Train to Fight, not Fight to Train

Let’s undertake a design exercise. Our constraint is that we are trying to come up with gameplay that does not rest on mass murder. Yes, I wrote “gameplay”. Even in hardcore RP worlds, you need gameplay if you don’t want the world to simply be a chatroom. Roleplayers also have achiever and explorer motivations (when using Bartle types). For our exercise, we’ll use a mêlée combat system in a standard fantasy world. It does not matter is it is high or low fantasy, though it may be a better fit for low fantasy. Similar thought experiments could be carried out for magic, crafting, economic, etc. systems, but we’ll focus on simple mêlée combat for this post.

For some of the core ingredients of our recipe, let’s look back to the deep physics series.

  • We’ll approximate a character and its equipped items as a cloud of point masses. This includes things such as armor and weapons and can also include the physical build of the character; tall versus short, stocky versus slender, etc.
  • For each animation, we can then calculate the transient moment of inertia of the character for each keyframe of each animation, which we’ll call the Keyframe Moment of Inertia, or KMI for short. Each time a character changes his/her equipped items, we’ll need to recalculate the KMIs for all of his/her animations. We’ll keep a remote process that can calculate the KMIs of all animations for a character, sending the current point mass cloud as input.
  • Once we have these KMis, we can take the strength and skill of the character and determine the new timescale of each keyframe. Strong characters accelerate through their animations faster than weak ones. Small and slender characters also accelerate faster than larger ones, but can’t achieve as high a final velocity for heavy weapons. Etc.
  • Let’s toss in some random tweaks to the keyframes to account for individual styles.

Now we’ll add a few gameplay bits that are not directly drawn from the deep physics concept:

  • Let’s allow players to create macros, or scripts in the form of Memotica Action Choreographies. A chirography is a set of action keyframes (Memotica Action keyframes correspond 1:1 to animation keyframes) strung together. Choreographies can also include if/else style logic and can be nested inside other choreographies. In gameplay terms, this allows player scripting of complex combat logic in what would be a high twitch without the need for player twitch. This also allows the player to create new combat moves and even entire fighting styles.
  • Let’s allow characters to analyze each other’s moves and to learn from them or teach others. If a character if performing a particular move in a less than optimal way, another character can take note of this and show them the “right” way.
  • Allow a “holding pattern” action that can be terminated with one of several options, depending on what the character sees. You might know this as a defensive stance. If a character sees an incoming oberhau, perhaps he responds with a pflug.

So what does all of this give us?

Well, for starts, we’ve just made the combat system insanely complex; even with the simple act of swinging a sword. Being complex is dangerous and potentially game breaking, but can also be a good thing. Chess is complex. The rules are simple enough to teach a six year old, but it takes years of study to truly master the complex game that emerges from those rules. That is what we are trying for here. What armor you are wearing matters. The type of weapon (or even who made it, but that is another discussion entirely) matters. How you hold it matters. Most swords allow for some adjustment up or down of the character’s grip. Your character’s physical (as opposed to character sheet) build matters. Who you have practiced with and how much you have practiced matters. All of these things are intuitive and fit our sense of naive physics; making them easy to learn and understand, but mastery does not come easily.

Naturally, feints will have to be part of the ecosystem. Perhaps that oberhau is not an oberhau at all, but a feint explicitly staged to provoke a pflug, while the real strike goes to the thigh. How often has the character ever seen that feint, if ever? Can they tell the difference between the feint and the real thing? This means that how much sparring the character has participated and observed matters.
What do we gain from making the combat system so complex? We gain four things.

