Aug 26 2011

Online gaming disappointment

Having had several chances to use Google hangouts for gaming in the past while, I will give my conclusion: it kind of sucks.

There are several reasons for this sucking but first let’s look at what doesn’t suck: hanging out with new people and seeing them laugh and speak and participating in same is wonderful. I adore it. It’s good fun and should be done over and over again.

But gaming — especially role-playing gaming — requires reliable pacing and participation to keep the action forefront in everyone’s mind. Engaging each other in the fiction requires constant control of pace. And this is one place where the hangout kind of sucks.

First, the mediator has no effective control over activity. People come and go as they please, speak when they want, and there is no effective way to control all of this as, unexpectedly, most of the body language and related cues we use to do this fail to translate over the video and audio stream. With significant attention and preparation this could be managed by a motivated mediator.

Second, the technology is inconsistent, creating constant distraction. Some video feeds are great, some are awful, and some are absent. Awful video feeds are awful in different ways — bad lighting, bad resolution, high latency, occasional drop-outs. All of these impact the pace of the game (especially drop outs) and make things less effective. Audio is even worse, in a way, since despite having video we are really there to talk and therefore (one hopes) to listen. So bad mics or mics that are not echo-correcting or mics that are awesome and picking up the dog, the neighbours, and the dishwasher, are all highly distracting.

It is the nature of this place that you cannot control the technology available to the attending parties. If you could, things might be much better — you get great responsivity thanks to low latency, which makes mediation much easier. You get good visual input from everyone and you get reliable, comprehensible, audio with no feedback echo or shriek. You could finally ignore the technology and get on with the communication.

There’s no good solution for the dice yet. Every option is make-shift requiring window swapping, hidden information, or otherwise blocking the pace but forcing context switches. There really is no substitute for physical dice, on a table where they can be manipulated and seen by everyone at once. I hope we can get close, but so far the solutions are so distant (and of course highlighted by games that need all these axes of information, like Hollowpoint) that the pace of the game is crushed by the defect.

Finally, and this is more personal, I live with my wife. I love her dearly and I interact with her all the time. When there’s a game at our house, she doesn’t play but she does interact and she’s witty and nice and insightful and welcome. When I’m away gaming somewhere else I am, well, somewhere else and so she does not feel ignored even though she is not participating. But when I’m focused on communication for hours through this unstable and sometimes hard to understand medium, I am present with my wife and necessarily ignoring her. This sucks and is not acceptable.

So for now my preference for online gaming must remain text — IRC or Google Docs — and I think I will have to impose a minimum technology level on particpants. If we can’t all play at full speed, it’s really not worth playing to me. I’d rather just hang out with you and laugh and have a drink and introduce my girl and like that.

–BMurray


Jul 18 2011

Skinning Hollowpoint

Sometime in the next short while we’ll release a style sheet for Hollowpoint skins.

Hollowpoint is crazy skinnable. So, per discussion in my last entry here, it seems like a good move for us to make some and for fans to make some and for us to organize them and distribute them and play the hell out of them. The game already pretty clearly states all of the elements that would go into a skin, but not really in one coherent location. Rather it’s scattered around the book as a bunch of implications. In retrospect, this is work that would have been very cool to have done for the book rather than after the fact, but, well, we didn’t think of it.

On the other hand, it nicely addresses the “free stuff” issue — gives us lots of things to put in the download section beside the toe tags.

The core elements of a Hollowpoint skin seem to be:

A concept. Some setting idea that has a team acting towards a mission and being super-competent and bad. As might be obvious already, I happen to think that the best way to deliver this is with a paragraph or two of fiction. A vignette or less, showing what these people are like.

The Agency: what is the organization that gives these people their missions?

The Charge: who or what does it protect?

The Era: when does this take place?

Character skills: are there special skills outside the usual set? Are some of the usual ones missing?

Character traits: how will these be generated? There are three options in the book but there could be others as well.

This is enough for a skin, but it would probably be a good idea to show at least one Mission outline as well, both to set the tone by example and to satisfy the desire for canned adventures. Canned adventures are a strange concept to me but the Hollowpoint framework for missions puts them in a context I can get my head around (they aren’t really fight-by-fight plans but rather lists of objectives and images and people) and they are in demand. People demand them. I mean seriously, people flat out insist that we make them.

One thing we can’t provide in the style sheet is the typefaces used in Hollowpoint. These are all commercial typefaces with no free equivalents and so I can’t give them away. But then, the type should really match the context and not the game, and the skin that gets written will define the context, really. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (a certainly do-able skin for Hollowpoint) demands a rather different presentation than Black Loagoon does.

All this is just thinking out loud at the moment. When we publish the style sheet it will include whatever our plans are — will we wrangle them together and publish? Will we host them all somewhere easy to get to? Will we have a contest for the best ones? Hell, I don’t know.

