Musings on Perfection

We’ve wrapped up our Apocalypse World campaign recently, and it’s left me pensive. Throughout the game, I embraced the AW maxim: “play to find out what happens”. Embraced it to such an extent that I discovered the true “motivation” of the psychic maelstrom (the not-really-well-maybe-antagonist of the world), doubling as the moral lesson for the entire campaign, as I opened my mouth to deliver it. It fit with everything that came before, mostly. It worked. But would it have worked better had I figured it out beforehand? Generalizing, just how much of the game world should we figure out at the start of the game, and how much of it should be left uncharted? See also the Dungeon World principle: “draw maps, leave blanks.”

Roleplaying games are a unique medium. A live one-off show where performers are also the audience. There are no rewrites in it, no fixing it in post, no rehearsals. Dice fall, characters make choices, the world changes. Well, that’s not quite true. We can amend what happened, fudge the rolls, rethink. We can fix mistakes, as long as we catch them quickly. Though when we do, the emotional impact is inevitably lessened.

Point being, RPGs are inherently chaotic. They by definition cannot be perfect, not like a static, complete work can be. The more input players have, the more input the game has, the more we relinquish control over the events, the more entropy we invite. Entropy leads away from perfection, but it can lead to life. We don’t want the high entropy system of everyone just yelling at each other while the dice are on fire, and can’t have the perfectly crystalline structure of static media. We want to find the right temperature and the right conditions that would let our games come alive.

What flowery nonsense, what does it even mean? Take combat, the most regimented activity in most RPGs. We don’t, generally speaking, plot it out. Instead, we trust that once we throw enough orcs and heroes into the same room, swords will clash and fun will be had. However, there’s initial preparation, in some systems a lot of it, in figuring out character and monster abilities and stats, terrain, likely monster tactics, etc. Then we let the dice and the players decide how things turn out. The game provides the elements, the GM picks the right proportions, then together with the players they throw these elements together. Cool and funny and epic moments arise out of this chaotic mess. Combat is not perfect, but it is often fun.

This is what I’m musing over: how do we know we’ve done enough to prepare the initial conditions of the entire game, the way we can be reasonably sure we’ve prepared for a combat encounter? Write out everything, and you have a pretty yet lifeless crystal railroad, players enacting the play. Write nothing, and there’s just a few incoherent story blobs flopping around on the table which may or may not converge into something meaningful. And that’s not even getting into a common mistake of many novice GMs, writing a whole setting that the players will barely see.

Apocalypse World, the game that prompted this post, does a really good job of guiding the GM through at least some of the campaign prep: everything and everyone is a threat, it says. Threats have wants, so no matter how the circumstances change, you’ll know how they react. They come at you from different directions, so make a threat map. Wherever the PCs go, whatever they do, there’ll be a threat there to do onto them. The GM Principles and Moves further help shape the game into a volatile, tense experience. Even the game engine itself, being a narrative rhythm engine, throws curveballs at players and GM alike.

Writers often talk about their characters taking on a life of their own, dragging the story in unexpected directions. In RPGs, the characters do have a life of their own through the players controlling them, and the dice wreak additional havoc. All you’ve got to do is let them. By leaving answers to fundamental questions up in the air, allowing them to emerge from the game seemingly on their own, we give ourselves an opportunity to not only be surprised, but also come up with something we normally wouldn’t have.

If you’ve played with the same group of people for a long time, they learn your storytelling habits and favorite tricks. Many times now, my players had guessed the underlying plot half way through the game. That’s harder to do if even I don’t know it. And the favorite pastime of many a GM, listening to their players speculate, becomes that much more meaningful: you won’t even need to rewrite anything if they have a better idea than you.

And so: just how much should you know about the game before you run it? There is no clear answer to this one, no one-size-fits-all recommendation. If nothing else, it depends on how comfortable you are with drawing connections between disparate plot elements on the fly: not just improv, but integrating results of improv into a cohesive whole.

While I can’t tell you how many big answers you should have from the start, you should try and have all the big questions. “What does the psychic maelstrom want?” gives you something to build upon, whereas simply positing the existence of a psychic maelstrom merely offers you a cool thing which may or may not fit anywhere. A while ago, when I was only starting down this road, I wrote about the benefits of including players’ ideas in your games and managing the resulting chaos. In the latter post, I suggested the “Chekhov’s gunpile” method of throwing cool things into the game in the hopes that at least some of them will “fire”. In that metaphor, the big questions we pose at the start are the targets these “Chekhov’s guns” will hit.

Another thing worth deciding upon from the start is the main theme of the campaign, or at least of the current story arc – a suggestion I first saw in tremulus. Something as simple as “revenge” or “hope”. The players are not likely to ever recognize it, but it provides cohesion, acting as a hidden context for most plot lines that occur.

Most importantly, remember that you will sometimes miss the mark, and that’s fine. However good you get at GMing, you’ll make missteps, or the players will, or the dice will refuse to cooperate. Plot lines will not always converge in a satisfying manner, characters will not always get their due. All you can do is learn and try to do better next time, one imperfect game at a time.

The Magic of Cardboard

There’s a certain feeling one gets from a well-designed board game that video games cannot replicate: a child-like delight at the way things work. Video games can delight with worldbuilding, atmosphere, characters, plot twists; they can be well crafted – but they do not display craftsmanship the way board games do. An interactive fiction book such as Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy works just as well in an electronic format. In either case, one may enjoy the author’s or designer’s work, but only the actual book would make you marvel at the ingenuity of its maker. Board games are inherently a very limited medium: what you see is all there is. No calculations under the hood, no way to “cheat”. A smart board game is like a clockwork mechanism, fascinating in its own right, much more impressive than a digital analogue performing the same funciton because you see all the moving parts. It’s authentic.

Board games are physical objects, that’s what makes this not just possible but often necessary. All the information has to be present at a glance. There’s a similarity to video games here, and a critical difference. A good user interface conveys all the necessary information as well. In a board game, all the non-decorative elements are the user interface, and many of the same principles apply to their design. This UI has to be so good, though, that players are able to follow all the rules of the game based on it – the game can’t do it for them. Video games simply don’t have this restriction.

Any surprises a board game may hold have to be not just prepared before hand, but concealed within its structure. This sense of discovery, of “I didn’t know you could do that”, is one of the main draws of Legacy games. Putting stickers on your cards, drawing on the game board? That’s mindblowing. Changing the map or improving abilities in a video game? Business as usual.

Ingenuity and craftsmanship obviously goes into the making of video games as well, but it’s unseen and unimportant to the player. From memory allocation tricks to differential equations that determine the damage an ability does in an MMO, we the players don’t interact with it in any way. Instead, we get to enjoy the magic happening on the screen. With board games, we get to be magicians (this is the second post in a row I “name-drop” my nom de plume, but it still works, whatever). Cardboard and dice produce meaning before our eyes.

Eclipse player board (image taken from the Asmodee website)

Examples? Take Eclipse, a 4X space board game. As you use your influence (round tokens) to do things and populate planets (with square tokens), the administrative costs of your growing empire increase. Not an unusual concept for a 4X game. Instead of having to calculate or look them up, however, you simply look at the number revealed when you took the token off your board. There’s nothing you have to do but place the token in the first place. To borrow computer science notation, that’s O(1) time complexity.

Or 7th Continent, a CYOA-like survival board game. Once your characters learn how to use local resources to their advantage (by gaining a card like the one on the right below in their “journal”), they gain new capabilities on terrain tiles simply because these resources are drawn on them. Not as a separate resource icon, as a part of the illustration. In a similar situation in a video game, this bush would suddenly become an interactable object. From within the black box of the computer, we are presented with a new trick, fine. Here, though, the bush was always there. Nothing has changed, nothing up the game’s sleeve. Meaning out of cardboard.