  1. We can switch from a fight to train (via combat XP) to a train to fight model without losing gameplay. Mastering the three dimensional chess that is swordsmanship becomes a gameplay end unto itself. We can drop most or all XP from combat as it has become a way to demonstrate prowess, rather than a way to gain it. Since we no longer have to gain directly from combat, we can make it less frequent and we are free to make it more dangerous as characters can flee or avoid combat without incurring opportunity cost.
  2. The characters’ domain knowledge and the players’ domain knowledge converge. This increases immersion and leaves us with fewer OOC ways to break the magic circle. In fact, the player and character learn the ropes together, proceeding from novice to master.
  3. Dojo RP – Rather than highly generic and nonspecific “I am a warrior” roleplay, where the player roleplays the style of a knight, or barbarian, or pirate, etc. without delving too deeply into the details, we can have heated discussions of the merits, or lack thereof, of various moves and fighting styles. “Your swing is sloppy and slow there and you are telegraphing yourself. Watch me and I’ll show you how to do it right” and “Be careful when fighting orcs. They are fond of this kind of feint…”.
  4. A vehicle for IC character created content where characters can leave their mark on the world. E.g. invent a new school of swordsmanship and be its founding master.
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More on Williams’ roleplayer survey

Raph Koster has a new piece on the Williams paper that I mentioned last week, where he hits on Williams’ points. One of the early commentators on the thread was asking about the relative RPer populations of EQ2 versus SWG, presuming that the latter had a higher RP’er population. Actually, I’d take this a step further do a sampling across worlds and technology platforms. It is not just SWG, the Matrix Online and (formerly) Ryzom likely to have higher roleplayer counts. Roleplayers who try to RP in large, commercial AAA environments not only have to deal with having their immersion broken, but are often actively persecuted. You have three choices in such an environment:

1 – find a roleplay guild, sequester yourselves as much as possible and deal with the occasional persecution.

2 – give up on roleplay

3 – leave for greener pastures

IC enforced roleplay worlds one of the last bastions of the NWN persistent world community and is definitely well above 5% of the total NWN PW player population. This is despite the fact that NWN was designed for cooperative multiplay and not PW use and NWN2 was optimized for single player; resulting in a situation where roleplayers have to work against the platform and often players are forced into a form of metagaming and collectively ignore some of the pain points where the diku-like engine is breaking immersion. They put up with it because they can be gatekeepers to their ivory tower and there is no other 3D environment that readily allows roleplayers to play in worlds build and run by other roleplayers.

Text MUDs also likely have a much higher roleplayer representation for largely the same reasons. Roleplayers on text MUDS are trading the 3D environment for more codebase control.

Then again, the total populations of these latter two entries number in the low thousands, probably under comfortably under five digits. Considering that commercial worlds have, collectively, close to 50 million active subscriptions, this is a not likely to affect the total percentages so much.

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Interesting Paper – Behind the Avatar

Dmitri Williams of USC recently got his paper “Behind the Avatar: The Patterns, Practices and Functions of Role Playing in MMOs.” and linked to it from a Terra Nova post. It appears to build on Nick Yee’s earlier observations about roleplayers and the immersion motive. The paper is a 30 page word doc and as a warning, it is a social sciences academic paper; which means a low information to text ratio (disclaimer: my academic background is in the physical sciences, where the style is very different). I’m also skeptical of the choice of world; Everquest 2. Who in their right mind will even attempt to RP on a mass market, AAA diku? Yes, I do know that there are RP guilds in WoW and that some people I played with back in my NWN days are now in WoW RP guilds. However, it appears that Dr. Williams was able to find enough roleplayers to do meaningful research and the paper is a fascinating read I and I’d put it – along with Yee’s original Daedalus Project research into roleplayers – into the must read category for anyone building or running an RP world.

Most of Dr. William’s observations are consistent with what most RPers already know anecdotally.

The results suggested that role players are a relatively small fraction of the game world’s population, and that they skew younger and more female than the general EQII population. Role players also tend to come from marginalized offline groups and to have a disproportionately high level of psychosocial and health problems. They appear to role play more to express their true, often suppressed, identities than to negotiate new ones. In keeping with their desire for immersion, they use voice communication less than others. On closer examination, these players also have a rich social fabric in which they display significant creativity. Role players use their spaces as a therapeutic release from their daily lives, and often build genuine communities. Despite this and despite the choice of studied world being EQ2

The hints of lower mental health give me pause as that confirms a negative stereotype that roleplayers have. As far as I’m aware, I’m perfectly mentally healthy. However, twenty years ago, I was a shy, socially awkward teenager for whom reading science fiction and creating DnD settings was a form of escapism. It would be interesting to see how the mental health indicators compare with age within the roleplaying population. Also, I’d be interested in seeing the differences between self identified dramists and simulationists; both of whom regard immersion as a motivator and would be drawn to roleplay.

