Monday, February 12, 2018

A Simpler, More Complex Time

On a comment on someone else's blog post (I have since lost the link and can't find it), I'd said something to the effect that the RPGs of the 1970s and 1980s were designed to run on the same hardware that modern RPGs do, but the modern processors have less capacity and heat up faster when confronted with complex math.

At the time, it was a joke. Then I wasn't sure.

Now I'm Sure: It's Not a Joke.

Odds are you've seen the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, yes? Or its much more mathy cousin Pathfinder? Certainly you have. Then theres's their common relative, 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, that neither talk about; it sits alone at its own table at the family reunions, lamenting what it might have done with its life.

But then there are those with a much lighter touch. Fate is one of my go-tos for narrative-heavy action. And in fact, there's a whole slew of "story games" that go very light on system, so much so that they're decidedly less game and more mechanical writing assistant.

But of course, this wasn't always the case.

The tabletop roleplaying game has changed a good bit since 1974. The games back then were pretty hard takes on simulationism. Or at least, any narrative based in those games were rooted in the artifacts of the simulation, like running out of rations or ammunition. Even hit points weren't a pure measure of one's capacity for receiving damage, but rather a gauge of their general capacity to keep from getting killed. While that may not sound like a big difference, that simple change of statement means you need to reinterpret what it means to be at, say, 50% hit points.

Why So Simulationist?

Remember that the RPG as we've come to know it today started as a single-unit implementation of the classic wargame, where rather than controlling a small army (or a large one), each person controlled just one character and tracked its stats in much greater resolution. That those old games were simulationist is hardly a surprise.

But the degree... oh, man! Show a contemporary gamer some of the other very old games from those times, and smoke might pour from their ears. You also had the problem of people writing RPGs, the Johnny-come-lately game form, in much the same way they wrote wargames before them, with predictably unfortunate results.

Was it really that bad?

DragonQuest cover

Take this fellow, for instance. DragonQuest was published by Simulations Publications Inc., the wargame company that made games and published a magazine until it was devoured by TSR. This game was playable then, "then" being 1980, a time when books wore their title pages on their covers, it seems. It even won awards then. This game is playable now—in theory. The problem is that it might be tricky finding contemporary players for a game whose rules are legal-numbered (seriously, they are literally numbered and sub-numbered for easy callbacks and reference) and read a bit like stereo instructions. If you're not a stereo enthusiast, it might be a bit daunting. And fercryinoutloud, it's not even that thick a book!

I will also throw some shade at Chivalry & Sorcery, but I'll throw it, its shade, and the can of worms it opens into the mix later, for reasons. Really, it doesn't pay to add the worms into the recipe too early.

It's those damn millenials story-gamers, right?

I will not say it is the fault of the narrative gamers. And mark well that emphasis; what the story-game did is open up new theory in game design, perfectly valid to its practitioners. And yes, story games do tend to sacrifice as much math as possible.

But to blame one type of game for the dumbing down of another might be —wait, might? Let me think... no, it absolutely is either the worst insult or the greatest abnegation of responsibility for the preservation of one's craft. I mean, no twue1 grognard would let their design for a proper simulationist game be influenced by story elements, right?

And besides, the Simplification began long before the story game came into vogue. Blaming them is just silly.

Millennium s End cover

Disclaimer: I can and do appreciate both forms. My ire is reserved not for either form, but for those who cleave exclusively to one form and spit on the other. In that dualist nature, I am most singular.

There have been other games that tried to push against the urge to simplicity, with usually less-than-stellar results. For instance, take this entry on the bookshelf, Millennium's End. It has a publication date of 1990, so it had some distance from the earlier efforts. It wanted a gritty, visceral, and especially simulationist feel to combat, so it included plastic overlays. In combat, the GM would choose a silhouette that matched the target, stuck the appropriate overlay with numbered dots over that silhouette, and roll for hit location in multiple senses.

Also consider Phoenix Command (not pictured)2 from Leading Edge Games, which was designed by literal rocket scientists to provide the most simulationist combat system available.

Or TriTac's house system, used in the likes of FTL 2448 or Stalking the Night Fantastic, also not pictured3. For hit locations, it divided the humanoid form into grids, and you'd roll multiple d6s to determine where you hit, which you needed to see how much abuse that part could take and what damage it did before punching clean through the body and out the other side, perhaps to the target behind. Sniper rifles could get nasty.

But you get the idea: Many designers' attempts to build games that embraced the full, terrible complexities of combat have had lukewarm receptions. Whether because of complex math or involved combat, they didn't catch on as well as they could have, and the simplification continued barely abated over the years.

