Droids, Midichlorians, and Orcs: Dealing with problematic canon

If you run an RPG, whether it’s a licensed property or not, there are bound to be elements of the canon that you don’t like or disagree with. In general, my recommendation is to suck it up and stick to the canon, if for no other reason than just not to confuse your players. Every so often, though, you run into a truly a gigantic issue that compels some sort of resolution.

I ran into this in my Star Wars: Age of Rebellion game. I had a player who had chosen a droid PC with “Droid Rights” as her motivation. This is cool because it’s a theme the movies raise but don’t explore: droids obviously have some degree of sentience, but are treated as property, which seems wrong. As I started playing with the idea of droid sentience in my own arc, I came across the long-standing rules prohibition against Force-sensitive droids in Star Wars games and wondered why this should be, exactly. If a droid should achieve a degree of sentience comparable with humans somehow – as is generally assumed for droid player characters in these games – why couldn’t they access the Force? The Force is a spiritual energy, a reflection of the soul made manifest, and who are we to say that biological beings have souls but self-aware droids don’t? And what possible narrative purpose could it serve to do so?

The ostensible reason of course is the biggest WTF moment in Star Wars movies: midichlorians. Those symbiotic organisms that, according to Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, serve as receptors for the Force. Organic beings have them. Cyborgs have them. Droids don’t. Possibly the Horta doesn’t either, I’m guessing.

I think the introduction of midichlorians broke a lot of Star Wars fans, and had them questioning George Lucas’ sanity and/or intelligence. I admit I had a similar reaction, but my bias was that I knew that Lucas was a smart guy. He had, after all, written and made the original trilogy. The difference between Lucas and J J Abrams is that when Lucas does things, he does them for reasons that make sense. There was probably a reason for the midichlorians, just not one that was apparent to me at the time.

My personal understanding of that reason didn’t come into focus until a few years after Revenge of the Sith came out, and they had become just a small weird background element in the larger trilogy. It went like this: the very first real scene of the trilogy, with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan on the Trade Federation ship, seems quite revealing to me. It starts with a callback to the original trilogy (Obi-Wan saying he has a bad feeling about this), but then immediately stakes out some new territory. Obi-Wan talks about how Yoda has told him he should be mindful of the future, something that Episode V Yoda would probably warn against. Qui-Gon then tells Obi-Wan to be mindful not of the “Force”, but of the “Living Force”, an expression we haven’t heard before. This seems to be staking out a position: how the Jedi understand the Force was different in the past, and this is not exactly the same Yoda we see later. I remember when I watched that scene the first time, it clearly signaled to me that things are going to be different.

This then feeds into questions about the reliability of Qui-Gon and his idea of the “Living Force”. He’s often at odds with the Jedi Council and Jedi orthodoxy. We’ll learn later that he was Count Dooku’s padawan. When he talks about the prophecy that Anakin is supposed to be fulfilling, the rest of the council appears skeptical. His talk of midichlorians doesn’t sway the Jedi Council when he’s trying to get Anakin trained. Even Obi-Wan senses the danger Anakin presents which Qui-Gon seems blind to, and – given how things turn out – insisting on training Anakin may not have been the best call. It’s entirely possible that Qui-Gon is not part of the Jedi mainstream and his understanding of the Living Force and  midichlorians is not, in fact, widely shared. Midichlorians clearly exist, and can be measured – the Council seems to acknowledge this, at least – but it’s possible that not everyone agrees about their function.

Then throw in the fact that after Qui-Gon’s death, nobody brings up midichlorians again. The films tell us several times, mainly in Attack of the Clones, that the state of Jedi knowledge and scholarship is calcified. The Jedi Council, over the course of the films, reveals itself to be a terrible, ineffective organization. All this adds up, for me, to the idea that the Jedi in the timeframe of the prequels may not really have known what they were doing – the results speak for themselves on that count – and that midichlorians were simply a quirk of Qui-Gon’s philosophy of the Living Force, and one that you don’t need to worry about in your games.

The problem, of course, is that this is not actually the correct interpretation, according to George Lucas (bearing in mind that creators are surprisingly often wrong about their own works). I had read a lot of the background history of the creation of the prequels, but never remembered hearing or reading anything that explained Lucas’ thinking behind the midichlorians. In doing background for this piece, I remembered I hadn’t listened to Lucas’ commentary tracks on the prequels in a long time, so I popped in The Phantom Menace and checked out the scenes where midichlorians are mentioned. Lo and behold, there it is, behind the scene where Qui-Gon draws Anakin’s blood to test. And the answer is inextricably tied up with the original sin of the classic trilogy – the single fact that makes Star Wars so hard to game and explains why, even though I respect the classic trilogy more, I actually find it easier as a whole to engage with the people in the prequels.

In the classic trilogy, it is established there is sort of a royal family of the Force, the Skywalkers. They are far more sensitive to the Force than anyone else, to the point that Luke can use his native talent to accomplish almost miraculous feats (blocking blaster bolts with his lightsaber while blindfolded) with only the most minimal training while virtually everyone else remains Force-blind. In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s established by Yoda that, amongst the trillions upon trillions of beings in the galaxy, there is literally nobody who is not a descendant of Skywalker who can be trained to defeat Darth Vader – and Vader, as a reconstructed cyborg, has only a fraction of the power he had as Anakin Skywalker.

George Lucas felt this needed some explaining – which it does – and so he introduced midichlorians in a way that he thought would work, and mesh with the themes of Episode I. Midichlorians are described only vaguely, no actual mechanism is ever proposed, and the symbiotic relationship plays into the themes of Star Wars. But midichlorians are wholly unsatisfactory as an explanation because the thing they have to explain is wholly unsatisfactory – that some people have vastly greater potential based solely on genetics. Without that fact you you can’t have big chunks of the original trilogy. Maybe you can live with the galaxy as the playground of the Skywalkers, but once you expand the story into the prequels – or onto your gaming table – you kind of need to deal with it somehow.

To the credit of the prequels, a lot less is made of Anakin’s genes than is made of Luke’s in the originals. Luke ultimately has to face Vader because it is his “destiny” – The Empire Strikes Back’s favorite word. Anakin’s path is, to me, more nuanced and interesting: he makes his own choices, but is also influenced by his situation and by the people around him. His destiny is his to make, but but also for others to influence; the fact that he may or may not be “the chosen one” is not nearly as significant as who he is and who the people around him are. Another intriguing fact that the prequels introduce is that the fact that the Sith don’t pass on their powers by heredity, apparently. They “adopt” their apprentices from the best available candidates. While the Sith are unpleasant, they do a pretty good job of passing on power from generation to generation. Did I mention that Qui-Gon Jinn was Count Dooku’s padawan, before he became Darth Tyranus?

So what is the Star Wars game master to make of all this? One answer is simply to run a campaign without the Force, which is sort of the route taken by Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This is fine as far as it goes, but the Force is such a central part of the Star Wars mythology it’s hard to ignore forever. In order to get best results – even if you’re going to draw solely on material from the classic trilogy – you need to wrestle with these issues and figure out what you think of them.

The facts established by the classic trilogy – the importance of your parents to your destiny – are definitely not working for me. Neither, obviously, is the fact that your midichlorian levels dictate your Force potential, since the latter explains the former.

Even if you hate the prequels, the good news is that they provide more than enough cover to simply discard the whole lot of it. I feel there is enough to make the case that Qui-Gon, while right about many things, was wrong about midichlorians. And if that’s true, it’s only a very small step to also argue that Obi-Wan and Yoda were wrong when they believed only Anakin’s children had the Force potential to overcome him and the Emperor. In the context of the classic trilogy, we have no reason to believe that Yoda is anything other than he appears to be, the wise mentor who we have no reason to doubt. But throw in the prequels, and now Yoda was a key member of the Jedi Council that so abjectly failed the first time; a person who feels the choices he made were so wrong that in at least one important case, he strongly councils Luke to do the exact opposite of what he did under the same circumstances. Obi-Wan was a product of the last, failing generation of Jedi and as Anakin’s former master, he could easily be too emotionally involved in this case. He’s also got a track record of playing a little fast and loose with facts. The power of the Empire at this point would have made finding and training another candidate difficult in any event, so the reason Luke and Leia were their last hopes may, in truth, have owed much more to practicalities than genetics.

