Monday, April 5, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different: Calvinball, Role-Playing Games and the Nature of Fun

Okay, I have pastors and mothers and other such stand-up folk who read this blog, so I might regret the next sentence, but it’s essential to understanding what I’m writing about today: I have reason to believe I am currently the world’s most popular Drunken Dungeons & Dragons author. For the uninitiated, this is exactly like normal D&D, only with drinking games associated with arbitrary rules of the game, like rolling the maximum number on a dice, or killing a bad guy, or something equally D&D-ish. Last year, I wrote a DD&D module for Gencon (one of the largest RPG/general geek conference in the US) for Chatty DM, a friend from Canada.

It went really well – he blogged about it a bit, and the players for the game he ran all are highly respected (at least by me and the people that I know) RPG bloggers – Yax of Dungeon Mastering, e of GeeksDreamGirl, DaveTheGame of Critical Hits and more. I had recommendations afterwards to publish the module, that I doubt I will take up: while I did put in a lot of work to make it look professional, I don’t know if I want my first excursion into D&D writing to be a drinking game!

So, gushing aside, now I want to explain what that has to do with this post:


A few years back, I tried to explain RPGs to my sister. My explanations of “co-operative storytelling” were met with the following response:

“You mean like the games you used to play as a kid, like Calvinball – you make up the rules and goals as you go along, and so long as everyone is having fun and not feeling put out, you’re doing it right?”

The idea has stuck with me, and influenced my RPG philosophy and writing ever since.

Calvinball, for the uninitiated, is the game played by Calvin of Calvin & Hobbes, the amazing cartoon by Bill Watterson. The basic gist, as explained above, is that Calvin picks up a ball, and just starts doing stuff.

  • Sometimes someone will cry foul, and come up with an explanation (“You passed forward while in the off-side blue zone, with one shoe-lace untied”).
  • Sometimes, the goal-posts are shifted (my favorite Calvinball cartoon involves a near-rugby like game, but in which Calvin turns out to secretly be playing for the other team – then Hobbes switches the goals, so he’ll do the opposite of his intention, but then Calvin declares himself a double agent, and gets his desire after all!).
  • Sometimes it’s silly – the only universal rule of Calvinball, in all forms, is that it must be played wearing a mask – and sometimes it’s serious: sprinting at full pace to a goal while carrying a ball seems an awful lot like rugby and/or American football (or, as we prefer it, “rugby when you can’t run for more than 30 seconds at a time”), and as we all know, both sports are serious business.
  • The rules are made up by consensus, and – and this is important, take note DMs, especially of the 4e school – never, ever, ever saying “no”. If someone declares you committing a foul, you may argue whether you fall in the bounds of the cause of the foul, but you never dispute the authenticity of the rule that states you have committed a foul.
  • Fun is had by all. If you are not having fun, you add your own contribution to the game, and make it fun. If this makes it unfun for others, they then continue to add rules, and so on.

And I think that this is the essence of all great games – you can add, subtract, recommend, change, but the silliness, equal value of all participants, and the improvisation and positive reinforcement of creativity make the game worth playing.

You wonder why every house has it’s own rules for banking in Monopoly, or why no-one has the de-facto rules for how long after a ball has been tossed in on a foosball table that one can legally score? It’s because to be fun, every participant needs to own the game, and the rules, and to feel like the game is secondary to the participants’ contribution. Feeling like you’re working your ass off at a game, but the dude who has invested nothing repeatedly wins, ultimately results in you leaving a game.

Role-Playing Games as Related to Calvinball

This bleeds over to RPGs more than almost any other game, for one simple reason: the domain is infinite.

Risk has a finite set of countries, and well-structured rules for combat. Cricket has well-defined rules. Rock-Paper-Scissors is an incredibly simple game, with a very simple and clear set of outcomes, and this has caused a new “fun” generation of new versions: RPS25, Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock, and more.

RPGs have none of this. The DM could make you aliens from Mars, or adventurers in Middle-Earth, or come up with an entire universe of his own. The rules for RPGs are so insanely complex that you just need to type in “character optimisation” in Google and proceed to cringe as people twist and contort the hundreds of source books the comprise the dozens of popular RPGs that people use to exploit the rules to their full potential.

