Tag Archives: agency

A Chain of Fake People

Any creative work is a sort of conversation between two people: the author and the reader. Except it’s not.

Books, movies, music, video games, and so on are created by one or more people, and then are consumed by one or more people. The work in question (let’s call it a game) serves as a medium by which the player communicates with the authors or developers. One can imagine an experience analogous to digital gaming where two people sit in a room, one telling the other what’s happening and the other responding with their actions. This actually wouldn’t be too different than tabletop roleplaying.

But playing games doesn’t really work like that; there’s this big thing between the authors and the players called a game. The authors and the player can be in different states; they might not speak the same language; the original author might be literally dead in real life. But the work, the game, spans this void of time and distance to allow a sort of mediated communication. And in the middle there are a bunch of imaginary people existing in a series of nested universes that make the exchange possible. Let’s meet them, shall we?
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The RPG Campaign as Episodic TV: Two Techniques

In addition to the regular D&D game I run, I’ve just started up another tabletop RPG campaign using the Geist system. Like many of White Wolf’s “limited series” games (Promethean, Changeling), the concept is incredibly provocative. You died, and in the moments of death, a being “more than ghost, less than god” offered you a partnership. This being, called a geist, shielded you from death and allowed you to survive. You are a living human, but now you can see ghosts, control strange creepy powers, and even travel the underworld. The mood of the game is a cool mix of the macabre (you died, and now you see death everywhere) and the celebratory (you got a second chance at life! Live it up!).

The bittersweet mood, morbid theme, and cool antagonists reminded me of shows like Angel, Dead Like Me, and Death Note. So I decided that I wanted my campaign to run like an episodic, ensemble-cast television show. I also wanted to explore giving players more control over the game, while maintaining primary authorship as GM; tossing a strong flavor of the indie RPG into a traditional system. As a result, I’m using two techniques: Episode Previews and Cutscenes.
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GM Success

This week I had one of those great GM moments. In my Promethean game, my players have been presented with a dilemma: they’ve found the workshop of a character who named himself Paracelsus, who was in search of an alchemical elixir called the Ascendance Formula. However, as the players were told by a mystical qashmal, his choices of ingredients were “not human enough.” Instead of turning human, Paracelsus was killed and his body split apart into a collection of monsters.

Clearly, I’m trying to set up a dilemma here. This formula could be a shortcut to mortality for the player characters, but it is very dangerous; not only could it kill you, but it can also create new monsters to make everyone’s life more difficult. As a GM, when you set up this sort of dilemma, you want to create inter-player tension and discussion. I think I succeeded. At the end of this week’s session, the player characters sat down and discussed the dilemma in detail, and they each had interesting perspectives.

One character, a loner soldier and sometimes thief, wanted nothing to do with the formula. Screw the alchemy, screw the existing monsters, just get the hell out of town. Another, a naive tinkerer with Tesla’s right hand, was all for trying the formula for himself. Build a cage around the experiment area, sure, shoot him before he turns into a monster, but he wanted to take the chance. Finally, the flighty con artist of the group had a brainstorm. The tinkerer can try the formula, and if it works (and maybe even if it doesn’t), the surviving party members can sell the formula to other Prometheans. With the promise of money, the soldier was won over, and a plan is in place… for now.

As a GM, I get the most amount of glee from when players are deliberating over these sorts of interesting choices. If the choice is easy, it’s not providing the players much (high-level) agency. Only when a decision is difficult — when there is no clear “right” alternative — are the players truly choosing their own path through the narrative. And if there’s inter-PC conflict in the decision process, then that just makes my job more of a success.

So for now, I’m feeling good about my campaign. We’ll see how next session goes.

Branching Pathways

I write a lot about agency, the ability for a player to affect the outcome of events in a piece of interactivity. Most games we play have very little high-level agency; the player can determine how a battle is fought, but victory always results in the same outcome. Terry “Xoldiers” Cavanagh just released a game called “Pathways” that plays with the concept of agency. It turns out we don’t have any. Let me elaborate.