To be fair to Lucas, he obviously wrestles with these contradictions, which have deep roots and you could probably get a Master’s thesis out of. There are plenty of times in The Empire Strikes Back where we don’t particularly believe Luke is special, and Yoda gives the impression that more or less anyone could be a Jedi, with the right discipline and training. But the core of the drama in Empire and Jedi is the father-son dynamic (with the daughter shorted, as usual), and that drives other elements of the story. This dynamic is unlikely to be something you want to replicate in your game, and now the prequels give you enough ammunition to completely jettison the single most problematic aspect of the Star Wars canon – Force power that is innate and primarily heritable – and I think you should. Not only does it make for better gaming, it also makes the Star Wars universe more morally just. It’s Star Wars, from the vantage point of Ahsoka Tano – for me, the most relatable Jedi in the franchise.

So even though it’s apparently not what Lucas intended, I’ve become attached to my interpretation of midichlorians: that they are a wrong idea that fell out of fashion, and furthermore that the idea that receptivity to the Force is measurable and heritable is the product of the failing generations of the Jedi, which the prequels show as conflicted, reactionary, and ultimately not up to the challenge they faced.

The Force model I’ve gone with in my game, following my interpretation of the movies, is that being able to use the Force is a skill, just a very difficult one. I think of it as analogous to the skill required to play classical music at a very high level: it’s extremely difficult to master, some people clearly have an aptitude for it, but most anyone can do it if they have the concentration, discipline, and a good mentor. Being from a family of classical musicians clearly helps, but pre-eminent performers surprisingly often emerge from families with no notable musical history (Hilary Hahn, Sharon Kam). Genetics make a difference – Yuja Wang’s long fingers or Paganini’s freakishly flexible joints are clearly assets (in the case of Paganini, an asset with a high cost) – but not as much as you might think. Even for those with aptitude, it’s a lot of work. Without situational or genetic advantages you may never become the best in the world, but with commitment and the right training and barring disability you can usually become very, very good.

We run into a similar, although possibly less problematic, question when gaming Tolkien: where exactly did the orcs come from, and why are they apparently all evil? Somewhat similarly to midichlorians, orcs are creatures that the story Tolkien is telling requires, but which his philosophy cannot explain. Since in fiction the requirements of story trump the requirements of logic, orcs exist; troublesome questions remain. Within the context of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, you don’t need to worry about it too much, but once you write a prequel (The Silmarillion) or design an RPG arc, the question may become more urgent. In Tolkien’s worldview, evil can only corrupt, not create; so in the version of the Silmarillion that Christopher Tolkien published, Melkor capture some Elves and corrupt them into orcs (it’s not clear that Tolkien himself thought this was the answer to the conundrum). But this just doesn’t make a lot of sense and raises more questions than it answers. The problem is that, much like George Lucas, Tolkien is trying to weave modern values into a medieval story structure, and there ends up being conflicts. Those conflicts are, in fact, often what brings life to the stories and give them depth. Every so often, though, they create problems for those of us who come later.

The problems here are easier to resolve simply because The Silmarillion was published posthumously and so I’ve never considered it truly “canon” in the Tolkien universe, at least not to the same degree as the stories Tolkien actually published himself during his lifetime. So I can just discard the orc’s origin story as given in The Silmarillion (which somewhat surprisingly make it into Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Rings adaptation), and simply choose in favor Tolkien’s dominant modern values: like Gollum, the orcs are not irredeemably evil, they are just slaves to Sauron’s will. Knowing their origin story then becomes unnecessary or a subject of speculation, and not a glaring inconsistency in the universe. Having made this decision, as storytellers themes open up to us and we can use orcs more intelligently as adversaries and not simply as mindless cannon fodder which the players are free to wantonly kill without compunction.

I think my biggest take-away from this whole run-around on the issue of droids and the Force was the importance of spending some time thinking about these things. If there are points of inconsistency or contradiction, you don’t have to tap-dance around them, you can make a philosophical call that is supportable and consistent with the setting and not worry about supporting all possible interpretations, or even supporting things that the artist said at one time which may, in fact, have been wrong! When these questions arise, coming to your own conclusions based on your own values, finding a way to make it clear to your players, and sticking with them will make your own creations better.

For the record: in my Star Wars games, intelligent droids will be able to access the Force.

Star Wars: Age of Rebellion – A Deep Dive on Dice Probabilities

A little while ago, I gave Star Wars: Edge of the Empire a reasonably positive review. After another year of playing the game, it’s time to check in again see how it’s faring, and to try to pass along some playing tips for dealing with some of the game’s quirks. If you haven’t played Star Wars: Edge of the Empire or Age of Rebellion (they’re exactly the same game system), you might want to catch up by reading that review – this will go pretty deep into the game’s probabilities and what they mean for actual play.

The dice in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, image courtesy FFG. Click for product page.

The central, most intriguing, and most opaque idea in the game is the set of customized dice that are used to form dice pools for task resolution. At their most basic, they are simple and elegant: just add positive ability (green 8-sided) and proficiency (yellow 12-sided) dice for your level of skill, negative purple 8-sided difficulty dice for the difficulty level negative red 12-siders for reasons, and then even some more dice (positive blue boosts and negative black  setbacks, both 6-siders) for situational modifiers (cover, time pressure, assistance from an ally), grab them all, and roll them. Net out success and failure icons, and advantage and threat icons. What you’ve got left is the result. If you end up with at least one success, you succeed. Remaining threat or advantage may give an additional bonus or penalty. It’s a pretty cool idea and rolling lots of dice is fun. However, as I played more, I kept noticing unexpected quirks in the results.

The big thing was that critical hits (which generally require a successful combat check with three advantages) seemed exceptionally rare, and even weapons special powers were hard to activate (they generally require successful check with two advantages). A little bit of analysis of the dice and this made sense. The dice faces never have more than two symbols and rarely show both success and advantage. Good dice only have good faces, and bad dice only have bad faces. So canceling out all the failures and all the threats while having surplus successes and advantages is obviously rare. While there are in theory four different possible “quadrants” the result of a dice roll could fall into (success or failure with advantage or threat), in practice two of them (success with threat and failure with advantage) are predominant, with critical success and critical failure seeming quite rare unless you have a big imbalance between good and bad dice in the pool.

Another odd thing was that it seemed like having high characteristics (Agility, Perception, Brawn, etc.) was a much bigger deal than actually having ranks in skills. A skilled character with a lower characteristic (so, say, a character with Piloting 2 and Agility 2) did not seem to do as well as a character with a slightly higher characteristic (so, no Piloting skill but Agility 3).

Then finally, because nobody really had any idea what the magnitude of the effects of adding various dice were, it made it hard to know what to do with the Destiny Pool, or how to rate the importance of boost and setback dice, or how to wisely spend advantages in combat. The rules seemed to imply that a boost/setback die was a lesser effect while upgrading a die (for example, turning green ability die into a yellow proficiency die) was a bigger deal. But is this really true? It didn’t feel like it.

Now, a little bit (or even a lot) of opacity in the odds is not a bad thing. In fact, a major appeal of the Star Wars system is that dice pools are so intuitive to construct but the probability curves they produce are so complicated as to be essentially incalculable.  That said, we still need to understand some basic things to play the game well. And the only way to get there seemed to be to run some Monte Carlo simulations and see what the numbers looked like. So that’s what I did. Knowing these details definitely improved my game, but they also raised some real questions about whether the designer understood how the dice pool actually works in practice, and if there are fundamental aspects of the game system that need to be re-calibrated.

The dice pool is extremely flexible and it can generate a huge range of probability curves. So I focused on a just few questions: how common are critical successes? What are the quantitative impacts on success and critical success of adding the various different dice to the pool? How big a deal are the challenge dice? To do this, I looked primarily at a few common cases:

  • A difficulty 2 check, which is a typical ranged combat check at medium range or when shooting at a similarly-sized ship
  • A check made by a moderately-skilled entry-level character, with two yellow and one green dice
  • A highly skilled character rolling one green and 3 yellow dice

For a look at a sampling of the numbers generated, you can check out this Google sheet. I’ve focussed on positive results, because they get the most attention from the system. The SUC+2 or SUC+3 columns give the percent chance of a successful check with at least that many advantages. I didn’t go deep, running stats for 2 or 3 or more boost, setback, or challenge dice, but this should give you a feel for how they work. You could really go crazy with the data, but the visualization problems get out of hand very quickly. Also, you need to run a surprisingly large number of iterations to get the results to converge. The numbers for the very large dice pools are not exact.

