Tuesday, April 25, 2017

More thoughts on writing modules (Design Post) - Part 2

Finishing something instead of starting it for a change. The idea of this little series (here is Part 1) is to take a close look at role playing games as their own kind of medium and what considerations need to be made compared to, say, novels or instructions. Rule books and adventure modules might be somewhere in between ... but the thing is that it's quite easy to get some solid definitions for the latter and none whatsoever for the former (not that I'm aware of, anyway). There's also almost always the (related) question of what an adventure module should contain and to which extent, respectively how much testing it would need. Let's get into this once more ...

I once had a discussion with a friend whether beer could be argued as a form of medium, since using it will alter communication ... So there is that.

Are role playing games a different form of media?

All right, all right. I think I need to clarify this a bit. The term "media" will carry several meanings, depending where you are coming from. Media in this here context are basically forms of expression in communication. Novels or comics or movies or computer games are great and commonplace examples for media like that. The idea is that media follow certain rules to recognize them by and those rules are pretty crucial to differentiate them from each other and categorize them as a consumer. An easy explanation for this is that you know the difference between a comic and a movie, as they manifest with clear distinctions.

And that doesn't (necessarily) include the means of consumption of said media. Like, movies had been something you'd see solely in the cinema about a hundred years ago, nowadays you can see them on all kinds of screens as long as they can show moving pictures. So the distinction must be in a way more basic definition, not in the technical means to distribute them. For movies it could be something like "a story expressed by following certain predetermined patterns and customs, using some form of recorded moving pictures, often with sound and music to enhance the experience".

There are several forms and developments possible (and already available), from 3d variants or movies with completely computer generated characters, to artificial movie stars or completely customized movie experiences (which should be some developments we might be able to see and experience pretty soon). So I think the crucial part for the distinction is "a story expressed by ...". To take the example above, it's clearly a very different experience to read the comic of a story compared to viewing the movie of it.

To make this perfectly clear: media in this definition are the patterns, customs and rules for stories that make media distinguishable from each other. There are bare necessities part for those patterns and customs (novels need to be read, pictures need to be drawn, that kind of stuff), but distribution and technical possibilities are a matter of change and need to be secondary (so a novel could be a book or a audiobook and there are several ways to view a picture, from the thing you put on a wall to something you just googled).

All this can be expanded by the famous sender-receiver model. Behold:

Media are in the center, but it adds authorship, a
receiver and a feedback-loop [source]

Following the definitions above, I'd argue that role playing games are their own form of expressing stories (messages) and thus ... a medium in their own right. Adventure modules should, consequently, cater the special conditions of role playing games to be effective and could also be considered their own kind of media.

And that means?

Yeah, you might ask that. Should, maybe. Going with that model above, we can conclude part of what role playing games are: they are a means of expression. Not the author, not the recipient and not the story, but the procedures in between. The system, if you will. The dice are, in a way, what the blank surface is for a picture, the different results in conjunction with all the numbers would be the color scheme and the resulting (decoded) impression would be comparable to looking at the painting itself. So on and so forth.

Nothing of this is really new, I guess. But it begs the question: if rpgs are their own kind of medium, with rather distinctive necessities and all that, what does that imply for writing modules? To answer this, we need to (1) take a closer look at how rpgs need to operate to produce the kind of output we expect from them (just like you'd expect moving pictures when seeing a movie) and (2) expand the sender-receiver model to the individual groups using the system.

First we need to understand what a system really does. Going by the model above, a sender (the DM and the players are interchangeable in that) encodes (think "feeds") a system with a message (think "story"), then the system does its thing (rolling dice, documenting results and so on), the receivers decode it (again, the whole table), then feedback-loop and repeat. All give input to the system, the DM the setting-side, the players from the character-side of things. The individual system-decoding done by the DM is the valid interpretation of the system in that context.

Second we need to distinguish between authorship of the system and authorship of the story (the message, if you will). I think the importance and role of those different authorships are often confused in their relevance to using the system.

