A while back I took advantage of an Amazon Lightning Deal to get a PlayStation TV, which in case you don’t know is basically the guts of a Vita in a little box that plugs into your TV. The selection of games for it is relatively limited, but includes a fair amount of JRPGs, including Persona 3 Portable (by way of getting the PSP version through PSN) and Persona 4 Golden. They wound up being among the more compelling video game experiences I’ve had ever, and I can definitely see why a Persona-inspired tabletop RPG is kind of a holy grail for a lot of gamers.
I had originally been planning to take this and turn it into a podcast, but I’m still having trouble finding the time to do that sort of thing, and with this post already mostly written up I decided to finish and post it. It touches on a lot of stuff I’ve been blogging and tweeting about of late.
One thing that’s been on my mind a lot about tabletop RPGs is that there is a set of assumptions deeply ingrained into how people typically approach the hobby. For the most part these are things that are harmless in and of themselves, and in fact making their opposites the norm would be a terrible idea. However, I think the way people are so attached to them, so willing to assume that they’re absolutely necessary, is harmful to the hobby. All of this comes with the caveat that I’m in part reacting to people on RPG forums, and that’s an environment where a small number of very loud people can create the impression that their view is more widespread than it actually is.
You Don’t Need to Explain Stuff
There’s a ton of stuff in RPGs that’s left unsaid, and which people expect to be left unsaid. At the furthest extreme you have games with rules for character creation, skill checks, and combat, and pretty much nothing else. Compare that to a game like Polaris where the text outlines a very clear set of procedures of play, or games like Mouse Guard or Apocalypse World that function more traditionally but explain the designers’ best practices much more clearly. In the Japanese TRPG scene, where publishers know they can’t count on the “oral tradition” of gaming, they developed replays to better communicate how a game session flows, and for a lot of people Fiasco is vastly more comprehensible because Jason put a replay in the book.
I think of the things I’m going to bring up here this is going to be one of the hardest to properly address, because it’s difficult to step back and think about this sort of thing. It’s very ingrained in gamer culture that there are some things we expect everyone to just sort of muddle through, and at times the Forge’s exhortation to stop and examine what goes on at the gaming table has been met with out-and-out hostility. Some people have also reacted badly to how Apocalypse World so clearly lays out the canon method of being a GM/MC in it. (Though in AW’s case we are talking about one of the few games that includes a chapter on how to radically hack it.) To the extent that that’s simply based on how Vincent happened to phrase it, personally I’m aiming to use more accommodating language in my own games (“This is what I think is the best way to run Magical Burst, but of course you can do whatever works for you.”), but personally I just can’t find fault in a game giving clear advice on its own best practices.
This is also one of the areas where RPGs definitely lose out to the better board games and video games. A typical tabletop RPG dumps an awful lot of options and parts on the table and expects you to more or less figure them out before you really start playing. RPGs that have any kind of incremental teaching approach (again, Joel Shempert’s thing about “fluency play”) are very hard to come by. Even a small amount of gradation can go a long way towards making a game accessible.
Continue reading The Assumptions
Thanks to Parsely I’ve been really interested in text adventure games/interactive fiction of late. I’m currently playing the original Zork and generally trying to digest what implications IF might have for tabletop RPGs. RPGs can use some visual elements during play, but as with text adventures, we often only convey images during play through descriptive words. On the other hand when you look at the packaging of any given Infocom game, it’s full of visual stuff to excite the player, to a degree that contemporary video games very rarely bother with. They even went so far as to include “feelies,” weird little props to enhance the experience. (Leather Goddesses of Phobos even had a scratch and sniff card with different scents that came up during the game.)
As video games started to become able to have some semblance of visuals, there was still a certain imaginative leap asked of the players. Game publishers usually had a professional illustrator do a painting that conveyed the general feel of the game, and even when, say, Nintendo, used pixel art on game covers, they still had more detailed art in the game manuals. There’s definitely a parallel to RPGs, which can have all kinds of illustrations to put you into the right mood, but ultimately consist of setting info, game rules, etc. and aren’t a visual medium per se. There might be some times when you can point to the professionally-done fantasy art in a D&D book and relate it to something in your campaign, but chances are the price tag for artwork of that caliber for your own characters will be out of your reach.
What’s rather interesting is how the role of pixel art has changed. The so-called “AAA” video game titles use 3D graphics and aspire to something like photorealism, and genres that were traditionally all sprite-based (shmups, fighting games, platformers, etc.) have come to use 3D polygons too. These days pixel art pretty much only comes up as an artistic choice, which in turn means that it’s more likely to be used in a stylish indie computer game (or by the likes of Paul Robertson), than to suffer the mediocrity of the kinds of games that keep the Angry Video Game Nerd raging away.
