Categories
Roleplaying Games

The Syntax of Games — Why Rules Confound

Gamers — myself included — perennially seek that new system that hits the right knobs and switches — the system that can deliver the game that exists in the mind yet eludes your actual (or virtual) game table like the proverbial “one who got away.”

Why do our games often fail to realize the goals we conceive?

First, I need to disabuse you of a cherished delusion — You cannot multitask. Yes, I mean you. Of course, you’re special. I know. So, let me tell you again — unless your neurobiology works differently than everyone else’s, you cannot multitask. The surety that you multitask well is one of those little white lies our brains tell us — the unconscious’ way of saying “Of course those pants make you look thinner” — or that you could write a book. Sure, we all could. Right up until the moment someone puts a pen, typewriter, or computer keyboard in front of us with a blank sheet of paper. Perhaps someday a writing tool that works in the shower will exist. But I digress.

Back to multitasking. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a sampling of what the field of neuroscience has to say. The following appeared in an annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society:

… there is a central cognitive bottleneck that operates to limit performance and that control between two or more primary tasks must be passed through a queuing mechanism.

Brumby, & Salvucci, D. D. (2006). Exploring Human Multitasking Strategies from a Cognitive Constraint Approach.

Here’s a similar idea from the peer-reviewed, scholarly journal “Neuron”:

When humans attempt to perform two tasks at once, execution of the first task leads to postponement of the second one. This task delay is thought to result from a bottleneck occurring at a central, amodal stage of information processing that precludes two response selection or decision making operations from being concurrently executed.

Dux, Ivanoff, J., Asplund, C. L., & Marois, R. (2006). Isolation of a Central Bottleneck of Information Processing with Time-Resolved fMRI. Neuron (Cambridge, Mass.), 52(6), 1109–1120. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2006.11.009

Or to put it in language for a more general audience, we can look to the field of education. The following quote comes from the journal “Educational Psychologist”:

When thinking or conscious information processing plays a role, people are not capable of multitasking and can, at best, switch quickly from one activity to another.

Kirschner, & van Merriënboer, J. J. . (2013). Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 169–183. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2013.804395

So how does this relate to gaming? I’m getting to that.

I earn a living teaching people who speak English as a second language, and believe it or not, game systems share a lot of ground with languages.

Game systems and languages operate as a function of rule sets. That is to say — syntax. These rule sets operate together and at the same time to achieve an external goal. In language, speakers employ rules to communicate. In games, players employ rules to simulate outcomes.

The important thing to note, however, is that no single rule poses a challenge in and of itself. A child can understand any isolated linguistic rule and reproduce the pattern, from wh-question interrogatives in English to imperative tense in Spanish. The same is true of games. The rules in Dungeons & Dragons, Runequest, or GURPS don’t lack clarity.

And there’s the rub — the simplicity of the tree conceals the complexity of the forest. Which is to say, the rules themselves don’t cause the problem, but the cascade of rules that occur in tandem (something I’ve already demonstrated our brains struggle with). Complicate the situation with an external goal that occupies that one thing our conscious brains can process, and a bottleneck occurs.

Have you ever wondered why languages always come quickly at first, yet few achieve bilingualism? Or why that mechanic for grapples seemed so simple when you read it yet never comes off in your games the way you planned? Now you know.

Here lies the reason you cannot grammar your way to language fluency. The conscious mind can’t do two things at once — communicate and process grammatical rules. As a GM, you can’t focus on running the game and process mechanics you haven’t internalized.

So, What’s the Point?

Simply this — Don’t underestimate the challenge of mastering game syntax. Expect fluency will require more time than your first impression affords.

Secondly, set yourself up for success by taking advantage of all the player aids the system provides. GM screens? Use them. Web sites that let you pull up quick reference tables? Yes. Apps on your phone? Even better.

Advertisement
Categories
Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Games

Heroes, or Vikings?

As a games master, an assumption that the players’ characters behave as “heroes” has rooted itself in the gaming zeitgeist. However, not only does that need not be the case, but it may deviate from the origins of the hobby.

