Sunday, February 21, 2021

Another exorcism of thoughts: Who are the Nibelungs, Part 3 (final word on culture? magic?)

I should be doing something else, but I felt the urgency to at least make an attempt to put those ideas down before they are lost in the bliss of a Sunday in the sun. It connects to a serie of posts I started 6 years ago about what understanding of the "Nibelungs" I want to evoke in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs. We had the base assumption in Part 1, going something like this:

Historically speaking it would be the children of those desperate and armed refugees that settled among the ruins left by the Romans. They are to explore the deep forests and dark valleys, following whispered rumors of treasure, secrets and sorcery. They will leave their mark on the world, as it is their time.

The game is about their lost songs.

 And then we talked a bit about difficult topics of the past and future in Part 2, concluding like this:

It's a harsh world the Nibelungs live in, haunted by the evils of a lost civilization. But it's also a world of opportunity for man and woman alike to claim a part of and become legends if it is their fate. Within this legendary realm everything is possible and a Nibelung could rise from slave to king.

It is a semi-historical setting they live in, with the pagan believes of the old world struggling and fighting the rise of a new religion that threatens the very fabric of magic itself. The Nibelungs are all the Germanic tribes and their lost songs.

This leaves a couple of questions open, all of them are about getting an idea how those tribal people mapped the world around them. What patterns did they see? How did they explain the world and why? This is an exorcism of thought and not yet fully fleshed out. You have been warned.

A world without reason?

Culture is a collective mental state ... let's begin with that. It's also dynamic. My understanding of how that dynamic might work, is (among other things) derived from what I could gather in the (great and highly recommended!) book Authors of the Impossible by Jeffrey J. Kripal (a book that'd be featured in the research list I plan to include in Lost Songs).

So the firt step would be to get an understanding how our culture works, then extrapolate towards 550 AD, right? Bridging this cultural gap would make the past playable while adding the extra value of gaining a deeper understanding of that Germanic mindframe back then. In a sense, they already did all the work for us in the stories they told (or what we know of them), so there is that. However, reading those stories today (like, say, the Edda), always seems like it needs a whole lot of extra knowledge to get the references, the subtext ... all the symbolic stuff that you'd read in those stories that, by our understanding, comes down to magic.

There's no bridge. You see: reading those stories is like seeing an island in the distance, obscured by mist. What you deinitely can't do in a roleplaying book is make it an excursion into history and demanding of the reader to catch up to "get it right". No, nothing of that sounds right to me. And what would knowing the history more than, say, superficially actually bring to the table?

See? Like that. No bridge at all ... [source]

I've talked at length about how language should be used in the game (and you can start falling into that specific rabbit hole here). It's also easy enough to get an idea what clothes they wore or how they fought, what they paid with, all that good stuff, for sure worthy. What all the trivia doesn't do, though, is giving you a mindmap, of sorts, that brings to live what made those people tick. That a day started for them with the sun going up, not in the middle of the day, like it does for us now, gives you an inkling of an idea what I'm talking about.

But I digress. My goal would be to cook all of the above down to an abstract level where that other culture transcends 'just' by playing the game and without using any visual material other than description. The Narrative Generator is the biggest tool in this, but just one side of the coin.

However, to do this examination proper justice (to build that bridge), or so I've learned, we need to understand that culture is the collective decision to interprete the world as concluded by an intellectual elite, with what is negelected making a comeback in popular culture. In other words, if your world is run by reason and science, the spiritual will be popular in the stories we tell. That's the premise, that's the material for the bridge laid out..

People in the past didn't have it good ...

There is a popular understanding that life was hard in the past and people just didn't have the richness of experiences and safety we indulge in today in huge parts of the world. Stuff like "I wouldn't want to live in the 18th century ... all that misery, the health issues, the harsh living conditions. Horrible, horrible stuff." or some tune like that. I'm of two minds with this: for one, I agree. If someone growing up in our cultural environment would be transferred a couple of hundred years into the past, they'd most likely die fast. That doesn't mean, however, that the people living back then felt the same about their lives.

Off to the Dark Ages ... to DIE! [source]

There is that joke where one doctor tells another how he stopped drinking and smoking and eating unhealthy so he had a chance of a longer life, and the other doc just looks at him puzzled and asks: why would you want to live longer, if you had to live like that?! I always found this 'joke' stupid and unfunny, for the simple reason that it puts consumerism on a pedestal it doesn't belong. If you just live to consume, well, you don't live at all, imo. There is more, for sure, if you care to look.