In an important sense we’ve more recently reached a point where pixel art is normally the proper visuals ans seldom winds up a rough representation of what the designer wants to communicate. Some of it is no doubt nostalgia, but I would like to see pixel art make its way into tabletop games more. As far as I know Jonathan Walton is the only one who’s really been experimenting with this kind of thing (check out the cover of Super Suit). Not unlike with Blowback‘s brilliantly effective use of photography (a mixture of stock and original), pixel art won’t work for every game of course, but as I’ve started looking into commissioning pixel art I’ve found that the artists on DeviantArt who do it don’t charge very much, plus there are quite a few free pixel fonts out there. I’m definitely going to be experimenting with this kind of thing whenever I finally put together a Parsely game of my own (and I may even mess around with ASCII art a bit too).
A Side of Parsely
Parsely is much more interesting than it might appear on the surface. It might be a bit of a stretch to call it an RPG, but it’s definitely an analogue RPG-ish thing played by people. While the layout of rooms and how things work within a given Parsely game is tightly restricted (almost comically so; there’s exactly one way to get past the orge), reading any given Parsely game you’ll find there are places where the Parser/GM must, at a minimum, think up how to explain what happens on the fly, and while you could give obtuse computer-like responses to things not already covered by the game (“That sentence isn’t one I recognize.”), players will inevitably come up with commands that are eminently plausible even in the absurd, constrained world of a text adventure (“Kiss the princess.”)
While Action Castle is a sort of medieval mini-Zork, Jared gets into trying an assortment of different things in the successive Parsely games. In some (Spooky Manor and Pumpkin Town) characters can turn into different forms with different abilities, for example, and Space Station makes use of a stopwatch. There’s also the concept of “Microgreens,” super-short Parsely games of 1-3 rooms, of which Flaming Goat is the only specimen so far. (Update: Scratch that; Jared posted up a second one, Blackboard Jungle.) Just as people have done all kinds of strange things with the medium of text adventures–from Infocom’s more experimental titles to the avant-garde efforts of the IF hobby scene–there is tremendous room for trying out different kinds of things.
The Parsely game I’ve started working on is called Miyuki Kobayakawa’s Doki-Doki Adventure, and aside from using pixel art and having the conceit of a setting inspired a bit by Paul Robertson and Takashi Murakami, it’s going to have an event that changes the nature of the locations in the game. I’m also contemplating a game based off of the webcomic I write for, where you switch between different cast members to resolve all of their various little quandaries.
Also, I’ve been reading Twisty Little Passages, which is highly informative but also in an extremely academic style.
I’m also contemplating trying out Inform 7 to make an electronic version once it’s done.
Which BTW is now available in PDF; 99 cents per game.
The Discovery Channel has started up a documentary series called Rise of the Video Game. I’ve read up on the history of video games before, but what makes this series so fascinating (so far) is that it puts a lot of emphasis on the place video games held in human culture. It’s interesting that they brought up Godzilla, because like video games he’s changed with the times. In the original 1954 Gojira, the monster was a symbol of the horrors of the nuclear bomb–and as far as I know no other kaiju movie has ever had a protagonist see a little girl about to die from the monster’s radiation–but in the 60s and 70s he became a friendlier defender of Japan, and in the 90s and onward he became more morally ambiguous.
Video games started with guys finding new ways to use expensive military and educational equipment for fun after hours. Tennis For Two was a relatively simple repurposing of an oscilloscope (and even today those things are expensive). Games like Spacewar! not only moved video games forward, but reflected America’s fascination with outer space and the fears of where the Cold War might lead. Space Invaders, on the other hand, could be said to have some grounding in Japan’s fears and memories of outside attack.
The Magnavox Odyssey was especially important because as the first home console, it let people do something they never could before. In an era when the TV could only tune into a handful of channels, which (it being the time of the Vietnam War) always seemed to be brining ever more bad news, the Odyssey let people have some control over what was on their TV sets beyond changing channels or turning it off. As the show put it, in the early Cold War the words “push the button” could only mean the button that would bring about the end of the world. We take it for granted now in virtually every aspect of our lives–I press buttons on my computer, video games, to buy train tickets, my cell phone, iPod, etc.–but at the time it was revolutionary, and no wonder people found it so fascinating.
