Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Characteristics of Games (Part II.)

This on-going series of posts starts here.

Chapter 1. Basics

The first full chapter focuses on what they think are the three such basic characteristics of games that we often forget to talk about them: 1. playtime, 2. number of players and 3. "heuristics."

What they mean by heuristics are those "rules of thumb" by which players come successfully to play the game (not the "rules" of the game itself).

So, e.g., the rules state that a fireball fills a 20' radius and conforms to the volume of the space in which it is cast. A good "heuristic" for a player with a magic-user is to be aware of the size of the space he is in before he casts one!

They give this great list of differing and sometimes overlapping units of gameplay length (pp. 12ff):

1. atom = smallest unit of play where you could walk away and say you had actually played the game a little
2. game = what is usually thought of as a standard round of play (most of the time, the determination of a winner)
3. session = a single continuous period of play (e.g., an evening of poker)
4. campaign = a series of games or sessions linked together in some way
5. match = a series of games grouped together to determine an over-all victor (e.g. best 2 out of 3, etc.)

They use the term "metagame" to refer to things like trinkets, "merch," fan-talk about a game at the water-cooler, etc. So "campaigns" usually engage a lot of "metagame," e.g., the "season" of any given sport, etc.

They then dive into examples (rightly so). But when they get to D&D, again, they get it "wrong" (IMHO) because they are thinking of the newer group-story-telling party games than the original fantastic medieval wargame campaign. Here are my thoughts:

1. atom of D&D: the recovery of treasure and/or the awarding of XP
2. game of D&D: the leveling-up of a given character
3. session of D&D: a typical gaming session
4. campaign fo D&D: the on-going shared game world of players and referees allowing the continued advancement of characters (and their in-game goals, e.g., warfare, etc.)
5. match of D&D: reaching "top level"

The authors tend to see D&D as having no structure comparable to other games. But, again, this is because of their new-school story focus. An old school wargames campaign was just that: a game. I think what struck me after I contemplated an attempt to match up their differing time structures to the game we all love is that players can engage in the game simultaneously, apart, as a team, against one another: but "victory" conditions, etc., are all character-focused and driven and independent of any other character. The player is competing with himself in order to develop his character(s) from mistakes hard-learned, etc.

Someone reached "name level" in Planet Eris the other day. We all kind of had a spontaneous party - we all knew that was the goal of our characters as well. Sadly, the player retired this character! I was ready for the WAR game to start! Oh well. He had "won" his "match." Nice.

"Many games with 'good' atoms (short atoms with clear and satisfying boundaries) are point-based." p. 20. Hence my description of the "atom" of D&D being, ideally, the accrual of XP, but, at least, the discovery of treasure (gp).

The section on number of players was less interesting for me with regards to D&D. I know there are engines for solo-dungeon crawls. I cannot imagine many of us accepting players who gave their characters XP based upon such adventures!

They then move on to "heuristics." They give two major types: positional and directional. Positional heuristics evaluate the state of the game (score board check, etc.), directional heuristics guide the players in terms of strategy / tactic to achieve a new game state, etc. Of course, these are closely related and tied to one another, but still conceptually distinguishable.

They then say that some folks are attracted to games because of the quality of the heuristics, regardless of the rules. Players derive great enjoyment from "climbing the heuristics tree," e.g., learning the kinds of things that help beginners, heading through the plateau of minimally helpful but necessary heuristics to get through "middle game," and, finally, those last, difficult, but ultimately rewarding heuristics of "end game" (think, especially, chess here). So, they say, per any given game ask if the heuristics are: clear or muddy; rich or sparse; satisfying or unsatisfying; powerful or weak?

When I first returned to playing D&D after many years, I had forgotten a lot of basic heuristics. I bought a bunch of equipment for Nimrod the dimwit barbarian, thinking leather armor and a spear would be a good way to go till I found some more gold. Well, he died fast. Heuristic: buy the best armor you can afford, per class, ASAP! That is a clear, rich, satisfying and powerful heuristic! And it kept me coming back. But it is NO WHERE stated in the rules. For obvious reasons! Thinking this way has helped me to see how many basic and helpful heuristics there really are for D&D! Players really don't need the rules: but they sure need the heuristics.

One final thing I want to point out about this great chapter. They shy away from single, unified, normative definitions of games. But then they inadvertently throw a really great one into a footnote!

". . . games are to some extent abstract and purified models of everyday human existence." (p. 32.) Wow. I could talk a lot about that one. But I think I will just conclude this post here.

Next post in the series.

No comments:

Post a Comment