Anyway, it all connects. I'll even raise you one: the neuroscientist Andrew Huberman had a great talk in a podcast the other day (see it here, it's worth your time), and he talked about the plasticity of the brain and how we can rewire ourselves to receiving dopamine awards for things we did rather than for things we consumed. Turns out (or so is my understanding), people that manage to do that, will need nothing else to thrive and be happy.

No need for expensive cars or meals or holidays or houses or whatever, just reading that one book, a page at a time, just doing that sport routine, doing the things that help you grow, is not only 'enough' to be content, it'll give you the energy to push harder, to go further. People producing material like crazy have unlocked that for themselves, one way or another. As a matter of fact, the best way to make this happen is pushing through stress. Do what you feel resistance against, and the brain will award you for it. Crazy (I'm still mulling over that, as a matter of fact).

Well, you are probably guessing what I'm hinting at. We are not wired to live like fat cats in comfy chairs, we are wired to do stuff. Our brains and bodies actually help us doing more than we would think we are able to achieve ...and to get by with way less than we actually have. Our genes haven't changed much in the last, what, 300.000 years? Assuming that we are just now able to live properly is preposterous.Commmon sense will tell you that, and science is right there with it, nodding wisely.

So there's no reason to believe that people weren't living fullfilled lives in 550 AD if the basic needs were met. There genes weren't different, the dynamics, generally speaking, would be the same as today or a couple of thousand years before that. They would laugh and love and sing and grieve and hate. kids would play, and have toys to do so. That said, they'd also live in very, very different surroundings than we do. Here is a little bridge to build up to that big bridge we are talking about: the dynamics apply, just on different surroundings, because it needs to work in the environment to allow survival and even growth.

I'd even submit that they didn't know less than we do, they just had different explanations and methods to get by (broadly speaking ... I'd fight you on this, though). That's the bridgehead.

Building a bridge across cultures, time and space ...

... with just some dice in hand. Wouldn't that be nice? Anyway, let's talk UFOs, because that's the logical next step. Why is it that we have more than 80.000 witness reports of encounters like that, all over the globe, and no proof? How is it that a lot associated with the UFO phenomenon relates so closely to religious experiences? It maps nicely (again, Kripal, quoting others). So nicely, in fact, that we can see the same dynamics between religious hagiography (basically stories what saints experienced) and UFO abductions ... or our ideas what those abductions are like.

I won't (can't!) go much into detail, but let's assume, just for the game's sake, that those phenoma are ... similar, only their interpretation in a different cultural environment will just turn up differently. Angels, fairies or aliens, all follow the same principle (abstractly speaking). I hope you see that bridge shaping up at this point. We can now conclude from our culture, to some extent, what that culture 1500 years ago might have set as priorities compared to us. There's the map, there's the pattern, if you will.

Not that I have done that yet to any reasonable degree. This is me playing around with some fresh impulses, so to say. But we know we can take the Enlightenment out of the equation. We can assume that life back then was way more spiritual than our lives today are. And going by the little I know about the paranormal and the unconscious and the idea of how all is connected, it is by no means said that we are entirely on the right track in our completely reason based cultural assumptions. So they might have compensated some of our advantages with knowledge now lost to us (as a matter of fact, that rising religion back in the day did their damnest to assimilate or kill that cultural heritage off). 

Who are the Nibelungs? (Part 3)

From what we can tell, it's been a very dynamic mix of different cultures settling down. In a way, the people starting their new lives in what would become Europe had their own intense culture war going. We know who lost, in hindsight. But how that war was fought is a different story. We also know of the tribal nature of those settlers, how they travelled a lot, and how they took impulses from everywhere. In that particular time, we can say we have lots of leeway to be creative within the imaginable. The smaller, the more isolated a tribe is, the more strange it could be.

Other than that, the Nibelungs are a spiritual people. How else could they have lived meaningful lives back then? Tapping into the (collective?) unconscious like that should offer some alleviation, help and even healing, but it also (for sure) brings our heroes a lot closer to things we'd love to keep in the dark nowadays. Those struggles back then were as real as today. Them going out to fight dragons or haggle with the gods should tap into the same sphere as us getting hunted or abducted by aliens. And just like we will find traces but no proof, because we tend to ignore those things in general, they might have encountered and fought those things for real (which is a leap I'll allow myself, since this is a game, after all).

