Monday, 21 February 2011

Meet the new boss?

It's hard to follow current events without thinking about the ordinary, everyday and routine whirling into the extraordinary, and why and how this happens. It's something we all face, albeit on a far lesser scale, when we refuse to accept a thing and set events in motion to change it, whether planned or in the heat of the moment. We might break delicate balances, cause distinct worlds to merge, make ourselves and others highly uncomfortable in the short term.

Looked at like this, gaming seems even more like escapism, with a relatively ordered situation, clear rules, perhaps a top-down view and a cool head while the characters and models are driven on into the crucible on our behalf. Why do we get this luxury? Didn't a wargame ought to show us too more war, or a roleplaying game force us into what could suddenly look a less appealing role? After all, the fun will always come, at the very least, in knowing we can make a nice cup of tea at the end, leave it all behind. In that light, why not put ourselves through a more real grinder, why not live the game more?

In the comments under the latest triffle The Angry Lurker was his usual inventive self and brought this thinking on strong. Read what he has to say about what one unit of men - one group of people - might have to go through. Would you fancy that? Whatever the answer, how about getting closer to it? How about a confrontation that whirls us too, with events moving a breakneck speed and threats emerging left, right and centre, or worse - lying in wait unseen with sharp blades; a dungeon that defies the memory and the lines on the paper as if we ourselves were squinting in the oppressive dark, keeping quiet hearing the crazy sounds close by and gasping in the airlessness?

In my reply to Angry I probably had in mind already the approach to setting up a game used in some of the scenarios in When the Navy Walked, with no strict deployment zone and units set up in reaction to each other and at certain distances. I ran down this track and wondered how we might bring this chaos into games generally.

The current thinking is that rather than the scenario, mission, adventure or dungeon existing in a complete, or near-complete form which the players enter and follow, it might be broken up into more compact elements, even tiny pieces, with these not determined until the moment they appear. Some games do this already of course, but how about taking the concept, expanding on it and using it more widely?

I imagine doing something like this through a series of tables or sets of cards, with the tables or decks chosen setting the theme or context. In wargaming this could be border skirmish, invasion or war of attrition, or local disturbance, insurrection or revolution, as well as all manner of other situations in which force might be potential or kinetic.

For example, an option under border dispute might be a patrol. One unit is placed, with a result or card indicating a random number of auxilliary units, located in particular conjunctions, but with these conjunctions partially unknown. To get this effect, counters could be placed by the opponent, with only half representing friendly troops and half nothing or a wildcard.

To this basic situation could be added a stray opposing unit stumbling on the patrol. An option coming up if the invasion set is in use too - the players agreeing to play an escalating dispute - could indicate that a point on the table has been identified as strategic, but this might remain unknown to the other side. If the insurrection set is added, a unit might suddenly receive conflicting orders causing it to act against the 'controlling' player's wishes. Reinforcements and other kinds of support could arrive, but where and when, and why? Things like this, at Don't throw a 1. Suddenly landing zones could need to be cleared, civilians evacuated, equipment secured.

The more complex wildcards could even be independent parties with unclear motivations, in a modern or sci-fi setting workers banding together for protection, or to force their own agenda, strapping themselves into equipment and making the tools of peace a weapon; in a historical or fantasy setting there could be trappers, even partisans, holding out in a terrain feature, no friend to either of the factions in play.

It's easy to see how this approach could be expanded to work also games involving more complex interactions than those based only on causing injury and death. To expand the so-called 'sandbox' as a metaphor - perhaps too far - this adapted play area would have all kinds of nastiness lurking just below the surface, with pets rushing through and kicking structures down, spades snapping, rain beginning to fall and even parents calling increasingly impatiently for the players to come in for their dinner.

In some ways this would be easier with something more closed-in like a dungeon crawl. Geomorphs could be broken up into smaller pieces and introduced randomly, even moved as the party moves on, the point being a simulation of disorientation more than accuracy. Encounters could come with unexpected mixes, standard creatures or items modified with raised or lowered stats or new skills or equipment, to be fresh and fear-inducing in our reality too. Parties could be broken up on the selection of an option, as if one member looked around and found he'd not kept track of the others.

The nature of the complex could become increasingly clear as the options from one set begin to build up, or manifold even if multiple sets were being used, with the different possibilites - mine, monastery, maze and so on - not necessarily all true, but appearing together as a reflection of the uncertainty and cycling interpretations of the party.

At any rate, this approach in whatever kind of game would be aimed at taking the kind of variety usually provided by supplementary rules and systems and making it central, with nothing certain, no ground solid, and the players feeling the tension more keenly than usual. The chaos of the push out into the unknown would be there. The chaos of actors known and unknown, the usual limits being crossed, needs and desires on the loose and life in flux. If we want war, we all but suffer through it; if we want to be someone else far away with a more exciting life, we get a truer sense of that extreme experience.

