Friday, June 30, 2006

American TV vs. Japanese Anime

I really enjoyed the Story Arcs piece in Distributing the Future (5/15/6).

The main discussion contrasted story arcs in Japanese anime with story arcs from the traditional American TV show. Chris Adamson examined economic pressures that largely forced American TV into self-contained episodes. Anime story arcs, on the other hand, often span the whole series (or multiple series). I'd recommend listening to the whole podcast, but I'll summarize the good bits here:

On the American side, distribution methods made it difficult to guarantee that stations would show all the episodes in order. Also, TV episodes make most of their money in reruns. The rerun audience usually catches the shows intermittently and does not watch them seriously. This means self-contained reruns are more popular (or at least easier to market) than continuing stories. Apparently, Alias deserted the end-of-episode cliff hangers to make itself more marketable.

Recently, the American TV scene has broken through the self-contained barrier. The best example is undoubtedly 24. Long story arcs can succeed now, largely because of successful DVD sales. American TV can step away from its dependency on reruns, and this frees shows, at least partly, from the episodic limit.

On the Japanese front, an anime series tends to make most of its money from tie-in products: toys, models, cards, stuffed-animals, T-shirts, or whatever. The Japanese series also tends to be shorter and they are often broadcast only once. This makes it easier to create story arcs that span an entire series.

Most interesting to me, anime series often start with a few self-contained episodes. This gives the audience a chance to get to know the main characters and the world, before they get swept off into the main story.

So, how does this tie into gaming? Well, we don't have economic forces influencing our games (unfortunately, I'd love to see Thamus Johnson action figures from my recent Serenity game), but there are outside forces that affect the type of stories we can tell. One obvious case is player attendance.

I prefer games that follow the anime model. Start with a few self-contained adventures to loosen everyone up, and let us get aquatinted with our characters, the world, the rules and the GM's style. Then we stumble into the main story arc, which spans the rest of the campaign. However, playing this sort of game requires a serious commitment. You have to show up regularly. If you miss games, it's hard to follow the story. Worse yet, having a character continually pop in and out really disrupts the narrative flow. Even if someone ghost-runs your character, it's just not the same.

If your schedule does not allow regular gaming, then episodic games are probably best. It's easier for characters to come and go without disrupting the flow, and missing one adventure won't affect the next. Of course, adventures often span two or more gaming sessions--but the episodic structure still handles irregular attendance better than a unified story arc.

What other outside forces affect the structure or style of our games? Sex of the players is often sited as a big influence on style. I have heard that some men dislike playing in mixed groups. Some have obviously had a bad experience with another player's less-than-interested girlfriend, and that has prejudiced them against women gamers everywhere. Other male players just don't like feeling that they have to watch their language or be on their best behavior.

I feel that my best gaming experiences usually come from mixed-sex groups. Maybe it's because the guys watched their language and stayed on their best behavior--I don't know. Thinking back, some of my favorite players were women, most of them novice players. They had very little interest in rules and mechanics, but they were very interested in acting and stories. Having them at the table really helped keep the game focused on story.

Chris Adamson brought up another unrelated but interesting point. Most American dramas are hour-long programs. Anime is usually 1/2 hour--even for a dramatic show. This forces the creators to tell the stories differently. American shows typically have more subplots, while anime must stay focused. The limited time often gives it a tighter, more energetic feel.

30-minute game sprints are probably too short to be useful; but it makes me wonder, what would happen if we cut the typical game session in half? In my head, the Platonic Ideal for gaming sessions is 4 hours (probably because I wasted too much of my youth at RPGA tournaments). So, what would 2-hour game sessions feel like? Would restricting the time force us to focus more on the action--force us to bump up the energy and limit distractions?

Player planning often frustrates me (both as a player and as a GM). Players will waste 15 minutes just arguing over who has to pay the bar tab. When it comes to more-complicated planning, it feels as though they thrash over the same ideas for hours. It's not all bad. The players clearly like it--probably see it as some type of logic puzzle. But, it's not good story.

Would shorter gaming sessions encourage players to focus more on action in game and planning between games? I'm not sure. But, it might be an interesting experiment.

As always, please leave a comment with your thoughts.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Gaming VS Writing

First a little bookkeeping. I've been trying to do weekly posts. However, it's now clear that this won't be possible--at least not for the next month or so. My new job is keeping me very busy--good busy, but busy none the less. And this blog has a lower priority than my "real" writing. Still, I will try to get something out every other week, if I can.