7th Continent cards (image taken from Board Game Geek)

And a last example, One Deck Dungeon, a dungeoncrawling board game. As the title suggest, there’s one deck of cards that represents not just monsters and traps but also items and skills you may gain along the way. Once defeated, a player takes the card and tucks it under their character card. Want stats? Tuck it so only the symbols on the left side (blue magic sigil in this case) are visible – that’s where characters’ stats are. Want a new skill? Tuck it so the bottom scroll sticks out (the one saying ‘armor crush’), that’s where the skills go. And if you gain more stats or skills later on, they’ll just sit neatly next to one another. Or just take it for xp, the lantern symbols up top. That’s some information density.

Tzolk’in gets an honorary mention here for including actual cogwheels in its gameplay. Unfortunately, I haven’t played it myself, so a mention is all it gets.

Not every board game bothers. It’s easy to make another deck of cards, slap another scoring track on the side of the board, include a look-up table. And that’s fine, that works. Not everything can amaze. But that’s the point – board games can amaze.

Roleplaying games potentially can do so as well, but they rarely aspire. RPGs share some of the constraints of board games – everything also needs to be easy to calculate, look up, determine. Unlike board games, the focus is typically not on the dice and figures but on the fantasy they facilitate. There’s even various stigmas associated with overemphasizing mechanics in RPGs.

The fantasy of taking over the world in a board game is a nice bonus while you’re busy deciding on the best way to maximize your points. The maximization of whatever passes for points at a given time in a roleplaying game is a means to the end of, well, roleplaying. Sometimes. Many RPGs have an essentially board game-like mode – rules for combat resolution. In these games, combat is its own purpose, a source of fun. But even in them, the crafstmanship a good board game displays is rarely expected or demonstrated. This is largely due to the expectation of pencils and paper being already in use. Hit points? Write the numbers somewhere. Conditions? Scribble them in the margins. Initiative? Uhh, just figure out what works for you. There’s a certain abdication of responsibility, relying on the players to find their own way of following the complex rules. RPGs also, by their very nature, involve creative interpretation of circumstances, utilizing rulings when rules fall short.

Some RPGs do try to go the extra mile. Don’t Rest Your Head barely has any notekeeping, relying on dice pool manipulation to convey the escalating tension. Mythender essentially has the game about handfuls of dice, and a roleplaying part you are encouraged to perform at the same time. The most common criticism of D&D 4e was it being “too much like an MMO”. Which is utter nonsense, 4e’s crime was impementing the traditionally board game-like combat aspect of the rules with the rigour of a board game.

13th Age is the standout to me, as it is brimming with mechanical ideas that make me reevaluate what I thought was possible or “allowed” – from flexible attacks that pack meaning into simple d20 rolls to undead librarians in the Eyes of the Stone Thief campaign book that do psychic damage when players speak louder than a whisper. In my own design work for the system, I’ve tried to pursue this feeling of amazement, from rust monsters that eat your Icon dice (normally a purely narrative element) to intellect devourers that literally live inside your head, meaning you’re the only one who can fight them.

And then there are mobile or desktop adpatations of board games. They tend to be clunky, as the way we interact with physical objects is unsurprisingly different from the way we use a mouse or even a touch screen. What’s worse, they miss the point enitrely. Board games are designed from the ground up to function with all their limitations in mind. They are magic because they have to be. A video game version meticulously replicating their rules is not unlike a virtual clock that simulates every spring and cogwheel of a real watch, or a movie that runs the text of the original book on the screen. Every medium has its strengths, I’d rather play a video game if I’m going to play on my computer, Steam knows I have too many.

The sense of magic board games instill fades after a while. There’s only so many times one can be amazed by the same thing. Soon, it’s just the way the game works, and we spare it no second thought. Perhaps this is why I keep getting new board games. Not just mindless consumerism, not an endless pursuit of the new hotness. While playing a game is nice, discovering its fleeting magic is what I’m truly after. And that means I’ll never be satisfied. What a strange self-realization at the end of an essay that started out as “aren’t board games neat”.

First impressions – Apocalypse World 2e

This post has been a long time coming. The first Powered by the Apocalypse game I’ve played was tremulus. While it was far from perfect, I still loved it and ran multiple mini-campaigns in it. A couple of one-shots of Dungeon World followed, and didn’t leave a strong impression. Despite theoretizing about it, I never got around to playing Apocalypse World itself. Post-apocalyptic dystotopias are not my thing, either aesthetically or ethically. More on that in a gratuitous personal aside, below. With the second edition of AW out, I thought it was a good time to finally try it. And, well. I love the AW campaign we’re currently playing. The rules? Hit and miss.

Apocalypse World 2e is a refined, definitive version of the game that spawned countless spinoffs. Chances are, since you’re reading an RPG blog you are invested enough in the hobby to know how AW works, but for the sake of completeness, here goes. Apocalypse World uses 2d6 + an appropriate stat rolls, which are exclusively done by players when they trigger so-called moves. They always follow the same logic: 10+ means you get what you wanted, 7-9 means you mostly get it but suffer some misfortune or complication as well, while 6- means the GM gets to make your life interesting. Moves further codify these results, offering ready options for the GM or player to choose from.

Another foundational element of AW is the way it formalizes the role of the GM (Master of Ceremonies, as the game refers to the role) – they get not just a list of principles to follow, but also a list of moves of their own. It covers most things you might do as an MC, though the rules don’t actually limit you to them. The MC is supposed to “make your move, but misdirect” and “make your move, but never speak its name”, two principles which demand we hide behind the fiction, pretending it wasn’t a bad roll that was the cause, and the consequences weren’t picked from a list. This is a tall order.

Something is supposed to happen when a roll doesn’t go the PCs’ way. That’s the promise of all the failing forward and yes-but games. And if it’s not immediately apparent what that would be, the illusion of fiction driving the game falters. The magician (hah) gets tangled up in all the invisible wires, calls for a pause and fumbles through the print out sheets looking for the list of threat moves. The not-quite-sewn-in-half PC lights up a cigarete. Dice sit in the middle of the table, glaring at the party with their snake eyes.

Perhaps this shouldn’t have been a roll in the first place. But I’m no longer a novice to this kind of games, not even a novice to PbtA, and these awkward pauses still happen almost every session. They’re not a disaster, just a regular reminder that narrative games are hard to grok. The best way to use the MC move list that I found was not to reference it in the middle of the game, but to reread it beforehand. That way, when a move is called for, at least some of the options come to mind.

MC moves are a slight of hand anyway. The MC is prompted to make one when a roll is failed, but also when the party looks at them awaiting input. That is, whenever they feel like they should say something – exactly like they would in any other game. The book offers guidance on when and how to use these moves, suggesting you limit yourself to setting up a future harder move and giving characters the opportunity to react until you get a golden opportunity handed to you. To this end, the recommended setup moves are “announce future badness” and “announce off-screen badness” – develop the situation futher until decisions are made, PC moves are triggered and dice come out. The golden opportunity mentioned previously is either a failed roll or something you’ve been setting up that comes together without interference. That’s when nastier moves come out.

To put this another way, the situation should gradually escalate until the PCs decide if they want to interfere, at which point they eat consequences of their choices and their rolls. That’s how games work in general. While there’s nothing groundbreaking about MC moves, they do drive the game forward. Every time there’s a lull in the action, the game says, don’t dawdle. There’s no “stop and smell the flowers” move. “Put someone in a spot”, instead. The MC moves list also effectively conveys the expectations of the setting, prompting you to do things you might not have considered otherwise. Warlords don’t just “make a show of force”, but can also “buy out someone’s allies.” Grotesques don’t simply “ruin something”, they “display the nature of the world they inhabit.”

Displaying the nature of the Apocalypse World is probably the game’s greatest strength. Everything is highly thematic, from principles and moves to playbooks. They all but scream at you: “hey, fucker, this is what you’re supposed to be doing, this is what AW is all about.” And yeah, there’s plenty of swearing in the book, certainly an unusual approach. Unusual, but thematic.