Assuming this kind of game could be created, would we play it? Could it exist beyond a temporary experiment? Perhaps once tried we wouldn't go back? Is the grass greener? There's a song for that, or rather many. Here's the easy one, "Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who. The point is surely making the new boss no boss, just us, or more us.


ArmChairGeneral said...

Interesting. When I GM a RPG I always do it sandbox style unless I am running a completely new party that is new to gaming. I like the idea of sandbox as it relates to the campaign part of miniatures wargames but actual sandbox on the battlefield would create chaos. If you like you can develop a card based system. Something we're working with in WTNW Skirmish & Small Unit Tactics that gives a randomness to the game. Want to move your automaton but you aren't sure if your mechanic put on the correct rivets? Draw a card and see what happens. Could be interesting.

Another nice thing about sandboxes when RPGs are considered is that every dungeon is not layered in fact from level 1 to level 20. The red dragon might like to live on level two for instance and he might have a small army on level one. The players might know this and decide to not go or they might go anyway. For me, the point of an RPG is the STORY. Sure the combat is fun but if I want strict combat all the time I will do miniatures with a light campaign.

As for random deployment in real life - look what happened to nearly every paratrooper in WWII.

The Angry Lurker said...

I don't know wether this is relevant to this or not but my main passion has always beeb Samurai around the Age of Wars era 1550-1615 and the loyalty of samurai and the honour of the bushido code where they would fall on their sword (seppuku)and the family would follow at the word of their Lord, another scene that affected me was in a book by the late David Gemmel (forget the title) set among the Drenai stories and was when an African warrior king had built a large bonfire and asked his bodyguard regiment to put it out with their bodies which they did and that has always left me with a sense of the passion of troops or soldiers can have for a leader, a cause or a country.

It just brings me to the quality of those troops or rearguards (now and back then but especially now) in wargaming and roleplaying and how hard it is to represent without going too far to the quality of the grunt as opposed to the hero or command figure.

I suppose it comes down to the sacrifice of the guy who is willing to throw himself on the grenade for the squad but I'm talking about whole units or regiments and would it happen today.
I don't know.

Porky said...

@ ArmChairGeneral - Existing card sets have been a guide in how I visualise this. I had in mind when writing most of all the strategy cards from second edition 40K and the secondary objective cards for Kill Zone. Thinking about the expanded Kill Zone set had an impact on my thinking about games in general, and the suggestions I put in for it were aimed at breaking the mould a little, bringing in aspects of a warzone that wouldn't necessarily get used in a normal game, things that usually appear only in campaign description. The idea I'm putting in the post is in some way an extension of this. It would probably be a little like using both types of card together, and whole decks at once, but tightened up to work as a coherent system, and with the division into themed categories.

With the random deployment, I'd say the inaccuracy is surely all the more reason to try it. On variability in general, I think we could gain a lot by waking ourselves from our daydream that scope can be limited and events controlled to the degree they usually are in games.

@ The Angry Lurker - For me those are very valid reflections. Games can easily be reduced to mechanisms and the emotion lost. Psychology rules often cover morale and fear, but not necessarily the factors influencing morale and fear, or other factors again. I'm very interested in the relationships between subtlety and complexity in games, and how more subtlety might be introduced without increasing overall complexity, this kind of subtlety especially.

Paul´s Bods said...

Throw myself on a grenade to save the whole squad? Not bloody likely. Go over the top to defend my country? The same response.
I had an interesting discussion the other day.
You have to imagine that we live in the now...but it´s the exact same situation as 1914-1918...whole droves of people taken from thier home towns to be slaughtered on the fields of France.
Would it be possible?
Two reasons..
The attitudes are completely diferent...too much to "loose" of lifes comforts...why cut short a life that could (theoretically ) be 80 plus years long??
The make up of the populations these many indigineous 5th or 6th generation people live in thier "Own" country anymore? I don´t.
Look at the pictures of any european regiments from that period...the colonial regiments. The difference is not hard to spot.
The mixing up of populations is in my mind a bloody good thing...(just to make sure that no-one thinks this is any way a right wing polemic from me)
This aspect of modern life could well be brought into a wargame...the reasons for fighting in the first place or not as the case may be...why should a squad hold out against massive odds ?? (like the 300 spartans fighting for thier homeland)The fleeting bit of fame they would get??? Not likely. The feeling of doing it for thier country?? Not me matey.
Money? With the training and the gun in thier hands, virtually every bank would be open to them.