What exactly that might mean and which symbols and systems to use to express it all in the game will be for me to explore in the future. A lot of it is already there. If you take a look at character creation (which is pretty much the same after all those years ...), you can end up with an elf, a dwarf or a troll. The sleight of hand here is that I'd argue that it is still as historically accurate as history can be. Ha!

Representing history accurately. Ha! [source]

One last thing. You might ask yourself, why go through all that to write a game, to which I have to say: it's fun, what else is there to know :) If there's value beyond that, we'll find out, I guess.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Lost Songs of the Nibelungs: Mission Statement 2021

Time to tackle this beast again. While we work hard on getting my first take on a complete game published and distributed, it's always been my declared goal to make all this happen to allow Lost Songs to be my best effort. Because I care about it. I have been a bit silent about it on the blog, about where I am in that regard, but that's just me being busy and doing this on the side. As you will have noticed, my ramblings had gotten somewhat redundant and more and more, let's say, baroque in the last few months ... Most certainly because 2020 was a snail-suckling fuckfest of epic proportions. So now for something more productive.(Maybe, no promisses) 

That time again ... [source]
What you don't need ...

Here's one preconception that won't hold for Lost Songs: it needs to be a pastiche of some sort of existing game. If you want to trace the origins of this (and I make no effort to hide any of it here on the blog), you are free to go on a deep dive to find and see all of it. Or talk to me about it. I'll probably give you an ear full or two of half-assed theories about why Hit Points are Confidence and how that is actually psychologically sound, design-wise and in general. 

The truth is, you don't need another clone or re-hash or reiteration of games that already exist. Not from me, anyway. It's all out there, most of it for free, and if you by now aren't avoiding the sugar-coated money-milking machine that is corporate roleplaying, I don't know what to tell you other than that I have a bridge to sell for you ... Anyway, there is a world of games out there, catering to many of the same basic assumptions. There are bad takes and there are good takes. You are good in that department. Roam free, my friends ...

All I'm saying, is, that since all of that is out there, I feel no obligation what-so-ever to cater to that in any way shape or form. There is room for all kinds of experiements, and mainstream looks a bit too cozy and a bit too insane to me right now.

What to expect

As I said, I'm giving this my best effort. What this meant up to this point, was going as far as not only writing and testing and more writing about Lost Songs in the last, what, six years, going hard on seven? I also wrote and am about to publish a (completely different? to some extent different ...) roleplaying game, just to see what it takes. Just to be prepared. I'm not saying it to brag (there is nothing to brag about, tbh, it is what it is), I'm saying it to make a point: I want to publish a game, I need to see what it takes.

There is another dimension to this, and that would be the fact that it actually helps to have different projects at different stages in the air. The ideas hold each other in check, so to say (which means I will give The Grind some love as I go into the next stage with LSotN). All of this already took years and will take some more, if I keep the pace I'm having.

Many will have moved on by then, I presume (many already have). In a way, it's funny. If you go the distance, you don't care that much about the turnout. Attention in the age of the internet is fickle. If something can't be satisfyied within a forseeable future, people will move on. That's ok. I have made friends here and we keep in touch. The same will be true when I get Lost Songs out there. So I'm sure I can make someone happy when this becomes a reality.


There's also an extensive amount of research to this. For what I'm trying to do, it needs a exhaustive knowledge about history, psychology and game design. 'Exhaustive' means in this context, enough for me to be comfortable with the result. I actually want to have an inkling how people have lived 1500 years ago in Europe. What houses, what music, what food, what languages ... That's some dark history right there, with lots of unexplored areas, actually. Which is where psychology bridges the gap, I guess. And since I'm not writing a fricking novel here, game design is my form of expression.

That's what you can expect, then. If you care enough to stick around (or if the short attention span cycle brought you by in a couple of years from now). A game based on the potential exhibited so far here and with my other publications. Is that enough? I'd say, it's honest. Let's go from there.

What I aim for

It's not that there isn't any vision, and it might very well be out of my reach. Still, something to aspire to, so here it goes. I want players and DMs of this game to get an inkling what live had been like back then. To gain some insight into the kitchens of the old Germanic people. Playing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs, you should take away an idea how those legends of old came to pass and what they meant to the people telling them.

Not in the sense of a documentary, or anything like this. It'll still have zombies and tentacles and cosmic horror and Elves and Dwarves ... just through the lense of someone who lived 1500 years ago. See? That's the thing. It's not something the players need to bring to the table, it's something the game needs to evoke when it's played, not even when it's read. That's with the designer. If I'm not able to deliver that, I failed you when you actually decided to explore the game.