Going Aggro, one of the basic moves, is an interesting example of how AW reinforces its themes. You Go Aggro when you don’t just threaten someone, but fully intend to follow through with your threat. If you make the roll and the target chooses to force your hand and suck it up, you don’t have the option to reconsider. No dicking around, you said you were going to shoot them, BAM. It’s a harsh (apocalypse) world out there. Too harsh, perhaps, as my players frequently find they don’t actually want to use this move. Worse, this typically leads to a discussion of what they mean and if they’re prepared to follow through, which takes us out of a tense moment. They’re not the only ones who hesitate…


Gratuitous personal aside

I’m not a connoisseur of post-apocalyptic fiction, and I’m sure there exist counterexamples to this, but the one thing that always stood out to me is the utter hopelessness of it. The world is broken, most people are dead, and the best our heroes aspire to is growing their cabbages in peace, unbothered by warlords, zombies, etc.. The genre wallows in despair. That’s its point, to depict the collapse of society, to serve as a dire warning at best, and ridicule the very idea of cooperation in times of strife at worst. It shows protagonists struggle to survive this new savage existence with no time to dream of a better tomorrow. It is, in short, the opposite of what I’m interested in playing or writing about.

The setting of my own making, in which I ran multiple campaigns and based my to-be-finished-no-really novel is fantasy post-apocalypse, too. It gets bleak, and, I’m told, characteristically Russian. But the central premise of it is a simple promise: through hardships and sacrifice, you will leave this world a better place than when you found it. The stories I want to tell are about fighting for the future. Apocalypse World lost its past and is afraid to dream of the future.

As I was reading the rulebook, another personal issue became apparent. Life is worth very little in AW, that’s what the examples convey: “this guy is annoying so I’m gonna blow his head off.” It’s true to the source material. It works well with the whole irrevocable consequences thing. It also disturbs me, a feeling that’s been growing over the last few years. I’m fine with killing monsters in D&D. Even if they’re not mindless, they could be Evil, and that’s somehow good enough. But AW says: “make everyone human.” And humans are very rarely Evil, just fucked up.

These two objections are connected, of course. By killing someone, even someone evil, you deprive them of the possibility to be better in the future. To which AW would say: “fuck you and fuck your future.” While it’s just a game we play, and it lets us explore morality and worlds not our own, I still am revolted by this.

And so the damage inflicted by the loss of life has been the central theme of our game from the start, becoming more and more prominent as the campaign progresses. Hell, we held elections on this topic last week. I never explicitly told my players this, as that would diminish the point – more than anything in this game, I wish their characters would decide killing others, while a convenient solution, is not a good way forward. So far, they haven’t, and after each session they’ve thoroughly enjoyed I feel like I’ve failed. But that’s my problem, not theirs, and not AW’s.

Welp, this got long. As you were.


Where were we? Ah, yes. Setting expectations. In a game that tries its hardest to emulate the entire genre of post-apocalyptic stories, the psychic maelstrom stands out as something uniquely its own. And it’s cool, don’t get me wrong, a malevolent weirdness that permeates the world it broke. I find it strange, however, that it’s the one worldbuilding element that we are saddled with. Everything else largely depends on our setup and the playbooks players choose. But even if we don’t pick any of the pseudo-psychic playbooks, the maelstrom will still be there, a part of the core rules. And it worked out perfectly well for us, the apocalypse in our game was caused by the nanobot swarm gone mad, so the psychic maelstrom is the distributed consciousness of the swarm. But would it be a good fit for a Mad Max-ian game? No idea.

A different kind of strangeness is to do with the choices offered by some of the playbooks. The game is all about living in a struggling community. Players get gangs, followers, radio towers. Responsibilities and ties to others. Things to want, things to lose. And then there are playbooks like Battlebabe and Gunlugger, that simply don’t give a shit. And while others are immediately embroiled in conflicts and intrigues their playbook has thrust upon them, the antisocial characters have to be additionally prodded until they get involved. On the one hand, that’s appropriate. On the other, even the antisocial archetypes have social ties. Those they’ve killed or screwed over, those they try to protect or avoid.

Your Gunluggers is Not To Be Fucked With? Great, what’s the name of the gang that’s last tried to fuck with him and has retreated to lick their wounds? That’s the kind of questions I expected all the playbooks to pose, creating the world by the time players are done making characters. Not including these hooks in all playbooks feels like a missed opportunity.

AW does a great job reinforcing, over and over, how dangerous and volatile it’s meant to be. There is not status quo, the book says. Everything and everyone is a threat. There’s even a Threat Map to arrange these threats, though I didn’t find it very useful. The threat types (each comes with its own set of moves) didn’t always fit the actual NPCs, either, but they did give me a few ideas I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Overall, preparing for the game felt like setting up dominoes, some waiting for PCs to knock on them, others already falling. Another mantra – don’t prepare future scenes, play to find out what happens. Which meant that once I knew where all the “dominoes” were, I could just show up to the game session – a strange feeling, and not necessarily a good one. It’s one thing to relinquish control over the narrative and let things develop. It’s another to find out things aren’t actually developing because PCs decided the falling dominoes weren’t a big deal, and don’t particularly want to knock over others. The first two or three sessions we had have been somewhat slow. Thankfully, there’s enough chaos, ambition, and threats in the mix that it’s no longer an issue.

The game engine contributes to this chaos. Nothing is ever guaranteed, moves snowball, things escalate. A bad roll leads to more rolls leads to carnage. If preparing for the game is akin to setting up dominoes, the rules make sure they’re set up on a minefield.

Lifestyle costs are meant to help get things moving by exerting a constant pressure on the PCs: hustle, or starve. Take gigs, interact with the settlement. Great! Except once the things are in motion and dominoes are falling left and right, doing gigs is no longer interesting to the players, and looking for sources of income becomes a drag. I could have insisted on this rule, and we would have had a different, more desperate kind of game. Instead, we’ve agreed to mostly ignore it after a while.

Turns out, PCs, at least mine, are all too eager to run around talking to NPCs and one another. Half the time, I’d just kick back and observe them. And, with 5 players in the group, so would the 3-4 not currently involved in the dialogue. While I as MC can just enjoy the drama I helped create, participate as NPCs or plot ahead, inactive players just get to be passive observers – a less than ideal situation. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t recommend AW to groups larger than 4 players.

Another issue, and the biggest one I have with the mechanics, is the way armor negates combat. The game is centered on consequences and tough choices. Whatever unique moves you have, if you fail your roll, expect the worst. Except if you’re a combat monster in heavy armor (or an almost naked Battlebabe). The brutality of the main combat move, Seize by Force, which says you exchange harm once you’re in a fight, clashes with the guaranteed ability to ignore it. A bog-standard jerk armed with a bog-standard 2-harm handgun literally can’t do anything against a character wearing 2 armor.

Well, that’s not entirely true. By the rules, the MC can choose to say the player Suffered Harm even if it was 0, and so has to roll the corresponding move, which does have potential consequences. Still, that’s asking for a second unlikely roll after the first unlikely roll, just to have something happen, it’s somewhat obfuscated, and feels like picking on the character. Interestingly, Seize By Force doesn’t even have an option for a MC move on a miss, something that I think would have alleviated the problem.

If you got this far, you can see there are plenty of issues I have with AW, plenty of things I wish it had done differently, plenty of things that didn’t quite work for us. Despite these quibbles, the AW campaign we’re still playing is, in some ways, unlike anything we’ve done before. The rules fade into the background – just like they’re meant to. The principles hide in the back of the mind. At the forefront is the game world they help create. Messed up, farcical going on tragic, in-your-face, intimate. Apocalypse World.

What do you do?

An Election in the Time of Apocalypse

While I’m working on a comprehensive look at Apocalypse World, here’s a bit of fun from our ongoing AW campaign. An election was held in the home town of the PCs, with two of them participating as candidates. I had a simple idea for how to handle it, which got discarded when the PCs suggested the power should go to not one, but the top three candidates, forming an actual government. Not willing to just assign votes as I saw fit, I made a simple online form and offered it to a couple of online communities: the RPG.SE chat room, Powered by the Apocalypse G+ community, and my non-existent twitter followers. The players in our group also shared it with some of their other gaming friends. The results blew me away: 61 people voted!

Here’s the info I provided:

You are denizens of Hub, main town of the surviving civilization, where train tracks meet. Things have been somewhat hectic lately. The local warlord had been killed. Then the new warlord had been killed. Then the not-really-a-warlord who took over had a change of heart and declared elections instead, sight unseen. He’s since also been killed.

