Friday, June 24, 2016

The Discarded Image (Part IV.)

This series starts with a first post.

Ch. 5. The Heavens

B. Their Operations

"The statement that the medieval Church frowned upon this discipline [of astrology] is often taken in a sense that makes it untrue. Orthodox theologians could accept the theory that the planets had an effect on events and on psychology, and, much more, on plants and minerals." p. 103.

What, then, did the church fight against? To paraphrase: three things: a. lucrative but misleading "predictive" astrology, b. astrological determinism and c. anything that looked like the worship of heavenly bodies. He then goes into a wonderful description of the qualities possessed and, thereby, imparted, by each of the seven planets. He, unfortunately, does not do the same for the signs of the zodiac, etc., much to our loss!

Astrology was merely the acceptance that such great realities as the stars and the planets must have an influence on lesser bodies like our own. The lesser the reality the greater the influence, so, especially on minerals such as gems and the like (gold is the product of the sun "influencing" underground mineral deposits, etc.), then plants, the minds of unwise people and especially on mass societal events (guided, as usual, by the minds of many unwise people).

This influence creates a certain character that "harmonizes" with the character of the influencing planet. But it does not say what this character will produce or what choices in must make. Therefore, then as now, making predictions based upon astrology of particular concrete human decisions was and is frowned upon by the church as entirely misleading. The influence is obvious and "scientific." The power of prediction is a farce. This is in large part because the church ruled out determinism. And, of course, anything that smacked of idolatry.

Again, Lewis' way of reminding us our own western heritage about this stuff, especially the "influences" I think provides just excellent resources for imagining "magic" in fantasy settings. The central principle of alchemy, found on the Emerald Tablet, is "as above, so below." This could be used to truly interesting results with dungeon design. Imagine a dungeon of 9 levels, each deeper one corresponding to an ever higher heavenly sphere that "influenced" it. Going down, silver, quicksilver, copper, gold iron, tin, lead, gems, etc. Fun!

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.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Discarded Image (Part III.)

This series of posts starts here.

Chapter 3.

This is so important and so applicable to play that I am going to have to break the chapter down into relevant chunks. Also, although I hate the distinction theoretically, practically speaking it is sometimes useful to distinction between "fluff" and "crunch." Most of what Lewis is doing here in the DI is more applicable to campaign "fluff." But I believe some of it may affect mechanical decisions or even provide clever accounts of mechanics that already exist in the game. This is true, I believe, especially with regards to "influence" and D&D "Vancian" magic.

A. The Parts of the Universe

"Thus while every falling body for us illustrates the 'law' of gravitation, for them it illustrated the 'kindly inclining' of terrestrial bodies to their 'kindly stede' the Earth, the centre of the Mundus." p. 92. Lewis does a lot of work to help us to get the feel of the difference between a natural philosophy based upon a theory of influence as opposed to our modern "empirical" natural philosophy based upon law. And he gives a really great "touche" (very Lewis-like) when he shows how our modern talk of "law" is just as metaphorical about inanimate objects as "influence," if not more so. But the medieval human being lived and moved in a world absolutely brimming with overlapping confluences of influence. All the stars and their signs, the seven planets including the various phases of the moon, the four elements, all overlapped and flowed in and out of each other, creating new situations every moment, day, season, etc.

This is so great because it is just as cool if not cooler than 1e's crazy cosmology but it actually corresponds to what we used to believe! So, a cosmography for a campaign world:

Earth at the center, water on top, air on top of that, fire as an invisible barrier right at the orbit of the moon. Really, fire distinguishes the super from the sub lunar realms. Very cool. These would be the "locations" from which the elementals are called forth. And above the moon all is bathed in the quintessence, aether. Perhaps we would need to invent another elemental that only the highest level MUs could call forth: the Aether Elemental! (Please, someone imagine this and stat it out for me!)

The four contraries: hot/cold / / dry/moist: combine together to make the four sub-lunar elements: fire = hot + dry; air = hot + moist; water = cold + moist; earth = cold + dry. Again, this would be great for campaign flavor, but as someone dedicated to rules-light play, I cannot see this affecting game mechanics for players in any way. Perhaps for the ref for a table for discerning MU elements, etc.? Thoughts?

Now we actually have something for the spell "Contact Higher Planes" to correspond to!

Terrestrial or perhaps Ethereal, or perhaps Elemental (guiding spirit: Fortuna (see later chapters))
Cytherian (Venus)
Stellar (Astral)
Prime (Primal)

Then he launches into a great exposition of the different "feel" of the cosmos b/w us and the medievals. "The Medieval Model is vertiginous." (98). So "space," for us, is this vast endless sea of vacuum. The "cosmos" for them was full of light and music but, imaginatively speaking, equally vast. But with a clear "up / down" so that we get vertigo when we look up at night! I love that.

More to come when I comment on the next section, but I can see all this really helping to make sense of D&D's magic "system." The "influences" could be part of an account of what a MU "knows." Their knowledge is more intuitive than theoretical (sage's knowledge is the reverse, more theoretical than intuitive -- thus they do not (or rarely) cast spells and never adventure!). They "feel" the influences of planets, spheres and lay-lines. Thus they know how to move their hands and which words of power to shout in order to "cast" the spell they are "holding" in their "memory" into the terrestrial plane at the moment they need it. They may not even be able to explain what they just did. But due to powerful initiations into mysteries and to their own on-going experience of the use of such intuition they more and more just "get the feel" for casting a spell. Spell casting becomes a kind of intuitive channeling and shaping of comic influences all around. No sorcery. Very natural. They know how to run the martial plane through a "sluice" and gain power and pressure on that influence like a miner knows how to use a pick and a carpenter knows how to sink a nail.

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.