I keep saying that roleplaying games are a distinct form of medium, so this is what it takes to make that happen, imo. Player will be heroes, but they might die from the damage they received in a snow storm short before fulfilling their destiny. It should be a wild ride, the game should allow players to play the system to have their characters excell, but failing needs to be satisfying as well. The story told needs to be great, just from the system output alone. It needs to make the DM look good, offer a (plat)form of expession specially customized for this experience.

It all needs to come together, and I have a very specific idea about the layout, that will be very experimental (to say the least .. but it might just work). It needs to be complete, which might make another intensive play-testing campaign necessary .. In the end, I need to be happy with it. A good friend of mine said the game so far reinded him of a very complex clockwork of a system (a comment I still appreciate, after all those years). Problem with that is, that it takes little to go wrong with that big-time.

Either way, you probably guessed it by now, it will be very special interest :D

Goths, before it was cool [source]
Anyway, lets write this mother ...

You see, many, many construction sites. As it is, I can make that happen at the table, if I DM it. To some extent I can make it work if I'm accompanying a DM helming a game. It needs more than that, and if you actually read the above, you know I have set up some hard standards for this. So far it's a fun experience (and yes, I know I'm strange).

I'd love to see the following happen in 2021:

  • a complete collection of everything I did for the game so far (all 4 books)
  • collecting, expanding and summarizing my research into the Dark Ages
  • getting an idea what this should look like, as far as layout and artwork go (what can I do, what could I invest, how far can I push this) 

I expect this to keep me occupied for some time, with some fun projects on the side (we are play-testing/developing that module I have talked about, called THE RISE OF ROBO-HITLER, and it's a hoot). So I will keep you all informed (the three people reading the blog, ha!).

One last thing I have learned and will dare to share here: it doesn't matter as much how long it takes to get something finished, finishing it is what counts. That's what people need to have confidence in. I want this to exist, so it will exist. And as long as I have a say in how it will exist, it'll be something I will be proud of to have in the hands of others.

I wonder, of course, if anybody out there is still interested in seeing how this turn out. So if that's the case, it'd make me really, really happy to see a comment about that below. Show some love, if you feel like it. Gimme that vote of confidence. It goes a long way (as this might still go sideways, for some reason or another ...).


Sunday, January 24, 2021

Roleplaying Games might not be games anymore (although it's in the title)

I should find ways to check my blogroll more often ... Anyway, here are my thoughts on the post What is a Game over on Classic RPG Realm (it's good reading). I commented there as well (comment still pending as of this writing), go at it here from scratch and from another angle.

Not yet back to full form (and I should start talking about something else, maybe), but I gave it my best shot. Here's to more writing in 2021! I'll try to keep it short ...

So 5e is not a game, is it?

Classic RPG Realm (CRR for short?) goes with the definition offered by a philosopher called Bernard Suits called Lusory attitude (wiki source for the following book quote):

"To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]."

I can only argue against what is written above (haven't read the book, but it isn't necessary for the argument I'm going to make), and I would say that while the quote above mirrors to some extent what is happening before and during a "game", it is vague in what I deem most necessary, that (as he puts it) "specific state of affairs": the motivation.

The reason to engage and invest is our most fundamental drive for all activities, and shapes our personalities as much as it expresses them. We do stuff for fun, of course, but also out of friendship or pride or guilt or greed or fame or dopamine or ... well, there is a whole hierarchy of reasons to do anything (or nothing) at all.

So, where I think the definition above is faulty might best be described as a lack of First Principle Thinking (following Elon Musk's definition here, as per the link): the evidence suggests that "gaming" traditionally* is not a separate activity that is to be distinguished from other activities people engage with, as for instance "play" naturally emerges with children as a method of learning and could therefore be argued as a fundamental means to learn about the world surrounding us. It is a variant of adaptation, as can be observed from very early on with babies, for instance. A theme we carry with us through life.


Proof that we are biologically and psychologically wired like that can easily be found in all research out there about immersion and flow states and all that other fun stuff we experience when reading or when "playing". Sports would in that regard be a rudimentary form of "play", so this can be applied very broadly. As a matter of fact, the etymological meaning of "game"  not only derives from old versions of "fun" and "entertainment", it actually includes "sport" (from Old Norse).

And this is where, in my opinion, First Principle Thinking is applicable. At some point we started deluding the original meaning of "game" towards an analogy to what we saw around us instead of connecting it with why we are motivated to do the things we do. In assuming there is a distinction to very fundamental (biological, even) functions we need to exercise in order to thrive, one must end up with something like the definition offered above.

