Game rules as Sandbox – player actions should trigger automatic generation of consequences from simulated laws

http://www.algodoo.com/ is a free sandbox simulator that deals with physical laws. You could throw various elements into this program, and it guarantees that it will interpret them consistently according to the logic that it derives from physics.

This sort of program has been around on the entertainment market for many years.

Obviously, simulation games go back to military war-games and the commercial war-games that followed them. Any game that claims to deal with war necessarily has an element of grim simulationism; TRPGs are free to be much more whimsical because they claim to be about “adventure” rather than war. TRPGs also draw on whimsical fiction and drama, such as the LARPing of the Bronte sisters and the Society for Creative Anachronism – both of which predate TRPGs. (Of course, because of Gygax’s legal feud with Arneson, gamers have a distorted notion of history and some of them seem to think that Gygax invented all role-play more structured than cowboys-and-indians.)

Military wargames do not encourage whimsy. If a military wargame referee makes a nonsensical, illogical judgement, he might be in serious dereliction of duty, or he might be inflicting pointless cruelty on subordinates, but doing so within the limits of military decorum. In either event, he cannot be said to be playful. (Some Japanese war-games had “gods of death” who killed soldiers meaninglessly. This was meant to be cruel for a meaningful purpose. It was meant to teach the soldiers that in war, good men die for no good reason.)

A soldier who participates in a war-game is training for his primary purpose – to kill effectively in a real battle. The soldier doesn’t have to enjoy the war-game any more than any worker has to enjoy his work – he just has to function correctly. He has to play the role of a dutiful soldier; no emotions are required; logic is considered to be useful – unless it threatens the authority of command. Commanders have authority – but they also have responsibility. Commanders do not openly curry favor with their troops. Favoritism is discouraged.

TRPGs, by contrast, are much easier and less stressful than real military war-games, but they introduce some new demands. Participants can demand that players “enter into the spirit of the game” and “help the other players to have fun.” These demands are often indirect suggestions that logic should be abandoned. TRPGs have a nebulous sense of authority – usually the GM has more than the players – and very little responsibility. GMs openly curry favor with their players. Favoritism is rampant.

The issue is that military war-games, much like Algodoo, function as sandboxes. The physics sandbox is defined by committed rules of physics. The military sandbox is defined by committed rules of strategy. The referee of a wargame is teaching military strategy to his players, just as the programmer of a physics sandbox is teaching physics to his players. The military wargame designer can articulate his theories of strategy just as the physics game programmer can articulate his theories of physics.

A typical TRPG, by contrast, is not a functioning sandbox for any committed theory. It is an “open world game” where the laws of physics can change if the GM so desires. This game experience is usually inconsistent because the GM has never articulated what the theories governing the game world might be.

Gygax set the standards for many aspects of TRPGs. Gygax believed that DMs should fake dice rolls behind the screen, and that DMs should trick the players, but Gygax also believed that DMs should prepare actual clues. Gygax encouraged giving the players 99 opportunities to screw up and 1 obscure possibility to get it right. Gygax wanted the players to fumble around with guesswork until they happened to guess the possibility that Gygax had committed to as true in the game world. Gygax planned out a secret map of the landmines in his dungeons and waited to see if the player characters would step on them. If the player tested a location with a land mine without stepping on it, Gygax would give him a fair chance to disarm the land mine.

Unfortunately, most GMs who came after Gygax took a much easier route; they didn’t prepare any real clues – they just allowed the players to fumble around with guesswork until one of the player’s guesses sounded like a good idea. This system is very easy for the GM, because nothing is committed when play starts. Anything might turn out to be true in the game world, if the GM wants it to be true at any given moment.

The problem, of course, is that this kind of lazy GM work leads to highly inconsistent game worlds, and rather than remembering a set of land mines and giving the players chances to disarm them, the GM merely decides that the players will disarm mines if he feel like it, or step on undetected mines if he feels like it. It is no longer a game of preparation and random dice rolls; it becomes a game of whim.

