Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Good End, Part 2 (get it?)

I was thinking about not writing that part 2, leaving Part 1 hanging in thin air to make a point. Just wouldn't be the right point to make, so here we are. However, it's still not an easy thing for me to wrap the head around the following: what makes a good end depends largely on the set-up before (constituting a recognizable end to a pattern) and most role playing games suck at this a bit, as the games themselves are open-ended by nature. We are still figuring this shit out. Alright, let's take a look (and expect excursions into the unexpected, I guess).

Computer games have it backwards?

Computer games make for a great comparison, as players have an active part in the narrative within a digital environment that follows certain rules. And yet, it is different because of the limitations that come with the hardware to run those games.

The biggest among them (which will get important later on) the notion that the area of interaction needs to be predefined and complete. When the player arrives (as in, starts the game), it is all set up and done to a degree that a game can get finished (although DLCs and updates and fan based work opened games up a bit in the last years).

You'd need the whole picture to make it work [source]
Maybe it is just a matter of time until AI will create unlimited content on the fly, but we are not there yet. Until then the limitations have to be taken into account and must result in designs that could be considered backwards to what role playing games do in that they have to have the end (or several endings) done before the game is even played. All the player decides is the level of engagement, which, naturally, also describes several arcs that need to be considered.

In a sense this means more traditional storytelling with the player going through the motions and having some choices. I've seen the point made that in its extremes it relates to what among role playing gamers is referred to as "railroading".

The argument has merit, imo, because it tells us something about that particular variant of playing rpgs that is easily overlooked: not only are more people accustomed to that sort of gaming/thinking then there are roleplayers (due to the sheer popularity of digital games alone), the reason why railroading works is found in the realization that the fun is in the execution (or rather, if the tools for the execution are well done).

It doesn't get more railroady then, say, a shooter. Level-based, very little advancement (mostly temporary or through weapons) and the narratives are lack-luster most of the time. However, when done well ... the popularity of the genre speaks for itself. And if it works for computer games, it very well should work for role playing games. Actually, board games work a bit like that (having a very limited scope on a subject that could be described as railroading), and crossing that bridge into role playing territory is even easier.

(Guess what I'm saying is: don't hate the railroad, hate the game that doesn't make it fun?)
You are doing it wrong ... [source]
Computer games took a lot of inspiration from early D&D and the like. Although one could argue that level-progression and hit points and even that specific way to tell stories would have happened naturally sooner or later digitally as soon as people started writing games for that new medium (and it would be very interesting to see what that would have looked like), it can't be denied that some of the most popular and influential tropes and even games in the early dawn of computer gaming had been made possible because of D&D.*

Nowadays it's very much it's own thing, yet retro-games are still very popular and digital gaming has a highly innovative independent scene creating all kinds of old school and new games, while online gaming made digital games more of a social phenomenon (with good and bad results, I might add). The benefit of having mass appeal is that the fringes are also well seated, which allows for lots and lots of innovation ... What I'm saying, is, if it works, it stays and the digital interpretations of what the early role playing games made work, holds true even today in very many different forms and that should make you think.

Alright, mid-post summary: I'd argue that a huge part of successful computer gaming was inspired, nay, even leaning on the development of D&D right before the dawn of the personal computer and the gaming that was made possible with that. The newer medium emulates, reflects and interprets the older one ever since, proving simply by vote of popularity that having an active part in a narrative can be entertaining within very strict and abstract restrains as long as the means of interaction are fun, engaging and challenging. We furthermore can take the insights garnered there and apply them to our hobby to some degree, which should help us to gain an understanding how narratives work and, ultimately (because that is what the post should be about), how to fabricate Good Endings in our stories.

A word on how repetition intensifies an experience

No, I'm not talking about learning Latin or something like that, although the principles at work there should be the same here to some extent (with another purpose, though). This is about one of the main tools with which computer games intensify and manifest their narratives.

If you have played any amount of computer games in your life, you are aware of the vicious cycles of repetition necessary in many games to achieve the level of proficiency necessary to move forward. Play, die, repeat. Now, while a player needs (to be encouraged) to go through the motions again and again to see where a game is leading to, it is the very act of doing so that makes them appreciate the story of a game even more, because the more you repeat a segment or scene in a game, the more details you will be made aware of.

So beyond the very obvious pattern of what you need to do to advance to the next segment, there is a deeper understanding of said segment that only reveals itself by playing it over and over again. Ideally there is nuance, and, as the player sets himself into relation with the design that is manifesting, a story. You discover little secrets or new ways to interact with the game and you internalize the artwork, rhythm and sound of a game that way (like you'd learn Latin vocabulary, but way more fun)**.

