Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Unlearning Ampersand: Why Social Mechanics Aren't Bad Just Because You've Only Played Games with Bad Ones

So for quite a while, I have been thinking about the invisible assumptions of Dungeons & Dragons, and the way in which they have pervaded through many games because people just don't consciously think about them. And in that time, I've thought a lot about the idea of writing a series exploring those assumptions, why they were made in the first place, and their alternatives. And so, I present Unlearning Ampersand; an essay series which I'll periodically update wherein I explore the assumptions made by D&D and arguing for why to break out of them. As you might expect, this one is going to be exploring how it interacts with the concept of social mechanics.

So without further ado then, let's get into the essay:

A Short Break by Marby Kwong

Alright. So there's this truism amongst a lot of TTRPG folks that social mechanics are bad. If I were to break down the usual argument into the logic it tends to follow, it would look something like this:

Mechanics, by their very nature, place a limitation on something in order to function - they create a line between "mechanical" and "not mechanical", as well as a line between discrete mechanics. Social mechanics are mechanics which are placed upon roleplaying aspects of the game. ("Roleplaying" here defined as the act of speaking in-character or narrating the actions of your character.) Therefore, social mechanics necessarily place limitations on roleplay. This relegates roleplay to the realm of mechanics, and thus, social mechanics are bad, because they hinder the fun of roleplay.

If you've read the title of this post, you might guess that I disagree with this argument. And yes, I do. Its foundational assumptions - that is, what mechanics are and the definition of the concept of social mechanics - are things which would be difficult to argue. I will also be writing this essay using the given definition of roleplay above, as it'll make this discussion less clunky to read. That said, I do have two major qualms with this argument. Firstly, mechanics do more than just create definitions, they also create meaning, and that matters. And secondly, I disagree with the argument's ultimate conclusion, and think that it is revealing of the way D&D trains its players to view the mechanics of the game against the act of play.

So join me on this winding adventure through social mechanics, what makes D&D's bad, and why good ones do exist!


Point the First: Mechanics Construct Meaning

Let's start by diving headfirst into theory bullshit, eh? As I said, I agree that mechanics define the lines between themselves, other mechanics, and the non-mechanical; it's implicit to their construction. A mechanic has to have a definition in order to function, and that definition necessarily separates it from non-mechanics and from every other mechanic.

But here's the issue: that isn't all mechanics do. They serve another very important purpose in play - they construct meaning by defining what is and is not important. I touched on this idea briefly in both my overly-rambling subpar post about stats, and in my essay about genre in games, and I'm going to talk about it yet again here. Because to me, it is quite possibly the single most important bit of game design theory that there is.

So a brief recap on the idea: mechanics, by being tools with which to meaningfully affecting the game, define what is and is not important to the game. If something isn't a mechanic, then it doesn't hold the same weight and importance in play as something which is. For example, you could run identical coming-of-age queer monster games in D&D and in Monsterhearts, but they would be fundamentally different. One of those games has intensive mechanics for converting monsters into corpses for experience, and the other has mechanics for being messy, queer monster teens with power dynamics. Therefore, one of those games, Monsterhearts, mechanically supports the concept - it makes the story of queer monsters actually matter in play. Attempting to run that in D&D would give you a freeform roleplay game about queer monsters which has been placed next to a (bad) combat simulator - the mechanics of the game do not support what you are trying to do, so you may as well not even be using them.

But enough digression, let us finally turn our eye to the social mechanics of modern D&D (and of those games which follow its footsteps): Diplomacy, Bluff, and Intimidate. What do these functionally do, and how are they used? Well, when you want to make another character act how you want them to and overwrite their autonomy, you roll one of these. I already know what some may be thinking - 'But Khan, the DM sets the DC for the roll, it's not actually as simple as brainwashing another character!' - this misses the point of this essay, though. This is not an essay about what individuals do at their tables, this is an essay about what the game's mechanics actually do. And the game's mechanics say that when you succeed a Bluff check, your target believes your lie. When you succeed an Intimidate check, they're afraid of you. When you succeed a Diplomacy check, they agree with you. That is their mechanical function - they exist to get what you want from someone who is, in some form, in your way. They reduce a character down to a puzzle for you to solve with a sledgehammer, regardless of how difficult an individual may choose to make that puzzle.

So that's what they do - but what do they tell us? Well, if the only social mechanics in a game are ones which, on success, bend someone to your will, then the game is telling us that the only interactions it cares about with others is to get what you want from them. It trains the player to see all other characters as obstacles, because that is the only way the mechanics have to handle their existence, be they the social mechanics or the combat mechanics. And again, I know what you might be thinking - 'but people roleplay all kinds of other interactions with characters in D&D!' - and yes, they do. Once again though, this is not an essay about what people do to make playing D&D fun for themselves, this is about what the text of D&D is built for. And that roleplay isn't happening because of the game of D&D, but in spite of the text itself.

Now let's compare those mechanics to, say, the Flirt move in Dungeon Bitches, a game about queer women forming bonds together and finding their place on the outskirts of a society that hates them. Those are the stories it is made to tell, and the Flirt move backs that up! So how does it work? When a player flirts with another character, they roll the move. On a failure, the flirt-ee gets a Bond (a big mechanical element of the game, allowing Bitches to use their connections to each other to change outcomes). On a success, the flirt-ee chooses whether each get a Bond, if they give the flirt-er something which the flirt-ee thinks they want, or both. If we look at what these mechanics tell us, it's that, for one, flirting with each other is a way in which queer women express care for one another, represented by the fact that they receive mechanical Bonds for doing so. They also, by giving the flirt-ee the autonomy in the resolution of the roll, tell us that this social interaction is a two-way street, that both parties have a say in how things go. This is not like D&D where someone merely now agrees or is afraid; rather, both characters have some control over the situation. And, through Bonds, these interactions have meaningful impact on the wider game, as those Bonds are later used to help, bribe, or hinder.