To put things in context, let’s consider some history. A lot of narrative on the topic of “Dragonlance” and its influence on tabletop gaming focuses on the “intriguing story intricately woven into the play itself” part of Tracy Hickman’s Nightventure requirements:

The first two of the four requirements that NIGHTVENTURE endeavored to meet – a player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing; an intriguing story that is intricately woven into the play itself – certainly can be seen as containing the seeds of what we now know as the “Hickman Revolution”.

Manifesto of the Hickman Revolution | The Mule Abides (wordpress.com)

Or, consider James Maliszewski’s comments on his blog Grognardia:

 … the original Dragonlance modules were unique in that they presented not merely an entire campaign story arc — what we’d today probably call an Adventure Path — but, more importantly, it was an arc written for specific characters who had specific fates. Gamers love to bemoan “railroading,” but few adventures were as railroad-y as Dragonlance, a series whose every dramatic element was mapped out in advance.

GROGNARDIA: How Dragonlance Ruined Everything

However, the moral imperative “a player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing” raises my eyebrows more than the railroad. For me, this presents a shift in tone that influences the character of the game as much, if not more, than an overly plotted narrative.

In the now famous, “Appendix N,” creator Gary Gygax cited 28 authors who inspired Dungeons & Dragons. While J.R.R. Tolkien appears on the original list, he is outnumbered by writers noted for their contributions to what came to be known as sword and sorcery. Later, Gygax confessed some writers provided more influence than others:

TSR – Q&A with Gary Gygax | Page 49 | EN World | Dungeons & Dragons | Tabletop Roleplaying Games

Now consider the following excerpt from Howard’s Conan stories (underline my own):

Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.” — The Nemedian Chronicles.

Howard, R. E. (December, 1932) “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Weird Tales.

Or consider Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser traveling to the tower in the forest to pilfer its riches.

Fritz Leiber 1977-07 Swords & Ice Magic by CthulhuWho1 (Will Hart), on Flickr
Fritz Leiber 1977-07 Swords & Ice Magic” (CC BY 2.0) by CthulhuWho1 (Will Hart)
Two warriors with Nordic armor and weapons on the cover of the RuneQuest Deluxe Edition
By Avalon Hill and Chaosium, 1984 deluxe box edition, Fair use, Link

The fact emerges that much of the source material from which Gygax and Arneson drew inspiration followed the exploits of non-heroic protagonists. Couple this with the fact that both Conan and Fafhrd represent warriors from a barbarian north, and the connection with Vikings emerges.

From a gaming perspective, Viking PCs present distinct advantages. For instance, the “killing monsters and taking their stuff” phenomenon with which the Hickmans took issue doesn’t present a problem but a roleplay characteristic of the adventurers. Moreover, “dick-paladins” will not come around and spoil the party’s fun (and if they do, they will represent adversaries to overcome, rather than goody-goody nannies to endure).

But best of all, your Viking player characters will never pause the action to lawyer out how killing the trolls and taking their treasure will factor into a Rawlsian ethical paradigm.

Categories
GURPS Mythras Roleplaying Games Uncategorized

GURPS — How Deadly is the Combat System?

People hyperbolize — especially online. I read the following on the Internet:

GURPS tends to run “realistic” things well, in which combat is deadly no matter how skilled your character might be. 

https://www.enworld.org/threads/d20-vs-gurps.170178/post-2980366

But let’s put GURPS in perspective. In GURPS, a character, in effect, has twice as many HPs as his sheet lists before he risks death. That’s because from 0 to -1 x his maximum HPs, he only rolls to stay conscious. The first death roll occurs at -1 x HPs, and the player rolls once, whereas he continues to roll every round below 0 HPs to stay conscious. That means, the character will more likely fall unconscious than outright die.

Compare this with Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying system. Characters in Basic Roleplaying will have 10-12 HPs on average. However, when a character reaches 0 HPs, he has a fatal wound. That’s it. If he doesn’t receive healing in the next round, he’s dead.

Mongoose Traveller utilizes a system that applies damage to combat statistics. When all three physical statistics reach 0, the character dies. Each stat ranges from around 7 to 9 points, so an average character might suffer around 20 points of damage before death.

I ran this system years ago, and one of the players took a gunshot wound in the first battle that almost killed him. That was the last time the players in that campaign initiated any combat. Keep in mind, after that initial 20 points of damage that would have killed the player in Traveller, the GURPS character might (and likely if he has a high HT score) still only fall unconscious.

