Friday, April 10, 2015

A doctorate in comparative gaming

2015 Hugo nominee Jeffro Johnson is better suited to make the following introduction than I am, so I will simply quote him in introducing the latest Castalia House blog star, Douglas Cole, the author of GURPS Martial Arts: Technical Grappling and a number of other combat-related RPG publications.

Game designer Douglas Cole will be joining Ken Burnside and myself at Castalia House with his new blog series called “Violent Resolution.” As you can see from his first post, this is going to be a doozy. From what I’ve seen, this will do for rpgs what Nick Schuessler did for wargames in his Space Gamer column. If you’re the type of person that’s always wanted a doctorate in comparative gaming, you will faint!

As for Violent Resolution itself, Cole himself explains what the weekly column is going to entail:
The column will focus on combat in games, mostly to the exclusion of other things. It will of course include fighting, but also how fights start and end. It will spend a great deal of time looking at game mechanics along the way, and will probably spend a lot of word count looking at what kind of storytelling environment is created by those mechanics.

Through the Lens

As the blog progresses, I’ll frequently be looking at combat with examples from different games. There will be others from time-to-time – notably when I have an anecdote from games I’ve played (or stopped playing) in the past. But by and large, I’ll explore this topic by looking at how certain games handle things.

Dungeons and Dragons, Fifth Edition

I’m going to refer to D&D5 here frequently, because you can’t talk about RPGs – especially combat in RPGs – without talking about the moose in the room. D&D-based games dominate the market of tabletop RPGs that all other games combined are pretty much an afterthought.

I’ll use D&D5 as a proxy for the kind of resolution system that is found as variations on a theme in Pathfinder, the D&D-derived Old School Renaissance (or Old School Revival? Maybe both!), and other games that are recognizably the same basic mechanic. All are recognizable as essentially the same game that I learned to play when I was 10 years old, roleplaying for the first time in 1981 – the Basic/Expert D&D boxed sets, followed by AD&D. Stepping into Swords and Wizardry, Pathfinder, or D&D is usually a matter of fine-tuning. You may need to understand the proper use of a Feat hierarchy, or what will kill your character as opposed to knocking him out, or get the feel for various special mechanics, such as the Advantaged/Disadvantaged mechanic newly introduced in D&D5 . . . but by and large if you’ve ever played D&D you’ll understand what’s going on pretty fast.
As the future leading publisher of military science fiction, the martial arts from the grand strategic to the tactical is of interest to us, and while I think it is highly unlikely that we will be able to convince Dr. van Creveld, Gen. Krulak, Gen. Gray, or Mr. Lind to take up blogging  at Castalia House anytime soon, we are very pleased to have Mr. Cole intelligently addressing matters from the other end of the spectrum.

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Blogger Owen April 10, 2015 9:14 AM  

I'll look forward to this. Not sure what 5E looks like, let alone plays like. 4E was a disaster.

OpenID Jere April 10, 2015 9:15 AM  

I've found that the D&D system is very 'blow by blow' NOW, and that it used to be sort of an 'overview' of a medieval sword fight years ago due to the complexity of moves, terrain, lighting, etc but now, since 3.5 and pathfinder came along has evolved to something like watching robert downey junior do his Sherlock holmes slo mo kung fu schtick on the old scholl fisticuffsmanship fighter. Whereas, for comparison, the Palladium system, for all its idiosyncracies, is much more like watching an anime dogfight complete with missile spam, violent exploding robots and rapid cuts with little idea of what's actually happening. Additionally, if the two styles are adequately explained to the players, both can be equally enjoyable.

OpenID Jere April 10, 2015 9:16 AM  

Owen, yeah 4E was like playing a video game.... it blew.

Anonymous Eric Ashley April 10, 2015 9:37 AM  

I hope to see Champions and Multiverser.

My favorite Multiverser story.....I am gamemastering for three guys at Constellation. One's an MBA. One's a doctoral student in Nuclear Physics and a Triple Niner, or higher. And one's a literal rocket scientist. And I, wannabee SFF author, am the dumbest guy at the table. Regardless, it was fun.

Anonymous Dr. Brooklyn April 10, 2015 9:40 AM  

4E actually makes for a half-decent video game for that reason. 5E is pretty solid I think. Combat flows better and it feels like a return to form.

Blogger CM April 10, 2015 9:51 AM  

I'm curious if Vox was ever a DM...

I always thought I'd enjoy doing it but the DMs I've known that are good at it have a very ... sadistic way of gaming their groups.

