Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Origins 2011: Part 4 - "Rules of the Game"

First of all, today I learned that John, the owner of one of the local game stores, read my previous posts. He didn't agree with my contention that necromancers are environmentally friendly, because "rather than letting the corpses return to the earth, they're just going to send out [the undead] to do more harm" and "no necromancer is going to raise skeletons to clean your house or something."

Second of all, another thing I did at Origins is the following. Last time, I mentioned that I didn't get a chance to tell the author of the Hero System books about what I thought about the quality of his writing, but this time, I did. Of course, he said that he "disagreed completely" that the writing was too wordy, and said that the reason for the wordy writing was that his customers demand detailed rules. I am under the opinion that the same information could have been provided in a more concise way.

Rather then talk more about the details of the Hero System, the rest of this post will be about a more general topic - how the differences of opinion between me and some of the other people I play with about the rules of various games reflect fundamentally different ways of looking at game rules.

Consider the following conversation that I had with another Amtgard player. (This was a long time ago, so some of the details like the names of the spells are probably incorrect, but the general idea was the same.)

Him: "There's a gray area in the rules with the 'Dimensional Portal' spell. If two people are both under its effects, can they cast spells at each other?"

Me: "Why? What's unclear about it? The spell says that it takes a player out of game. Under the definition of out of game, it says you can't be affected by anything. So it seems obvious that they can't affect each other."

Him: "Yes, but it's the same out-of-game area."

Me: "What do you mean, out-of-game area? The rules don't say anything about out-of-game areas. You're either out-of-game, or you're not."

Him: "But in Dungeons & Dragons, the 'Dimensional Portal' spell does work that way."

Me: "This game is not Dungeons & Dragons. The rules of Dungeons & Dragons have no force in Amtgard."

The cause of our disagreement was that I was looking at the rules as a self-contained set of information, while he was thinking of the rules as codifying some pre-existing conception of how he thought the game should operate (if you're both transported to the same other dimension, you should both be able to affect each other).

A similar thing happened when the new 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons came out a few years ago. I was reading some articles online discussing the new system and comparing it to the previous editions, and one of the most common complaints was that the new system "didn't make sense." For example, in the previous edition, fighters generally had only one or a few attacks that they had to keep using, while wizards had lots of spells that they could each use only a couple times per day and after those were done their powers were very weak. 4th edition balanced out the two classes by giving all classes some powers that they could use all the time, and some powers that were restricted to once per encounter or once per day. Lots of people didn't think this made sense because why would a fighter not be able to use a specific move once he had used it once earlier in the day? At first, I was really confused about why this would be a problem. I mean, true, maybe it isn't realistic. But I can't think of any criterion of realism that "I can magically throw a fireball, but only once per day" would pass, but "I can stab the dragon with a sword a certain way, but only once per day" would fail. And there are all sorts of physical phenomena that do happen in real life that are counterintuitive (have you ever watched MythBusters?) so I don't see why the fact that it doesn't fit with your intuitions about how fighting should work should be a problem. Again, this was a case where I understood what was going on because I just looked at the rules as a self-contained system, while others got bogged down because they tried to fit how the rules worked with their pre-existing conceptions of whoe combat should work.

Of course, sometimes things work out the other way around and my method of thinking is a hindrance. One example is some problems I was having with archery in Belegarth. There was a rule that you had to draw your bow back only half way when shooting at an opponent within 15 feet. (The issue is that if you shoot a target at full draw at close range, then the arrow will be going very fast, and is likely to hurt.) People were complaining that I was not following this rule, so I brought a tape measure so I could practice judging distance. This didn't completely help, so I came up with the idea like taking video and then going over it afterward so we can see what the distances were, and whether I was judging them correctly. They said that it wouldn't work because "there are too many variables." I was confused - I thought there was only one relevant variable: the distance to the target. At one point one of them tried to help me by asking me to stand in one place, then backing away and saying "okay, this is 15 feet." When I asked to measure to ensure that his judgement was accurate, he said that "it doesn't matter" whether it's accurate or not. This made me even more confused: how can it possibly not matter?

The problem here seemed to be that I was focusing on the particular rule about 15 feet, while what they probably had in mind was a more general concept about how to do Belegarth archery safely, which is why they thought there were "too many variables," and getting the distance right isn't the most important factor. It seems to me, though, that if the 15 foot rule isn't a good proxy for safety, then why is it in there at all? It would make more sense to say something like "The velocity at impact shouldn't be more than X feet per second," with X chosen appropriately. Then you could test to see what combination of draw distance and ranges given you that velocity (this would only need to be done once for each bow, before any battles).

Basically, I tend to interpret things based on what they say. If the game mentions 15 feet, I assume that they mean 15 feet. If they actually mean something else, then they should say something else.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Origins 2011: Part 3 - "Learning From the Masters"

Another thing I did at Origins was go to some seminars. I did this because the seminars are one thing you can only really get at gaming conventions, and lots of them are interesting. At Gencon I went to a seminar on balance in games that I really liked, so at Origins I signed up for two seminars that sounded interesting: "Making Magic Real" and "Internal Consistency." When I got to the seminars I found out they were about books and literature rather than games, but they were still interesting. The seminar on "Making Magic Real" was given by fantasy authors R.T. Kaelin and Jean Cade, and they talked about how good stories need to have limitations on the magic. I mentioned that games are good sources of ideas because games are all about setting up limitations - for example, in "Magic: The Gathering" you have to draw a random set of cards at the beginning and can only cast what is in your hand. They said this would be a good idea for a story - a mage who doesn't know what spells he is going to get each day. The seminar on "Internal Consistency" was given by science fiction author Timothy Zahn. He had a list of a series of ten plots from different stories and asked us to describe what was inconsistent about them. For example:

PLOT: A small, ragtag resistance force tries to overthrow a universally hated dictator.

