Non-Digital: The Arcane Mysteries of Descriptive Game Design

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I wrote about the booklet Manhattan 2010 here. It was an attempt to map out a childhood roleplaying game as a playable design.

In conceptual terms, there’s something very interesting going on here. Almost all game design is prescriptive. “This is how I think you should play the game.” However, in Manhattan 2010, the design is descriptive. “These rules are an attempt to capture a game that was actually played.”

A common goal for prescriptive game design is to make a game that works. A good game. The goal for the much rarer descriptive game design is to reflect the play that’s being described accurately.

Descriptive game design is so rare, in fact, that Manhattan 2010 is the only example I can think of. It’s elevated by the fact that its authors didn’t fudge it to make a good game. Instead, they tried to follow the nature of the original game as closely as possible. Perhaps the difference is highlighted in this game by the fact that Manhattan 2010 describes a childhood game with all its weird peculiarities.

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Year’s ago, I played in Mike Pohjola’s tabletop campaign Tähti. We played the members of a girl band in a near future cyberpunk world. The game was a great success, and Pohjola decided to use it as the basis for a published tabletop game book.

Unlike the designers of Manhattan 2010, Pohjola chose to go the more conventional and perhaps appealing route of using a private game as fodder for the construction of a playable set of instructions. The published Tähti didn’t reflect all the quirks and diversions of the actual tabletop campaign, choosing instead to streamline the whole thing into something approachable and fun.

For someone who had actually played in the original campaign, the experience of reading the published book was almost alienating. “This was not the game we played.”

Trying to think of a descriptive game I could make, I’m drawn back to my childhood games, the same as the authors of Manhattan 2010. My descriptive game would be set in the fantasy world of Mystara, the setting of a certain incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons. It would be a GM vs. players game. The goal of the players would be to move their characters to the border of the map, and the goal of the GM would be to move the characters to Alfheim, because elves were cool.

(If you’re wondering why the player characters were going to the edge of the map, you’ll have to go back in time to ask my twelve-year old players.)

Other mechanics would involve exchanging candy for experience points and conspiring with the GM to kill another player’s character.

These examples of descriptive game design are rather marginal. Anyone come up with a more meaningful use for this concept?

Pikseliparatiisi: Tappamatta jättämisen autuus

Pelaan videopelejä työkseni. Monissa niistä tapetaan vihollisia, esimerkiksi venäläisiä tai arabeja. Call of Duty -peleissä tai Battlefieldeissä tapetaan satoja vastustajia. Headshottia toisen perään.

Se on peliä, ja mitä pidempään pelaa, sitä enemmän se tuntuu vain peliltä. Fiktion fiktiivisyys on yhä ilmeisempää, eikä keksittyä pikselihahmoa ajattele ihmisen kuvana. Tarpeeksi monen räiskintäpelin jälkeen vihollisissa on kiinni yhtä paljon inhimillistä fiilistä kuin Pac-Manin syömissä pallukoissa.

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Olikin yllättävää, kuinka vapauttavalta ja kivalta tuntui, kun uudessa Battlefield: Hardlinessä pääsi pidättämään vihollisia. Huomasin alkavani kuvitella vihollisille omia tarinoita. Jos tehtävä meni hyvin puoliväliin asti, mutta hajosi sitten räiskinnäksi, ajattelin että nuo pari kaveria menivät vankilaan, ja nämä loput hautausmaalle.

Joillain lapsilla oli vielä isät, toisilla ei.

Peliin tuli odottamattomasti lisää tunnetta, kun viholliset jälleen vähän inhimillistyivät. Huomasin yrittäväni hoitaa tehtäviä mahdollisimman verettömästi, vaikka se olikin vaikeampaa. Viimeinen kenttä on mahdollista suorittaa ampumatta laukaustakaan, paitsi välianimaatiossa, ja oli tyydyttävää tehdä juuri niin.

Hardline on yhdistelmä räiskintää ja hiiviskelypeliä, jossa yritetään vaivihkaa livahtaa vihollisen ohi tämän huomaamatta. Monessa kentässä livahdin vihollisten taakse ja pistin heitä rautoihin yksitellen, kunnes lopulta koko alue oli tyhjä. Siinä oli omaa poliisifiilistään, vaikkei se kovin realistista ollutkaan.

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Valitettavasti Hardline ei sitoudu omiin innovaatioihinsa. Siinä on myös kohta, jossa ammutaan panssarivaunulla helikoptereita alas taivaalta ehtaan videopelityyliin. Sitä pelatessa ei juuri tullut ajatelleeksi, onko kopterilentäjillä lapsia.

Toiveeni onkin, että joku muu huomaa pidätysmekanismin ja kopioi sen johonkin tinkimättömämpään peliin.

