Saturday, March 28, 2009

Heads is better than Tails

There was this scientific study done a while back about social grouping. I can't find it on Google anymore, so you'll have to take my word that this is not something I made up. In this study, people were asked to flip a coin at the beginning of the study and were grouped based on whether they flipped heads or tails. The people were then given some sort of instruction and examination that was totally irrelevant to the test. The people in each test were observed talking amongst each other, and when the subject of the other group arose, members of both sides were surprisingly hostile and competitive. A lot of them assumed that the people on the other side of the coin flip were stupid and that they were inherently better. I think that (don't quote me on this one) they even mentioned that the quality of instruction was better for them than it was for the other group.

Without knowing anything about the people in the other testing group (these groups were given no interaction at all) these people immediately assumed that they were superior to the others. Better than the other group because of a coin flip? Really?

This is sort of a sad state of affairs. It seems that camaraderie and patriotism result in generally negative attitudes towards everyone else. While it's bad to only use one case study as an example, well, I'm not.

My experience in the military was such that we were trained to think we were better than the other services and the other militaries of other countries. I have spoken with friends in other branches of the military, and the attitudes are similar across all of them, even when the USMC is -clearly- better trained and more skilled than the other services!

I hope you see what I did there. If you're in another military service and are offended, I was joking. It was a joke, meant to illustrate my point. Ha ha. Laugh.

The same really is true across all sorts of boundaries. In this blog I've paralleled nerds and normal people, and I really don't want to just develop 'nerd pride' because I think it's bad if we think we're better than everyone else. Different we are, but proud we should not be.

As is typical through most of my posts, we're a ways down the page and I still haven't actually made a point. My point is that guilds are a pretty big example of this. World of Warcraft, WAR, City of Heroes, and numerous other games are factionalized. This is even worse. In WoW I'm not even allowed to talk to people of the other faction, or cooperate with them in any way. Even when I am on a server that (mostly) allows me to avoid conflicts with other players unless I desire it, the Terms of Service in WoW actually prohibit me from helping them or trying to communicate with them in any way.

I think that whenever I hear about WoW, it's always about 'Alliance carebears' or how Alliance players are retarded. I played Alliance when I played WoW. I wouldn't really consider myself retarded, and if you're reading this, you hopefully don't either. I hear some silly excuse like "most serious players switch to Horde" or some other nonsense all the time. This conflicts greatly with my WoW experience, where I saw hardcore PvPers and raiders every day in Alliance zones as I traveled the world.

What I did hear while playing Alliance though was general disdain for Horde players if the subject was breached. Most of them considered Horde players to be griefers, jerks, and exploiters (I'd consider that one to be a compliment but they obviously didn't) and made the game generally less fun. Most of them pointed at the undead race in particular, claiming that a particular racial ability of theirs (WotF, although if you play WoW it should be obvious) gave them a huge gameplay advantage that made PvP more degenerate. On alliance side, a lot of people did play 'Horde alts' but almost everyone I spoke with said that just reinforced what they thought about the Horde players.

The situation runs a little deeper though, although admittedly I never joined this drama-fest myself. Guild politics in WoW, especially among high end raid guilds, are apparently worse. Even though you CAN actually talk to them, most people still consider other raiding guilds to be stupid, have crappier strategies, are less friendly, aren't as skilled, and all sorts of other nonsense.

Even roleplayers aren't immune to this phenomenon. In fact, from my experience at least, roleplayers are worse. The City of Heroes community has numerous sharp dividing lines drawn between people in different groups - roleplayers often shun other roleplayers, typically because of lack of maturity, propensity to engage in different types of roleplaying than others, or the willingness to PvP (or not PvP). People are labelled in various different ways, all of which are subjective. Most of these labels are completely false.

Ironically, the City of Heroes community is a lot more banded together as far as the various factions than say, the WAR community - players in CoH tend to be a lot nicer to the opposite faction (heroes and villains) and tend to treat them more as equals. This is, of course, completely thrown out the window in faction-based PvP, but honestly most people never engage in that part of the game so the cooperative elements of the game tend to bring the two communities closer (most players wish they were much more cohesively integrated).

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. This light begins with you, me, and anyone else you talk to. Don't fall prey to labels. Everyone in that opposing guild isn't a jerk, a cheater, or mentally handicapped. Neither is everyone in the opposite faction. In fact, most people in those groups are probably genuinely good people. A lot of them are poisoned by this guild flag waving nonsense, and that mindset makes them act the way they do. Appeal to the common good and don't fall prey to mudslinging or insults. Rival guilds are worthy of our respect, and we should be positive and encourage them to continue to challenge us.