A game's mechanics tell us what matter in it, and therefore its social mechanics tell us what kind of interactions with other characters are important. D&D's social mechanics tell us that the only important interactions with others are the ones where they give us what we want - and this, I would argue, is bad. But there is a wide world of games which value other kinds of interactions out there, and they cannot be painted with the same brush as the Ampersand Game.

Point the First Gaiden: The Gameplay Loop

So, mechanics create meaning. But "mechanics" is more than just the rolls you make in a game. The term also includes how you go about making those rolls happen. And as it turns out, not every game has the same core resolution system.

The difference in resolution between D&D and Powered by the Apocalypse games is often a point of confusion for people playing a PbtA game for the first time. And when you're familiar with PbtA games, it's extremely obvious when someone is attempting to resolve its Moves in the same way that D&D reserves its Checks. Although for those first learning PbtA games it may seem like the difference is resolution systems is just a minor nitpick, it actually radically changes the game (often for the worse) when someone attempts to use its mechanics like those of D&D.

So what do I mean by resolution system here? Well, in D&D, when a player wants to accomplish something, they decide the roll they wish to make, ask the DM for permission, and then roll their dice and their outcome is resolved. Alternatively, a DM may explicitly tell the player to make a roll, at which point the player rolls their dice and the outcome is resolved.

Now, that's probably obvious to anyone who has played D&D or a game of its ilk. After all, that's the basic resolution loop of not just every version of D&D, but also Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Cyberpunk, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and so many countless other games. But just because something is widespread doesn't mean it's not worth talking about - in fact, it's all the better reason to talk about it. Hell, that's why this essay series even exists!

I'd like to call attention to two aspects of this system: roleplay is never required, and you need to seek approval from the DM. In this essay we'll only be addressing the former - the latter is a subject for its own essay entirely. So firstly, yes, many D&D players do choose to roleplay. But regardless of what players may choose to do, that roleplay is never actually required - it's something completely separate to the game of dice at the table. And that separation of mechanics and roleplay turns roleplay into something which is fun, but optional, and it turns the mechanics, the game itself, into just a game of moving a figure around a board and rolling dice. With this understanding of how the game's resolution system separates these parts of play, it's easy to see why many might feel as though social mechanics cannot be done well. After all, if these games teach that roleplay and mechanics are separate, then the idea of mechanics for rolepay might feel not only alien, but stifling.

Not every game uses D&D's resolution system (despite the fact that there are many which do), so let's look at a popular resoltuion system amongst indie TTRPGs - PbtA. If we look at a PbtA game we find that every used mechanic - called Moves - each are triggered by certain things in roleplay. What is its resolution system for these? Well, players simply roleplay, and whenever their roleplay would trigger a Move, they then roll and resolve it.

Immediately apparent in this system is that the mechanics exist directly as a reaction to the roleplay. In this way, roleplay becomes not only a part of the mechanics of the game, but without roleplay there is no game. The mechanics exist here not to be something separate on the table, but rather, they act as a way to introduce interesting random elements into the outcome of your roleplay scenarios. It's easy to see how this resolution system lends itself much better to social mechanics, as roleplay is already a core element to play.

Social mechanics, by definition, straddle the space between roleplay and game mechanics. So, when a game tells you that the two are separate, it's easy to see why social mechanics might not work in it. But not every game's mechanics function like that - when roleplay and mechanics are in fact intertwined, when roleplay is the most important part of play, you have a game whose system is built in a way which is conducive to social mechanics. Ultimately, something like PbtA - which treats roleplay as the catalyst for its mechanics - is just a much better framework for building social mechanics than a system like D&D's.


Part Two: Guides, not Limits

Okay. We're through most of the theory now, you can take a breather. This essay still has a little way to go, but it'll be a little less obtuse from here ...


So a lot of folks argue that social mechanics limit roleplay for the players; it's a fairly common refrain. However, I'm not sure that I agree - not even in the case of D&D. I mean, look back at what we've seen about D&D's social mechanics: they don't involve roleplay at all. So how could they limit it? It's not a factor in the game whatsoever. 

And if we look at PbtA games like Monsterhearts or Dungeon Bitches, then once again, the social mechanics in these games don't limit the player. A player can roleplay whatever they want! It's just that only certain actions will trigger their moves to occur. If a player's character never gets flirty, then that player just never rolls Turn Someone On or Flirt.

But these PbtA social mechanics do influence the way a player might roleplay, and that, to me, is their greatest strength. Because your Moves only trigger when your roleplay causes them to, if you want to mechanically engage with the game, your character needs to play into the expectations of the game. And, especially in the case of games like Monsterhearts or Thirsty Sword Lesbians or Dungeon Bitches, where they are exploring a specific kind of queer experience (gay monster high school, light lesbian fantasy, and sapphics dealing with a hateful society respectfully), the mechanics rewarding you for playing the game as it's intended is a good thing, frankly. I mean, these games exist to facilitate a certain kind of experience and add complications to it, in a way that you might not if you were doing freeform roleplay. So their mechanics subtly guiding you to act like a character in their world is actually a really potent design feature, not a bug.

And that, to me, is the power of good social mechanics. By rewarding you for playing into the assumptions of the game, they make it far easier to embody your character and get into their head.


In Conclusion: Good Social Mechanics Are Good, Actually

Look, here's the thing. No game has to have social mechanics. No game has to have any mechanics! But if a game wants to reward certain kinds of roleplay through its mechanics, to intertwine the act of embodying a character and rolling dice, I think it should have social mechanics. And it should have ones which put roleplay first, and which serve the purpose of making roleplay more interesting, not less. Ones which respect the autonomy of other characters. Ones which communicate what a game is about.

