Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Map is not the Territory - Part 1 (basic thoughts)

Time to post. Turned out to be a long one. Actually, long enough to warrant a second post (which might end up being just as long). I'll try something difficult here: the idea is to formulate a theory how fictional realities (our gaming worlds) need a different approach to mapping for DMs and how understanding why things work as they do helps forming new concepts for your own games. I'll be slaughtering some holy cows here, so let's get to it.

This post was partly inspired by the post The formless Wilderness by +Gabor Lux.

It's also very much about the thoughts behind the design for Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (just in case anyone way wondering ...)

What you see is not what you get ...

Here is the problem: it is impossible to simulate reality in every detail. And even if it were possible, it's also impossible to experience reality in its entirety. In our games, it's the interplay between the illusion of detail and the shared belief of interconnectedness that make the magic happen. Reality is what we agree upon, as are the rules we use.

Following that train of thought further, we'll come to the conclusion that one goal of proper game-design is to offer a compromise in rules that produces something exceptional beyond the sum of its parts. We tend to forget that the individual group always is the factor x in every game. I think we tend to forget this because when we talk rules, we all talk about the same offer, not so much about the compromise that ends up being the individual game. Nonetheless, the compromise is what you get.

There's almost my punchline for the introduction. However, let's push harder. The sum of its parts, suspension of disbelief, all that gets you only so far in explaining how to do your job as a DM or how to write rules yourself. There are, of course, always the rules that are established and are known to work. The "tried and true" type of rules. But what is very often lacking with those type of rules is the explanation why they work. And this is a big problem, in my opinion.

We are told to take these things at face value, without being able to look "under the hood" and see the machinations or how they connect to the game. Rulebooks more often than not explain to you how a game works, but not why it works and if you don't know why it works, you cannot make informed decisions when doing it yourself. Or transcend beyond that, making something new, maybe something better.

Maps are a good and easy example for that, as they are a collection of signifiers for an area that are more on the interpreting side than the reproducing side. It always needs points of reference to make maps useful. Hence, maps need something to be mapped, to begin with, and their usefulness is only in reference to what they depict. So, what you see on a map is not what you get in the game. However, if you just have the map, what, actually, do you end up with in the game? And what should DM-maps look like if they are derived from a gaming environment?

GPS fail, because maps are not always reliable [source]
A roll is a roll is a roll ...

However we decide to determine chance in our games, the most common denominator will be that they are all oracles. Easy as that. You ask what's going to happen, chance tells you how it's going down. However, while the extent of complexity we end up using in our games is totally up to taste, the one thing you'll find in all those systems is that they aim for credibility. The results should genuinely mirror our interpretation of possible results (or at least something we can agree upon), maybe even expand our horizon in that regard.

In a way, the oracle you choose is the method with which the players explore and experience the world surrounding their characters. It helps them mapping what they discover. And that is important, as it informs their decisions. Each feedback they get offers information about the possibilities of their next decisions.

It's why games need to be "balanced" because we want to be able to extrapolate what will happen from what happened or learn from our mistakes, which is only possible if the results of the oracles are relatable. In that sense, balance doesn't mean that all encounters are "fair" challenges but rather that players will (should) be able to assess the chances their characters have facing a certain challenge, at least over time.

Right? [source]
The way I see it, the rules work as sensors for the players, their ten-foot pole, and the more leeway the rules give them, the better are the decisions they end up with. It's easy to see how that can be true for players. With DMs, it's a bit harder to see. However, if we stay with the idea of the system-as-oracle, we can come to the conclusion that systems or rules can provide context beyond the scope of a DMs individual capability. Here's a quote from the Wikipedia article about divination that brings some of that home for me:
"Divination can be seen as a systematic method with which to organize what appear to be disjointed, random facets of existence such that they provide insight into a problem at hand."
In a way, the DM also asks the rules how the world manifests as the characters explore it. Sure, you can decide if it is a rainy day or not instead of leaving it to chance, especially if it seems convenient (and although it's something we frown upon when players do it!). However, I found that using a form of divination for decisions is not only liberating, it also offers outcomes beyond what I could come up with on my own.

The famous D&D Random Encounter Reaction Table is a great example here. The chance that a monster is happy to encounter the group is as high as outright hatred. But happens if that orc is happy to see you? It changes the flow of the game significantly. It has merit. What's more, it also offers a spectrum players in turn can rely on: not all encounters need to be hostile and depending on how characters approach encounters, they might, for instance, be able to reason with a monster. Or trick it.

