Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Point of Departure: Part Two

Part One of The Point of Departure, was about how memories of things that happen in games are real memories, and also, that these memories are the only real things about the games we play. Part two is about the titular “Point of Departure” and specifically what miniatures represent in that departure.

Before I start though, I loved Games Workshop’s Necromunda, and I’ve done some “real” war gaming too, which I really enjoyed. That’s not what I’m talking about here, although those experiences are part of why I feel like I do about what miniatures represent. I’m also not saying anything about relative goodness only that the use of miniatures, or not, marks a distinct division in the type of experience you get from a roleplaying game.

So, no burying the lead, the point of departure is the point of view of your character. To me games that explicitly encourage the use of miniatures and tiles to accurately represent action are fundamentally different to those that don’t. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but you’ll have to read on.

At the most fundamental level, when you represent yourself with a miniature, your point of view (POV) changes from first person, to third person. The focus shifts to the miniatures which represent the players like a piece in a game on a squared board.

For example, a miniature is in an 80’ hallway either delineated with different coloured squares that the walls or perhaps with carefully crafted pieces of wall. They move their allotted number of squares per turn down the corridor until they come close enough for the GM to place the ogre figure into the round room at the end.

For comparison, try this, imagine you’re a fighter, you’re in a dark, damp corridor, the smell of rotting flesh being carried to you on a frigid breeze. Waving your guttering torch around you see the bodies of several humanoids pinned to the wall, their flesh rotting away from their bloated bodies. As you advance into the cavern you first hear, then see, and then smell the ogre. Covered in filthy rags, it’s oblivious to you as it gnaws on the rotten leg of one of their victims.
In the second instance I suspect that most people would have viewed that scene in the first person, as if they were there. In the absence of any information to the contrary, we generally put ourselves into a story as if everything was happening from our POV. Films put a camera in as close to a first person view as possible to draw the audience in and evoke the emotions or reactions of the protagonists.

In roleplaying games, using a first person POV definitely accentuates these aspects of gameplay while third person POV miniature using games emphasises the importance of location and spatial accuracy at a cost to those things. That’s not to say with miniatures you can’t adorn the scene with words but the focus is on maneuvering your piece through the map.

Secondly, using a miniature and carefully tracking their movement, to determine attacks of opportunity and things like that, turns a combat into a jigsaw puzzle. The emphasis is on fitting the abilities of the participants pieces together optimally and in making the “right” moves to overcome that obstacle or challenge. That’s not to say that players can’t do what they want but there are definitely more effective things they can do to increase the chances of overcoming the obstacle.

Third person POV has distinct advantages in this respect. Considering the example above, with a third person POV things are accurately represented, there can be no argument about when a bow may be deployed or about what exactly each player is doing and where they are when the ogre inevitably notices their presence. Any discussions about how close “close” is are unnecessary as everyone can see based on the squares where they are.

When combat is an obstacle though the combat is about overcoming that obstacle as quickly and efficiently as possible. I would argue that that is, fundamentally, different to a game where a combat is about the drama of what’s happening during the combat. The combat itself is a scene to be roleplayed rather than an obstacle.

In essence, games that emphasise miniatures and are a series of wargame battles on a singular scale are like the original Dungeons & Dragons was intended it to be. In fact, a quote by Gary Gygax himself gets to the nub of the difference I’m talking about,

“...Personification and acting are replacing action of the more direct and forceful type - be it sword swinging or spell casting ... Before this trend goes too far it is time to consider what the typical role-playing game is all about.

First it is important to remember that ‘role-playing’ is a modification of the word ‘game’. We are dealing with a game which is based on role-playing but it is first and foremost a game… To put undue stress on mere role-playing puts the cart before the horse.”

To use Gygax’s analogy, a game primarily focused on miniatures and movement and accuracy is doing it “right” by emphasising the game component. That’s not to say he was opposed to roleplaying or theatrical aspects of the hobby, as some people have suggested over the years, but he would, or at least the 1985 version of himself, would have seen narrative driven games as lacking the essential “game” element.