Threats and weird shit are everywhere: Swarm Children are infiltrating the town; Thomas the Train Warlord is on his way, expecting tribute; bones of all the people who died during the apocalypse have fallen from the skies. And there you are, gathered in the town square, participating in a snap election called two days early. Choose three people you’d like to lead you into the bright future of the Apocalypse World!

//Completely by accident, we ended up with pairs of people vying over three spheres of influence: military, economic, principles. Choose one from each, or not.

And no, I’m not telling which ones are the PCs.//

Candidates:

Unicorn Jones: Law & order, anti people-murdered-in-their-homes-with-a-machete. Stranger.

Camill: Fearmongering (justified) and a small army. Original warlord’s sister and second in command.

Domino: Prosperity through trade and negotiation. Owner of the pizza parlor. Currently in a coma.

Timpanee: Populism & complete deregulation. Wealth & drugs for everyone! Disgraced trade overseer.

Mouse McGee: Helping those in need, stop-fucking-killing-each-other. Town medic, runs an orphanage.

Chan6: Transparency of government & freedom of speech. Radio host.

And here are the results (Google Forms are terrible at exporting multiple choice questions, so I took a screenshot):

Turns out, denizens of Hub really like the idea of not being murdered, who knew. The first and second place were solidly taken, but the third was up for grabs. And then there was the dark horse candidate, Timpanee. Who really didn’t have all that much to offer… other than being backed by a secret cannibal lobby. Because of course he would be. And so we went into the game with a three-way fight between Camill, Chan6 and Timpanee over the votes.

Now that the elections are over, I can reveal that Domino is the Maestro’D and Chan6 is the News. Domino didn’t really stand a chance, what with being in a coma. An unfortunate combination of failing to deal with an overambitious employee (Heff, also the ringleader of the cannibals) and then not being able to attend the pre-election session would do that to you. As for Chan6, he wasn’t quite certain he wanted to win, and definitely not if it meant Camill not getting in. The party were correctly worried she wouldn’t accept not being in power, and would just have her army take over.

To handle the last-minute campaigning, I grabbed 10 tokens to symbolise undecided voters, and dropped them next to the names of candidates they were convinced to vote for. I shouldn’t have bothered. All the campaigning was done in favor of Camill, and all of Timpanee’s efforts were rebutted. The town should really look into anti-Brainer-campaigning laws.

Realising his pawn that would allow him to practice cannibalism in the open was about to fail, Heff tried to get into the radio tower (sail-powered pirate radio train) to make his pitch. Instead he got cut by the Battlebabe, shot by the Brainer, and ultimately finished off in full view of the crowd by Chan6. Poor Unicorn Jones nearly had an aneurysm.

And so new day begins for Hub. Camill, Unicorn Jones, and Mouse McGee are in charge. Camill fully expects to be able to do whatever she wants, leaving civilian concerns to Unicorn and Mouse. And there are no PCs in power to keep her in check, a shame. Then again, the town has spoken, and they want peace. Perhaps that will be enough to make Hub a better place.

Season of Bones, second “season” of the game, ends. Domino has feelings for Camill. Unicorn Jones, who came to town looking for his father, is about to find out the Hubble, town’s warband and his prospective underlings, mostly consists of cannibals. There’s a reason his father’s body was never found. Defiance the Battlebabe is still playing speed chess, and won’t stop until she’s in charge. Thomas the Train Warlord is coming. Season of Judgement begins.

Poor Heff, an “ethical cannibal”, all he wanted was to openly make human pizza out of those already deceased.

Huge thanks to everyone who’s participated in our election! With your help, the Hub will not be the same.

Backup Campaign

Getting the whole group together for a game night can be tricky. As we grow older, obligations and kids accumulate. I’m amazingly fortunate that my players are still committed to weekly gaming. Well, almost. We’ve agreed that we’ll still play if one out of our five players is missing, otherwise we’d never get anything done. And if four can’t make it, it’s an easy call to cancel the event. But what if only two or three are out? Hanging out or board games are decent options, but we’re united by our shared love for roleplaying games. Hence, a backup campaign.

The backup campaign has to have minimal character importance – we never know who will be present next time. Likewise, as a month or more can pass between these backup games, there can’t be any significant plot. These requirements lend themselves to a dungeoncrawling game, where ideally each floor of a dungeon is completed in a session. It also seemed like a good place to experiment with the OSR style of play.

On the night this idea came up, we set up a town to act as a hub, surrounded it by thematic locales players wanted to explore that would easily house dungeons and wilderness adventures, and placed a giant weird hole in a ground next to it to act as an excuse for any random dungeon I might find.

Finally, I had Shadow of the Demon Lord burning a hole in my electronic shelf, and all the pieces fell in place. We still had two characters who survived our first foray into the system, and it’s easy enough to roll up a new one. We wanted to see more of the system, so levelling up is very quick – each session survived (in which significant progress was accomplished) grants a level. At the same time, high lethality is part and parcel of OSR, so I’m not terribly worried all PCs will reach max level and get bored.

Darkest Dungeon served as an inspiration for the whole model. I briefly considered further emulating it with some sort of city upgrades, but that just seemed like too much work. Instead, I’m using an ad hoc achievement/unlock system. Everything in the core book is fair game for players to choose. Beating dungeons or getting treasure grants them access to specific extra material, of which SotDL has plenty. For instance, our party is about to befriend (or try to beat) the not-quite-lich at the end of the Tomb of the Serpent Kings. Either will open up the Death magic tradition from Demon Lord’s Companion for them.

This has worked really well for us. While this playstyle is not our usual cup of tea, its problem-oriented nature offers a nice break from our usual moral dilemmas and drama. There’s a certain sense of freedom I experience as a GM – all I gotta do is portray the current obstacle, without worrying how it ties into the established plot lines or how it’ll affect them. Maybe the dungeon gets the PCs, maybe it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter. There are more PCs if it does, and more dungeons if it doesn’t.

More than anything, having a backup campaign has removed the stress and frustration that comes with scheduling issues. Full group or not, we’re playing something fun, not scrambling to find a replacement activity.

Progression Done Right – Gumballs & Dungeons

Having spent the better part of the last month railing against exploitative progression systems in games, I thought I’d take a moment to talk about a game that does progression well. A mobile collectathon. Please don’t run. A mobile collectathon with energy, timers, and premium currency. No, seriously, hear me out.

Gumballs & Dungeons kept being recommmended in my Play Store, and the cutesy name and graphic style kept scaring me off. Too Candy Crush. Having finally tried it a few months ago, I’m glad I did, as I still play it daily. First and foremost, G&D is a competent roguelite dungeoncrawler. Each maze (as the game calls them) level is a 6×5 grid hiding monsters, loot, and the way down. As you progress further, monsters get tougher and bosses appear. There’s equipment, spell scrolls, and xp, which is spent on a branching skill tree. It’s all comfortably familiar.

For each run, you pick a character, one of the titular gumballs. Each gumball has a unique talent, and belongs to one of three types which determine its starting stats and the skill tree it uses: melee, magic, or venture. As you progress through the, essentially, extended tutorial stages of the game, you unlock the ability to “soul-link” a second and then a third gumball, letting you use their talents and skill trees. Except you can only soul-link with gumballs of the same faction, of which there are four. With almost 200 gumballs to choose from, and new ones added frequently, there’s plenty of combinations to try.

Mazes have not just their own monsters and bosses, but sets of achievements and unique mechanics as well. There’s a gumball associated with each maze that you get for beating its “story mode” – several short runs you do at the start; and a second hidden gumball you have to somehow earn inside the maze.

That’s the basics. G&D passes the first test that so many mobile games fail – it is actually a game. Picking a combination of gumballs you haven’t tried yet and seeing how far you can go or what achivements you can get is fun. What about the second test, how exploitative is its progression system?

