Monday, May 28, 2012

Gamification and Immersion Slides

Roleplaying is an interesting kettle of fish because there are often twin aims to the adventure design, particularly in the World of Darkness. On the one hand you have the temptation to create a realistic, immersive world with little need for suspension of disbelief. On the other hand you have the temptation to create strange and unusual situations for the PCs to beat using videogame, or metagame, logic.

The perfect example for this temptation involves ventilation shafts. On the one hand, they're flimsy, echoing metal tubes with often sharp edges at the connections that are rarely sized for a person. On the other hand, they're the perfect non-combat way to slip from room to room through the rooms that YOU want them to journey to (leading to funny situations where one room leads to another room, rather than the outside).

Another example is illegally accessing a crime scene. In the modern real world, CSI professionals will go over the evidence afterwards and if you've left trace evidence or witnesses behind (say, neighbours or folks driving by) then they'll get you for crime scene tampering at the very least. But if you make it super-rigid and realistic, then there can be no crime scene fun except through super powers like Astral Projection or a game where everyone is a police officer rigorously obeying the rules.

Every Storyteller and, indeed, Dungeon Master must make the decision of where upon the slide the game will sit. Generally, fantasy games like Pathfinder and D&D sit quite highly in the Gamification section with a lot of handwavium (though this is slowly being reduced with immersive factors like dungeon ecologies); while modern games like World of Darkness sit quite highly to the Immersion section with a lot of realistic quirks that cut off whole sections of the gaming experience. This isn't always the case, but it can be more generally expected.

I've realised this since my last Demon campaign was incredibly highly in the Realistic spectrum. I wanted them to investigate crimes, but the police were a credible threat and illegal actions had repercussions. I wanted them to question suspects, but the NPCs were played realistically and therefore there were a lot of ways to get them to clam up. I wanted them to explore, but getting in and out of secure buildings could be quite difficult, especially due to security cameras.

So what I've realised is that I should take more of a note of Videogames and videogame logic.

In a good videogame, the creators will take note of the genre, style, and story, and build them into the gaming options and vice versa. So if you want a Stealth game, you can hide in shadows, enemies soon get over searching for you, sedatives act fast, and vents suddenly become easy options for sneaking into high security buildings. If you want a High Action game, you should be able to drop down behind the enemy with protean claws out without having to worry about appearing on CNN and Youtube (except when the plot demands it).

This is one of the trickiest things. Just like a player can paint themselves into a corner by creating a character that just wouldn't do what they want to do, a Storyteller can create a campaign where characters wouldn't, or shouldn't, act in ways that support the alleged themes and styles of the game.

So, I've offered my players a choice of campaigns and I'm going to run example adventures of each until they find one that works for them. The unexpected benefit of this is that I can't just rely on thematic descriptions to distinguish them. I have to actually think about what the differences are between what the PCs get to actually do and what they're encouraged to act like.

The World of Darkness one has components of interviews and interrogations like Deus Ex (Empathy rolls like the social aug) and Noir (catching them in lies and jotting down details, timelines and leads all make things easier), stealth options like Deus Ex, often unexpected combat like Alan Wake (light + gunplay deals with most things), FEAR jump scares that don't need to be struck, and Tex Murphy-style puzzles and clue searches.

As an example of Gamification, the puzzles will be lamp shaded where possible by me re-creating them. If I want a Light Three Candles before the painting puzzle, I'll try to find an appropriate picture and place three candles in front of it. The players will instantly know it's important because not everything has a physical version of itself. Is this immersive? Yes. Realistic? No, not at all unless they have some kind of sixth sense for puzzles. But this is precisely what a lot of adventure games do. If you can play with it, it's probably important.

I tell you, with that painting-plus-candles puzzle, those candles will be lit (and likely in a special order if other clues are presented) way quicker and with less frustration than if I simply described them.

So what do you think? Where do you sit on those slides? And where do you WANT to sit?


  1. Is a Light Three Candles a special kind of puzzle?

    Gamifying puzzles seems a decent idea to me. It makes me think of the highlightable objects in various computer games... basically a way of flagging up interesting things amongst the stream of information that’s coming out. It’s not that different to drawing maps or describing rooms, you choose what to highlight for them. Really, you want their energy to go into enjoying the puzzles, not trying to find them.