Mr. Suit furthermore defines games as "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles" (same book, same wiki quote), and I take issue with the word "unnecessary" here, for the reasons summoned above. To solve, for instance, a morale dilemma in a "virtual" or mind space is no different than doing so in reality and by no means trivial. We learn and grow by doing (playing!) those thought experiments.

What's more, taking the "game" serious can actually yield tremendous emotional feedback. In other words, the more a "player" believes it to be real, the more they are engaged, the more insight they may potentially take away from the experience. I'd argue that one could not achieve that kind of involvement without acknowledging that our need to "game" is deeply wired into personal growth and learning!


However, the meaning of words may change ...

We need proper definitions to describe and (ultimately) understand reality. It's how we roll. There happened a lot in the good old world since Old Norse had need to describe it. Things actually changed quite a bit, and so did our entertainment. The question is if the meaning of the word "game" changed with it or if we just expanded on the semantic content the word carries.

This isn't a binary problem contained to the described metric, in my opinion. It needn't be just the one or the other, it rather offers an opportunity: we can define us within that (fake, see below) spectrum between the traditional or modern understanding of what "games" are or we can exclude roleplaying games from being "games" as per the definition mainstream keeps pushing as the new reality what "games" are supposed to be. Because that's where that new definition of "games" nowadays comes from, which would be something to consume, entertainment for entertainment's sake while generating enough motivation to make one pay for it.

Again, if you see "gaming" as an activity isolated from activities necessary for personal growth (as in learning or doing sports, for instance), you end up seeing (and treating) it as a commodity in the classical economical fashion, which MUST lead to a process in which you sooner or later derive the isolated activity of all, say, more artsy or even spiritual elements and reduce it to the equvalent of a theme park experience. And that is, ultimately, what 5e attempts to be.

Hence, my argument would be two-fold. While 5e might be less of a game in a more traditional* sense, it is very much so in the common understanding of the word. We can easily acknowledge that. However, that has huge implications for those more traditional* roleplaying games, as they (and the title of this post already alludes to as much) are not games anymore.

Different realities [source]

See what I did there? The meaning shifted, not the activity. But what does that leave us with? Well, anyone spending any time here on the blog should have an inkling where I'm heading with this ...  If roleplaying games are, indeed, a form of medium (like books or movies are) and if we can accept that all those "classic" mediums are symbolic (or abstract) representations of reality, altered to offer growth through interaction, then we already have our answer. Somewhat.

Here's what I'm saying in other terms: rpgs offer, just like books and movies and all other mediums, an invitation to explore reality by other means (rules, languages, pictures ...). This is the core value of roleplaying games. That the means of interaction with this specific medium can be described as "playing" or "gaming" is only problematic if those words can not mean the same as "reading a book".

To be a traditional rpg, it needs to mirror reality in some non-trivial capacity. In other words, it needs to offer patterns that relate to our understanding of how things work. Can have magic and monsters and all that, but must follow the principle of "what if magic was real" or "what if monsters were real". It needs to connect meaningfully so that those interacting with the medium can extract insight from it that applies to their life. It needs reference to test hypothesis ...

On the other side, if characters are always winning with no risk of death, damage, loss or injury, if the learning pattern is reduced to some form of accumulation dissociated from actions or capabilities (xp just for playing or being there, for instance), if all of it is, in short, reduced to mindless entertainment (as in, entertainment that suggests the mind needn't be engaged**), we sure could argue that we are talking about different types of activity.

And if furthermore the definition of what the word "game" means is shifted so far from the requirements described above that the experience doesn't match that way anymore between editions of the same product (say, 2e vs. 5e), we might have to (at least) make those distinctions known.

Other mediums have the same problem, oh my!

Yes, it's true, the requirements stated above also don't apply to all media. Or rather, all media can manifest more on the 5e side of things. I can't argue that, instead I would say it actually proves my point. If you reduce all forms of entertainment to commodities, you will observe the same phenomena across all media for the same reasons.

Here's an angle that highlights the problem from another side: one way to see that this is true is that the content of media is more and more questioned and then regulated along ideologic or political guidelines. Huckleberry Finn was censored and is censored instead of being discussed in its (historical or morale) context and the discussion if orcs are racist just can't seem to die (they aren't, here's why), to name but two examples.