While the implementation of the concept described above only lends itself loosely to role playing ("saving the game" as an option really didn't make a lasting impact in ttrpg***, thus creating loops like that is difficult), there is something to learn about segmenting games and rhythm and distinct narrative framing (or whatever the equivalent to level design would be called in rpgs).

See what I'm getting at? [source]
I've dabbled a bit that concept in the past and found that the loops a DM needs to create are clusters of words he wants to resonate in the narrative to an extent that it ends up having a lasting impression on the players. That way it will be part of the manifesting narrative (interested parties may start here exploring that idea further). The terms we use in our games work like that, btw., using constant repetition until the terms become part of a group's sociolect and "color" the experience (prime example would be the D&D terminology that is nowadays influential enough to appear in popular culture).

With having those "loops" in place like that, we can form or establish a pattern (a collection of words supporting a certain means the DM is working towards, going from basic connections players need to make to atmospheric vocabulary enhancing those little "segments" a narrative forms). And with a pattern (you guessed it), we can produce endings.

Endings in computer games, then

The obvious end gamers will experience over and over again is the classic "game over", and there is something to be said about that. A close second would be the end we chose, and I'll start with that since it immediately relates to our hobby.

I'm pretty sure I'm not alone when I'm saying that I have more games**** started and never touched again than I have games I played for any serious amount of time or even games I actually finished (and games I really, really aim to invest some serious amount of time into ...). That, as well, is a form of ending. You start a game and you just keep dying ... that could be all the story you can get out of the game and moving on is part of that.

Even more detailed: the mechanic didn't do it for you, the game is full of bugs, you name it, and you will always find an "end" describing why you stopped trying your hand at a game. The interesting part here is, that we will find the proper answer if our interaction with something manifests towards a less satisfying experience. As the German proverb goes, you'd more often than not chose an end in terror than terror without ending ... Which is to say, endings like that will most likely be bad by definition and circumstances.

The "game over" screen, on the other hand, can also be an encouragement to try again and feed that loop we talked about above. It is a bad ending designed to enhance the good endings a game has to offer. You are allowed to keep playing the game if you manage to overcome its obstacles and your award is seeing more of the game, or gaining achievements and the benefits of getting better at a game as your character and your technique advance.

Now, the crowning achievement of playing a computer game would be to play it to completion. But well designed-games will give a player that feeling in advance by having (and communicating!) distinctive segments that can be completed.

Succesfull games lead players through their story in a way that lets lots of little successes and failures accumulate to one big narrative and a satisfying conclusion. Failure is designed into those games to enhance the feeling of success and accomplishment and hard work should be awarded as well as ingenuity. 

Up to this point we were strictly talking about how to manufacture patterns that allow a proper opening for an ending and how our engagement with a game may constitute a bad end in itself. That'd be all we need to talk about here, as the one thing that could still make or break a game would be the execution of the end of a game. The part where the player loses control over the game and sees what happens next.

In computer games that can actually be rather arbitrary or short. Mario needs to rescue the princess, so guess what happens in the end. That sort of thing. However, even simple things deserve to be done right and even the best game can leave a bad taste in your mouth, if the end rubs you wrong or insults you or makes fun of you or tries to sell you the next part or simply seems off (here, have 50 examples where endings went wrong in video games ... with spoilers, obviously).

That said, what I'm able to say about bad writing should already be said in Part 1 (which makes this, if you haven't read it just yet (and read so far starting with Part 2, you rare soul, you), a great opportunity to go there and do so real quick before we come to a conclusion of sorts here).

The Good End

This was always meant to be a series of posts about how to tell better stories in our games and how to bring them to positive or at least satisfying ends. And isn't there always more to say. I have a feeling that we only scratched the surface here before even talking about the subject proper. However, sometimes all you need is conjecture, comparison and transfer. Going at it this way has me thinking that this already covered a lot of ground nonetheless.

