Monday 30 January 2023

An Era of Standard RPG Terminology

Now that the core of Dungeons & Dragons has been effectively open sourced, a lot of retro-clone designers are breathing a sigh of relief. You can't copyright mechanics, but that hasn't stopped numerous lawsuits in the past. Those days seem to be over!

I thought it might be nice to look at some of those now-free core mechanics that have been with the game since its very early, dungeon-centric editions.

* * *

First up is the Hit Die. This is really the heart of Dungeons & Dragons. The image of this iconic, twenty-sided die is almost synonymous with the game itself. You roll the hit die every time you want to see if you hit something, which is often. After all, this is a game about hitting things!

Next we come to the classic Hit Points. Like many D&D terms, this has been pulled into many other games, tabletop roleplaying games, boardgames, and even video games. The hit point is the location on your enemy where your blow has landed, crucial for understanding if you've poked the bulette in the eye or just bounced off its thick armor yet again. Most ordinary humans have a d6 for hit points, but larger creatures with lots of limbs (looking at you, hydra!) often have many hit points.

Another immediately recognizable term is Armor Class. Right after determining the hit point of an attack, you will need to look up if the target is an armor class or not. Fighters, Paladins, and even Clerics are all armor classes, but Magic-Users, and Thieves are not.

Dungeons & Dragons is a game with no take-backs. If your character dies, your progress is lost! Sad as it is, this is part of the game. Savor the experience! But the game does give you one last chance: if you have a sack of gold or treasured magic weapon, you can make a Saving Throw to try to pass it on to another character.

If you do survive the dangers of the dungeon, ask the DM if you reached any Experience Points. Experience points are the backbone of any long term campaign, allowing the PCs to grow and evolve their abilities. Many DMs like to situate experience points all throughout the adventure. Some prefer to have an experience point after each major accomplishment in a campaign. Some prefer having only one, and require that you go back to town to level up. Neither is better, they're just different play styles!

These are the basics, but as time goes on, successful adventuring groups will have to pick up some clever tactics if they want to maximize their chances. Chief among these is making a good choice about who is standing where, the party's Alignment. Parties with good alignment have a significant advantage when dealing with surprise traps or encounters. Chaotic alignment is much riskier, but can be fun in its own way. Make sure to discuss this with your group before entering the dungeon, as mismatched alignment can be a total party kill.

* * *

Like it or not, the world's most popular role-playing game has seeded the industry with terms that affect the very thought process of game design. By embracing this, instead of constantly renaming the wheel, I look forward to a decade of games that can move past the arguments of the past and use common terminology for the benefit of all.

Saturday 28 January 2023

RPG Transcript Analysis: Critical Role

For the third post in my 'transcript analysis' series, I'm looking at a very different play style than I'm familiar with: Critical Role.

For this analysis, I picked a random Critical Role episode, "Between the Lines". Episodes are long, so I chose to do Part I of this episode, which is about 110 minutes and just over 16,000 words.

Unlike most RPG sessions, Critical Role is played for an audience. The participants are professional voice actors, and this shows in a dramatically different kind of play. The sessions are dominated by huge blocks of in-character dialogue.

In the "old school" transcript, the players spent a lot of time strategizing in a way that's not clearly in or out of character. In Critical Role, all of this clearly happens in character, even to the extent that some actions are declared by telling another character about them.

The GM style has a lot more dialogue than in old school play, but is still recognizably similar:

The difference shows up in the player statement balance, which is dominated by in-character dialogue.

The most common action in the old school play transcript was Inquiring for more information - examining something, looking around. In Critical Role, checking out the environment isn't even top ten.

Here's the overall breakdown, players plus GM:

As I was annotating, however, I realized that the play style did shift a lot. When the group was on their home turf, in-character dialogue dominated. Things changed as soon as the party decided to set out for an adventure location.

This got me curious if I could effectively show the ebb and flow of statement types over time. Here's how that looks:

I broke the transcript down into roughly 1,000-word "chapters", and then rendered the distribution of statement types over time.

What immediately stands out is that while IC dialogue is a huge portion, it's steadily decreasing over time. The session starts off with a bit of "last time on Critical Role" (Prior Events), but reaches its peak dialogue-heavy moment in chapter 3, where it's almost pure IC dialogue with a bit of DM exposition.