Blogger Owen April 10, 2015 10:42 AM  

I get the occasional snicker when I tell folks I play, but the crowd I game with is like you said. Married, divorced, some have children, others don't, cross political spectrum (though political leanings are usually known, it is a funny DMZ in a world in which everything gets politicized), but there's one thing in common: all made really, really good money and/or have a high powered career.

Could just be people alike run in same circles.

Anonymous Donn April 10, 2015 11:12 AM  

Yeah when I first started playing D&D had a minute long combat round. It was entirely 'cinematic' combat in the tradition of Robin Hood, King Arthur and Conan where most of the feints, maneuvering, and inconsequential hits were considered a minor part of the whole. I looked at it like a scene from an action movie and it worked. It wasn't reality but it wasn't supposed to be.

I am really pleased with the direction of the CH blog. Good writers, fans, and game designers with something interesting to say.

OpenID luagha April 10, 2015 11:21 AM  

As a longtime tabletop RPG player and martial arts instructor, this is going to be a delight to read.

Blogger Douglas Cole April 10, 2015 11:41 AM  

Thanks for the encouraging words. I hope the next few columns will continue to spark interest.

OpenID luagha April 10, 2015 11:48 AM  

"4E was like playing a video game"

Sorry, but the answer to this is long. Valuable enough to write, I think.

First, roleplaying adventure games come out of Wargaming, and the crucial idea that you, the player, could personify a token, make him more like a character in a story than a chit on the board, and even identify with that character.

Wargames already had 'leaders' and 'commander' chits who affect other pieces just like chess has the all-important King piece. But the idea of having the commander be like a character in a story makes him persistent. It opens the way to the concept of multiple-session wargames where maintaining the same commander makes him more seasoned just like other games might have had rules for turning recruits into veterans.

Most importantly, it allows for the element of emotional attachment to a character such that the player makes decisions not necessarily based on the numbers on the chits and the stats on the board; but on points in the story. A heroic commander might take greater personal risk in the fight to defeat the hag and her swamp minions that killed his family, but spare his troops if he could. Yet, if he was just fighting against a run of the mill ogre chieftain and assorted thugs in service to his leader, he might avoid the personal aspect of the conflict and marshall his troops like a detached chessmaster, knowing that some will die and the rest become hardened.

A long time ago, in Dragon Magazine, they published an article that went into a simple numerical breakdown of some of the assumptions in the Dungeons and Dragons game of the time. And it went like this:

Imagine everything is 'casting a spell'.
A fighter can cast a spell called 'Sword' that does 1d8 points of damage at no range once a round, forever.
A wizard can cast a spell called 'Magic Missile' that does 1d4 points of damage within 100 feet, once a day AND can cast 'Staff' which does 1d6 points of damage at no range once a round, forever.

Who wins? Well, the average damage of 'Sword' is 4.5, the average damage of Magic Missile is 2.5, and the average damage of Staff is 3.5. Depending on their starting damage points and their initial range and movement speeds, you can easily calculate who wins on average.

To people who only knew Dungeons and Dragons, this numerical analysis was radical. To wargamers like Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, it was old hat.

OpenID luagha April 10, 2015 11:57 AM  

As more and more characters enter the field and different 'spells' enter the calculus the numerical analysis becomes more complex until it can no longer be calculated fully the way simple cases are. That's when tactics and strategy enter the fray, as the science of advantage in conflict.

But since this is a roleplaying game where we personify the characters, we have an emotional connection. it will affect our choices of strategy and tactics, and that makes for the emergence of a narrative, a story.

Which gets us back to the original question. Why is 4e like playing a video game? It's because 4e intentionally performed the Dragon Magazine analysis of every power of every character and presented it as such. Your personified character was no longer swinging a sword. He was clicking a mouse that cast a spell with certain numbers attached.

And so the feeling of looking down at your character in 4e is no longer personification. It's the feeling of looking down at a chit in a wargame. That loses the power of role-playing, and the power of story.

Blogger Douglas Cole April 10, 2015 12:50 PM  

As a general note, my gaming experience bypassed D&D3 and D&D4. I did play Pathfinder for a bit, and I address that. But I've had no experience at all with D&D Fourth Edition, so I won't be speaking to it in the near future. My goal here is to look at design principles broadly, using the five game systems noted in my intro as canaries.

That might change later, since the mechanics and balance of Fourth Edition seem (by hearsay) to be pretty different than other editions I've played.

Blogger Akulkis April 10, 2015 1:10 PM  

I've always hated the RPG-sellers, because they sucked the oxygen out of historical/current/speculative military sims.