As far as concrete advice goes, I'd have to say, it had to be very abstract to catch it all without writing another post just as long as the last two. Abstract works for me, I guess, and the advice I'd condense this towards would look something like this:
  • Manifest a pattern the characters can interpret and analyze and relate to (inspiration for this would be, for instance, C. G. Jung's ideas on archetypes and Daoism, to give but two ... there's definitely more). 
  • Create little loops to make segments of the narrative distinguishable from other segments. Related to that, you should communicate the transitions and offer closure ("You are leaving now the Forest of the Floating Feet and enter The Valley of a Thousand Farts. You don't think the Goblins will follow you here ...", like, keep it distinguishable and vary your vocabulary). The system you use should support this notion.
  • Include little advancements and victories that accumulate towards something bigger. Little "Boss Fights" (or hyping a fight up like that) could work or gaining valuable knowledge.
  • Allow narrative awards to enter the narrative loops to enhance the level of engagement ("You are now called Guardian of the Forest and may wear the title with pride!" or something like that ... let the players have as many of those as you dare without making the sum of them meaningless, maybe change and advance some already established ones later in the game).
  • Allow failure as part of the narrative, as some bad endings can make good endings better (have a character die every once in a while, if opportunity arises, have players learn from their mistakes and introduce (fun) consequences for bad rolls). Every Yin needs its Yang, baby.
  • Don't offer interpretations of what it all means unless it is necessary to give players a hint into the right direction. Let what manifests in the story stand on its own, because if you have to explain it, you've already done it wrong. Show, don't tell, folks.
  • Don't force it, don't rush it, don't push an agenda down your players throats. If the pattern emerges, the end will reveal itself naturally. Always.
And that's it, as far as I'm concerned. Getting more specific about a topic like that, would necessarily mean to get very specific. However, finding your own way through this is a very important process in becoming a proper DM. Sometimes all you should need is a direction, so let's leave it at that.

Final Thoughts

There is a couple of loose ends left hanging, I guess. It is a broad subject and if anything, I can only try to encourage readers to come to their own conclusions. What I wrote in that last paragraph above is true for everything in life. The world surrounding us can only give hints and directions, but you have to go the distance yourself to come to conclusions.

Another Daoist truism is: if the pupil is ready, the master appears. Which, to me at least, always meant that, if we keep looking and learning, what we need will be there for us to find. Sounds a bit like  a bail-out, but I think it's a reassuring thought. The universe abides.

I'd have loved to go a bit more toe to toe with computer games. Comparing and analyzing them towards ttrpgs and the way we play game is an incredibly rich subject, from how we interact with games to design innovations there and the implications here. So. Much. Stuff! Like, would it be possible to write the equivalent of a Jump and Run or a FPS as a role playing game. What would that look like. And those are only the fun subjects from the top of my head ...

Computer games will eventually drift away from role playing as a medium that a comparison will get very difficult or very different (if I were to guess, I'd say it'll compare closer to LARP in the very near future). But given the amount of material that is already produced right now, it will take decades to evaluate that output before there is any need to check what else is happening.

Writing this made me realize (and a bit sad) that I might need to reduce my, let's call it, fast-media input. I loved to chill back and see a good movie or tv show, but the more I keep scrolling and scrolling through the streaming media offerings, the more I think it is all the same, which can be nice if you haven't seen anything it (the benefit of youth, I guess), but it gets harder and harder to find that innovation that keeps me inspired and creating.

The positive side-effect of this would be that I end up reading and writing more. And I'm telling you, it's a freeing experience (I can't stress this enough: books don't have a direct social media interaction and no advertisement ...). Musings on that should be part of another post, I guess (working title in my head is 'Learning to read again' ...).

Thank you for reading all of this. I hope you enjoyed reading it and that you took something with you after investing all that time. If you like to share any thoughts on any of that, I'd love to hear them, so please, comment away.

Here's a whole slide-share about archetypes [source]

* I try to avoid writing footnotes like that, but I can stray only so far, so have this related but random observation hidden down here: computer games are a billion dollar industry, far more powerful than music and tv put together. Gaming is strong like that. The great benefit of being THAT important, is that people actually invest into research and there is lots and lots of science about games one could check out. That's not for debate. However, look how weak it still is represented at universities. Now consider how much money is in ttrpg and what you get is ... people like me doing a hack-job academic discourse in their free time? Nah, it's a bit better than that, but not by much. Also of note: all the bad business practices in digital gaming are highly adaptable in our analogue variants, with fewer means to do anything about it. Big corp just tends to force D&D in the direction where the money is, corrupting the core concepts of role playing towards something more "marketable"  ... Anyway, I started to slide into the D&D-as-theme-park development and that's definitely too much of a digression here. Moving on.

** Incidentally that is why gamification of the workplace is such a success. You can make repetitive actions fun that way ... Which is only a good thing if the thought appeals to you to be a "level 34 facility manager with a Broom of Lightning" or something like that.

