Saturday, February 25, 2017

Mad Ramblings - Wargames, Dreamworlds, Nihilism, Sandboxes

This is not a well-structured, carefully-pruned, cohesive post.

Sometimes I think the game I really want to be running is not D&D, a fantasy RPG with dungeoneering, but a fantasy campaign skirmish wargame.  Ditch hitpoints, switch to single-digit numbers of Warhammer-style wounds, use an armor save instead of AC, and make characters largely replaceable.  Remove character detail, improve speed-in-play, perhaps increase tactical detail (as discussed back in Starmada, there's a big difference between character-creation complexity and tactical complexity).  A lot of this would just be nice on the DM side - I don't want to think about how many HP this goblin has.  It's 1HD, it has 1 wound, done.  A shift to wargaming mentality also does some interesting things for party composition; each player builds a warband from some fixed pool of resources.  "Just one sixth-level wizard with no henchmen" and "a big pile of second-level fighters" both become valid, interoperable ways to play.

The primeval purpose of play, as seen in young animals, is training, for food acquisition, mating-fights, or flight.  What are we training for?  With a wargame it's pretty clear.  With D&D it's much less so.  Maybe we're training for everything, but when you defend everything, you defend nothing.

On the other hand, rather than "I want to run D&D as a wargame", it may be more true that I seem to always end up running D&D as a wargame, and making systemic changes would make my life easier, but not more satisfying.  I'm not really sure why my games seem to keep ending up as wargames.  I think I enjoy the tactical challenge of actually giving players a good fight (and a good fright).  I also feel that I have lost confidence in the quality of my creative output, leaving tactics as the only place I'm willing to go nuts.  The well feels dry more than it used to.  Part of this, I suspect, is that I've basically stopped consuming fantasy media.  The last fantasy book I read was Wizard of Earthsea about a year ago (I did read Beowulf and finally finished the Saga of Burnt Njal this winter, but those doesn't quite count).  In terms of videogames, I think the only fantasy stuff I've played in the last year was Skyrim (lousy) and Hammerwatch (arcade, empty).  Skyrim was a strong contributing factor to launching the last campaign, actually - "If as many people loved Skyrim as seemed to, the bar must be lower than I thought; maybe I should give it another shot."  In any case, not much fantasy input, not much to remix and quietly steal.  I tried tapping dreams and hypnagogic hallucinations - that's how we ended up with a mad city-dungeon open to the endless void of space, showered by metal shavings from the decrepit cosmic engine that burns the souls of the damned to spin the earth.  No seriously, that's where the copper pieces came from - they fell out of the sky and into the dungeon as the engine ground itself towards inevitable failure and the End of Days.  Really the embarrassing part is that I put something as mundane as ratmen in such a place.

Reflecting on that, I was remiss to omit that I began reading Kill Six Billion Demons some time last summer, and I greatly enjoyed its Planescape-ness, its strangeness.  Still do.  So I suppose perhaps that influenced me more than I thought, but I put my own spin (ie, Warhammer-esque) on it, and thereby took most of the strangeness right out of it.

What I have been reading has been mostly history and sociology, which are relevant to D&D but not in useful ways.  D&D (and RPGs generally) are fundamentally based around emulating stories; myth, legend, books, movies.  I have gotten very skeptical, suspicious, of stories.  Stories simplify the very complex into nice simple causal chains.  A good story is always simpler than the reality of the situation; it's an authorial duty to cut out parts, to simplify for human consumption (Venkatesh Rao argues in a very roundabout way that all human organizations are based on such simplifications, claiming that leaders create simplifying myths for their underlings to live within).  Making wilderness illegible, or making running a domain hard because of historically-reasonable administrative information shortages, is not conducive to producing any sort of resonant narrative.  They're interesting thought experiments, but probably terrible in practice.  Which is a better story, the one that people all know, that riffs off of will resonate with them: Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, or King William and the Census?

At any rate, I suspect my nonfiction reading has made me a worse ACKS DM.  Played in a more typical D&D fashion ("band of roving murderers saves kingdom"), things like administrative information shortages could be turned into reasonable narratives, but when it comes to players looking at rulership, it gets mighty tedious to have to maintain both a true set of information for my own use, and a plausible false set of information to feed players.  In the case of an NPC governor deceiving an NPC king, I don't have to do the latter.  Frankly I have little desire to do the former anymore either.  I need all of my paperwork tolerance for taxes this season.