After all, those retards need all the help they can get.


Friday, March 27, 2009

RL, meet Nerds

This article's title has changed about a million times since I started writing it.

What is a nerd? A miserable little pile of secrets? Our classic example of the nerd is a white male, overweight, who has no social life or redeeming qualities. He spends his life surfing the internet and playing video games and has no sense of reality.

Obviously not all nerds are like that. Today, nerds come in all shapes and genders. Most nerds are pretty self-realized compared to the average person, too. My nerd friends tend to more aware of their faults and more thoughtful of the world around them. My non-nerd friends don't have the same degree of self-awareness and tend to just kind of float around the people they know, not realizing what other people think of them.

I feel like the difference between nerds and normal people is the general desire to achieve things. It seems sort of weird since most nerds tend to be slackers, but we also tend to want to be good at almost anything. I think the real distinction is that nerds will actually look into what it takes to improve themselves, think about it a bit, and magically through the power of learning be better at it.

Non-nerds tend to want to skip the sitting down and learning part, and want to get right to the being better, but the end result is that most non-nerds tend to fall short of nerds in anything that requires extensive study. Non-nerds tend to learn things by doing them over a period of time, while we tend to learn things just by thinking about them. Carl Jung would call this 'intuition.'

The problem is that real life is not a meritocracy. Socially, people like to hang out with people that are similar to each other. The problem is that nerds and normal people aren't very similar (we tend to think very differently on things) and it causes a sort of rift between us.

In college, I remember when I was in math (easy math, like logarithms and stuff, I was an arts major) and people in my class asked me for help, because I understood the problems better than the other people at our table. I tried, as nicely as possible to explain things to them. I distinctly remember not deliberately insulting anyone's intelligence, but I was an elitist at the time, so it's possible I might have been rude at some point. Anyway, while the people at the table thanked me for my help, they mentioned that the math was so hard (lol) and I was pretty weird for understanding it without having ever done it before. At the same time, I thought they were totally retarded, even though I never said anything out loud.

That's a bad attitude to have, but I think it is very common among nerds. Normal people don't really understand us because we understand things better, and we don't understand them because they can't figure out simple things.

What ends up happening though is that we go online, because the internet is far more of a meritocracy than real life is. If you are good at something, people tend to notice. If you aren't very good, the internet is really harsh about letting you know that you've failed. On the internet, we get to meet people like ourselves who understand things the way we do. In the world of the internet, the normal people that go there for social reasons tend to flock to the nerds that can do things well.

For some reason or another, we can be a lot more socially open in a virtual world. I think this is more because we have a barrier of expertise to rely on. When you are a purpled level 80 warrior, you don't really have to explain your skills to people. People can see you and know that you have experience and knowledge. I think this is more true than the actual excuse that we can be more expressive because there is a shield of anonymity. I also think it is because people are more receptive to being talked to online. If you walk up to someone and say "Hi" in a game, people respond back. But for some reason, RL isn't the same.

This is not to say that there are not people who do things (mostly bad things) because the internet is anonymous. There are definitely people who do. But most of the people who are more open and expressive probably aren't open because they are hiding behind a screen. If anything, I think most people want to express themselves as much as they can in the internet world, rather than hide behind some incognito face. In an average guild chat, most people will give their real age and occupation if asked. Sometimes kids will lie, but most older people don't. Even more strangely, they will give away information about themselves, like their location or even the restaraunts they eat at. These people aren't trying to hide themselves behind a screen.

Virtual worlds give nerds (and really everyone else too) the chance to express ourselves fully without a lot of the fear of ridicule that one might get somewhere else. It's kind of odd to talk about video games in a public place in real life, but in a chatroom, forum, or even in another game it seems totally normal.

I like that in virtual worlds, nerds and normal people generally get along. Sometimes they even develop romance together! This is so different than real life, where it's really unusual to see the same occurrences.

Maybe one of these days I'll try explaining how to deal with real life, but honestly the rules of society are weird and really don't make sense. So really, the point of this post (was there one?) was that nerds are mainly reclusive because RL is weird and makes no sense.

Being able to sort your friends in a buddy list or guild window helps too!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Playing in Character

So, before I begin, I need to pose a more gameplay oriented reader question: Is it more fun to play a character with a "class" or "job" where you have a pre-defined role you're supposed to play like a mage or warrior? Or is it more fun to play a character who is only limited by 'skill points' and doesn't fall into a specific 'role' unless you build them to be?