It’ll take years to Get All The Things – and that’s the one and only objective in this game. And yes, it’s possible to instead pay a silly amount of money to, essentially, avoid playing the game, the paradox of microtransactions is fully applicable. The game, however, claims you don’t have to spend money to enjoy it, and it’s mostly true. The “buy-in”, which unocks what I’d consider the intended experience, is 10 USD. That’s the somewhat standardised value of a package awarding premium currency (gems) every day for a month. Even here, G&D has a twist. You can save up and pay gems to upgrade the item producing gems twice, slightly increasing the gems it gives, and prolonging its lifespan for up to a year. Quirky? That’s G&D in a nutshell. And $10 for a year of gaming is not too bad. This “buy-in” approximately doubles the amount of gems you get daily, and there’s plenty of things to spend gems on.

 

Another very important factor: whatever you pay for, you won’t have wasted your precious gems. All upgrades are permanent. Even the random gumball fragments you get from pots are not worthless. Unlike in many similar games, upgrading gumballs is not destructive – you don’t have to sacrifice a bunch of lower-tier gumballs to advance the chosen gumball to a higher tier, or any such nonsense. Neither are your rewards ever held hostage by limited inventory space or some other threat of missing out if you don’t pay up. Everything you get is yours to keep, and there’s a finite, quite reachable point where a given gumball is maxed out. And once it’s maxed out, there’s a way to prevent its fragments from appearing in pots again.

The game provides an actual reason to want to collect and max out every gumball that goes beyond the exploitative Gotta Catch Them All. It’s an approach I haven’t seen before: each gumball has not just a unique combat talent, but a passive buff as well. These differ significantly: some increase the stats of some or all other gumballs, others buff spells and items, or improve the functionality of the game itself.

Take alliance missions, for instance (of course there are alliances). They refresh every 12 hours, with each mission taking 5 minutes to complete – a simple timer. These grant varying amounts of alliance coins (of course there’s a separate currency), from 120 to 30. Meaning it’s good to do the few best-paying missions, and the rest are a less significant bonus. Still, sounds a bit tedious, doesn’t it? However! One of the first things you should spend these alliance coins on are fragments for the Nelson gumball, whose passive decreases the mission timer. When fully maxed out, and that does take a while, missions are completed instantaneously with a press of a button. Yes, the game created an obstacle and then made me work to gradually remove it. But I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel good to press that button. That’s progression systems for you.

Sky combat, yet another subsystem (are you noticing a pattern yet?), provides another reason to collect the gumballs: you put a bunch of them on an airship, which gains stats depending on their star level, and bonuses for combinations of different gumballs present. There’re, naturally, a bunch of different airships you can gather fragments for, which improve their passive bonuses and guns that can be mounted on any airship. Sky exploration is its own minigame, with elements of Choose Your Own Adventure, that mostly grants its own set of resources which are used to progress further in it. Which isn’t that different from the core game, really. Unfortunately, sky exploration is the weakest part of the game, with very little interesting decisions you get to make, and I would love to see an overhaul. Still, you do get severall gumballs from it, and in a few mazes you can even call your airship to assist you.

As a result, you always feel like you’re progressing, even if it slows down to a crawl after a while. You’re never waiting for a lucky drop that may come tomorrow or next year – slow and steady accumulation of gumball fragments and other resources is inevitable. You will get every thing, if you’re patient enough. And meanwhile, with each gumball you acquire the rest grow a bit stronger. Next time you’ll get further in sky exploration, delve deeper in a maze.

Gradually, the game becomes more of a management sim than a dungeoncrawler. You “raid” mazes to spend the energy, and even automatically complete the daily quests in the maxed out mazes you raid. Check the shops when they refresh, explore the sky when the sky energy is full, do the alliance missions. It’s busywork, but it’s busywork that’s earned its right to exist. The game isn’t a new hotness for me anymore, and I’m glad I have a way to progress in it without engaging with the main, time-consuming component that frequently. And I’m equally glad the game gives me reasons to actually play by having regular mini-maze events and occasionally releasing new mazes.

G&D is full of gradually unveiling subsystems, some seemingly there just so that you’d have more things to master. It is full of not-at-all subtle cultural references – Zerg Queen gumball comes to mind. Its interface is a mess, and the game could use a bunch of quality-of-life polish. It is brimming with charm and easter eggs. Most importantly, Gumballs & Dungeons is an example of a progression system done right: it takes many of the established addictive progression techinques of free-to-play mobile quasi-games, but uses an actual game as a foundation. The progression system is used to enhance and prolong the experience of playing the game, not to hide its absence.

Progression of progression, level 2

Having laid the groundwork in the previous post, we can finally do some analysis. 

Value?

Remember the formula: Value = Challenge * Reward. We’ve covered Challenge and Reward, now it’s Value’s turn. Value is in the eye of the beholder – it depends entirely on the individual how challenging slaying the beholder was, or how much said individual wanted the beholder’s eyes. And as Value is subjective, game designers employ every trick they can think of to convince the players they’re getting the best possible Value by playing the game. This can mean making the game a great experience – no one sets out to make a bad game, after all; but it also means stuffing games full of progression systems.

They’d be crazy not to do so. Progression systems work, creating perception of Value out of thin air. And there’s nothing wrong with progression in principle, it’s just another tool of game design. But you may have noticed some of the Challenges and Rewards discussed in the first part were not as meaningful as others. While still challenging or rewarding in their own way, they lack substance. They have no connection to the game itself, no purpose for being there other than to be there. To use a dietary analogy, they’ve replaced nutritional content with spoonfuls of sugar. When both Rewards and Challenges in a game are nothing but sugar, the Value they create is addictively tasty, but not actually nuorishing. It’s a perversion of the very concept, leading to a cognitive dissonance. Our monkey brains tell us an achivement for killing a thousand orcs is an incredibly important thing. They also tell us it’s a meaningless tick mark you earn for hours of unenjoyable grinding.

Some have compared such games to a Skinner box: pull a lever, get a reward (xp, loot, unlocks, whatever), ad infinitum. While the comparison is apt, the games are actually much more insidious. It’s not just a piece of carrot that you’re getting, to be enjoyed today and forgotten tomorrow. You’re getting carrot #458/9999. You already have all the previous carrots you got. One day, if you pull the lever long enough, you’ll own them all. And even the trash-tier carrots you get have their use, you’ll disenchant them and get yourself the god-tier UberCarrot5000. You’re not just enjoying this one transient piece of reward. You’re progressing towards the End Game.

Having put hundreds of hours into a game, having earned all this progress, we’re held hostage by the sunk cost fallacy, another essential component of progression systems which can overpower the cognitive dissonance. Yes, the game has long since stopped being enjoyable, and yes, the “progress” is a load of rubbish. But if you stop now, you’re going to lose all this Valuable rubbbish. And you’re a smart person, you didn’t waste all this time. You invested it. Fun? What’s that?

Kinds of Fun

Ok, that wasn’t entirely fair, there are different ways to have fun, and even the most hollow games offer something to their players. Mark LeBlanc had identified 8 kinds of fun in his paper on the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics approach to game design. The list is not meant to be exhaustive:

  1. Sensation – game as sense-pleasure
  2. Fantasy – game as make-believe
  3. Narrative – game as unfolding story
  4. Challenge – game as obstacle course
  5. Fellowship – game as social framework
  6. Discovery – game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression – game as soap box
  8. Submission – game as mindless pastime

Any game features a mixture of several kinds of fun. Of these, Submission is an obvious fit for some of what we’ve been discussing: zone out, put up a Youtube video on the second monitor, and go kill some orcs. I would like, however, to expand this list with two more kinds of fun that are leveraged by progression systems. First one is Completion – game as a check list. Catch them all, collect all the moons, get all the achievements. For this kind of fun to be present, there needs to be a finite list of things to get. The second is Anticipation – game as a carrot on a stick. It’s a strange, deferred kind of fun. You will be amazing – one day. That day the game will end. Keep moving forward, keep levelling up, keep finding better loot. Your gun has reached its max level? Don’t actually use it, time to level another one. Or “prestige” it, and do it all over again.