You know what else I'm starting to hate?  Character levels.  Having mechanical advancement be a thing that the system does means that players (well OK, people like me and my players) will aggressively optimize for it.  ACKS has this problem where the level of risk you have to take in order to make enough money to level at any sort of reasonable* pace results in levels being attritted away by casualties faster than they are earned.  I like the exponential XP curve; I really do.  It means that you can bring in 1st-level guys and they catch up, provided that any XP at all is being earned.  Domain XP breaks this, by providing XP only to the high-level characters in the party, and leads to the gap opening rather than closing.  The real problem with the OSR's XP curves (for us) is that they're build to support loooong-haul campaigns that run for multiple years of real-time.  That's something that we never do; in the six month duration of my typical ACKS campaign, players tend to get from 3rd or 4th level to 7th or 8th level.  Calibrated on 3.x, my players are frustrated by this slow progression and unwilling to take the sort of risks required to accelerate it.  ACKS dangles the domain carrot, of safe monthly gold and XP, and they really want to skip getting beaten with the wilderness stick (having labeled it as a poor risk-reward balance previously).  This is frustrating for me, because I feel that we haven't even scratched the surface of wilderness play (for example, tactics in the wilderness), while I find domain play tedious / boring so far.  It's kind of funny if you interpret it in a certain light: as adolescents the fantasy was to kill the dragon and win the princess, but as adults the fantasy is to be the guy at the top of the hierarchy who collects taxes from the safety of his castle while other people do the dying and the dirty work.  I miss Tim's meandering / anti-domain style of play.  Probably I should switch to some other retroclone, but I suspect my current playerbase (such as it is) has been accumulated in part by the allure of domains.

It would be an interesting experiment to bring a bunch of PCs in at low domain level (8th or 9th or so) and say "OK that's it, no leveling, all advancement will be Traveller-style through gear and hirelings and domains and achieving ends-in-the-world" (or just lower the level cap to 9th across the board...).  I've also been thinking about how poorly the leveling system as it currently exists does at supporting common narrative tropes.  The characters who start the weakest, the farmboy and the squire, have the greatest potential, while the characters to start strong, the knight and the wizard, rarely gain.  Lancelot and Merlin and Han Solo never get any stronger; Arthur and Luke do (though I guess this could also be interpreted as a game with a lower level cap).  What if you had the option to start at a higher level, but your maximum level was lowered accordingly?  This is a much more interesting use of level limits than demihumans; make it correlate with age at the beginning of the campaign.  Starting older gives you XP, but limits the new tricks your old dog can learn.  What if henchmen simply couldn't outlevel their masters - they could continue accumulating XP, but without adequate mentorship, they can never reach their full potential.  There are lots of interesting things to try in this space.

In any case, stopping or capping leveling suddenly introduces a gaping existential hole - why play?  I had hoped that ACKS, by making the domain game mechanical and providing XP for interacting with it, would encourage players to interact with the world on non-mechanical terms.  This was foolish; if you have mechanics for interacting with something, it will be interacted with mechanically at the exclusion of non-mechanical interactions (for another example, see 3.x Diplomacy hacks).  This is the underlying logical crux of the OSR's "rulings, not rules" stance, and its opposition to skill systems.  It also relates back to old thoughts on reliability and aim-of-playing, which loops back to "why play?".  Last spring, when I quit, I had been reading Interaction Ritual Chains, which discusses the process by which sacredness is manufactured through ritual (by which is meant routine, roughly-weekly interactions where a set of participants gather, isolated from the rest of the world, and waste resources).  I observed that this description fit the weekly D&D game perfectly, and was left very conflicted and disturbed about it all.  It left me asking "why do we really play?  Sure we have our surface reasons, that we like to kill monsters and gain levels, but is there another level of motivations underneath it where we value the game in itself?"  I observed that this potential treatment of the game as lightly-sacred was consistent with my behavior on one occasion, where I wrecked my bike on the way home from work and wasn't sure whether I'd sprained or broken my wrist, but went to run the weekly ACKS instead of to the hospital (I ended up there the next morning when the pain woke me up at 0430).  That is not the sort of thing that rational self-interested actors do.  Past-me is an idiot and the ACKS ritual made me so.  There is something weird going on here.  There is also a conflict between Interaction Ritual Chains and Rao's schema here, in that Rao doesn't believe that the organizing myth-makers get caught up in their own myths.  When I was reading Interaction Ritual Chains, I was elated, that now I understood how to create values, and the keys to power, to binding man, were in my grasp.  It was not until later that I realized that I could not help but become caught in those values myself, at which point I destroyed all of my social rituals (except the inescapable lunchtime at the office) and strove for hermit-hood, moral freedom, and the rejection of fantasy.  Success has been mixed; habits, personal rituals, are hard to break, and it is draining work.