My observations are that people in classless systems tend to create 'classes' within the game. Paladins tend to be created in classless games almost as a given. People like the idea of archetypes, of 'healers' and 'warriors' and 'mages.' I've also noticed that people in classless systems tend to play more balanced characters that tend to have wide skill spreads and aren't as good at any one thing. I've also noticed that in classed games people tend to band together by class, and label other classes in a particular way, "all rogues are like that" and so on. My thoughts are that only hardcore nerds (this is not an insult, I'm one of you) like classless systems more than systems with clearly defined roles.

I have no way of knowing all of this for sure, and as of the moment I can't find any studies on it. So I am polling my readership, which is somewhat unscientific, but I figure it's as good a place as any to start.

So on to the actual topic for today - character design. The question at the beginning had a little bit of bearing on this, because it's my firm belief that people like easily defined traits in their character. Edward the paladin is heroic and honorable and honest. Emma the sorceress is shady, but seductive and powerful (or maybe she's introverted, nerdy, and has a brother complex).

When we create a character either for a story or a game, we create them with a bunch of goals and ideals in mind. The desire to do something is a great way to make a character immediately interesting. If we know that a character's main goal in life is to lose his virginity, we already know a lot about him. We know he's probably kind of shallow and immature, and probably young too (older guys who haven't lost their virginity probably don't care that much about it). We also have a lot of room to develop him into a much better character - he has a lot of areas he can probably grow in, such as his respect for women or his self-confidence.

Actually, since I was referencing a specific character (Jim, from American Pie) why don't we take a look at his design? He's kind of introverted and shallow, and also pretty gullible. But after the climax (heh) of the movie, Jim has matured into a more interesting and respectful guy. Sadly, the movie injects a lot of slapstick that gets in the way of his development. The sequel is probably a lot better about developing him as a character when he turns down Nadia to chase after Michelle, realizing that there's more to a girl than just her looks and how 'easy' she is.

Interesting characters, by and large, are made interesting due to quirks. They don't even really have to be flaws per se, but little things that you remember. One of the major criticisms of Twilight (more the movie than the books) is that the main character has so few personality quirks. In a story where most of the characters have few quirks, the characters that do have them tend to stand out more. Still, memorable characters tend to be the ones with odd habits, or have unusual motivations for doing things.

Real character depth can't come from quirks though. Although we may remember a character who smokes a lot, talks with a lisp, or is oversexed, the characters we latch on to are the ones with goals and motivations. One of the things I use in writing to flesh out characters is to establish the character's belief system. This lets me better say things like "oh she wouldn't do this," or whatever. It's important that we define these beliefs beforehand, though. A selfish character who does something unusually self-sacrificing is really alarming unless we've established some belief he has that causes him to do this self-sacrificing act.

One of the big things I tell players of role-playing games is to make sure they feel comfortable playing the role of the character they are in. I had a player who had an 'evil self' that started off in his backstory as purely evil, and then slowly changed to 'end justifies the means' evil. And when he couldn't really act the part very well even then, I told him in future games that he should play things more comfortable to him.

Similarly, writers need to avoid writing in characters they don't understand. If you create a character in a story, you should be able to put yourself in that character's mind, and understand the beliefs and values that they have. Make sure you do this when you write in a character! Villains in particular often seem shallow and boring in fanfics, and often are evil 'just because'. Even worse are heroes without any clear motivation, who oppose the bad guys 'because they're bad.'

I'm definitely not saying that there can't be heroes and villains in a story. Pen and paper games tend to be better with less moral dilemmas (not none, less) because real people want to be doing the 'right' thing, and feeling like you did something 'bad' is not very fun. Some players like exploring the depths of human morality and emotion and don't mind being confronted with serious moral issues. These players are very rare and are most likely not playing in your campaign. As for fanfics, morally grey is certainly fashionable, but a good guy who does bad things walks a fine line between being interesting and irritating.

The trick then is to create good guys who are lovable and who we can relate to, and whose thoughts and moral dilemmas match those we might have, if we were in their shoes. Our heroes need to be a little larger than life of course, but if they're too big they look fake. When people feel like they have walked a day in the life of the heroes and understand their internal trials and troubles, that's when you know you've really created a memorable character.

In the same vein, villains need to be realistic too. We might like them or we might hate them, depending on what you (the author) intend them to be. But when they think out loud and when they speak with the heroes, they should feel genuine, like they truly believe the cause behind their actions. A villain's motivations should make sense, too. The evil mastermind bad guy shouldn't just be bad because that's what bad guys do. Even the 'chaotic evil' type guy can have complex motivations for things (I wouldn't make these guys the 'end boss' though).

