Tag Archives: patreon

Actual Play Podcasts Do Not Portray Actual Play, Actually

Actual play podcasts are not what the name suggests. They’re a form of podcast that purportedly serializes a recording of a group playing a tabletop roleplaying game. The listener hears the dice rolls, the out-of-character discussions, and the social interaction that surrounds the in-character story being told at the table. The apparent appeal is the fun of hearing the “actual play” occurring when creating an interesting story.

But actual play podcasts are a lie.

Actual Play

Roleplaying game systems (tabletop or otherwise) are more complex to examine than other games. I’ve written about their oddnesses over the course of years, but here is a summary1:

  • Unlike most games, what you purchase when you buy a traditional RPG is a ruleset, not a potential narrative. When you buy Arkham Horror or DUSK, you can immediately begin playing without doing much creative work of your own. With RPG systems, on the other hand, one or more players must create characters, settings, and/or conflicts, depending on the game2.
  • Once this “campaign material” has been created (or purchased as a separate supplement), then you have a potential narrative: a set of rules for simulation plus an initial world state (and potential future events).
  • Playing through the campaign concretizes this potential narrative into an actual one. The campaign material is transformed by the rules and the player choices into the actual events that occur in the narrative and can later be breathlessly related to a gracious and patient third party.

Actual play podcasts add an additional layer to this matryoshka of potentiality:

Notional Play

Games already involve a chain of fake people, and actual play podcasts add an extra few, including the editor and the listener. They also flavor the whole endeavor with the feeling of performance. A roleplaying game played with the intent to present it to a listener is different than one played “just for fun.” There can’t help but be a pressure to produce something consumable. To do what is interesting to hear rather than what is wise or fun or interesting to play. To ignore rules to avoid them bogging down the story, or to enforce rules just so you don’t get irate responses about your laxness.

There are few other artistic forms in which the process of making the final work is immortalized as part of the work. Actual play presents both in-character and out-of-character as essential. Reality television revels in presenting the process of its own creation, but generally doesn’t have an inner narrative; the story of the show is the story of the creation of the show only. Professional wrestling presents a fictional narrative partially improvised live, but it keeps the out-of-character bits blurry through the doctrine of kayfabe4.

But actual play podcasts give similar weight to the inner narrative of the game’s characters as they do to the “backstage” process of the players collaborating to construct that narrative. The closest thing I can think of is The Great British Bake Off and similar cooking competition shows, where the viewer both admires the aesthetics of the dishes being cooked and also enjoys the drama of the kitchen process.

Artificial Play

Actual play podcasts seek to provide listeners with an experience that evokes actual play, not one which documents it. Spectating tabletop roleplaying in life (not on stage) is uncommon, perhaps because it can be unsatisfying to sit passively through such a participatory experience, complete with its pauses for inside jokes and snacks and bathroom breaks.

Instead, these podcasts represent their play in a way that provides a hyperreal5 experience, one in which the listener feels like they are listening to a roleplaying game, despite this feeling resulting from the experience being an inaccurate representation of typical home play.

This dishonesty may not be intentional on the part of the show creators, but that doesn’t matter. The act of recording a play session, editing it, and presenting it to an audience unavoidably transforms it, affecting both the moment-to-moment actions of the players and the shape of the final product.

The lies that are being told varies from show to show. When you listen to The Adventure Zone, you are shown a version of play that is ridiculous and informal yet transcends this mood to be deeply emotional. When you listen to Friends at the Table, you see complex worlds emerging from casual interplay between friends. When you listen to Tabletop Garden, you (hopefully) see rich characters emerging as the result of intentional play practices.

The lies told by these shows may be true of some games, some of the time. However, by presenting their curated, edited view of play experience, the shows craft a subtle argument about how roleplaying games are, or should be. The listener is complicit in their own deception, enjoying this manufactured version of play and unavoidably allowing it to shape their future views and play practices.

Actual play podcasts do not portray actual play, but an ideal that the creator has chosen to present. Keeping this distinction in mind will help a creator make sure to convey an ideal they embrace, and will help a listener to recognize how this ideal is being presented to them.