That immediately slides of as the group sets out. A green band of PC Action appears ("I do x"), along with Describe (the GM describing things)

By Chapter 17, there's even a healthy amount of OOC Approach (statements about how to approach a situation that isn't clearly in-character dialogue)

One similarity with the old school transcript is how little discussion of mechanics there is. Most commonly, the GM simply declares, "Give me a perception check," there's a die roll, and the players are immediately into either groaning, cheering, relevant-but-out-of-character jokes, or in-character dialogue. There's essentially no rules debate in this at all. That's what you might expect from a short-resolution system with an extremely seasoned group.

Here's the "next statement" diagram for the top ten statement types:

This is only top ten, and so we can only see the tip of the iceberg of PC action and how it resolves—some clarifying of the player's intent, but almost always it's simple acknowledgement from the GM. Apart from little sequences of off-topic chatter, game-related joking, or discussion of prior events, all roads lead to in-character dialogue.

Monday 23 January 2023

Further RPG Transcript Analysis: Old School

Recently, I wrote about a taxonomy for classifying the statements made while playing a role-playing game. I've been looking at an 'old school' style transcript that I was given by Ara Winter.

With the whole transcript annotated, including breaking up longer statements into separate ones so they can be tagged distinctly, it looks like this in my google sheet:

This lets me do a couple of fun but simple bits of analysis, such as looking at the relative proportion of various statement types, by the GM: the players:

..and the group as a whole:

But the coolest view for me is looking at next statement types. What statements tend to follow others? I crunched the transcript and it allowed me to make a sort of Markov chain out of it, showing the likelihood of a statement type following another:

What I love about this is that you can really see the style of conversation that emerges in this session: the rapid back-and-forth of description and inquiry between players and GM. Once in a while there are little conversations about clarifying the fiction, player intent, or how to approach the situation. Joking tends to lead to more joking!

That was just the top ten most common statement types; here's the full diagram for the entire transcript:

In the next post, I'll have a look at a very different play style: Critical Role.

Sunday 22 January 2023

A Taxonomy of Roleplaying Utterances v0.1

There are lots of ways that gamers characterize play styles, many of which focus on the intentions of the play group. I won't recap those here—this post is about a different lens for looking at play style, namely, what are people talking about?

I Describe Fireball At Them

A few years ago I watched a YouTube video where the players spent an incredible amount of time describing how the actions of their characters would be experienced by others. One player spends upwards of sixty seconds describing how his character sits down, unpacks a little flute, and plays it.

In another campaign, a different player would have said, "I cast Sleep."

This got me thinking about a lens to examine play focused on the type of statements that people are making, based on classifying the statements uttered at the table. With such a classification scheme, you could look at any of the thousands of hours of actual play available on the internet and annotate it.

Taxonomy of Roleplaying Utterances

So, without further ado, here's a draft. This is a bit of a mess; it's a list of things that I've seen happen, sliced into groups based on what I thought was interesting. I present it here mostly so you could either:

  1. try to use it
  2. come up with a different taxonomy
  3. publish and link to transcripts of actual play so that others can do 1) or 2)

I've put it in a hierarchy not because things down on the leaves are far apart, just to make it easier to label things "100", "200" and move on, and perhaps come back and tag it with more precision later.

A few definitions:

Fiction: the qualitative description of the game world and everything in it: the environment, events, the characters and their feelings. 

Quantity: a characterization of the world originating in the rules that uses a number, a tag, an enumerated state of some kind.

A 6' tall ranger is a fictional element; if the ranger is Medium, that's a mechanical quantity.