Because of the incredible scale of flexibility of RPGs, the concept of Calvinball applies more than any other sort of game. I once blogged elsewhere about “seat-of-your-pants DMing”, and this sort of relates to that.

Modern games, as we see with almost any console game these days, has mini-games. So even though this is a hack-and-slash kill-all-the-bad-guys-in-a-room-then-proceed sort of game, there’ll be puzzle elements that make you stop the slaughter and ponder. There’ll be a Quicktime Event (*hiss*), or some other genre-shifting element, to mix the game up a little. Typically these mini-games aren’t advertised: no-one buys the Sims 3 for a game in which you run around a virtual town full of interesting and diverse personalities to collect a range of minerals that can be found lying around – but the little tweak to a single-genre game keeps the game interesting.

RPGs can learn from this. The traditional answer to this is to have a genre cross-over: the Dungeon Master Guides and other rulebooks traditionally have a “high combat”, “high roleplay” and “decent mix” style that they discuss, and recommend you find your groups playstyle.

I think that this is simplistic, though certainly groundbreaking start to bringing the potential out of games.

What I think we need in RPGs instead is the concept of a mini-game. D&D 4e, as much as people slate it, has probably come the closest to this with skill challenges – to take what resources you have on hand (typically the numbers on your character sheet under “skills”) and apply them in a dizzying array of options that can then be narratively explained, effectively mixing a hard set of rules (skill challenges have been extensively documented in DMGs), with incredible flexibility from the players of the game (you can choose what skills you want to use, but you need to give a decent reason for why you’re doing it).

This is certainly the first step in the right direction. What I eagerly anticipate is a new dimension in this: when your character sheet is no longer the source of your resources, but it bursts out into the real world. We’re already seeing this in games that reward “stunts” (Exalted, Feng Shui and others in that genre spring to mind) – what the *player* describes rewards the gameplay. It is unbalanced, sadly, because some people don’t have the capacity to relay their creativity as well, but I think it’s another step in the right direction.

I’ve played in groups that actively encourage Live-Action Role-Play during combat scenes, for cool effect. You get bonuses if you stand up, and demonstrate how your character swings his sword, leaps off the table to hang on the chandalier, or slide down the bannister.

Of course, this requires a Dungeon Master (or Game Master, or whatever) who is calm, self-confident, and in control, as well as players that trust their DM to fairly judge if what they want to achieve is reasonable. Mean DMs punish, and pushover DMs let players just make up whatever they want and Mary-Sue all over their world, which some people think is fine, but which I just feel is insulting.

But in this place, where there is trust and safety and comfort, when a player asks to do something that could *never* be represented by a linear scale and thus is innumerable, when DMs go “give me… a d6 roll, and on a 3+ it works” because they need the opportunity for failure but there can be no rule, in *that* place Calvinball the RPG lives, and that, I’ve found, is the “sweet spot” of RPGs.

Of course the “sweet spot” is a rough thing to describe, but everyone has had one, but they’re impossible to reproduce, so almost everyone has a theory on what will cause it – to some extent, the result of cargo-culting, but it’s in the quest to find that gleeful place where the entire group is buzzing and the creativity flows and people really feel connected to the story, so I understand why people are so desperate to try and get back to that spot.

My take on the thing – and I’m prepared to accept that this may be wrong, or only one component of a more complex system – is to make the rules more mutable, to relax the need to be right in exchange for trust and enjoyment.

Drunken D&D Related to All of the Above

In about a week, I will be attending UPCon, the University of Pretoria Con, one of the RPG/Wargaming/Anime/General Geek cons in South Africa.

I’ve agreed to run a DD&D module for some friends and friends-of-friends.

DD&D, but it’s very nature, is utterly chaotic. People are happy and tipsy, so they have no problem suggesting that their gnome rogue – despite being a pretty young male – will try to seduce the manly gate guard so the rest of the party can sneak into the castle. And this has the potential to end in both utter hilarity, and complete disaster for the DM.