How does this relate, you might ask? Well, if entertainment is generally deemed a commodity instead of, say, a form of expression (or a sport or even an artform!), it is obvious that those not understanding this as a misconception are tempted to superficially "fill" content with the meaning they see fit or change it to their liking. It's not a new problem, but one that occurs more and more regularly, actually to an extend where people (today (again?) start to self-censor to avoid social media repression (one shouldn't break the law, of course).

And that's just that, since the phenoma are similar across all media, we can not only postulate that rpg are a form of media, but also say that there is a meaninfull distinction between media manifesting as commodity (basically the big corp. or capitalist appproach) and the manifestation as some form of "symbolic (or abstract) representations of reality" (or art, maybe?).

There is a struggle going on and one could be inclined to call it more of a spectrum (art - commodity). However, that would imply that we will see a measurable and more or less static expression of all forms of manifestations across said spectrum, and that definitely is NOT the case as one side (the commodity-side) more and more dominates the other***.

In its extreme, the consumer-approach to media could destroy or taint almost all forms of meaningfull medial expression. Everythig is a theme park, everything is a beautiful icecream cone and everything costs while being a meaningless waste of time. Nothing will relate to reality. Consequently, you own nothing, you owe instead of earning and you do nothing but being entertained as it is deemed proper and ...


We are talking extremes here, of course. Not saying any of this is happening, of course. Microtransactions are fake news, of course ...

Anyway, I digress. The terms "game" and "play" can only mean all of it if one isn't trying to own and destroy the other with an agenda to hold sway on how reality is to be interpreted. It is a general problem concerning all media, and it needs to be addressed.

A rose is a rose is a rose ...

I sure don't have all the answers, but if 5e wants to be a game, it can have the monicker, but it isn't a "traditional" rpg anymore and we should start exploring what those old rpgs are or how to call "our" way of interacting with that new form of medium in a hostile media landscape ... This is my little contribution towards that end, and there will be more of the same in the future (I hope).

Let's close with saying it's a complex issue, but very much worth exploring and talking about, as there are real dangers in how we treat our media. I see a lot of freedom vanishing with big publishers getting more and more powerful. Little voices disappear, big corp dictates the narrative and something needs to be done about that.

Just saying "5e isn't a game" touches on some truth, but really doesn't cut it, imo. 5e is on the winning side, and if we want to see some change, we let them have the terminology and come up with our own. Or at least create some awareness to the difference between playing as a consumer and participating meaningfully in a media-driven interaction.

So what do you guys think?


*Damn, first footnote in ages, feels like. Anyway, "traditionally" is unfortunately a very vague term in this regard, as the original western (culturally, not etymologically) understanding of playing or gaming was that it's a waste of time. It's that old-timey concept you might know from your grandparents, for instance. So to be more precise about what we are saying here, I'd define "traditionally" as the short period of time when psychology recognized the value of play and before it the culture shifted the terminology towards gaming being a commodity. For anyone interested in an excellent treatment of the subject, I recommend this paper by Piaget as a good starting point. I'd wager it mirrors Gygax's understanding of what play means, as he grew up with teachers echoing it into schools ... it's definitely what I'm talking about here.

** Which is, btw, my main gripe with this sort of thing: since we still interact, suggesting that we don't need to reflect on what we are experiencing is VERY VERY problematic as it very nicely covers all forms of manipulation up to infecting people's minds with all sorts of dangerous ideologies. You were just reading Harry Potter, now you accept a society ruled by the elites, that kind of thing ...

*** Ok, this might be a more controversial opinion. That said, scientifically speaking, spectrums describe a more or less static order between two extremes, or if there are shifts, they are also at least cyclic, so that there might be differences in different states, but an overall constant that allows a classification as "spectrum". I'd argue that this isn't the case here, as one form of media expression seems to supersede the other ...

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Innovation in RPG-Land Part 3: Good rules are hard to write (or so the song goes)

I'll just pretend 2020 didn't happen, if that's alright with you ... I've done lots of posts over the years about how design emerges from scratch to finish. At least as far as concepts go. I also can DM those designs or even get others to DM them. The next problem, however, is writing them down in a way that someone who just read the rules is able to DM them as I would. It's my attempt to map how innovation is linked to several aspects on why and how we write rules. It was one of the hardest posts to write, btw. Took me months ...

Eric over at the Methods & Madness blog incidentally started a series some time ago that goes in a very similar direction and you can check out Part 1 of that series here

Also have Part 1 and Part 2 of my thoughts on this from different angles ...

Where to begin?

