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Author Topic: Sharks With Lasers On Their Heads!!  (Read 55562 times)
Marco
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« Reply #30 on: July 08, 2003, 07:17:25 AM »

Quote from: Mike Holmes
I was obviously (I hope) being hyperbolic in the last post. By the whole "Ukranian Peasant" thing, John, I mean to say that you can look at any situation from the cheerfully unrealistic, to the dreadfully real, and it's still valid. There's lot's of room in between these corners of the chartable territory, obviously. My point was that where you play on that chart is completely a matter of opinion, and none is better than the other. So the argument sorta becomes "why not sharks with laser beams"?

But I agree that there's a lot of goofyness in RPGs that would exceed the goofiness level of alternate forms of entertainment. So why does this phenomenon occur?

Well, I see two variables.

First, the media itself. RPGs are slow to provide feedback in general terms. That is, in an hour of play you'll probably see less plot than you would in an hour of TV in general. To go off on a tangent for a moment, the reason that salad is presented first traditionally, followed by the main course, and then by desert is that you start with the least flavorful (and therefore calorifically low) substances while you're still hungry, and work towards the more flavorful as you combat the feeling of fullness. That is, the traditional meal structure was designed in days when obesity was not a problem in order to ensure that people could confortably eat as much as possible of the available perishable goods, so that they'd better be able to survive lean times.

Same goes with RPGs. There are typically long, dull down times in RPGs. Lulls in the action. As such, in order to keep people's attentions, the high points have to be more punchy. As such, designers, I think, throw in the most stimulating ideas they can think of.

The other variable is the players themselves. People who play RPGs are typically escapists like myself. As such, I think that on the whole they tend to be more predisposed to fantasy and sci-fi literature, comics, and the like. This makes sense with the material produced, no? This may be because the first RPG was a fantasy RPG, but I think as likely the format lends itself to escapism, meaning that the two were destined to collide. In any case, it seems to me that the average RPG player is an escapist, and therefore will take to the novel more readily than the mundane.

But this is all moot. People should play what they want to play. I like Chechov (I like everything), and would readily play the Cherry Orchard RPG. I've been quoted as saying that I won't play Nicotine Girls, but that's probably some sort of subconscious fear of latent homosexuality or fear of things feminine than something that can't be played because it lacks photonic armaments (OK, it's because I'm an escapist and want something less mundane, I'll admit it). And it does represent the sort of game we're talking about here. Down-to-Earth role-playing with no "spicy" elements tossed in for kicks. So they do exist, and ought to be played by those who find them more interesting.

So is there a problem? On the far end of specualtion, I suppose that one could say that RPGs as long as they are mainly represented by games that feature aquatic fauna bearing Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation devices, that they will tend to alienate that part of the market segment who think that dragons are for kids. Same problem that comics have had forever. Well, I'm not too concerned. I've never been an advocate that we needed them anyhow. In any case, dragons and superheroes have become more prevalent in mainstream media, and I believe that the rest of everyone is coming over to our side slowly anyhow.

So, from the POV of the guy that likes dragons and superheroes (four color, if you please), it's all good. There are RPGs for everyone, IMO, with more coming soon. I mean how close is Heartquest to closing in on the Romance Novel RPG genre that I've been waiting for?

Mike


Mike,

I love ya for the bit about everyone coming over to our side. RPG's aren't Mainstream? Wait 'til my kid grows up watching Lord of the Rings and reading the complete set of Harry Potter. Dungeons and Dragons galore there. And Massive Multi-player online RPGs? The man on the street might not know what Everquest is--but wait 5 years and ask again.

I do think Checkov qualifies as "as mundane" as Nicotine Girls, tho ... so check out the feminine thing ;) (and I'd run Nicotine Girls set in New Mexico with a sublte back-drop of Carlos Castenada Yaqui Indian mysticism so it might even be *less* mundane that some of the stuff you otherwise pay ... *sigh* Paul probably wouldn't approve ... ;) ).

But while most games I play in do tilt towards the extreme in the end, they begin with fairly mundane characters doing reasonable things--I think the impetus for the extreme does come from a group-dynamic of building a sense of drama.

When a character in a story gets a flat tire the author doesn't have to worry about him quitting the narrative.