But I’m thinking about it. And thanks to Jim for making that happen.

–BMurray


Jun 29 2011

Fabricating an awesome community

Before I get started I want to be totally clear: I do not know how to fabricate an awesome community.

Apparently there was a substantial melt-down of an existing Dungeons & Dragons online community. I say apparently because I don’t know which community this is1, but I do know that Wizards of the Coast is pretty interested in it as an object lesson for their own community efforts.2 So it’s a big deal at least as a case study. It made me wonder, though, how the communities I know of that are functional stay functional. There are several pressures at work (yes, this is another pressure/flow argument, but lighter) that I can see. I’ll try to tie these to actual cases where possible.

Pride

There are a few communities I can think of where many, most, or even all of the members are proud of the functionality of the community. They are active and vocal members and consequently they exert significant peer pressure to behave well by simply demonstrating virtues and frowning on non-conformity. This is not actually helpful to someone looking to fix or create a community, though, because you get Those Guys by accident.

Or do you? The hard-core fans of Greg Stolze’s game, Reign, are by and large awesome and a half. It’s always a pleasure to chat in those forums. Now Greg has been working under a very interesting development model for Reign that I think has something to do with this. He proposes development of new content to the community and sets up a pledge system whereby anyone that wants to send him money to develop can do so. He commits to developing the new material if a certain sum is reached (say a thousand bucks). When it is reached (and it typically is), he builds the product and releases it for free. It contains a list of all the people who paid in an acknowledgement chapter.

So the community cheerfully pours money into what is essentially a philanthropic pursuit — spending money in order to generate free material from the single expert at making it. This community is therefore significantly composed of people who are proud of being part of the product under discussion. They helped make it happen and they helped make it free. This pride I believe drives a lot of the goodwill that is present there.

Technology

Now this is going to be a little contentious because there are places I go to read where I feel the community is of very high quality but there are plenty who would disagree. That certainly underlines an issue — that the quality of a community is not just based on the quantity of dickery but also on the tone of conversation. Certainly I have frequently run into people who view any disagreement as a hostile act, and catering to that risks making a community useless. That’s an extreme example, but there are shades of gray all along there. For example, in some places it might be bad form to react to a presentation of creative material with anything other than praise.3 That’s also not for me, so that will be a disconnect as well.

Okay, I have seen a single feature in the forum software, Vanilla, used to great effect. It’s a very non-violent way to manage conversations that can go nowhere good. It’s a method that does not impose restrictions on anybody at all and yet still diverts bad behaviour. These features are awesome — I like freedom and I think that in general restricting it is very very risky (mostly because someone has to be empowered to do so, and I don’t trust that person much).

This function is “sink”. It’s the simplest idea ever and nowhere near enough forum-based communities use it. All it does is disable the feature that causes forum entries to percolate up to the top of the list when someone adds a comment.

Yeah, it takes a minute.

So now a heated argument is not constrained or punished (it’s not deleted, or locked and no one is banned or admonished) but instead it is slowly replaced by functional discussion instead. It sinks off the page. One thing about this that interests me is that you would think that the heat level in an argument would indicate some level of motivation to continue it. But it turns out that clicking “next page” is pretty much always too much work for the invested parties to spend to do so. I suspect this is because the best forum train wrecks are essentially reactive and this puts a speed bump on reaction. I know my own tactic for dealing with a heated discussion I see coming is to quite reading it, regardless of who got the last word to date. If I don’t read it I have no urge to react to it. Having it quietly scroll off the bottom of the page does this for you.

Another technology I’ve heard of is Hell Banning. Personally I think this is just more dickery (and it’s essentially crafted to make other people feel bad while the “good guys” feel good, and I think that’s suspicious behaviour), but it’s kind of funny. The idea here is to ban people with bad behaviour (and that’s the part where untrustable authority enters the equation) in such a way that they do not know they are banned. They appear to have full access to the forums and can post and reply, but no one else ever sees anything they say. It’s kind of an ignore list that is enforced by the authority on everyone who is well behaved (I think I let some bias slip in there). It’s funny to imagine the troll beating his keyboard fervently and no one will react to him. It certainly directly addresses the core problem of trolling: it’s not the troll that’s the problem, it’s the weak-willed everybodies4 that insist on reacting. So in a sense, this is control that is applied to the people you want in order to manage their bad behaviour. There is a way in which I like that, I guess, but the paternalistic smell is a bit strong.

Benevolent dictatorship

We are trained to believe dictatorships are bad and that investing authority in a single person is not only risky, but that it will corrupt that person eventually.

