Euro play I’ve observed over many years.

I’ve been known to call Euros “wine and cheese” games for this reason. Kind of like a wine-tasting sessions, too (no, I don’t drink). Another description I’ve seen is “dusty” or “dry”.

This doesn’t mean all Euro players aren’t competitive.  Many of the most well-known Euros have gotten away from the parallel competition (Catan itself, for example, Power Grid), really to the point of being a different category (that some people think are the only Euros now). I was recently told that the people who caused the most trouble through being too-competitive at the venerable World Boardgaming Championships are Euro players, not wargamers. It is, though, a tournament convention, so it’s not surprising that those in the Euro tournaments might be highly competitive.

Kinds of Opposition. We can identify two fundamental kinds of player opposition in games. The simple expression is “blocking and tackling.” The more detailed version is, one kind of opposition involves interference in the progress/plans of another, without harming them or taking anything away from them: such as blocking in a horse or NASCAR or Formula 1 race. Bidding in an auction is this kind of opposition, as well. So is “worker placement”, and many other favored Eurostyle mechanics. Railroad/train games often involve blocking. I often call this “indirect action” or “indirect interactivity.” The other kind involves actually harming the opponent’s assets, or taking something from them (or both) - as in wargames and other conflict games (such as some business games). “Direct action,”

So we can have players who aren’t used to player opposition of any kind, players who are used to only blocking from other players, and players who are used to direct action.

When you play a game without player opposition, you can’t always ignore the other players, but you certainly don’t have to watch their every move and react to it. When you play with blocking, you’ll try to avoid putting yourself in a position to be blocked, and you’ll take the opportunity to block an opponent, but most of the time (as in a standard race) you’re only concerned with progressing as fast or far as you can. When you play with “tackling”, you have to watch every move the opposition makes, and react to it (if only to decide to ignore it, if you can).

Reactions to Direct Human Opposition. I saw this once again with one of the student groups that appears (from the games they have) to be more or less party gamers. My recently-published game Sea Kings, a "Viking adventure" game, is (in its simpler version) primarily a "go it alone" game where you do your thing and don't worry about what others are doing (though there is no puzzle, it's more or less card-driven). But there are cards that let you interfere with other players. When this group played the simple version of Sea Kings players were visibly taken aback when someone played one of these cards against them. This was a direct action aimed directly at them - though usually blocking rather than destructive - something they clearly were not used to.  (By the way, the "Rogue" version of Sea Kings involves much more direct interaction.) When they played my prototype "Off with his Head", which involves no such direct action, they appeared to be quite happy.

Design. In direct-competition games my design motto applies, because the main competition in the end is between people, not between the player and the game. ("A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Another form, about Japanese gardening actually, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove.") I don’t want the game to get in the way of the player competition. I see many puzzle-games that appear to me to be unnecessarily complex, but that complexity may be there to make the puzzle harder to solve.

You can certainly design games that are not primarily direct competitions, but lack the always-correct solutions of puzzles I've talked about, perhaps because the presence of a lot of uncertainty takes them away from the realm of formal puzzles. Nonetheless, the opposition is largely provided by the game, not the players. I recall a time when Euro players appeared to despise dice, though that era has passed. There are other ways to introduce uncertainty, of course, via cards or human opposition (uncertainty of opposing intentions).

Game design is very different from puzzle-game/interactive puzzle design, which is different again from puzzle design, because of the varying focuses of opposition. In game design your job is to find ways for the game to help make the direct competition between people interesting and different. In puzzle-game design, you’re finding ways for the game to provide the opposition yet accommodate several people. Which may be why there’s such a strong focus on mechanics, especially “new” mechanics, for that kind of game. In puzzle design, you focus on providing all of the opposition through the activity.

Often, direct competition involves modeling some reality, which is much more rare in the two puzzle types. Most of the favorite mechanics of Euro games, such as worker placement and role assumption, have virtually nothing to do with the real world, making them useless for modeling.

Why do I need to figure this out?
Given the kinds of games I tend to design - Off with his Head is an outlier that I deliberately chose to try with the party gamers - I have to figure out what kinds of games suit each group, that is, I have to identify what target markets they fit into.

I sometimes contemplate a multi-dimensional diagram for these ideas, but it would become hopelessly complicated to show it all at once.

I’m not sure there are big tabletop game conventions anywhere in the wintertime - PrezCon in Charlottesville VA with about 700 is the largest I know of - but certainly not in north/central Florida. February is the big month for small conventions. There is Rapier Con, which has been around a while, in Jacksonville, the first year Prototype Con in Kissimmee, and marginally (because it originated as an anime con) Swamp Con at the University of Florida.

The latter is pretty informal, evidently, with no registration fee though there are tickets, being held in the university Student Union. There’s a tabletop component but I have no idea what that will amount to, probably just open gaming.

The other two are held at hotels. I’m told Rapier has an attendance of about 200, the majority of them Euro gamers. Since Prototype Con is a new convention, no telling how many people will attend. As you might guess from the name, it’s more or less a playtesting convention, and will be attended by at least one very well-known designer, Richard Borg (Command & Colors etc.), and a small number of publishers.

As I’m on a retiree’s income, I’m contemplating driving to each convention for a day, which ought to be enough for me to understand what it’s like, and to talk with people.