So, yes. The social mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons are abysmal. But to then claim all social mechanics are bad would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

On Capturing Genre in RPGs, or, How to do JJBA RP Like You Always Wanted To

Hey! I haven't blogged here in a minute. In part it was due to 2020 being 2020. However, much moreso, it's been because of the work I've been doing on Dungeon Bitches with Emily Allen and Sarah Carapace. (which, if you're somehow at my blog and haven't seen, we launched our Kickstarter last week!)

So this is an essay I wrote in December for Legendary Vermin's #GameDesignEssayJam on itch. If you want to tip me for it, feel free to pay me for it there! It's some of my thoughts on writing genre in games, and mostly uses my Dungeon Bitches supplement The Crooked Mile and my in-progress game SUPERLUNARY to explore my thoughts through example.

Who doesn’t love genre fiction? A neo-noir thriller is gripping as it saunters through its story, a shonen battle series reaches intense emotional highs at its climaxes, and a creeping horror gives you a sinking feeling when it’s been quiet for a little too long. They’re all unique in the feelings they give us and the tropes that they’re littered with, not to mention how specific stories may choose to tackle those tropes. So, as people who play RPGs, or in other words, people who tell collaborative stories, many of us have likely attempted to set a game within a specific genre.

However, anyone who has attempted this feat has no doubt noticed that it’s difficult to properly capture a genre’s essence. This is doubly difficult if you’re playing a game like Dungeons & Dragons, where ultimately your attempt will just leave you with D&D with an aesthetic paint job. Why is that, though? Furthermore, how can we capture genre in games if that isn’t enough?

Ultimately, what we need for the game at our table to feel like it belongs to a genre is two things: for everyone at the table to buy into it, and for everyone to act within the genre. That second part, the need for everyone to act within the genre, will prove to be much more difficult than it might sound at first. After all, the way a character acts isn’t only defined by the player. Let’s take a thought experiment into a specific example to explore this idea, so that we can explore what might cause us issues.

Why Doesn’t D&D Work for Shonen Battle?

Consider this: why does the hypothetical “D&D but make it shonen” just feel like D&D slapped some Naruto stickers on its rulebook? What is it missing (besides being a good game) that is stopping it from truly feeling like a battle series does? I would argue that it is because of how players interact with the game. Look at the mechanics of D&D - it’s centered around combat, has a frankly bizarre collection of stats which seek to “realistically” map physical and mental qualities, has no mechanics for emotions, has horrendous social mechanics, and has a list of odd, random Skills which rarely matter.

This is important, because a game’s mechanics define the parameters for interacting with it. Definitionally, they tell us how to play the game. They determine what we can do, and how we go about doing things. They shape the way we think about moving through the world of the game. And what D&D’s mechanics tell us is that we need to care about tactical combat and physicality, but it doesn’t pay attention to emotions, or to notions of growth beyond stat growth.

Now, you might first believe that a focus on combat fits for shonen battle series - after all, bombastic bouts are so much a genre staple that battle is in the name. However, this would be to miss both what matters in those fights, and how those fights operate. Firstly, despite many series such as Dragon Ball Z caring about physicality and strength so much that they even create systems by which to measure it, they don’t care about physicality in the way that D&D does. Where a character in D&D needs to know what their strength modifier is to take actions, and know their strength score to see if they meet the qualifications for a feat, a character in DBZ doesn’t care about any of that for a second. Where stats are literal limitations in a game like D&D, they are only theoretical limits in a battle series - determination and grit allows heroes and villains alike to push past their limitations and reach new heights. Hell, it’s so prevalent, it’s a trope of the genre.

The second issue with the focus on tactical combat for an attempt to do shonen battle is that shonen battle also doesn’t care about war tactics. The battle system of D&D is ultimately still tied to its wargaming roots. It’s a tactics of troop formations and strict movements and attack ranges, of victory and absolute defeat. Shonen battle, on the other hand, cares about a different kind of tactics. In a good shonen battle series, there is a level of tactics to what characters do, but it’s never about moving and swinging in order. Rather, it is about understanding the personal limits of each character’s abilities, their strengths and weaknesses, and working out new and creative ways to use their strengths and create advantages without falling into their opponent’s traps. In this way, to do a shonen fight within the battle system of D&D or any game with a similar system would be to miss the entire technical appeal of a shonen fight.

It would also be missing what I believe is the real appeal of a shonen fight - the battle happening between ideals, between principles. Rarely do we reach a fight in a good shonen battle series where we don’t understand what both sides want or their histories with each other. A hero giving everything they’ve got and more to stop a villain from destroying what they care about. Two old friends who’ve strayed apart, and now stand in the way of each other’s goals. A fight between an idealistic antagonist and a protagonist who can’t abide by their methods. The importance of a fight is never merely the spectacle itself - in the best fights, it always rests in the emotions behind it.

In those same series, those great fights also always change the hero, or their rival, or even the villain, because of the meaning behind the fights. They cause growth, for good or ill, and that growth is not just in their strength. Rather, the growth of their abilities is merely a representation of their growth as a person. A game that isn’t concerned with emotions or emotional growth, with ideals beyond a meaningless map or morality, isn’t going to allow us to capture those feelings.

So What Does Any of that Have to do With Getting People to Act Within Genre?

In short, everything - I believe that illustrates something through example: that the mechanics of a game tell us what matters, and for a game to capture genre well, those have to be the things that matter to that genre. In our case of battle shonen and D&D, those things were nearly at odds with each other. That’s not to say you couldn’t spend a lot of hours hacking D&D to do the job right, but at that point it would essentially be a different game.

