Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Characteristics of Games (Part IV.)

This is a series on the book The Characteristics of Games that has a first post.

Chapter 3 is named, "Infrastructure," by which they mean "rules," but other aspects of games that take them beyond a simple study of rules and mechanics. The focus of the chapter is on what they call the "systemic first with agential overtones," (p. 71.).

Rules are instructions that tell players what actions they can take and their outcome in terms either of changed game state or ultimately in terms of winning, losing, or scoring. Rules may be enforced by the players, judges, or even by gameplay environment -- such as the size and feel of a football field, or the code of a computer game and the limits to player agency inherent in that code.  So they are using the word "rules," not in a narrow sense of "rules in a rule book," but in a broader sense of that could include instructions one might need in order to play or that determine how one plays.

Are universally accepted practices of play that are not in fact written down also rules? I think of leveling up when player characters are back in town and safe. I've never found that rule written anywhere. But I have never been in a group that didn't play by that. Is it a rule of D&D?

They ask a question about rules: "to what extent are the rules the same thing as the game?" They believe the identification of rules with their games makes far less sense than commonly supposed. They point to all the rule changes that have happened over time to basketball since its invention. Is it a different game than the one invented? "Only a pedant would say yes" (p. 73.). They offer a better point of view: "Think of the rules to a game as like the words to a story: a story can still be Little Red Riding Hood despite having different words from some other version. In fact it can even have a completely different ending. . . Although the rules are not the game, the rules let one experience the game by playing it, just as the words let one experience the story by reading it" (p. 73.). I think this is a great analogy!

In fact, they point out, a very common occurrence is that of changing the rules just exactly in order to keep the game the same! The goal is to keep the game experience the same, similar to, or "better," based upon the common experience and known goal of the play of the game itself. If some folks figure out a way to cheat the system such that the feel is wrong or the goals are moved or changed, then the game itself exerts a kind of pressure that usually leads to changing or establishing additional rules in order to achieve the same "feel" and goals as before. This describes well what has happened in the changing of the rules of basketball over time, for example. It may well describe the centuries-long journey of chess. It does not in my opinion describe the drive behind the rules glut of later editions of D&D!

"Just as Little Red Riding Hood is an entity having life outside its specific text, games are usually entities the live beyond their rules" (p. 73.). Rules do not define games. The game defines the rules. Man that is a great point for the OSR! It feels right to me to say that a big difference between old school and certain kinds of subsequent gaming is whether or not the mechanics themselves are supposed to create a kind of feedback loop into the game experience. Why can't dwarves be clerics? Because the game we are playing is a game that engages the classic legendaria of the medieval west. There are no stories where dwarves are clerics. Just because it is mechanically possible does not demand its existence. In fact, when we allow it, we actually create an alternative, mechanically derived legendaria that takes us further away from the game we are trying to play: "medieval fantasy wargames campaign."

I wish I knew Napoleonic wargaming a bit better. I am sure I could derive an analogy. But here goes: imagine a Napoleonic wargame that progresses from historical scenarios to hypotheticals. Some genius engineer type (no offense intended) sees that there could possibly be a troop with mechanics that blend artillery with cavalry. There is only one problem: this never in fact historically existed. Now, granted, with fantasy, who is to say whether it is okay for it to exist or not? After all, it is fantasy? But the more we move away from the inherited legendaria, the more we move away from the ability of the referee to have the authority to make calls based upon knowledge of the genre. Freedom for one may seem like simply missing the point of the game to the other. Hence, I play original edition D&D!

I also personally love their approach to the relationship of rules to their games because it is so very Platonic (and, as many are aware, I am a Platonist). The archetype precedes its instance, and both precede descriptive discourse about either!

I would add that the more one can assume an identity between rules and the game the more we are talking about a puzzle or riddle rather than a genuine game. It may be fun. It may be a good part of a game. But, alone, a puzzle is not a game. A puzzle can be "solved." A game can only be "played."

They then make what they see to be a useful practical distinction between first-order and second-order rules. First-order rules are those that anyone must know in order t o play or enjoy watching the game. Second-order rules are those someone needs to know for the game to occur, but a player may not nee to know them, although, of course, many expert players will also know them. I see this in D&D as obviously manifesting in the difference between players and the referee and even in the rules themselves between what is shared with the players and what only the referee should see. One way to see the difference is to imagine you are teaching someone to play. There are very few games where you would teach all the rules from the start. Typically you only teach first-order rules - and those in so far as needed to get started, with others being explained through actual play.

They then make the important point that sometimes rules may even become a barrier to play. I see this as a corollary to their above points about the actual relationship of rules to their games. This is a most excellent point for those of us in the OSR who like not only "rules lite," but also a more free kriegspiel approach to "wargaming," with heavy emphasis on trust in the expertise and fairness of the referee.

