Games of depth

in games •  3 months ago

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Depth of strategy

When we think of depth, games like the Civilization series or Chess typically come to mind. We think of planning in advance, and how early choices have long term consequences. In a game like Civilization, we have to decide where to put a city in order generate the required resources to grow and expand. In Chess, we cannot think of moving a single piece, but a movement of a interrelated group of pieces. This is a type of depth, and I think of it as a depth of strategy. It usually involves a series of planned decisions with long-lasting, cascading effects.

This is also seen in some role-playing games (RPG). The skills we choose to train, the equipment we choose to outfit, and the composition of the party itself all have a lasting impact on the rest of the game. These decisions can influence how we fight and interact with the world in significant ways. The same can be said with building a deck in Magic the Gathering (MtG).

Depth of tactics

There are other types of depth, and they are closely related to depth of strategy. One is found in many smaller decisions that when taken together produce a major outcome, usually in shorter recurring contests. This is common in first-person shooters (FPS) and real time strategy games (RTS) like League of Legends in the video game world, and we see it in RPGs and games like MtG too. Tactics are most important when we have to be present in the moment and immediately respond to gain advantage.

Think about all the possible choices taking place in a FPS game. Ever so slight variations in position, aim, and timing all have a major impact on the outcome of a shot. In a game like MtG, we have to respond to the cards we draw and how our opponent plays their hand. How we respond in the moment determines whether we win or lose. This type of depth is tactical. The more meaningful decisions we must make in the moment to gain an advantage, or not fall behind, is a depth of tactics.

Depth of imagination

A third type of depth is that which engages the imagination. Games like Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) and Fiasco compel us to engage the fantasy world that is being created. Rather than trying to predict the cascading effects of long term strategy or tactically react with speed and efficacy to immediate circumstances, depth of imagination requires we visualize and navigate a world with another set of rules.

For example, D&D not only has dragons but the dragons have physical characteristics, personalities, and even diets. Great games of imagination allow us to accept an initial premise, and then fully explore the ramifications of this premise. In Fiasco, once we accept our characters and motivations we use those rules to create outcomes.

Do you have any favorite games of depth that include one or more of these? Are there other types of depth you find engaging?

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I am a huge fan of games, in every context that you can experience them from tabletop to video, and I've written a little bit about them in the past, so I feel confident that sharing this bit will fit right in with what you had in mind.

Depth of Characterization

A fourth type of depth is that which we get when we experience characters in the setting separate from ourselves, whom we come to care about and want to know more about their story. This kind of depth can be found in many kinds of ludic experience but is most often referred to in the context of tabletop role-playing games.

Being able to engage with characters, whether they are played by another person in real time or have been pre-scripted by a game designer, to the point where we want to continue to experience their story at a personal level is one of the most amazing things that games can bring to our personal world.

This differs from Depth of Imagination by changing the direction of the experience. Rather than feeling immersed into a world around us, Characterization makes us feel immersed in the experience of sitting across the table, standing across the bridge, holding a gun on, being at knife point from, an individual – and makes us feel.

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Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I find roleplaying, like what you describe here, to be within the deep end of the imagination. While on a surface level, we might gaze with awe at the flora and fauna of the exotic world in the movie Avatar, I agree with you that games allow us to put ourselves within that world, even as far as within the skin and personality of another.

D&D does this through the building of a character. The fifth edition in particular introduced the idea of personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws to help players get into the role of their character.

Fiasco does this through the relationships and needs, but my favorite part is how the rulebook itself makes a point of pulling players into the story. They point out that we are not just roleplaying a scene at a nightclub, but one of us is playing the part of the nightclub owner, another is the talent, and another is planning a robbery. Get off the sidelines and don't be a spectator, but get into the action of the story. It's great fun.

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I haven't played a RPG with traditional GM/player role division in – probably decades, at this point. GM-less games turned into my forte after I realized that I really just got tired of being the GM for everyone, all the time.

I've written a couple of articles on experience with highly narrative focused games on Steemit which were relatively well received.

Story-first games which don't have room for someone to sit around and simply be a spectator are definitely far superior in terms of the gameplay that they generate, in my personal experience, than the alternative. Being able to experience character within the context of understanding what's going on in the setting is just a huge gearshift.