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Simulation, Structure, and Agency

And now for some hardcore interactivity theory geekery. I’ve been doing design for my current work in progress (working title: The Mold Fairy) and it’s caused me to think, as I often do, about the nature of interactivity. Most any interactive work is a simulation. Usually, this is a simulation of reality, or of a reality very similar to our own; two to three dimensions, strict sequencing of time, the possibility of containment and spacial relations, and various energies and forces. Different games have different levels of abstraction to their simulation. What makes it interactive is that the player can tweak the parameters of the simulation. In most games, the player can only control the behavior of an actor or group of actors within the simulation. This ability to affect the progress of the simulation is called player agency. It’s essential to interactivity, and it’s used in different ways in different works. I’d like to see this agency take a different form than it usually does. Let me lay some groundwork first.

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Why Should Digital Game Designers Care About Tabletop Roleplaying?

I’ve made a few posts lately about tabletop roleplaying games. Many digital-games-focused folks may not be very interested in such things, since they seem so different from digital games. As I’ve said before, tabletop roleplaying games are a synchronous form of digital games. Why does that matter?

Simple. Imagine the perfect video game engine.

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Ludus Novus 013: Over the Next Hill

In this podcast, I talk about exploration games. Exploration games, as I categorize them, are games with an open world that offer an array of paths at any one time. They’re awesome because they appeal to players’ curiosity and completionism, and they help deal with player frustration.


The music for this episode is “Space Doggity” by Jonathan Coulton, and is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 license.

Alternatives to Failure

Scott Martin over at Gnome Stew posted yesterday about failure in tabletop roleplaying games. Or rather, the alternatives to simple failure. There’s any number of reasons why players of an RPG might fail: bad die rolls, bad choices, or simple failure to turn the right direction at an intersection. But often, failure is a bad thing for everyone.

Character failure isn’t always a bad thing– if you step back from your character’s eyes and think of the game as a story, you might even root for your character’s failure at times. Failure can show adversity…, create sympathy…, feel right…, provide material for character introspection, and more. But when you get to the climax of the story, it sucks when the dice come up ones and you’re just a sidekick and someone else laps up the glory.

This is a problem in tabletop RPGs and in digital games. Does the game master or developer/game engine just allow the Total Party Kill, even if the fate of the world is at stake? If the player misses her chance to find a vital clue, is she out of luck? Martin lists an array of possibilities, and they’re equally applicable to digital games as to tabletop RPGs. I’ll discuss how digital games can deal with failure after the break.

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Freedom Done Wrong

Jim Sterling over at Destructoid wrote a post the other day claiming that linear games provide pacing and structure that nonlinear “sandbox” games do not:

Indeed, if every game was a huge open world, you would soon find yourself growing bored, or at least overwhelmed as you struggle to find time in the day to explore sandbox after sandbox. After hours spent in the hustle and bustle of Liberty City or Tamriel, a game with clearer focus and a set beginning, middle and end can be just what the doctor ordered, providing some experiences that total freedom just can’t manage.

Sterling’s got a point: open games that allow for actual player agency over the path of the plot do tend to have inferior pacing and emotional impact when compared to games with a linear plot. However, Sterling falls into a common trap when it comes to game design: just because they tend to be inferior doesn’t mean they can’t manage to provide that pacing. Game designers just don’t pay enough attention to it. More after the jump.

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Execution: Changing Games Forever

A nameless man, tied to a post, is visible through the scope of a gun.

A few weeks ago, Jesse Venbrux, creator of the previously-discussed Karoshi games, released a short interactive piece called “Execution.” Not really a game, “Execution” is a quick subversion of what video games typically are and a subtle comment on the thing that the form is currently obsessed with: killing.

The impact of the game will be stronger if you play it at least twice before clicking through to the rest of the discussion. It should take you about five minutes. I’ll wait.

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