Sunday, 2 January 2011

Fundamental laws of a fictional universe (1)

Here's something I've been tinkering with, but which I realise now will never be properly finished, except perhaps with your help. The stakes are high - the nature of reality.

Not such a long time ago at a blog not so far away, the The Angry Lurker put up this image of Luke's proton torpedoes entering the Death Star. As I mentioned later at the D6 post here, my comment was this: "It's a fundamental law of a fictional universe. You can't get round that kind of thing." At the D6 post I explained the thinking by saying "that is what we're talking about here - fictional worlds. A DM/GM and players may not be operating at high magnifications, and may not need to. I'd argue the range of options we expect in any given situation - and are happy to be given - are fewer than we'd think."

Since then I've come across the idea in all kinds of places, notably in the prototype mashup machine at The Lost Continent and in some thoughts on fantasy tropes at The Ostensible Cat. Cyclopeatron has just covered major influences, and the list is worth exploring. I was recently introduced to Seventh Sanctum and that site does this kind of thing very well - you might need your imagine much less for knowing about it.

Anyone playing a game has an interest in fiction, inspired by cinema and literature or not. Even in a real world setting, gaming is telling a story. Many systems allow for dramatic moments of the X-wing / Death Star kind, but others don't make it easy, or allow it only rarely, perhaps even accidentally. To make it more possible that some of our universal expectations occur, I've put together a simple card-based supplementary system. This something that exists in many games of course, but in going about it, I had in mind the strategy card system from the second edition of Warhammer 40,000. The idea is that each player is dealt one or more cards at the beginning of the game, which are then kept secret and played at an opportune moment, as directed by the card.

The system is supposed to be universal also for the range of rulesets it can be used with, and this is to prove a point, the one I made here and have made at Bell of Lost Souls many times, albeit indirectly. The point is that there's essentially no difference between a wargame and a roleplaying game - both allow works of collaborative fiction.

Whether or not these events are desirable is another matter, but we need to know our enemy. At the very least, utter boredom - if we ever reach it - may usher in a new era.

Here's the first card then, for that moment in Star Wars and others like it.

The key term is 'playing piece'. Given the multiplicity of games, this will only ever be a highly compromise and compromised term. My intention is that this covers everything from a player character or non-player character in a game like D&D, through a single model representing a single individual in a game like Warhammer 40,000, to a stand of models in a game system like Epic or Flames of War. It also includes individual vehicles and other items with which the players can interact in the game, such as terrain pieces.

The key distinction is between an 'animate playing piece' and an 'inanimate playing piece'. This is where we really get into difficulties. 'Animate' is used here to mean 'killable' in the general gaming lexicon sense and therefore includes most organic playing pieces, or playing pieces with a personality, but also those we wouldn't normally think of as living, for example undead. 'Inanimate' on the other hand is used to mean non-organic playing pieces which are usually said to be 'destroyable', such as vehicles, buildings and terrain pieces. In thinking this through, the biggest problem I came up against was that of robots. If you're using any, you'll need to decide which they are for you, and I think the personality point is the critical one. I'd have the droids from Star Wars as animate, but larger, more industrial machines for example as inanimate. That's more than a brief discussion in reality of course, it's whole academic disciplines.

Given the number of systems I've never played or likely even heard of, this approach will never be perfect and will in many cases require mature discussion or agreement from the players, without which it is very open to abuse. This is not a system for players whose love of competition prevents them from applying cool, disinterested thought during a game. I'd recommend you only use the system if you're sure it will add to the fun.

I realise too that individual cards may have a wildly different impact in different game systems. If this seems unbalanced, remember that both sides are in a sense the 'hero' of the piece, in the minds of the respective players at least, and in that sense a hero will always win. If we're talking good versus bad, well, again, that's a whole other post.

Here's another to finish for today, the regular reminder coming from Double 0 Sven.

I'm eschewing copyright on these in the sense that the ideas certainly don't belong to me. I'm also rather embarrassed by the current quality. Print them and use them as you wish. If they're popular I'll aim to put more up over time, to build a fuller deck.

If you have any thoughts, or have already found flaws, comment away. I'm especially interested in problems with more unusual game systems I know little or nothing about, for example Rolemaster in the case of the second card.


Desert Scribe said...

Porky, if you haven't already done so, I suggest you visit

This site is chock full of premises like the two examples above, and should inspire many more.

Andy said...

Those cards you made are great for introducing those filmstyle epic moments or events in a game that make players shout "damn that was cool!". However it saddens me that cards (or any other similar rule or gimmick) are needed to produce those moments in a game.