I did not viscerally understand nihilism / moral relativism until Interaction Ritual Chains showed me how the sacred sausage is made.  It is one thing to be told "all morality is constructed", and another to be told exactly how it is constructed and at what cost.  I'm still not sure what to do with that information.  I suppose I can link this back to the bit above about leveling by noting that removing explicit / absolute mechanical objectives (like XP / leveling) is killing god (to borrow Nietzsche's phrase and meaning) and exposing the players to that same paralyzing freedom, of "all is permitted but nothing matters; freedom, and futility, are the only absolutes."  This ties back to the article by Rao, where political leadership requires simplifying political realities for human consumption.  It is also true that moral leadership generally requires simplifying moral realities for human consumption.  XP and reward system is essentially a moral choice (albeit a laughably small one), and delegating that choice down onto players is probably not what they're looking for.  They are here to play a game, to escape the spirit of gravity and the burdens of life, maybe for some occasional catharsis, but not to stare into the abyss.  Sandboxing in general has this problem.

One reasonable response, though, is that while the sacredness of moral norms may be an emergent property of social organizations rather than a reflection of any cosmic significance, that doesn't invalidate their usefulness.  Sacredness and morality formation are a mechanism for something (probably social cohesion and ingroup predictability) - if they weren't worth their cost in "wasted" resources, they wouldn't have emerged over and over again, in every society across human history.  Now granted, they may provide a fitness advantage to societies in competition with each other rather than to the individuals within those societies, who are materially poorer as a result of ritual expenditures (but the success of those individuals' genes and memes over the long term is tied to that of the society in which they live).  In any case, my response, cutting out all sacredness without really reflecting on its function, was like that of the D&D3.0 group that removes attacks of opportunity or the XP cost from creating magic items, or bans grappling because it's complicated, without understanding the effects that these will have on the system (spellcasters even more overpowered than normal).  Chesterton's Fence applies here:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

But enough of that.

I also miss the competitive-cooperative nature of the first ACKS campaign.  I've been reading some game theory stuff lately and there is a category of "non-fixed sum" games that describes observed player behavior during that campaign well.  It also helped that there were a variety of vigorously-argued value-systems / player utility functions present in that campaign, rather than a tacit convergence on the "whatever maximizes GP/XP" utility function that I see more now.  There's no playfulness anymore, and this is probably my fault for setting lethality high and leveling so slow.  I keep hoping that we'll hit the point of fatalist playfulness - "we're all going to die, so better to die for something, heroically or entertainingly, rather than waiting for the eventually-inevitable lame, random, or cowardly death" - but I think character advancement, and specifically the risk of falling behind the rest of the party, discourages this.  So I suppose there is still some competition, but it's boring, tacit competition that drives inaction, rather than entertaining competition that drives action.

I've come to the conclusion that the Death and Dismemberment table just isn't worth it.  It's funny about 10% of the time.  The other 90% of the time it just sucks - either you get an injury that doesn't matter for your class, or you get one that does and then you repeat the same "hope for effects that don't matter" procedure on the RL&L table.  If I were to build a new one, I'd probably just make it a roll between "mission killed" (out of action for the rest of this adventure), "multi-mission killed" (out of action for a couple adventures), and "campaign killed" (maybe there's enough left of you to retire, but your adventuring days are done), and leave details up to players.  I really want to make the bedrest mechanic work.  It seems like a good way to encourage players to maintain stables of characters and to swap out for mission requirements.  It sort of works for henchmen, but if a PC is out for bedrest, adventuring is often delayed, because playing a henchman risks being outleveled and because PCs are the highest level (hence most useful) and missing out on XP for a PC means falling behind on already-glacial leveling.