A Taxonomy of Roleplaying Utterances v0.1

  • 100 Fiction
    • 110 (GM) General descriptions
      • 111 Environmental description
      • 112 Events
      • 113 NPC actions/behavior/visible emotions
    • 120 Clarifying (e.g. asking for more information, resolving ambiguity)
      • 121 Clarifying the fiction
      • 122 Clarifying feasibility/consequences of action (e.g. "is it too far to jump across?")
    • 130 (Player) Stating a PC action (e.g. "I grab the chalice from the altar.")
      • 131 Descriptions of PC actions (e.g. "My cloak blows in the wind as I leap onto the stone table, I'm like.. silhouetted against the sky."
    • 140 GM Describing PC Action or its results (e.g. "Okay, you leap forward and shove the door—it swings open and bangs against the far door frame..")
    • 150 Fictionalizing a quantity or mechanical outcome (e.g. [Having rolled 2 damage]" The dagger leaves a long, ragged scratch on your arm.")
    • 160 Dialogue
      • 161 IC Dialogue (e.g. "The merchant says, 'My horse is the fastest in the land!'")
      • 162 Description of dialogue (e.g. "The merchant prattles on about his horse and how it's the fastest in the land." e.g. "I tell the King the whole story about the orcs at the mine.")
    • 170 Inner experiences
      • 171 Reactions/emotions of your character (e.g. "My guy is totally taken aback, like.. I thought the Queen was an ally!")
      • 172 Reactions/emotions of someone else's character (e.g. GM: "You feel your hands trembling as you step out onto the ledge." "Haha, you're totally hot for me.")
      • 173 Intentions (e.g. "GM: The monster isn't trying to flee." e.g. "PC: I need to find a way to get out of this damned sewer.")
      • 174 (GM) PC inferences (e.g "You get the impression he's just trying to end the conversation.")
      • 175 Rationale for choices (e.g. "Well, I'm chaotic evil, after all. [I'm going to untie that rope.]")
    • 180 Exposition (e.g. background information, contextualizing what PCs would know about what they see)
  • 200 Engaging with Mechanics
    • 210 Rules
      • 212 Rules explanation
      • 211 Rules query (e.g. "Can I do a follow-up charge against flying enemies?")
      • 213 Rules debate/discussion/disagreement
      • 214 Choosing rules, procedures, resolution approach (e.g. "Let's use the one-roll system for this fight.")
      • 215 Lobbying for a particular mechanical interpretation (e.g. "I'm prone, but I'm prone on a giant table, shouldn't that offset the disadvantage?")
    • 220 Resolving
      • 221 Mechanical preamble to actions ("because of my instinct, I'm going to..")
      • 224 (GM) Stating consequences (e.g. if you fail the save, you fall off the cliff)
      • 225 Rolling dice/using a randomizer (e.g. "I rolled a four.")
      • 226 Applying rules/procedures (e.g. "A roll of four is a severe wound, but also I mark xp. Hey, that means my skill goes up!" e.g. "Everyone roll initiative.")
      • 227 Choosing mechanical options (e.g. "I rolled a 3; I need to either flee or surrender. I guess I'll surrender.")
    • 230 Discussing quantities (e.g. "I have four hit points." "My sword is +2 against golems." "I only need another 200 xp to go up a level.")
      • 231 Asking about a quantity (e.g. "How many hit points do you have left?" "Do you have the Leap ability?")
  • 300 Out of Character (or ambiguously IC/OCC)
    • 301 Approach/tactics discussion (e.g. "Dude, what? Use the Fireball, why are you saving it?" "Can we just ride around these guys and not fight them at all?")
    • 302 Prior events of the campaign (e.g. summaries of last session, reminders)
    • 222 Clarifying intent of a player (e.g. "Are you really just trying to push the orc back a square?")
    • 303 Cheering/lamenting an outcome, pretend IC shit-talking (e.g. "You totally smoked that orc! he's just a crater! lol")
    • 304 Opining (e.g. "We're totally getting double-crossed here, right?")
    • 305 Safety tools (e.g. "Let's X-card that.")
    • 306 Discussing play (e.g. "I loved it when you," "My favorite moment was when..")
  • 400 Off topic
    • 404 Discussing a missing player

If you do actually annotate a transcript with this or any other taxonomy, please indicate what taxonomy you used and its version! (e.g. by linking to it).

Some problems and caveats
  1. Any taxonomy will all sorts of assumptions baked into it. For example, there are GMless games! I have no idea if this would look applied to a Microscope or Quiet Year session. All those are problems for v0.2!
  2. Any classification scheme will have lots of edge cases where statements are hard to classify.