This time let's look at some of the differences between writing (or movies, or other art forms) and gaming.

I have argued that looking at other media can help us learn to run better games. Here, I'm primarily talking about story telling media (books, movies, plays, etc). We can use these successful stories as a model, a guide for our games to follow. Is it a perfect model? No, of course not. There is always the risk of stretching a metaphor too far. But, I am a strong believer in the power of analogy.

However, it is also important to examine the differences between writing and gaming. This helps ground us. It lets us see which techniques we can most likely port from one medium to the other. But, it also serves another, more important role. Contradiction is almost as powerful as analogy. We can learn a lot about gaming by examining what it is not.

I have picked six areas where I feel games differ from other stories. This is, undoubtedly, an incomplete list. But, I hope it's a good start.

Audience driven stories.

This is one of the most-obvious differences. Even with the most autocratic GM, the players still contribute to the story. They decide which doors to kick in, which weapon to swing, which monster to kill. They choose whether to drink the healing potion this round, or risk waiting. OK, it might not be the greatest contribution, but the GM cannot drive the story alone.

In story driven games, the player's role is even more pronounced. Character's decisions shape the plot. Players often influence the scenery or backstory; they may even get to narrate parts of the story.

As a result, the GM cannot create a plot outline--not the way a writer might. Sure, the GM can create ideas for scenes. The GM can develop backstory, can define the goals of the antagonists and allies. The GM can even drive the story forward using the old carrot and stick--promising rewards, then hitting the players with complications. But, at the end of the day, the GM must respond to the character's actions. You must go where the characters' lead.

Some authors claim to lose control over their characters. Let me assure you, GMing is different--not even the same order of magnitude.

No editing.

A game moves steadily forward. There's little chance to go back and edit. This means, the story is raw and unpolished. No matter how many notes the GM makes, the story will have flaws: problems with consistency, problems with NPC motivation, structural problems with the plot. Sure, we don't have to worry about grammar or spelling, but that's really only the surface. The structural problems are more important.

Most authors will tell you that first drafts suck. Gaming is an endless first draft. We cannot hold these stories to the same standards we do other media. And, as gamers, we give gaming a pass. Consciously or unconsciously, we come to the table with a greater willingness to suspend disbelief. That's just the way the dice roll.

Amateurs create the stories

Let's face it, there are few professional GMs in this world. This relates to the lack of editing, and tends to further aggravate the very same problems.

However, some people love amateur productions (fan fiction, movies, theatre, whatever). While there are a few I have enjoyed, I tend to find much of it disappointing. I often enjoy amateur musicians. I usually enjoy amateur theatre. In the first case, there is no real story. In the second, a professional wrote the story, amateurs just performed it.

Creating a solid, quality story is hard. Even the pros fail occasionally. So why do I enjoy the stories created at the table. First, I am an active participant--that means I'm more invested in the story. Second, I enjoy the social contact with my friends. However, too many gaming stories also fall flat for me.

Multiple main characters

Most stories have a single main character, or at least focus on one character at a time. Your average gaming group has three to six players--meaning three to six main characters. And PCs usually travel in packs.

This creates a difficult, nonstandard story structure. We aren't very familiar with stories about multiple, concurrent main characters--which means we have few, if any, models. Also, it is always hard to find a good balance between the goals of the individuals and the goals of the group. Too much emphasis on the individual, and the story fragments. Too little, and the characters loose their free will--players start violating their character concept just to keep the group together.

Players compete for screen time

Related to the last issue, in most books, a character doesn't get bored waiting for his moment in the spotlight. Players, however, do. This sometimes leads to players competing for attention. This seems particularly prevalent in larger gaming groups.

Interestingly, I've been in groups that encouraged the players to roleplay among themselves. While the GM was dealing with one character, the others would be chatting (in character), playing out good character-building scenes, or planning out our next move.

However, in a more recent group, the GM got very upset when I tried to have a side scene. He felt it was distracting and rude. While I preferred the first style, I do see the second GM's point.

