Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Get Lamp

This is the classic text adventure documentary "Get Lamp." It is worth watching, as the text adventure genre is entangled with the early days of role-playing and shared storytelling. The film goes through the history of text – based adventures and speaks with many of the pioneers of the genre.

Randomness as Puzzle

What strikes me about this documentary and text adventures in general is the complete removal of randomness from the game. You will see concepts such as mazes and puzzles discussed here, concepts similar to dungeon based adventures in role-playing games that use dice. In general, players and designers of these games hate mazes and love puzzles. My tastes also agree with this generally.

One could say that randomness, character design, character builds, and combat strategy is merely a puzzle to figure out based in statistics. That is what I find fascinating about watching a documentary such as this and seeing the designers talk about puzzles and how they love them, and then taking this fact role-playing games and how pen and paper gamers love character design and combat strategy within the rules. It seems to me that "doing well" within a pen and paper game with dice and character design is just a puzzle to figure out. How do I improve the odds?

How do we survive in this impossible situation? What gives me as a character the best chances of winning? What gives us as a party of characters the best chance of winning, based on synergies and strategy?

The puzzles in today's are all based around statistics and rules design, and players eventually figure them out and find "best builds" that give them the greatest chance of succeeding against challenges and enemies. Once this puzzle is figured out players tend to lose interest, and the factor that holds them in the game the most is story. I get this feeling the same is true with text based games.


There is a freedom in both text based games and pen and paper games that does not exist in normal videogames. The designers of text based games tried to make as much as possible able to be examined and manipulated by the player. You could pick up a brick and look at it, and it may or may not have a use later on in the story. A lot of items could be manipulated like this, more so than in normal videogames.

Of course in pen and paper gaming the interaction is only limited by the imagination of the referee. Text based games were still limited, but they had the freedom to do a lot more than a typical game that you would find on a video game console.What I find with text based games is that they approach the interaction ability of pen and paper games, at least the well-designed ones do. If a designer puts a lot of thought and work into a text based game you could have thousands of objects and interactions, with everything being able to be manipulated and examined by the player. It is almost an order of magnitude higher in the level of interaction between a player and the objects in the world than a videogame on a console.

The Fall and Rise

And the documentary chronicles their fall from grace, and limited rebirth. I get why people don't like text adventure games, they are fiddly bits of figure out the parser and type commands in while beating your head against a wall exercises of frustration - at first. Once you learn the rules of the road they apply to most text adventure games, how to examine, how to move, how to look, how to get, how to drop items, how to open up containers - all the basics. We get into implementation problems where the designer didn't account for everything, and the obvious to a player becomes an impossibility because the designer has not accounted for the interaction.

My Experience

When I first encountered these games I shied away, mostly out of fear I would mess something up or "not get it." I had this almost instinctual reaction of "not for me can't figure out" and walked away. Or that the text-adventure game would "punish me for being stupid." You know the feeling, like a designer would walk an inexperienced player through obvious choices and then make them look like a fool for taking what was the obvious route to someone who didn't know better. You have died. Next time try smarter!

These days, I love exploring and reading, so my patience has adapted my tastes more for text adventures than when I was younger and wanted to be wow'ed by great graphics and tight controls. I do admit liking a certain style of game, one that doesn't punish you for mistakes, can be solved with enough careful effort, understands you may have difficulty with the concepts and puzzles, and gradually expands and changes based on where you are in the narrative. I don't want to map and get lost in a maze (unless that is the point and we know going in). I want to have unexpected results to my actions, and my clever manipulations to be rewarded.


And I fire up games like Grand Theft Auto or other open-world games and they feel empty. Despite the promise of an expansive, unlimited world, once you know how things work they do not seem to change. The pedestrians and people that inhabit the world are all the same. Nobody lives and works there, they just spawn in. People obey a very limited script. There isn't much you can do with the objects in the world except collide with them. Few items are interactive, but they typically have a very limited set of interaction associated with them.

Open world games probably highlight the most why the promise of "true interaction" has failed in the world of video games - one you know the envelope of how the world reacts, that is all you can do and expect from the world. I typically lose interest shortly after this moment and then wait for another open world game to see what they add to the formula.