Blogger Akulkis April 10, 2015 1:14 PM  

"I always thought I'd enjoy doing it but the DMs I've known that are good at it have a very ... sadistic way of gaming their groups."

Which sorts of personalities are drawn to being the power in a game, to which all of the other players must plea and appeal?

That's your answer right there as to why D&D and other sorts of games never held a candle to even a solitaire game like Rogue and other dungeon games that came out of Unix circles in the era of character terminals.

Blogger Akulkis April 10, 2015 1:20 PM  

Not to mention Moria, which was multiplayer

OpenID jeffro April 10, 2015 1:30 PM  

Some people DM because they are attracted to the sense of power. Others are failed novelists that want to create the perfect campaign. I did it because it was the only way of getting the games played. Later, it became the only surefire means of making sure that there would be something fun to do at a convention. (I would have more than likely been the odd man out had I not created an event for myself!)

OpenID cailcorishev April 10, 2015 2:08 PM  

I did it because it was the only way of getting the games played.

Same here. I bought the sets, and was the one who not only wanted to play, but was willing to put in the time learning all the rules and creating adventures. If I hadn't done it, we would have been a bunch of guys with characters and nowhere to go.

I just recently started playing again after about a 25-year break, using the old BECMI rules that we used back then. I was struck by two seemingly contradictory things. On the one hand, there are a lot of mechanics, and you (especially the DM) can spend a lot of time rolling dice and getting bogged down in that. On the other hand, Gygax & Co. stressed in that set that the dice aren't in charge, you are, so feel free to ignore the dice and make decisions that help the story along.

I haven't kept up on newer editions, so I don't know what they've been like in that regard, and I'm looking forward to reading this article. But that old edition was quite flexible and seems to have been designed for a good storyteller who makes the characters and the story foremost.

OpenID jeffro April 10, 2015 2:22 PM  

Those BECMI rules are arguably the *most-played* version of D&D of all time. I've attempted to run it more-or-less as written in a couple dozen sessions this past few years and I'm impressed with just how well it works at the table. It looks rather shabby, but it's got it where it counts. (Doug can catch you up on the last thirty years of rpg design, though!)

OpenID luagha April 10, 2015 2:35 PM  

One of my favorite sayings is, "The rules are a language in which you and your players communicate."

Good rules facilitate that communication, and bad rules harm it. As does an over-reliance on the letter of the rules when it would not make sense. The story comes out of that communication and resolution.

Blogger Douglas Cole April 10, 2015 2:36 PM  

Jeffro's throwing me under his good-natured bus on that one. I can't cover (and don't intend to) all the various games and variants out there. I'm partway through "Playing at the World," which covers the early development of RPGs and spends a lot of time on D&D. I wonder - not having known any of the principals - if Gygax or Arneson would have been particularly choosy about WHEN to ignore dice, though. From their strong wargaming backgrounds, I bet ignoring them in the heat of combat would be a no-no, and ignoring the dice meant that when the giant block of stone falls on your head because you foolishly set off a trap, the GM is feel to say (literally this time) "rocks fall, everyone dies."

Anonymous Androsynth April 10, 2015 3:04 PM  

4E was not without its flaws (Feat Bloat being one of the most egregious), but to me it was the best designed edition mechanically since Basic D&D. As someone who's purchased every edition since 1984 (with the exception of 5E), it was the only one I was able to run a long campaign in, without having to houserule anything at all, and where every character was equally valuable, and yet unique to play even with the unified class mechanics.

"Plays like a video game" is an odd criticism to make for two reasons:

1) It doesn't. My group has played it for 5 years, we'd probably have noticed by now if it did. The comparison honestly doesn't even make sense, because even the best CRPG or MMO is a dramatically different experience than any tabletop RPG.

2) Video game RPGs took their basic mechanics and party role assumptions from D&D to begin with.

I look forward to reading what Mr. Cole has to say about 5E, since it's the first edition I've ignored since 1983 or so.

OpenID jeffro April 10, 2015 3:27 PM  

The biggest difference between the older games and the newer ones is that the time it took to resolve combat tended to get longer and longer. Under B/X, you could conceivably kill a monster and then see them fail a morale check almost immediately. Or one side might be surprised and wiped out with almost no chance to do anything about it. Old school games would thus tend to have many more encounters in a single session. Because the new school games have time for just a few in comparison, the adventure designs tend to become much more linear. Some of them devolve into an explicit series of balanced set-piece encounters.