And, because I tend to get very worked up, neurotic and OCD about things, I’m currently fretting muchly about it. And if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s to let it go, and just be confident and happy and to have exactly one broad escape plan (in this case: scrap the D&D, and just drink!). And I’m happy with that.

But the one thing I think that will turn this from a Wookeh-Stressfest into a chilled evening of mild debauchery with new friends is a commitment to Calvinball. Run with the punches. Let players dig in and get involved, and let them come up with rules. If they are really proud of their character’s gizmo, let the damn gizmo spotlight-hog until someone else in the party gets a new whizzbang. Let the energy flow freely, and most importantly, be a master of the delicate balancing act that is player flow.

While drunk (Pastors: I really don’t mean that. Everyone else: Ignore that, I totally meant that.).

Ohhhh, this promises to be *fun*, or at least will provide stories for my friends to laugh at :)


For those interested in my D&D writing, here’s the pitch for the game:

Fluff Introduction:

Your party are delivery-people for "Anything But Cram: Better than Beornings, Dunedain-Approved Victual Delivery Service. We go where even rangers fear to tread." You are specialists in bringing important people their food, no matter where they are, no matter what they need. Battered leg of Shelob? Fresh off the spider! Hobbit tar-tar? Just got done with an order for some orcs in Rohan! Taters? We can do them boiled, mashed, or stuck in a stew. There have been orders piling up from all our chains, throughout Middle Earth. Don't forget our promise:

"Delivery in 90 minutes or our-souls-chained-to-this-plane-until-the-King-of-Gondor-releases-us!"

Thankfully, we have fast horses, implausibly quick means of moving between franchises, and (most importantly of all) skilled and equipped delivery-people, who are unafraid to deliver to even the darkest mines, the heaviest sieges, or the hottest mountains!

Mechanical Introduction:

Your character must be level 6, of any published class and of one of the following races: Dwarf, Eladrin, Elf, Half-Elf, Halfling (Hobbit), Human, Shifter (Beorning). Additional races may be allowed, but must be explicitly approved by the DM (email me).

You start with level-appropriate equipment (i.e. a level 7, level 6, and level 5 magical items, as well as the price of a level 5 magical item in gold - 1000gp). Ability scores will follow the "Customizing Scores"

system found on page 17 of the PHB (8 & 10 x 5, 22 point buy). Backgrounds are unnecessary but appreciated. Text for a character can be one to two sentences, describing something immediately apparent about the character - a smell, their appearance, a verbal tic, etc.

Drinking Mechanics:

Here's a taste to whet your appetites:

Rolling a natural 1 on a "to-hit" roll: player takes a sip

Rolling a natural 20 on a "to-hit" roll: DM takes a sip

Correcting anyone on Tolkien lore: person correcting takes a sip

PC kills a monster: DM takes a sip

PC spends a healing surge: player takes a sip

Telling a bad pun: teller of pun takes three sips

Sunday, April 4, 2010

South Africa and Racial Tension circa 4 April 2010

Yesterday, Eugene Terreblanche was murdered. For those not in the know: he was a reasonably minor, if extreme, political figure, head of the AWB – a political party in South Africa centred on the interests of the Afrikaner populace of our country.

In recent months, a young firebrand political up-and-comer, Julius Malema (who has been billed as a future president by the present incumbent), has been stirring up racial tensions. Most notably, he recently was taken to court for, and was banned from singing an anti-Apartheid struggle song including the line (translated into English): “Shoot the boer, he is a racist”. The ANC later clarified this statement by pointing out that “the boer” in this refers to the apartheid system, but the damage had been done.

Of course, with the murder of Mr. Terreblanche, the iconic boer (Afrikaans farmer), this song has gone from mildly offensive racial slur to something much, much more sinister and morbid.

What We Should Do Instead

Go up to someone of another race, shake them warmly by the hand, smile and offer a greeting. And then go on and have a day marked by not saying anything bad about people of other races.

This evening, at a post-church coffee bar excursion, I conceived of, and proposed the idea of a racial unity march.