In making their point, they make the following seemingly bold claim: "In general, rules are a bad thing in the sense that one would like to achieve the same gameplay results with fewer rules, rather than more. Of course, this is not always possible. Too many first-order rules is especially bad," (p. 75.) because of the difficulty in introducing new players to the fun of actually simply playing. I cannot think of a point more conducive to the "rules-lite" approach to D&D. But by distinguishing between first and second-order rules we can have a very then "Players Handbook" and as thick a "Dungeon Masters Manual" as we desire (to use terms from Gygax' tournament revisions to D&D, i.e., "Advanced" D&D).

They thus conclude that:
One danger to watch out for when designing or modifying a game is the impulse to fix things (problems in the other characteristics) by adding rules. Sometimes adding rules is unavoidable, but in general it's better to look for other fixes. Repeated little extra bits of rules, each added to fix a different problem, can add up to a quite messy game. Again, adding first-order rules is worse than adding second-order ones, and the more players (rather than referees or computers) must adjudicate, the worse adding rules becomes. (p. 76.)
I think the above describes well exactly my implies that drove me to write out my little "retro-supplement," even "anti-supplement," Perilous Realms. I wanted to take away rules, rather than add. I wanted to create as much as possible the same basic experience of playing D&D with less, rather than more rules.

They conclude this point about rules by pointing out how we sometimes inadvertently legalize something by giving it an in-game penalty. Think about all the fouls that basketball players perform these days because they can manage the penalties to their advantage. Penalties are not rules that state "don't do this," but rather, "if you do this, X happens." In D&D I can think of the way that say encumbrance penalties can be flouted for min-maxing. But I need to think this one out a bit more.

After discussing rules they discuss what they call "standards." "Standards" are their name for sets of rules that often fall into what they call "clusters," e.g., rules around shuffling and trick-taking in card games, etc. Learning new heuristics is as difficult as learning new rules, so many games use "standards," "commonly accepted patterns that many players are already familiar with" (p. 76.). One "standard" would simply be the 52 card deck used for countless card games. Some say the sue of standards avoids creativity. But consider -- most folks play games to have fun and standards help folks know a lot about playing a new game before they even begin. Standards often come in bundles. Such s, for example "trick-taking card games." Or "track boardgames with dice."

This leads me to a grand contemplation: what if the subtitle to D&D had been "standards for medieval fantasy wargames campaigns," instead? Might that have freed people from rules glut and rules lawyering? What if the real difference between editions and campaigns is more about the difference between chess and checkers, monopoly and parcheesi, five-card stud and Texas hold-em rather than that of different "rules." What if it is the standards that make it a kind of game, a game type, rather than rules that make it a single game? What if D&D names a set of standards for a genre of games instead of rules for one game? That makes a whole lot of sense to me. And could perhaps put a buffer on "edition wars."

What are some standards in D&D that are like those of "trick-taking card games"? How about, classes and levels instead of skills. How about saving throws and hit points? These are more than rules. These are whole sets of rules. The rules may change, but the "standard" is still recognizably "D&D."

They then talk about end state of games. Some end with a single, unique winner. Some end with several winners or with folks assigned different scores. There can be different end conditions. They call games where someone clearly wins "orthogames." "Nonorthogames" are those were there is no clear winner, but where the goal is different, such as Hacky Sack, where the goal is to keep the bag in play as long as possible. I wonder if D&D is a "nonorthogame" in the sense that no one "wins." Or is "winning" per level? You "win" when you "level up," and thus set up the conditions for the next "win"? At any rate, D&D is a game of "scaled performance," leveling assigns players a score with in-game benefits. If a game has only two sides, there is almost always a unique winner. So, perhaps "winning" is surviving an encounter. Perhaps "winning" is at the "wargame" not the "campaign" level. There are even different ways to determine the end of a game. Some games end when there is a clear winner. At other times, some condition names the end of the game, then the game state is studied in order to determine the winner. In both cases, a "victory condition" is necessary.

They then turn to a discussion of points. Points are numeral scores assigned to each player.Typically highest is best, but not always, as in gold. In some games, points are spendable as in-game currency as real-world currency, as in gambling games. "Playing for points" is common. Sometimes points can be spent within the game to improve one's position, as in Monopoly.  This leads to the "snow-balling": whoever is ahead spends points to get further ahead. In order to avoid this, some games use a two or more point track system. They call this 'Dual-track point systems." here, in game "money" may better one's in-game condition without directly contributing to victory points. This avoided snowballing. they can force strategic choices, such as "guns or butter." Seems like D&D is a Dual Track point system, where XP and gp are related, but not identical. They can influence one another, but not usually directly.

Then they turn back to the beginning of the game and discuss different possible starting positions for the game. Starting positions can be symmetrical: all players start with the same relative game-state, such as Chess or Monopoly. They can be asymmetrical, such as joining an already busy OLMMG. Asymmetry can be slight or extreme.

Then they make a note about how games interact with human sensation. This can lead to even addictive behavior in the case of, say, gambling machines. I suppose novelty dice is the D&D equivalent to sensory aspects of the game!

Thanks for reading.