Really, this issue is going to appear in any game not made for a specific genre, even those which attempt to do any genre, like FATE. I simply chose D&D because, beyond being the largest ttrpg, I hate it with a fiery passion and wanted to take it down.

Making Mechanics For Genre

So, to get people to act in genre, we need mechanics which reinforce what’s important in that genre, because the mechanics tell us how to interact with the game, and we want players to interact with the game within genre. There are so very many creative ways to handle this for any genre, but this is my essay, so I’m going to use my in-progress game, SUPERLUNARY: Fight with Feelings, as an example.  

SUPERLUNARY is a game which attempts to capture the feeling and aesthetics of shonen battle series (which is why that is the genre I chose to go into earlier). So, how do the mechanics of my game reinforce what matters for the genre? Well, since emotions and ideals are what fuels action, and since physicality largely only matters in aesthetic, I decided to make the stats of my game all emotional - they give an idea of a character’s personality, how they tend to deal with situations. Additionally, rather than describing literal physical capabilities, (or in other words how a character does something) through describing a character’s emotions, they instead describe why a character does something. This means that players need to think about why they’re doing something, because it affects the outcome. Thus, the stats of the game reinforce that what matters isn’t just what happens, but also why.

Decisions like this permeate every mechanic of the game, from tying character growth to beating (and being beat by!) villains and rivals, to giving characters the ability to put themselves on the line to help their friends or push themselves past their limits. Each mechanic continues to reinforce the attitude of the game, continues to tell players how to interact with it. Ultimately, this is why I personally think that the best way to capture genre is to make a game which explicitly is built for it. You want the game to, from the ground up, be built to get the player into the right mindset.

This isn’t to say you can’t hack a game with new genre mechanics and call it a day. You certainly can work from the base of another game, but in this case I suggest that you consider what all of the mechanics already present tell the player. Do they teach the player to interact with the game in a way supportive of what you’re going for, or do they hinder your goal? If you only add new mechanics without doing this, you may end up with a game which, at its core, still works against you.

Getting Everyone to Buy In

Getting the table to buy into telling genre fiction is actually rather easy, especially compared to getting the game’s mechanics to work for you. Populate the world with NPCs which play with notions of tropes, either playing into them or deconstructing them. Play with a table who is excited about the idea of the genre you’re going for. Use little flourishes from the genre in the way characters act or things are described. For a shonen-inspired game, talk enthusiastically about your ideals, don’t be afraid to wear your character’s emotions on your sleeves. For a neo-noir, describe the mundane details of a room and of the taste of the coffee in that character’s hands. For a horror game, make everything feel unsettling and keep your players off-balance.

Ultimately, I really think that these tw-

WELCOME TO THE SECRET ESSAY, or, How to Take Lessons for Collaborative Stories from Authored Works

So the point at the core of the first essay is that games should be built with the intention of evoking the desired feelings and behaviors in players. However, it still leaves us with unanswered questions. How do we find out what the feelings we want are? How do we capture them once we’ve identified them?
I’m not going to answer those questions here, because frankly there are no right answers. However, I want to offer a strategy for going about taking inspiration for these answers from things outside of RPGs, particularly from art and media. I want to talk about this largely because it plays a big part in my works, but also because we can learn very interesting things by looking outside of RPGs or even outside of games.

Allow me to briefly work from example again, this time with my in-progress horror mystery module, The Crooked Mile: Horror in the Margins. The inspiration for the game comes from countless sources: the works of Guillermo del Toro, Riot Grrrl and Queercore, Bound, Scooby Doo!, in particular Scooby Doo! and the Witch’s Ghost, my own upbringing in the American Rust Belt, Dungeon Bitches (the game it’s being made for), and most notably David Lynch’s work, but particularly Twin Peaks. It is, to say the least, an eclectic gathering of inspirations.

However, it is through all of them that I synthesized my emotional goals with the module. It’s through Dungeon Bitches and Guillermo del Toro’s work and Riot Grrrl and Queercore and the Rust Belt that I get the source of the horror in the game - the monsters in control of this unjust world. It’s through Bound and Scooby Doo! and Twin Peaks that we find the player’s source of power - their ability to work things out, to gather information and then improvise when things go wrong. And it is from Twin Peaks and Lynch’s general visual style which I found one of the module’s most powerful tools, in narrative and mechanics and even in advice for GM’s - the power of making the mundane unsettling, of making the players uncertain of everything.

Taking many disparate influences is always going to be a powerful tool. Through finding their similarities, or through juxtaposing them against each other, your imagination has plenty of room to synthesize new concepts. Here, I want to zoom in on how I took concepts from art and media to come to narrative and mechanical concepts. In particular, how Lynch’s visual style influenced my notion of how to handle truth and narrative.

David Lynch has a knack for making the ordinary seem so produced, so fake, that it ceases to even feel real. It becomes so ordinary as to be unsettling. In Twin Peaks, not only does he use this, but he also makes a lack of certainty a key part of the story. What’s real and what isn’t is a meaningful question for both the audience and the characters.

I chose to go about making the players feel unsettled in their reality through a few means. The most notable of which, I believe, is through the Narrator. The Narrator is a meta-character played by the GM, who runs the game rather than the actual GM themselves. In my test of the module, I’m playing with people who I’ve done multiple RPs with, and so to further offset them, I use a voice which is not my own while I am running the game as the Narrator. The Narrator communicates to characters, comments on their actions and thoughts. And, without me ever needing to say that they can, the players decided to have their characters communicate back. Even better, each character has their own rationalization for this odd voice in their head.