Reframing the point of departure in this context means to recognize that for some games roleplaying is the “horse” and for others the game is the “horse”.  There is plenty of scope to fall somewhere along that line but this is a fundamental difference, a difference symbolized by the use of miniatures.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Point of Departure: Part One

On Monday night I ran a game of Call of Cthulhu, specifically The Haunting, formerly, The Haunted House. It’s a well known scenario found in every edition of Call of Cthulhu as well as in all the free “Quick Start Rules” .pdfs. It’s really a good introduction to the mythos and I recommend it. As much as I Iike the scenario though, that’s not what I wanted to write about. The game was set up along from a group playing D&D. I'm not sure what edition it was but it involved miniatures and a lot of combat. The juxtaposition of our two games got me thinking about how different roleplaying experiences can be, and also, about what makes them more or less real? Now, I’ve said it before, but in my opinion, roleplaying is best when it is about the journey not the destination. There’s nothing wrong with a goal driving the action but for me defeating a boss, getting a large sum of gold, and leveling u,p holds little or no enduring appeal. They're all intangible abstractions. So why then do I play? The gold pieces are, obviously, not real, but the emotions you experience and the memories you create along the way are. The fear, joy, sadness, and sense of triumph or loss may have been experienced through a character, but they are the only real things that happen in the games. Don’t believe me? Try this, think about a pleasant memory you have of something that happened some time ago in the real world. What is that memory composed of? If you lack the capacity for perfect autobiographical recall then that memory is probably a series of imprecise visual impressions accompanied by a much more powerful distillation of how you felt at that moment. Now try the same thing with something powerful that happened in character, in a roleplaying game. For myself, I can certainly recall some of the scenery that was playing out in my head at the time, but my recollection of how I was feeling through my character is still quite palpable. You may be thinking “yeah, but that memory wasn’t as strong or detailed”, which is maybe true, but my point is, I bet, if you’re honest, that once you’d tracked that roleplaying memory down, and zoomed in on your character’s point of view, the only way you knew that it wasn’t a true memory, of something that happened to the real you, is because of the context you had to drill down through. As far as your memory is concerned those things really happened. People unwittingly create false memories all the time, memories that they’re convinced are real, and it explains why we’re often disappointed by the video of an event we have very fond memories of. In the case of roleplaying, we’re actually willingly suspending our disbelief and encouraging the formation of an experience that feels real to us. And our memory, for its part, doesn’t care where those images and feelings come from; it just makes the memory for us to enjoy later. So how real are our roleplaying experiences? In a literal sense, they aren't at all, but in another, more important, sense they are as real as anything else that happens in our lives. And that is the reason I play. In the next post I'm going to write about the difference between engagement and immersion, and how using figurines affects my experience in the game.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Bust Some Ghosts!

If you're at a loose end this coming weekend, and you've never read Ghostbusters International the RPG, there's a site currently hosting the .pdfs of the game.

It's a quick read and a fun game. With the new film coming out in just a month it's likely a bit of nostalgia will make you want to dust it off.

I'm not entirely sure of the legal situation regarding these .pdfs but what I can say is that the game is no longer for sale and hasn't been for quite some time.

If you're feeling a bit unsure about how to proceed because of this, the writers are Sandy Petersen and Lynn Willis, with Gregg Stafford. You can hunt them out and support other things they (or their estates) currently have for sale.

Sandy Petersen has stayed with development on Call of Cthulhu 7ed. Although Greg Stafford is currently a shaman he still has games about like HeroQuest and Pendragon. Lynn Willis passed away in 2013.

The second edition, (my boxed set is shown in the following photographs) has design credits for Aaron Allston, (now also deceased) and Douglas Kaufman whom I'd love to offer more details about.
This is what's inside if you're lucky! Note the "Ghost Die".