Let me try to explain what I mean by that:
I don't consider myself a wargamer in the true sense of the word. Winning a war or game is never my motivation in participating. My true motivation to play tabletop games are these epic moments and if I spot one in the making I'll go for it, even if it means losing the game or bending the rules a little. I used to think that everybody played like that because my usual gaming buddy has the same way of playing. It wasn't until we both joined a club that we encountered another sort of wargamer: the competitive kind. Those people don't "play" their games, they fight mini wars on a tabletop. Not meaning to say that they are "wrong" or "dull to game with". They just look at the whole thing from a different angle. Again, no disrespect intended, but those are the people who "need" card like that built into whatever rules they use to achieve those moments I took for granted in any game I play.

If you have an eye for those moments and you like the storyside of tabletop games you don't care if you win or lose. You just want those moments in your games. No cards are needed, it comes spontaneously.

Little sidenote needs to be made:
If you're competing in a tournament you don't pull that sort of stuff. Then you play to win as is expected of you by the other participants!

Did that make any sense at all? ;-)

Porky said...

@ Desert Scribe - I keep forgetting TV Tropes. It's a lot of fun to wander through, if a little sad to be reminded so thoroughly we can't break out of the cage we're trapped in. Of course, the potential may well be limited by the boundaries of human experience, but I'd prefer to think of that as a barrier to be crossed, and I want to believe we can with effort. Anyway, I'll have a gander and see what I find - it may be that I find too much..!

@ Andy - It made a lot of sense and you can count me in. Anyone who's followed my posting at Bell of Lost Souls over the months has seen plenty of debate on this subject. If you're interested, there's a summary of an argument I put at BoLS against pure competition in tournaments here. For me the purpose of the games we play is the collaborative storytelling I mention, staying true to the wider narrative and context and dropping the mechanics or adding to them if the need arises, even on the spot. Your epic moments are definitely a part of that, the fulcra. The cards are less to replace that innovation than to make the point about the universality of fiction. In fact, I think the group that's most likely to benefit from thinking in these terms is the group that's least likely to accept the use of the cards - for the competitive gamers you mention the cards might seem to be from another planet, too 'unbalanced' to warrant consideration.

joe said...

I'm not sure what to comment. This is all way over my head. Although I've got to say the place is lookin' good. Welcome to the blogosphere ;^)

kelvingreen said...

Yes, it is sad that some gamers need this kind of nudge to introduce this kind of twisty-turny fun into their games, but that aside...

I like this a lot. Many role-playing games nowadays have a fate point system, where a token can be traded in for a bonus to a die roll, or to cheat death, but the vast majority -- if not all -- of them have "anonymous" tokens, in that the tokens buy an effect but have no other function. I like the idea of replacing them with these.

If I weren't so far out of the loop with tabletop wargaming, I'm sure I could see a use for them in that hobby too!

Loquacious said...

Many of the games I play include some sort of collaborative world building/sharing mechanism. Some are MUCH better at it and reward players for inventiveness and intuitiveness than others (Feng Shui is one of my favorite examples of this sort of game).

Other games practically kill you with "no, you can't" type of stuff.

My WOD game has had some interesting moments where a player was able to turn in a "get out of jail free" or "gain extra XP" token for very cool story effect.

Porky said...

@ joe - Your comment is perfect, a good reminder to people like me that things need to be kept as clear as possible, regardless of the subject matter. Put simply, I want to highlight that tabletop wargames and roleplaying games are fiction and so storytelling is essential, whether pursued actively or not. The cards might allow more of the expectations of cinema and literature to enter the games. Of course, the expectations we have of fiction might be measures more of our lack of imagination than its power.

@ kelvingreen - I like the fate point idea very much. It's a simple and elegant system and represents very well the sense of destiny that so much fiction has. I imagine these cards would work even better in a wargame, where freedom of action might be less than in an RPG, with less scope for taking the bull by the horns, and where the number of playing pieces means the impact would be more slight. Unfortunately, as I wrote in the reply to Andy, I'd expect interest would be lower in that the need for a supposed 'balance' seems to be more of a concern in wargaming, understandably more so the more competititive the players.

@ Loquacious - I'll be looking into Feng Shui then. I agree tokens of this kind can add to the fun, and arguably support creativity in players if kept rare enough. I also like the player having to roleplay the action taken through the token, and I think it's possible even in wargaming. The cards have the suggestions 'entirely unruffled' and 'utterly, in over-the-top style' for just this reason, that players might want to get into the part, or even make additional, mutually-agreed changes on the table as a result. For example, if a vehicle is destroyed through a design flaw and supposedly 'obliterated', but there is no possibility of an explosive result in the rules, they might decide to cobble one together for that moment alone, and just because it seems right for the narrative in-game, above and beyond the need of either player to win.