-Marco
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Bruce Baugh
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« Reply #31 on: July 08, 2003, 08:54:03 AM »

There's a reason for the laser on its head that's often overlooked among folks analyzing gaming: the level of detail in the game.

In any sort of comparison, there's a threshold of similarity below which you (or your instruments, or your audience, or whoever/whatever counts) cannot distinguish differences: two notes close enough together, two shades of the same color close enough together, two different patterns of tile in a mosaic, and so on. And most of the time, we are more comfortable when the distinctions we're trying to work with aren't crowding that threshold of recognition. We like to feel confident, most of us, most of the time, that we know what's X and what's Y and that we can tell them at a glance.

In gaming, we get distinctions which matter a lot more on paper than in play: the difference between 2d6 and 2d6+1, between 8 dice in a pool and 9, between 35% and 40%. You have to be exercising whatever feature is measured by those numbers quite a bit for a consistent pattern of difference to emerge. On the other hand, some distinctions manifest themselves quite easily: between 1d6 and 4d6, between 3 dice and 10, between 30% and 90%. It's not that the first set of pairs has no difference, it's that it's unwise to count on it consistently mattering without a great many rolls. "Stat inflation" and the like exist partly to overcome all the complications - how often you roll dice, whether the dice and rolling surface are in fact in good shape, and so on - that keep the underlying intent that B be better than A from showing up in play.

The same principle applies to descriptions and to things we describe qualitatively rather than quantitatively. A novel or a screenplay can go through multiple drafts, and a play or TV show can get rehearsals, and a film can get multiple takes. Furthermore, they can all get professionals. We can't. At least most of us can't. We're stuck with whatever talent for description we've got ourselves, and it's hard to make relatively small changes come out clearly.

In a movie, I can show you a regular shark and a really big shark and it's pretty clear. In a game, I may try the same thing, but raw measurements ("it's half again as long") or efforts to be evocative ("it looms over the other shark like a big looming thing") only go so far. On the other hand, "it's got a laser on its head" is clear. This shark got gun. That shark don't. Gotcha. No ambiguity here. "This newspaper reporter is tougher and asking better questions than the other" is ambiguous. "This guy's got mind control" is not. Special powers and weird gadgets at all allow easy recognition. They increase participants' confidence that they're sharing an understanding of the distinctions to be drawn, and that usually leads to greater enjoyment.

This is the big reason, I think, that "mundane" subjects for roleplaying aren't more popular. An excellent artist can paint with five shades of blue and make something rich and distinct. I will get a muddy wash with smears. Likewise, a highly focused group who share the necessary assumptions can draw out the distinctions that characterize everyday life, but most just get stuff and then other stuff. One of the challenges, therefore, in trying to make the relatively routine and realistic interesting is to make the distinctions in it clear enough for folks to grasp even when they're not the world's greatest roleplayers and simulators at that moment.
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #32 on: July 08, 2003, 09:06:52 AM »

Quote from: Christopher Kubasik
Jack?  Which one are we talking about?

I think John Kim phrased my position much better than I did even with my original post. It's not that there's sharks, it's that they have frickin' lasers on their heads.
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Christopher Kubasik
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« Reply #33 on: July 08, 2003, 09:11:23 AM »

Got it.  Thanks.
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #34 on: July 08, 2003, 09:28:06 AM »

Bruce makes an interesting point. In an odd tangent, it makes me think of Magnum PI. Part of that show's gimmic is that he was psychic. Well, sort of. He was often talking about his "little voice" which may have been a psychic ability, may have been his detective instincts. It may or may not have been paranormal. In an RPG, that little mystery would not have been since it would be right there on the character sheet.
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Marco
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« Reply #35 on: July 08, 2003, 09:54:15 AM »

Well ... maybe (I see your point, but there is the counter example):

ME: "Make a detective character that hears little voices."

JACK: "Is that a trait?"

ME: "Uh ... no."

JACK: "Is it ... good or bad?"

ME: "Yes."

JACK: "Do I have to do what it tells me?"

ME: "It's been right before."

Mystery preserved.