Now, I believe it’s obvious that these two things are quite different. Shot composition and deliberately unnatural acting choices are quite different from what I’m doing in my game. However, they both accomplish the same goal - they put the viewer, or in our case, the player, into a space where they feel more prepared to be uncertain of what they hear, to come to their own conclusions about reality. This has the added benefit for this mystery game, since the players quickly become accustomed to their characters making their own assertions about the truth.

Let’s take another example, at how I took inspiration from the Riot Grrrl and Queercore scenes for mechanics. Both of these musical scenes originated as offshoots of hardcore punk centered around women and queer folks respectively. In the case of Riot Grrrl particularly, the movement came largely as a response to the way women were treated in the punk scene.

So, in The Crooked Mile, the players’ band has a real piece of shit manager. He’s a dirtbag, he’s a pig, and he has the potential to gain more power over the band whenever they fail at a multitude of rolls. He’s the exact sort of dude they wish they could avoid, but he books their gigs (which don’t even cover the costs of their van, leading to their solving mysteries).

In general, the game positions the players’ characters as being the victims of a culture and a system larger than them, one which is crushing them. The game also sticks true to the attitudes of these 90s acts - it never posits a solution to their issues. Rather, it takes the cruel world they inhabit as a given, and grant them the ability to rebel against it, without granting them the power to change it. It’s bleak, which suits its nature as a horror game.

The Secret Conclusion

Ultimately, pulling thematic inspiration from other mediums comes down to interrogating your own reactions to media. What does something do to you, and how? What can you think of that could evoke the same feeling, but which operates within a game instead of a visual or auditory medium? There’s never going to be wrong answers to these questions, but there are always going to be new and interesting solutions which you can find through this sort of reasoning. 

I’ll also admit that what I’m suggesting here isn’t novel, and I certainly didn’t invent the idea of being inspired by something. However, I think it’s important to remember that we can look not just at what something does, but what it does to us. That is, ultimately, the best piece of advice I can hope to offer in this essay. If you want something to feel a certain way, you have to break down what makes you feel that way. It’s not always easy to be introspective in that capacity, but it’s crucial to making evocative games, to my mind.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

We Need to Talk About Stats

In the broken world by ionomycin
So it should go without saying that a game's mechanics effect how you fundamentally interact with the game itself. If you disagree with that assertion, I'm not here to argue with you today, because you're provably wrong. Just know that I am going to take this true statement for granted, and am building on it to hopefully show the following:

A game's stats effect how you fundamentally interact with and understand the world of a game.

Why Stats?

There is a lot to unpack with stats, in my opinion. There are obvious questions with a game, such as: whether or not to include stats, what stats are, what differs stats from something like skills (if at all), or how stats are used in the game (are they a modifier? The number of dice you roll? The number you must roll under?). However, I don't want to talk about any of that today. Those are all interesting topics to think and talk about, as well as to analyze across various games to see how they answer those questions.

What I want to talk about today is two things in particular, and the interaction between them: What are the stats in a game (and relatedly, what do they mean diagetically), and how are stats determined for characters? I want to talk about these questions first in the abstract, and then look at a few examples of different games to see how they answer this question. Let's see what we can learn!

What Do Stats Mean?

Speaking broadly, stats tell us how characters are differentiated by their abilities. However, as you may be aware, people's capabilities are far more complicated than a few completely distinct independent traits. Therefore, the reality which stats describe is fundamentally oversimplified and unreal - no number of numerically represented attributes can ever capture the complexity of reality. In pointing this out, we acknowledge that stats are fully fabricated.

However, mechanically, they are also the major way through which we are able to see the difference between people's basic abilities, to the point that they influence what characters are mechanically capable of. Thus, although the reality described by stats is fabricated, it is also the most real distinction between people's capabilities in game. Or, put in other words, it is the only distinction that the game cares to acknowledge as important enough to influence play directly.

The question of how you choose to determine a character's stat values also has implications, although they are far less interesting to talk about in abstract, and I'll save the topic for discussion around specific examples. So, let us leave the realm of the abstract and talk about a few games!

art from Faith Schaffer
 Stats of the Spirit

For our first example, I'm going to use my own in-development game, SUPERLUNARY: Fight with Feelings (S:FwF), which I'll talk about in more detail at a future date. For this discussion, all you need to know is that it is set in a dreamlike world and is heavily based around capturing the feeling and energy of both battle shounen series as well as folkloric metaphysics and whimsy. As such, my focus with the stats was never to describe the physical capabilities of characters - it simply wasn't relevant. Instead, I chose to focus on emotional stats, because they worked thematically with what I was working towards.

The stats I decided on for the game were HEART, INSTINCT, and ANTICIPATION. What these each represent is not how you do certain actions, but why, because that was what I wanted to emphasize as important in play. For the mood the game captures, it is incredibly important to ask what the reasoning behind actions is, so I made it the core mechanic.

Speaking diagetically, each also have a few meanings. While they all have literal meanings (intense emotions, the drive to survive, and expectations of what is to come), they also have poetic meanings which tie them to both parts of the universe as well as to moments in time (past, present and future). What this does, in my opinion, is justify the importance of these stats diagetically, as well as provide avenues for characterization through stats. (These meanings also come up mechanically at times, to further show that they too are important.)

Relatedly, I decided to make stats at character creation rather simple - you just choose a template of how they are spread. I landed on this for a few reasons. For one, I decided that randomly generated stats weren't appropriate for the scale of values I was using (2-4). Further, I found that a few discreet templates was better than calling it something like "point-buy" and outlining a system for it; it didn't need that level of complication.

