Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Big, Empty Castle

The main difference between video games and tabletop games (such as Dungeons and Dragons) is the concept of player freedom. Even the most open-world video games have constraints somewhere in them. Grand Theft Auto V's map has to end eventually, right? Whereas D&D can conceivably go on forever, assuming the Dungeon Master has enough brain and willpower to do so.

A few years ago, I thought this automatically meant that Dungeons and Dragons was better, at least from a conceptual standpoint. After all, what's better than infinite freedom? Nothing! When I first discovered tabletop RPGs, that fact impressed me to no end. I believed that if I were stuck on a desert island, I would only need my imagination and a few people to share it, and I'd be happy. Since then, my thinking has changed a bit, and probably not for the reasons you're thinking.

Player freedom is one thing, but I've really learned the importance of constraints. Here are two contrasting examples:

Example 1:
Players in D&D are rewarded a vast castle. Inside, they can possibly hire servants, craftsmen and hundreds of other cool things. Despite this, the players never really use it. They move on, uninterested. This is simply another huge asset, like a pile of gold, that they have collected.

Example 2:
Players in a video game (let's say Skyrim) are given a house as a quest reward. They can hire a servant, upgrade various stations in the house (like a blacksmith or alchemy table) and decorate the inside. The player returns to this house frequently to take advantage of its services.

So what's the difference here? After some careful consideration, I've thought of a few things.

Difference 1: Explicit Definition of Value
In Skyrim, the value of a player's house is made evident immediately. The game tells you "here is a single location for every crafting table in the game, and a place to store your stuff." In D&D, you're given a large chunk of undefined space to play in.
To put it in practical terms, if I gave you a big empty warehouse and said "do whatever you want," you probably would, at least initially, struggle to think of what to do. Conversely, if I gave you a small room with a trampoline in it, you'd immediately know what to do. It's not that the trampoline is better than a 20,000 square foot warehouse, it's that its function is immediately clear.

Nice and empty.
Difference 2: Player Creativity
In this world of video games, smart phones and tablets, people are very comfortable with constraints. Most people don't want infinite experiences, they wants Angry Birds. Give them something that's easy to understand and quick to play. The exception would be building games like Minecraft, where players really can do practically anything they want. But even Minecraft has constraints; you can't build infinitely high, or dig infinitely low. The experience is defined from the moment you punch your first tree.

People who have never played Dungeons and Dragons might struggled to create in the same way they might create in Minecraft. You're not building a castle one block at a time, you're creating vast concepts in just a few sentences. D&D is a game mainly about talking, and although neither Minecraft nor D&D has tactile feedback for a player, you can see what you're doing in Minecraft, whereas you have to imagine things in D&D.

If I said "build me a castle" in Minecraft, I know many people who could and would immediately build something very impressive, down to the smallest detail.

If the same thing was asked of D&D, people wouldn't start by describing exact length, width and height (well, maybe some people would). They would describe the surrounding lands, the Kingdom, and then hone in on how the castle looked in terms of a mood or tone.

"My castle shines like a beacon on the hill overlooking Barton Cliff. It's made of white stone, and the people inside are suffering under the reign of King Odin."

Difference 3: Explanation of Constraints
Unless you're a writer, it's difficult for Dungeon Masters to give high detail all the time. It doesn't matter how beautiful the opening paragraph is; as soon as a player asks to find a tavern, the GM has to quickly make up something. "It's called the Singing Shrew, and it stinks like old beer," is about as much description as you're gonna get.

It's a sketch more than anything.
Very quickly, a world in D&D can feel paper-thin as you travel into buildings that don't exist, talk to people who weren't defined a minute ago, and finding bonkers solutions to problems you created for yourself.
In many ways, the lack of constraints can be detrimental.

Let's look at Skyrim again. You know that if you travel into a building, there will be walls that you can't climb. There will be people there who you probably shouldn't kill, and objects you can steal. Everything is clearly and explicitly defined. It's a system of constraints that's immediately understandable and functional.

For a time, I was interested in adapting the Fallout universe into a tabletop RPG. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that what I like about the Fallout games isn't remotely the same as what I like to do in TTRPGs. For me, Fallout is all about being alone in a vast world, exploring the unknown and methodically sifting through piles of trash for small prizes.

It's probably not very enjoyable for other people to watch.

When I play D&D, what I enjoy most is making a character with a compelling story, interacting with the other players both in and out of the game, and solving problems in creative ways. I adore the discovery of the unknown, but not in the same way as Fallout. I know that in Fallout, every object was intentionally placed by a designer. In D&D, many, many encounters and rewards are randomized in some way, simply because it's really, really hard for a GM to both run a coherent game and track all of the minutiae behind the scenes.

Is this fixable?
I think that depending on the kind of game you want to run, the GM needs to be more intentional and explicit with the information given. You really shouldn't say, "here's a huge castle, have fun." You should say, here's a castle, and here's a sheet of paper describing how you can use it and what you can get from it. It doesn't have to be a detailed simulation of castle economics from the middle ages, but the GM should do something to make the world seem more understandable and clear. Otherwise it's just a sandbox with toys strewn hither and thither.

It call comes back to human psychology and whether or not a person feels creative in the moment. I've played games of D&D with people who would jump on that castle and start using it in ways that I never imagined. In this case, a list of constraints would limit that person and their creativity. It really all comes down to the group and the individual.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Paying it Forward

It's been a while since I've written anything here, but today my wonderful Mom encouraged me to answer some stirring questions.