As with the issue of community pride, there is a sense in which this has to come organically — that is, a good and effective person establishes a community with herself in complete control and everything is awesome forever. I’ve seen MMO guilds operate this way and stay functional for many years. It is not, however, something that you fabricate, and that’s the only reason I won’t address it further. It doesn’t really help anyone trying to fix a community to say, “well, if you were awesome and wielded power effectively that would help.” Maybe it does.

–BMurray

  1. If you know and have some details, please comment.
  2. I know this because I was chatting with Steve Winter of WotC last night. Nyah nyah.
  3. At the risk of repeating this caveat too often I’ll anyway say, I am not denigrating this behaviour. This is a valid and useful community role.
  4. Myself included on many occasions.

May 26 2010

Everyone else is asking so I am answering

What is the FATE system?

This is getting asked all over the place, though most vocally over at RPG.net and on the FATE mailing list. It’s interesting because the current incarnation of FATE is basically a list of exemplar works that declare themselves to be FATE. This is not actually all that helpful because each tries to bring some new ideas to bear (it’s not fun just applying paint to an old game and calling it new — you want to improve it) and file off stuff from other exemplars that doesn’t work for you. And so the resulting definition of FATE is the intersection of all these exemplars and the intersection is both small and shrinking.

So my declaration is this (and it’s typical B.Murray vaguery): until there’s an official document declaring what FATE v3 is, no one knows what FATE v3 is.

Okay, so now I can tell you what I think it is.

First, FATE v3 is a core resolution mechanism that is not unique to it: fixed measure of competence + fortune + narrative benefit versus target value or opposed roll. The common expression of this, or rather the canonical one as in Spirit of the Century, is Skill + Fudge dice + Aspect invoke/tag. I think it’s fair to say that a game that doesn’t do some variation of this is probably not FATE v3. But lots of games do pretty much this and are certainly not FATE games.

So FATE v3 is also characters with Aspects. And so we need to define Aspects. Characters have Aspects if they have one or more descriptive phrases that can confer mechanical benefit (see “narrative benefit” above) at the cost of a narrative currency: the fate point. And so here I will say that the fate point and therefore the existence of a fate point economy (which at a minimum is used for mechanical benefit) is a FATE v3 requirement. I think that we also need to include the Compel as essential: there has to be a way to get as well as spend fate points.

I think that’s it. Everything else can come and go. Consequences are special Aspects. Stress tracks are completely detachable. Stunts are wildly malleable (as we’ve seen) and don’t need to exist at all. But a game where you roll dice and add skills, then narrate in your features and pay for the result is FATE. A game where you are shilling around for more of these points is also FATE.

Well that means that a good canonical statement of what is necessary to be FATE v3 shouldn’t take more than a half-dozen pages or so. And then six hundred pages of stuff you can glue onto it.

The end result of this is that I don’t know if any of the upcoming VSCA games are going to be FATE games now. Let’s look.

Hollowpoint. Dice pools that owe more to ORE than anything else and no points economy at all. Aspects are their own economy, burned when used. Certainly not FATE.

Soft Horizon. Tricky one because we’re just now thinking hard about changes. Certainly it’s FATE-like — the resolution is skill + dice + aspects, but the dice are in flux (could be |d6 – d6| — see the skunkworks). So far it retains a fate point economy as well, so I’ll call this one FATE on my own terms, but it could be debated.

Soulscape. I don’t know. We need to revisit this design before we know what it is. It is imagined as a pretty straightforward FATE v3 game but that was a long time ago and I think it could benefit from something more deliberately addressing its premises.

Chimaera. This game is, unsurprisingly, the most chimaeric. It uses a cool dice pool mechanism that’s distinctly unFATElike, and uses an Aspects-as-economy system not unlike Hollowpoint rather than a strict fate point economy. It also has some very cool dice-as-record-keeping tools that are fun to manipulate and also very much not FATE. I think we’ll call this “partially inspired by” but to be honest it’s more inspired by the play we got from FATE games than by the games themselves.

I guess that as players and designers we are continuously evolving our games and we don’t feel any particular attachment to whatever the core of FATE is, partially because it hasn’t been clearly stated. And I think that, even if it was, now we’d be as happy to say “it’s not FATE really” as “it’s another FATE game!” I mean, I get that there is a kind of built-in audience for FATE games just as with any other generic identity because there’s a community associated with it even though the definition is nebulous.

Maybe that’s at the heart of it — I would like for FATE to remain poorly defined exactly so that the community remains diverse and open to experiments and hacks. Hacking on it is what got me into design in the first place. It made the VSCA exist. I’d hate to lose that spirit in that community and a rich and rigid definition would risk killing it.

So here’s to FATE: skill + dice + aspects to resolve, and a fate point economy in action all through play. Hah, six pages indeed.