  1. Throughout this piece, I’ll use the word “players” in a way that includes the possible Game Master, Dungeon Master, Storyteller, etc.
  2. “No-prep” games like Fiasco or Lady Blackbird are weird edge-cases where the setting seems very entangled with the rules, but these still tend to require detailing and/or interpretation that happens before play proper begins.
  3. From the transcript: “They all destroyed the world and then flew away and then that was the ending and we finished recording and then almost like we hung up on the Skype call, and then like a minute later we started texting like ‘That sucked.'”
  4. In which wrestlers pretend, even outside of an event, that they are engaging in honest athletic competition rather than the partially pre-scripted acrobatic performance everyone knows they’re doing
  5. The hyperreal is an imitation of something which does not exist.

Ludus Novus 026: Reflection

In this episode of the Ludus Novus podcast, I discuss the election and GamerGate and how we can make a difference with games. I start with an excerpt from Austin Walker’s recent, amazing piece “A Note on Trump, Waypoint, and Why We Play.” I move on to discuss mirror neurons, Gone Home, my presumptuous racial awareness thanks to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, my plans to survive violent abuse, and the power of games to promote compassion.

The Ludus Novus podcast is supported by my patrons. To help, please visit my Patreon.

The theme music is “A Foolish Game (Vox Harmony Adds)” by Snowflake, Admiral Bob, and Sackjo22, available on ccMixter under a ccby3.0 license.

Invisible Design in Picross 3D: Round 2

Why is no one talking about Picross 3D: Round 2?

Picross 3D Round 2 Complete Puzzle

To put it another way, what can I say about Picross 3D: Round 2?

It is an ideal game. It’s not perfect; I could list flaws like the error-prone controls if I were ever inclined to write a review. But as someone who likes to write about games as works of art and craft, it’s almost too ideal to grasp. Like the smooth carved-wood toys you produce when solving puzzles in the game, there are no hard corners or rough spots to get a rhetorical grip on.

The game just follows. It follows from its ruleset and its heritage and the decisions made in its design are all either necessary or arbitrary. The decisions are hard to even notice and games like these receive less attention in the critical space due to this invisible design.

Continue reading Invisible Design in Picross 3D: Round 2

Strange Symmetra: Accretive Design in Overwatch

Symmetra_Overwatch_001Symmetra is the most strangely-designed character in Blizzard’s Overwatch. In a game where most heroes’ roles can be summed up in a few words (“fast flanker,” “mobile area-denial tank,” “AOE healer,” “slowing defender”) and their story concepts naturally arise from their roles (“time-traveling jet pilot,” “leaping electric gorilla,” “portable DJ,” “cute ice Satan”1), Symmetra makes little sense.

She builds many tiny sentries, gives minor shields to allies, builds teleporters, and can attack with either a short-range cumulative auto-aim beam or a slow-moving death orb. This is explained by her being a combination architect and sci-fi construction worker, shaping solid forms out of light. She is the only character with “photonic” technology, and it is not explained how being able to project physical holograms also lets you bend space and time to craft a teleportation portal.

I have no special insight into the Overwatch design process, but I can speculate with some confidence about how it proceeded. Symmetra (and indeed all the heroes) were not designed from the ground up. They were assembled using an accretive process, where abilities were assembled piecemeal and then unified with a story-based concept.
Continue reading Strange Symmetra: Accretive Design in Overwatch

  1. I find Mei infuriating to play against.

The Transformative Power of Good Writing – Wolfenstein: The New Order

Wolfenstein: The New Order, developed by MachineGames and published by Bethesda, should have been awful. If you’d asked me before release, I’d have predicted that the ninth game in a franchise, an alternate-history game set in the 1960s where the Nazis won World War II, featuring B.J. Blazkowicz as a recovered locked-in veteran, would only be good for a few hot takes and maybe some mediocre shooting with nose firmly held.

