Jun 27 2011

Robots and Role-play

This weekend I had that great moment where you get to reveal something awesome you know to people who don’t know it. And you know they want to know it. In fact, you know they are going to take it and run like hell and probably score touchdown after touchdown with it. This is especially wonderful when you are pretty sure you are not going to score touchdowns with it. The football in this case was the Mythic GM Emulator.

I was hanging around in Gamefiend’s D&D 4e IRC server (that’s #4ednd on irc.atwill4e.net) and talking about online role-playing. I like me some online role-playing, especially by IRC. I like it because it tends towards the multi-GM model — lots of people in the mix feel relatively free to grab a little narrative authority and hours of great fun can pass before a designated GM even shows up. This is huge fun for me, but the stories that come out of it are mostly chatty — characters trying to get other characters to put them in a situation where they can divulge their backstory. That’s fun, but it’s not a whole evening’s worth of it.

Well the GM Emulator came up in regular conversation and I think it meshed with ideas Gamefiend already had about adding some automation into the role-playing chat channels. Anyway, there was a flurry of PDF purchasing, and then a bunch of great and heated back-and-forth about what to implement, and then bang-zoom-code. Brent Newhall packed together a bot in python within a very short time and soon it was in the lab.

The bot is called Arbiter and what it does is really simple. If you ask Arbiter a question, it answers with a yes or a no and, some fraction of the time, a twist statement. What this does is really interesting. For example, I was playing Keln, who I wanted to be an airship pilot. I didn’t know if that was a kosher choice in the setting but rather than ask a GM, I ask Arbiter. This is where his name is important — he doesn’t just say yes or no, he implicitly grants authority to you.

So Arbiter says, “Yes, with the twist of a beautiful woman and a gambling debt.” 1 So now I have been granted authority to not only be an airship pilot but I have also been granted the authority to introduce some new elements and everyone sees and is engaged in helping that out. So my internal story is that I lost my airship to a beautiful cheating gambler. Someone else latches onto this and clearly wants their character to be that gambler in disguise. Spark spark flame.

So here are the themes that are interesting to me.

Simplicity drives complexity. Arbiter does not need to be any more complex in order to be awesome. Features can be added but at this point it’s pretty much gold-plating to do so. Yes or no, optional twist and you get triggered complexity from participants.

Authority comes from one place. In order to have authority it must be granted. It can be granted implicitly (I’m the GM in a game that has a GM) or explicitly through the rules. With Arbiter, authority actually resides in the stupidest member: Arbiter! He’s like the worst umpire ever, randomly saying “ball” or “strike” and not paying attention to the game at all. But as my favourite professor once said, that umpire is 90% of a good umpire. You need someone to decide more than you need someone to be right.

Those who want it, drive it. Because Arbiter is optional, it only triggers when someone demands information. Even then, it is only attended to (in the twist) if someone decides to do so. This is wonderful because there’s no pressure to perform (which can paralyze) but someone is bound to grab that hook and do something with it. No one is unduly put upon — if you want to mostly coast and react2, you can do that. But if you want some authority, you just ask for it.

The smarts are in the humans. For two reasons. First, and obviously, because humans interpret the answers creatively in order to produce content. But more importantly (and this was Gamefiend’s expectation but not mine) because the essential creative power is actually in asking the right question. My initial concern was that some high percentage of answers would just be “no” and this sounds boring to me. It is boring, absent the context of the question itself. When you know that those are the limitations of the Arbiter, though, you craft questions so that the answer will be relevant. My airship question, for example, was a grab for authority to establish certain setting facts. A “no” might have been boring there, but the possibility of “no” was essential for the authority of a “yes” to be legitimate. I swear there are other examples but I don’t have the chat log handy. Watch this space.

So this has my brain by the nuts at the moment. This is super cool space for gaming. All it needs is an underlying resolution system that is also very friendly to the fast pace of IRC play and can use arbitrary (see what I did?) granting of authority rather than rely on the coordination of a single human. And maybe a way to keep track of the facts list that evolves (something that a GM would normally prepare but that this system kind of demands emerge from play).


  1. Not verbatim
  2. And I don’t mean to denigrate that — a party full of high-initiative people all grabbing at every hook can be a nightmare.

May 30 2011

My trouble with fiction

I have a problem. It’s not your problem. What I describe below as the effects of my problem are not necessarily your effects. But whenever I find that I think a certain way, I wonder if I am not a category (since it seems less likely that I am absolutely alone, as the internet constantly proves for sexual preferences). So I’m going to talk about my problem with the hope that it might explain larger scale behaviour in some gaming subcultures.

I don’t like fantasy gaming much. It’s okay for an evening or two, but it has a…lightness, I guess, that I don’t like in large doses. I don’t mind refereeing it, though. In fact I like doing that a whole lot. I love science-fiction and modern gaming.

When I was fifteen, the obvious reason for this was that I was vastly smarter than all other gamers and that I had deeper and more meaningful interests that were explored in science-fiction, rather than the escapist and romantic interests present in fantasy settings. Obviously this argument has holes in it, and these became apparent when I went to college and discovered that I wasn’t all that smart.1 In fact I regularly encountered people I respected brain-wise who loved fantasy.

More recently I discovered that I don’t like fiction all that much. I like it as a critical pursuit — I like thinking about it, disassembling it, tracing references, researching the author’s background and intentions. But I don’t much like just submerging myself in most fiction. There are exceptions. Some are laudable and many are embarrassing. I can’t explain my preferences. But certainly one thing I don’t like at all is fantasy fiction. And I have a very low tolerance for bad fiction. Or even weak fiction. Except for those aforementioned embarrassing bits.

Recently I thought about both of these things, wondering if there was a connection. I think there is.