In conclusion: great dissatisfaction!

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Dark Souls and Dungeon Design

Instead of doing anything productive this weekend, so far I've mostly been watching Joseph Anderson's youtube channel of videogame criticism.  I found his videos on the Dark Souls series quite interesting.  Figured I might as well extend my procrastination by blogging about it.

Caveat 1: I have never played any of the Dark Souls games, and it seems unlikely that I will any time soon.  Everything I know about Dark Souls has come second-hand from Anderson.  This is both good and bad.

Caveat 2: Given that it is hardly new, other OSR bloggers have probably already beaten it to death.  It sounds like something The Delvers might've talked about.  But, I do not care.

Here are some things that stuck out to me from Anderson's videos:

  • Jayquaying - The sections of Dark Souls 1 that Anderson praises heavily are mostly thoroughly-jayquayed environments.  He rags on DS2 for switching to largely linear levels, and then has mixed praise for DS3 in this regard.  He notes that DS1 was jayquayed on two scales - both in local environments (eg, multiple paths and routes through a town), and in connections between environments (with links between, say, town and a valley full of dragons by way of both an aboveground road and a magma-filled cave below the mountains).  DS3 did a good job of jayquaying on the small scale, but not at the large scale.  Varying the level of jayquaying in megadungeon zones is an interesting possibility of looking at things this way - the megadungeon can have a nonlinear, loopful superstructure, with zones varying in their degree of nonlinearity.  It also expresses one of the problems I had with Rathell - the zone itself had an extremely nonlinear / loop-heavy microstructure, but the overstructure of the dungeon it was supposed to be a part of didn't (at all).
  • Resource model - DS1 provided the player with pretty limited healing resources that could be restored by resting at selected "bonfire" locations, which also respawned all of the enemies in the level.  This leads to an expeditionary playstyle that sounds very similar to what we expect to see in the OSR, but with a focus on making it to a boss - you explore a level and get to know its monsters, gradually getting good enough at traversing the area that you can make it to the boss with enough healing remaining to win that fight.  DS2 added inexpensive healing-over-time items to allow players to fight larger groups of enemies, while DS3 just provided much larger pools of healing than DS1.  Similar changes to resource management have taken place over the editions in D&D.
  • Investment - Anderson praises Dark Souls 1's system of investing limited resources in particular bonfires, which allows them to restore additional healing resources.  This is useful when there's a boss you're having trouble with; you invest in a nearby bonfire and can bring more healing resources to bear in traversing that zone and defeating that boss.  This is something that it seems like low/mid-level ACKS should be able to do a lot better than it does, with PCs investing in towns as bases of operation and receiving tangible, dungeon-relevant benefits for doing so.  Currently town-buyable, dungeon-relevant resources in ACKS fall into three categories: gear, personnel, and reserve XP.  None of these are really tied to the town itself; they're all pretty movable.  A decent approach might be to take commissioning equipment one step further and allow a lump sum to be spent to increase availability of certain types of goods permanently in that market (eg, acquire a little land, build a building, hire a guy, and establish Doctor Comfrey's Nursery and Garden Center to increase available quantities of healing herbs forever).  Have half the money spent count towards urban investment, and you add another link between the mid- and late-games.
  • Predictable, Preventable, Decisive Damage - Anderson claims that damage in Dark Souls is largely avoidable, because enemies telegraph their moves, which allows the player to dodge / block / parry, but that when hits land, they hurt a lot (~3 hits to a player kill, usually).  This ties into the healing resource management game, where you only have to spend resources when you've made a mistake, and part of mastering a level to make it to the boss is learning the attack patterns of the enemies on that level.  Decisive damage is one of the things I like about OSR D&D (on a good day), but it does less well at predictable (ergo preventable).  Bad Trap Syndrome describes this issue in the context of traps, but combat damage is sort of unpredictable too - if you engage in combat without a win-button like sleep, turning, or surprise, damage is a predictable outcome, but the details are left to chance.  In a sense damage predictability is more nuanced in D&D than in Dark Souls - rather than making a mistake, you're taking a risk, and instead of a binary outcome you get a distribution.