While the Random Encounter Reaction Table forces a DM to find reason in the behaviour of a monster, it also offers reason for the players to work with. The monster that wants to kill you instead of fleeing or parleying, must have reason to do so. It's a pattern fixed in the rules and players may draw conclusions from that about their surroundings.

Your basic Random Encounter Table works like that, too, in that it not only gives you a random encounter, but also shows the entirety of all common encounters for a certain area. It's a relatable pattern. However, it's important to know why it works to utilize it properly.

Threat assessment and reliable information ... [source]
Priorities and observation

If rules are sensors for players than they meet half way with the DMs imagination what the world looks and works like. Combat is an easy example here, as it (usually) takes a close look at what happens in a fight and what the consequences are. Most role playing games will not only offer (more or less) complex combat sub-systems, but also a shit-load of stuff associated with that, like monster manuals and what not.

And yet, while most systems will get along just fine, you'll also see the limits of those systems fairly easy: characters are very often so much more complex than their monster counterparts, and very much for the reasons stated above. It's mostly based on the misconception that it is not only possible but also necessary to simulate the gaming environment with an aspiration towards realism. The idea is, I think, rooted in the believe that for cause and effect to be reliable, they need to be fully realised.

That is, for a monster to be hurt it needs to have (some sort of) hit points to begin with. The strange thing is that while it still renders an incomplete picture of that fictionl environment the characters interact with, it still, in a way, gives too much of the world away.

Much like with maps, what good does it a DM or player to know how much hit points exactly a monster has? While you think there might be an obvious answer to that question (that is: to know when it's dead), I'd like to challenge the reasoning here. Think about it, all the characters know is that they damaged the opponent to some degree, and all the DM needs to know is how the opposition reacts to that damage. The idea that something has points that need depleting to come to an result has led (as we all well know) to lots of games ending up being slaughter fests.

What it seems vs. what it is ... [source]
I'd say it should be enough to know how tough an enemy is in the different stages of mutilation and how that manifests in an reaction during the fight. For obvious reasons it's still a good idea to have some sort of health system for characters. But that's just it: priorities and observation. What is important in the game and what will be observated (as in: what manifests and why).

It's the same way with maps. They give a wrong sense of completion and give too much away while being incomplete. It's misleading, just like the hit points for monsters are.

So, the map is not the territory?

I'm not against nice maps or monster manuals. It's good inspiration and most games actually rely on monster manuals to give DMs options. They work, they are fun, I'm all for it. I also think we cn push a little harder in our designs and see where it gets us. This includes the games we play as well as the games we write. For that we need a proper understanding what the hell we are actually doing when playing role playing games. But how to achieve that?

Experience and trial and error. We do not have the luxury of a billion dollar industry with the pocket money to finance research like the computer gaming industry has, so this comes down to enthusiasts doing their thing. The thing is, it costs time and it might not work. Nonetheless, it's work that needs doing (I think). This is such an attempt and if you check this blog on a regular basis, you'll know that it isn't the first time my ideas wander in directions like this. IHere's me hoping that I'm going somewhere with this and not just re-formulate old ideas ...

Anyway, so much for part 1. Part 2 will tackle concrete forms of mapping as they are used in gaming, some concepts that are used for maps outside of gaming and some ideas what can be done (or has been done and what I was thinking ...).

Holy cow up for slaughter next time: dungeon levels ...

No promises, but I try to be better with the blog updates in the future. It's just that (other than work draining the life out of me, as usual), well, it's just that I feel like when you do this long enough, topics seem to broaden, getting more and more complex to a point where writing a blog doesn't do it anymore. Or you keep repeating yourself. Or you reduce blogging to shouting personal opinions into the own echo chamber. Or (worst case scenario) you think people care enough about your personality to get away with politics ... Anyway, I'll post when I think I got something to share and that might be less often.


  1. Well, I fully agree to the point that grinding down Hit Points is somehwat a boring endeavor. I like the abstraction of dangers and encounters which comes with games liek Blades in the Dark. A simulacrum of the world ticking down on the players, where each mistake is generating naratives forward.
    Well I guess the test play I run with you wasnt the best example, as I was pretty tired and exausted. But its worth it to see distinctions of results beyond black and white, success and fail or to grind down numbers with the means of repeatative slauther.

    But well, as a map maker I am thrilled to read the next part.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I'll get a chance to talk about the abstraction of danger in a later post, I think (it's a sub system for Lost Songs I'm working on right now). Yeah, I'm not sure it'd been the perfect circumstances to showcase Blades ... too loud and busy, too many players. I know what you mean, though.

      Part 2 is up, btw. I think it's a bit more concise and to the point. Still, there needs to be a part 3, I'm afraid :)