From a designer's point of view, you'll have to write your concepts down, but with me it turned out to be more of a stream of consciousness type of organization and bound to be patchwork to some degree. I tried writing the rules for the game I'm working on down in a somewhat coherent way, but I gave them to test-readers and the result was in almost all cases the same: no one could have reproduced the rules. No one understood the game just from reading what I gave them (sorry about that, guys).

Which leads to the first important insight, I guess. Rule books should fulfill at least three basic functions: (1) reading them from front to back should teach you the game proper and how to use the book when playing it, which (2) means that the information presented should also be arranged in a way that allows easy access to all relevant material (tables, lists, generators, etc.) and (3) should work as a reference guide for all terminology the game uses (which means it needs an extensive glossary). Well, that and it should look nice, doesn't it?

However, that's 'just' superficial structure (or rather, something a publication needs to feature) and not yet rules presented in words (or graphics or pictures ...). It doesn't answer the question of how exactly all that information needs to be arranged for optimal effect. It is not enough to say "Well, you have to do it right, of course!" (which seems the go-to kind of advice you get when you ask people that don't know any better and it isn't helpful). It just covers typographical information structure, if you will.

Standards? What standards?

All right, all right, so I have a shit-ton of information I need to arrange in a meaningful way and I need to hit the notes I described above while doing so. How do I do that and where do I look for examples? The first thing would be to research how we learn new things, right?

Right. While it is true that we all learn differently (we can even chose between different models about how differently we are learning, figure that), the first thing we need to realize is that even if every individual would have an approach that'd be ideal for them to learn, well, anything, common sense dictates that whoever is reading a book might have learned all kinds of different techniques with all kinds of varied success (or lack thereof) and therefore ... it doesn't matter that much?

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Sort of. It depends on how big of an overlap between the game you wrote and what happens at any given table you actually want (or need) to make the game a success. If you write a D&D clone, you can full well expect that most of the people showing any interest at all already know the original rules and (at best) will be looking for the odd rules variant they can use for their homebrew instead of actually playing the clone as written. The rules needn't be coherent or even complete to make a clone accessible for the intended target group.

With varying degree the same is true for games hewing close to the established basic assumptions of what role-playing games are (i. e., other popular brands ... it's not that anyone made an effort to create such an understanding beyond that). Abilities and Skills and some sort of die system to glue it all together while being reminiscent of "that one popular game". It'll get all the more traction the more familiarity with something known makes access easy. The further you go away from the "known", the more difficult it'll be to explain a game ... up to the point where people actually won't put in the effort to learn your game (which is a totally different story, I guess).

That said, all of the above is more or less betting on the "overlap" as a way to get a game played at all, even if it just plays like any other game of CoC (or whatever). The more "original" a game is, the more a designer will have to actually explain how a reader will be able to play the game as the designer would. The text needs to be written and presented in a way that allows strangers to recreate the experience of playing that one specific game.

A game like that would need to be as complete as possible and thoroughly tested. All possibilities of how that game might manifest need to be addressed. The onformation needs to be arranged ... carefully, which is why we should take a closer look at those games to get an idea how to make that work, exactly.

Words carry meaning (when arrayed properly)

It is not surprising that successfull games can make for good examples. Since "successfull" is a matter of debate, I'd go for those games that managed to change the gaming culture lastingly. Take Vampire: the Masquerade, for example. Undeniable impact, completely new set of rules ...

How did they present their game? Lots of exposition. Tons of it: First edition (1991) starts with a narrator, goes on establishing the world of darkness and its terms, then lays down a general understanding of how to play the game (defining the designer's stance and philosophy or approach, no rules yet), again with lots of little flavor pieces in between (Book of Nod, quotes, heavy on the artwork as well to get a reader in the mood) and it's only at page 31 (the beginning of chapter 2) that they go into the rules proper.

If the reader is invested at that point, it is in the world not the rules. It inspires readers to explore a world of gothic punk, and the 90s where full of sources to fuel something like that (The Crow, Anne Rice, Tim Burton ... it was heavey on the zeitgeist). Getting the genre and setting across like they managed to, activated people enough to go and read how they can play in that world. You wanted to know how to play a Vampire and how to experience stories in this world. You were left wanting more. I'd argue that a huge part of the success of Vampire was having a hierarchy to the presented information. It penned out the possibilities of the stories players will experience using the terminology of that world before showing how to actually do that. It's genius. A perfect storm of timing, presentation and innovation.


So other than being typocraphically challenging, it is the order of the information you present that is of great importance (with art and artwork being a third layer a good rpg book might need to exhibit). It is why we should assume linear reading as one main way of reception, btw, as it is most likely the first appoach anyone will make with any book (maybe after looking at the pictures first). The best way to get some handle on the contents of a book is to read it from beginning to end, so that should best be accomodated and encouraged.

