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April 2015

The Essence of RPGs (2): Rule-play

dd-transfersIn the previous part, I staked my claim for a new understanding of role-playing games as nothing more nor less than the children of TSR’s seminal Dungeons & Dragons. This sounds trivial: but that’s only because it’s easy to underestimate the earth-shattering effect of D&D upon player practices, and the sheer impact it possesses through its demonstrable influence. This was not just upon tabletop game designers but also videogame designers, whose player practices (and hence design practices) descend directly from the programmer-designers of the 70s and 80s, all of whom were conditioned by the ubiquitous presence of tabletop RPGs in the gaming culture of the time. Next week, I’ll explore the concept of a role to be played that was also essential to the role-playing game concept, but first I want to explain why the rules of D&D remade our understanding of games in their entirety, in ways that now dominate commercial videogames even today.

Boardgames had been on the rise from the moment the industrial revolution made the means of mass production available. This wasn’t surprising, as humans had been enjoying games for millennia, but the games were necessarily either simple or narrowly distributed, because of the cost of hand-making all components. The late Victorian era saw an explosion of games with colourful titles like The Game of the District Messenger Boy (1886), although their components were all quite simple. In the twentieth century, games became more and more representative as the means of production allowed for more elaborate components, a trend exemplified by Cluedo or Clue (1949), which adds a map that is not just a track or a grid but clearly the layout of a fictional mansion. For the nerds of the late 50s and 60s, however, family boardgames such as these had become irrelevant, because Charles Robert’s Avalon Hill was finally on the scene, making a dizzying array of historical wargames, with rules defining player practices that are still being used in turn-based strategy games today.

It was into a landscape of player practices defined by Avalon Hill (and, by the 1970s, it’s me-too competitors) that Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren released Chainmail (1971). It was revolutionary precisely because it wasn’t historical: its influences were fantasy novels of the kinds made popular by Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock, not to mention J.R.R. Tolkien. But because it wasn’t historical, it also shifted the focus of its player practices significantly as well. All Avalon Hill games were about being in command of an army of some kind or another. What Chainmail invented (or rather codified, since it was inspired by various fan rulesets in circulation), was a switch in focus from armies to heroes. With this, the rules naturally changed to express different parameters and to measure different concerns – hence the appearance of magic spells and monsters, and more importantly levels.

With Dungeons & Dragons, which was initially presented as a variant of Chainmail, Gygax and Dave Arneson refined the level concept to encompass another key player practice in gaming today, that of experience points. In D&D, players picked a character class (just Fighting-man, Magic-user, and Cleric in the first edition!) and then advanced their character through levels via the acquisition of XP, gaining in power as they did so. It is a player practice so ubiquitous in gaming today, that it is difficult to truly appreciate that it originates almost entirely with D&D. Prior to D&D, gaming as a hobby was about tactical simulations of clashes between essentially anonymous armies, for which any concept of advancement was irrelevant. That ceased to the be case as soon as the template for the fictional world was not a historical battle but a quest narrative. The ultimate consequence of D&D’s very simple mechanics was a gradual intensification of advancement mechanics and their associated player practices (such as grinding), until – via the viral explosion of so-called ‘social’ games, and the more overtly D&D-descended World of Warcraft – these practices had become the foundation of billion dollar economic behemoths, worlds apart from the face-to-face tabletop play where it had spawned.

‘Rule-play’ is in essence a focus upon character advancement. This might go to the extremes of ‘min-maxing’ (making decisions solely for the purpose of maximizing benefit) or it might be a more subtle focus upon the pleasures of gaining new powers and capabilities. Indeed, Dungeons & Dragons created a near-infinite array of things to acquire! It is this breadth of options that underpins rule-play, and that can make a game fit the descriptor ‘role-playing game’ even when the elements of role-play are slender. What distinguished tabletop role-playing games as systems from the games that existed prior to Dungeons & Dragons (if we ignore the player practices, and hence what the game actually consists of in play) was the presence of a complex ontology. This philosophical term ‘ontology’ refers to the study of being, but it has acquired a sense in information technology of cataloguing and classifying what exists. In role-playing games that serve rule-play well, what exists is a great many things!