An Example

Ara Winter kindly provided me this transcript of play from a game of his, for this purpose. It's been sitting on my hard drive for years. Here's the raw transcript, without my annotations:

DM: And there is the pond, here.
G: I care most about the area under the planks and the pond.
DM: Well, uh. The only thing you see under the planks is stale fetid water, and inside the pond, you see a giant floating frog corpse about five feet in length.
R: Is in intact?
DM: Fairly intact, yes. It's in the water? So you would have to, I don't know, either get in the water or pull it towards you in some way.
R: How far into the water?
DM: Well, the whole pond thing is maybe 25, 30 feet across, So 10-12 feet?
R: I bet we could throw, what do you call them? One of our grappling hooks.
G: Do we want. . . a frog corpse?
R: Well we might be able to figure out how the frog died.
J: Did the frog corpse have anything on his person? Or is he just a naked frog.
DM: Well, all you see is just the belly of a frog that's about five feet long. And only just parts of it, because it is kind of floating in the water.
J: And it's obviously dead?
DM: Well it doesn't look alive no. You don't normally see frogs like that, lying like that, upside down and not moving.
J: Ok, Can I use my quarterstaff?
DM: Not your quarterstaff, it's about 7' long.
R: All right, I take my grappling hook, with a rope and try and throw it out there.
DM: Ok, you can grapple the frog. It makes a thicking *plctch* sound as it hits the water and your rope goes into it. I mean it's standing water because it's separate from the river and you can hook the frog and pull it towards the shore which you do. You now have a frog corpse near the shore.
J: Is there anything on the frog corpse.

Here it is, annotated by me with Taxonomy of Roleplaying Utterances v1:

DM: [110 - description] And there is the pond, here.
G: [120 - clarity] I care most about the area under the planks and the pond.
DM: [110 - description] Well, uh. The only thing you see under the planks is stale fetid water, and inside the pond, you see a giant floating frog corpse about five feet in length.
R: [120 - clarity] Is in intact?
DM: [110 - description] Fairly intact, yes. It's in the water? [122 - feasibility] So you would have to, I don't know, either get in the water or pull it towards you in some way.
R: [120 - clarity] How far into the water?
DM: [110 - description] Well, the whole pond thing is maybe 25, 30 feet across, So 10-12 feet?
R: [301 - approach] I bet we could throw, what do you call them? One of our grappling hooks.
G: [301 - approach] Do we want. . . a frog corpse?
R: [301 - approach] Well we might be able to figure out how the frog died.
J: [120 - clarity] Did the frog corpse have anything on his person? Or is he just a naked frog.
DM: [110 - description] Well, all you see is just the belly of a frog that's about five feet long. And only just parts of it, because it is kind of floating in the water.
J: [120 - clarity] And it's obviously dead?
DM: [110 - description] Well it doesn't look alive no. [180 - exposition] You don't normally see frogs like that, lying like that, upside down and not moving.
J: [122 - feasibility] Ok, Can I use my quarterstaff?
DM: [122 - feasibility] Not your quarterstaff, it's about 7' long.
R: [130 - player action] All right, I take my grappling hook, with a rope and try and throw it out there.
DM: [140 - describe outcome] Ok, you can grapple the frog. It makes a thicking *plctch* sound as it hits the water and your rope goes into it. I mean it's standing water because it's separate from the river and you can hook the frog and pull it towards the shore which you do. You now have a frog corpse near the shore.
J: [120 - clarity] Is there anything on the frog corpse.

Sunday 1 January 2023

Death Star Safety Research

In a galaxy far, far away, safety research is a thankless job.

Final year Academy projects don't write themselves, however, and so it fell to Partho Borc to dig deep into the question that had been bugging him ever since the Battle of Yavin.

How on earth did firing a proton torpedo into an exhaust port lead to the destruction of a moon-sized battle station?

The conventional wisdom was pretty straight forward, a deliberate weakness built in by a bent Imperial weapons designer, okay. But what about the shutoffs at level 22? What about the pressure cascade blowback valves in the core sheath? What about literally dozens of mechanisms that would make that  kind of catastrophic failure impossible?

Because of the Death Star's hasty construction schedule, its system designs wouldn't be novel. No, most of the major subsystems have had to be right off the rack, just upscaled versions deployed in clustered configurations. Nothing truly new. All tried and true stuff, very little innovation.