In GURPS, a character does not die outright until his HPs reach -5 x his maximum HPs. So, a character with average HPs (10) won’t die outright until he receives 60 points of damage. That’s a lot of damage. In fact, that number is not so different from “that other” roleplaying game (depending on level and other circumstances).

What’s more, if the player fails one of those death rolls by 1 or 2 points, he still doesn’t die, but suffers a mortal wound instead.

So Why the Reputation?

Let’s take that hypothetical 10-HP character. On his route from 10 HPs to -50, he has 4 chances to fail his HT roll and die. Still, if he has even slightly better than average HT, he has a good chance of making those rolls, as they do not usually suffer negative modifiers. Remember that a trait of 12 in GURPS will succeed 7 out of 10 times.

Ranged Combat

Let’s revisit the quote from the beginning of this post:

A melee battle will often resolve in a few rounds, but don’t expect your sci-fi battles with ranged weapons to do so. Ranged combat will entail players aiming, taking cover — doing other things. Depending on how many adversaries players face, a ranged battle can easily last an entire 2-3 hour session of gaming.

To Sum Up

If you’re avoiding GURPS because you’ve heard the system is deadly, and you don’t like PC death, give the system a chance. People exaggerate the lethality.

Categories
Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Games

“The Hickman Revolution” & Character Coddling

Yesterday, in “Why Cthulhu Excels in Gaming” I touched on the topic of aversion to character death in science fiction and fantasy campaigns — a phenomenon I refer to as character coddling. Today, I stumbled on a topic via YouTube from The DM Lair that speaks further to the issue. It regards something called “The Hickman Revolution.”

In the clip below, Luke of The DM Lair says the following:

If you’ve played D&D long enough, you will have certainly noticed that with every subsequent edition of the game, it seems to get harder and harder to kill PCs. The game gets less and less lethal, and the PCs become more and more likely to live through the entire campaign. And with fifth edition as we currently have it, I can confidently say having DM’d the game for multiple groups for over half a decade, that it is nearly impossible to kill PCs. These game design decisions were, naturally, influenced by players who want the story and want to see their characters live through the entire campaign to see it all conclude.

I had never heard of “The Hickman Revolution,” or the notion that Tracy Hickman — co-creator of the Dungeons & Dragons “Dragonlance” series — deserved blame for controversial contemporary trends of the RPG industry, but the phenomenon of power bloat has existed for as long as I’ve played roleplaying games.

Luke explains that “The Hickman Revolution” has become a pejorative. The term refers to the following recommendations Hickman wrote in an adventure module titled “Pharaoh”:

  1. Characters should have an “objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing.”
  2. Campaigns should have “an intriguing story that is intimately woven into the play itself.”
  3. Dungeons should reflect “some kind of architectural sense.”
  4. Players should have “an attainable and honorable end within one or two sessions of playtime.”

Source: Tavisallison. (March 23, 2012) “manifesto of the hickman [sic] revolution.” The Mule Abides: Manifesto of the Hickman Revolution | The Mule Abides (wordpress.com)

So far, so good. Seems reasonable, right? So what’s the problem?

It stems from a sentiment among some players that narrative has overshadowed, or eclipsed, the original game. The argument runs like so:

  1. Roleplaying games have become too narrative.
  2. Players must see their characters through to the end of said narratives because they are the protagonists.

As a result, campaign power level runs amok because the game focuses too much on the narrative and plot of characters who never die. The game no longer feels like Dungeons & Dragons.

The phenomenon culminates with game masters dissatisfied that they cannot challenge PCs who are too powerful and players who resent game masters “railroading” them through plot points (more on “railroading” and sandboxes in another post).

In general, D&D has become bloated and game masters do sometimes force players through plot hoops. Nevertheless, to attribute these problems to Tracy Hickman’s recommendations in “Pharaoh” remains preposterous. While I agree campaign story arcs become obscenely overblown (a trend that mirrors other forms of popular American entertainment), there’s no reason the original characters need endure to the end, aside from unsporting players who feel entitled to coddling.

The problem remains character death — the lack of it.