Non-Digital: Real Hamlet

This past weekend, I played in the larp Inside Hamlet, in Denmark. The larp gave the play a Marxist vision of decadent nobles living their last murderous days while the Reds were closing in. In the end, when the rebels finally break down the doors, they find only piles of corpses and cowering survivors.

The game was played at the actual Elsinore castle. That was pretty cool.

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(At the venue, during a break between the acts. My character was a priest.)

The game had the rule “What happens in Elsinore stays in Elsinore”, so I’m not going to go into specifics. Instead, I’ll write about something that occurred to me as I watched the final moments of the dying court. I had already died myself, and was present as a mute ghost.

To prepare for the larp, I watched every Hamlet movie I could get my hands on. The Laurence Olivier Hamlet, the Derek Jacobi Hamlet, the Soviet Hamlet, and so on. Most of them shared a theatrical quality, a feeling of the actors and the director playing with the text and the language. Almost all of the movies were quite good, but they also made it seem as if adapting Hamlet was a bit of a lark.

Or a game of sorts.

When I was in my own version of Hamlet, larping my character, watching Queen Gertrude die of poison, I didn’t feel like we were playing. It felt deadly fucking serious.

The world of Inside Hamlet was grotesque and the characters monsters. It wasn’t played in a realistic style. Yet still, living inside this fictional context gave everything that happened a tragic weight. In the movies, the final duel has been done in many different ways, but only in the larp it felt like it was two people fighting over the deaths of their loved ones.

The movies were a game. The game was not.

Pikseliparatiisi: Gamergate poliisisarjassa

Gamergate on normalisoitunut osaksi videopelikenttää. Yksi tapa miten tämä näkyy on, että siihen on alettu viitata muualla popkulttuurissa. Yksi esimerkki tästä on 11. 2. 2015 esitetty poliisisarja Law & Order: Special Victims Unitin jakso Intimidation Game.

Jakso alkaa lupaavasti, joskin pöhkösti. Ice T:n hahmo on pelaaja, ja selittää muille pelislangia. Miehet ahdistelevat naista pelitapahtumassa, ja poliisi puuttuu asiaan. Linja on selvä: Ahdistelu ja uhkailu on paha, ja sillä hyvä. Sen sijaan, että yrittäisivät löytää jotain kuvitteellista keskitietä, tekijät ovat asettuneet selvästi Gamergatea ja sen kaltaisia häiriköintiliikkeitä vastaan.

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Viikon uhrina jaksossa toimii pelistudion johtaja Raina Punjabi, joka yrittää pitää uuden pelinsä julkaisua raiteilla vaikka poliisi haluaisi hänen panostavan enemmän omaan turvallisuuteensa. Punjabi ei halua antaa periksi uhkailijoille.

Jakson edetessä hänelle käy huonosti. Pelaajamiehet eivät hyväksy naispuolista pelisuunnittelijaa, vaan kidnappaavat tämän. Kuten peliaiheisten elokuvien ja tv-sarjajaksojen suurin klise vaatii, pelistä tulee totta.

On inhottavaa katsoa, kuinka fiktiivistä Punjabia pahoinpidellään tilanteessa, jossa hänen esikuviaan uhkaillaan edelleen päivittäin. Sikailuissa on melkeimpä mehusteleva ote, ja kun Punjabi vihdoin murtuu, siitä otetaan kaikki irti.

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Tv-sarjan maailmassa Gamergaten rikokset ovat pahempia kuin oikeasti, mutta oikeastikin Gamergaten silmätikuksi joutuneet naiset kuten Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn ja Brianna Wu ovat joutuneet massiivisen häirinnän kohteiksi, ja paikoin jopa lähtemään kotoaan oman turvallisuutensa vuoksi. Tästä huolimatta he ovat kaikki edelleen mukana taistelussa paremman pelikulttuurin puolesta.

Toistaiseksi pelialalla olevan naisen julkinen häpäisy ja murtuminen on tapahtunut vain Gamergate-aktiivien fantasioissa. Ja tässä SVU-jaksossa.

Toimittaja Leigh Alexander on saanut osansa Gamergate-inhoa. Hän kirjoittaa kokemuksistaan, ja Intimidation Game -jaksosta, täällä.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #20: Warhammer 40K

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

Dragonlance is not the only gaming franchise that’s been badly served by adaptations. Another is the Games Workshop juggernaut Warhammer 40K. Its world has been created principally for war games, but there’s a solid line of roleplaying games as well.

There’s an official, animated 40K movie from 2010 called Ultramarines, and a German fan made movie called Damnatus from 2008. Of these two, Damnatus is inarguably the better.

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(Ultramarines)

Ultramarines features a bunch of space marines who go to a planet to investigate a distress call. They battle against their inner demons, but most importantly they seem to walk around a gravel pit for ever and ever.

The gravel pit is a classic location of fan-made and cheap genre movies, but why it was chosen as a location for an animated movie, I have no idea.