For really good examples of chaotic evil bad guys that are actually sort of interesting, I recommend the Seven Swordsmen (the chinese TV series, not movie) as the villains there are fairly well done. It also shows some really nice morally grey stuff and shows long-term character development over the course of a lot of episodes. It does kind of move slowly, but IMHO it's worth it as the heroes in that show really are human, with human failings while the villains are for the most part complex and interesting characters with real goals.

Other great morally grey things to look for is anything by Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) as he is really big on asking the reader what is right or wrong. His stories are really thought-provoking and give you a lot of thought about who is really right.

In the end though, I think that almost any bestselling fantasy novel (yeah, including Harry Potter) is good for showing us what our 'heroes' should look like and how believable our villains need to be. I'd give some examples but sadly, most of the stuff I read ends up sort of morally ambiguous and not really good at showing how to portray 'good guys' and 'bad guys.'

A word of warning, for those of you who think I am totally lying about all this. There are characters that break the rules. Solid Snake in particular is practically a character without flaws and he is one of the most beloved characters ever to grace a video game console. This does not mean you can create a Solid Snake-like character (or any of the Devil May Cry male leads, etc.) in your story/fanfic/game/whatever and have it succeed. There are a couple reasons for this.

The first is that a badass character tends to get old. There's a reason why Dante and Nero are mocked all over the internet for being ridiculous, and why the 'badass main character' is considered a trope. It's overdone, we've all seen it. Some people get lucky, mostly because they were the first people to get it right. Even if you do it right afterwards, most likely you will just be accused of copying someone else who did.

The second is that they have games and visual action to highlight how awesome they are. When John Matrix (the main character of Commando) is storming onto the screen mowing down bad guys with his M60, he seems pretty awesome. However, without the camera and acting and special effects, your badass guy (or girl) just isn't going to be as badass. Dante is cool because you can play as him and destroy dozens of guys without getting hit while looking totally awesome at the same time. In a fanfic or pen and paper game, an exact copy of him is just not the same thing.

Do not let the success of others lead you to believe that characters without real quirks (eating pizza and being required to show off are not real quirks) can appear in your storyline. If you create characters like these, I recommend only using them in parody or humor stories rather than serious stories.

PS: Despite my criticisms, DMC4 was probably my favorite game of 2008.

Anyway, character design is tricky business, and I don't pretend to be the best at it. Certainly Hideo Kojima knows better than me! In the world of video games and web comics and other visual art media, there is a lot more to know and I know almost zero about it (my visual styles tend to be really boring). However, I do know a fair bit about what makes an interesting character, and I know how to convey a realistic villain or NPC ally to players.

Hopefully you learned a little here, or at least your opinions were reinforced some. If not, there's always the comments section ~

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Halo doesn't have hitboxes!"

The title of this post comes from a RL acquaintance of mine that pretty much had no clue about high level gameplay at all. He was probably better at aiming than me, though.

My goal is to eventually get to talk about 'higher' gameplay concepts. But somewhere before that I have to talk about mid-level gameplay concepts. This article is about space control. Space control is universally present throughout any and all competitive games and a lot of single player type games too. It's present in D&D, even.

The basic idea of space control is to deny the opponent the ability to move somewhere without you hurting him or at least threatening to hurt him. The distinction here is that you actually want to discourage the opponent from moving there, so you (or your team) can do other things elsewhere. A good example is in *gasp* StarCraft where a player can contain the enemy and keep the enemy from leaving their base. If it is sufficiently hard enough for the opponent to escape, they might not even try, and then the person doing the containing can expand or tech or mass forces more safely, without fear of losing control of the map. By using good scouts, a contain can also let a player know when the opponent tries to sneak units out with dropships.

This basic principle is, again, everywhere. In first-person shooters, a sniper controls a narrow but long cooridor of space. Although a sniper can often get a vantage point where a lot of places can be seen, a sniper is generally only good at locking down the area roughly within his scope at any one time. Superhuman aiming skills let him do more than that, but it is fairly uncommon for a sniper to actively search for opponents within his entire field of view. Often when you see a sniper turn randomly in a match video to snipe someone, it is probably because the sniper was given some form of information that the person was going to be there ahead of time. Either way though, the sniper controls space. Other team members who are not snipers can also control space, although they tend to control wider, but smaller areas of the map. Often your team will position people at certain landmarks or near them because those places are important and need to be locked down. The Engineer in TF2 really exploits this concept, because his sentry gun can control a wide area of space until it is destroyed.