–BMurray


Feb 18 2010

Coping with opinion

When people talk about physics, astronomy, and that sort of thing they get to fairly handily dismiss the most useless of all facts: the opinion. That’s hard to do when talking about games because so much of the discussion, however well-defined the terminology, is still essentially anecdotal. Indeed, the best practices I’ve seen so far for thinking about design require anecdotes in order to function. This is good. Even essential. I think we are nowhere close, and probably never will be anywhere close, to useful quantification of elements that have yet to even be adequately listed. There is no science here.

Opinion, however, has deep flaws that need to be addressed in order to communicate effectively. First, they tell us very little. They are only data points and they can only be coarsely quantified. Hell, they can only be coarsely counted. Worse, however, is that the vast majority of them are lies. Unless we believe that people don’t generally overstate their case (like I just did there) for effect when talking on the internet, we have to understand that when people tell us what they think, they are mostly full of shit. Myself included. There are no “people like us” in this argument.

So basically all you have for data is horseshit, and no really good way to organize it. I’m going to suggest a couple of axes on which to line this shit up, mostly so I can throw some out. A hidden (well, not now) objective is to talk about an excellent process for dealing with all internet discussion on anything.

Authority. Real or fabricated, some people speak to you with authority. Whether or not they speak to other people with authority is irrelevant for this purpose. Whether or not the authority is fabricated (as with a blog, where I can delete all dissent, creating a tendency away from dissent even if I don’t actually use the power) is not relevant. Your first useful attribute of any opinion is its authority.

Positivity. This is actually the meat of this post. I’m not talking about cheerleading here, but whether the opinion in question can be boiled down to a statement of preference. If it can, I propose that you absolutely ignore all opinions of the form “I don’t like it”.

I don’t care if you don’t like something. It actually contains zero information for me in any of my roles on the internet. Sure, if you’re at my table or eating my cooking or helping me write, I care about what you dislike. But in the distant anonymity of the internet discussion, talking about things that happen to people I will never meet and whose veracity I cannot measure, there is no way I can afford to care if you dislike something.

I want to be clear, though, that I care what you think. There’s just a specific and extremely common formulation of your thought that I don’t care about. “I don’t like Fudge dice,” for example. I don’t care if you don’t like a particular kind of randomizer. Whether you do or don’t doesn’t impact my designs at all. If you do like them, that’s a data point I can use — I can count raised hands and extract useful information. But counting negatives gets me nowhere because I don’t know the size of the population, and when I’m asking I’m really trying to get a feel for audience. An unknown number minus seven is still unknown. An unknown (positive) number plus seven is at least seven. “Aye” contains information. “Nay” not so much.

The reason this is important is because I want to assure myself that I’m not missing anything useful when I omit attention to negatives. Because I’m probably going to anyway because they create an environment that is immediately antagonistic.

We all know that when you say, “I dislike chocolate” that you are not trying to start a fight. But absent a reason for saying it (like, say, I am asking you specifically if you would like some chocolate cake tomorrow when you come over), maybe even that’s horseshit. If you don’t have an earnest objective to inform me, personally, for some actual reason, then you probably are just stirring shit up. You probably don’t see it that way. I usually don’t. Doesn’t mean it’s not true — every time someone does it, the conversation goes a certain ugly way, and we’ve all seen it, so we have a reasonable expectation it will happen again. Isn’t that sufficient to call “intent”? Doing something you know will have certain ramifications can surely be said to intend those ramifications, yeah?

Everyone is invested in the preferences. So when you say publicly and relatively anonymously that you despise 12-sided dice, those invested in their love of the dodecohedron will necessarily see their investment attacked. Now there’s no real way in which they believe that this statement will ultimately result in the loss of the 12-sided die throughout all of gaming, after objective analysis. But the visceral reaction to an attack on an investment is exactly that. It’s reflexive. Most people do it and therefore most people know it happens and therefore, again, I can only conclude that that is the intent behind the negative statement.

So there’s rule one for dealing with internet forum discussions, where people are mostly people you will never meet and don’t genuinely care about a whole lot. Ignore all negative statements of preference. People announcing that they dislike something (in this context) are giving you nothing but potential grief. And that filter will cut your reading at least in half. Depending one where you hang out, probably closer to 90% will be filtered away.

It might change your posting, too. It changed mine. A bit.

–BMurray


Feb 8 2010

Geek of the Week

So I am apparently Geek of the Week over at RPG Geek this week. That’s going to keep me pretty busy as it entails answering every question they can throw at me, so there might not be much here at blue collar space while this goes on. It is so worth it though — RPG Geek is one of the greatest RPG communities yet invented in terms of both people and technology. It has a diversity of usership completely unmatched by any other site and seems to utterly lack any pre-disposed membership in gaming ideology cliques.

Because it rewards participation, however, it does have a lot more small publisher representation than Big Guys.

–BMurray