First a few general observations:

  • If you’re trying to activate weapon properties or score critical hits which require a success with +2 or +3 advantages, basically forget about it unless you have a very large dice advantage. The odds of a less-experienced character with good skill (a dice pool of 1g+2y) activating her twin-linked cannons on a typical shot (difficulty 2p) are only 9%. The odds of a crit are only 2%. A ridiculously skilled gunner on that same shot (5y) still only gets +2 advantages half the time, and a crit 30% of the time (remember a crit is generally not “you’re dead”, or even double damage, but something like reducing the target’s speed by 1 or removing a defense die). Also: reducing your crit rating is a really big deal. A vibrosword with a mono-molecular, serrated edge is extremely nasty (vicious 2, crit 1). Very nearly as good as a lightsaber.
  • Quantity of dice is better than quality of dice. In virtually every case, your odds of success with N green dice are better than with N-1 yellow dice. For Piloting checks, someone with Agility 3 and skill has worse odds than someone with Agility 5 and no training until the former has trained up to 5 ranks in Piloting. There are minor exceptions when a skill level is high and characteristic ratings are only different by 1, but they are quite small. A boost die has a bigger impact than a die upgrade, and it can significantly increase your chances of success and critical success.
  • In the same vein, upgrading a purple difficulty die to a red challenge dice just isn’t that big a deal. Outside of the triumph and despair symbols (see next), the effects of the yellow and red dice on your chances of success vs failure or advantage vs threat are negligible (they help; just not a lot). In most situations a challenge die is about a 5 percentage point hit on your chances of success, with minimal impact on your chances of critical successes (again, outside of despair, which I’m getting to). Adding a setback die is significantly more impactful than upgrading a check, in that it has a somewhat greater negative impact on your chances of success, and a much nastier hit to your chances of critical success (roughly halving them in the 1g+2y vs. 2p case).
  • By far the most important impact of the proficiency (yellow) and challenge (red) dice are the 1:12 chance for a triumph or despair.  The 1g+2y shot vs. 2p has only a 3% chance of a critical, but it has a 12% chance of a success + triumph. For anything that requires three or more advantages to activate,  triumphs are the way to go. Even when you are enormously skilled and the task is easy, you are still more likely to get triumphs than 3 advantages. The overall impact of the challenge dice on the game (and so the despair symbol) is less pronounced simply because there aren’t very many of them flying around. You’ll occasionally get them through the GM spending Destiny, and a Nemesis’ Adversary talent; that’s about it.
  • The bias for failure + advantage and success + threat is very noticeable when the pool is balanced (equal green and purple dice). Due to the extra threat and missing failure symbols on the purple dice (compared to the green dice), until you have a big dice imbalance success with threat tends to dominate the nontrivial results, with failure plus advantage coming next, and then failure plus threat and success plus advantage only filling up as the dice become overwhelming in one direction or the other.

Some of this makes sense, some of it is decidedly odd.

I am definitely not a fan of how it makes levels of skill relatively unimportant. You might think 3 ranks of Piloting gives you some niche protection in that area; but it does not, someone with 4 Agility is basically as good as you. High characteristics are a big deal, and spending any of your initial XP on anything other than characteristics doesn’t make a ton of sense, from a pure min-maxing perspective. This is not great from a “making characters interesting” perspective.

The flipside of the relative weakness of skills is the imbalance in the Destiny Pool. For the GM, spending a dark side Destiny Point to upgrade the difficulty of a skill check just doesn’t do a lot – it’s usually about a 5% hit, the equivalent of a -1 in a d20-based system, with a small (8%) chance of a despair symbol. Barely worth the effort. The FATE-like “Luck and Deus Ex Machina” function of the Destiny Pool is great and I like it a lot. But spending points to upgrade checks and difficulty is fiddly and low-impact.

In fact, many of the parameters of the game seem to be built on a profound misapprehension about how powerful the challenge and proficiency dice are and the frequency of surplus advantages. There are weapons with critical ratings of 4 or 5, as if the chances of that level of surplus did not round to zero. In table 7-5, which talks about how to spend advantage and triumph in starship combat, two options for spending triumph are: “Do something vital to turning the tide of the battle, such as destroying a capital ship’s shield generator or losing a pursuing ship in an asteroid field”, and “Upgrade an allied character’s next Piloting Gunnery, Computers, or Mechanics check”. Which is deeply weird. That first use of a triumph is obviously extremely powerful – much more powerful than a simple critical hit. Yet for a character with skill, getting a triumph is much more likely than rolling a critical hit! The second effect, on the other hand, is comparatively trivial. Not only that, but it’s usually weaker than adding a boost die to the same check, which you can do with a single advantage! The proficiency dice do come with triumph symbols which boosts do not, which complicates the comparison slightly, I think the general rule holds. Boosts increase you chances of success more than proficiency dice do.

One of the interesting ways in which the dice pool works that did make sense is how armor affects defense. Armor is generally modeled through setback dice, and the interesting thing as that while it’s generally a modest reduction in your to-hit chances (on the order of 8%), it really nerfs your chances of getting surplus advantages (the impact on triumphs is less noticeable).

At the end of the day I’m not sure what to make of all this. I like the dice pool mechanic quite a bit, and if you look at it as a core system, it has lots of interesting features and it’s fun to roll lots of colorful dice. For purely narrative checks it works great, as long as you have a basic grasp of the frequency of some combinations. However, a lot of the crunchy superstructure built on top of it seems deeply suspect.

In the long term, to make a more smoothly functioning game, I think we need a serious recalibration of many of the parameters of the game system. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to figure out some tweaks to make your game run better. Here is what I’ve taken away from it for my GMing:

  1. Be very generous in handing out setback and boost dice; they are the most interesting dice to add to routine checks. Use the boosts like candy; give them to players as a reward for trying something cool cinematic, in addition to their modeling function. They are fairly strong, and in order to get surplus advantage to trigger interesting game effects (primarily in combat), characters are going to need the extra punch provided by boosts. The point of diminishing returns on the chance of success is at about 85-90%, so dice beyond that point (roughly +3 dice, although obviously the system has a lot of variability) are mainly going into generating advantage. A lot of talents also remove setback dice, so in order for that to be interesting you need to be handing them out fairly routinely. As a corollary for players, all those things you can do to gain boost dice in combat (aim, spending advantage) are worth doing.
  2. Don’t overdo the triumph symbols, either narratively or in combat. When characters are skilled, triumphs are not that uncommon (12-15% for a balanced dice pool with a couple Proficiency dice). Feel free to go nuts with multiple triumphs, but a single triumph should not be allowed to dismantle a scene or conflict.
  3. Be aware of the system’s significant bias for success with threat and failure with advantage in routine checks. This is actually mostly a feature, not a bug, and allows you to make success more complicated and (more usefully) mitigate failure. But it does get repetitive, so don’t get too worked up about it; it’s OK for the benefits of rolling an advantage or two on a failed check to be small and transitory, since it’s very common. It also argues for rolling dice only when it’s genuinely interesting to do so, but that’s good advice for any game under any circumstances.
  4. The Destiny pool doesn’t really work, because the impact of a single challenge or proficiency die just isn’t big enough. I don’t really have a solution for this. The house rule I’m considering using is to have the GM spend them for Numenera-like intrusions as the flip side of the players’ “Luck and Deus Ex Machina”, but what the system seems to really want is just a much more potent die.
  5. Find ways to get more challenge dice into the game, just so you can play with despair. As written, the system favors adding setback dice to modify difficulty, which I think generally makes sense, but we’re just not rolling enough red dice and they don’t have enough impact on the game. While excess threat is generally easier to find then excess advantage, we still want to see those despair symbols occasionally! Consider giving more opponents the Adversary talent. Minion groups especially currently really suck, and giving more imposing ones (Stormtroopers, TIE wings) some kind of levels of Adversary would help mix things up.
  6. Speaking of Minion groups, they do really suck because the extra proficiency dice they get for being in larger groups just aren’t hugely significant. I think this is fine and generally the intent of the game, but just bear it in mind. Big groups of minions are far more imposing on the page than they are in actual play. The number of groups is far more important than the numbers in each group.
  7. During character generation, I like to give players an extra 40XP to spend after spending their initial allotment (I think this number could actually be even larger). The system is so heavily biased in favor of characteristics that players are going to sensibly spend as many of of their initial points as possible on those. Making sure your character has one characteristic of 4 is a huge deal. Low characteristics, 1 or 2, can limit you because they cap the number of yellow dice you can roll, and so in the long term limit your ability to generate triumphs no matter how skilled you become. Giving players some points they must  spend on skills & talents to differentiate the characters seems wise. In an unrelated point, characters need a lot more starting money – 1500 credits instead of 500 seems closer to right. Yes, there are options for spending Obligation or Duty for more equipment, but messing with this is awkward and 500 credits is just ludicrously low.