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(Damnatus)

Damnatus is a fan movie denied release at the last minute by Games Workshop. Mysteriously, following the ban it leaked into the internet. It’s about a bunch of mercenaries hired by an Inquisitor to investigate strange phenomena in the lower depths of a planet.

Very obviously a fan movie, Damnatus suffers from its lack of actual actors, a solid script or anything resembling interesting characters or dramatic scenes. However, I’d argue it’s still a must-watch for any 40K geek, because it captures the tone and style of the world so perfectly. Unlike in Ultramarines, in Damnatus you know you’re in the far future where there’s only war.

It’s full of fun little detail that only makes sense if you know the world already, like the servo-skull pictured above. It’s in German, and demonstrates that German is the only proper language for 40K.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #19: Dragonlance

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

When I was twelve, I thought that Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman were the best that the fantasy genre had to offer. Sure, I liked Tolkien too, but he had nothing on Dragonlance.

Now that I’m 34, I see no reason to revise this opinion.

It’s a shame that there’s so few adaptations of Dragonlance, good or not. We’ve been able to find two, the animated version of the first book, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, and the Russian musical version of the second trilogy, Legends.

You can watch the musical here, with English subtitles:

The thing about the musical version is that it’s absolutely excellent. You have to know the story, but for an old Dragonlance lover such as myself, this is manna from heaven. According to the YouTube page, it’s actually a promo concert held by the theatre studio Lege Artis at the 8th of February, 2014 in Moscow. It features scenes from a musical called The Last Trial.

Before this, I had never realized how operatic the Legends trilogy was. It’s been distilled into a story about Raistlin, Caramon and Crysania, and the interplay of love and power in Raistlin’s character. The possibly best scene has Raistlin singing a duet with Takhisis the Queen of Darkness about his love affair with Crysania. The YouTube video above features people from three different casts, so don’t be confused if the actor playing Raistlin suddenly changes.

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(A still from the movie Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight)

Unfortunately, the animated Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight movie fails to live up to the standards set up by Russian musical theatre. It goes through the story of the first Dragonlance book, somehow combining the worst features of both classical Eighties Saturday morning cartoons and modern 3D-animated stuff.

It also remains faithful to some of the dumbest stuff found in the original book, things that any reasonable adaptation would have cut out. It’s a dismal effort.

Non-Digital: Against Chess

Chess has arguably pervaded our culture more thoroughly than any other game. It’s used as a metaphor, a visual motif and as decoration, and sometimes people even play it.

My chess career started and ended while I was still underage. There’s one game I remember loving as a child much more than chess, and that was Knightmare Chess, the French variant published in English by Steve Jackson Games. It adds a selection of cards to chess, and every round you can move a piece and play a card.

I lost my copy of Knightmare Chess and its sequel, and for some reason they weren’t reprinted. Until now!

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It’s a much better game than I remembered, and quite an interesting one.

Here’s two defining features chess has:

1 – Chess is transparent. You know at all times everything there is to know about the state of the game. All the information about what’s happening is right there on the board.

2 – Chess is not random. You can calculate all possible moves from any given game state.

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Knightmare Chess challenges both of these qualities. A player’s hand, and the cards in her deck, are secret from the other player. This means that when you play the game, you see the state of the chessboard, but that’s not the whole story.

You can build your deck, but the cards come into your hand randomly. This means that the game has an element of chance: You can have good cards in the beginning, or bad ones.

Playing the game, it feels as if Knightmare Chess is a game designed to comment on, and perhaps to challenge traditional chess. It plays with the assumptions chess has, sometimes irreverently. There’s a definite tension between the hidebound traditionalism of chess, and the chaos of Knightmare Chess. The appeal of the game lies in this tension. It’s a good game precisely because there’s no harmony at its core.

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Still, there’s one temptation in Knightmare Chess above all: If neither side has good cards and if both come up with good strategies, the game can accidentally devolve into normal chess.

Research Blog Antarctica #135 – Russian State Museum of Arctic and Antarctic

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Museum: Russian State Museum of Artic and Antarctic (St. Petersburg)

Russia and the Soviet Union have a long history of exploration in the Arctic and Antarctic. I visited the Russian State Museum of Arctic and Antarctic in St. Petersburg, and while the Artic section is bigger and better, there’s some cool Antarctic stuff as well. The above photo is from the Antarctic section, on an upper floor below the museum’s impressive cupola.

Underneath the cupola, they had this:

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The museum dates back to Soviet times, and features some things that you probably won’t find in an average polar exhibition. One is the series of oil paintings depicting Antarctic and Arctic scenes. Another is this mural showing Lenin discussing the Arctic with scientists:

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As to the Antarctic, the absolute highlight is the series of surgical tools used by the Soviet doctor Leonid Rogozov to perform an appendectomy on himself at the Vostok base in 1961. It’s an extremely famous piece of Antarctic lore.

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