-Marco
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #36 on: July 08, 2003, 12:31:25 PM »

Quote
(and I'd run Nicotine Girls set in New Mexico with a sublte back-drop of Carlos Castenada Yaqui Indian mysticism so it might even be *less* mundane that some of the stuff you otherwise pay ... *sigh* Paul probably wouldn't approve ... ;) ).
And then again, knowing Paul, maybe he would... ;-)

I totally agree with your point about the tire. Characters in a novel do what the author wants no matter how mundane. Players often want more for whatever reason. You have to cater to that in some way.


Quote
("it looms over the other shark like a big looming thing")
"Death and Plague stalk the land like two giant stalking things." -Blackadder the Third.

Exactly the point I was trying to make about food flavor, Bruce. Vision works the same way - see GURPS for how penalties only increase with a doubling of range. :-)

RPGs are like novels in that you can't see the action. But you're right that unlike novels, where the author has time to make simple things seem dramatic ("As he stood despondently looking at the flat considering that he was missing the company of the sultry masseuse Lena who he's made a date with last night, the heat of the malevolent late-afternoon Mojave Desert sun poured relentlessly down on Raul like some carcaradon mounted beam weapon") the GM and players have to play relatively quickly. This is why I've said in the past that cliches are the RPG players best friend. Yes it's a degenerate art when you play that way, but it's easy and fun, IMO.

Mike
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Bruce Baugh
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« Reply #37 on: July 08, 2003, 12:56:03 PM »

Hey, there are reasons second-rate fiction/movies/etc. often provides the best gaming inspiration. (Really first-rate work is, among other things, thoroughly integrated. It all hangs together. You get that with editing and revision. It doens't happen extemporaneously. Loose dangly bits provide paths of approach. *pause* "The game with nae trews on!" Nah.)
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John Kim
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« Reply #38 on: July 08, 2003, 03:55:13 PM »

Quote from: Christopher Kubasik
 We seem to be twirling around kitchen-sink-genre mixes in RPGs (elves! and spaceships! and dinnerware emporiums!).  But Jack in the quoted post seems more concerned with the extremes narratives take in RPGs.  (Instead of a flat tire, we get a body in trunk.)

Now, these two matters might be related. But they're clearly two different things.  

Actually, it depends how you categorize them.  I don't think that laser-headed sharks is solely genre-mixing.  That is, I don't see RPGs which mix comedy and mystery, for example (like Without a Clue).  As an alternate example, Vampire: The Masquerade largely stays within a single genre, but it still has the kitchen-sink phenomenon (IMO).  

Quote from: Mike Holmes
  I was obviously (I hope) being hyperbolic in the last post. By the whole "Ukranian Peasant" thing, John, I mean to say that you can look at any situation from the cheerfully unrealistic, to the dreadfully real, and it's still valid.  

Well, my issue is that your hyperbole implies a false assumption.  It's like saying "There is a range of styles from powerful drama to drooling over big-breasted women in chainmail bikinis, and it's all valid".  That is liable to be objectionable even though I say that it is valid, because of how it categorizes the range.  Rather than a Ukrainian peasant, you might have said Sherlock Holmes, or the Three Musketeers, or Jeeves & Wooster, or Magnum P.I., or tons of others.  My point is that all of those examples are genres that have been largely neglected by RPGs.  

Quote from: Mike Holmes
  So, from the POV of the guy that likes dragons and superheroes (four color, if you please), it's all good. There are RPGs for everyone, IMO, with more coming soon. I mean how close is Heartquest to closing in on the Romance Novel RPG genre that I've been waiting for?  

Well, it's closer than most previous RPGs.  However, I don't think that's saying much.  In short, no, I don't think that there is a very wide variety in current RPGs.  Again, there is nothing wrong with dragons and superheroes -- just as there is nothing wrong with Simulationist and Gamist RPG designs.  But while we're here I personally would like more variety.

Quote from: Mike Holmes
  ...(RPGs) will tend to alienate that part of the market segment who think that dragons are for kids. Same problem that comics have had forever. Well, I'm not too concerned. I've never been an advocate that we needed them anyhow.  

Well, I guess I would advocate a similar shift in indy role-playing that happened in indy comics.  My favorite comics like "Strangers in Paradise" only happened because there was a successful effort to reach new audiences with comics -- and from my limited knowledge, this was largely because of indy producers.  Again, nothing wrong with dragons -- but I already have tons of choices for RPGs with dragons.  As a consumer, I would like to see more variety.
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #39 on: July 08, 2003, 10:45:46 PM »

A couple interesting angles have shaken out of this discussion.

