Wednesday, October 27, 2010

High Score!

@zarawesome: is there any way to make a mmo system that doesn't make every player into a number crunching maniac

Territan: @zarawesome Yes: Don't let the players see the numbers. Hide the stats and let 'em guess. They're adiegetic anyway.

@zarawesome: @territan thing is, in MMOs, roleplaying is less diegetic than number crunching

@Territan: @zarawesome No, the RP is diegetic, and the numbers are adiegetic. But the players prefer the numbers, so the MMO panders.

@Territan: @zarawesome Just to confirm, we're NOT talking about a Math Blaster MMO, are we? If we are, then please parson my confusion.

@Territan: On the bright side, I just got a boffo lead into an IPTD post.

Buy the Numbers!

He does raise a sad, salient point, however.

It's said that numbers rule our lives. And in many cases I can't argue; beside being who we are, we are also the physical representation (and intersection) of a cluster of database keys: identification numbers, bank account numbers, and so on. And to many, what we represent is more interesting than who we actually are, hence the popularity of identity theft.

I can't argue that there is power in numbers. Heck, we wouldn't have gotten to the moon without slide rules, and a lot of scientific advances came about because people sat down and worked things out. In fact, my own foray into live gaming was touched by mathematics, not so much by the crunching of numbers, but the use of set and graph theory to formalize interactions between characters when plotting. Interesting stuff, but I have another blog for that and no, I'm not giving you the link.

Numbers play an important role in many games; if winning isn't important, then why keep score? Goals, baskets, runs, strokes, minutes, seconds, how many of this, how much of that... No greater testament to the desire to hit extreme marks exists than the Guinness Book of World Records, although the fitness industry runs a close, shameful second.

"This is a bank raid" / "This is a fish shop"

What do all these numbers have to do with roleplaying? In most cases, the relationship is "necessary evil."

We generally understand "roleplaying" as adopting a persona (a "role," if you will) and portraying it through a number of situations in a hopefully entertaining manner (or as it's known in some circles, "play.") (The "ing" is syntactic sugar, the participlification of the verb.)

But then, look at its roots. The original roleplaying game got its start when someone extrapolated the fighting unit down to its lowest level, each "unit" on the map representing an individual with different skills and abilities. Before it could be called "roleplaying," it was a very specialized branch of "wargaming." It was also completely dependent upon numbers for unit strengths and comparisons.

That's why they're used now in so many games: as comparators. If A and B are numbers, then comparing them becomes easy: either A<B, A=B, or A>B. If A and B are words, then their comparison becomes a tricky matter. How do you determine which of "exceptional" and "fantastic" would be the victor in a fight? And even if you do have the words arranged into a hard-and-fast scale, then you're still working with numbers; you've just given them different names.

A 10 by any other name...

TSR's Marvel Super Heroes had a universal table with word rankings. It started with the enigmatic "Shift-Zero," went to more conventional language like "Feeble," "Poor," "Typical," "Good," "Excellent," "Remarkable," "Incredible," "Amazing," "Monstrous," "Unearthly," switched back to the more evocative but less descriptive "Shift-X," "Shift-Y", "Shift-Z," "Class 1000," "Class 3000," "Class 5000," and finally to the most descriptive and enigmatic, "Beyond."

("Well, why didn't you just make 'Feeble' that much weaker?" "But ours goes to 'Shift-Zero.'")

They could have worked words like "Extraordinary," "Prodigious," "Phenomenal," "Outstanding," "Exceptional," "Stupendous," and "Godlike" (and "Decrepit" for that "Shift-Zero") into the mix without too much trouble. It can't be that my thesaurus is so much better than theirs was, can it?

But all that is irrelevant, because the words meant less than their positioning in the list. Below each word was a range of rolls, which you still had to make on the dice to see how you did with your attribute being at whatever level it was. And under certain circumstances, you would shift left or right a number of columns to simulate what you got not being so hot in that case.

Lost in the Fog

That's another advantage that numbers bring over words: a major element assumed in the wargames of old was (and still is, if you can find them) randomness. Given two units of precisely equal strength, which wins? They could fight to a standstill, or some minute advantage of situation would give one or the other an edge. They used dice for that, and many roleplaying games still use dice today, though some have tried to kick the habit. But that's a post for another day.

It's very difficult to randomize a word. Randomize "prodigious," and what do you get? "O Girou Dips?" "I Dig U Spoor"? And once you've turned it into babbling nonsense, how do you compare it to the likes of "Tina XC, Elope?" or "Rake Ramble?" You don't. That's just silly.

It's not "dietetic," you stupid iPhone!

The word I was having trouble with this morning was "diegetic." It refers to how something does (if it's diegetic (/dī·ə·jĕ'·tik/)) or doesn't (if it's adiegetic /ā'·dī·ə·jĕ·tik/)) fit appropriately into a genre as the characters within it would perceive it. The word has been tossed around a lot in academic circles, as people have tried to formally explain what goes on in this peculiar business called "roleplaying" and how it can be improved. (That too is a posting for another day.)

And the assortment of numbers, ratings, and statistics that players are trying to max out are adiegetic. The characters within the game wouldn't see them as such, even though the game couldn't exist without them. Like I said, "necessary evil." This is the "necessary" part.

And to some, that's a huge problem. There's always pressure to make the good numbers as big as possible and make the bad numbers as small as possible. This is called minimaxing, and a lot of people hate it because it detracts from the game. To add insult to injury, to others it not only doesn't hurt the game, it is the game, and the roleplaying is just a means to an end, if even that. This is the "evil" part.

My cat's breath smells like cat food!

The big question, what everyone likes to talk about, and what spurred the tweets above, is what to do about this deplorable situation of people playing a game in a manner which is less roleplaying and more applied math. Of course, because it's such a necessity, it could be hard to change. It may just be the nature of the beast.

What makes it a problem is that two people at the table with the same books open and similar sheets of statistics splayed out in front of them may be playing different games. One player is "speaking" with the elven princess about the mysterious stranger galvanizing the goblins in the valley into a formidable army, frustrated with the apathy of the other, and the other wants to give up on talking with that elf chicky and get down into that valley so he can earn enough experience to level up and score those extra bonuses.

Now go back and read that statement again: the two players talked about have a problem with each other: One is fully engaged in the dramatic scenery, while the other just wants to crunch the numbers (and the opposition). The problem is a two-way street, and people on both sides of the issue, roleplaying vs. rollplaying, can be put off by the other. The validity of each style can be brought into question by the other side, and more often than not the "dispute" is about players playing in a manner which we don't like.

Where the problem really gets sharp is that neither of them are wrong. Both are okay ways to play. The divide occurs because we invest ourselves emotionally in one manner of play, and come to find the other distasteful.

Sadly, this is a problem best dealt with by avoidance. Even if everyone at the table has decided upon a game to play, it still pays to ask if people are interested in the game for the same reasons. Otherwise you may have to strike a balance between system and story.

And just to get back to the beginning...

The MMO that @zarawesome was talking about? City of Heroes, which is one of the very late model graphical MMOs, a MUD with all the bells and whistles, in which some people play for the interesting stories and some people just want to level up. It's the eternal problem, of course, and the makers play no favorites because both markets can be lucrative.

Some game designers want to emphasize one over the other. This is perhaps another reason why the "story games" I talked about earlier came about, and why a lot of players don't like those.

On reflection, this may be why a lot of talk about roleplaying theory gets bandied about, to explain what's going on and what people get out of the activity and how it can be improved. It looks like the Theory Rundown may have to come sooner rather than later.

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