The Future?

I see hope though. There are already interactive fiction games on the Amazon Echo and Alexa platforms, where the text-to-speech and speech-recognition functions narrate the world for you in speech and audio. I would love to see an Inform interpreter for Zork-style games on the Echo platform where you could just sit and explore through spoken commands to the device, and have it listen and take the place of the flashing command prompt. Perhaps this is the future the documentary was searching for, an experience beyond the command prompt and purely in the mind.

Maybe that interface layer has finally been broken and we just can't see it yet. Maybe we are entering another golden age of the text adventure. Perhaps this is a new path, unexplored, and we have not yet stepped into this deep and foreboding cavern - just through what we hear - and interacting with just what we say. While I still like reading, this offers another way forward and perhaps a new realm of adventures to explore.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Mail Room: B/X Essentials Monsters

Look what came in the mail yesterday! My hardcover copy of B/X Essentials: Monsters. This is currently a cool project I am following, a digest-ifi-cation of the B/X rules and a project that feels like a solid basis for creating B/X style games on, where you can add and remove books at will to simulate a variety of settings without introducing cruft or out-of-genre parts to the game. The basic rules book is really all you need to get started, and you choose what to add with other books.

I love the idea, and having another piece to my collection puzzle is complete. Now, I await the Adventures and Treasures book...

Friday, August 10, 2018

Tabletop Simulator


Tabletop Simulator. I gifted my friend this on Steam during last weekend's sale and we played around with this, and she enjoyed it a lot. I wanted to play traditional pen-and-paper games with her right away but we ended up playing with the physics sandbox a whole lot, and then we played a couple traditional games, and then we made up our own games with the pieces we had available.

I gave her spawn permissions and she had a blast. She crashed one game by spawning a couple dozen bowls into the game all at once but live and learn.

We are still playing this and her interest is shifting to pen-and-paper games, and I find that this sort of online play tool with a lot of other things and games to play is ideal for introducing new players to online play. While this isn't as full featured as a Roll20 or other dedicated virtual tabletops, there is a lot of "other stuff" to do to get someone interested in virtual gaming than other packages.

We can play chess, checkers, Chinese checkers, dominoes, poker, or any other board game she was familiar with. We got used to how online tabletop gaming worked with familiar games.

The downside is that we need to stick to simpler games, such as B/X style games, and that is also an upside as well. I can get complicated character sheets for "big book" games, but I would rather not. I would like to keep it simple and just use the note cards and a simple set of rules. I don't want to overwhelm players with complicated setups to start, though it is nice to have workshop content to cover these games.

This is an excellent introduction and sandbox for new players and we are both happy we set this up.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

In Stores: B/X Essentials Monsters (Hard Copy)

I put in my order for the B/X Essentials: Monsters book over on DriveThru RPG today and now I start the waiting. I have the PDF, I just love the feel and size of these digest style books, and having a hard copy takes me back to days gone by.

Plus the system is like no other, compact, concise, expandable, well organized, and just what you need to play any B/X style game. I cannot wait for the adventures book to be done, and then, another, and another...

A new collection starts and it feels good again.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Car Wars Classic Rules Free Online


This one is a couple years old, but it is a cool throwback freebie from the game's publisher, Steve Jackson Games. If you like to see what the pre-computer world of 1/10th of a second car combat sims was like, here is a good chance to turn back the clock and spend 4 hours simulating 20 seconds of car combat.

We loved this game so much it lasted 40 years of tabletop gaming, and even the setting was iconic throughout our gaming years.

"Where Do I Start...?"

I was talking to a friend about playing a traditional pen-and-paper RPG with her over Tabletop Simulator, Basic Fantasy in fact. I like Basic Fantasy for new players mainly because of the modern-style AC system, the AC of a monster is the target number, and that is what you have to roll higher than to-hit. No attack charts needed, and what you see is what you have to roll.

Now she has been out of pen-and-paper gaming for a while, and we talked about her feelings about playing. Her response was she was interested, but she had no idea where to start. I actually gave her a copy of the rules last time we met, and even a game I feel is easy to pick up as BF was still a bit much to digest for someone coming into the hobby. Yes, I asked her if I could share this, by the way, and I hope to teach her how things work very soon. A new player, I know, very exciting...