Overall, I tried to keep things simple but evocative. They don't try to map every attribute a person has, nor would they particularly make sense for a game trying to feel tethered to reality. However, for S:FwF, they do exactly what I want them to do. The biggest takeaway from my philosophy with the game is this: since stats represent the most important attributes by which people are defined, they can also tell the player what feelings are most important.

art from the lovely Sarah Carapace

Stats of the Mind

So while S:FwF is intentionally divorced from thinking too hard about reality, that doesn't mean all games with more poetic stats need to be. In fact, not only can grounded games have evocative stats, they should. So, for our next example let's talk about cavegirl's Dungeon Bitches (DB). Much like S:FwF, it is a game which is currently in-development, and which places importance on the emotions of the characters. However, it does so in a very different way, and with a far more grounded game. If you're somehow here but unfamiliar with it, the elevator pitch is "disaster-lesbians trauma-bonding and maybe falling in love while exploring a horrible dungeon, because they've got no better options. expect angst, romance and skellingtons."

So, the four stats in DB are Hard, Soft, Subtle, and Queer. Respectively, they generally represent: your ability to do harm and endure pain both emotional and physical, your awareness of your surroundings as well as your empathy with your fellow Bitches, your ability to escape from problems and to be manipulative, and your ability both to reach powers beyond mortals as well as flirt.

So, what does that tell us? Well for one, it reinforces the queerness of the game - it's literally one of the core attributes to a character. However, it's not something so bizarre and crass as a measurement of just how gay a character is, it's rather more a measure of their confidence to do things outside of societal norms (flirting with other sapphics, talking to ancient beings).

There's something else we can notice about the stats, though - none of them are purely literal or physical. Even Hard is not a measure of how buff a bitch is, but it is a measure of her willingness and ability to hurt others, and a measure of her ability to handle pain. Sure, you can interpret a character with good Hard as being physically strong, but it's not a direct connection. It also represents mental fortitude, since the game makes no mechanical distinction between physical and emotional pain. Someone can be strong without being good at doing violence, and they can be weak while also being willing and able to kill things. There is a certain nuance to what the stats actually mean beyond mere descriptions of physicality.

Something else interesting in how the game handles stats is in their allocation to characters. While I won't be talking about the classes in the game in detail here, it is worth noting two things about them. Firstly, they don't represent jobs in the way 'thief' or 'ranger' do, rather they more represent who a character is poetically and narratively. Second, classes determine your stats. So the Amazons, devotees to violence, have a +1 to Hard and Subtle, but struggle being open with others and have -1 to Soft and Queer. 

Further, every character gets to increase one stat by 1 at creation. Whether you choose to make a +1 into a +2 or a -1 into a +0 says something about your character. An Amazon with +2 Hard is dedicated to fighting, whereas one with +0 Soft still is clinging onto an amount of awareness and empathy that others may lack.

Once again, we find a game which uses a stat system which is both simple and evocative. In both their names and their functions, these stats tell us what is important about a character to the game, as well as what isn't. The mechanics aren't concerned with how big a sword you can wield, but how willing you are to chop something in half with it. They reinforce the game's focus on trauma and emotions, while simultaneously not detracting from the grounded nature of the game.

INJURED by Juliette Cousin (18+)

Six Stats For Life

(Alternative title: The Only Stats You'll Ever Need)

And now it's time for me to talk about a stat system which I have nothing but disdain for. One which I will here argue is not only uninteresting, but outright bad. It is, of course, that of Dungeons and Dragons (DnD). I won't be talking about any specific editions, as they are wholly irrelevant to my arguments here. Being that there are many editions, some of the specifics of my claims may not be true for your favorite. However, these specifics are largely irrelevant to my claims, so I will continue to ignore them because I'd rather not prattle about the minutiae. Also, this post is long enough as-is, and I don't care.

So, let's start with the facts. We have Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Respectively, they represent: how much weight you can carry and how hard you hit with swords, how fast you are and how good you are with ranged weapons, how hard you are to kill and your resistance to disease, your . . . smartness?, your . . . uhhh . . . , and every single social capability plus a few things.

What the fuck?

Let's start with what this list tells us about the game's priorities. Half of these are ways of showing how physically fit a character is, and although I frankly have issue with the way they chose to group and name these stats, they're largely fine. However, half of the stats in a game boiling down to how much your character works out definitely sets an expectation that the game is rather focused on what bodies are capable of. (I don't think it does a good job of capitalizing on this in the slightest, but that's a topic for a different day.) Our other three stats can be kind of put under the banner of the psychological, although many folks have taken to interpreting Charisma as also influencing ~attractiveness~, whatever that means.

So personally, I don't find these stats to evoke much of anything. That's not bad, necessarily, they don't have to. However, as I hope I made at least something of a case for, I think games should strive for that. In theory though, DnD's choice to be half and half of physical/mental traits isn't too bad - after all, the implication is that an adventurer's mind is as important as their body! Of course in play this isn't true at all and the mental stats are unimportant unless you want to be good at magic, but IN THEORY, it says something. Except . . . 

in the end by ionomycin

What the fuck is wrong with its mental stats?

So first and foremost, we have the issue of Intelligence as a single stat. As you may be aware, IQ is a concept which exists in the real world, and is thought of as a way to measure someone's intelligence. There's just one little problem with it; it's pseudoscientific nonsense. There is no one smartness number which determines how much of a genius you are, and these tests don't measure shit except for how good you are at taking them, which correlates pretty well with how white and affluent you are. Of course, it has then also been used as an excuse to do some horrible racist shit

So with that real-world context in mind, one can see how Intelligence is not only nonsense, but potentially connected to some gross shit. Put a pin in that second part, we'll come back to it, and let's talk about Wisdom instead! Now, of course, Intelligence represents your SMARTNESS NUMBER, which means Wisdom represents your . . . uh . . . seriously, what the fuck is Wisdom? It's sometimes understood as something of an 'intelligence of life,' a more practical foil to the academia-flavored Intelligence. That's profoundly unclear and unsatisfying, though. It's important to characters like clerics and druids, so perhaps it's somehow tied to faith? Does it represent morality? Well, no, that's it's own separate and extremely stupid mechanic in DnD. So ultimately, it ends up being ambiguously different from Intelligence, and both of them mean absolutely nothing in real terms.