In early arcade games, the variety of entities was low because of technical constraints – Pac-man generates its engaging play from just seven entities, not counting the individual mazes. With the Avalon Hill wargames, the ontologies were basically lists of units and lists of terrain – many more things than possible in the (later) arcade, and also more than in family boardgames, because the players were capable of dealing with more complex systems and thus more intricate player practices. A fully delineated ontology for, say, Monopoly, might rack up many entities by treating each different card as a separate entity, but even this would not reach the degree of complexity that Dungeons & Dragons opened the door to. Firstly, there is the range of possible player characters that can be constructed from (fictional) ontological elements such as class and race, not to mention the variety of specific entities implied by different combinations of attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma). These are further diversified by the varieties of equipment – both that which can be purchased in a shop, and that which can be acquired as treasure from ever-more-detailed tables. And this is all before the adventurers have left the tavern! Once out in the world, there are varieties of monster (all equally diversified by their attributes), of terrain, even of alternative dimensions. The fictional world of a typical role-playing game is always diversely populated.

The sign of the relevance of ontological complexity to role-playing games was TSR’s decision in 1977 to pursue a two-pronged strategy, dividing the game between the comparative simplicity of ‘basic’ D&D and the extraordinary complexity of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, with its large (and expensive!) hardback rulebooks. Again, rule-play is an appropriate name: players whose interest lay with narrative play did not need five hundred pages of lists and tables to fulfill their play needs! But rule-players did – they craved more details, more tables for simulating very specific situations (even if they never actually used them), bigger treasure tables, more monsters, more equipment, more, more, more! This is the essential quality that computer role-playing games inherited from the tabletop: with the limitations of a computer, the role-play dimension could only be crudely replicated, but the ontological complexity was perfectly suited to computerisation, albeit requiring the work of many artists to create the entities’ appearances (and even more now that games are routinely delivered in polygonal 3D). Ontological complexity begets player choice, and for many players that dimension of agency is irresistible.

What is worth noting about the design of Dungeons & Dragons is the way it created an opening for player practices that engaged with worlds of such enumerated detail. Prior to D&D, the entities were all formally specified by the rules with the only wiggle room coming from house rules (which were common, but generally did not add much to the ontological complexity). With D&D, the concept of a character sheet changed the landscape of play forever by creating a component of play that was filled in by hand, and thus that could be completed in any way the player imagined (provided the games master – or dungeon master, in D&D’s case – agreed). No need for a token or card to represent every piece of equipment, you just write what your character carries into the relevant box. Want to make your elven bard stand out from the crowd? Just write a unique description onto your character sheet! It is the character sheet that opened up player practices towards infinite imagination and away from prescriptive rules systems, and from this simple conceptual liberation the possibilities of both rule-play and role-play emerged.

Next week, the final part: Role-play

The Essence of RPGs (1): Children of TSR

Players Handbook.CoverNear the beginning of my career as a game designer, one of my first speaking gigs was at an event in London where I was scheduled to appear with Warren Spector. Unfortunately, Warren was attending via webcam and the conference organisers took so long to set him up that my hour presentation on non-linear storytelling in games had to be condensed to ten minutes. By way of apology, Warren and I had a good exchange of emails where we discussed, amongst other things, some of the issues that Deus Ex faced during its troubled development. One thing in particular stuck with me. From the beginning of the design process, it was agreed that Deus Ex was going to be a role-playing game (RPG) – yet the many designers working on the project did not agree what an RPG was.

One of the strangest points of contention was that if you didn’t get to create the name of your character, it wasn’t an RPG. I found this particular odd because it was quite common in tabletop RPGs (especially at conventions) to be given a pre-generated character to play, and no-one thought this meant you were no longer playing an RPG! But it highlighted the enormous range of opinions as to what the essence of an RPG was, a situation that is no different now, a decade and a half later.

The problem with approaching the question of what constitutes an RPG by definitions is that these are always a post-hoc solution to the question of language. We do not in general learn words from declarative definitions because we are not programmable robots. We learn words through examples. This surely is why some of Warren’s team were fixated on the ability to name a character as a defining character of RPGs: it was a common trait of the games that they had previously played which had identified as role-playing games.

