Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Characteristics of Games (Part III.)

This series of posts begins with a first post.

Ch. 2. Multiplayer Games

This chapter seems like it may have a lot to say about D&D, but, in the end, as interesting as it is, I think it turns out not to be too very germane to our conversation here. Still, I thought I should provide a brief summary before moving on to Ch. 3.

The chapter has five sections: Player Elimination, Interactivity, Politics, Kingmaking and Teamwork.

A multiplayer game to be truly multiplayer (according to their heuristic) must actually be multisided. Two teams playing one another is still a "two person" game with two "sides" of "teams" working together to eliminate the other "player." With this regard chess and soccer are the same. They are both two sided games.

D&D as most of us experience it is really one of these kind of games. The "referee" "plays" the non-player character baddies while the "multiple players" are not really multiple as they work together as a team against the "baddies." I am exaggerating to make a point here. But I do not think I am far off in most of our common experience of how the game is run today.

This is different from the original campaigns where each character acted fairly independently (not always as a "party") and where the referee truly refereed between wargames that would crop up between players.

In true multiplayer games the authors distinguish between "races," and "brawls." A race winds up being a one-player game with multiple instances. Each competes against themselves for time and the best time wins. A brawl is built up from a two player game where extra players are added and rules determining elimination are set. Races have logical elimination and therefore (when played fair!) low player interaction. Races include foot races but also scrabble, candyland etc. Brawls can have, in addition to logic elimination effective or perceived elimination. This allows for greater player interaction, meaning, greater possible influence on a player's elimination by other players involved. The more this increases, especially when such interaction can be deliberately targeted, the more that such "metagaming" realities such as politics and kingmaking come into play. So, for example, poker can almost never get political because, even though there is much interaction, that interaction (unless you are cheating and counting cards) cannot be targeted. But you can target interaction in, say Risk.

The most obvious example of this emergent phenomenon of targeting and politics is in one of the key games of our gaming history, the political, kingmaking brawl par excellence: Diplomacy!

They give an abstract example called "The Chip-Taking Game":

Imagine a game, which we'll call the "chip-taking game," where each player starts with a pile of ten chips. Players take turns going around the table. On her turn, a player may take one chip from any player and discard it. The winner is the last person with any chips left.

Most people would not enjoy playing this game for long. There is no real skill involved, other than the skill of convincing other people not to take your chips. And even if you possess that skill, once the other players notice you have it, they will probably react by trying to eliminate you first.

Unfortunately, many multiplayer games reduce to the chip-taking game, in the sense that most of their game features are irrelevant for determining the winner, who is instead chosen ultimately in chip-taking fashion. All that's necessary is that the game be highly interactive, n the sense that players can affect the positions of other players, and also that players can target whoever they affect. (p. 48.)

Diplomacy is, ultimately, just such a chip-taking game. The mechanics do not matter. That is why the mechanics, from a wargaming perspective, are so simple. They really, in the end, don't matter. If you get particularly good at the mechanics of Diplomacy, in the end, it may not really help you much. You had better be really good at politics. Once people figure out you are particularly good at either the mechanics, or the politics, they are likely to gang up on you and eliminate you so they don't have to worry about such a good player spoiling all their fun anymore! Cynical, but true. To make sense of this affect, they give this interesting example:

As a simple albeit artificial example, suppose we modify the chip-taking game so that on a player's turn, she chooses another player and plays a game of chess against him; if she wins he discards two chips, and if she loses he discards only one. This game has all the complexity and skill of chess, but it doesn't matter. Kasparov is no more like to win than anyone else at this game, and probably less; the other players are likely to choose him consistently until he's eliminated.

I think this may be important to bear in mind in D&D campaigns that truly turn wargames campaign: where players are no longer "the adventuring party" but antagonists at war with one another. Keeping the mechanics pretty simple will keep play honest, as it will really come down to factions and alliances.

They give a long list of strategies that they claim simply will emerge in any game that turns out truly to be a political (i.e., "chip-taking") game. It is long, so I'll just select my favorites:

  • Lying low so that players do not perceive you as a threat.
  • Waiting while other players fight it out and then mopping up the pieces.
  • Cajoling, whining, or begging other players not to hurt you.
  • Offering out-of-game benefits . . .
  • Hurting the player who last hurt you ("revenge").
  • Explaining to the victim why your choice was the rational one given the current game state . . .
  • Arguing that a player's choice of you as the victim is not optimal . . .
  • Kingmaking: near the end of the game, a player who has no chance to win determining which of the players still in contention actually wins . . . (p. 51)

They conclude that if "the game has enough targeted interaction, the above effects will dominate the game, and in some sense all games with enough targeted interactino are the same game" (p. 52.). I just love that. Then, they add in a footnote that the "cynical (or realistic, depending on your point of view) may see some resemblance to life in general." Cute, but well stated.

Kingmaking is where one perceives that one is all but logically eliminated from the game, but uses whatever resources left in order to make sure a certain player does (or does not) win the game. This is pure politics, as it will have no in-game rewards for the kingmaking player.

Finally, the chapter concludes talking about teamwork. They present cooperative games as a special case. Most team-based games boil down to two-player games with each "player" consisting of a team. Teams usually consistent of differentiated roles. For folks on a team to feel like they are having fun, they need to feel that they are contributing in some way to the over-all win for their side. This leads to a need for relative balance between different roles. (Uh-oh. Dangerous to say on an old school forum. I will only whisper it <"character balance."> I have whispered it. I will say no more.)

It could be argued, of course, that D&D is a cooperative game (most of the time, the way we find ourselves playing it), with the ref adjudicating impartially. I do hope that is the case. It often feels more like a two-player game (team against one), especially under certain strains of old-school refs who pride themselves on their "killer dungeons"!

This series continues with the next post.

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