In games that are not perfect information, you can present space control in several ways. One aspect of space control is to hide the fact that you are actively defending an area. If the opponent doesn't know you are defending somewhere, they will likely stumble into your defenses and probably give up points or lose time and effort in an attack. Oftentimes you want to present your threats of space control, though. If you establish a credible threat such as a sniper or a wall of units, the opponent will probably try to find a way around, or try to find a way to beat your space control without putting themselves in danger. This may mean that you can reinforce your defenses elsewhere, or attack them in their blind spots in turn. You may also, as mentioned before, use this to gain control of the map and resources, such as pickups or whatever. This may also make the opponent waste resources, such as indirect firing units, grenades, rockets, whatever, in order to try and break your stranglehold on him. If you're aware of what might happen in this scenario, you can be prepared and beat them if they try to break out.

However, there is also games of perfect information such as chess, or Street Fighter. In these games it is likely that your opponent knows what threats you have. If he does not, you will likely hit him many times over and over until he knows what threats you do have (or in chess, he will probably ask you what pieces can do what). If your opponent knows where you can threaten him, he will probably try to avoid that space as much as possible. For instance, Zangief can threaten with his spinning piledriver from just outside the range of his sweep. His spinning piledriver is very fast and does lots and lots of damage, so the most important thing to do against Zangief is to stay out of the range of his spinning piledriver. If Zangief knows this he can try to make you make mistakes, or he can create 'mixup' situations where you must guess which way he is going to attack, so then he can avoid your counter or knock you down, and hit you with a spinning piledriver.

The positioning and thought process is very similar to avoiding a rook or queen in chess. If you don't want to give away free pieces, you need to know where all the pieces on the map can move. If you can do this, then your opponent will have to try and strike at you and force unfavorable trades with you. It is a little different than creating a 'mixup' per se, because time is not as much of a factor in chess. But it requires you to think a number of moves ahead and predict how your opponent might react - if you think you might be able to move pieces in a way to keep the opponent from countering until it is too late, then you might very well be able to avoid his rook or bishop or queen or perhaps even force a capture on them.

This concept is sort of basic but very important. You have to have some expanded game knowledge, especially in the complete information games. If you know how to use Lurkers in SC to contain a player, and know the counters, then you will know when and how to contain and how and when to withdraw your contain. If you know the exact reach of spinning piledriver, you will be able to grab someone if they get even a pixel too close! And hopefully intricate midgame positioning in chess should be self explanatory. If it is not, let me assure you that it takes study and a fair bit of practice to master. For the games of more hidden information, such as shooters, nuance is still very important, such as the effective ranges of your weapon and the layout of the map you are playing on. If you know the playfield very well, you can guess where the opponent might be trying to lock you down from, and use the advantages of stealth to attack him from behind, before he knows you aren't coming through his controlled area.

Once you are aware of the nuances of space control, you can use it for silly things like knowing exactly how far certain ships in EVE Online can shoot. If you memorize these things, then you can tell if someone has increased range modules by when they engage you. You can also use the opponent's speed and such to determine how effective 'zoning them out' is.

In World of Warcraft, space control is mainly useful in the realms of knowing caster and bow ranges, and also simple things like people defending a particular point on the map. The same tends to be true for other MMORPGs too. When ranges are too 'easy' though, things get less interesting, so WoW in particular is not as complex of a game in the world of space control.

In 3rd person action games, you control space by generally have a longer reaching weapon that can interrupt foes trying to attack you. God of War is a pretty good example of this. If you learn the distances and angles in which the Blades of Chaos protect you in that game, you can take on many enemies at once and never take damage (and if you memorize which ones have projectiles, you can space the rest of your foes out, and dodge the foes with projectiles too!)

In general a good idea to get the feel of space control is to play 3rd person action games, and get used to hitting people at the edge of your melee weapon to keep them away from you. Chess is also a good concrete example, although if you're training for fighting game style space control, it's better to visualize the pixels you see onscreen and be able to judge how close to the opponent your pixels have to be to damage them.

If you can master space control, you'll have a new, brick wall tactic you can bring up in order to keep opponents at bay, and make them have to fight on your terms.

And this post had nothing to do with fireballs!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Spy is Sapping my Sentry

Today I'm going to talk about competition again. This one's going to be on the fine art of information gathering.

In any game that is not a game of complete information, we gain a competitive advantage when we know more about the situation than our opponent does. The more information we are able to gather about a situation, the more certain we can be about what our opponent is doing. If we know what our opponent is doing, we can counter him.