What am I working on?
These days my creative projects mostly have to do with work, but when I'm not making websites and editing commercials, I still enjoy writing in my spare time. Now, I've always had a bad habit of only writing candybar scenes instead of finishing stories. In spite of this, I've finished a few, both of which will never been seen by human eyes.

Currently I'm writing a short, funny fantasy story, a sci-fi epic that I have NO idea how to write and a piece of speculative fiction that reminds me of Lost or Flash Forward. In addition to that, I'm always writing adventures for an RPG game I play with my friends, namely one based in Star Wars.

I also aspire to write something with DC superheroes, but I'm not there yet.

Super Heroes are cool. Much like bow ties.

How does my work differ from others in this genre?
The biggest difference is that most authors can write and finish their stories, whereas mine often get stuck on the drawing board.

I once had an art teacher explain to me that if I learned to draw by creating cartoons, I'd never be able to draw realistically. Similarly, since most of my writing these days takes the form of tabletop roleplaying games, I've gotten into the terrible practice of spending all of my time on world-building instead of character building. There's a tremendously good show called The Legend of Korra that has both of these in spades. It's my current inspiration for vibrant characters, personal story arcs and satisfying storytelling in general. I don't mean to oversell it, but it's one of the best shows I've ever watched, and I majored in watching television in college!

(Among other things...)

Why do I write/create what I do?
I'm fascinated by the written word simply because it can do things that movies and TV cannot: It's better at expressing emotions and feelings. You can crawl inside someone's head for a while and think like someone else.

You see, there's this odd thing that I've never quite understood; when you read words on a page, it somehow translates into images and emotions in your mind. It seems ridiculous that such a thing can even happen. Words on a page translate into real, tangible things in my mind? I can experience something as fast or slowly as I like (based on how fast I read) and there's no moving parts! At least not on the page. Books are in essence, someone's ideas and thoughts frozen and preserved on a page, ready to be absorbed at any time. Odd.

The great tragedy of the modern age is that many (in fact most) people will live and die without ever taking pleasure in reading. I'm sad that they will never find joy in it. They're content to roam the frozen tundra of television and movies, unaware of what they're missing. In fact, one of the most heartbreaking phrases in my mind is "I'll just wait for the movie."

The real reason I write? I want someone who has never taken pleasure in reading to be able to pick up something I've written and enjoy it immediately. I want people to be excited by stories the way I am. When they go to a bookstore, I want them to see stories instead of books.

How does your writing/creating process work?
More often than not, I find myself asking "what if" questions. My most recent one was based on the following observation:

Has a math teacher ever told you (with saccharine sweetness) that you need to learn how to do math on paper before you use a calculator? Otherwise, she says, you'll become dependent. You'll always need a calculator!

I asked myself the following question: What if people became so dependent on machines that we found a way to even have machines think for us? And I'm not talking about those obese people from Wall-E. Bear with me!

Imagine if you could hook your brain up to a server somewhere and it has all the academic, boring typical information learned by kids in school? Historical dates, events, mathematics, language? Instead of having to learn this stuff, you could just have it stored online. Whenever you need to remember when Washington crossed the Delaware, you just think about it and the memory is given to you by a computer. Now you can worry about other stuff. It would certainly cut down on the amount of school you'd have to do.

That's just one idea. I have many, many others. In fact, I'm so fascinated by all of them that I have a whole folder filled with them. Stories half-written, concepts half-finished. Just last week I read through all of them and actually found one I didn't remember writing, but the premise fascinated me to the point of distraction for a week. I still have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote it. The truth is, I wish I'd written more.

I just want to set someone's imagination on fire.

Friday, December 27, 2013

What Zelda Taught Me About Life

I'm very picky with my Zelda games; I prefer the ones on the Gameboy. I watched my brother play through Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, so I never felt the need to play them. Later in life, I was content to watch my sister beat Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword.

Basically, I only played the Zelda games on Gameboy because it's a very personal, private experience. It was MY adventure the same way the Harry Potter books were.

My first Gameboy Zelda love was called the Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons. I look back on the game with glee. I liked everything about it. However, I have a terrible secret.

I only beat the game because I had the guide.

Because of this, I always knew where to go. The strange thing about game guides is that you quickly become completely dependent on them. When I played Seasons at the tender age of twelve (half my life ago), I remember thinking, "I'll try this dungeon without the guide." It never worked. The guide flew open the moment I felt the unpleasant rub of uncertainty.

Fast forward to 2013. Christmas day. A Link Between Worlds sits in my hands. As the game loads, I think, "there will be no guides this time."

My first moments in this new Hyrule are a little scary; I feel like a bird pushed out of its nest. I go where I'm told but I nurse a quiet longing for the comfort a walkthrough provides. Despite this, I soon find myself exploring and enjoying the sense of discovery. I realize that the game is meant to be played this way. Having a huge map of every area with all the secrets exposed isn't fun; it's a chore. This is an adventure game, after all. If you take away the adventure, what the heck is the point?

It's kinda like skipping to the last page of a book.

In many ways, playing the game blind is similar to real life; sometimes I feel that I don't know where I'm going or what I'm supposed to be doing. There's a slight sense of being lost or overwhelmed in life, but learning how to push back against uncertainty is a big part of growing up.

When I was twelve, I craved the omniscient guiding hand of a walkthrough. Now I know that uncertainty, and persevering in spite of it, is what really separates adults from children.

Plus, the game is really fun.