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

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