You should also make the terminology the game uses as clear as possible from the beginning AND the terminology needs to be chosen carefully as well (as the terms used regularly will color the gaming experience). In general it seems best to start wide, leaving lots of room for the reader to get comfortable and oriented. Get more and more specific and find ways to keep the reader engaged, for instance by using connected and colorful examples and artwork as well as a typocraphical structure to have the reader informed about where they are at all times.

Alter the tone as well. Be precise when talking rules, be conversational when talking concepts and build tension when telling stories. Make clear distinctions when shifting between tones.

It is a matter of taste, now, if you write with the Gamemaster in mind from the beginning. Arguably, the only person reading a role-plaing book completely is the person actually willing to make a game happen, so there is that. It doesn't hurt, however, to start with the general assumptions of a game and have the more specific stuff (that'll definitely be for the DM) more in the back. I'd say most structures will lend themselves towards a general part in the beginning and the gamemaster part in the end.

Lots of craft (some talent, some luck)

Well, that's the scope of it. But why is it relevant? Maybe it tries to show that there's lots of room to grow when designing rules. Maybe it makes an argument for the worth of the hard work that goes into writing and designing rules. It's a craft.

Recognition is a completely different aspect, though, as is success. Both are only barely connected to how "good" a work is. If you are putting out good work constantly, there are good chances that it'll be recognized somehow, although the degree is dependant on factors that mean additional work unrelated to creating (that is: marketing).

In my experience (limited as it may be), just putting in the work will impress people most of the time, irregardless of the quality of the work. Getting them engaged enough to actually invest into it is an entirely different matter. Creating enough buzz to actually finance a work is another job altogether.

Art adds yet another dimension to craft (is there art without craft? I'd say: no), but not necessarily in a linear fashion (as in: craft allows manifesting art as intended, but mastering a craft is a worthy goal in itself) and it might even be harder to do marketing for. Those innovating will always have a harder time to also sell it.  

Talent, finally, would be how fast you pick up a craft and how far you can push it.

Talent is where talent goes ... [Source]

The rest is luck, or ...

Is that it?

Unfortunately not, as far as culture is concerned. Creating is a high risk, high reward endeavor because we, as a culture, make it so. Used to, anyway. In our digital age it seems more and more like something that an entitled group of people is allowed to get an audience for: big corp (Disney, among few others) and the dopamine-dependant shills that dominate twitter with empty but popular and intoxicating word-clouds ...

I digress, but not without reason. Mentioning the culture is important in that creators can only create, the culture is what carries and forwards them. If a culture shifts significantly into one direction, it doesn't change what's available, it changes what is picked as relevant. Access is not only about who gets a platform, it's also about what is favored. Both shape and color the input, which then encourages creators to act certain ways.

It's easy to see if a culture stifles or favors innovation and who has access to it by looking at the output it allows and the standards it endorses. Which neatly brings us back to writing rules well, I guess. As established above, rules only need to be written very well when the designs they describe are not already established to some degree or another.

If the only games getting tracktion are revisions of something already established, you have indicators on hand that the culture (or scene) involved is stagnating for lack of innovation. And if innovation is lacking, it's not (never) for the lack of potential. So there is one example. School books might be another good example where the discrepancy between what's possible and what's done is easily asserted. And so it goes.

Coming full circle (where to stop?)

So, fucking Covid, right? Sorry, couldn't resist the punchline ... The whole pandemic-business is changing our culture massively right now. If you take 5 years to write a game, and you started 5 years ago from today, the perception of what was already written will have shifted dramatically between 2019 and 2020 alone. There's no helping it, might shift further as well. It might even be almost impossible to assert how the (imminent?) changes in culture actually affect a work about to be ublished, but mostly written with a different cultural background in mind.

In conclusion, good rules are hard to write and depend as much on the climate and culture they are written in as on the craft and talent of the author. 

If nothing else, I hope this mess of a text (and the other parts of this series) help a bit showcasing the importance of culture beyond monetary gain and the importance of innovation. RPG-material just doesn't appear without context, it almost always echoes the surroundings it appears in. Nurturing innovation needs nurturing in a culture.

 Which just ends up producing more questions I don't have an answer to: what is the status of our little rpg-scene? Is it nurturing? Are there any problems, maybe? If so, what could we do to make it better? So, what do you guys think?