When I game, I don’t read the fiction. If it’s a fantasy game, I skip the setting sections or if I read them, it’s a chore. Actually, even if it’s an sf game I probably fall asleep in the background material. I really don’t give a shit. And when I realized that was my default behaviour, I got a big fat clue about my preferences.

If I don’t read the fiction for an sf game, I can still count on a ground-state reality that is part of the setting. That means that I can, as a character, plan and plot in detail using knowledge I have with the certainty that anything derived from facts is also a fact. If my character has access to the information underpinning the fabrication of gunpowder, I can find a way to make gunpowder. This is essential to my fun: I like to construct solutions that are outside the framework of the combat system or even the skill system. I like to manipulate my knowledge of reality to create solutions. When this works, the dice rarely hit the table to solve a problem.2

Unfortunately, I can’t count on this ground-state in fantasy. Any given piece of the puzzle might be arbitrarily barred to me — it could be (and often is) that gunpowder “just doesn’t work” in the game setting. But I need to know the setting in detail (and, worse, in similar detail to my knowledge of the real world) in order to have my kind of fun. But the setting information is boring the hell out of me. Hence, no fun.

This suggests a counter-example that illuminates the situation for me even more: I do like fantasy with strong player authority over the setting. I really enjoy myself if there is a mechanism for me to state facts. Maybe that’s why I still break out Nine Princes in Amber occasionally, despite (apparently) hating fantasy fiction: the arbitrary gunpowder logic problem in the setting (gunpowder doesn’t work in Amber) is subverted by what amounts to a player authority mechanism in the fiction (I’m still talking about the novels here–it’s just that Corwin has a kind of player authority): Corwin finds (creates, declares as fact) a material through his arbitrary magical powers that behaves exactly like gunpowder when it’s in Amber. That’s my kind of solution.

And it’s a solution that has a narrative that aligns with my interests: even though I (player) didn’t go through the logic of making gunpowder, I (the character) did as part of my story explaining my declaration (there is another magical way to make gunpowder that I am clever enough to know about). Being able to declare truths in the context of the fiction is as powerful for my fun as being able to rely on truths I already know. This also explains why I’m not averse to running fantasy games at all — as referee I have that declarative power practically by definition.

This probably underscores another problem and, in a way, my aversion to fantasy is a solution to it: when I do start to understand the setting material for a fantasy game and yet am denied declarative authority within the setting, I will hunt edge cases. Places where the story breaks down under logic and yields unintended super-powers. And these places must exist because, logically, fantasy is necessarily broken: the fiction is a limited fabric (it must be — reality is so very much bigger) that cannot hold its shape beyond the intended focus of attention. This makes me a dick at most tables, and I don’t like being that guy.

So I don’t go there any more.


  1. This is not strictly true. I discovered in college that I was pretty smart but also that I was surrounded by peers as well as superiors — I was certainly no longer unique or even close to it. Bear in mind I was (and probably still am) measuring others’ intellect by my own experience with people. So no intellect was actually being measured.
  2. I am certain that many a referee who has tried to manage my behaviour has vowed never to let me near their table again. This is part of why I describe my preference as a problem.

Mar 15 2010

Heroic fantasy

So someone at my table has been begging for some heroic fantasy. Not out loud (much) but I can see into everyones’ souls, so I know. And I know what he means — he’s not talking about the super-heroic plane-jumping fantasy we’re building with Soft Horizon. He’s talking about the nostalgiac heroic fantasy of our youths — Dungeons & Dragons and all that. What we tried to make with Pathfinder the other day (week) and couldn’t get a grip on.

And I’m in. I mean, I grew up on that kind of gaming and I still love it in my head. I have fond memories of so many great evenings that revolved around it that it would be silly to pretend that we’re so different now that it can never work. And there are two other forces here that come into play.

First we can spend some time not-designing. That will be a nice change of pace I think — we can play some games for a while and not design anything. We can build up some more experience with games rather than spend energy creating new ones. Accept some games for what they are and play the hell out of them.  That smells pretty good to me right now.

Second, I can spend some time preparing. Now I often say that I spend no time ever preparing for games and there’s a way in which that’s true — I don’t spend a ton of time making up NPCs or plotting encounters. But man do I spend a lot of time making images in my head — fragments of scenes that need to get described. Often they are triggered by music (in fact the same music that triggered exciting images for me twenty-five or more years ago) but equally often they are triggered by my own desire to make stuff.

See, I draw. For me drawing is like mathematics — I’m not very good at it but I adore it. I will never be a mathematician but that does not stop me from consuming books about mathematics and related subjects. And so with drawing — I love to draw. I dig the hybrid art that happens when I sketch on paper and refine digitally, but mostly I love the paper part. I love real ink on a crow-quill nib and managing the line that results. And buying more art supplies is always a bit of a high, so the fact that drawing invites shopping is also nice.

So starting a new fantasy game means I get to at least draw a map, and that’s great fun for me.

Naturally the next question (actually the prior question) any geek is asking is, “what system?” Normally that’d be Reign, because Reign has so reliably delivered for us in the past. I think, however, that it’s time to give Burning Wheel another crack, partially because people I think are very smart (hi, Judd; hi Johnstone) are playing great games with it. That suggests to me that some of the failings I found in it may well have been my own, so it’s time to revisit. It also plays really well in that gritty zone I love in fantasy gaming — the one where magic is uncertain and improbable and physical competence still counts for so much. The energy spent in character creation has the potential to drive longer play, I think, and I’d love to run a campaign that had some legs. A dozen sessions would thrill me.

And so now I’m drawing maps and re-reading my Burning Et Cetera books. And looking forward to Thursday night. But I always look forward to Thursday night, because no matter what the experiment, it’s with my friends.