And this is a pity, because some of those games kind of deserve better.

Have things changed sufficiently that the modern gamer could give them better nowadays? Oh, yes.

Embrace the Complexity

The solution all these years has been to make games that are less complex, on the assumption that this makes them easier to play. And that was true—back then. But there's another way, and it may be time to consider implementing that solution.

Things Change in Both Directions

Games have gotten simpler, yes. But another thing has changed over that same time: Computers have gotten more ubiquitous. Odds are you're not even reading this on a desktop or laptop computer, but your phone.

So, you've got this complex old game you want to play because you want that satisfying simulationist crunch, but aren't so great with the math. Meanwhile, you've got a magic brick in your pocket that pretty much lives to do math when it's not making phone calls... It sounds to me like we should bring these together.

Consider the popularity of programmable calculators to handle bits and pieces of game math back in those days. Well, the calculators these days may be a little harder to program (no orange (F) or green (G) buttons for starters), but they can do so much more, they can show so much more, they can be interacted with in so many more different ways, and damn near everybody's got one.

The Proof of Concept in ...wait, you're going there of all places?!

And there is precedent for this wacky idea. But you're not going to believe it.

The company that originally made the You Don't Know Jack games—

Look, I told you you wouldn't believe it, but there it is. The original series from that publisher was an encapsulated game on a CD, but they branched out from there and got into web services. And for the past few years, the things they've really been selling is permissions to get game codes from their server so any number of people could play by going to a website, entering that code, and playing with their phones. In this way, it's possible to have games with two, three, four, six, eight, even sixteen players.

(Incidental effect: The program you're actually paying for is essentially a console-based web browser with a certificate that lets it request 'room codes' from the server. All the attached graphic and audio assets are incidental.)

The Model of Futuristic Interaction?

Would this change the way the RPG runs? Not necessarily. Many games still need the writer/showrunner/editor; the GM isn't going anywhere. But the tools available to the GMs—and the players too!—can work in the background and do some amazing things.

Fast-Forward to Game Night

So the GM arrives at the place where this game is supposed to run. She's worked with software to draw the maps and make the silhouettes of the people the PCs are going to fight. She's either got a computer of her own4 set up as a server, or the wi-fi connection where she's running this thing is tested and verified. She either connects to or starts up the server, and gets a code to share so her players can join the same game.

The players roll in as players do, and as they arrive each signs into the server using their smart device of choice. Their character sheets are already on the server, and the GM can call them up at any time. The players can also call up their own.

Play begins. It starts out quiet, of course. The GM outlines and describes the situation for her players. They can use their own dice, gamers being gamers and all, but the app provides die-rolling too. In fact, the GM could request rolls from the players that they can't see, so they don't know how well they're doing until she narrates just how well or how poorly they've done. Six taps on six tablets, a single glance at the seventh, and the story continues.

When combat begins, the players can cue up their actions on their devices, and on their turn they can hit transmit. If someone hits, the silhouette of the target and its cover pops up and they can tap where they want to hit. A randomizer will declare what is actually hit, and how much it did blowing through.

Healing, treasure tracking, experience allocation, and all that bookkeeping fade into just a few steps, leaving the group free for other things.

And some folks are already there!

You have facilities like Hero Lab, Roll20, d20Pro, and many other that help with character tracking, math, mapping, die rolls, etc. And people use these to play games remotely, over video chat or in conference calls. It's still a stretch to imagine these tools being used in person, but not much of one; there are groups at my FLGS5 that use these tools at least to some degree. All they lack is the networking.

I gotcher "old school" right heah!

Technology flattens things, like hierarchies and difficulty curves. Imagine taking some of those very old games and building systems to support them in the newer game aids. You want to talk "old school" gaming? Let's play some actual games from the "old school" and see where they take us.

  1. Nope, sorry. Bolding, italics, and taunting misspelling together still fail to convey the sarcasm in that one word. If there were a tag (say, <bleed/>-- get on that, WHATWG) that could cause literal liquid contempt to ooze from one's display, I would use that.
  2. Phoenix Command isn't pictured because the cover is nowhere near as interesting as these others. I also don't have room for it here.
  3. Some of the later Tri-Tac covers were more artistically involved, but the editions I have are pretty starkly plain. Also, again, room.
  4. Despite Apple's claims that this is a post-PC world, note that they still sell personal computers...
  5. I don't own it, but I identify with it. Which is kind of worse, and having all those salespeople friended on Facebook feels just a little bit creepy.

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