Gamification of Gaming

Remember when gamification was going to change our mundane lives? Transforming everything from work to working out, from chores to learning by turning everything into a game. Reward the desired behavior with points, badges, levels; encourage competition and one-upmanship, where appropriate; watch people fall over themselves to do the things they hated. Basically, take the lessons learned from decades of game design and apply the same motivations to real world. The idea is no doubt still out there, though it seems to have lost some steam. Instead it doubled back, and, like a scorpion stinging itself, went back into the gaming industry.

Take the principles which make people like the activity they enjoy even more. Refine them on activities people hate. Reapply them to activites people enjoy. A good game is hard to make, gamification will make anything enjoyable. And if gamification requires compromising the game itself, that’s a sacrifice too many game developers are willing to make.

From energy and timers of mobile and facebook games, to daily quests of MMOs and now AAA titles, they all do the same thing. XP bars, levels, unlocks. Keep playing. Don’t miss out. Keep investing your time. Submit. You’re being rewarded. Login streak. Submit. Level up. Achivement unlocked. Submit. Fun is coming. Submit. Submit.

Ahem. Where were we?

Monetization of Gaming

Games may be art, but game publishing is a business. Artists pull the game in whatever direction their art takes them, while business tries to maximize profits. Every game exists somewhere between the two, a compromise resulting in a product players get to enjoy. Technical capabilites have shifted significantly over the years, and games have followed suit, drawn by business’ incentives.

It starts with arcade games. They are tough, but don’t rely on randomness to determine success – it’s possible to master them through trial and error (and lots of coins). There is no permanent progression as it is not technically possible. There is only progression of skill. Whether endless games you play for a high score, or more structured games you play to beat, they don’t sell you the game itself, but attempts at winning it.

Then computers and consoles come to homes without a coin teleportation technology. There is no longer an incentive to make games fiendishly difficult as there is no way for players to pay for extra attempts. The game itself becomes the product. Once the player bought it, they can do whatever they want with it – cheat codes are a popular “feature”.

Eventually, Internet and credit cards offer a way to pay the game publisher after a game is already bought. The ramifications would take a while to be fully felt. MUDs and later MMOs appear. They charge a subscription fee to cover the ongoing cost of running servers. And once you start charging a subscription fee, you want players to keep paying it. Drawn out progression systems become the norm. Time played is the product.

Meanwhile in the real world of tabletop games, Magic: the Gathering takes over, spawning numerous less successful immitators. These Collectibe Card Games sell randomized booster packs. Their contents is unknown. It’s probably rubbish. But it could be amazing. The thrill of opening a pack is as much a product as the cards themselves. Crucially, the cards are a physical object, capable of being exchanged or sold on the secondary market.

But back to computer games. A subscription forces the player to ask themselves each month: is it worth it? For that matter, the initial price of the game poses the same question. Free-to-play Facebook and mobile games appear. They offer even more drawn-out progression systems, as well as limit the ability to actually play the game – actions take energy to accomplish, which replenishes every so often, or skip this abstraction entirely and count down real time in hours or days. These are extraneous, artificial challenges hiding the shallow gameplay.

While “hardcore” gamers quickly see through it and are turned off, these games aren’t meant for them. They aren’t games you play, per se, and they purposefully target those who would not normally call themselves gamers. And how do these free timewaster non-games make money? Why, they sell you the ability to avoid playing them. Their gameplay consists of gradual progression. Microtransactions let you skip it. The Challenge is time… or money. That’s the paradox of microtransactions: not playing the game is the product.

This is the most evil, ingenious twist on the ingenious concept that is progression. It was as inevitable as it was catastrophic. And it is sold as consumer choice! You can play the game for 4528 hours to unlock everything, or you can pay $2100. Choice is good, right? The proposition is as insulting as it is effective.

And then there are lootboxes. Remember the CCGs? They’ve grown up. Everything is a collectible card game now, everything comes in packs. Collectible and random, cards are a perfect metaphor for any and all progression elements. Lootboxes, yet another layer of the progression progression. Specifically, Wilson Lootboxes. By randomizing progression itself, games further inflate the Value they offer. It’s yet another trick our monkey brains fall for: the chance to get the best possible Reward out of a lootbox feels almost as important as actually getting it. We rarely know the actual probabilities of getting specific rewards, and are bad at handling probabilities anyway. You’re always just one lucky drop away. And once you do get it, you won’t have to grind the damned lootboxes anymore. The product is the thrill of not playing the game.

Money are Weird

Once money are a part of the in-game challenges, everything gets profoundly weird. So far, we’ve dealt with perceived Value. Money only has a perceived value as well, but its value has a lot more reference points. We know how much money are worth to us much better than we know how much a shiny weapon is worth to us. Or do we? If a particular reward takes 10 hours of gameplay to earn, a player can evaluate how much they actually want it. But offer the same reward for a few dollars as well, and they suddenly have to consider if it’s worth a cup of coffee. Except that’s not quite how the comparison ends up working out.

Because money are not a part of the game, they introduce a different dimension to the Value chart rather than replacing the Challenge axis. Which means that by earning the reward through gameplay, we feel its Value is that much greater – we “saved” the money we could have spent, and we got the reward to enjoy, too! And by buying the reward with money, we feel we don’t just get the item itself, we also saved the hours of gameplay. Whatever we choose, the Value we get is increased. All by placing a price tag on it.

Progression of Progression, level 3?

So there you have it: a line stretching all the way from the very first D&D to the prevalence of lootboxes in modern gaming, the evolution of progression systems from a simple desire to keep playing the same characters to the monstrous, exploitative, omnipresent scheme we have nowadays. What next? Progressions systems are not going away because human nature (read: monkey brains) isn’t going to change. The only thing we can do is be more mindful of what we play. Pause and think: what is the Value of the game you’re playing made of? Is there something beneath the mind tricks and the sugar? Are you actually having fun?

Especially Nasty – Aboleth

Twelve ages have come and gone. Kings and queens have risen and fallen. Archmages and archfiends have ascended and been cast down. Everything changes. Everything but aboleths. In the murky waters of history, they dwell. Better than any other creature, they understand the ebb and flow of power. They feel the currents which bring past into the future. Once the aboleths are satisfied nothing can surprise them, they will emerge from the depths, as inevitable as time itself.

If there’s one weakness aboleths have, it’s their aquatic nature. If forced to crawl on land, an aboleth moves slowly, a literal fish out of water.

Ancient Aboleth

We are but footnotes in the memory archives of aboleths.

Huge level 10 spoiler [ABERRANT]

Initiative +10

Drown in memories +15 vs MD (up to three nearby or far away enemies) – 30 damage, and roll a 1d3 once:

1: Fall of the heroes – If the target has at least one relationship with a heroic Icon, it takes 50 ongoing damage.

2: Tragedy of the undecided – If the target has at least one relationship with an ambiguous Icon, it becomes stunned.

3: Treachery of the villains – If the target has at least one relationship with a villainous Icon, it becomes confused.

The targets are flooded with visions of past Icons’ doom, with them in place of the Icons. The aboleth chooses the targets that will be most affected by the specific attack. The condition ends on an easy save if the target has one Icon relationship of the corresponding type, on a regular save if it has two, and on a hard save if it has three or more. The player can describe the scene from the ages past that their character is seeing in order to get a +5 bonus to their save roll. These scenes cannot repeat.

Slimy tentacles +15 vs PD (2 attacks against different enemies) – the target starts making last gasp saves as the aboleth slime seeps into their skin, turning it transparent. On fourth failure the target falls unconscious, and later becomes the aboleth’s slave, unable to survive long outside the water. If the target is already making last gasp saves when it is hit by this attack, it fails one immediately.

Special: aboleth can use slimy tentacles as a quick action 1/round.

Special: if using the corruption rules, a character has to risk corruption in order to make a last gasp save – they fail it automatically otherwise. An ally can still help them to try and shake it off as usual, but they risk corruption instead unless they find a way not to touch the slime as they clean it off. 

Nastier specials:

Elemental mount: the aboleth is suspended in a sphere of murky water, technically a lobotomized quazi-elemental, which enables it to move over land. It gains +2 to all defenses against creatures outside the sphere. Creatures inside the sphere are engaged with the aboleth, and take a -2 penalty to last gasp saves against the aboleth slime.