Bottom line — if you’re the game master, be the George R. R. Martin of game masters. Kill your players’ characters. Kill them early in the campaign — kill them often.

Remember, a game without the possibility of failure is not any kind of game at all — it’s a mutual admiration society.

Categories
Roleplaying Games

Why Cthulhu Excels in Gaming

EN World reported the results of its RPG podcast of 2021 on episode #181 of Morrus’s Unofficial Tabletop RPG podcast, and you can see below that Cthulhu dominated the top spots of both “Talk” and “Actual Play” categories:


Talk

1 Miskatonic University Podcast
A podcast dedicated to Call of Cthulhu and other Horror and Lovecraftian roleplaying games.

2 Modern Mythos
A podcast about the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, writing, game mastering, and playing — presented by the hosts, Jon Hook and Seth Skorkowsky.

3 Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff
Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff is the podcast of authors and game designers Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws. Stuff talked about includes hobby gaming, history, occultism, chrono-travel, food, cinema, narrative, art, politics, food, maps, Cthulhiana, and in fact any matter subject to jocular yet penetrating erudition.

4 Frankenstein’s RPG Podcast
Frankenstein’s RPG. By Dave Paterson. In each episode as selected guests run through their RPG history and try to construct the perfect Role Playing Game.

Actual Play

1 Sweden Rolls
Four actors play the best of Swedish RPGs with one of Sweden’s most experienced and appreciated podcast GMs.

2 Ain’t Slayed Nobody Podcast
Call of Cthulhu comedy-horror podcast riding through the American Old West. Saddle up as we turn femurs into mist and canteens into grenades. Tombstone meets The Thing meets The Adventure Zone.

3 The Old Ways Podcast
It’s a weekly Tabletop RPG show in an actual play format where a group of great role-players serve up their character’s experiences in new and published scenarios. We are currently recording our Call of Cthulhu group, but in the future we will invade other universes!

4 Grizzly Peaks Radio
An Actual Play podcast covering Call of Cthulhu, Tales from the Loop and others. Join me Andy Goodman from Expedition to the Grizzly Peaks and our rotating cast of gaming luminaries.

Source: https://www.enworld.org/threads/here-are-your-favourite-ttrpg-podcasts-of-2021.684951/


Given the ubiquity of fantasy settings in the RPG market, that Cthulhu plays a role in the top talk podcasts and top 4 actual play podcasts astonishes. Nevertheless, as someone who has run Cthulhu campaigns for years, I attribute part of this success to how Cthulhu orients players toward the gaming environment and avoids some of the pitfalls that arise in the more common science fiction & fantasy campaigns.

By orient, I’m talking about player expectations. To put it bluntly–players expect bad things to happen to their characters. Someone sitting down to play Call of Cthulhu does so expecting his character to either die or go insane. In fact, some players might feel a Call of Cthulhu campaign that doesn’t result in either of these outcomes has failed its endeavor.

While this might strike you as obvious or trivial, it makes all the difference in the game dynamic. A player who expects his character to die or go insane will not bristle at each instance of failure–will not be put off when the character acquires maladies during his adventures–and will not become demoralized when that character dies.

When someone spends hours crafting a character for D&D, GURPS, etc., he does so with the hope that this character will do great things. In the extreme, he might hope that his character will go on to feature in fiction the player will write later or that his friends will come to associate him with the character in an iconic way. In short, the character is a vessel for vicarious experience. In game terms, every time the GM afflicts that cherished totem with adversity, he threatens the aspirations of said character. But afflicting the characters with adversity is precisely the GM’s role in the game. Still, no matter how much your players swear they don’t mind bad things happening to their characters, some of them will wax ornery about it.

In sum, Cthulhu succeeds in the gaming industry, even beyond the success of the source material in popular culture, because it establishes a frame of mind that facilitates enjoyment rather than disillusion.

But hope exists! Of course, I mean for your other campaigns, not for CoC investigators–there should never be any hope for them. Other games can capture the Cthulhu dynamic if the players approach the game with a Call of Cthulhu mindset–that is, the characters do not represent you–the characters exist to suffer adversity (the creative writers might recognize this mindset 😉).

That said, maybe a clever GM should advertise every campaign as Call of Cthulhu.