  • Training Wheels - Part of the reason that Anderson claims that Dark Souls is a mostly-fair game is that things are almost always introduced in a relatively safe way before being introduced in a dangerous way.  When you meet a new type of enemy, you probably only meet one of them; deeper in the area where they appear, you start meeting multiple.  When you enter the trap zone, you're alerted that it's a trap zone by a low-damage arrow trap triggered by a pressure plate, and then the traps escalate from there.  This process of gradual escalation that helps make damage predictable.  It is also something that I, as a table-driven DM, have not been doing well.
  • Shortcuts - Another part of mastering a level in Dark Souls is finding and opening shortcuts - changing the environment open shorter routes to the boss.  Keys to locked doors, lowerable drawbridges, levers that move terrain, that sort of thing (one neat example was destroying structures that were shielding monsters along a route, thereby making it effectively shorter for resource conservation purposes).  This is something that makes sense in jayquayed dungeons, but usually rather than opening new routes from the other side they're used to gate entirely new areas.  In practice the closest my players ever came to developing a shortcut was clearing (or befriending) monsters on preliminary expeditions in order to open a route that was safe to move quickly on.  The trouble with building shortcut opportunities into an OSR-style megadungeon is that what counts as a shortcut depends on where you're trying to go, and player objectives usually vary per session, so what is a critical shortcut one day is irrelevant the next.  Dark Souls overcomes this with the focus on getting to the boss.  But...
  • Boss Monsters - Bosses are something I always hate in videogames, but in tabletop games they can actually be kind of fun.  They're pretty well-supported by ACKS' worldbuilding guidelines (where every tribe has a chieftain and every warband of barbarians is led by a 9th-level fighter), and would work pretty well with megadungeon factions - kill the boss and the faction disintegrates, opening up space for others or allowing players recruit the survivors.  We saw the beginnings of this emerge in Rathell, where the Marrowgnawer (5HD nonmagic-weapon-immune giant rat) served as a "boss" of sorts of a ratman tribe.  As usual for D&D "bosses", Marrowgnawer died like a chump to a 3rd-level party, due in large part to...
  • Action Economy - Curiously, this has been a persistent issue for the Dark Souls series too.  Anderson notes that in DS1, the best fights are one-vs-one duels, while any fight of multiple nontrivial enemies versus the solo player was usually quite difficult, and led to players using dirty tricks to isolate enemies, while in DS2 additional healing was made available to make these fights workable, and in DS3 healing was mostly-reverted but other changes to the combat system were made for this reason.  In D&D the same problem rears its head on the DM-side.  No bosses without bodyguards (and not chump 1HP 4e minions, either...), and also no bosses that don't one-shot henchman or two-shot PC frontliners.
  • Gauntlets - In addition to nonlinear exploration zones and straight-line combat slogs, Anderson notes another sort of zone / level in the Dark Souls series, characterized by testing the player's ability to deal with some sort of complication that forces the player to reconsider and adapt their tactics.  Examples that he cites include a level that is heavy on harassment by ranged attackers, a level with darkness (which requires the player to use a torch instead of his shield), and a level with environmental damage-over-time.  Designing megadungeon zones based not merely around cosmetics/theme but also with a particular kind of tactical challenge in mind seems like a really good idea to me, especially because the shield-phalanx has come to dominate our games (of course, precisely because the shield phalanx has come to dominate our games, players are now reluctant to enter areas that require a change in tactics).
  • "Explore cautiously, fight bravely" - I'm not going to go watch all the videos again to find the section where Anderson talks about this, but he claims that Dark Souls rewards players for exploring cautiously, taking it slow and not biting off bigger encounters than they can chew, but also for playing aggressively once combat is engaged, getting inside the reach of larger enemies, rolling behind them, and backstabbing.  I like this philosophy, even if I'm not sure how to produce combats that encourage it in ACKS.