Blending pen and paper role playing games with interactive storytelling: mechanics
I promised a follow-up post to my original thoughts on blending pen and
paper role playing games with interactive storytelling, but I'd like to
take an aside to talk about mechanics in tabletop games.
Mechanics in tabletop games are there to help facilitate a particular
type of story. When we think of a game like D&D we immediately think of
buff warriors, wizards, elves, dwarves, and rogues / thieves banding
together with the occasional cleric to go into a series of rooms, kill
the monsters, and gain treasure for their effort. It's become such a
cliche that there are games that openly mock the concept to great effect
(Steve Jackson Games' Muchkin comes to mind, along with many others).
The mechanics of D&D support this kind of play, delineating characters
into various core attributes of Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom,
Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma (there may be others in later
editions and other versions of D&D, but these were current when I
imprinted on D&D) With these attributes you would define your character.
Throw some spells and equipment on your character, choose a race and
alignment for other benefits, and you were ready to tackle the world
according to D&D.
For many folks D&D is the first and last of their experience with
tabletop roleplaying, so when thinking of a RPG they immediately bring
up this concept in their head. And while that may be excellent for some
folks it does tend to foster particular styles of play.
I've been noodling around an idea for a while for a game where you play
a group of individuals building computers in a computer company in the
late 1970s and early 1980s. There was so much drama and intrigue that I
find fascinating in this period that I feel others might enjoy as well.
I've noodled various systems for this game and different styles of play.
I'd like to show what different systems might look like in this setting.
The basic ideas are that a group of engineers and a founder get together
to form the company. Over time they build their first computer, which is
entered into the market. The computer competes against the market with
various decisions either faring well or terribly in the marketplace.
Ship with too little memory and no expansion and people degrade it as a
toy. Ship with too much memory and the machine is expensive and solely
used for business. Ship with little external documentation and your
company can reap the rewards of creating software internally, but with
little 3rd party support. Ship with too much documentation and your
machine is regarded solely for hobbyists. Also not reading the market
properly could result in shipping a machine that underperforms in the
market. There's a lot of interesting ideas that can come from reading
the market and shipping machines and software to meet that, but there's
also the human aspect of the company and the personalities clashing
internally that could really add a dimension to the whole struggle.
If I were to port this setting to D&D I'd have an immediate problem:
strength is not terribly useful for a bunch of programmers and hardware
engineers building a computer. Constitution might be useful for how well
someone could pull several all-nighters in a row, but do I have
something in there for making saving throws against complete exhaustion?
What of modeling the intelligence fog of crunch time, or trying to
persuade others by using your charisma? And how would one model the
Sure I could bash something together with D&D to try to get the market
that D&D holds (which is alot) but ultimately I'd be trying to merge two
sets of ideas that aren't going to mesh well. The focus of the game
would be on combatting fatigue, stress, and other things that are
designed to wear characters down and create tension. D&D also rewards
clever behavior with experience points, so at some point these plucky
engineers would become super-engineers and dominate the game. That's not
what I'm looking for. I'm looking for struggle, not conquest.
I bring up D&D not to disparage the game but to highlight that a set of
rules and mechanics that are designed for one set of play aren't
necessarily the best mechanics to plop onto another setting in the hopes
that they'll magically make things interesting.
The same is true of the more simulationist game systems like GURPS or
even Basic Roleplaying (BRP). They're not going to model what I want to
show in the game.
I've thought about Fate and Fudge for this game. Fate and Fudge allow
for a more story-focused modeling of entities and characters. So you
could have an attribute for things like "hacking" for how well someone
could cobble together a solution based from Terrible to Superb (or even
Legendary). You could have attributes for things like Willpower to show
how much someone can stick with something before bailing. You could even
have a Stability attribute to note the rapidly erosion of one's ability
to drive themselves through crunch time. This would model the characters
well, and could even be used to model the computer and the company that
they have formed. So there are options there. Depending on the type of
story that you want to tell you can reframe the encounters and the focus
of the game (Is this the story of the engineers, the founders, the
computer itself, or the company? What is the main focus and the
emotional pieces you wish to highlight?).
Fate and Fudge give you a lot of flexibility (almost too much at times)
because you can add things to this that might never come into play.
If we wanted to just focus on the computer and the company we could turn
this into a euro-style board game with various pieces of the computer
represented as tiles. We could then add a market board to show how the
computer is performing in the market. Perhaps we could also show the
interpersonal interactions of the employees as some abstract performance
tracker. Maybe it could be a card game where folks draw various bits of
the computer and then have to create a low-cost, performant computer
using 1980s technology? (Can't make a low-cost machine because you drew
the S100 bus. Sorry, Player 3.)
We could also put the computer and company into the background and focus
on the interpersonal relationships of the employees. For something like
Dramasystem we could make relationships between the founders and
employees and use the success and failure of the computers and company
for Tightening the Screws, which is a term used to highlight more
dramatic tension in the game. The themes could be of working toward a
common goal, betrayal, wanting to outshine the rest, I work with fools,
our success depends on this machine or we're doomed, I can't work for
that man again, and more. And this is where things get interesting
because you're focused solely on the mindset of the characters
themselves and the stories they're living. The computer and company fall
into the background only to resurface as dramatic tension between the
These are just some of the ways I've been tackling the question of how
to portray this story. There's no right way to model this (though I'd
argue that using D&D to model this is assuredly the wrong way), but
different ways to highlight different aspects of the story. And this is
where mechanics become a useful tool and show the opinion of the game
designer for how they wish the scenarios to play out. Fate is about
interesting people doing interesting things. Fudge is about flexibility
in telling the sorts of stories you wish to tell. Dramasystem is about
letting the mechanics serve a story and hitting certain story beats
without having to explicitly model them. And board games are about using
mechanics to drive uncertainty and tough decisions.
Which brings us to interactive storytelling. If we just port the
mechanics of these games to the computer we'll arrive at an
unsatisfactory result. The mechanics are there to facilitate play around
the table and to help drive the story along. With interactive
storytelling the computer is having to take on the load of not only
rendering the world but the other players. With something like
Dramasystem the point of the game is to get everyone else around the
table to work together to create the story through various dramatic
scenes and point spends. Porting those point spends to the computer
won't provide a useful result.
This is also part of the reason why the earliest computer-based RPGs
used D&D as a model. D&D is number-based and can be codified into the
computer with ease. It has a binary result: you hit or you miss, you get
what you want or you don't. It even has tables for things like treasure,
wandering monsters and even randomized dungeons. One such game (Rogue,
and Rogue-likes) take this to the extreme and create randomized dungeons
and randomized results. The pass-fail idea of D&D and the idea of using
numbers is directly portable to the computer. But trying to have the
computer handle a game like Fate where you can create aspects for the
world based on your own abilities? That's harder.
But I still think there is value in applying the ideas of pacing, story
beats, and dramatic tension to interactive storytelling. This is where
the computer could be taught how to model human fickleness and emotion.
This is where the creativity of the storyteller could influence
computer-generated AI to behave less like a traditional NPC in a
computer game and more like a player at a gaming table saying "how will
my needs be met?"
More to come.http://decafbad.net/2020/12/13/blending-pen-and-paper-role-playing-games-with-interactive-storytelling-mechanics/