A game designer is writing the rules with the potential DM (the receiver) in mind. The medium in this case would be the, for instance, the rule book. The rules themselves, though, are a matter of decoding and the feedback-loop would be re-reading the rules for clarification or researching it online or whatever.

The point is, the moment the recipient of the that first cycle becomes DM, he also starts being the sender for a completely different cycle, with way shorter feedback-loops through the players as recipients and a completely different desired output (the first is reading a book to understand the rules, the second is using the rules to produce a game).

See what I mean? [source]

So adventure modules are, going by that logic, supplements to help encoding stories for the medium by specifying the input in a way that the system-output has some sort of predetermined desired result.

I'd argue that while you have the reader of that first cycle above as receiver and potential DM in mind, modules fulfill a total different need in that they have the reader/receiver as potential sender in mind and the players as receivers of the desired system-output. Always keeping in mind that every receiver will most likely end up with a very individual decoding in all instances ...

... which is my complicated way of saying that content and presentation of adventure modules need to fulfill certain criteria (the encoding thing above), but are ultimately relatively free in almost everything else (maps, art, just text, short, long ... you name it). There are no rules, there's only taste, because ultimately this will be decoded to the amount the receiver deems necessary and the result will not only always be individual in nature, but also going through a completely different cycle with yet another succession of en- and decodings.

What is "useful" in a module?

Since we all already collect input all the time for the systems we use by looting ideas from movies, comics, books, art, life, you name it, modules have to bring a little extra to the table to be useful. Print is in this regard far superior to pdfs or any kind of digital presentation (blogs, clouds and what have you) if you play in meatspace. It's not exactly the other way around if you play online, though, since digital material can be a real boon in digital environments like roll20, but more of an hindrance in the traditional form of a module as a coherent collection of text and material with a reader in mind instead of a user (which I assume).

At least that's the traditional assumption. If we take the above into consideration, it might be worth also considering that a good module mostly has to put the reader in a position to feed the system with ideas and concepts and messages he wouldn't have come up with on his own easily enough (or even on the fly, for that matter). Again, traditionally that'd be material like vast dungeons and their descriptions or (for more complex games) monster and NPC stats, maybe names, too. But is that the only way? 

So here is the thing: it might be beneficial to treat the reader of a module not as a potential sender, but foremost as a receiver, bring the module for him to life and give him the tools to gather, alter and collect the input he thinks necessary. That would mean, for instance, to have a dungeon and instead of giving a description of every room and creature, you make it a living and breathing thing for the reader and let him decide what the state of the dungeon is when the characters enter. Maybe give him random tables and tools to produce fitting content on the fly, too.

What I'm saying is, nothing needs to be fix in modules, but the reader needs to be able to get a sense of place or history or life and the tools to feed the system in a way that produces a certain kind of module related output, because he's doing it himself as soon as he's the sender anyways. And I, for one, dread the moments when I need to look something up or read a room description aloud (which can be fun, but mostly isn't). So that's it.

To do this justice, modules should be part reading experience, offering some immersion, because heavy decoding is what sticks with us and immersion is the way to that, and part DIY-tools for him to produce the content he needs himself (village or dungeon sheets instead of character sheets, for instance). There's plenty of ways to offer loads of content that way and by ensuring that it sticks, it's way more likely to actually get a huge part into the game without the reader needing to memorize and re-work the whole thing before being able to use it.

Tone, as described in Part 1, also is a big part of that, of course.

A word on play-testing.

That's just a random associated thought that occurred to me while writing Part 1. Well, at least I started seeing the connection or realized why it bothered me, like, forever: why bother play-testing something when the assumed difference between senders will almost definitely result in very different decoding/encoding processes every time. In other words, here is the explanation why every group will experience a different game even when playing the same system and module.