(Of course, I also love games where the idea of "character" is not really applicable. Microscope is probably the best example of that. It's not a game you play for character immersion but rather for world exploration, and it both caters to and rewards approaching the experience at the table from that perspective.)

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I know what you mean about being the GM for everyone. I played my first D&D game when I was ~6. I remember this because between 1st and 2nd grade my family moved to a rural area and I have never played a campaign in person again.

Online I have had the same experience as you. After a half dozen or so D&D games fizzled out, I decided I wanted to play bad enough to try as GM. The game is still going and will hit two years next month. It is fun, but can be exhausting.

What I'm really after is a game that combines strategy, tactics, and roleplaying on an individual character level similar to D&D, but with no DM and can be played start-to-finish in one night.

As an example, is there a game that rewards a thief for stealing from monsters and players while at the same time rewarding a paladin for being brave and chivalrous? It seems like most roleplaying games fall into two ends of the spectrum. I see lots of games where the roleplaying is cooperative and imaginative, and the focus is on the flavor, style, and shared creation of drama. There's no competition, and there's intentionally no way to measure success or failure.

On the other end, I also see a lot of games where the thief has an advantage to steal and paladin has an advantage to protect, and these are rigid and fixed. Then usually there is a primary quest or goal and we're supposed to use our unique tools to accomplish this. I'm a thief or paladin on a quest, rather than my quest is to be the best thief or paladin I can be.

How about a game where the challenge is this: I am just like everyone else, except I have different goals and different values. The paladin can steal just as well as the thief, but that's not how he wins. The thief can help or hurt, but it is maybe easier to steal from a dead person, and stealing is how he wins.

Do you know of any games anything like this?

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What I'm really after is a game that combines strategy, tactics, and roleplaying on an individual character level similar to D&D, but with no DM and can be played start-to-finish in one night.

All right, this I can do. I have several games that can do this, in fact… But were going to have to talk about some of the things that come along later in the requirements list to actually see if it's possible.

As an example, is there a game that rewards a thief for stealing from monsters and players while at the same time rewarding a paladin for being brave and chivalrous? It seems like most roleplaying games fall into two ends of the spectrum. I see lots of games where the roleplaying is cooperative and imaginative, and the focus is on the flavor, style, and shared creation of drama. There's no competition, and there's intentionally no way to measure success or failure.

There is a strong reason for the absence of competition in a lot of narrative-focus gaming, and that's because that direct competition is very difficult to encapsulate within the context of play at the table without a defined referee.

That is, after all, what a GM is and does in the context of most GM-full traditionally structured role-playing games. At core, they act as a trusted arbiter, one step above the mechanics, whom all the people at the table have decided that they can trust – whether they do or not. The GM is the "trustworthy individual" and as such they feel more comfortable engaging in inter-player conflict because they know that there is a quick and easy ultimate arbiter whom they trust to make that decision readily at hand.

In the absence of a GM, that trust has to be borne by some other element at the table. In traditional wargames, the carrier of that trust is the mechanics, and the mechanics either through enough complexity to create the "verisimilitude" of trust or sufficient simplicity to create the "verisimilitude" of trust do that work. On the other side of the spectrum, some games work primarily on the question of whether or not the group as a whole can be trusted to decide issues of inter-player conflict, and that can work quite well if they are set up properly.

How about a game where the challenge is this: I am just like everyone else, except I have different goals and different values. The paladin can steal just as well as the thief, but that's not how he wins. The thief can help or hurt, but it is maybe easier to steal from a dead person, and stealing is how he wins.

Do you know of any games anything like this?

I don't actually think you want a game where "you are just like everyone else, except you have different goals and different values," because there's this concept called "niche protection" which helps us tell stories about multiple characters at once that comes up a lot when you're playing with other people. Sometimes it's referred to as "spotlight time", because not everybody can be in the spotlight at the same time and there has to be a reason for a character to be in the spotlight. If all characters are effectively identical (and by that, I mean they are all roughly equivalent in effect that they can do) there is very little niche protection and people end up stepping all over each other – unless the primary mechanical differentiator isn't what they can do but all of those emotional issues, and there are games that do that.

You will probably have to discard the idea of "and that's how he wins," because winning and losing in the context of a role-playing game is a very touchy thing. You have to define endpoints for characters to come in and exit the narrative, and that often can mean that somebody is effectively told "you don't get to play the game for the rest of the evening" sometimes – and that's a bummer. Nobody wants to be told that they can't play the game they came to play with their friends.