Then we have Charisma. This is a stat which governs all of the game's horrible social mechanics. From B/X where it's tied to things like reaction rolls and how many retainers you can control, to more modern iterations where it represents your ability to be scary, kind, and manipulative. (Those have their own problems which this post is also not going to get into.) It ends up determining everything from your leadership abilities to how conniving you are, and that is . . . a frankly baffling simplification of how people socialize.

But enough bitching about what the stats are, let's get into how they're determined! Rolling up your stats to randomly determine their values is a classic method, while modern iterations have emphasized things like "point-buy" systems where you build a character's stats using a resource and mechanic particular to creation. It's a bit messy, especially when the way DnD's stat values work is already a nuisance, but it's fine. Random generation can have its problems too, but it obviously has its place. And all of this is fine.

What isn't fine is how DnD handles racial modifiers. Now, these obviously are not something in your game if you're playing a game which uses race-as-class, but most editions of DnD do in fact use this mechanic, including the most recent iteration, so I'm going to talk about it anyway. And I know plenty of people before me have talked about this, but it's relevant to the discussion at hand regardless.

So racial modifiers in DnD are a major way in which character stats are affected during character creation. In previous editions, these included both positive and negative value changes, but as of 5e they are all positive. Essentially, the species of a character effects their stats in some way, which silently is suggesting that all of these stats have some biological origin. Elves are nimble, everyone wants to fuck Tieflings, and Orcs are strong but stupid because they're . . . oh fucking hell we're doing this, are we?

So let us recall once more that in the real world, the pseudoscientific claim that intelligence is a measurable number has been used to legitimize some racist shit. The tests given to measure it largely measured how prepared someone was to take them, and heavily favored people with the affluence to know how to answer them, which in turn meant that, due to an economic divide along lines of race, there was a disparity in results along lines of race. In particular, this concept was rather popular amongst phrenologists, who were very concerned with the "hierarchy of the races", and who rather liked having a way to pretend to do science while claiming that white people were just the smartest. It goes without saying, they were just a bunch of rich racists who wanted to come up with excuses to call institutional racism "just some science".

So with that in mind, when DnD includes a stat called Intelligence which is some nonsense metric of how ~smart~ someone is, and then ALSO includes different species (which it calls races) and ALSO says that some of them just inherently have more or less Intelligence than others . . . yeah, that's going to carry some fucking implications. And it's gross.

Whew. Okay. So to wrap up my thoughts on DnD, its stat system isn't totally irredeemable, but you need to do some shit to it. The irony of the atrocious Intelligence stat is that many modern versions have a Skill system, which is a much better implementation of the idea. There is no One Smartness Number, but certainly you can be different amounts of smart/experienced at different specific topics and skills.

Like I also said above, I think the idea of a game which tells you mind and body are equally important is perfectly fine. However, I don't think DnD successfully implements this atall, mostly because they don't know what the fuck they are doing when it comes to how people think.

art from Faith Schaffer

The Conclusion, Finally

Alright, just shy of 1300 words about Dungeons and Dragons later and I'm done bitching about it for today. So what has this whole post been trying to get at? Let's come back to what I set out to show: a game's stats effect how you fundamentally interact with and understand the world of a game. Now that we've shown this through a few examples, I would like to ask a follow-up question - why does that matter?

The reason that I think this matters is far too many games fall into not thinking critically about what their stats communicate to a player. Stats are, to reiterate, the major defining mechanical traits of a character, the way in which they are differentiated from anyone else. So to uncritically copy over the template of DnD, a game who's stats are laden with issues to begin with, you miss the opportunity to reiterate the themes or core conceits of a game.

Some games do a sort of halfway attempt at having more evocative stats, keeping DnD-esque stats while adding maybe one or two which are more tonally appropriate or specific to their setting. While this is certainly better than nothing, they still feel largely uninspired. It's much more interesting to think about what is important to a game, and drive that home. And to keep in mind that stats are arbitrary, they're not real. You don't need to attempt to describe every attribute to someone, only the ones which you think matter, grouped however you like.

Alright, next week is definitely going to be the Weary Rust-Knight; this damn post took too much time. (The irony is I did this thinking a class would be too much work . . . sigh.) Also, expect a sister-post to my running horror post on Halloween, talking more about some specific pieces of horror media and the unique lessons they have to teach us for tabletop games. And if you've read all the way through this, thank you! I didn't intend for this blog to immediately become full of philosophical nonsense, but I'm rather enjoying writing it.

Monday, September 28, 2020

On Running Horror in Games

Stephen Gammell's art scarred young me and I love it

I've been thinking a lot about running horror in games lately, particularly about what makes horror work, and what tabletop games can do with it that other mediums can't. So, let's talk about that!

get closer by genicecream
But First

Before we start, let's set some expectations right away. Most of my experience with horror is reading too much of it too young as a kid, and getting into J-Horror thru video games and comics. Horror movies in particular have always been too much for me, I think largely because you don't have autonomy in the same way you do with the other mediums mentioned. You can read a book slower, or try to run in a game - but a movie you're just along for the ride (yes I recognize you can pause a film watching it at home, yes I still feel this way).

