29 April, 2006

Direction Shift, Refocus; Board/War/Card Games and RPGs, an Observational Treatise.

LiveJournal Post

First, I'd like to note that I was in a sort of a funk regarding LJ lately, which explains the lack of updates. I am now adding a new directional goal for my journal, that of exploring my RPG related thoughts and creations. This will lead to more posts, although they may be of limited interest to those not interested in exploring RPGs or my creations.
Sleeping World Journal is merely postponed, not abandoned, fear not loyal reader.

For those of you who missed it, I am currently working on an RPG that I call "Cranium Rats", you may view it and other things of mine on Cranium Rats Central.

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The following is a treatise of sorts, regarding my experiences, observations and hypotheses regarding Competitive RPGs and how they relate to Board Games and Card Games. It may be posted later on the Forge in some manner, but remember, you saw it here first!

First, some experiences and observations thereof:
I played multiplayer Magic: the Gathering. Here are some specific cases. When we played in a three-way free for all combat one of us was about to be finished, leaving the other two players to fight amongst themselves. The losing player whined and so we let him live, he created a life-gaining engine which we let him use so he won't whine and he ended up winning by Decking.
This showed me that unlike most board-games or card games created for the multiplayer format, Magic has a major drawback: Those who lose stay left out till this instance of gameplay is concluded. This is unlike Blackjack where one is only left out for a short while or Poker where it's one's own decision when to Fold. In games created for multiplayer format rather than have a "Loser Out" they have "One winner and game-end", which results in no one being left out while others are still playing.

Another instance was of me creating a deck specifically for multiplayer. But rather than have a deck which hurts multiple opponents to my benefit, I've created a deck based on "Fear Factor". The deck made use of Pestilence, a card which hurts all players and characters equally. I told the others so: "You don't attack me, I may or may not use it, you attack me, I use it and everyone, including you, suffers". It worked, no one wanted to lose, so no one attacked me, letting me watch with glee and mess with everyone as I saw fit. This was an especially good choice for me as I am often the "Strong Pick" and thus marked for execution early on, more on this later.

Munchkin, the card-game by SJG. In it you race in order to reach level 10, backstabbing, or rather, fore-stabbing is common and encouraged. You dump monsters and curses on other players, steal their stuff, while trying to muscle your way past your "friends" doing the same to you. I play this game with my family; myself, my two younger siblings and two of our cousins. My sister plays a mean style and tries to take me out, or rather, stop me from winning.
I always win, or did till now. Sister always came in second.
When someone considers doing something to me, I threaten that I will reciprocate the "Favour", that is usually enough to deter them. My sister says to the other players: "So he'll do it to you, and then he won't be able to do anything more to anyone, because he'll use his resources", I answer, "Then why don't you attack me and suffer the brunt of my retaliatory attack?".
This shows us that while everyone wants to win, also no one wants to lose. Also, by creating dissent amongst your opposition you may go through relatively unscathed, or they will only join in too late. As I will show in the next paragraph!

Enter Settlers of Cattan, a classic if I ever saw one. I've first played Settlers of Cattan in a convention, where the three other players knew one another and I knew none. You may think that I had the disadvantage, that they will unite against the unknown, the outsider, and will only later turn against one another to finish business. That was not so.
People who know one another mark each other as "Strong" and "Weak", "Ally" or not. They assume that the opponent they know to be strong must be stronger than the unknown. So I used it to my advantage, as two of the friends united I offered an alliance to the last remaining player, and dumped him the moment I got what I wanted from him, trusting in my own capabilities. His friends later would not ally with him for he allied with me, leaving him alone, as I was, but much weaker.
Towards the end the other players noticed my burgeoning kingdom and decided to ally together in order to stop me. This was too little and far too late. Their pooled resources could not stop me.
Board games and other competitive multiplayer games rely far more than your average game on your relations and knowledge of the other players, as it shows you out-of-game(or out of game instance) reasons to ally and target other players.
You want to win, and more than that, you don't want to lose.

Enter Worms, the computer game by Team 17, my cousin and I play it together, us and two teams of computer opposition. We always say we'll kill the computer first and only then turn on one another. We never manage to stay till the end, some targets are just too juicy, and we know we're both better than the computer. No one wants to give the other First Strike.