But we can talk about success and failure when it comes to personal goals for the character.

Let's start with a really easy example, Contenders..

In Contenders, you play a down on his luck (or her luck) boxer, with personal problems and the dream of getting up and out. The mechanics are simple, there is no GM, and there is a defined endgame. Everyone can attempt anything reasonable for the type of character that they are, everyone has a different thing that's holding them back, everyone has a different thing that they want, and play can be very evocative. Mechanics are clear and small so that they are easy to trust, and everything goes until the endgame comes off and you find out whether you have managed to aspire to your dreams, take the long view and keep trudging on, or fail utterly and fall before your fears.

Aside from not being a fantasy setting, that would seem to tick all of your requirements. Though it is a bit thin in terms of setting, I've played multiple games of Contenders at conventions and never has it ever played out the same way and it's always build a compelling story to follow along.

But let's say that you want a little fantasy in your Contenders, your intrigue but you would like a few more mechanics and a broader scope – well, lucky for you, the author builds another game around the same sort of mechanics: Eternal Contenders, which can probably be described as "the ultimate fighting game role-playing game." In the sense that if Tekken, Dark Stalkers, and Mortal Kombat decided to get together and have a crazy RPG child, this is what it would look like.

Instead of just being boxers, you are members of a gladiatorial society, taking on fights to try and pull yourselves out of your current situation, getting involved with one another for plot complications, looking after that one singular dream that keeps you going, and fighting against the fear that hold you back. Except that with a larger system with a few more moving parts, you get a lot more connection with the underlying setting. It's still not a "you can play anything you want at any time you want" kind of game; it's far too focused for that. But because of that focus, you end up with a game that keeps people on the same page, lets them compete equally, creates a context for their conflicts, and doesn't need a GM.

If you really would like a little more focus on the friendly conflict between players at the table, you definitely want to look at Capes, which ostensibly looks like a superhero RPG but under the hood is a general engine for running GM-less games which are absolutely driven by people at the table knowing what other people at the table care most about and are willing to get involved in. It's a very strange game if you come at it from traditionally architected designs because it deliberately cultivates friendly rivalries and conflicts; putting out conflicts on the table that other players are definitely interested in getting into, even if you lose them, is how you get more currency to introduce more narrative elements going forward. And that leads to a really positive dynamic where you introduce things that you know other people are interested in but they might play either side – because no one actually owns characters in the game, they only own their resources. This effectively blows away the issue of spotlight time because any player can have any character at almost any time so it becomes a nonissue. Character generation is also fast, easy, and can be done within five minutes so you don't get the issue of "well, you died – so you're out of play for the rest of the evening." Characters are not effectively interchangeable; they have a list of things that they are quite good at and which are generally how they interact with the story going forward, so the thief and paladin may be able to do the same thing but unless the paladin can tie it to one of his Abilities, he's not going to be nearly as effective at affecting the Conflicts about getting into a locked chest on the table as the thief who has Abilities which are easily are narratively applicable. But this is also a game where Batman can sensibly and rationally go up against Superman, just as he does in the source media, and has a good chance of succeeding as long as he plays to the tropes that he does best.

I've written a couple of articles on GM-less gaming that I think you might enjoy, and you might follow some of the links in and be curious about. There is a pile of other things that I can refer to here, but a lot of it I have already touched base on.

I'm pretty sure that you will find more material that you are likely to enjoy in those links. If you do, leave comments, ask questions – I am quite happy to speak at ridiculous length about them.

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Thanks. I noted that you mentioned having written about these subjects, but couldn't find them. Is there an easy way to find your previous writings on Steemit? I went to your page but didn't see any way to filter or sort it in a meaningful way.

I'll post my thoughts on these topics, likely the first one.

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Not to put too fine a point on it, but Steemit is absolute shit for discovery. There is a search engine, but it's almost complete crap. The only real way to go digging through someone's ideas is to go to their profile, click on their Blog tab, and start scrolling downward.

Luckily, mine isn't terribly deep yet, having only been here for a couple of months, but it's pretty ugly.

If you have some cool ideas, feel free to make a new post of your own and reference my original articles. There's no reason that we should hide some new and original material from you if it is of any length. It works out better for Steemit and for you.

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