There are games where this is not applicable - specifically, games of complete information. Since that's a big term that not everyone understands, I think I should explain it further. If we can clearly see everything that is going on in a match at once, the game is a complete information game. For instance, Chess is a complete information game. Street Fighter is too. CounterStrike, Magic: The Gathering, and StarCraft are not complete information games. If we can see the whole battlefield, or at least all of the battlefield that matters (eg. fighting games; we can't see all of the map at once, but only the part with the characters actually matters) then the game is a complete information game. Although technically Smash Brothers can be a game with hidden information if the two characters are close enough that there can be hidden things offscreen like items, it is close enough to a complete information game that we can lump it in there too - especially since if there is something hidden, neither us nor our opponents actually know.

Magic for instance is not a game of complete information. Each player has cards in their hand as well as their entire deck that is unknown to the other player. In addition, players can play cards face-down in some cases, and do other things that hide information from the opponent. The value of hidden information is so good that in Magic there are cards that let you look at the opponent's hand or deck but don't do anything else. Clearly in Magic there is a big value in knowing the opponent's hand or what he will draw next.

The value of information varies from game to game. The value of knowing people's hands in Poker for instance is gigantic. It's so good that there is no way within the game to see what people have until you've made all of your decisions. In Magic, the value of your opponent's hand varies a little bit depending on the game situation, but it is never as valuable as knowing your opponent's hand in Poker. In StarCraft, the value of knowing your opponent's tech and expansion status is generally huge, even compared to the opponent's hand in Magic, although not quite as valuable as the opponent's hand in Poker.

In any game where our play is determined by what the opponent has up his sleeve, it's best to get as much info about them as possible. That's where spies of various types come in. In TF2, spies are useful if they communicate with their team. They can tell the allied team all sorts of useful things, like where enemy medics are and how many there are, the locations of enemy sentry guns and dispensers, and things like that. I think this is sort of undervalued by the TF2 community, but knowing that there is an enemy medic and pyro team ready to charge your position is probably pretty useful information. Even if your spy never gets kills or whatever, getting that information is very huge.

One of the things that I think is sort of undiscovered by players in lots of games is the value of information. I hear a lot about things like covert tactics being frowned upon in EVE in favor of more conventional warfare, and it makes me sort of sad. People treat covert spies such as using newbie alts to scout areas as inconsequential, where nothing could be further from the truth. If you scout an area in EVE and are destroyed by hostiles, you have a huge amount of information about the composition of the enemy force. Anyone who participated in killing you will be displayed in the 'kill mail' you receive when your ship is destroyed. You can then relay that information to friendly players who then know the exact number of enemies and how they are set up. This can be invaluable information, but it seems to be totally underrated by the EVE community.

One community where information has really been greatly understood and coveted is the StarCraft community. Scouting is a huge part of the game. Scouts typically occur as early as one minute into the game and scouting is a continuous thing, taking tons of mental effort from players who might be otherwise building armies or attacking. And yet, the community all agrees that scouting is a massive part of the game. I've seen numerous battles where a player completely turned the game from an absolute loss into a victory just because they scouted the enemy early enough to prepare a defense and avoid losing, and eventually gained a material advantage because of it.

I know I mention the game a lot, but StarCraft is one of the most well-understood and developed games in the world. People know a lot about how to play StarCraft well and have turned it into a science that is now worth tens of thousands of real dollars at any major SC event (in Korea, at least). Because the game is so well-developed we can learn tons of things from it that can then be adapted into other games.

When we have no way of gaining real information though, every subtle clue helps. We can't always send an invisible Observer into the opponent's base or fly a newbie ship into the enemy fleet just to find out what all of their guys are flying. Some games don't let us do that, or in the case of Magic, being able to see what is in the enemy's hand usually comes at a pretty big opportunity cost compared to drawing a card that can do some game-winning thing. This is why we need to practice reading tells and predicting enemy tactics.

Tells are the Poker way of saying that a player might give away what is in his hand by how he acts. It's a trick that I can't really teach you how to do, but in most cases it is possible to tell whether a person is lying or not if they are visible (not hiding their face in some way) and talking at all.

What I can do is tell you how to predict people, at least a little bit. I'll go into this in great detail when I talk about mindgames at some point in the distant future (I have a lot of other topics to cover before I can really explain them) but for now, I can give you the basics.

In a given situation, we can group people into playstyles and such. If people have a reputation for behaving a certain way, we can use that. Otherwise, we can make smart guesses based on how good we think they are at the game, and what a typical person would do in their situation. Once we have a guess as to who they are, we can guess as to what they'd do. If we think they are not very smart, we might guess that they will do 'noob' things like build lots of turrets in their base early, or 'call' bets every time or something. If we have multiple chances to see what they will do, we might be able to reinforce this a little more. For instance, if we play a balanced style of play at first, we might see that the opponent always plays defensive early, or the opponent does lots of high risk, high reward moves, or the opponent only raises when he has an ace in his hand or something. We can use this to our advantage and play to counter their play.