OpenID cailcorishev April 10, 2015 3:31 PM  

Douglas, you're exactly right about that. They recommend that you use your discretion to encourage the players to be smart and think like their characters, not to save them from being stupid. So if they go charging into a room without listening or peeking around the corner first, let the dice destroy them and make it a teachable moment. But if they're playing smart and just have a terrible run of luck, don't let it ruin the game. And keep in mind the fact that, as the DM, you either created the adventure or (if it's a module) told them their characters were suitable for it, so if they're getting pounded, maybe the imperfection is yours.

OpenID jeffro April 10, 2015 3:40 PM  

I never lie about a die roll. I tell them what's at stake, I tell them the odds... then I stand up and roll the sucker and they have to deal with it. It's those moments that you can tell just how invested the players are.

On the other hand... for most actions that make any sense, I tend to just say "it worked." It keeps the game moving and encourages the players to think outside the box.

Anonymous Curtis April 10, 2015 4:51 PM  

The Truth About #Gamergate With Syrian Girl

Blogger Danby April 10, 2015 5:30 PM  

We all know soccer is gay. But it seems not so gay in Florence.

Does Vox live in Florence?

Anonymous Ecthelion April 10, 2015 5:48 PM  

DnD 4 played more like a tactical skirmish game. In that regard it was not bad, but the underlying spirit of a role playing game was not there. Pathfinder captures that spirit better, being a modification of 3.5 and trying to stay in that vein. I've only read 5, so I do not know how it actually plays. I am interested to see where these posts go.

Anonymous Atombum April 10, 2015 6:55 PM  

Krulak`s still alive? I met him briefly once during a friend`s graduation at Parris Is. We had a good laugh together. After asking what my Army unit was he said that he had had FTXs with us and was 100% impressed. `` There was one problem though.`` ``Oh,`` I replyed. ``Yeah, you guys weren`t Marines.``

Anonymous Donn April 10, 2015 6:56 PM  

Jeffro - That's why I started to DM. Everyone wants to play nobody wants to DM. When you don't keep the dice behind a screen you miss out on one of the great joys of DMing; rolling the dice at random to keep the players guessing and nervous.

Roll the dice, look mysterious, gleeful or concerned, and if they get nervous enough to ask why just say, "It's nothing...don't worry, you'll find out later."

Blogger LP 999/Eliza April 10, 2015 8:40 PM  

What a fun game thread!

Anonymous Laz April 10, 2015 9:35 PM  

"As the future leading publisher of military science fiction,"

Couldn't be soon enough.

Blogger Expendable Faceless Minion April 10, 2015 10:58 PM  

I seem to recall Colonel Kratman in the past mentioning that his editors required toning down of some scenes in his books.

I am very much looking forward to what happens when Vox says: "Hey Tom, that part where the SJW's finally get their well deserved rewards? Think you could make it a bit more vivid and exciting?"

Anonymous Laz April 11, 2015 12:40 PM  

"I seem to recall Colonel Kratman in the past mentioning that his editors required toning down of some scenes in his books."

Really!? I cringed at some of the really graphic scenes. So did dad.

"I am very much looking forward to what happens when Vox says: "Hey Tom, that part where the SJW's finally get their well deserved rewards? Think you could make it a bit more vivid and exciting?"

Anxious and excited. Bring it on Tom!

Anonymous A.B. Prosper April 11, 2015 2:07 PM  

D&D is part of my "other" world as is GURPS, the System Doug Cole writes for. For those who may not be familiar with him I suspect he'll be a good fit and a technically excellent game writer able to condense complex rules for things like grappling or archery physics into easily playable and comprehensible forms while losing little.

Its quite nice to see these two things, Castalia House and the others come together in a positive way especially as tabletop gaming like very other mostly straight, White male pastime has been plagued with leftist entyrists far more than usual. Its not new, this was common back in the 90's with White Wolf and its Vampire and Werewolf games but its been a lot more noticeable, pushy and odious of late.

And Owen as for 5th edition D&D , my gaming buddies and I gave it a whirl using the adventure in the basic box. Its a top notch edition having learned much mechanically and structurally from previous versions. It mixes older more freeform "rulings not rules" with more modern systems quite fluidly. You get the basics free here I can recommend it.

A last note re: 5e, its marketed differently than most D&D. Its focused around IP as a profit center and refreshingly does not seem to have a "more supplements" treadmill of any kind. Adventures and computer games and other more profitable materials seem to be the focus. What rules material that has been released has been free monthly bits. Its quite good.

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