Thoughts on The Regiment: Ville’s views on X-Ray Down

This is my view on John Harper and Paul Riddle’s The Regiment, run by Lauri.┬áThere’s nothing much I can add to Lauri’s description of the session, so I’ll talk a bit about my impressions of the system. Do keep in mind that even though the version number is 2.5, The Regiment is still a work in progress; beautiful and promising, but flawed. I hope these notes will a) help the designers hone┬áthe game, b) make you interested in testing in it, and c) give you a couple of hints while playing it. Continue reading

Return to 3:16

First off, I’m very busy this week, but I don’t won’t to postpone this any further as I’m going to be out of the country next week (so this blog’ll probably be slower than usual), so you are going to get this very unedited (not that I generally use much time to edit these) version of my thoughts on the reactions my previous posting on 3:16 has evoked. This means I’m probably going to ramble even more than usual.

For those who are not familiar with the game, sorry about this. You probably won’t get anything out of reading this.

Now, this is a screenshot from our usage data. Guess which one is the day I posted the review?


On Creativity

People misunderstand creativity. Its not only about originality, even in arts, where originality is especially valued, creativity still has other components. You still need to work within a framework and part of being creative is finding the right limits to what you are doing.

Even in arts, where this isn’t necessarily appreciated, this is actually very important part of the process. If I’m producing a movie, I don’t want my casting director going outside the perimeters, but I do want him/her being creative with the choices. If I’m publishing a newspaper, I want the cartoons to be creative, but they still need to fit into the area I’ve designated for them. Even if these kinds of pressures don’t exist, artists will make them for themselves. Most online comics will use the same format for their comics all the time.

All creativity is actually based on limits. Even if you are starting a project, you’ll generally have an idea of what you want to do. You usually know the medium you are going to use. That’s a limitation right there. Once you get going, you are building more and more limitations. You are establishing characters, places and so on. You are making decisions on what the names look like on your fantasy world, or which corporation runs the chain of cozy diners in your cyberpunk world.

Those limitations are important mostly because they push us into unexpected directions. Lets look at Calvin & Hobbes (which I’ve been reading lately). The strips for Monday through Saturday are all the same general size for strips, but within that limit, Watterson finds great flexibility. Most of the strips are three or four panels, but sometimes less, if needed. This is why he was so great. He knew what being creative meant. He knew how to use the limits he was working with.

For a group of people to be able to work together, they need to have common limits. The system used is one of those limitations. So…

System as Communication

The most important part of a roleplaying system is what it communicates. The number of dice you roll, the stats, the damage tables, these should all serve the purpose of telling everyone at the table what we are working on as a group.

Every game should have a feedback system. That’s the major way the game communicates what its about. We know D&D is about tactical combat, because that’s what the feedback system tells us to do. There are other ways of getting XP, but that’s the major way.

Does 3:16 do this? Its definitely telling us that killing is important. It doesn’t go much beyond that. It isn’t giving you anything else.

One of the criticisms of my post was that I don’t seem to be getting it. Maybe. If this is the case, that’s a problem of the system. I can clearly see what the system is telling me. So, if I’m not “getting the point”, the system isn’t doing a very good job of showing me.

“Don’t Use the Mechanics” Is Not a Valid Defense of a System

Every game has corner cases which the rules don’t and shouldn’t try to cover. However, if the system simply disregards all problems by just waving a hand, that isn’t a solution. That’s just telling eveyrone that this systems sucks, live with it. Of course, invoking the creativity and roleplaying card makes this an attractive proposition, but clearly, this can’t be the supporting structure of the system. If it is, why are we using this system? Again, we need to lay out some common rules for the game, and this is clearly just dismissing that idea.

We do use the rules systems for a reason. Again, they are actually helping us be more creative. By not giving us that component, the system is basically worthless.