Also, these thoughts are going to be more about psychological horror than anything else, because I'm writing a horror mystery module that's largely using psychological horror. More physical/cosmic stuff is neat too, and some of these thoughts will likely still be applicable to it, but that's not what I'm thinking about. I'm much more interested in horror centered around human emotions and minds.


Establishing Reality

A big aspect of horror is its abnormality, in my opinion. If a setting is called MURDERWORLD, it's not shocking when someone gets murdered in their house. After all, it's MURDERWORLD, what did you expect? When it happens in Halloween, though, it is, because now the murder is happening in a white picket fence neighborhood and well this isn't supposed to happen here. That is the source of the horror in the film - the way it breaks the trust and safety that the suburbia it depicts is supposed to have. The murder, and Michael Meyers himself, is an aberration.

In the context of a film, we don't need too much time to establish normal, because there are so many ways to do it. The way the shots are framed, the expressions and intonations of the characters, the music and sound design telling you when something is wrong. But in tabletop games, we don't have all of those means of communicating feelings to players in the same way movies do to their viewers.

It is important to remember here one of the other major differences: players have a character who is actually in the story, whose perception and context and emotions are their main way of seeing and reacting to the world, unlike film where we experience it as an outside observer. So, in order to establish the normal of the world, we just need to clearly establish setting, right? Well . . . 

I'd argue that it isn't enough, actually, to clearly lay out the rules of a setting. For one, some stories will want to keep that unclear, and no text summary or elevator pitch will let you fully understand what is and is not normal. But more importantly, we need to remember that because characters are the way players interact with the world, for many it won't be enough to know in their heads what 'normal' is. For horror to work, we need more than just to understand when something is off, we need to feel when something is off. And for that to happen, we need to know what the safety of normality feels like.

There's no right or wrong way to do this, and it's going to depend on what kind of game you're running and how long it will be. If you're doing a one-shot, you need to establish it pretty quick so you can jump into that haunted house. But if you have the time, I think taking at least the first session to just let the players breathe and live in the world is going to have huge benefits to the emotions of the horror. If you give them that time to not just know what normal is but to live in it, then they'll certainly feel when it's absent.

little light by genicecream

Breaking Reality

The way you introduce your elements of horror and break the sense of normality and safety is also greatly going to effect the feeling of your game. I wouldn't dare set rules on how this should be done, but I will generalize the subject and give my opinions anyway.

I really enjoy introducing tension and suspense early on, well before you intend to break the player's sense of reality, but still after giving them enough time to get used to a normal. The way you explain things can have a big effect on this, or even just calling attention to unimportant, mundane things to make them feel unsettling. Talking about the way the waitress' eyes dart around, or the way the ceiling fan slowly shakes, as though it were about to fall onto the floor. Perhaps you call attention to odd noises, like the sound of either a pebble or footsteps behind the player. Or maybe you prefer to mention the motion they see in the corner of their eye. These are all perfectly normal and mundane - but by calling attention to them as an experience the player has, you introduce the subtle unease that they cause.

I think a slow burn to the horror is effective, and just keeping players tense can be enough. If you plan to have them truly confronted by something, though, eventually they'll need to meet it. This of course can be the slow ramping up of minor spooks until eventually they are met with true horror, face-to-face. Think something like Alien - the crew realize they aren't alone, and slowly work out what the hell is going on, all the while hearing the xenomorph stalking around, its presence always felt. Jaws also does something similar, and while the strategy of these films to hold off on showing their monsters isn't the only way to accomplish this (especially if your horror is something less physical than a big creature), they are something that I think can be learned from and adapted.

You can also just throw your horror right at the players, shattering their reality with a sledgehammer. This certainly has the effect of triggering a fight-or-flight response, and as long as the threat of stumbling directly into terror persists, players will be kept tense even when there's nothing around. Hell, even if you just have one big horrifying reveal, if nothing ever happens again, just sitting with the terror that it could happen again can keep a story tense; these characters will never see the world the same way again, and that can be enough.


On Autonomy

It's obvious that the loss of autonomy in various forms can be (or in fact, simply is) horrifying. But granting the player autonomy can be extremely effective in evoking feelings as well.

Consider someone exploring alone in a dark room because they heard a noise. Or who is in a room, only for the lights to suddenly go out and the door be locked. These are the sorts of moments where time stretches on and on, and we are left with nothing but ourselves and the 4 walls around us. How might we make the player feel that horror and loneliness? I propose two major choices which promote those feelings:

Firstly, cut away from them. They are alone, with themselves, in the dark. Time stretches on, seconds become minutes. By cutting away from the player to focus on others, you're giving them the ability to experience that. Their character is still there, stuck in that singular moment, but they themselves are still thinking, sitting there.

Second, give them a leading question when you part from them. Something along the lines of, "This reminds you of something from your childhood, what is it and why?" or "Why does this room feel so familiar?". These accomplish a few things - for one, they force the player to stay in their characters head and think, stuck in that dark room. If you cut from them but don't give them something to think about, they may just listen to the other scenes and not get the intended emotional experience.

What it also does, though, is grant them autonomy in their own horror. You could just tell them that they were lost and alone in a mall once, or that this room has the same layout as the one they grew up in before they lost their childhood home. But they will feel so much more if they come up with answers to what's bothering their character as they're stuck in their own head. It's a moment to be drawn in and establish something about your character - it's engaging! Much moreso than being given the answer.


Anyways, those are some of my thoughts on doing horror in tabletop games. I meant to have this up . . . last Wednesday, but I was having a hard time getting back at writing it. Working on any of my (far too many) projects has been difficult recently, but we'll get there. Next post will likely be diving into one of the classes for the Tangle, because even though that started as just a fun little idea, it's definitely something I'd like to get more into.