The philosopher Wittgenstein recognized in the early twentieth century that some words are particularly ill-suited to rigid definitions because they collect together many diverse entities. He gave ‘game’ as a specific example of what he termed family resemblance, because no single definition can adequately collect together everything to which this term is applied. It is for this reason that we fight so much (and so fruitlessly) about the definition of ‘game’, an issue that I eventually turned into a productive investigation of implicit aesthetic values that was ultimately published in the journal Games and Culture. The problems with the definition of ‘role-playing game’ are an extension to this more general issue, and similarly rest upon the sheer diversity of things that can lay claim to being RPGs. Creating a static definition, while occasionally useful, will not solve the disputes. What is needed is a way of understanding the family resemblance of these play activities.

In my parallel career as an academic, I try to give all the new students a grounding in the history of games, one that goes back four millennia and shows that games are related to one-another by ties of loose inheritances that form what I term lineages. For any given game, its lineage is a network of games (and other artworks) that contribute to the inherent qualities of that game. It is akin to inheritance in biology, except games exchange their constituent elements in a manner more akin to bacteria than to mammals i.e. through a free exchange of their constituent elements, leading to the impossibility of identifying any strict concepts of genus and species for games. What’s more, these relationships aren’t best understood in terms of material factors.

While it may be tempting to try to relate games by their design elements, this is an abstraction of what can be observed being passed on between games: player practices. Whereas sports are founded upon the principle of conserving such practices over time, most games thrive on experimenting with new combinations of player practices, either by baking them into the artefact by design, or by supporting the creation of new player practices within the accompanying fictional world. Whichever way you look at it, we can’t just treat a game as a sterile material object: an artefactual reading is always an incomplete reading.

One of the striking things about analysing games by their lineage is that when we are talking about videogames there is one particular game that appears in the lineage of the vast majority of all digital titles: TSR’s Dungeons and Dragons. This is because, as I wrote about at length in Imaginary Games, the original tabletop role-playing game from 1974 was innovative in multiple different ways, many of which are now part of the core player practices of videogames – even games whose designers never played a tabletop RPG!

Some of these innovations are part of the lineage of genre fiction: the idea of a game world that is a hodge-podge of elements from different fantasy novels and mythologies was pushed into overdrive with D&D. From its roots in fantasists such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Michael Moorcock, who had used specific mythologies as source materials for fantasy worlds, the designers at Tactical Studies Rules began drawing from every mythology as a source for a single world – a practice now shockingly common in all published media, as witnessed in ‘urban fantasy’ or film franchises such as Shrek. However, some of the other inventive ideas found in this game were new player practices devised and developed by Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and Jeff Perren (who produced Chainmail with Gygax in 1971, and from which D&D directly descends).

The lineage approach to understanding the history and analysis of games affords an exceptionally useful solution to the problem of determining what constitutes an RPG, albeit by sidestepping the fool’s errand of a static definition. Player practices can be tracked confidently wherever explicit influences have been mentioned in interviews and the like, and can be tentatively attributed in many other cases. All role-playing games have in common the presence of Dungeons & Dragons in their lineage – indeed, at the root of their lineage. Of course, as already mentioned, the class of games this is true for is vast, far beyond the way the term would usually be used. Grand Theft Auto (1997) was inspired by Elite (1984), which was inspired by Traveller (1977) and Space Opera (1980), two tabletop RPGs directly descended from D&D itself. Should all GTA games be considered RPGs, then? I would happily support someone bullish enough to say so, but I don’t need to make so strong a claim here.

The litmus test I propose in order for a game to be called a role-playing game is that its player practices either entail the essential aspects of Dungeons & Dragons, or another game that directly descends from it (i.e. that has inherited a significant proportion of player practices from games that do the same from D&D). Final Fantasy (1987) was inspired by Dragon Quest (1986), itself inspired by The Black Onyx (1984), which Henk Rogers took to Japan after being a fanatical Dungeons & Dragons player at university in Hawaii (and also from Ultima, which similarly descends directly from D&D). The games that players use as personal type cases to make an individual judgement as to what is or is not an RPG are all (necessarily) games whose lineage tracks back to D&D via player practices that have remained closely related throughout.