AC 24

PD 20    HP 648

MD 25

Petrified Aboleth

The stone idol worshipped by the horrid creatures of the desert hides a dark secret. Trapped by a retreating sea, the aboleth within passes the time until its return submerged in memories.

Large level 4 spoiler [ABERRANT]

Initiative +4

Drown in memories +9 vs MD (one nearby or far away enemy, or three enemies when aboleth is staggered) – 8 damage, and roll a 1d3 once:

1: Fall of the heroes – If the target has at least one relationship with a heroic Icon, it takes 15 ongoing damage.

2: Tragedy of the undecided – If the target has at least one relationship with an ambiguous Icon, it becomes stunned.

3: Treachery of the villains – If the target has at least one relationship with a villainous Icon, it becomes confused.

The target is flooded with visions of a past Icon’s doom, with them in place of the Icon. The aboleth chooses the target that will be most affected by the specific attack. The condition ends on an easy save if the target has one Icon relationship of the corresponding type, on a regular save if it has two, and on a hard save if it has three or more. The player can describe the scene from the ages past that their character is seeing in order to get a +5 bonus to their save roll. These scenes cannot repeat.

Stone shell: the aboleth is encased in a protective shell of petrified slime. It is immobile and has resist non-psychic damage 13+ (non-psychic attacks that roll less than a natural 13 deal only half damage). When the aboleth becomes staggered, its shell cracks: it loses damage resistance, can move, and takes 10 ongoing damage. The ongoing damage ends only when the aboleth ends its turn submerged in water.

AC 20

PD 16    HP 150

MD 17

Progression of progression, level 1

This post will meander not just over tabletop RPGs you may have come to associate with this blog, but over computer and board games as well. This was always the intent behind it anyway – “ponderings on (all kinds of) games”. As this is an overview of the entirety of gaming, there’ll be plenty of generalizations. For every observation I make, you can no doubt find a counter example. Just assume appropriate caveats are applied. 

Sense of pride and accomplishment

The idea of earning your fun permeats some aspects of the gaming hobby. Some would say it’s the defining feature of computer games as a medium – you have to be good enough to even be allowed to access the entire game. You have to put the effort in, work hard as you play in order to deserve the rewards, and the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with them. This idea is an essential part of all progression systems, but is not limited to them. Where does it come from, how has it evolved over time, how does it work, and why does it seem like it’s been taken too far?

Progression operates on a separate layer from the actual game. There’s the game itself: an adventure, a dungeon, a match, a map. And as the result of playing it, you accumulate or unlock something, some reward, typically after the game is concluded. Gold or xp, in-world or out-of-world currency; new items; new characters; new maps. Progression is distinct from more organic changes to the game world as the result of choices made during the game, often present in RPGs, both tabletop and computer, though the line can get blurred. Opening a door with a key you found is an in-game accomplishment, a direct consequence of your actions. Killing a bunch of goblins so you can level up, put points into lockpicking, and open the door – out-of-game accomplishment, no causal in-game link. Grinding lockpicking in a system with direct skill progression to open the door – weeeell.

Most board and card games are self-contained, with one game having no bearing on the next. You play a match, someorene wins, you put the game away. Some card games, however, are meant to be played over a series of matches, tracking the score between them. These can be abstract points or actual money, e.g. bridge or poker. While superficially similar, I’d argue these do not feature “progression” as the individual matches or hands do not constitute the true game. They would not make for a satisfying experience on their own, partly due to the random nature of card draws meaning a single match is very dependent on luck, and only through a sequence of such matches an actual winner can be determined.

D&D is to blame, naturally

War games by the very nature of what they simulate would seem to be perfect for sequential games with some form of progression in between. A campaign, if you will. I was somewhat surprised to find (after a very superficial attempt at research) that the first book to formalize such a campaign, Wargaming Campaigns by Donald Featherstone, came out in 1970. Without a doubt campaigns were played before it, but we’re far outside the scope of the article as it is. Notably, Wargaming Campaigns dealt with such subjects as linked scenarios and attrition, and so likely didn’t have rewards for smart play, just an opportunity to lose fewer of your precious troops.

Chainmail, the progenitor of D&D, came out in 1971. While Gygax was likely aware of Wargaming Campaigns (an article by Gygax on fantasy battles had appeared in Featherstone’s Wargaming Newsletter in 1972), there were no progression rules in Chainmail. It was David Arneson’s modifications of Chainmail that introduced experience points and led to the creation of D&D.

The following quote from a Wired article gets to the heart of it: “There was another aspect of the game he wanted to tweak: the fact that it ended. Arneson’s group was having too much fun playing these specific roles to want to part with them after a single game. Outside of the individual games, Arneson created an experience system for characters. Your character would earn experience points based on their success from game to game. After a certain number of poins, a character would “level up.”

I’d argue, completely baselessly, that progression played a significant part in the popularity of D&D. It gave players a reason to play it again. Immersion in a magical world is great, playing out continued adventures of your very own characters is fantastic, but survive another adventure, and you’re likely to level up. That’s some dark magic right there, a lightning in a bottle. 40+ years later, the gaming industry has crawled into the bottle, having kicked the genie out of it. How’s that for a metaphor pileup?

It’s not just the numbers growing larger –  you could start the game at a higher level if you so wished, and it wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying. It’s the challenges you have to overcome to earn those numbers that give them value. The character sheet in your hands is not simply a cool character you made up, it’s the physical manifestation of weeks or even years of effort. To put it another way, Value = Challenge * Reward.

Challenge

“Challenge” in this equation is a very flexible term. It can be a test of skill: you’ve got to play well to progress. Can you beat the boss? Survive the dungeon? Finish the level? It can also involve risk, a threat to take the already earned progress away. Early RPGs were deadly, a single mistake could end your character’s life. Early computer games were deadly too, though that may have been driven by the desire of the arcade machines to suck coins out of players. Interestingly, games have mostly moved away from this type of challenge, respecting the players’ time (or afraid of scaring them off). Rogue-lite games are an obvious exception to this trend.

Challenge can also be tied to the time put in: the dreaded word, “grind”. Turns out, our monkey brains are bad at distinguishing between these types of challenges, they all contribute value to the rewards we earn. Game designers, bastards that they are, took notice. Note that creating a Challenge is not the only function that grinding serves, but it’s the function the article is focused on.

Grind, that is, repeated execution of a task, is an easy way to increase the perceived value of a reward and keep the players occupied. Grinding is all but impossible in tabletop RPGs due to their very nature: mindless repetition is not a desired state, so few GMs would entertain it, even if players were to try it. You can’t keep killing orcs in the same cave over and over, or jam the spacebar to advance your jump skill. Once transitioned to a computer bereft of common sense, though, a reward system such as xp can be hijacked by an enterprising player. Rules stay the same, but the way we interact with them changes.

Computer is happy to keep spawning orcs in a cave, or pokemon in tall grass (I think that’s how it works? Never actually played Pokemon). Players are happy to keep fighting them, as the rewards they get are, perversely, even more valuable to them. Game designers are happy to save on the effort it takes to provide unique and interesting challenges. Everyone wins. Right?

Meanwhile, consider idle games, e.g. one of the progenitors of the genre, Cookie Clicker, an inadvertent and rhetorically unsuccessful reductio ad absurdum of progression-driven gameplay. Most have barely any gameplay as such – the name of the genre should have been a hint. You earn currency to spend it on things that earn more currency, ad infinitum. There’s some optimization involved, choosing which upgrade to buy next, some shifts in capabilities which require changing up the strategy, but by and large, time spent playing is the main determinant of your success. And yet they can be incredibly addictive to a certain subset of gamers, a combination of low effort with the constant drip of rewards. The Challenge is days and weeks spent running the game, the stupidly large numbers you get are a meager Reward, yet their combination makes the perceived Value high enough to keep players coming back.