Roleplaying is a social activity

The social side of RPGs rarely gets the attention it deserves. There are good things and bad things about taking part in a social activity. On the good side, it is fun to interact with our friends. On the bad side, we often adjust our behavior to fit our group's implicit social contract. When dealing with simple issues (like burping at the dinner table), this is usually quite painless. But, collaborating on a personal expression of creativity can get thornier.

This subject is much too big for one post alone. Suffice it to say, if the players are trying to tell different stories (or at least incompatible stories), then the game will fail.

What about you? Do you agree or disagree with these observations? Can you think of anything I missed? Please continue this discussion in the comments.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Exploitation VS Exploration

Apologies, this is not only late; it's also another divergence from the regular scheduled programming.

As I've mentioned before, I am a CS grad student, primarily working with AI and machine learning. Much of the ML literature talks about the conflict between exploitation and exploration.

Here's the problem in a nutshell. Should a learning system use the knowledge it has already gathered, or should it explore for better solutions? Exploration usually comes at a cost in time and effort, and there is no guarantee it will lead to any improvements. It may also create short-term problems.

Let's take a real-world analogy. I moved to Honolulu a year ago. Traffic here is crazy. The roads are clogged. Often you cannot turn left. Many roads are one way. It really helps to plan out your route in advance, otherwise, you may find yourself stuck in the wrong lane, unable to make the turn you want, and eternally circling your destination.

I know a few decent routes to the places I often need to drive. However, these routes may be sub-optimal. When I head out to pick up my daughter from daycare, should I use the route I know (exploitation), or should I try a new route and see whether it's faster (exploration). Recently, I took a chance, and I found a route that cuts the drive time nearly by half, but that experiment could have been a disaster.

So, what does this have to do with gaming? Well, I love buying new games. I like reading through new rules and thinking about new ways of doing things. I like exploration. But, I often have trouble convincing other players to try an exciting new game. In short, the players are hesitant to pay the cost of exploration (time and effort involved in learning a new system, plus the possibility of wasting one or more gaming sessions on an experiment in not-fun). They would rather spend their time exploiting a system they already know.

There are a couple of things that naturally strengthen this tendency to exploitation. For most of us, our gaming time is limited. It's precious and we'd rather not risk it on an untested system. Better the devil you know--particularly if you get at least some level of enjoyment from the existing system. That leaves the role of explorer to those of us who have grown the most disillusioned with our current games.

Secondly, most games add positive feedback to continue exploitation. In strongly tactical games (like D&D), the players' mastery of the rules actually determines how effective they are in the game. Players who invest time into learning strong play strategies are rewarded. There is, therefor, a strong negative incentive for them to move to a new system. They would have to abandon their tactical (or perceived tactical) advantage.

So, here's the question of the week. Do you tend to prefer exploitation or exploration? How can we encourage more exploration? Should we encourage more exploration? What are your thoughts? Please leave a note in the comments.


Saturday, June 03, 2006

Magic Systems

This week I'm going to look at a topic that is more applied than theoretical, specifically magic and how it is implemented in most games.

I love fantasy games, and in particular modern fantasy; however, magic systems are often a make-or-break issue for me. Let's be honest, it usually a break issue. Only a very few magic systems really work, and the number of systems that actually excite me could probably be counted on one hand (Ars Magica, Unknown Armies, Sorcerer and Buffy the Vampire Slayer immediately jump to mind).

Books on writing fantasy often discuss the creation of interesting magic systems. A magic system needs to be consistent: it needs to have rules and needs to follow its own internal logic. Additionally, their needs to be a cost for using magic--there's no such thing as a free lunch. Most importantly, this cost needs to be interesting.

But, what is interesting? To me, the cost of using magic needs to create complications for the character that heighten the tension of the story. One method is to create a cost that forces the character to make tough decisions. The magic system itself could have a distinct flavor, often represented by the limitations, taboos and rituals involved. In some of the best fantasy novels, magic has a distinct personality. It is almost a character in its own rights.

Arguably, D&D has a cost for using magic. Spellcasters are often limited (both in their physical abilities and in the equipment they can use). Spellcasters also have to study/pray. However, I do not consider these costs particularly interesting.

Other games often have some sort of backlash when mages fail their rolls. Sometimes they take damage. Other times the spell has unexpected effects. The first works OK, but it generally isn't great. How often does the damage really have a meaningful impact on the story? The second can work better. Wild magic often has a perverse personality, which--when handled well--can be quite enjoyable. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (both the game and the TV show) capture this perverse personality well. Magic often goes awry, causing more trouble than it solves. Add to this the risk of magical addiction, and you have a very interesting magical system.