There’s a Distinction Between the Game and the System

As far as I can see, people have different interests in the game. Some people apparently like to parody the US military, some people like to kill aliens en masse. There probably are other less apparent reasons as well, and of course we have the more casual players who don’t really care.

In any case, the defenses of the system seem to be based on liking the game as a whole, not the system. The system seems to get a bunch of excuses, because people like the theme, whatever they think it is.

Now, this is wrong. Obviously, this system is specifically designed for this purpose, and I don’t know of any other, but this doesn’t mean it works. The concept of the game can be good, but the system can fail in its goal of presenting the themes.

In this case, if the the real goal is just to be an effective alien-killer, I’m guessing you could argue its doing a pretty good job (although it isn’t). If it has any other goals, its doing a very lousy job. Well, unless its trying to piss me off.

The Value of NFA

My assessment of the NFA as worthless seems to be getting backlash.

Than again, it is. No one has been able to present an actual case for it. Yes, I rolled NFA on some occasions besides the dominance rolls. None of those rolls mattered. Yes, at some point some of the characters were out of breath because I jogged them to our next destination. Did this affect them in any way? No. Did they even roleplay it? No, because it didn’t matter to them, because they were there to kill aliens.

… and again. If it actually had a purpose in, say, gathering intelligence or formulating a plan, the benefits are reaped by all players and therefore, as I said before, I’m basically sacrificing my character for the good of the whole, as my strengths are in an area which benefits us, whereas the other players, who put their emphasis in FA are benefiting mostly themselves.

Actually, I lied. There was one NFA roll which had actual benefit for me. In this case I tried to find ways of using it, so I used my turn to give out orders and get the men organized. The GM gave me a +1 on the next FA roll. Based on this, my 8 in NFA is actually worth exactly 0.8 in FA, if I use a whole turn. Basically worthless.

The Random Advance

A couple of people have defended the system by saying that I can get advances randomly. This idea seems very condensending to me. Basically, the designer is saying that I can’t actually earn those advances, so he’s just giving me a random chance of getting them. I’d much rather be able to earn them.

Why does this even exist? Because the designer knew the weakness of his system and threw this in there to cover it up. He knew very well that the system would favor the corporal in a huge way, but didn’t bother to actually fix that.

One Final Thing

The role of the sergeant has been overly emphasized in these texts, since I played that role in the game. However, looking at the whole, I think the other characters, those who actually thought about how much points they’ll put into each of the stats, are actually in a much worse situation. They have a very hard time competing with the corporal and if the sergeant starts messing with the others for his own benefit, those characters will feel the brunt of it just the same as the corporal.

I think that’s actually much, much worse. Those players, who actually tried to make something more than a one-dimensional asshole, are being punished by the system much worse than the sergeant. In our group, Peetu, who put 4 in FA and 6 in NFA is probably in the worst position. Because he did put some thought into these stats is never going to advance through kills, will never have access to the same weaponry the others have and so forth. And this is basically a punishment for actually caring.

What does that say about the system?

3:16 Carnage Among Stars Review, Of Sorts

Caveat: I haven’t actually read the game. This is purely based on one session of gameplay and reading discussions on the net.

Spoiler: This game is garbage. It might have some good hidden intentions, as Ville thinks it does, but despite that, its just awfully designed. It might sound fun, but it has huge fundamental flaws, which are apparently only addressed by the designer by telling people to deal with it. So, I’m dealing with it. I’m telling you how much this sucks.

The basic idea is this: You have a squad of soldiers, who are out there in space killing things. You actually compete about killing things. Its very minimalistic, with basically just two attributes, the Fighting Ability FA, and the Non-Fighting Ability NFA:

Lets start from the beginning. Yesterday we played our first session. We were instructed to make our characters. First, only name, reputation and distributing ten points among the two attributes, with maximum of eight in one of them. So, I gave my character the name Pjotor Azarov, had him have the reputation of a coward, gave him 2 in FA and 8 in NFA. I thought, maybe I can be a medic or something.