First off, there is nothing wrong with sharks, or dragons for that matter, with lasers on their frickin heads. Trouble is that in RPGs it's rather difficult to find sharks without the lasers. There appears to be a group here who prefers sharks with the lasers (HORRORS!!) and that's fine, but that kind of misses the point. It isn't about personal preferences. Hell, I can go for a shark-mounted laser every once in a while. It's about the prolifferation of them that bothers me a bit.
Quote from: Mike Holmes
I totally agree with your point about the tire. Characters in a novel do what the author wants no matter how mundane. Players often want more for whatever reason. You have to cater to that in some way

I find this statement to be stretched at best because it seems to assume that everybody wants something more than the mundane, or that they would even call such things mundane.

A similar sentiment is here:
Quote
the GM and players have to play relatively quickly. This is why I've said in the past that cliches are the RPG players best friend. Yes it's a degenerate art when you play that way, but it's easy and fun, IMO.

Perhaps and it may have been so in the past and present in many RPGs. I'm just saying it don't have to be.
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Bruce Baugh
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« Reply #40 on: July 08, 2003, 11:04:41 PM »

I've got a lot of thoughts and notes toward "mundane" games - by which I mean games about interesting people well within the range of human potential. I'd feel really pleased if I could pull of a Law & Order/CSI game, for instance. But it really is hard to make this kind of thing work, for several reasons.

First, like I said above, degree of distinction. It is not trivial to represent the difference between an okay lawyer and a great one and have it be reliable and clear in both setting and mechanics.

Second, expertise. Really entertaining drama often hinges on points of specialized knowledge, which many gamers lack. I, at least, don't game with people who can produce suitable legal citations or chemical analyses on short notice, and trying to fake it feels like treknobabble. One of the reasons combat-oriented games do well is that the range of basic maneuvers is usually pretty finite - if it's over a dozen or so, it's an unusual game. So you've got this set of stuff you can grasp and apply in various combinations. A legal drama is either going to have to come up wtih some way of getting beyond bare-bones "you make the roll, so you produce the right citation" (which is not very satisfying, in the absence of detail or meaning), or move on to...

Third, personality. One of the things that makes for compelling drama is the uncertainty of social engagement - can I persuade you of this lie, will you compel me to tell you the truth, and so on. Many gamers don't wish to submit their judgment of the character's reactions to mechanics in this regard. Obviously they're right to do so if the alternative would be un-fun for them. But it also closes off the option to get at much of what makes human-scale drama interesting, when one of the characters gets a built-in immunity from persuasion, deception, manipulation, coercion, and the like. Contests of will are engaging when there's the risk of failure, and many gamers don't want to run that risk when it comes to their characters' thoughts and emotions.

Solutions to these and other issues nealry always, in my experience, end up being specific to the group, and end up with a lot of handwaving to take player agreement on the desirability of the goal to smooth over potential trouble spots. I'm in favor of that, a lot. But it doesn't scale up very well. A game that I want any significant number of people to play without having me around to answer questions will have to have more definition and exposition, and the challenges are not trivial.
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Bruce Baugh
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« Reply #41 on: July 08, 2003, 11:07:25 PM »

I also speculate that there simply is no significant constituency for games where neither the characters nor their antagonists have lasers on their heads. I'm wildly unsure about this, but it may be that the impulse to game in anything like the way we do it correlates fairly strongly with the desire for escapism. To want to immerse yourself in the co-creation of the events in the lives of more ordinary people without the benefits of craft that come from revision and editing may simply be too rare to constitute a commercial audience. That'd leave the field open to games where the commercial motive does not loom large in its creation.

Edit: That is, it may be that in general, if you want "mundane" characters and circumstances (including the really cool ones, this isn't about boring tedious-type naturalism), you want it with either more polish - someone else's craft that you don't have to futz with - or more control - you writing your own fanfic or whatever.
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #42 on: July 09, 2003, 12:09:52 AM »

Interesting point, Bruce. One comment before aI have to go to bed. Funeral tomorrow and all.

I've been thinking about escapinsm a bit and I have come to the, at this time, rather shaky conclusion that one who engages in escapism ironically is wallowing in their own doubts and stresses rather than truely getting away from them. Maybe the laser on the shark's head is an all-too-chilling alegory for their overprotective mother. I don't know.