I have only one quibble that seems to have been missed by the peer reviewers. One of the statistical observations that Williams makes is that roleplayers spend less time logged into the game than non-roleplayers. However, in his discussion section, he adds:

By spending less time in offline social life, these players gain acceptance amongst each other, but perhaps at the cost of integration into the larger society. In turn, social diversity may suffer if these groups leave the mainstream.

This passage suggests that roleplayers are in fact spending less time sequestered from offline society than their mainstream peers. It could also be that roleplayers are sequestered from offline society more than average, but not as much as the non-roleplayers. It is minor, but it is an unclear issue.

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Is it possible to not be evil?

PT made an interesting comment on my „On Playing Evil” post; one that deserves it’s own discussion:

There’s also the VERY fantasy-centric idea that opposing evil by any means is inherently good. Literature and film are bloated with examples of tragic heroes that opposed what they saw as evil only to become worse than what they fought. But in any game with hordes of NPCs, you can slaughter millions and all the blood does is spit-shine that nifty halo. Good deeds, kindness, compassion, sympathy, are typically met with scorn by “Good” characters whose players prefer to simply kill the other side. Malicious, or callous acts are met with “its just a game” despite the hurt it causes IC *and* OOC. When taken in combination, this (to me) shows a fundamental lack of understanding of good vs evil.

This reminded me of Raph Koster’s seminal essay, “The evil we pretend to do”. I think that his colonialism and racism metaphor is a bit too strong, but he has a point. There are some MUDs; specifically certain MUCKs and MUSHes that don’t follow the diku tradition. There are a handful of NWN worlds that try to break out of the hardcoded diku model. Most MUDS, most NWN persistent worlds and virtually all MMOs follow the diku model. What is the main activity in diku style worlds? Unfortunately, it is butchery and theft.

Think about it for a moment. The core activity of a diku is a level of mass murder that would do a Nazi death camp guard proud and then… now we’re stepping up the heroics… robbery of the victims. Here is a tip. People don’t “drop” their robe when they keel over from a stab or gunshot wound. You have to remove the blood soaked garment from their still warm corpse. Your heroic and noble paladin is a whisker shy of being a Liberian warlord, if only because they probably don’t cannibalize the victims after robbing them. I’ll even go out on a limb and postulate that if a character could get experience points for it, you are guaranteed to see players justifying being a veritable General Buttnaked by saying that they are fighting evil. It’s no surprise that “evil” often takes the form of “nefarious” trappings like necromancy. How bad is a bit of necromancy after you have slaughtered an entire village? Given that even the good guys act like a murderous band of thieves, it is little surprise that the threshold for violence is low and that villainy – all too often – takes the form of being a jerk to other players instead of just to NPCs.

Players act this way because the world rewards them for it. Let’s look at a generic roleplay oriented NWN world for a moment. The live team (the GMs/DMs, builders and administrators) likely have a policy to the effect that roleplay is promoted over simply hunting. Then you look at the actual “hard” key performance indicators (KPIs) that the world uses to indicate character progression – usually experience points, money and items – and how they are gained. Hard KPIs are almost exclusively obtained via killing and looting. “Campfire” roleplay is a source of soft KPIs – general respect and forum kudos, but the reassurance that the world gives that it approves of your play style is withheld. If it is a source of hard KPIs (such as via direct DM granted xp), then it is only in relatively rare circumstances and is small in relation. I’ve heard stories of characters “leveling up” solely on “rp xp”, but I’ve never actually seen it. Perhaps Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster level up this way.