Then, I was told I’m the sergeant of the squad, because I have the highest NFA. Ok. I can work with that… I thought at the time.

We were given weapons. I got some basic rifle and a sidearm.

Then, I was told my goal was to keep everyone alive and see to it that our squad follows the orders given by our superiors. Except, I need to compete about the kills as well. This isn’t actually my mission, but since the game only feedback is that I get levels by killing more things than others, this is clearly what I need to do. Ville seems to think there’s some hidden genius behind this, which might be true if the rules in general weren’t such a mess.

The first encounter pretty much revealed all the problems with the game. Since I have a very high NFA, I can generally choose how each encounter begins. Since I have my sidearm, which works close range, while others don’t have any weaponry that does pretty much anything at that range, in order to win in the killing contest, I need to bring those fights to close range. All the time.

Obviously, this isn’t very logical. Why would my character do this, if there wasn’t a poorly conceived rule behind it? Instead of trying to do anything valuable, my character needs to shit on other characters time and time again. However, since the system is – again – so poorly conceived, this isn’t actually helping me. Its just giving me false hope.

Since my FA is so low, I can’t actually hit anything. In the meantime, the other characters will have time to get to better positions and then – since they have higher FAs and more efficient weapons – can beat any of my attempts at getting the high kill score. I just don’t stand a chance.

The other encounters we had were basically the same. I took us to close range, they moved into better position. Killing ensued.

If I had known how the system works beforehand, would I have made my character differently. Definitely. However, this has another problem. This would have lead to much more homogenous characters.

Since NFA is basically useless for more than one character, everyone would max out on FA. Of course, then some poor soul would need to take the bullet, so that the squad doesn’t get ambushed every time. That character would then be forced into uselessness. NFA is good for US, while FA is good for ME. In a game where you are in a situation, where you are supposed to compete, this isn’t good. You can’t spread your wealth if everyone else is keeping theirs.

Now, I do have an out. Each player has a strength. You can use this strength to immediately resolve a situation. Then you get to kill all the threats in the encounter. Sounds nice, but since my weaponry is so poor, I can’t get the kills I need even this way, because the other characters can easily get more in a normal encounter. Also, they have strenghts they can use. You get only one in the beginning, and you only get more by levelling, in other words by killing more than others.

So, basically, I’m screwed. I don’t have incentives to play the game the way it says I should. I don’t have the tools to play the game the way it should be played. Every avenue I have is just poor. I basically have the following options:

1. I keep doing the same thing: I bring battles to close range and hope for the best. However, since the other players can get new weapons and become better at using them at close range, this options is quickly closed, if isn’t already. Since I have the poorest FA, anyone can easily best me at close range.

2. I can go for promotions. The thing is, I can’t really control this. You need to expend a strength to get a promotion, but I can’t get strengths by killing, so I have to rely on purely on luck. I don’t have any control over this.

3. I try to get the other characters killed. This doesn’t really work either. Since my FA is so low, I can’t take them on directly, but since I don’t have any other venues to do this, that’s my only chance.

Basically, I’m screwed. I don’t have any room to maneuver and I don’t have any tools to work with. I did some reading on the subject, and as others had come seen the same problems, they had apparently come to these conclusions:

1. The game is supposed to be played as a team, where people just let everyone level. Well, the system doesn’t support this in any way. It only encourages the competition, so if this is what we are supposed to do, why would we be playing this game?

2. The game is fundamentally PvP. Okay, seems about right. However, again, I don’t have the tools to do this, since I apparently can’t use my higher rank to mess with them and I can’t attack them directly due to my low combat capabilities.

Its a poorly conceived board game in the guise of a RPG. My capabilities are pretty much useless to me and if they somehow became useful, that would put the other characters in a very poor position.