This may all sound negative, and I do think it’s true that there is too much in the game that just doesn’t make much sense as designed. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things in the game – weapon ratings, talents, advantage spends – that clearly are at least somewhat misaligned. But, the cool thing about the system is that fundamentally it’s quite simple and elegant and has a lot of potential. Once you’ve gotten a handle on how things actually work, it’s not that hard to hammer things into some form of order. I still need to find a fix for the destiny pool, but I feel like as I play more and get more of an understanding of how the pieces fit together, and how to use them properly (even if that’s not exactly what the rules say), I’m happier with the game. While it’s always going to be a game in need of constant tinkering to keep working, that tinkering is not particularly onerous, Star Wars is fun, dice are fun, and the core system is good.

Player Agency in boardgames and RPGs

Last week there was an interesting interview on Slate’s The Gist with Peter Mendelsund, an ex-concert pianist and current designer of book covers. The conversation turned to how much agency the audience/reader/player has when engaging with different types of entertainment, and the interesting quote that struck me and got me thinking about boardgames was this:

… we imagine reading as being a medium in which we have no agency, we’re passive recipients of the author’s work, and video games as being the opposite, where we’re active participants. And the more you examine, say, just those two media you find out it’s actually quite the opposite in some ways, that reading is way more active and we have way more agency than we think we do and in video games it’s sort of the opposite, we’re way more put in the runnels that the programmer has made for us.

The argument is that because literary descriptions are usually fairly economical, the reader does a lot of construction out of their experience and imagination to create the scene that is in truth only sketched in the text. Mendelsund calls out The Lord of the Rings specifically as a book that relies on the agency of the reader to create the full experience, and how for him the movies ruined the experience of reading the books – because now when Gandalf appears he just conjures up Ian McKellen instead of engaging his imagination. Mendelsund is a book cover designer, and he thinks about the fact that once you concretize a character through an illustration, you take away some of the reader’s agency.

This tweaked me immediately because I had been thinking about player creativity and its vital role in boardgames and RPGs. I have been getting back into MMP’s Operational Combat Series of wargames with the fantastic Reluctant Enemies, and as I was playing it reminded me why I love these games: they generally give the players a huge amount of latitude to do creative and expressive problem-solving, to change not just their chances of winning but the entire course of the game. It struck me as similar to the effect I aim for in the Star Wars: Age of Rebellion game I am running, albeit using a completely different set of tools in a completely different context. The recent release of the terrific Blue Moon Legends has me playing that again also, which has always struck me as a game that particularly rewards finding creative cardplay sequences and combinations, something above and beyond pure tactical analysis.

It became clear to me that a game that gave its players real agency is what divides the good from the great for me. Immediately after thinking this, though, I realized that what exactly agency is in this context is not so easy to simply express. Intriguingly, it seems to work in exactly the same way for both RPGs and boardgames, and so at first I thought of “agency” as “rewarding player creativity”. But as I thought about it more, it became more slippery. Creativity is clearly a very big part of it, but it’s not a sufficient description. Games from across the spectrum can reward various types of player creativity in a range of different ways: High Frontier, Race for the Galaxy, Lost Legends, Blue Moon Legends, Android: Netrunner, Battle Above the Clouds, No Retreat, Ashen Stars, The One Ring. But there are other games where the players clearly have what I think of as agency but which I can’t really see as creative per se, like Modern Art and Lord of the Rings. There are games where players need to be creative but it’s not clear they have agency, like Dixit or Telestrations. There are games which seem like they might reward creativity, but system imbalances or constraints mean they probably don’t, like X-Wing or GMT’s COIN games. And there are games which support or provide outlets for creativity in different ways but where it’s not really part of the game, like Arkham Horror or Games of Thrones: Westeros Intrigue.

This last category is intriguing to me, because it’s both a very large class of games and also the closest analogy to Mendelsund’s idea of how we interact with books: although the players’ choices don’t affect the course of the game, on the other hand the experience of playing provides a sketch in which you have to (and which the game allows you to) fill in with your imagination to move forward and bring the game to life. In a game, though, I find this form of agency the least compelling, least useful, and also the most technically difficult to meld with an interesting game. Games are different from books: they are shared with multiple people and require a shared framework, and they take place in strict time where everyone has to move at the same pace, more or less. They require a quite different sort of player agency to feed engagement. It’s clear that simply engaging the players’ imaginations can turn a so-so game (Grand National Derby) into a very good one (Titan: The Arena), or a non-game (Munchkin) into something people like a lot. But this is not a particular strength of the boardgame form, and I’m always far more interested in what games can do that other forms can’t.

To loop back a bit, in the realm of RPGs I’ve spent the last few years pursuing games that strongly encourage player agency. For me, RPGs aren’t fun – either as a player or the GM – unless the players are actively involved in the creative process, unless their decisions change not just their chance of success in any given scene but the entire course of the story. Thus I have been drawn to Ashen Stars, Night’s Black Agents, Numenera, and Hillfolk. For plenty of players, though, agency is not a feature and is in fact something they specifically don’t want. They want the GM to set up some scenes for them, and they want to interact with them. Just as in the world of boardgames, there are games that support both preferences. I think this may be part of the trap that 13th Age fell into for me personally: although it tries to give the players much more freedom to be creative, it is also clearly set in a genre where the main games (D&D and Pathfinder) are the games of choice for players who don’t particularly want agency.

I came away from all this thought without a clear definition of how agency works in boardgames, other than that it is important to me and some people like it and others don’t (the picture is obviously much clearer in RPGs). So I thought I’d close with a few capsule comments about boardgames where I feel like I have real agency and how I think it works.

Knizia’s Lord of the Rings is a game that is sending distinctly mixed messages, and presents a particularly difficult critical problem. On the one hand, with its fixed throughline, the players clearly have no ability to affect the overarching flow of the game. On the other hand, because the risk-reward probabilities are so complex and the thinking required frequently so long-term, the players do have a huge amount of flexibility in how they choose to attack the problems – far more meaningful flexibility than in any other cooperative game, even before you throw in the expansions. While the instances of truly creative problem-solving may be rare, they do exist; those occasional eureka moments where you realize that if I use the Miruvor, you can pass the Mithril to Frodo which allows him to use Gollum without dying and to escape from Shelob’s Lair are really cool. At the same time, the fixed throughline could be viewed as a list of checkpoints which allow all the players to stay on track together while still being able to construct their own internal narratives. I don’t think of Lord of the Rings as giving the players true narrative or creative agency; the real strength of the game is how it evokes the books in forging the players into a fellowship through the trials it sets up for them (and this is perhaps the greatest agency the players have, in how they relate to the other players in the game). On the other hand the game is also so much more than the sum of its mechanics, probabilities, and presentation, and it give the players the chance to decide what the game means to them.

Reluctant Enemies is the game that sent me down this path, because as I was playing it – even as the more reactive Vichy French who play primarily defense – I was impressed both by how much legitimate flexibility I had in deciding how to attack tactical problems, and how dramatically the choices of the players affects the flow of the game. Much of this is driven by how much information is concealed – available supply, so crucial to being able to do anything in this system – and so how much uncertainty there is. In a more traditional wargame like Roads to Moscow or France ’40 the players can see everything that matters and so it’s much harder for a game to get away from being strict tactical problem solving and allow players true flexibility and choice. Even in games like War of the Ring or Hammer of the Scots, where there is a lot of hidden information, right and wrong answers to the situation develop as players feel out the game and their flexibility and agency gets stripped away. By contrast, in Reluctant Enemies, right and wrong answers are created only out of the choices the players make and are largely unknowable in the moment.