Another "hard to start" issue with pen-and-paper games is inherently their open-endedness. With a game like Monopoly, there is a set board, set pieces, and a set world in a box that a player can figure out. This makes me miss the old Dungeon board game from TSR that was sort of the same way, a set board, a set world, and an ever increasing cave of danger with keyed room colors and stacks of cards for each "level" of the dungeon.

I sit here as an experienced DM with over 40 years of experience and there is a part of me saying, "Of course it is open ended with no map! That is where the fun is!"

And then there is the new player part of me saying, "I can understand why the hesitance. I can see why someone would ask, what am I getting into?"

What Am I Getting Into?

There is no map. The rules leave a lot up to interpretation. The DM can kill my character for any reason, even a stupid mistake. The world is unforgiving, as I could wander into a dangerous part of the dungeon and it is game over. I could run out of supplies down there, or worse yet, get lost. I could roll bad and it is game over. How do I trust the DM is being fair? How do I know when the dungeon is over? What if I don't want to be a part of a story, and I just want to play combat? What if I hate combat and just want to play a story?

Halfway through that list of fears that I came up with...I started to want to play the game, because I realized no other game was like this. It is a strange thought that the bad parts that a "traditional family board gamer" can come up with are actually strong selling points of a pen-and-paper game.

But I need to work harder at this I feel, harder at "selling" that fairness part of being a DM. A lot of the hesitance I feel at getting new players excited is the inherent mistrust of the dungeon master. That a DM won't be fair. That a DM will make it up as the game goes on. That a DM will look for every chance to TPK the party. That the DM will change things secretly in the background to either make things harder or easier. That a DM has secrets and can't be trusted. That a DM will use the player's misfortune as a source of enjoyment.

Again, as a DM with over 40 years of experience I laugh at those statements, but with my friend I can see how those same fears can just make someone say, "I can't put that must trust in someone so I am going to walk away."

The Game is The DM

With traditional board games, the game board is the DM. They are inanimate objects and the interaction between the pawns on the board and the rules define the "world" and the interactions between them are physical and can be understood in a 1-to-1 relationship. Like the Dungeon board game, you have these passages and rooms, you roll dice to move, and to pull cards to see what monster is in a room and your character card gives you the information you need to succeed in that battle. If you win, you pull a treasure card.

The trust is there built into the game, except the trust is contained within the world the game's designer drew on the map and built into the interactions with the pawns and game board. I see all the game's pieces, therefore my trust is built by the interactions between them.

D&D 4 was like this for us. It was "battle chess" for our group. The game was played on dungeon tiles. You didn't really need a DM, as you could setup the scenario and go. You could round-robin the monster's turn among players and have the monsters act to the best of their abilities.

The Module is the DM

I have this feeling how I am going to solve this is hold up one of my modules and say, "we are playing this, my job is to tell you what happens depending on where you go." It sounds so simple and obvious that I wonder why I am even writing this article, because that is what you are supposed to do. It is simple, right?

But for my friend, it isn't. She has no concept of any of this. For us in the hobby, this is easy. For outsiders, it is not so easy. That is why I am writing this.

That published module becomes "the game board" in her eyes, the "story book" she will adventure through. I feel this would all be harder if I were to wing it and make things up, because, "what are we doing?" I love narrative games where the action goes wherever the players drive the story to through their actions, but another part of me loves the, "buy it and solve it" style of play with prepackaged adventures. Later on, if we ever meet people who played these adventures as well we can share stories.

This becomes an experience she can talk about to others, and they can have that same experience - and they know the game's name, the adventure, and that becomes something she can share more than, "That person played this game with me and was a really good DM and he made things up and I had fun. I don't know the name what we played but we had fun."

Winging it can come later, and more story-oriented play can come later. She may just have fun doing this and that is all we do. For now, I think I solved the problem, even if this solution was the way I was supposed to do it in the first place.

But thinking through this in a different way gives me the perspective from her viewpoint, and I find that very helpful for introducing the game to her and all it has to offer.

Friday, July 13, 2018