Enter RPGs.
Recently I've witnessed the nascent snow-ball movement of what I will call "CSI Games", CSI being Competitive Story Interaction. These are RPGs("What is an RPG?" is a question I will leave unanswered for now, hoping you know what I mean) where there is a story being generated, but the social interaction is competitive and even antagonistic in nature, rather than the "Cooperative" mode suggested and propagated throughout our hobby's history. In a way, this is us going back to Board/War games, from which our hobby draws much of its history. I'd say that we're growing in the opposite direction, rather than regressing.
What is Chainmail, Dungeon and Dragon's Proto-form if not a Wargame to which one adds little acting? So CSI Games are in a very real way RPGs to which you add a Wargame mentality!

Paranoia is the first game I'm aware of that supports, even suggests, such mentality. The backdrop of the game is little but a tool to foster a "Me or them" mentality, a "We or them" and "Me or we" mentalities combined. The setting is all for you being out to get others, while hiding yourself and covering your ass from being "Had". The players know that all characters are traitors, and if a character proves another is a traitor, then that character's iteration(yay clones!) is offed. This encourages you to look out to screw other players, protect yourself from being screwed over AND accomplish whatever the homicidal Computer/GM throws at you, so you won't ALL be offed.

Rune and DonJon, both take D&D and turn it on its head. Rune has one going for points, technically, everyone is together except when it's one turn to take on the "GM" mantle and create obstacles for the others, but since one "Scores points", one is always looking for number one. Here's a hint, every player's number one is himself.
DonJon has the players act together against the GM, but the two are on adversarial terms, same as in HackMaster. All conceits of "We're all here just wanting to play a game together" are thrown aside as drivel, we're here to play together, but we're here to win alone, or against one another.
My best friend treats almost all convention games as DonJon, him against the group but mainly against the GM and the GM's world, seeing how fast he can break it, and how mangled it'll end up.

Recently(in order) we've had Capes, which while I've not read seems to foster inter-player competition for resources. One need only glance at what had been brought up over the last two months, and a bit before:
Apocalypse Girl, which to me is very much like the Illuminati card game(non-collectible) by SJG.
Cranium Rats, my own game, which is very much like the Munchkin card game. You play one of three Aspects of one character, these Aspects control what the characters do and try to win them over completely.
The Uchtman Factor, where you bid and vie for definition of the protagonist according to your viewpoint.
Champions of the Gods, which gives a board-game feel where you try to complete a certain amount of quests. It came from Game Chef 2006, and as such also sports a limited time-play, board-game did we say?
Conflict:Eridani, which combines an RPG with a "Zoom out" to the Wargame strategic level, ala the Birthright computer game of the early 90s.

For those who look at the above list and say some of those games, especially mine and The Uchtman Factor deprotagonize the character, I say to you this: The character may be the protagonist of the story, but we're playing these games also for the competition, for the game. And as such, the character is not the protagonist of the game, the Aspects the players play are. Also, who is a protagonist once you look at the "why" of their actions?

EDIT: Shit, forgot to actually write the text of the point this post was striving for.

So, why this at all, and why now?
Look at the board-game market, it's blooming, as there is much cross-pollenation between our geekdoms, it is inevitable that many a roleplayer is affected by boardgames he's been playing. Also, this may very well be a counterweight reaction to the Narrativist CA and the "Emo" movement of the 90s.
Same as against the Simulationist and tactical heaviness of the 80s we had Vampire in the 90s, and against the story-front lightness of the earlier decades the Indie RPG movement of the late 90s and the beginning of the new millenium came a Story-front, now we have a new void being filled. See a need, fill a need.

Board games are fun, dammit, all those that say they take "Less" out of you don't know what they're speaking of, competitiveness is involvement heavy. However, they give you back something totally different, a gratification that had been infused into your genetic pool, of proving your worth.
I think the snowball will keep on rolling, first the Meme infects you, then it makes you propagate it.
Next post will be about Memes in games!

Questions, comments, flames!

2 comments:

Joe J Prince said...

Hi TG

I like where you're going with the CSI 'family' - however I was wondering if you really need the new moniker.
How exactly do CSI games differ from gamist RPGs?

Guy said...

No, you don't need it.

In part, I could be splitting hairs, about what "Gamist" is, etc. Also, I do not cover "Role playing" anywhere in my game. I never take a stance regarding author stance vs. actor stance which is expressed within the term "Role-playing". I couldn't care less.
I care about the story. Also, not all Gamist games have competition, nor do all competitive games are Gamist.

Last and not least, this is a promotional tool. Just like The Forge helped Narrative games and as much of a community it is a promotional project, so will this be. "I like this game, it's a CSI Game, hmmm, I heard that game is also a CSI Game, so maybe I'll check it out...", don't forget, I plan to have an actual logo-imprint deal going on with this.
It also helps people focus their goals, words shape reality.