Thinking of games where agency seems to start high but goes to zero over time, Dominion is to me a classic example. When you first play it there is this sense of endless possibility, that by creatively mixing and matching cards and ratios you can create interesting effects and control the game. As you gain even a little experience though, you find that the cards aren’t particularly well balanced, that some are worth the effort and many are not, that the game rewards simplicity to an extreme degree, and so each set tends to be an up-front tactical problem-solving search for the critical card or combination. Ascension (and similar games like Star Realms), by making you figure out how to take advantage of a constantly changing environment, is much better at tapping into player creativity and feelings of agency. It’s probabilistic – occasionally the exact cards you need are magically turned over off the deck, and everything just works out – but you earn your stripes in the game by turning what seems like a bunch of nothing into something.

Tales of the Arabian Nights is the game which is the obvious analog to the book-reading experience. As you string together these blocks of text you get to construct in your head the cinematic narrative. Because the ongoing story applies only to you, and only your choices affect it, it doesn’t matter if different players construct radically different ideas about what’s going on. Reading the paragraphs are also little bits of performance art (very little, but still). Additionally, and also cool, is that your choices of skills and how you develop them has obvious and significant effects on how the story unfolds. These elements are strengths and weakness, though. Because Tales is an analog to a book-reading experience (with each player individually developing his or her own story), and because book reading doesn’t scale that well past 1, having players beyond 2 or 3 simply degrades the experience.

Talking about Advanced Squad Leader in this context makes me sad because it’s a game I like, but at the end of the day I think ASL is much more of a game of tactical problem solving than it is about player creativity. The variety of tactical situations it puts you in is vast and it rewards being able to simplify very complex problems, but usually creative solutions are less important than correct solutions. The interesting counterpoint – which shows the huge range of the system and the difficulty of generalizing about it – is that the night rules change the texture of the game drastically. All of a sudden players have far less concrete information (and often more flexibility) and games can turn on creative bluffs and traps, which probably explains why I’ve always liked those scenarios.

Race for the Galaxy is game where I think this idea of agency is at the heart of why it is such a great game. You are always looking for creative ways to use the cards you’ve been dealt, reaching for combinations or strategies that will work, then trying them out and seeing what happens. Additionally, those choices have significant effects on how the overall game unfolds. If you go with a military strategy, that increases the number of Settle actions taken in the game in an obvious way, and so changes how the other players feel and choose in a way that simply isn’t true for the majority of purely tactical euros (Tzolk’in, Power Grid, Age of Steam). This feeling of control may age out after a long period of time as the contours of game balance become more fully explored, and the game’s expansions weren’t always handled adroitly, but introducing just the goal chits goes a long way by messing with that sense of balance and extending the creative phase of the game.

I’ve just started working with this idea in the realm of boardgames, so I’m sure my thoughts on it will evolve as I develop it. Maybe it will turn out to be a minor element of most boardgames, where it’s much harder to clearly see than it is in roleplaying, but it strikes me as an important intangible that helps separates the good from the great.

Moby Dick or, The Card Game

Moby Dick, or, The Card GameBack in 2005 Reiner Knizia and Kosmos published Beowulf: The Legend, which was a turning point for me in my appreciation of what games can aspire to do. The game represented a legitimate artistic interpretation of the source material (as did Knizia’s previous Lord of the Rings, although in a slightly less striking manner). For the most part, game adaptations of books or other media tend to be what I think of as “touchstone” games, games which serve up visual, textual, or other tidbits from the source but don’t have much of their own creative impetus behind them – Arkham Horror and The Virgin Queen are classic examples. Nothing wrong with this approach in theory, and those games can be enjoyable, but to me they’re limited and uninteresting. Beowulf managed to have it all: a terrific and engaging game which also channels the idea of one-upmanship and show-offy competition that is ever-present in the story (among other things). Likewise, in Lord of the Rings, Knizia manages to get at the themes of persistence and sacrifice. These games are unusual not only because they succeeded so well, but also just because they made a serious attempt. Moby Dick or, The Card Game intrigued me because it also seemed to be trying to make a serious, artistic attempt to adapt a classic (and out-of-copyright) work to the game format.

The first thing to understand about Moby Dick or, The Card Game is that its foundations are much more towards the “popular game” end of the game spectrum (where mechanical familiarity is key – think Munchkin or Ticket to Ride), not the classical hobby games we all love (where the game’s form is essential – in the extreme, think almost anything by Stefan Feld). So it resembles a melding, rummy-type game: you are trying to assemble a tableau of whaling crew that is capable of hanging on and dying last when confronted by the great whale.* For this we need a good mix of crew skills – harpooner, shipkeepers, forecastlepersons, and so on – most of whom have abilities that involve negating the various hazards of hunting whales (except for the few who are cursed, who add a nice little bit of drama to drawing from the deck). To build your crew, you just draw blind from the crew deck or pick up from the discard pile. From time to time you can bribe a crew away from an opponent’s tableau. The currency for doing all these things is whale oil, which you can get from successful hunts and which you never have enough of. After having tried to optimize your crew, you then draw a card from The Sea deck and deal with whatever it throws at you. If that’s a whale, you move to The Hunt deck, with a similar process – draw a card, see if it kills you or if your crew can negate it, then throw dice to try to kill the whale.

The Sea deck, with events drawn from the book, is nicely-drawn. Chapter cards are drawn directly from chapters in the novel, and have some representational and lasting effect (in chapter 113, The Forge, Ahab gets +2 strength and gains the Harpooner ability, but whales also get +1 strength). Others are one-off events, some good and many bad, all with nice drawings and text from the book. Other than sightings of the White Whale, which serve as a countdown clock to the final confrontation, there is no sequencing or flow – cards are just drawn randomly off the deck. Often this approach doesn’t work for me (see Arkham Horror, Betrayal at the House on Hill, Battlestar Galactica) because it just ends up feeling incoherent. With Moby Dick or, the Card Game I think it works though. The cards are focussed, grounded in the original story, and are strongly positive or negative in effect. Because the game doesn’t have that many levers to pull (mainly adding or killing crew, or giving or taking away whale oil) you don’t get crazy effects that just feel random, weird, and possibly irrelevant. Because the events are so focussed primarily on crew survival, for me each pull from the event deck manages to generate that anticipation and fear that you like to have to make the game work. Card pulls that don’t move the game forward in some way seem to be rare, although it is somewhat vulnerable to odd distributions like long uninterrupted runs of chapter cards.

The Whale deck, which covers the hunt and is almost a mini-game unto itself, is similarly nicely-drawn. Players lower their crew into the boats to try to hunt the whale once sighted, harpooning him and then getting close enough to kill him before he kills you with his tail, bite, charge, ancient wisdom, and so on. Crew skill allows you avoid hazards, but getting close to the whale (i.e., successfully harpooning him) makes you more vulnerable just before the kill. There is a small but clever push-your-luck element as several hazards will give you the choice between disengaging or pressing on but losing crew. Being the player who strikes the killing blow has significant bonuses, especially if you are the last one standing when the deed is done. Being on a successful hunt gives you whale oil and a significant advantage in getting more crew – and again, you win the game by being the last one to have surviving crew.

Given that Moby Dick or, the Card Game is at its core a “draw a card, read the text” game, King Post and Andy Kopas have done as much with the form as you could want or expect. The physical design of the game, from the cards to the dice and chips, is tremendous. Illustrations are authentic period and evocative, flavor text is on-point and drawn from the books, and the game effects of events are fairly reliably interesting. While some percentage of the game is to experience the setting, you do regularly make choices which do matter.

