Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Axioms & Elves

A couple posts ago I mentioned a third possible axiom of game design, but I didn’t bother to still it down or discuss it at length, partly as it wasn’t pertinent to the discussion at hand, partly due to the post being even more long-winded than usual already. But I wanted a chance to discuss it now. AXIOM #3:

Good game design rewards behavior meeting the objectives of play.

As with my prior axioms that’s me trying to be as pithy as possible. To elaborate a bit, I’m saying that the system of a game (it’s rules and how they function) should promote the behavior the designer wants to see occur around the gaming table.

Now I realize I’m making a gross assumption here: that rewards systems have ANY influence on behavior within a game. Well, they do all right?…they have AN influence I’m certain, even though it may not be the ONLY influence…which is why there are so many different ways RPGs are played, not always as originally intended by the designer.

But that’s what we’re talking about: “GOOD” game design. A designer has objectives when designing a game, whether as simplistic as “I want to play a game of ass-kicking robots” to as specific as “an intimate exploration of love, pity, and self-loathing in a remote Transylvanian village” to as nuanced as “a version of D&D that delves into cosmic/creepy horror.”

Designers have objectives, even beyond “making a quick buck.” Now, how well they meet those objectives is where we start defining what is “good” versus “non-good” game design. And the way we measure this success (or lack thereof) is by observing how easily the objectives are met IN PLAY.

In other words: are people playing the game right? And by “right” I mean, “in the manner in which its designer intended it to be played.”

Now for the record, a game design doesn’t have to be good to be successful. Like the movie that is supposed to be a masterpiece of horror, but instead becomes a campy and unintentionally funny “cult classic,” games may be used with much enjoyment in manners not foreseen by the designer when he or she originally sat down at the keyboard. If your intention was to get published or make a few bucks, well okay then, “mission accomplished.” But if you intended people to play YOUR game YOUR way and it’s NOT…well, then you missed something as a game designer.

So acknowledging that “reward systems” in games are NOT the only reasons we play games (for example, we also play for the enjoyment of camaraderie, the chance to exercise our imagination, our interest in a particular source of licensed material, etc.) and thus are not the ONLY influences on player behavior…acknowledging THAT right off the bat, we then ask: Does the system as designed reward behavior that promotes the way the game is “supposed to be played?”

If it does, then bam! – good game design. If not…well, then not. An example or two might be useful.

Chaosium’s ElfQuest is a game I’ve owned for a long time, and one I’ve played and ran many times. Based on the Wendy Pini comics of the same title (at least the first 20 issues), the game’s objective appears to be “to allow players to experience adventure in the World of Two Moons” either by recreating the original comic book plots or by inventing one’s own pastiche of ElfQuest.

And who doesn’t like ElfQuest? For that matter, who doesn’t like elves in general? Even for folks not into the particular comic IP, people who are into psionic (“magic”) elves, faeries, and trolls are going to be just fine with a little escapist fantasy. Hell, when I was a kid, my friend and I used to spend hours running around the forest behind her house, carrying bows and pretending to be Wolfriders. It helped that her dog, Molly, was a big ‘ol German Shepherd that looked very wolfish in appearance (though we did not attempt to “ride” Mol).

But, okay…kids playing in the woods, pretending they’re elves living in a tree is one thing. At the gaming table? What the hell are you supposed to do?

Go to war with the trolls, of course…over and over again.

See, for those who’ve read Mrs. Pini’s remarkable comics there’s a lot to love besides the spectacular artwork. She paints a lot of drama into her work even if there isn’t much combat/action. Oh, there’s ACTION, just not much of the fighting with swords and daggers variety. There’s plenty of CONFLICT…elves trying to make homes for themselves, trying to find/fight love/attraction, new cultures misunderstanding each other, finding one’s origins when others try to keep it hidden, political games/intrigue, proving oneself to one’s tribe/community. There’s some “exploration” that occurs, but mostly “the road” is glossed over…the main exploration that occurs is the exploration of CHARACTER.