Why does the world reward them for it? Simply put, what would the players do otherwise? combat is one of the simplest and cheapest forms of content available. Even Bioware – famous for their story driven plotlines – uses a mind boggling quantity of combat in their RPGs. If they did not, then their 100 hour epic would be less than ten hours long. And yet, there are consequences to this design choice. Aside from the shady nature of the central gameplay, it creates an atmosphere where is it accepted that disagreements are solved violently. Two characters have a verbal exchange? It will nearly always end in violence and there are no meaningful consequences to such behavior. In the real world – as long as you are not in places like Liberia and Afghanistan – there are negative consequences even for the winner. It also practices autocannibalism. Because there are so many combat encounters during the career of a character, the difficulty of a combat encounter needs to be dialed down to prevent frustration. Because there are so many encounters, despite the difficulty being set to “easy mode”, serial martyrdom death systems are required; and this makes heroism impossible. In fact, one of the assumptions behind anti-permadeath arguments is that a character will be involved in a LOT of combat?

The same thing that PT pointed out as being a source of bad player behavior is also the reason why is it impossible to be a hero. Every character can plod to epic status, leaving a trail of blood in their wake. The only difference between characters being the number of times they themselves respawned. So, are there fun alternatives to killing and looting as primary KPI drivers? Some of the more complex crafting systems present viable alternative KPI sources and A Tale in the Desert makes this the primary KPI mechanism, but they are an exception and not likely to appeal to someone who wants a heroic alter ego. So my question is:

Is heroic fantasy (not based on genocide and theft) possible ?

Edited a typo: “It’s no surprise that “evil” often takes…”

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Tony Richards’ Blog

It looks like Tony Richards has started a blog. For those of you who have never heard of him, he is an active member of the Torque community, as well as the force of will behind the Zen Framework and Indie Game Engine. I keep an eye on Tony’s work and Zen (and perhaps Indie as well) is certainly a high priority target platform for me when I’ve got Memotica and the Angela interpreter stable enough to do a prototype integration.

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On Playing Evil

Tobold brought up a question from his last Sunday open thread session. Namely, to quote from his post, “Can nice people role play villains in a hardcore game like EVE or Darkfall where villains really do upset their victims or do you need to be a b*stard in real life to be a b*stard in game?”. Tobold brought up an ancient post by Edward Castronova on Terra Nova where he made the assertion that playing a nominally evil character – a WoW Horde character for example – was not a nice thing to do. I think that Castranova’s argument has a point, IF the player is not roleplaying. Tobold does not strike me as a role player, but he does clearly make the distinction between a player griefing another player and a character.

This is a subject that often comes up for discussion on the forums of roleplaying worlds. There is currently a discussion on Amia’s forums on precisely this subject and it is a common theme here and there and everywhere else.

But it takes a certain set of design decisions and a certain player culture to cultivate a separation of OOC and IC evil.

In the context of in-character roleplay, not only is it possible to play an evil character without being evil yourself, but it is a rite of passage for a roleplayer; separating the men from the boys so to speak. When you take up the mantle of playing a villain you are – if playing the role well- increasing the enjoyment of other players by creating IC conflict and allowing the heroes to be heroes. In fact, villains are critical for the functioning of a roleplay environment because they provide the narrative conflict that would otherwise be absent or largely absent.

Well played villains are harder to play than heroes. I mean really hard. On the scale of difficulty things start at the easy end with the anti-hero, getting progressively harder with the straight laced hero and ending at the villain. The trick is to ruffle the feathers of a character while not ruffling the feathers of the player of that character. It has to be clear, usually through backchannels such as OOC text chat channels (the backchannel could also be voice, but most RP’ers find the man playing the female elf immersion breaking and text only keeps that out of the picture), that the characters actions are separate from the player. It is especially important for the player of a villain to keep things light and friendly in OOC chat, even while his character is kicking the dog. If this backchannel is not in place, some players – especially less experienced roleplayers and players who don’t know you yet – may come to the conclusion that the character is being a vector for the player.