*** Although I have seen it done in a rpg called Rune. There you could spend xp to "save" the current version of your character sheet. I thought it was a nice touch for what the game was: a rpg game based on a computer game. Beyond that, I've seen it done in SF rpg like Paranoia (which introduced the idea of having a clone you could use in case you die). Beyond that I'm not aware of any games that went in that direction. Not even board games, for that matter. 

**** ... and books and tv series. It is a very common phenomenon.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Opinion: Feast of Legends (Fast Food goes Dice)

I saw this, saw everyone lose their shit and thought I'd throw in my 2 cents: prolific fast food chain Wendy's published a complete RPG with campaign, clocking out at 97 pages and is giving it away for free. This just up front, I'm having a blast right now. Genius. Beautiful. And rotten to the core ... I have opinions on that. Let's have at it.

Not a review ...

I've heard people state that this is a complete rule book and functioning. That is, to say the least, bullshit. No DM advice, no play examples and you only need to read the first page of the adventure/campaign to see that this is hollow and bad (also full of advertisement). That said, you could drop this into almost any D&D derivative of your choice (3e/Pathfinder/Basic Fantasy seem great fits) and it should work (no guaranties, though ... nobody says that this had seen testing for balance or what have you).

Might need some work, but could be fun. Maybe. Once. And you have to have experience DMing.

So it looks nice and crisp. Proper layout, nice illustrations, inspiring maps. It is great at mimicking to be a complete game and yet, it is decidedly not. So, no, I'm not investing time in writing a proper review. This is an artifact and in its understanding on what makes a rpg tick just as deep as you'd expect from someone selling pressed sugar mixed with sad excuses for meat as food. Compared to proper RPG this is what a hamburger is to Beef Wellington.

As I said, it is an artifact, at best. Something that is nice to have. I'd buy this as a book, just to have it in my collection. A RPG it is not, though.

Here's why it's funny

This coincides with another article I've read today, something about why successful subcultures are doomed. It describes how innovation draws consumers and sociopaths until a subculture goes full bloom in mainstream and goes away to die afterwards. I don't necessarily agree with the piece (which should be discussed in another post, I guess), but it gets the basics right and this here is a great example what the process could manifest like. 

I admit, 'funny' is a bit of a stretch. However, it has to be obvious at this point that this is nothing else but a marketing ploy to get some (well deserved, imo) buzz. It's well played and it works. The reactions are as you would expect: people hate it, people embrace it and the more money oriented folks already offer twitch sessions. This draws flies like an old burger in an alley (pardon the bun).

Way more funny, though, is that they treat our hobby like publishers already do for years now. Nice to look at, some variation to well known ideas and a new-game-hype every other week. Just a buck, just a little kickstarter, just something to put into the shelf and forget. We brought this unto us, and we deserve it ... It is how those things tend to play out, and yet, there is an irony to it all.

Here's why it's not funny ...

It's not all fun and giggles, though. We not only have to see this for what it is (a fun promo for unhealthy food), we also have to understand that this is IN NO WAY, SHAPE OR FORM different to what D&D under Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro is: a vehicle to sell product. Sure, you don't have to buy a burger in real life to gain a bonus in the game, but the principles at work are very much the same (and junk food has been a huge part of the gaming experience, so ...).

Splat books, miniatures, editions, merchandise ... the rules are designed with selling additional material in mind. Arguably more so than actually being playable (high level gameplay from D&D 3e onward, if you need an example). D&D's triumphant parade into mainstream shows more and more how they need to divert from the original concepts that spawned our little hobby towards something more .... superficial. It becomes something like a theme park of an adventure compared to the real thing. The difference between reading War and Peace and getting it retold to you by a 3-year old ...

I need to stop. Either way, this is where it's at.

It's not all bad (some will say)

If someone enters the hobby because Wendy's gave it some exposure, it's all for the better. It also does show others that variations to D&D are possible, which is just as well, considering D&D becomes more and more synonymous for RPG in general (while changing and watering down significantly for mainstream appeal ... see above). In all that, the ad is a good (and bright) marker and reminder what mindless consumption will lead to.

That's the morale, if you need one. Big Money will have its way with RPGs, if we want that or not. And while it's certainly good for most people, as it offers new and exciting forms of mindless entertainment, it leaves those behind who took the whole thing a bit more seriously. As with all dying subcultures.

If you need to know what you can do about this, I'd say: built on that to be prepared for the decline. Innovation is what creates new spaces, as they say, and when the whole fad has run its course and D&D is nothing more than a theme park, those looking for more will find plenty. And that's the nice thought I want to close this with.

Guess what I'll have today [source]