Still, if you’re a gaming hobbyist Moby Dick or, The Card Game is not going to do it for you by dint of its compelling gameplay alone. Unlike Beowulf: The Legend or Lord of the Rings, a mechanics-first approach to appreciating the game is not going to be the easy way. For example, if you look at it in isolation the game appears to be primarily about building up a competent set of crew that can handle the vagaries of the sea and killing whales. So why have players primarily draw crew blind from the deck? Why not have a drafting or bidding mechanic that might give them more of a sense of engagement? The answer, of course, is that the book isn’t about the best strategies for recruiting whaling crew. I’m far from a Moby Dick expert, but I can say with some confidence that interviewing techniques are not a theme.  What are the themes of Moby Dick, then? Given my non-expert status I asked the internet, and it turns out it’s a bit complicated. It is, after all, a rather long and ambitious book, and a game could no more capture the entirety of it than you could cram all of Les Misérables into a stage musical. But two clear themes the game focuses on are ideas of man vs. nature and fate vs. free will, which I think are good choices. Fate vs. free will is virtually built in to this particular game format, and nicely calibrating the choices the game gives you gives it life. The idea of man vs. nature is well-developed by defining the crew in terms of what characteristics of the whales they fight they can counter. The whales themselves are given a nice mix of both wild (charge, battering ram, bite) and personified (Ancient Wisdom and Unflagging Spirit) abilities. The deathmatch whale hunts can be bloody affairs. Crew members are simultaneously valuable and expendable, with crew death at the hands of the whales and the sea being frequent and often capricious. **

I quite enjoyed Moby Dick or, The Card Game. Unlike Beowulf, Lord of the Rings, or Pax Porfiriana the core game is not so compelling on its own that it can potentially succeed even if you have no interest in what the game is trying to say or what the meaning of Moby Dick is. When you look at the total package, though – as a game inspired by and trying to bring to life a classic American novel – there is quite a lot to like, and its grounding in a more traditional game format makes it accessible to non-hobbyists. While I know a fair amount about Moby Dick, I have never actually read Moby Dick in its entirety (I suspect I am in good company there). Despite the novel’s legendary pacing issues ***, the game has inspired me to try to read it. Can’t ask for more than that.

* – Wow, replace “whaling crew” with “investigators” and “great whale” with “great Cthulhu” and it sounds positively Lovecraftian.

** – Going back to the above thought, it did strike me that if you just gave Moby Dick or, the Card Game a new coat of paint (changing the theme “man vs. nature” to “humans vs. the meaninglessness of existence”, and keeping “fate vs. free will”) it would make a far better Cthulhu game than any other Lovecraftian boardgame that comes to mind. Designers, make a note of it.

*** – It can’t be worse than A Game of Thrones. Can it?

Pathfinder Adventure Cardgame

For a guy who ostensibly thinks dungeon-crawling is stupid, I sure have played a lot of games in that genre of late. The latest is Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game, a cooperative game from Paizo Publishing, and it’s not bad.

The game is a quite faithful port of the Pathfinder/D&D3 roleplaying experience, minus the actual roleplaying (which is traditionally optional anyway). You’ve got a character with strength, dexterity, wisdom, and so on, each rated as a die size (d4, d6, d8, etc., but ironically not a d20). Encounters (which can be monsters, barriers, allies, treasures) have a target number which you need to beat to successfully navigate. You can play cards from your character’s personalized deck and use your inherent special powers to boost your skills, and occasionally your allies can help you. Track down and kill the episode’s Villain, usually cutting a swathe through his or her Henchpeople on the way, and you win. After the game, you can rebuild your character’s deck using cards you’ve acquired during the adventure to make him or her more potent next time.

The mechanics of this are simple and nicely done, but not particularly noteworthy. What I think is interesting is looking at how the game approaches the question of how to balance narrative scripting against gameplay variability.

Cooperative games usually need to provide some kind of narrative experience to be successful; they can’t just be intellectual puzzles. There are obviously a lot of ways to do this, but the general idea is to give the series of challenges the players must overcome (and rewards they receive for doing so) some sort of structure designed to engage them. This can be entirely narrative, with the challenges having some attached title or flavor text which is read aloud with the story becoming emergent as the texts are read (as long as they are coherent enough that players can improvise logical connections). Or the structure can be much more constructed and explicit, with challenges and rewards designed and ordered to produce an intended overall emotional story arc.

Examples of games which use the first idea are easy to find; successful examples include Robinson Crusoe, Tales of the Arabian Nights, and Ghost Stories (or Arkham Horror, Shadows over Camelot, or Defenders of the Realm, if you consider those games good). You have a huge supply of little storylets, which are pulled out more or less randomly and translated into game-mechanics form. A windstorm hits (reducing your shelter level), your lack of Courtly Graces offends the nobility (and you become Scorned), or whatever. As they are read they form a timeline you can create a story out of.

This has the gameplay advantage of making the tasks you are facing varied and unpredictable, and differ greatly from game to game. It also allows the players to do their own storytelling when the events remain within the bounds of the somewhat plausible. The huge disadvantage, as anyone who has a basic understanding of literature or music will tell you, is that we have a pretty good understanding of how compelling narratives are built, and this is most definitely not it. Stories have build-up, carefully managed cycles of tension and resolution, anticipation, and suspense. None of which you can reliably do if you’re just pulling random storylets.

Still, I think there is nothing inherently wrong with this way of doing things. For example, while Nuclear War or Fluxx aren’t particular good games by 2014 standards, they do have delightful anti-establishment or satirical aesthetics that are both completely coherent and tied up with their total randomness (and, it bears mentioning, their brevity). Or a game like Once Upon a Time, where the players’ attempts to create signal out of noise and find ways to creatively link events is what the game is. So clearly it’s possible to do great work this way. But it’s also an easy and unfortunate default pattern when a designer is unskilled, or when a game doesn’t have a strong creative vision or anything particular to say. If you look at a big and intricate game like Battlestar Galactica, where the fictional world it’s designed to emulate has a clear authorial style, it’s hard to see the merit in having the players interact with a simple, random, unstructured throughline.

The opposite end of the spectrum is Knizia’s highly structured Lord of the Rings. Here, the story events and the challenges associated with them are laid out in a strict order. You’re going through Rivendell to Moria to Rohan, and that’s all there is to it. You face the same challenges (and narrative elements) in the same order each game. There is this still quite a lot of randomness in the timing of the events and resource flows, as random draws from a bag of tiles trigger various game elements, but the story events that drive the narrative are scripted.

This strong structure gives the gameplay itself the ebb and flow required to make the story engaging. The designer can directly tweak and manage the flow of challenges and rewards to manipulate the moment-to-moment game tension, hopefully giving us both high-tension action scenes and rewarding us with moments of rest and refresh after we get through. This can, when well executed, give us a far more visceral engagement with the game because it goes after our emotions very directly. Pandemic does the same thing: the structured way the decks are manipulated (pre-stacking the player deck, the stacking and re-stacking of the infection deck) alternates high-risk and high-tension periods where you are firefighting crises with lower-risk infrastructure-building and research-gathering periods.

Even though for all these reasons I think of the structured narrative as “the right way” and the random event firehose as “the wrong way”, in truth it’s a continuum and structure is certainly not an end in and of itself. The goal is to modulate the players’ sense or risk, to feed the dread of anticipation and allow the relief and accomplishment of a challenge faced down, and that requires both a degree of predictability as well as significant risk and therefore uncertainty. Clearly you can go too far in trying to organize your narrative – making the story predictable and boring – just as you can make a game too random and disjointed. It wouldn’t be hard to argue that Britannia, for example, is too well-organized and that it needs more uncertainty to maintain tension. My experience though is that cooperative or narrative-driven games almost never err on the side of being too structured.

The interesting thing about Pathfinder is that from the long view it resembles classic, unstructured, firehose-driven games. You have a box containing a very large number of cards that the characters can encounter, and you randomly pull some of them out and deal them into piles at different locations to explore. When you explore, you just draw a card from a location deck and do what it says, with perhaps minor assistance from the other players. The Villain is dealt into one of these piles at random and you just need to plow through the decks to hunt him down. If your goal is hunting the bad guy, there are no percentages in going to the Apothecary before you hit the Treacherous Cave; the Villain is equally likely to be anywhere. It’s eerily similar to Arkham Horror’s “go to a location and random stuff happens for no particular reason”.