I'm writing this to once more strengthen the idea that the DM is the one in charge as the sender, not the author of a module. And that means that the play-tests of one individual DM says almost nothing about how the game would run for another group. There's also a correcting element in encoding material, so even if there are any imbalances or mistakes in a module that the writer couldn't glean beforehand, the receiver will most likely change any such elements (and more than that) as he needs it when he'll be sending it. The rest is common sense and how the group decodes the output it gets.

Games or systems, on the other hand, really do need play testing ... lots of play testing.

Not the only way, though ...

Sorry, this was a long one again. And all over the place ... It's not even the whole picture and some of it is guesswork (our hobby being as young as it is). Mostly because I can't possibly have read all adventure modules in existence and it might very well be that I describe something already well known and established. That said, if you think you know modules fitting the description I gave above, please name them in the comments ... I'd highly appreciate it.

So there are, obviously, many ways to write modules and this isn't the only one. Stonehell, for instance, mostly does the exact opposite (as much information as possible crammed on a page, no immersion possible, lots of using it at the table ...) and still somehow works. They all have their place and merit, be it collector items or the first modules ever written and the air of nostalgia that make them still work today or what have you, but I think there is yet a lot to explore and document about what makes a module work and what not. There's also some unused paths worth checking out, I think. A bit like arguing if beer could be considered a medium with the above offered definition.


One last stray thought: it's systems like 3e D&D and derivatives that try to undermine the DM as sender in the game by making the input very much depending on the source instead of supporting the encoding process ... Just food for thought.

Comments and thoughts about this are, as always, very welcome.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

It's all about the ingredients ...

We all know that: we see D&D spells and are like "Way cool! I wanna do that!" and then we see a beholder and ask ourselves what his story is. This is something that's been bothering me on and off for a long time now and I think it's time for a post about it. This turned out to be a bit rambling. That's the stress making me think less coherent. I guess. Anyway, bear with me, it has a nipple wizard and a Gygax quote in the end, so that's something.

The origins of D&D magic

They winged it, plain and simple. Man, there are interviews about it*. They made it up as they went along. All that stuff about Vancian Magic? As if it would mean something? All make-belief (and not the kind we usually talk about). And who could blame them. It's been one huge experiment with lots and lots of play-testing. It's genius, too. On many levels, actually.

This is not supposed to be an analysis of what they wrote back then and why but more about what they didn't have. They had, for one, no idea how magic worked in their worlds. It just was a tool. In a way it was used to bridge aspects of the game they hadn't covered ... Hold Portal, Open Lock, all those utility spells had been there for a reason: they are tell-tales about what the original designers felt missing during play-testing sessions. It is nice to have an universal key for everything.

There is a great freedom in that, I think. In a way it's the purest form of our hobby when the game grows organically with the group instead of being predetermined by sets of rules. And if something is missing? Magic is the key ... Just needs a bogus story about ingredients, something you got to do to get it with a little quest on top of it as the cherry. The rest is negotiating with the master, also part of the game.
It's funny how D&D codification changed the whole concept over time. [source]

So many thoughts ...

Here are some ramifications of this. Just from he top of my head. This is by no means a complete list or meant to be one. Here it comes:
  • This is why the cleric can be so brutally boring: development had been the other way around. Instead of saying "If it's needed, we just use the MU for it", they must have said something like "Yeah, so we have a holy man and he needs to do that and that ...". Totally different process. Clerics never really recovered from it.
  • And we just follow those established patterns instead of breaking free from them and doing our own thing. I know, I know, iconic spells, yadda-yadda, all that noise (I love it, too). Can't beat a fireball. Just can't. But what if ... Mordenkainen, Bigby, Elminster, all player characters in games! What's the problem? Does it take another type of player to develop instead of just copying? Maybe.
  • So the wizard in D&D is traditionally weak ... is that because he is the ultimate connector? Not because he's too powerful (always thought that's bullshit, btw**), but very, very flexible in a D&D context? At least when it was played a way no one plays it anymore (exaggerating here, I hope).
  • Would it still be D&D if people just came up with their own spells as the characters grow? I'd argue: yes. Even more so, maybe. You'd still have the same wacko monsters ... or just do that new, too. Would still be D&D. In a way we don't play D&D but mimic the way those old guys played it. A bit like a religious ritual, worshiping it something fierce. But that true form, that would be something else entirely. You'd play how them not like them (if that makes any sense).
  • And yet, the rules don't encourage that really, do they? It's far more difficult to create your own spell. Getting harder with every edition. So what's the problem? Uncontrolled power rushes, I suppose. Designers not trusting the ordinary folks doing it right ... Maybe. But isn't that one of the lessons a DM has to learn? How to judge what works in the game and what doesn't? Well, that might not be what being a DM is all about nowadays ...
He broadcasts, too ...***