In this short serial, I want to examine the essence of role-playing games as two diverging lineages. Because lineages are only cross-sections of networks of player practices, there are always many other ways that this subject could be explored, but for the purposes of both understanding RPGs, and thinking creatively about how to make new ones, the division that I will be making is perhaps the most productive – particularly as it neatly splits up the two rival camps most likely to disagree in arguments over definitions of ‘role-playing game’. As was my thesis from Implicit Game Aesthetics, such disagreements are always evidence of aesthetic values (which may also relate to Bruno Latour’s recent claim that we can identify different ways of being in the world by looking at the language clashes between them).

I shall save until last the essential quality that I most value about role-playing games, which is their flexibility as powerful tools for narrative play, for which I shall reserve the term role-play. We call them ‘role-playing games’ precisely because they entail taking on an imaginary identity – a player practice now endemic within videogames, in part because programmers working on games in the 1970s and 80s were all either playing tabletop RPGs or knew people who did. But the innovative design of Dungeons & Dragons was only partly about taking upon a role within a fictional world, even though without this breakthrough none of the other aspects of its play makes any sense. Before we can properly understand role-play, we have to first understand “rule-play”, a derogatory term that narrative-valuing RPG players assign to those others who are not focussed upon RPGs as a storytelling media. And rule-play can describe the other essential elements of role-playing games perfectly.

Next week: Rule-play

The Original Game Studies Scholar?

Procedural Map It occurred to me this morning that my undergraduate thesis on landscape creation through fractal noise synthesis and language generation through morpho-phoneme systems was in 1994. I would have done a game-focussed Masters degree if any member of the faculty had understood why I was working in that field, but as it was I had to teach a robot to read instead. But this publication date – 1994 – puts me into the ‘first wave’ of game studies scholars. In fact, for a brief moment I thought it made me the original game studies scholar. But let’s not get carried away.

“First wave” makes much more sense to describe game studies scholars than feminists, don't you think? It gets you all worked up about wanting to beat the final wave! But when exactly would you judge the first wave of game studies?

Taking my 1994 publication as a benchmark, let’s take on the usual contenders.

Bartle? Didn’t get a paper out until 1999. Sorry, King of MUDs, you’ll just have to settle for being the iconic co-founder of one of the most influential game formats of all time instead.

Aarseth? 1997. Too slow Espen!

Juul? 1999. GG, Jesper.

But then, just as I’m flush with these easy victories, along comes James Wallis with a grenade in his quiver. Because from 1994-5 he published the incredible journal Interactive Fantasy, which as well as being an awesome publication is famous for hosting Greg Costikyan’s incredible essay “I Have No Words and I Must Design”. And he also points out that Chris Crawford was publishing the Journal of Computer Game Design from 1987-1996. Respect, Chris. I yield the hill to thee.

Of course, it all comes down to what we mean by ‘game studies’. What Juul and Aarseth can lay claim to was carving off a niche for the study of games that wasn’t the ridiculously narrow field of game theory (really: mathematics of competition). I didn’t do that. I went into industry and made commercial videogames instead. To these two, and others in this ‘first wave’ of game studies scholars, all who study games owe a debt.

Those who came before this – like Thomas Malone and Chris Crawford (and Richard Bartle too, since I conveniently overlooked his 1985 book...) – are the zeroth wave, the people studying games before there even was a game studies field. And before them, of course, the legendary sociologist Roger Callois and heroic historian Johan Huizinga. I would add to this Ernst Gombrich: if Imaginary Games achieves anything, I hope it is to show how Gombrich completes this holy trinity of the progenitors of game studies.

So, no crown for me, no victory, no honour. Except the honour of being part of this grand tradition of thinkers who claimed that games and play are worthy of study. And in this, I salute each and all who came before, or who follow after.

The opening image isn’t one of my maps from my thesis project (I can’t find any GIFs from this era of my life) but from a graph structure constraint noise synthesis project by Amit Patel that is orders of magnitude superior to my basic height map technique (even taking into account that he doesn’t have my language-module for naming settlements in a procedural language). You can learn about Amit’s fascinating project on his Red Blog Games blog.

Why Study Game Narrative?

A letter to students at ARCOS in Santiago, Chile.