Instead, this game is one of the best I’ve played. It’s not just great, it’s well-crafted. That is to say that, beyond the things that appeal to my personal preferences (alternate history, cool sci-fi, a diverse cast, a dark tone, a considered pace) it shows great skill in how it executes what it sets out to do.

The credit for this success belongs to various factors—the expressive visual art, the excellent voice acting, and the well-polished rule systems—but more than anything, it’s thanks to the excellent writing.

Continue reading The Transformative Power of Good Writing – Wolfenstein: The New Order

Hopping Numbers in Pocket Frogs

frog-fractions-2

I love it when games wear their math on their sleeves. I also like when games are based on real-life systems, even when those systems are twisted or simplified for the purposes of smoother design. Pandemic is a good example of the former: the way the Infection deck is constructed and manipulated makes it clear how the game’s randomness works and why the same cities keep breaking out in more and more disease. Spacechem is a good example of the latter: it takes the concept of chemical bonds and process engineering and turns it into a brain-twisting puzzler.

Pocket Frogs, by Nimblebit, does both of these things. It takes the concept of genetic inheritance and uses it to make a sort of gambling game where the math is always visible and calculable.

It’s a game where you breed frogs, trying to produce certain special collections. But let’s pretend it’s not.

Continue reading Hopping Numbers in Pocket Frogs

Degeneracy and Competing Goals in XCOM

XCOM
One of my patrons posed this question:

If “be cautious!” is the dominant strategy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, why is the game still interesting?

This is a complicated question, in part because it makes several assumptions I disagree with. The short answer is “because being cautious in XCOM is hard.” But let’s tease apart the details.

Continue reading Degeneracy and Competing Goals in XCOM

It’s So Easy When You’re: Evil Genius

Evil Genius Map ViewThere’s a rich tradition in video games of villainous protagonists. One of the most interesting things about this trend is how it encourages you to understand and assign personhood to characters that you might otherwise demonize.

At Future Proof Games we’re motivated by a concept we call “audacious compassion:” exercising players’ everyday empathy skills by encouraging them to have compassion for characters that seem alien, evil, or irrational.

Villainous games align with this concept. Tie Fighter shows you how the underlings in a dictatorial government justify their actions as preserving order. Overlord depicts a character who does the right things for the wrong reasons. And Evil Genius depicts a supervillain who’s inordinately concerned with keeping people happy and entertained.

Continue reading It’s So Easy When You’re: Evil Genius

Overcomplexity in Nom Nom Galaxy

Heart from the tutorial to Nom Nom GalaxyPixelJunk‘s Nom Nom Galaxy is a hard game. It’s a well-crafted resource-gathering and automation game in the vein of Terraria or Minecraft, but with a focus on factory production and automation. It’s hard because it’s far too complicated.

One of the classic problems of game design is the dominant strategy. A dominant strategy occurs when one way to play the game is so much better that it becomes the only option a player should pursue. The simple solution to a dominant strategy is to add a complicating factor that acts as a tradeoff, weakening the strategy and leading to interesting player decisions.

Nom Nom Galaxy, however, goes through this cycle a few too many times. Dominant strategies are complicated by challenges that can be overcome with strategies that are further complicated by new challenges. The end result is a frantic, frustrating time that keeps me from experiencing the joy of mastery.
Continue reading Overcomplexity in Nom Nom Galaxy

Helping RPGs Play Themselves

Rosette LogoA big secret of tabletop RPG design is that roleplaying games play themselves. Get the right group of people together and they’ll have fun telling a good story, regardless of which edition of which game they’re playing. The hard parts of RPGs are things the designer can’t control: social dynamics.

What good are rules at all, then? Rules serve two purposes: to enable and constrain the play. The rules of an RPG serve to make the creative process easier by enabling story, and they constrain the scope of the story to keep the group within a manageable narrative space.

In my role as lead designer on Future Proof Games‘s upcoming tabletop RPG Rosette1, I’ve made tons of decisions regarding how the rules work. By the request of one of my patrons, I’ll go over that process from a high level.

Continue reading Helping RPGs Play Themselves

  1. Formerly LORE.