Yes, I realize that this is common sense, but the goal is to read the opponent and understand that humans are creatures of habit. This is because we chunk things that we know, and we tend to follow these chunked patterns unless we learn something else. Therefore, if we know what patterns the opponent knows, we can counter him.

Ugh, I know it sounds kind of complicated. I'm not really sure that makes sense, or even if it does, I'm not sure if it's not common sense. Maybe it's not? I don't know.

I'll talk more about viable options and tempo and advantage later on though, and maybe that will help. I don't really have enough time or space for that now, but I'll try to get back to it. I'm kind of irritated talking about GMing anyway, because I feel like too many people will hate me for what I feel is the best way to sheperd players, ha.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Driving a Train - GMing Part 2

So today's article is on GMing or more precisely about railroading.

Being a GM means you are the director of the story. You paint the highway that the players drive down. That highway needs to go in one direction, and it's in the way you want.

You might think I'm advocating railroading here. I am.

I've run no less than 3 truly open-ended games in my GMing career. Most of my players didn't have anywhere near as much fun as the games where I dropped my players in a fixed scenario, gave them a goal, and said "Go." I didn't have as much fun when I wasn't making up regular scenarios either. In fact, even the scenarios where I basically forced the players down a path, they had more fun compared to the times where they scratched their heads without any real goals or aims aside from getting rich. It turns out that railroading is actually way better, and giving the players too many options is bad.

Yeah, I know I'm challenging the status quo here, so I should clarify. I'm sure like, half the GMs reading this hate me now, haha.

As a GM, it's your job to provide content to the players. You're the painter, the architect of the story. If the players don't have any goals to do, they get bored and stop having fun. Sure, they might have some lofty IC goal for their character, but generally most players are not smart enough to actually plan ways of achieving it. Your goal as a GM is to give the players goals to accomplish, while simultaneously fulfilling their desires of progress towards their eventual personal goals. In this way, you need to railroad them. The key, of course, is that you give them things they want to do.

Most players will play ball with you and just follow the goals you give them. But what if they do not? What if some players what to do something else? I have had situations as a player where I wanted to do things other than what the GM wanted. It was very annoying to me to have the GM say, "no you can't do that" basically. So you should definitely accomodate the players as a whole. If one player does not want to go with the group, you should talk to the players as a whole and find out what they do want to do. If the majority wants to do something else, it's okay to ride off the rails. You may need to take some time to plan the next part out, but you should do that. It's more fun if players are not forced into things they do not want to do.

You might say, well that is not railroading. Of course it isn't, because we are allowing the players a choice if they really don't agree with the choice we give them. But in most cases we should give the players a clear path to follow because without us as GMs to guide them, most players will wander like lost kittens.

Okay, I lie because I have done a fourth semi-open ended game, which had mostly scripted adventures but had several open-ended segments. This game eventually ended up mostly run by what the players wanted to do. I was so impressed because they were actually able to drive the game, and had clear goals for what they wanted to do. I got inspiration to do more open-ended games but since then, all of them have failed. So there may be strange player groups that are very goal oriented and make plans. You should let them run the game, haha. It is quite fun when a player calls you late at night and gives you many suggestions for what they want their character to do next week. It makes your life a million times easier as GM. But this is usually not the case and you will have to plan for less ambitious players. Be careful that you do not slight the really ambitious types. They have fun by making their own way, and most of the party would be totally fine to tag along.

If you get two ambitious players, beware! Either they will work together and try to 'undermine' you, which is fine, although some GMs might not be able to deal with that so well. But if everyone is having fun, it is probably fine. But most often the two ambitious players will be in conflict. It is very rare for two characters to completely agree in their plans for world domination (or whatever) and so there will likely be conflict. You may have to moderate this or perhaps you can change your campaign arc to better reflect the two players' power struggles. You may also have to split your group, which may take a lot of your GM resources. If such a conflict occurs it may be best to talk things over with them and try to get them to work together.

If you make a goal for the players you should not try too hard to give them a path to the goal. Some of the players will think of very creative ways to achieve your goals, and that is of course fine. You should allow them a lot of leeway to think of these things, because that is probably fun for them. Obviously, you need to take common sense into this because you shouldn't let the players get away with too much. Sure it is fun for them at first to get away with lots of things but then it gets boring too. The trick is to never use player logic - always use your own. However, if the rules say one thing, then obviously you should follow the rules, unless you really disagree with them. Real life can also create some disagreeable things. Make sure that you overwrite either game physics, player logic, and real life as appropriate in order to make things go smoothly. But obvious and most important is that you not stifle everything the players try to do. If they think of something creative and you just say no every time, they will get frustrated. That's kind of bad.