There are conflicts that lead to bloodshed in the books...a total of four by my count. Two very brief, bloody encounters with humans, one flashback scene with a big monster that needs to be put down, and the war with the trolls that occurs over the last five issues…a war encompassing three pitched battles. But that’s really it…and even after the “war” is done, there’s plenty more drama that occurs. After all, Pini is describing a world and a people, their growth and development, and it’s not all “storm the tower and kick ass” stuff. Human life IS drama much of the time, and the elves of ElfQuest, while an alien species, are still sculpted on the human experience with human emotions…which is one of the reasons they’re such beloved comics.

OK…so now, how do you translate that into an RPG?

Well, if you’re Chaosium, you use a derivative of the BRP to simulate the characters found in the comics, including a detailed and tailored-specific chargen system…and then you drop the ball. That is, there is nothing in the design of the game that supports the creation of ElfQuest-esque stories. A few sample scenarios (including a war with humans and a war with trolls, a conflict with a mad High One…call it the “evil wizard encounter”…and a fight with a monster based on the aforementioned monster fight of the comics) are provided…and that’s it.

Oh, wait…there ARE rules for “recognition” provided in the system (a percentage chance that any elves upon encountering new elves might have a couple involuntary romantic relationships formed)…but none of the provided scenarios deal with recognition, romance, or “soul names”…despite this being a major focus of much of the conflict/drama in the comics (for example, issues #2-5, issues #11-15, and issue #20).

The “reward system” of ElfQuest is limited to the normal BRP Increase-Skill-Check-For-Skills-Used. Elves don’t have money or attachment to personal possessions (in general), so there’s no adventuring for treasure or need to purchase equipment. There’s no fame points or measurement of status/prestige, no levels or experience points that are gained, nada. There’s no In-System rules that are going to lead to the exploration of character or that will lead to social conflict/drama…the design simply provides the chassis of the vehicle without a goddamn engine to run it.

Which to me is an excellent analogy. ElfQuest is a beautiful book (it has Pini’s artwork for one thing), well written with an enjoyable chargen system (we have created many elves…including illustrations!...using the rules). But it’s like owning a sports car with no engine…sure, it will move IF I get out and push the damn thing myself!

And I don’t want to have to push the car. I don’t want to have to draw inspiration (i.e. “rip off”) Pini’s stories or force/manipulate players with my plot lines and GM-designed NPCs simply to get an ElfQuest-like game. Besides being more work than I want to do (I might as well start writing short stories about elves!) it kind of defeats the whole purpose of playing an RPG, which is a collaborative effort between GM and players.

Unfortunately, ElfQuest is a poorly designed RPG in this regard. It doesn’t have a system that Rewards the behavior that is expected to lead to “EQ-style” game play. It doesn’t give you any more than what you bring to it, in other words. Well, shit…so what am I paying for? Something for my comic collection I guess.

Contrast that with the greatest fantasy adventure game ever designed: B/X Dungeons & Dragons. Characters are rewarded for adventuring, i.e. “overcoming monsters/obstacles and recovering treasure.” The reward system (XPs, leveling up) creates the desired behavior (let’s go adventure!).

Now realize that Axiom #3 does NOT say a game must have a “reward system” of any particular type…there’s no need for a game to include levels or skill boosts or any such thing. But the system that REWARDS BEHAVIOR…behavior conducive to the design goals of its author(s)…is the good game design. Ron Edward’s Sorcerer rewards behavior. So does My Life With Master, Dust Devils, and Dogs in the Vineyard.

Look at Boot Hill, which I consider to have great economy of game design. BH is designed to recreate the brutal, fast paced deadliness of the Old West. Right down to the name (most PCs are going to eventually end up on Boot Hill), the thing does nothing BUT “reward” the proper behavior. If your character insists on getting into gun fights, he’ll improve in ability until he gets dead. If he instead uses his wit to escape shoot-outs, he won’t ever increase his gun fighting ability…but he probably won’t get killed (I don’t seem to recall any stray bullet rules). The game CAN be used by the more ambitious players to create grand, sweeping epics of the Old West…but its basic design is to allow one to create gunfights in the street (both historic and fictional) like the Battle of Coffeyville or the OK Corral, and it’s well-designed to do so.

Ah, well...more design theory later I'm sure. Prost!

: )

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