PROBLEM: If the dictator is universally hated, why is the resistance force so small? (Perhaps most people are too afraid to rise up, but in order to project his power the dictator would need a police force and army, and those people at least would have to support him.)

PLOT: The last two humans on Earth seek shelter from the vampires.

PROBLEM: If there are only two more humans on Earth, where are all the vampires getting their blood to feed?

Overall, both seminars were fun to go to. One thing that was funny was during the "Internal Consistency" seminar when Zahn was talking about how writers can make their stories more consistent. One example he gave was the "Jurassic Park" movies and television shows, where the security system that is used to keep the dinosaurs in was very poorly designed - "even zoos have better systems for keeping animals penned in." He suggested that one thing writers can do to make their stories better is to do more research. For example, Zahn suggested, if you were writing a story like that you could "call up your local zoo and ask them to explain how to design an impenetrable system to keep animals in = and how that system could be beaten." Of course everyone in the room laughed, because we all had exactly the same reaction - that the response you would get is similar to what would happen if you wore this "Personal Electronics Vest" when going through airport security.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Origins 2011: Part 2: "Knights in Columbus"

As before, one of the fun things to do at Origins was the LARPs (Live Action Role Playing). The National Security Decision Making Game was running, although I didn't participate in it. Even though I liked it the first time because of the novelty, it seems like in order to get into it you have to be able to manipulate people, and that isn't a skill I am particularly good at. I did three different LARPs: “Nero”, which is a swordfighting game like the ones I've already talked about, “TerrorWerks”, a science-fiction adventure where you shoot enemies with Airsoft weapons (the enemies shoot back with Nerf guns), and “Rising Lash,” a game where you go through the dark, solving puzzles and fighting zombies. Nero was a three-part adventure where you were trying to rescue Lady Serenity, an adventurer who was kidnapped by an evil necromancer. (By the way, how come necromancers are almost always evil? I mean, all they're doing is recycling decomposed organic waste. It's environmentally friendly!) Anyway, in Part 1, we started out by going and fighting some orcs, who had a map saying where Lady Serenity was being held. The next two parts had us journey there, and in the third part we finally reached the evil lair. As you can see from the picture, the door was guarded by a magical Sudoku puzzle. Once we got in, our leader tried to negotiate for the prisoner's release by offering a magical item:

Leader: “I offer this magic ring worth 120 gold pieces for the girl!”
Boss: “There's no way that's worth that much.”
Leader: “Even if I were overstating its value by half, it would still be worth 60 gold pieces.”

I tried to point out the mathematical error but he didn't understand it. Anyway the boss tried to double-cross us but we got rid of the bad guys. Also, I volunteered as an NPC so I could see the adventure from the monster's eyes.

In TerrorWerks, we were soldiers trying to invade a robotics research facility where a bad guy has uploaded a virus to the central computer which reprogrammed the robots to be hostile. Our goal was to fight through the robots and get to the central computer to install the antivirus software. I played the engineer, and my special power was to unlock the doors – I had a kit with wires that I was supposed to connect between certain points on a grid to light up a bulb, and I also had a gun to defend myself. There were also computers that had information on them, such as that the big “super-robot” at the end has a control panel on the back that you could use to turn it off. When we got to the robot, one of the other players disabled it with a grenade while I ran around back to the control panel. The robot turned back on and no matter how many switches I flipped I couldn't turn it back off. When I tried to run back away from it I tripped over one of the poles holding up a wall and dropped my gun, but fortunately my teammates where there to back me up. Eventually we got rid of the evil robots, put the antivirus in, and got out.

Rising Lash was a relatively straightforward zombie game. We go through a series of rooms fighting zombies, and if you get hit you fall down. You can be healed by a doctor, but you get infected, reducing your combat capabilities. You can get rid of the infection with an antivirus (the biological kind this time, not the software kind) but there are a limited number of those. At the end of the scenario, if you survived without getting infected (or have an antivirus to heal you) then in the next scenario you level up and get extra powers. The scenario we did this time was pretty easy and pretty much we all got out alive.

By the way, if you are into video games you have probably heard about the so-called “freemium” business model. This is where the main game is free but you can spend real money for benefits in the game, such as in-game items. A lot of free-to-play MMORPGs use this model, and apparently some of the LARPs have caught on to the idea. For instance, in the zombie game if you buy one of their promotional T-shirts and wear it to the game you get extra armor. TerrorWerks also sells promotional “swag” and has a tiered reward system where one piece of swag gives you extra health, two pieces gives you a healing item, and so on.

Also, in keeping with the whole “being a hero and helping people” theme, there was a blood drive going on. There was an announcement on the PA systme that said they wanted as many people to donate as possible because there was a “critically fortunately I wasn't able to because I went to Vietnam last year.