But Pathfinder combines straightforward gameplay with just enough structure to make decision-making and task allocation interesting and have a real but measured sense of risk. Each location has a clearly specified mix of cards that go into the deck: monsters, barriers, weapons, armor, spells, items, and allies. The mix is listed on the top of the location card, where you can always look at it and know what you’re getting in to. So unlike in Arkham Horror, when you go to a location you have a pretty clear idea of what you might get out of it and which character is best suited for the challenges it might present (the Thief for the location with the barriers, the Fighter for the place with the monsters, the Sorcerer for the place with the allies). Still, while the Fighter may be the best person to take on the monsters in the Desecrated Vault, there is still usually the possibility that he’ll run into a barrier or trap that’ll hose him, so there is almost always still some risk. And there are balancing factors; maybe you really need to find a better a weapon, so a trip to the Garrison is worth the risk of facing monsters. More likely, you don’t have a character who is ideally suited to exploring a location, but someone has to do it, so you need to figure out who is going to sign up for the increased risk (because you always have to face the card you draw, teaming up is actually not particularly useful). Additionally, once locations have been cleared of Henchpeople, they need to be “closed”, secured against the Villain’s return. This involves another test, and the character best suited to exploring the location may well not be ideally suited to closing it. Opportunities to close a location are infrequent and valuable and you want someone who is able to do it there when the opportunity presents itself, which is another matter of risk management. This all adds up to a significant amount of nuance and randomness, but because the general contours are spelled out and what needs to be done is clear, it’s interestingly tractable. You always know what you need to do to make forward progress, and you can make judgements about risk and reward that can pay off or not.

However, what this structure doesn’t do is give you any overall sense of pacing or drive. Some locations are more dangerous than others (sometimes significantly so, often not), but the game never modulates its moment-to-moment tension. You’re never forced to run the gauntlet before you want to or go into panic defense mode, nor are you given a moment of respite to recover and gear up after facing something particularly dangerous. Pathfinder’s time pressure is just a 30-turn clock you need to beat – an arbitrary, inorganic limit. Compare to Pandemic, with its beautifully organic ebbing and flowing threat and pressure, where you need to win before the diseases do. By comparison, Pathfinder just has a time limit because if it didn’t there would be no game. Given Pathfinder’s source material this is fine, time just isn’t a dimension of traditional D&D stories; for structural reasons D&D-style RPGs in general have a difficult time managing time as a storytelling pressure. But this is a boardgame, not an RPG, and there is no need to be bound by a stricture of the original format.

Interestingly for a game that lacks any kind of strong overarching narrative, Pathfinder eschews any sort of explicit textual elements. Cards have illustrations and more or less descriptive titles but no flavor text. There are no “event” cards which add dramatic twists or change the rules or environment. The only real explanation of what you’re trying to accomplish comes up front, when you select the adventure to go on and get a few perfunctory sentences of flavor on the card that also outlines the locations, Villains, and Henchpeople involved (location cards also have some static descriptions, but they are in practice invisible because they’re on the back of the card). This makes the experience somewhat generic. The box says it’s the “Rise of the Runelords Base Set”, with the “Rise of the Runelords” being the long-form adventure arc which wends its way through the base game and 5 expansions. But there is no sense that this is taking place in anything other than just a generic D&D fantasy world. If the premise of the story is that there are Runelords and they are rising, the game doesn’t exactly go out of its way to fill you in on what’s up with that.

What this long arc does capture, though, is very distinctively D&D: the slow, grinding out of improvements to your character and his or her equipment. You wade through monsters and challenges and maybe you’ll find a longsword to replace your short sword. The upgrades to your character and availability of new cards to add your deck are sporadic; after four games, you may have a better weapon or one more spell, or you may have basically the same deck you started with and one minor skill improvement. After you make it all the way through all the adventures your character will have accomplished quite a bit in the end, but that will be a lot of hours of gaming and the rewards for risking death each time out are very incremental. That’s fine, it’s the D&D tradition, but in the context of a boardgame it feels wrong. If this is the route we’re going to go, I’d like more intense pacing. Personally, I’d much rather have multiple, complete 6-episode arcs which have a quick pace and you can play a character through and then move on to the next story with a fresh character. The 36-episode monster arc just seems like a huge time sink. This feels to me like a back-port from MMORPGs, and not really appropriate for a boardgames.

Still, when all is taken into account I do like Pathfinder: The Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords well enough. The pacing of the long adventure arc is probably too slack to keep me interested for that long, but the individual adventures are playable, quick, simple, and are structured well enough to provide both meaningful decisions and some tension. It’s certainly not in the same league as Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic, or Lord of the Rings, but you can’t play those games all the time and some of them require a significant energy investment while Pathfinder is more lightweight. Besides, D&D is more than a game now, it’s become something of a cultural touchstone. While the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game may not exactly be a work of game design brilliance, it is a workmanlike game that has a huge weight of tradition behind it.

Göthe takes on The Virgin Queen

Despite having turned on Here I Stand after a handful of games, I picked up The Virgin Queen at GMT West last year – lured perhaps by the lower turn count, the more open game situation, the promise of more reasonable rules for playing with fewer players, and the memory that I did enjoy Here I Stand for a number of games before it became tedious.

What I find interesting about both games is that they seem to defy basic critical analysis as games for me. Göthe says that in a work of criticism, we should figure out what something is trying to do, whether it succeeded in doing it, and whether it was worth doing. That first question is where The Virgin Queen mystifies me. OK, we know that it’s trying to portray the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. But that’s too broad to be helpful. What is the game trying to say? And how, exactly, is it trying to say it?

It’s clearly not going the abstract, high-level route favored by many successful thematic games: Beowulf, Settlers, Lord of the Rings, Pandemic, Modern Art, Sekigahara, Napoleon’s Triumph, Rommel in the Desert, or perhaps Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, just to pick a few. These games try to focus on just one or at most a few really essential things about the topic (Bowen Simmons used the term quiddity) and use that as the cornerstone of the design. Clearly, limiting scope is a foreign concept to The Virgin Queen, and the many and varied subsystems (mini-games, almost) are given fairly equal design weight.

Another design option is to focus on the decision making of the historical parties and try to convey the forces that pressed on them. This is the method Mark Herman called out in the designer’s notes for For the People, and while I don’t think it was particularly successful there, a great example of a game system where it works is the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series (the most recent, in-print installment being Battle Above the Clouds). While Battle Above the Clouds’ game systems are inherently abstract, with dice rolls controlling movement and initiative even though historical commanders knew quite well how far a division could march in a day, it masterfully conveys the confusion, uncertainty, and murk those commanders faced in a way that remains fun to play and recreates the historical press-your-luck decision making pressures. Another classic game in this mold is Up Front, and Labyrinth might be trying to go this route also. Clearly this is also not the approach The Virgin Queen is taking. The trade-offs made by players in The Virgin Queen are fundamentally arbitrary – Elizabeth I didn’t have some spreadsheet in which she allocated some of her budget to Shakespeare, some of it to New World piracy, and some of it to whacking Catholics. She certainly never thought, “hey, if I can avoid getting married ever, I’ll earn a bunch of VP!”. I’ve never been able to get my head around how the cards in The Virgin Queen (or The Napoleonic Wars) are supposed to be driving authentic, or even interesting, decision-making pressures.

Another way you can go is to be representational. The idea here is to present a playing field that is as rich a simulation as is possible or reasonable as constrained by the game’s complexity targets, then throw out the historical personalities and let the players step into their place. Obviously, a key here is being able to blend sensible abstraction of key elements and knowing when simulation detail is useful in either producing interesting and evocative decisions or eliciting emotional response, but the idea of authentically portraying processes is key. Vance von Borries is a master of this sort of design, and Mark Simonitch’s ‘4X games are great examples of games that both focus in on critical factors, abstracting the rest, while also having just the right amount of simulation detail. Other great examples to my mind include Europe and Asia Engulfed, EastFront and Downtown. This is an approach in which the key difficulty is knowing how much complexity is sensible, something about which reasonable people can disagree. Regardless, The Virgin Queen isn’t doing this either. The idea that many of the game’s manifold distinct and abstract subsystems – patronage, piracy, naval operations, religious conflict – are modeling historical processes is laughable.