The flip side of course is that some player groups are kind of unsmart so you should have a number of 'easy' solutions available. It is quite possible to put NPCs organically so even if the players don't know anything, they can get gently pushed to the next clue, which leads to the next one, which puts them on the right track. Little subtle pushes like this are better than plot hammers that say "GO HERE AND DO THIS." I have however had to plot hammer some players. It's okay, not everyone is a genius, but everyone is entitled to have fun roleplaying. Try not to make too much fun of someone if you plot hammer them. I almost always make fun of my players when I do, though. I feel bad, you should not do this.

Last on our agenda though is whether or not we are having fun. I personally have fun most of the time when GMing, assuming the players are doing things and going through my adventure. I also like it a lot when players try to cheat the system or explore the world in some neat fashion because it makes me feel like I am doing a good enough job that they want to think of some neat way to 'get me' or something. It's fun for me. I don't know what's fun for you though. If you're not having fun because people keep "cheesing you" in some way, maybe you should think over whether or not you should GM. Remember that it is okay when the players win easily, as long as it doesn't happen all the time (boring =/= fun) but winning easily is okay some of the time. Don't retaliate on players because they 'get you' sometimes. The worst thing you can do is design something really hard to 'get them' back.

One time I was GMing with a group of players and they were going to undertake a difficult battle in defense of a group of magic users. The magic users' enemies (demon summoning magicians) were very numerous and the players could only really strike at strategic targets, if they tried to win the whole fight they would be overwhelmed. The battle was very long and thought out. Instead of fighting it though the players decided to drive out a few hours and contact another faction who happened to be opposed to demon summoning as a general society rule. The other faction was a large nation and had a large military, and I had already established a small outpost with a company of soldiers in a reasonable vicinity - close enough that they could intervene before the defense would need to be made. The soldiers moved in on the demon summoners and burned their stronghold to the ground. There were over a hundred soldiers against a few dozen demon summoners, and the soldiers had weapons to fight the demons so the battle was won easily.

In the end the players did not fight any battle, but I gave them EXP - I actually gave them more than what they would have made if they fought the battle. I was so surprised they would think of this, and it worked with established precedents I had set up elsewhere in the campaign. They cut the adventure a little short, but I gave them more EXP. I told them that they chose an option I had not thought of, one that was very smart and solved the problem without any losses for their friends or for themselves. How could I not give them more EXP?

But in this scenario I had practically forced it upon the players to defend the mages. I introduced a NPC mage who asked the players for help, and while they were trying to help with a minor thing, a demon summoner had attacked. The players managed to help out the NPC anyway, even though more demon summoners attacked. The players captured one, and successfully interrogated him using psychic powers and found out about the attack ahead of time (the players were intended to stay at the mage town during the attack, but due to smart play they found out beforehand). The players were basically railroaded into the plot hook, but once they took the hook, I allowed them to solve the story in whatever ways they wanted.

I have another scenario where I was a player. I was playing with a particular GM who had trouble dealing with our party composition. In particular he had trouble dealing with me. I handled a lot of the player finances and tried to get money for upgrades to the people that needed it. Our party was very team-friendly and the GM could not handle that. He posed one very nasty boss fight that was heavily taxing and not fun. It took many many rounds of combat, like 15 or more, in order to win this battle. He thought that because we 'got him' so many times that he had to make an impossible boss, and it almost was. We nearly wiped many times during the fight and our healers were barely able to keep people alive. It was really awful. Everyone agreed that fight was horrible. Do not do this to your players, it is anything but fun.

It's like driving down a highway instead of driving a train. Just make sure they don't drive off the road too much!

So in short, we should not actually 'railroad' the players in the sense that we should force them to go in ways that they don't want. But we should railroad the players into the story by default instead of just letting them do whatever. Sometimes players can think of things to do, but most of the time, they suck and don't make good goals for themselves.

In closing, I would like to present you with the open ended example scenario. My players were given relative freedom to do whatever they wanted. And so they did! One decided to do boring things for money. One decided to 'train' constantly. One decided to go to bars and hit on girls. One decided not to show up!

I think the player who chose not to show up sums up the success of this campaign. Always provide direction for your players, because most of the time, they are not very genius. You are the GM! You make things fun!

# of ambitious players ever: 3, all of which were referenced at least indirectly somewhere in this article.