The lack of OOC backchannels is also the Achilles heel of RPI MUDs; at least as RPI is defined by the purists. MUDs such as Harshlands and Armageddon, which fit the strict definition, lack an OOC backchannel of any kind and don’t have a safety valve to prevent IC villainy from being taken in an OOC context. Less restrictive definitions of RPI allow for an OOC backchannel, as long as it is physically separate from the IC channel (such as keeping it in a different wondow).

Also important – even if the character is a complete monster – is to refrain from inflicting real loss on the player of the victim if the game is not a competitive one and to use the backchannel for reaffirmation of it is a competitive one (thereby decreasing the competitive nature of the game of course). And now we’ve crossed the divide. A highly competitive player culture and roleplyed villains don’t mix; at least if you want to keep your player base. Keep Dance’s article on testosterone in (male) players of competitive games; especially when it is strangers in contact. In a highly competitive environment like Darkfall, the backchannel is not used as it would between friends, or to neutralize any OOC feelings that might arise from an IC interaction. It becomes a vehicle for douchbaggery in its own right. Playing an “evil” character in such an environment is probably as Dr. Castronova speculated.

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Players vs. volunteers

11 days ago, Xillix Queen of Fools, one of Planeshift’s devs, opened a discussion gauging the players’ opinions on a wipe. Late in the discussion, the developer weltall explained the database problems that Planeshift has.

91 items are buggy as there is a sorta of shift in the columns, before those items even crashed everyone in sight of who used them. (note there are probably countless ones in addition to these 91 bugged for other reasons, like items with a script which is missing etc)
the db is full of missing pet cross references
some items aren’t anymore supposed to be called in a certain way but til they are removed they stay there,
there are some named gold ring which aren’t supposed to be there at all and are due for deletion
money item glitches
items which shouldn’t have been released
problems with id consistency among various db
items which are losing unpickupable flag in laanx lately
data cruft loaded by the npcclient which doesn’t have anymore correlation with the main characters table
guildhouses abused as item storage, the next time you see laanx taking 40 minutes to load it’s the fault of those who use them for that the items in the sack maybe improve your pc performance but hogs down anyway the server, an alt is better.

and if you want past bugs what about fish of blinding strike, fish of talad arm, spidersilk fish or the hammer…

This is not unreasonable. After all, Planeshift is currently at 0.5, a beta version they codename Steel Blue. Their last wipe was in 2005, which was as far back as Crystal Blue, 0.3. Four years of development will likely result in a lot of database schema changes as bugs get fixed, exploits get closed and the design simply gets changed. Planeshift is a world in continual development, rather than a professional world that is launched as a (hopefully) polished 1.0. It is also built and administered by volunteers. These people donate their free time to keeping a world running for others to enjoy and they probably have to deal with a lot of frustration nursing along a crufty database. If Planeshift were a commercial world, doing this would be part of the job description, but we must keep in mind that these people are volunteers.

You can read the entire 22 pages of gore here. In a nutshell, some of the playerbase were supportive and understanding of the idea. An alarmingly large plurality was not at all supportive of the idea with posts ranging from emotional rants and warnings of leaving to “Monday morning deving” as one poster put it.

Planeshift, at least on in Laanx server, is supposed to be an in-character roleplay world. A character could potentially simply be recreated from scratch and keep all its memories and relationships. Far too many players define their characters by their stats and not by their stories and relationships; friendships, rivalries, etc. That players on a roleplay server would put their avatar capital ahead of their roleplay capital is alarming. As I mentioned in my previous post, Planeshift’s abortive wipe trial balloon might be an argument for an RPI style de-emphasis of avatar capital; either flattening character advancement or hiding the numbers. Also, the players seem to suffer from myopia and see only their own character. The volunteers running the world simply don’t exist as people. They are simply faceless trolls whose purpose in life to revolve around that leveled up character. A less myopic and selfish playerbase would have agreed that those who donate their time to make the world function should perhaps not have to work around a crufty database.

I find it depressing.

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