Unknown Armies and Sorcerer also have excellent costs. In Unknown Armies, each school of magic has its own unique style and personality. The mages have to perform certain actions to generate power. Both these actions and the resulting effects are highly influenced by the school. For example, a Dispomancer (alcohol based magic) must get drunk to power their magic. their spells typically have mind/perception altering effects. Other schools have their own unique focus--pornography, sleep deprivation, self mutilation, self endangerment, collecting books, and so forth. As you can see, the pursuit of magic can often be self destructive. This system has lots of personality, lots of interesting complications and lots of tough decisions.

Sorcerer takes the self destructive aspect and cranks it up a notch. Here, the characters cannot produce magical effects on their own. Instead, they summon and bind demons. Of course, these demons have their own drives and desires. They will often try to corrupt the character, and (of course) the characters run a constant risk of losing control. As the action in the story heats up, characters will be naturally tempted to lean more and more on the power of their demons. However, while this may save them in the short term, it only increases their risk of losing control.

In play, I've had some trouble with the item and parasite demons, since they often don't have as much personality as their more-animate brethren. The GM also needs to make sure the character's main demon will play an interesting role in the story. I had one player whose demon sounded fine on paper, but it never really came into conflict with the character during the game. Still, if done correctly, it is one of the best magic systems out there.

Ars Magica scores high on my list for historical reasons (it was the magic system that spoiled me for all others) and because of the system's depth. Ars Magica blends spontaneous spells, formulated spells, ritual magic, lab work, summoning, etc. Not to mention excellent heaven, hell and faerie supplements--all guaranteed to win my heart.

To develop a good magic system, you need to know how magic works. I was highly inspired by Frater U.'.D.'.'s essay on the Models of Magic. He's talking about real-world magical belief systems--which is always a good place to start when building any fantasy elements. However, I have modified and extended (and probably abused) his original categories for the purposes of creating interesting stories.


Here the characters get their power from spirits. These could be gods, elementals, ghosts, whatever. Clearly, the most important aspect of spirit magic is the characters' relationship with their spirits. This could be a hierarchical relationship, where one side makes commands and the other obeys. For example, a traditional sorcerer summoning and binding elementals, or a cleric following the commands of their god. On the other hand, it could be a partnership of (more or less) equals--the shaman who offers spirits a sacrifice so they will aid him. Of course, these partnerships are often more one sided than the participants like to admit--and that could be an interesting theme to explore. Other relationships are possible--for example parasitic or symbiotic relationships.

Spirits can also take a wide range of shapes. They can exist only in the caster's mind. They can be ghostlike and ephemeral. They can have physical bodies, appear as shadows, as tattoos on the caster's body, as mystical items (animate or inanimate), as animals, or almost anything else you can imagine.

In either case, the majority of the cost probably comes from the sheer difficulty in managing the spirits. Spirits in stories are usually manipulative and tricky. Many actively deceive their mages. They may portray themselves as more or less powerful then they actually are, commit lies of omission, follow the letter rather than the spirit of an agreement, or simply misrepresent any information they have. Furthermore, characters may accidentally summon the wrong spirit or open a gateway they cannot close.


This is probably the default gaming magic model. Here the character channels mystical energy to make physical changes in the world. In some systems, the mage harnesses their internal energy. In others, they tap external sources of power (magical items, lay lines, midnight, full moons, crystals, etc.). Often energy systems are modeled as hybrids, where the character has a small amount of internal power, but must tap external sources for bigger spells.

This type of magic has a lot of room for variation. Here are a few things to think about:

  • Where does the energy come from?

  • What does the energy feel like? What does it look like? Taste? Smell?

  • What are the costs/side-effects of manipulating this energy

  • What happens if you lose control? If you try to tap too much energy?

  • Does manipulating this energy leave behind a trace? An identifiable signature?

Sympathetic Magic

This represents subtile uses of magic. Here like influences like--pushing the pin into the voodoo doll causes pain in the target. The mage often creates a physical object that represents their desired effects. They can use runes, fetishes, art, whatever. The symbolic representation could be literal or abstract. And the effects are often minor. In many cases, sympathetic magic just seem to give the characters more confidence (represented as a small bonus), and arguably may not be magical at all.