So what the hell am I meandering towards?

I believe D&D magic is like a window into another world. It gives us hints how this game emerged from the brains of those people playing it back then. It's less about quoting Vance or Tolkien or whatever, but about developing the game together at the table. A lesson about making it work, sometimes just in a specific moment of a specific campaign. It's full of short cuts, too.

I think I see glimmers of that when play-testing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. It is a different way of gaming, not only exploring a world, but also exploring a system. It's never the DM alone, it's the resonance created between all those playing. Kind of scary, too, to play it like no one else does. Hard to communicate or compare. It's its own thing. Just like those original games.

Well, what to do with this, though? Should we just ignore the spells when playing 1e D&D and allow players to find their own way? Maybe. But is it even possible? People have expectations, especially when it's about having options. And creating is so much more difficult than just copying. So that might not be a point I want to be making here.

But a thing I see missing more often than not in rule books is stuff that encourages DMs to go their own way, to develop themselves. It's not that I don't see that happening anyway. I do. We all do, I guess. But it's not encouraged. We are made to believe that "house rulings" are tolerated, but not how the developers intended it to be played.

Looking at those first games, or listening to the guys who played back then, I get a totally different vibe. You know, that culture of slavishly copying and ritualizing of what we got sold is successful for more than one reason and I don't want to dwarf or ridicule that. But is that really what D&D was? Or can be? Whatever it is, it starts with encouraging others to create their own and that's so much easier when they get a chance to understand why the things they use work how they work. Right?
I wonder what kind of spell he cast to get there ... [source]
I'll close with some words by Gygax and from the introduction to that first rpg:
"These rules are as complete as possible within the limitations imposed by the space of three booklets. That is, they cover the major aspects of fantasy campaigns but still remain flexible. As with any other set of miniatures rules they are guidelines to follow in designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign. They provide the framework around which you will build a game of simplicity or tremendous complexity — your time and imagination are about the only limiting factors, and the fact that you have purchased these rules tends to indicate that there is no lack of imagination — the fascination of the game will tend to make participants find more and more time. We advise, however, that a campaign be begun slowly, following the steps outlined herein, so as to avoid becoming too bogged down with unfamiliar details at first. That way your campaign will build naturally, at the pace best suited to the referee and players, smoothing the way for all concerned. New details can be added and old "laws" altered so as to provide continually new and different situations. In addition, the players themselves will interact in such a way as to make the campaign variable and unique, and this is quite desirable." (D&D: Men & Magic, p. 4)

And one last thing: who is reading this and wrote his own D&D spells. Really curious here ...

* I really like that guy, though. Best wizard EVAR!

** Magic is the ultimate tool. A level 20 fighter, grown organically in a campaign, will be just as nasty as a level 20 wizard. Who wins in such a match will largely depend on the situation, the game, the dice ... really every factor other than the wizards spell roster. On paper, maybe. But I think that's the main problem. In the game all bets are of, people just believe the written word too much ...

*** This is a pic from the Hackmaster Supplement "The Spellslinger's Guide to Wurld Domination" (on p. 88). Don't know who the artist is, but it cracks me up every time ...