Going from early CRT war simulations to the prototype of the Odyssey is about 20 years of firsts in video games, but the beginning of the video game industry was with Nolan Bushnell starting up Atari. Pong was the first arcade game to catch on. The game didn’t actually have a CPU; it was basically hard-wired, and when the time came to develop a home system (the 2600) they had to start over from scratch.
Especially in light of the recent stuff about Jade Raymond, some of the comments by Bushnell and Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani are particularly striking. According to Bushnell, when Pong was catching on as an arcade game, because women on the whole have better fine motor control than men, there were a fair number of women going around sharking people at Pong. Iwatani on the other hand was specifically trying to make a game that would appeal to women as well as the customary young male demographic when he came up with Pac-Man. Granted, he was going off of a stereotype (“Girls always want dessert after a meal”), but his intentions at least were to be inclusive. What went wrong?
Anyway, most of the rest of the first episode is about the industry crash of 1983, owing to ludicrous market oversaturation, owing partly to Warner’s mismanagement on the assumption that video games would continue to rain money down on whoever put them out. Although it’s not covered in the first episode, if you know the history, this is what set the stage for Nintendo to step in and dominate the industry.
Almost as an afterthought, the episode concludes with a few minutes on Tetris and Alexey Pajitnov. I loved Tetris from the first moment I saw it, and I’ve always liked everything I’ve heard about its creator. When talking about how the Soviet regime basically held the rights to Tetris until its fall, he basically said that the important thing to him was having been able to make something so many people enjoyed. I didn’t know until I looked at the Wikipedia page just now that he designed Hexic. I’m going to have to try it out now.
Anyway, the fun part of this post is where I try to turn these ramblings into something to do with RPGs. It’s pretty easy to draw parallels between the early histories of Atari and D&D, of course. Both were created by some impassioned guys doing their own thing, rather than following any kind of corporate plan. Both achieved meteoric success (albeit on different scales). And both were standing on the shoulders of giants. For Atari there were precedents in the form of Tennis For Two, Spacewar!, the Odyssey, etc., and for D&D there were all the different wargames that represent transitional forms from little counters representing the armies of Napoleon to character sheets representing wizards and swordsmen. For both video games and RPGs we’re well past the point where you can just step in and do whatever and hope to turn a profit.
Although it’s pretty niche compared to the legions of GTA and Madden players out there, there’s a strong retro gaming community among video gamers. Some play emulators, some still have the old systems in working order, some buy those tiny “flashback” systems, and a tiny handful have actually made new games for consoles like the Atari 2600. I think a lot of the appeal of older video games is in their elegant simplicity. This I think is what RPGs can learn from retro games, and the design aesthetic of some of the best indie games is based on a simple but engaging gameplay mechanic–Dogs in the Vineyard is probably the best possible example. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Tetris, etc. all do something that is ultimately extremely simple, but they do it extremely well. One of the guys from Bungie once said that the way to make a good video game is to create 30 seconds of consistently engaging gameplay, and make it work over and over. That’s all of those games right there. Dodge the ghosts, eat the power pill, and come back to eat three at once before going on to clear out that corner of the maze. Hold on just a little longer until the 1×4 piece comes and gets you a tetris, etc. That’s probably why the video game I’ve been playing most over the past few days is Super Mario World… ^_^;
Aside from the “some guys doing fun stuff in a basement” thing (not to be taken literally), what OD&D and many indie games have in common is simplicity. The earlier basic versions of D&D were stapled in the middle rather than perfect-bound, and the Rules Cyclopedia, which many seem to regard as the definitive version of basic D&D, weighs in at a mere 210 pages. Whether or not you agree with the “kill things and take their stuff” meme, there’s a lot to be said for knowing what you want to do and making a game that serves it. Aside from creating a protagonist (as opposed to a paddle or a spaceship) that could be anthropomorphicized (channeling some Scott McCloud here), Pac-Man changed its essential verb from something like “shoot” to, of all things, “eat.” While other kinds of tabletop games are perhaps better suited to one-verb designs than RPGs, I think there’s (still) a lot to be explored here.
None of this is to say that I think that drawing on these things will “save” tabletop RPGs, or become “the future of tabletop RPGs.” I think it’s more important to think about what makes for good games. If the world of video games has room for both Metal Gear Solid and Cake Mania, the world of tabletop games can surely handle both Exalted and Primetime Adventures. The thing about RPGs is that if you try to strip them down as far as they’ll go you wind up with either free-form role-playing or several different possible cornerstones.
(I just realized this goes back to a post of mine from last year about how video games divide genres up by how they play rather than what the story is about).