I feel like I'm repeating myself but I agree that typically RPGs have catered to the escapist crowd, but they don't have to.

Another thought about the degree of distinction. I'm actually starting to wonder about that. I mean, it is possible for in actual play for two warrior types, one with a combat stat of 5 and another with a stat of 10 and the 5 has been twice as effective, consistently. It good be a better stategic play or it could be just lucky dice rolling, ridiculously lucky, but possible.

What I mean here is that regardless of the numbers on the sheet, it's the final results that matter. So I'm thinking that for, say, a lawyer game, you'd really wouldn't bother with stats of that nature. I mean how do you judge if someone is a better lawyer or not? If they win cases. That's how most people judge it, anyway.

Thewre's a seed of an idea there, I'm sure of it
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Bruce Baugh
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« Reply #43 on: July 09, 2003, 12:36:57 AM »

Quote from: Jack Spencer Jr
I've been thinking about escapinsm a bit and I have come to the, at this time, rather shaky conclusion that one who engages in escapism ironically is wallowing in their own doubts and stresses rather than truely getting away from them.


I don't. I think that taking time to have a portion of one's attention focused purely and solely on what one finds enjoyable is in fact profoundly healthy and desirable. A life lived honorably has a lot of duties and responsibilities in it. These take a toll. Without time to set that aside and renew one's self of self as a creative person having a good time, it's terribly easy to burn out. The principle is the same one that C.S. Lewis addresses in his essay "Learning In Wartime": there is always something serious demanding our attention, but if we sacrifice all of life to the pressing duties, we become something less than fully human, and in the end collapse. A healthy society depends in part on the people doing not obviously essential things, and the same is true of individuals.

Part of this is my experience as someone who has very severe and very unobvious handicaps. If you meet me on a public occasion, you see an overweight guy with some geekish tendencies and a basically upbeat nature. It's easy to think that I don't have much to escape from - after all, I get paid to make up stuff for gaming, and like that. You don't see me wrestling with seizure-like disorders, or chronic depression, or chronic pain, or the degenerative loss of function in joints and limbs, or the countless restrictions I face because of a thrashed immune system. My life is way short on fun, even though what the world sees of me has a lot of fun in it.

Now, my circumstances are extreme and rare, fortunately. But then I look at my regular players. Here are people who've lost beloved relatives, who have been unemployed for many months despite excellent skills because of the sucky economy, who've undergone horrible betrayals by loved ones and confidants, who try to deal lovingly and fairly with self-destructive relatives...a lot. Being a good parent, brother or sister, and child, being a good boss and employee, a good friend and neighbor, all this takes effort. Sometimes a lot of it. Their time to go be an elf or a centurion or a member of the US Customs Service's Art Recovery Team with psychic powers or a vampire or whatever is important to them. They claim the time and protect it against incursions, and it is our shared time to enjoy each other's company and the activeity for a few hours before getting back to our lives.

I used to have a lot more condescension than I do now about people having what I'd consider relatively mindless fun. As I learn more about they do and what rewards it has for them, I find that on the existential, emotional level, it's a lot like what my often-highbrow games provide for me and my friends. It just manifests differently because of their different personal circumstances.

No doubt there are people out there who really have such untroubled lives that they don't need any breaks. But I would be deeply loathe to say that of anyone I didn't know quite well. And I think that time spent not engaging in the problems is as important as, say, proper sleep and good nutrition in preparing the body and soul for the work of engagement.
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M. J. Young
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« Reply #44 on: July 09, 2003, 02:37:04 AM »

Hey, Bruce, if you don't have enough problems already, in one of my early Game Ideas Unlimited articles I suggested that there ought to be a DSM-III classification for people who quote C. S. Lewis. It's good to see others in that category, at least.

You've raised a lot of good points on this; but I'm not sure about the notion that there is no market for mundane play. What is The Sims, if not a MMORPG in which ordinary people play ordinary people? Perhaps people use it to be and do things they can't in their own lives, but they don't become superheroes or anything.

I don't know anyone who plays, but I remember that it was incredibly successful at some point (I don't know the current status, but with all the problems companies have had making money online I doubt that even total failure would indicate a lack of market for the concept).

--M. J. Young
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