The Virgin Queen, like Here I Stand, feels very similar to other “card-driven” GMT titles like Twilight Struggle, Paths of Glory, Barbarossa to Berlin, and The Napoleonic Wars. They are all resource management games where the resources being managed are abstract and not really in service of any thematic focus. The subject matter is just window dressing – sometimes rather nice window dressing, but still. These games just seem to be trying to present the players with constant tough decisions. As games, they are successful to the extent that they can do that. Paths of Glory: definitely, at least for a few games; Barbarossa to Berlin: yes, at least when the cardplay is viewed in conjunction with the more representational on-board tactical game; Twilight Struggle: for me, eh, not so much, although others find the decision-making more compelling; The Napoleonic Wars: no.

If this is the this way we’re going to view the games, both Here I Stand and The Virgin Queen must ultimately be judged failures. They don’t reliably present tough or even interesting choices once you understand the game’s basic structure. And they don’t deliver those choices in a timely manner.

I have more beefs than this with The Virgin Queen. The game is unstable and balance is suspect; the narrative tension is absent; it’s overly complex and overly long; the design of the card deck doesn’t produce useful suspense (unchanged from Here I Stand). I could enumerate and detail these and other mechanical problems. At the end of day, though, the game simply lacks a coherent thematic focus and so it lives and dies on its ability to rapidly present the players with tense decisions. Which for me, it doesn’t do.

Is this sort of thing really worth doing, especially in the space of very long, very complex games? To me, not especially. For one, getting the balance right – delivering these constant, difficult decisions to the players – is technically challenging even in a short game and gets dramatically more difficult to the point of practical impossibility as you add length, rules, and scope. For another, this is a very well-mined field. Games that deliver tough choices without much thematic payload are a dime a dozen.

I’m aware that lots of people are rather fond of both games, and even think of them as highly thematic, so I have to ask myself: maybe there is something else going on? Obviously, they find something there that I don’t, and it’s pretty unlikely that they are just wrong. I think that The Virgin Queen and Here I Stand succeed for some players for exactly the same reasons that an entirely different set of players are drawn to Arkham Horror: the players bring the fun to the table themselves, and use the game only as a touchstone. The period of Martin Luther and Elizabeth I is endlessly fascinating and a lot of history geeks know a little to a lot about it, and The Virgin Queen serves up nerdtropes for the knowledgable player to riff on. It’s a vehicle for players to share a historical experience, which is fine, but it’s not really a game in the sense that I understand games. Even by these standards I think The Virgin Queen experience doesn’t really work for the same reasons Arkham Horror doesn’t really work – the historical tidbits it serves up are infrequent and structurally incoherent – but hey, if you want to have some Reformation-period fun and wear an Elizabeth I nametag, there isn’t much else available.

GUMSHOE Tips for Players

As regular readers will know, Robin Laws’ and Pelgrane Press’ GUMSHOE game system has become by far my favorite roleplaying system over the past year. Much as I like it, its focus on character and narrative instead of the more traditional event-driven stories can make for a tricky adaptation for both players and GMs. There is a lot of advice and material out there for GMs, but not so much for players. So, here are are some strategies that I’ve picked up from playing and running games.

  • Look at your Drive. Understand it. If it’s not completely clear to you, ask your GM. Never mind your background, character flavor, or skills, your Drive is your single most important roleplaying tool. If you’re ever in doubt about what direction your character should be going, consult your Drive. Nobody will ever fault you for honestly pushing your Drive, and your GM will likely thank you.
  • Don’t concern yourself with equipment. Rely on your Preparedness skill instead. The GUMSHOE character sheets have no inventory lists – there is a reason for that. The GM is not out to screw you because you forgot a 10′ pole. It’s just not that sort of game. Let go. Pick a weapon, if appropriate, and leave the rest to Preparedness.
  • For your first few games, don’t worry about investigative spends. They make sense, but only once players are comfortable with the system and its goals. One good, simple way to think about them is this: if you monopolize the GM’s time for a little while, that’s a spend. If you find that a skill use you’ve called for has ended up highlighting your character for a non-trivial sequence, dock yourself a point or two based on your sense of how much screen time you sucked down. Once you have no points left in a skill, be careful about calling for actions using that skill that place demands on the GMs time to the exclusion of other players.
  • Think about what information you need, then look at your investigative skills to figure out how your character might go about it if you need help. Remember, GUMSHOE characters are generally highly competent, and as such their skills define them more strongly than in other games. Other systems can develop a pattern of “here’s what I want to do, what skill should I roll against?”, but this can cause problems for GUMSHOE because of the auto-succeed nature of investigative skills. So know what skill you’re using. The skill list has been carefully chosen to reflect the genre and style. When in doubt, you can look at your skill list and try to figure out how those skills might be useful and interesting in this scene.
  • This is tricky, but try to let scenes develop while also knowing when to end them. GUMSHOE is a character-driven game. If the GM sets a scene or introduces a character, it’s something for your character to explore, have some fun with, and see where it goes. Once you’ve developed something a bit, try to recognize when it’s played out. The GM will try to help you here – pay attention if she is trying to shut the scene down. This is easier said than done, but scenes usually follow a logical narrative flow which you can try to grasp.
  • Recognize each player’s character’s strengths, as represented by their skill ratings, and let them take care of stuff in their specialties. If you have Library Use 1, that’s great, but let the player with Library Use 4 take charge in an appropriate scene. GUMSHOE parties are built as teams, almost to a greater degree even than D&D parties. Let each team member shine at what they do well.
  • Recognize dead ends. If you call for a skill use and the GM doesn’t give you anything interesting, there is nothing there. If you’ve called for Reassurance to calm down an NPC and get information out of him, and he’s not forthcoming, there is no key reassuring phrase you can utter in-character that will change this. This is the magic of investigative skills … you never have to worry about looking for something and missing it. If you use your skills, and don’t get results, you can still play out the scene for dramatic purposes if there is something interesting there – but you’ve got all the information you’re going to get. It’s tempting to think that anything significant the GM introduces at any point is immediately important, but that’s not always true. Sometimes it’s laying pipe, sometimes it’s just flavor, sometimes it’s a background detail. Don’t beat your head against things. In an event-driven story, you can never go back. In GUMSHOE, you can.
  • Be very careful about splitting the party. This is of course a truism in D&D, where there are endless jokes about it. GUMSHOE may be a totally different game from D&D, but there remains relentless logic behind sticking together. If half the party investigates one avenue while the other half minds the store, the GM can’t run a big scene without idling half the players for a significant amount of time and running the risk that skills key to resolving it are absent. If you lose the argument about what to do next, suck it up.
  • Apropos the last point, another trope of classic RPGs is to strictly cordon off player knowledge from character knowledge. Don’t do this. Or at least don’t go crazy. For example, if you do split the party for legitimate reasons, don’t duplicate what the other half of the group has already done because that’s what your character would do and he hasn’t got that information yet. Remember, your remit as a player is to move the narrative forward and be interesting. What your character does still has to make sense of course, but don’t do boring or redundant things because that’s what your character would do when you as a player know better.
  • GUMSHOE is about information: getting it, understanding it, making decisions based on it. The emotional tenor of the game will be based on what kind of information we’re talking about and how it’s revealed, but pieces of information are the corridors, doors, and treasure of GUMSHOE. Have a plan to get the information. Follow the information where it leads. Stay focussed. Let your plans play out.

The most important overarching thing to remember goes back to where I started: unlike most RPGs, GUMSHOE is primarily character-driven, not event-driven. Don’t concern yourself at all with what the GM is trying to do to your character. Ask yourself what you are doing to interestingly drive the narrative forward. The GM is not going to hose you, at least not in uninteresting ways. In fact, the only way you will end up getting hosed is if the GM is forced to hose you because you are being boring. Players have a lot of the responsibility for making a GUMSHOE story interesting, and the GM is at your mercy here. Consult your Drive and your skills to figure out ways to move the narrative forward. Most of the time you can go with just doing something obvious, because what is obvious to you in the context of your character, your drive, and your skills will usually be interesting to everyone else, including the GM. There is still plenty of room for dramatic, character-building scenes, but GUMSHOE is an investigative system which requires the players to get the information they need. Figure out what you need to know, what questions you need answered, and get those answers. Answers, not questions, move the narrative forward. Ask yourself, is what I’m doing interesting? Is it trying to answer questions based on what we’ve seen, what we know, or what my drive is? If it’s not, come up with something different.