GMing: Keeping the Lore vs. Playing

I ran my first Call of Cthulhu campaign during 2009 and 2010, during which time my GMing preferences underwent a drastic change. It was the acclaimed Tatters of the King, “Cthulhu done right”, praised for its believable NPCs and milieu. While everyone seemed to like the story, from the GM’s point of view the campaign was arduous. There is little freedom for the players, and the GM is instructed to fudge die rolls so that certain events come to pass in just the right way. What’s worse, the book is a horrible manual for an actual gaming session. To start with, there are no master lists for clues, or any other handy points of reference other than a timeline. In effect, I had to keep the book open at all times and make sure that I handed the players just the right information to ensure that the campaign goes along.

GMing it was hard work during the sessions. The book is 232 pages long, and the campaign takes up about 180 or 190 pages. Some of the early scenarios contain information or objects that are vital late in the campaign, but the information in the book doesn’t follow any clear format – it’s hidden in the NPC’s pre-written dialogue. Without a Master List of Everything Necessary, or at least a small explanatory text of what’s essential in the scene, it was really hard to improvise anything.

In effect, I kept the book open in my lap at all times, glanced at it regularly so that I could act the parts of the NPCs and deliver all the necessary information the players. It was hard to concentrate on what was happening at the gaming table because I had to focus on the book and on making sure that the campaign could go on.

(I’m not blaming it all on the book, though; it might not be the best campaign for a first-time Cthulhu GM. Maybe an experienced GM could have read the book in its entirety and gleaned all the necessary information and made his own play aids. I maintain that it’s the book’s job to make the pre-made campaign easily playable, but that’s beside the point here.)

That’s my point of view, my experience. In contrast, around the same time I had two different kinds of roleplaying experiences. FIrst, I read new gaming masterpieces such as 3:16: Carnage Amongst the Stars, and even got to play them a bit. 3:16 is a rules-light, improvisation-heavy roleplaying game about space marines intent on killing everything in the universe. It is filled with good stuff, but what’s relevant here is that 3:16 was the first game where I encountered the band metaphor for RPGs. It’s like jamming together and creating stories. (To my present knowledge, Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer is the first game to utilise that metaphor.)

The second experience was playing two Call of Cthulhu scenarios several times in Ropecon, namely John Wick’s Curse of the Yellow Sign, Act One (three times), and John Tynes’ In Media [sic] Res (five times). Those scenarios are player-driven, and the GM is reacting. Everyone is kind of riffing off of each others’ ideas. The players play against each other, and the GM is trying to make the situation even more intense (and sure, describes the environment, gives clues and so on). Rather than reading from the book what’s supposed to happen next, the GM feels out the situation at the gaming table and adds something to it. Effectively, he’s one of the players.

In Tatters of the King, my job really felt like that of The Keeper of Arcane Lore, Call of Cthulhu‘s title for the GM. I was the repository of stuff that the players had to uncover. Their rolls of dice were either rolls to see whether they were damaged, or whether they could get access to the information I was withholding. (In effect, I fudged a lot of rolls because that was what I was used to.) I didn’t feel like I was one of the players in the game, or “one of the guys”. I was sitting at the head of the table, which sort of emphasised my role as being apart from the others.

Now, I’m not saying I never want to sit at the head of the table again (actually I still do), or that I don’t want to withhold information (I still do if the game has something of the sort), or that I want everyone at the table to hold equal power (I sure as hell don’t, but neither do I advocate that the traditional GM-player divide is the only way, or the only interesting way, to divide power). What I am saying is that I learned to love playing. I want to come to the table and feel that I don’t have all the answers, that I don’t know what’s going to happen at the table. I enjoy the moments when players surprise me and I have to step back and admit that I didn’t see that one coming.

What I’m saying is that I learned to Play Unsafe, which is actually a title of a brilliant little book by Graham Walmsley that I also read during the Cthulhu campaign, and I urge you to read it as well. When I don’t know what’s going to happen at the table, I need to stay on my toes and pay attention to what’s happening at the table. I feel more uncertain and tense, and I can transform that uncertainty and tension into something positive.