Book Pad Dear ARCOS students,

It came as some small surprise to me when, in a recent letter, your instructor Pablo Gorigoitia mentioned that Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames was one of your course texts. This book, written with the IGDA Game Writing Special Interest Group and edited by myself, has been my most successful title by far, but I never really anticipated that it might be read as far away as Chile, some seven thousand miles away! To put this figure into perspective, we live nearly as far away from each other as the diameter of the planet we co-inhabit.

I’d like to take this opportunity to share my thoughts as to why game narrative is important, and this requires that I first make clear the extent of game narrative as a field. For although it is not often recognized, no game that is made escapes from having narrative elements. The reason for this is that the play of all games generates exceptional narrative experiences, in part because humans are natural storytellers and construct our way in the world by means of narratives, and in part because play is one of our freest emotional expressions and thus inherently memorable. It is no coincidence that sporting events are used as stories-within-stories so often in blockbuster movies: the strong emotions generated by sports – both in its participants and its observers – make an outstanding (if occasionally lazy) scaffold for storytelling.

We must, however, be clear to distinguish an explicit narrative – one that is placed into a game by a writer – and implicit narrative that emerges from the game as a system. I am interested in both these forms, and have made games that pursue both approaches (although the latter – systemic stories from games – is far harder, and usually more expensive to develop). Similarly, we ought to distinguish between diegetic stories that occur within the fictional world of the game, and non-diegetic stories that feature the player themselves as a character. “I won at Chess!” or “I got a Tetris!” are non-diegetic stories that are simply about the game being played, and are not really our principal interest when we study game narrative. That said, if you do not understand why players tell non-diegetic stories, you are at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding how to construct those stories that occur within the fictional worlds of games.

At the moment, I teach a module on Game Narrative for the University of Bolton that I will soon also be teaching for Laguna College of Art and Design in California. One of my students at Bolton, James Drake, asked me over the Summer before he took that particular course what he could do to prepare for the Game Narrative module: I told him to read a book or a play. He was rather confused, and could not believe that I wasn’t directing him to play a game instead. But if you want to understand game narrative, you have to understand narrative, and that is a task best approached in media where it is far easier to construct. If you want to be a great game writer, you should begin by reading Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare – or indeed Eduardo Barrios and Isabel Allende. You’ll have to: we have very few great works of game narrative to refer to, so we must discover the standard of exceptional work in narrative from elsewhere.

What makes game narrative so especially difficult is the player. A novelist or playwright can mostly count upon their characters to co-operate (although there are times when a story gets out of control…!), but the moment we let a player into our story we have lost our sole authority over the narrative. As Street Fighter II puts the matter: “A Challenger Appears!” We now risk fighting the player for the flow of the story, or ruining their narrative experience by giving them no illusion of agency in how the events transpire. This is why it is far easier to mount a narrative on the backbone of something like Grand Theft Auto, where the player is presumed to be an anti-social ne’er-do-well (or rather, that they will act as such in the fictional world!). We can count on players to act badly. Counting on players to co-operate with our story is far more difficult, although not quite impossible. For a start, we can ask them to do so.

I am of the opinion that if we want to make better videogames, we must study game narrative. This is because the experience of these kinds of games (indeed, all games at some level) involves entering into a fictional world, and if we do not understand the mechanics of such imaginary games we are severely limiting what we can achieve. But to understand game narrative, we must also understand narrative – and this requires us to pay attention to those media that have been experimenting with fictional worlds for millennia rather than just a few decades. This is why Game Writing commits a whole chapter to the basics of narrative theory, a field that goes all the way back to Aristotle, more than two thousand years ago.

I encourage you all to wrestle with the fascinating questions of how to leverage the interesting qualities of videogames in the context of the established methods of narrative, precisely because we have not yet produced any unequivocal masterpieces of game narrative. Such future games as might attain to this title could come from anywhere in the world – they are as likely to come from Chile as from Europe and the United States, where commercial pressures make storytelling in games take rather humdrum and conventional paths, more influenced by Hollywood action movies than anything else. Who knows, someone in your very class could be the Pablo Naruda of videogame narrative, a digital poet, taking our youngest medium to new heights.

With infinite hope for the future,


PS: you are lucky to have Pablo as an instructor, so treat him kindly! And tell him he owes me a beer.