    The immersion slide thing is a really good point. It’s easy to work against yourself with this sort of thing because you either don’t consider which realisms support your playstyle, or even if you and the players end up with slightly different expectations. I’ve struggled with a Cthulhu game where the players expected to be skulking around by night and breaking into buildings, whereas I expected them to go round talking to people. I ended up frantically improvising while trying not to sabotage the campaign, and they missed a load of plot hooks and sailed off into the Tangentsea, though we sorted it out eventually. I should really have an analyse of that campaign and check what I’m trying to do with it...

    Part of it comes down to the system’s focus. In combat-focused systems like Pathfinder, I play down the consequences of violence to avoid the players feeling guilty, so not too many orphans or legal comebacks. Healing and recovery is handwaved by default. I try to keep the social aspects realistic, though, and have reasonable explanations for what’s going on, why and where. In Cthulhu or something where you’re focused on mysteries, there are remarkably few witnesses around to see them acting suspiciously, and you can get away with weirder behaviour than usual. I haven’t actually played WoD yet but it seems pretty flexible, so the system may be less of an influence?

    Oh, tell you what, NPCs are a lot more loose-lipped than in real life in all the games I’ve seen (except for those with Big Secrets that they refuse to explain until the plot demands it). There isn’t really time in game to build up a strong relationship with every NPC onscreen, or convince them all how important your work is, so it does need some handwaving. I also tend to have my mooks surprisingly willing to spill the beans, basically so the PCs don’t have to resort to torture all the time, because that tends to break the heroic feel for me. How do you handle that kind of stuff?

    I haven’t really played anything very realistic, so it’s hard to know where I sit. I like NPCs to act and react like people, though. In secret supernatural games, I feel like the premise justifies making it quite hard to blow your cover. Maybe magic interferes with cameras, so they just get a blurry figure instead of a woman wreathed in silvery flame. Otherwise... I think I like stuff like CCTV and locks being a factor, but more of a puzzle to think around than an insurmountable obstacle.

    Sorry, epic comment again...

    1. So true about not involving much in the way of moral repercussions in combat heavy games. Ergh... If I had to take a guilt kick to the face just to play the game the way the ST wanted it without taking another option I'd ... take the only other option and get out.

      Unless the game was ABOUT moral kicks in the teeth, like a philosophical discourse of the morality of war, but I couldn't deal with a campaign about it and I'd want to know up front what I'd be dealing with.

      As for avoiding torture, they could always bribe mooks or offer to let them go. 1 gold piece is worth a lot in mook-ville. Or just have a few hours (or days) of in-game conversation represented by a description and a dice roll.

      Also, nothing wrong with epic comments!

    2. Yeah, I mean I'm sure people have done some interesting shorts (or even backstory games) about the repercussions of violence, but it's not something you want to just throw in there. It's like running a Cthulhu campaign where everyone keeps getting arrested or sectioned for behaving weirdly. A bit of that is alright, but you've got to tone it down. Oh man, a whole campaign about the morality of war just sounds so painful...

      The great thing about mooks is you can usually excuse them betraying their comrades for a purse of gold. Not so much the fanatics, of course, but they're usually happy to monologue anyway.

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  3. Ergh, yeah. Tragic and horrible where you do things you don't want to do and that make you feel bad to people who you feel sorry for. It's just like with descriptions, the more realistic the descriptions and the more realistic the reactions, the less combat you can expect from your players.

    Most players won't get a kick from a slash that opens up muscle and tendons in his upper arm, causing the limb to alternately fall limp or twitch spasmodically, while he screams and writhes on the ground pleading with them not to hurt him and how he'll do anything to survive. Or an ordinary bloke pulling out a picture of his wife and kids to avoid getting shot.

    If violence is something to be avoided, sure. In fact, it's probably a good idea otherwise players would resort to violence more often. Alternately, if their usual targets are inhuman aliens that would be fine as it would provide a striking contrast.

    I mean, there are always exceptions, but generally, I think the simple equation:

    "More violence desired in game requires less consequences for violence"

    really sums it up.