South Africa has a long history of mass-activism and marches to fight racial injustice. I feel that a march resonates with the struggle, and says, quite well, “we’re on a razor’s edge, and unless all of us – not just some of us – do something, we’ll end up in a worse position than we were in with Apartheid”.

The truth is that people in this country are still bitter about matters of race. There are people on both sides of the fence that wished that 1994 hadn’t been peaceful – that the whites and blacks of this country (and presumably the indians, coloureds and asians) had escalated tensions to the point of violence.

There’s another truth though: we know that other people are still bitter. We’re aware that it’s justified, or that there’s at least an explanation for it – old grudges, old mind-sets, stuff that you can’t get rid of easily. And because we know this, we can come together, acknowledge that while it may make us uncomfortable, the person standing next to us, whatever their skin colour, ethnicity or culture, is a person, deserving safety, dignity and equal rights.

So I think a march is what we need. To see people from all ethnicities and cultures mixing and standing (well,marching actually) together, saying that we will not give in to racial division, that we may not like, appreciate or even understand each other’s cultures, but we’re learning, we’re getting better, and the spectre of the recent past is large and looming, and we’re devoted to making sure it never happens again. That the mistakes of the past stay there, and that we can move forward.

My Exhortation to South Africa

You know, there’s a lot of pressure to perform as a country. We’re apparently the world’s (or at least Africa’s) best example of racial integration – and we’re not doing brilliantly. We’ve inherited an amazing legacy from Nelson Mandela. The standard has been set, but no-one is expecting us to live up to it: the man is practically a living saint.

But it feels like we’ve largely given up on reconciliation in favour of patriotism to whichever group we most strongly align to. We hold political figureheads up as either terrible examples of human beings (which isn’t fair: no-one is perfect, and politicians are often preyed upon by the media for no good reason – though on occasion this might be relevant and important, but at present the media is providing a soap opera of political intrigue and scandal that just feels tacky), or saints whose every misstep must be justified and defended.

South Africa: we’ve come so far in some ways, but we still have a long way to go in others. Let’s get ready for another push – we’ve met another challenge, it’s time to make a name for the kind of nation we want to be.

I believe in the people of this country. I believe that, with a vision of the kind of unity we want to have, we can do it. I don’t believe it will be cheap, and I don’t believe it will be quick. I don’t think that learning how to say “Hello” in another of our 11 national languages is enough, and I don’t think that merely accepting another person’s difference without understanding it is acceptable.

But I do believe the unity is possible. I believe that the biggest challenge that stands between us and that unity is a belief that we can achieve it. That if we believe, with all our hearts, that we can be the melting pot that every other multi-racial claims to be, then we can truly set the world standard for multi-racial, multi-cultural unity, and this country will have finally become the vision that the heroes of the struggle fought and bled for.

Cheap tricks will not do this. Billboards and TV ads will not do it. BEE, Affirmative Action, no one act of parliament or business will magically make this nation forget past or present injustices, or prevent future ones.

What we need is continual, uncomfortable dedication to meeting one another in dialogue, knowing that there will be differences in values and purpose, but doing so anyway, in order to continuously and slowly dissolve the tensions and keep them away, while maturing and advancing as a country.

Last Words

I have no witty ending, no quotable parting shot, only a desperate desire to no longer feel an alien standing next to a man of another race, to understand and value them as I do a member of my own. And that desire is not only mine: hundreds of thousands, millions across this country feel the same, and are prepared to pay some price: I beg you, for the sake of brotherhood, for the sake of peace, pay the price you can. And when you have reached the limits of the price you are prepared to pay, look again to the vision of a united South Africa, and draw from there the excitement and desire that will help you to continue on, until we’ve reached a point where race and culture are accepted and respected equally and universally in our country.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The iPad, My Weighing In

Okay, so much has been written about the iPad. Sufficiently so that I won’t link to any reviews or the like here: there are just too many. This evening, however, I read Corey Doctorow’s take on the iPad (here) – despite the fact that it was really about Apple and the direction their tech is headed – and felt the need to say something to the world about it.