Reward

Access to the next level is a reward for beating the previous one. A powerful gun is a reward for finding it. A new ability is a reward for levelling up. All these enable the player to see something new, do something new or at least do the same thing better. Which means there’re limits to the amount of such Rewards. New content requires development time. New abilities are also limited by the design space of the game.

Fortunately for the game developers, Rewards can be just as flexible as Challenges. Vanity items are a reward: skins, titles, badges, anything you can show off, even in a single-player game. There are only so many hats you can possibly wear, yet players are compelled to collect them all. Which is another reward: collectibles. From Pokemon to pretty skins in any MMO to guns in Warframe, it’s not about the functionality of the item or even using it at all. Possession is its own reward, collecting them all is an achievement. That’s another dreaded word – “achievement”.

Do something challenging, get an achievement, feel good. Wikipedia says these can be traced back to 1982, when Activision would send out physical patches to those who got high scores in their games. Achievements can be seen as a dare: bet you can’t avoid killing anyone; bet you can’t beat the boss in two minutes; bet you can’t get both endings. These guide players to experience a game in a manner they may not have otherwise considered, offering more direction than just improving the score. They provide not only a Reward, but the Challenge needed to complete it as well. More rewards, more playtime, happier players.

Here, too, our monkey brains get fooled. Beating a boss in under two minutes is a challenge that tests player’s mastery of the game; getting an achievement for this feels rewarding. Killing 1000 orcs tests persistence at best, or simply happens after a while. Yet getting such an achievement also feels rewarding. And if you’ve already killed 950 orcs, it may be worth your while to go grind some more, to get a tick mark that does nothing the achievement. It’s another form of collectibles, completely divorced from both function and fiction of the game.

Achievements are not uniform: they can be rated by their difficulty, or even give you points. Relatively recently, these achievement points began to be used as a currency or a score, unlocking more rewards in the game, which gives them some substance.

Next time: Value and perversion thereof, kinds of fun, gamification and monetization of gaming.

Especially Nasty – Intellect Devourer Delusion

This creature uses the curse rules as a foundation, taking them in a slightly different direction. There’s no moral lesson to this “curse”, just the unremitting terror of having your mind eroded, bite by bite. This is how intellect devourers are born.

In addition, there are a few elements which use the corruption rules. Simply ignore any mentions of corruption if you’re not using that subsystem.

Intellect Devourer Delusion

Transgression: You’ve really annoyed someone really unpleasant. Alternatively, this could be the side effect of severe corruption.

Associated Icons: Archmage, Lich King, Prince of Shadows, The Three, some horrorific fallen or rising icon.

When the curse strikes: All throughout the session, you feel like you’re being watched. As Germination (see below) rises, you’ll start hearing a voice, nonsensical at first, then issuing instructions or insults. At the beginning of combat during this session, you become aware of an intellect devourer hiding somewhere on the battlefield. It’ll keep reappearing this session until either Germination or Comprehension is increased.

Some Assembly Required

The nascent intellect devourer always matches the capabilities of its host. Find the “base stats for normal monsters” on page 254 of the core book and use them to replace all the ‘x’s in the write-up below. The intellect devourer’s level is equal to the level of the host, MD is its better defense, and Initiative is equal to its level +4. See below for the way the effective hp are calculated. If you’re feeling fancy, you may wish to further customize these numbers to better suit the infected PC. Take a look at the previous page for simple adjustments. For instance, if the host is a healer, you could make its intellect devourer a scrapper (+3 to attack, 70% of normal hp); or if the host is a “glass cannon”, the intellect devourer could be an oaf (-3 to attacks, +3 to AC).

Delusion Progress

There are two parameters that track the progress of the intellect devourer growing inside the poor host’s head: Comprehension and Germination, both starting at 1. Comprehension is a measure of success the host has in understanding and ultimately overcoming the intellect devourer. It goes up by 1 each time the character defeats the intellect devourer. Germination, on the other hand, measures how close the intellect devourer is to completely overtaking the host’s personality, growing legs, and attaining freedom. Germination goes up by 1 each time the intellect devourer knocks out the host with psychic damage at the end of the fight.

Comprehension affects the intellect devourer’s total hp: it has 50% of the hp it’s supposed to have according to the table when Comprehension is 1, 75% when Comprehension is 2, and 100% when Comprehension is 3. This may seem counterintuitive: the better the host understands the threat, the harder it is to vanquish. However, while their comprehension is 1 or 2, they cannot truly defeat it: it slinks away back into the recesses of their mind. Once Comprehension reaches 4, the intellect devourer is actually destroyed.

Germination makes it easier for the intellect devourer to use its abilities. In addition, whenever Germination goes up, have the player choose a background their character has. Now it belongs to the intellect devourer. But it’s fine, it’s willing to share. Every time the character uses the stolen background, they risk corruption, and the memories they draw upon are dissociated from their own point of view. Describe a mundance scene relating to the background, as observed by an alien intellect.

Due to the way the intellect devourer’s psychic damage is applied (see below), both Germination and Comprehension can go up simultaneously. Should both reach 4, the host is left in an unenviable position of being in total control of an intellect devourer that has hijacked their former body.

Nascent Intellect Devourer

“You are worthless. Just give up. Let me out. I’ll take care of everything.”

Initiative level +4

Host’s level spoiler [ABERRATION]

[Special trigger] C: Anxiety +x vs MD – the host rolls damage as if they’d hit themselves with the attack they used, dealing psychic damage.

Limited use: Use as an interrupt when the host attacks and an opportunity presents itself.

[Special trigger] C: Delusion + x vs MD – the condition against which the save was made is applied again, even if the save wasn’t successful, except any damage it deals is psychic. It’s not considered to be the same effect, though, e.g. if a creature gains a bonus to attacking those suffering ongoing fire damage, ongoing psychic damage of thinking you’re on fire won’t help it.

Limited use: Use as an interrupt when the host makes a save and an opportunity presents itself.

[Special trigger] C: Paranoia +x vs MD – the ally rolls damage as if they’d hit the host as well, dealing psychic damage.

Limited use: Use as an interrupt when the host’s ally attacks an enemy nearby the host, and an opportunity presents itself.

C: Your lying eyes (nearby host) + x vs MD – x psychic damage, and the intellect devourer teleports to a nearby location.

Limited use: Use only when the intellect devourer hadn’t used any interrupts abilities since the end of its previous turn.

Opportunist: Several of the intellect devourer’s abilities can be used “when an opportunity presents itself” while some specified action occurs. With Germination 1, the ability can be used when the action resulted in failure and the natural roll was odd. With Germination 2, the ability can be used when the natural roll was odd, no matter action’s success. Finally, with Germination 3 the ability can be used when the natural roll was odd and on any roll when the action resulted in failure. The host can risk corruption to deny the intellect devourer an opportunity.

Mind playing tricks: Only the character suffering from the delusion can see or in any way interact with the intellect devourer. It’s all in their head. Quite literally: they’re not being stalked by a montser, the monster is growing inside their brain.

Identity crisis: Keep track of the damage dealt by the intellect devourer separately – do not subtract it from your hit point total. You can’t heal it either. Instead, the damage applies all at once at the end of the fight.

Insidious

This is as horrific as a monster gets. A parasite stealing one’s mind, a memory at a time. A disembodied voice critizicing every decision they make. An alien thing they share their head with. It is an opportunity for the GM to pull out all the stops, especially in the sessions when the “curse” strikes. Don’t let the few ideas mentioned so far limit you. Get under your player’s skin, inside their skull, and wriggle those growing legs. At the same time…

A word of caution

As you can see, the intellect devourer delusion is not just a nasty critter, but a not-so-subtle metaphor for mental illness. For some players, it may simply be a challenge to overcome. For others, it could potentially be catarthic to squash the embodiment of the horrible voice inside their head. Others still could be using games to escape similar real-world troubles. Just… be mindful.

Depending on your players, it may be a good idea to reframe the intellect devourer’s influence as insidiously helpful instead of anxiety-inducing. In that case, it wants to be your friend, a better friend than any of the fake friends you have. Anxiety becomes Earnest concern: “Oh no,” it says, “Look how clumsy you are. That’s ok, let me help.”