For example, a character may get a tattoo or brand of a fierce creature to improve their fighting ability. Or, they may create a fetish out of feathers that helps them escape from harm (feathers = flight = escape). In some cultures, a band of warriors may demonstrate exceptional bravery while fighting under their banner, but if the banner should fall, their moral crumbles.

Sympathetic magic can be very open ended, and can be combined with almost any of the other magical models. Sympathetic magic often adds a rich texture to the story, but usually has little or no cost (though body modification like branding or piercing is undoubtedly painful). This is OK, since it has little effect on the world.

Information Processing

Here the universe is seen as a gigantic computer. People perform magic by reprogramming this computer. As such, Information Processing magic often has a super science or quantum mechanics element to it. The magic is often tied in with chaos theory, string theory, or whatever.

Here, you need to think about how the universe computer is reprogrammed. Is it something the mage can do mentally? Or does it require special hardware? Does the universe have viruses? Anti-virus/anti-intrusion software? What happens when you program a bug into the Universe? Is there tech support? Sysadmins?


Here, your power comes from your knowledge and your ability to create gadgets on the fly. These items may be magical or technological (think MacGyver). Gadgeteering is very common in the pulp and steam-punk genres. Most gadgets are one use items. You pull them out of a secret compartment in your shoe, or build it from things found under the sink. It has a single effect, then it disappears from the story. Longer term items are better represented by magical/super tech items.

You need to define what kind of gadgets your character can create? Do you brew potions? Do you weave herbs into small charms? Do you build miniature, steam-powered spiders? There are other important questions as well. How long does it take? What tools do they need? How dangerous is it? What could go wrong? But, these questions often need answered on a case-by-case basis.


Here your power comes from the items you cary. These can be magical or super science. Think about the following: How is the item powered? How long do the batteries last? How do you recharge it? Can anyone use the item, or is it keyed to a specific person? Is it mass produced or a prototype? Does it have any design flaws/bugs/curses? How often does the item break down? How much maintenance does it require? Are other people looking for the item (for example, if it is a stolen prototype)?

Behavior limits

This isn't really a model of magic, but a modification of other magical models. Many magical systems have behavioral limits. Maybe you need to remain celibate. Maybe you cannot eat fresh meat. Maybe you must perform regular cleansing rituals.

Regardless, these behavior limits can be added to any magic system. However, they shouldn't be added randomly. They should somehow fit into the theme of the magic--they should make logical sense within the magic's rules.

For example, iron and steel might interfere with magic. Here, the mage cannot carry metal on their person (no swords or chainmail). This would be particularly appropriate with a fay-themed magic system, and (most importantly) would have other consequences. Non-mages might use iron shackles to "turn off" a mage's power. Furthermore, someone wearing metal armor or an iron ward would have some protection against magical effects.

Why does the limit exist? What are the effects of breaking the taboo? Are the effects permanent? Do you need to atone? Do they just fade on their own? What are the other implications of these limits? How do they influence society at large?

Tolkien vs C. S. Lewis

One last aspect to consider. I recently read an interesting essay on Tolkien and Lewis. They were contemporaries and apparently Tolkien often criticized Lewis's works, partially because of the religious content (Tolkien was a devoutly religious person himself--he just thought religious writing should be left to the professionals), but also because of the scope.

Tolkien worked hard to create a unified world. Sure, his world had a wide range of elements (elves, dwarves, dragons, etc.), but it drew largely from a single mythical source, and it was woven into a tight, unified whole.

Lewis was a magpie. Inspired by everything from Greek and Roman mythology to Beatrix Potter, he took anything that caught his eye and threw it into Narnia.

Most traditional games are much more Lewisian in scope. I suspect this goes back to AD&D's original "Monster Manual" and "Deities and Demigods" books (and probably even earlier). Both were encyclopedic collections of elements from a wide range of mythological and fictional sources.

A few games--like Pendragon--have taken a more focused approach.

Neither approach is necessarily better than the other. But they will influence the type of story you can tell.

Please Add Your Own

This is far from an exhaustive examination of magical systems, but I think it hits the highlights. Do you have any further models? Any modifications or additional questions we should ask when crafting magic systems? Please leave a comment.