Firstly, I agree with Corey: the Apple ecosystem is fundamentally closed, and is completely sold out to yesterday’s economic systems for software, shined up and made respectable for tomorrow’s technology. I don’t believe that iPhones, iPads are the technology of tomorrow, nor are they on the road that will inevitably lead to tomorrow.

But they are the tech of today. They can and will (for the next little while at least) hold the marketplace rapt. People will drool over the latest iThing because it is pretty and novel and fulfills a niche in their lives they didn’t know they had.

But the problem with them is the same problem that news sources and software publishers and the MPAA and the RIAA are discovering: that the systems of humanity don’t work for the small people who are technically right, but for the masses who have a feeling – somewhere deep inside – that “technically” right isn’t good enough, and that they are fundamentally but inexplicably wrong.

This could turn into a pro-piracy rant, but I’ll save that for another day. The point is that, today, there is an iPad – a small computer with a touch-screen which can’t be opened, software altered, or altered in any other way - a pay-wall around news content, DRM on software, DRM on music and movies, and so on. And they are, legitimately, powerful forces, and will make massive amounts of money. But tomorrow, when the same things can be acquired free (as in beer and speech), these things will lose impetus, and gradually fade away. Who remembers having to pay for access to meta-search engines, that searched altavista, yahoo, excite, and all those others?

A soap-box, I have not. I’m not going to indulge in rhetoric about how we shape tomorrow, because you and I don’t. Tens and hundreds of millions do, and this blog doesn’t reach them. But even if I did, a voice of opinion and commentary isn’t going to sway folk. Wait for the wallet to vote. Wait for comfort, and functionality, and everything else that actually makes a difference to kick in. DRM was doomed from the start, but that didn’t stop it getting big. Industry pressure and stupid management just amplified the curve of apathy to popularity to deprecation by a few orders of magnitude.

I have no nice way of ending this, so I’ll just apologize for meandering with anti-DRM and closed-culture ranting, and bring this back to a close about the iPad:

It looks stunning. I want one, in the same way as I want a sports car, or a super-model for a wife, or chocolate cake for every meal. I also recognise that it doesn’t satisfy the needs I have, and it will ultimately be a toy that I’ll use for a bit and forget. I don’t much care for sports cars (and would probably put the wrong petrol in and screw up the engine or something), super-models would bore me to heck and stress me out (because MTV tells me their lifestyles wouldn’t go well with mine), and chocolate cake too often would make me a fat lump.

The iPad would be fun and cool and a status symbol, and after a few days would be put on a shelf, then found again a week later, toyed with, then put on the shelf again for months.

Some people run their lives via their cell-phones. I do not. I live mine in a combination of my head, and on a PC. The iPad isn’t enough for me, but holy cow is it pretty :)

Well, If You Insist…

This evening, I went out and had a delicious dinner with friends from church, at a Greek restaurant at Cresta Mall. Well, the lamb shank gravy was a touch more bitter than I would have liked, but otherwise it was great (snarky comment had to be made).

After the meal, we did something that really makes me feel alive, something I do rarely and always brings me immense comfort: the group of us bought ice-cream cones (yay, being a kid again!), and walked through the mall. We made silly remarks about the fashions of the moment (the Russian Gypsy look is in, apparently), shot the breeze, and generally just enjoyed each other’s company.

On the way out, one of the women left me with a parting shot, insisting that I had to write. And who am I to deny a beautiful woman anything? :)

Well, I’ve been thinking about a return to regular blogging anyway. The problems of blogging (time, energy, and trying-to-balance-my-mother-reading-this-with-keeping-it-interesting-and-relevant) are, frankly, lame excuses. I’ve got time and energy for World of Warcraft, and other such cathartic activities, and I generally hold to the conviction that if my mother would be shocked reading something, I shouldn’t say it on the public side of the Internet (of course, my mother being who she is, chances are she’d prefer me writing more dodgy stuff…)

So I’m about to toss a slew of posts up about my life at present. Forgive the spam, and I hope that I can keep this going on for a while…