Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Being Gamist: A Way of Life Primer

I have talked in the past about how I think of myself as a Win At All Costs (WAAC) player, and my opinion on Counts-As Armies. Today I am going to give a solid foundation to the Being Gamist column and set up a basic understanding that will basically be required reading for articles going forward.

I have been actively gaming in TCGs/CCGs, RPGs, and Miniatures for at least 14 years now. Prior to that I have had plenty of experience with various pc and console video games (a passion I still find time to enjoy). I have had the opportunity to be a playtester in several of my favorite games and develop a strong relationship with many of the best game designers in the CCG/RPG industry.

The thing that keeps me coming back to all these different game systems is gaining a level of system mastery and truly understanding how everything works. This is a form of mental exercise that helps me both in other games as well as my profession, where I am a Web developer and software engineer.

What you can gather from that last statement is that logic is king in my world. Words have precise meanings, and if intent isn't laid out in appropriate verbiage via rules, it is an unknown and highly immeasurable factor. With an appropriate level of system mastery, or with insider knowledge from the designer, we can infer intent, but since not everyone has access to this information, it can't be treated as law. The written rules in official documents are all we have to go by. These collection of words basically build the physical universe in which the game's actions will take place.

What this means is that it is the game designer's job to create a solid and basic foundation that is free from ambiguity. The wording in this foundation will be concise. The system will rely on the addition of exceptions to change the interactions in the basic foundation and create new mechanics. These additional mechanics will also be written to be concise. We will call such a system 'Elegant'.

If you take a look at today's most popular games, almost all of them fall into this elegant form of design. The reasoning behind using this setup is that it allows for greater levels of abstraction and is much easier to fully realize a working physical model. Examples of this include Magic: the Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, and even our beloved Warhammer 40k 5th Edition.

If you look at just the basic rulebook for each of these games you will notice that the rules are written in a fairly straightforward manner and clearly spell out what actions and interactions take place. They also define exceptions to alter the basic building blocks of the game and create interesting new twists. Each of these systems on their own is a very strong and fairly precise rules system.

Each of these games uses the addition of supplements to introduce varying levels of new exceptions and building blocks for decks, characters, and army lists. In most instances these interactions are worded brilliantly and create no problems. Sometimes, however, our human game designers make mistakes and unintentional consequences slip through the cracks.

If a game designer is being honest, he will typically own up to the mistake and accept that things are not 'working as intended'. Sometimes this unintended consequence is allowed to remain, but if the designer truly wants his intentions to be implemented, an erratum is required to correct the issue. Often times this is also done to make ambiguous rules more clear.

In our three sample cases, we have two different companies using slightly different systems and vastly different motivations to produce errata. Wizards of the Coast is well known for producing timely answers to many questions, especially in the case of Magic: the Gathering. Changes are rapidly developed for problems in Magic as many people use the game as a profession playing on the Pro Tour circuit.

Timeframe for changes in D&D lags behind a little bit. I feel this has two reasons: lack of competitive outlook for its players, and more complex standard rules set compared to Magic. Regardless, the designers at WotC are the kind of designers I can get behind. Their goal is to be elegant from the onset, but they accept that they are human and are willing to make changes necessary to correct their mistakes.

Our third case, of course is Warhammer 40k from Games Workshop. Unlike WotC, GW has a scattered release model for updating armies and rules to a new edition. Technically D&D follows a scattered release, but they don't force their outdated rules to interact properly with their new rules when they change editions. I understand that 40k's higher cost of entry shapes the model being used by GW.

In the relatively recent past, GW has had the stance that mistakes should not be corrected so as to retain the value of the printed material and lessen confusion for new players. Unfortunately, 40k is a competitive game instead of cooperative (such as D&D) and thus requires that each of the armies be relatively balanced against each other. Since the release of 5th Edition, GW has grown increasingly more responsible for their writings and have produced both higher quality initial rules and the errata necessary to create a great user experience.

Two things are responsible for this change in face. The first is competition in the wargaming miniatures market from entities such as Privateer Press. The second is proliferation of knowledge through the Internet. Their errata schedule is still a little slower than we'd like to see, and apparently they are still against making significant wording changes (as far as volume of text changed) in their updates. this leads to older armies still being out-of-sync with the current game physics. regardless, GW is improving and I can only applaud them for that.

It is one of the goals of this series, however to bring to light those things that still don't sync due to outdated rules or inappropriate verbiage. My work with the designers at Decipher Inc. (makers of Star Wars CCG, Star Trek CCG, and Lord of the Rings TCG) has taught me that a solid rules system will provide a valid and legal answer even when intent of the designer is not met under unusual rules interactions. In this case, the players are responsible for following the rules, and the creator is responsible for correcting the issue.

This philosophy is one I basically live by. The programs and Web applications I develop for a living require me to be responsible and produce a high-quality product. If I fail to do this, I may fail to keep my job. I should hope that other industries might hold their employees to at least a similar standard. It is from this mindset that the current and all future articles in this series are being written. This will inform the player base of where problems or unusual interactions currently exist and give an avenue of pressure to push GW towards correctly modifying them to better their game system.

Not all of the topics this series discusses will be mistakes either. Sometimes the very abstraction that is used to set up the game system will create unusual consequences that don't necessarily 'make sense', at least when using the game as a simulation of the real world. I think the most common example of this can be seen in the wound allocation rules for 5th Edition. These are the sorts of tools you learn by mastering the system. Everyone has access to them, and they might not have been originally intended by the designers. However, they provide an avenue for player and list-building skill to be shown by the players.

The next article in this series will cover the new Grey Knights codex and what changes we should expect GW to implement on the mistakes we find there. The article will likely be split into 2 parts. The first will cover the mistakes, and the second will cover other avenues where a player can use the game system to his advantage while utilizing the various tools in the codex.

1 comment:

  1. I would describe 40K as inconsistent and inelegant, with too much narrative in close proximity to or interwoven with mechanics. It's improving, but it's by no means arrived at where it could or arguably should be.



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