The very first dungeon crawls – run by Arneson – seem to have been heavily governed by whim and malice. The first dungeons were much like the “Temple of the Frog” – i.e. lots of inconsistent magic items such as bags of holding, lots of incompatible monsters like a ravenous dragon in a 20-by-20 room with no food supply, surrounded by animated statues and green slimes. The whimsical style doesn’t stand up to examination, but that was initially okay because no one who had access to the games was in any mood to think logically. Gygax initially introduced minimal rules with a lot of room for improvisation, and then refined the game into AD&D, which attempted to return to the simulationist perspective that wargames had used for centuries. With increased simulationism, the dungeons began to show some attempts at internal consistency.

I had originally thought that a major purpose of Mage was to allow a similar kind of sandbox for paradigm speculations. For some groups, maybe that was true. For other groups, the purpose of Mage was to compete on how quickly one’s explanations of magic could please the group. Note that this works very badly when the explanations depend on formal education and the group of gamers has extremely uneven educational backgrounds.

A major difference between a group of undereducated gamers and a sandbox physics engine is that the sandbox physics engine is considerably more patient with attempts at scientific explanation.

If you have someone with a graduate degree in Physics attempting to explain his Mage paradigm to a college drop-out and an innumerate English major, you’re going to have a challenging time. Mage works badly when the listeners dismiss the explanations out of hand.

A key weakness of White Wolf games is that they always allow some listener or listeners to dismiss player logically consistent, syntactically correct input – if that input fails to delight English majors. A key strength of computers is that they are patient enough to accept logically structured, syntactically correct input even if it does not delight English majors.

It is definitely true that White Wolf wanted to start out with certain secrets and then reveal some of those secrets in books. That makes perfect sense; White Wolf made its revenues by selling books. Whether those books contained metaplot secrets or rule secrets did not matter to the revenue.

I don’t think the White Wolf designers wanted to formulate clearly defined rules and then keep those rules secret. I think they wanted to avoid formulating clear rules in the first place, and then deflect questions as much as possible. For example, White Wolf often deflected questions about rules into issues of player character in-game knowledge versus player meta-game knowledge. In many chronicles, it seemed as though the Storyteller was doing everything possible to withhold information from players, as if withholding information was an Olympic sport and the Storyteller was trying to train as an Olympic competitor. The pretense collapsed every so often (e.g. Sam Haight), but White Wolf always picked itself up and kept going – until it was bought by CCP.

White Wolf managed to stimulate a huge number of writers to create commercial entertainment in a shared fictional space. They deserve credit for that. That does not mean that their approach was ideal for tabletop role-playing.

Many tabletop gamers will say – “Hey, these are games, don’t take them seriously or try to make them logical.” If games are not allowed to be logical, then we need a new word to describe software like Algodoo.

A more reasonable objection is that while computer games can include logical calculations, tabletop games must minimize math, because math is hard and Rolemaster is unpopular. I have no objection to designing games that get played somewhere other than the tabletop. World of Warcraft has many players, and makes more profit than Dungeons & Dragons. If my game designs end up getting used in some online game, I will consider them to be successful as games.

All of the above is very easy in principle. The hard part, of course, is programming a decent sandbox simulation of any kind, and finding gamers who are willing to playtest it.

Homebrewing from multiple sources – 84 powers in a table with a lot of blank space

GURPS has well-defined powers, interactions, and logic.

I dislike GURPS dice systems.

The Old World of Darkness has excellent atmosphere and supporting splatbooks. Its dice system is interesting but clunky. Its emphasis on Storyteller interpretation and encyclopedic knowledge of obscure rules is downright unworkable. Its Sphere system is pretty bad.

Ars Magica has clear, simple rules that are fairly concise and yet highly detailed and flexible. Its verb-direct object system is much clearer than Mage Spheres. On the downside, Ars Magica is thoroughly wedded to the pseudo-medieval, pseudo-Aristotelian setting.

What are my priorities?

  • A point system that looks more like Mage’s Quintessence than it looks like Torg’s Possibility Points;
  • Well-defined, logical, clear-cut rules that allow complex combinations of story elements without judgement calls;
  • Non-clunky dice systems;
  • Absence of metaplot distractions;
  • No need for encyclopedic memorization; Continue reading