Even a team of designers working day and night to undo centuries of established safety mechanisms would have needed several years to put it all together. And all that before construction started. To say nothing of all the parallel work producing the control procedures, operating manuals, training courses—it just didn't add up.

One guy did all this? Forget it. There was no way the official narrative could be true, and Partho knew it. Something else had undone the Death Star.

Unfortunately, that's about all he could uncover. Safety research was a vocation with poor prospects, and he had little pull to get the information he needed to prove his theories. "Nobody cares about shielding, Parth!" his parents would nettle him. "Why don't you go into something with some upside? What about repulsorlift window cleaning?"

* * *

Partho's break came by accident. One night in the student lounge, far drunker than he usually let himself get, he overheard some third-year xenocultural studies students use the term, "Reactor Shielding Cults."

If he'd been sober, he'd have been too shy to go over, but his inebriation led him into a conversation that changed the course of his academic career.

It turned out that xenocultural studies had its own dead-end lines of inquiry, one of those being the shielding cults: a peculiar pattern of mystical beliefs that repeated itself across the galaxy. The specifics varied quite a lot from species to species and culture to culture, but the one thread that linked them all was sabotaging reactor shielding.

Seventeen completely unrelated religions had holy historical figures whose most famous act was destroying a power reactor. Eleven others hadn't just wrecked reactors, but claimed various mystical powers that had allowed them to do it at a distance, or in the future, with their minds, with or without certain tools, or other non-tool objects.

Weird, sure, but like safety research, a total career dead end. They'd been fully chronicled and holo'ed by the Republic forty years before, what was left to even write about? You certainly couldn't get anything actually published.

But— but! And here's the thing. By the time of the Battle of Yavin, at least three of them had commercial ties with organizations that held Imperial contracts to service Death Star I. They were there!

* * *

Getting the remaining pieces took Partho years, but bit by bit it fell together.

The full picture was breathtaking: no fewer than forty seven mystical traditions were involved in the destruction of the Death Star. While Skywalker and the Jedi took most of the credit for the rebel victory, they were really just there for the showy bit.

Six other "prowess cults" had prophecies that culminated on that day, and each of them celebrated themselves as having primary responsibility. Jana, last of the Shureen, finally listened to her trainer's words and achieved yellow-grade Shur manipulation while Shur-punching the primary reactor's force-field generator through eight levels of metal flooring.

The trio of Briwew adepts who had snuck aboard the Death Star only days earlier used the power of the three-thrum to addle the brains of every clone in the Yavin system, making effective aiming impossible. How many stormtroopers or TIE pilots landed accurate shots that day? In the view of the Briwew, this brave action made rebel victory all but guaranteed. How can you lose against an enemy that can't aim?

It wasn't just the prowess cults who believed themselves to be the lynch-pins that day. Mechesoteric orders had compromised thousands of Death Star subsystems as well. A group calling itself the Veen, whose legends claimed its ascended adepts could etch integrated circuits by hand, had apparently done a number on the Death Star's internal monitoring systems. In combination with the shift schedule suddenly one-way encrypting itself, some days you could walk from one end of the Death Star to the other without ever meeting a guard.

Lights didn't work, turbolifts would stop on the wrong floor and then shut down. Turbolasers would decalibrate during target practice and blast hapless observation towers into fragments.

Worst of all, an order of psycho-netic priestesses had sabotaged the toilets, causing them to either flush at bowel-wrenching triple pressure at random times, or flip into reverse and blast an entire trash compactor's contents into the room. For weeks before the Battle of Yavin, not even the Moffs had been able to take a shit in peace. It was mayhem.

* * *

Partho was ecstatic. Looking at the entire picture, it was clear that the Death Star never stood a chance. But the real discovery was much broader than just one megaweapon! Long-standing xenocultural data showed that it took an average of nineteen years for mystical space wizard orders to produce chosen ones in times of need, nearly twice as long as the Death Star's construction time.

Forty seven separate mystical orders had all spontaneously begun producing chosen ones in anticipation of the Death Star. It was almost like an immune system built into the fabric of the universe. Build something big enough, and dangerous enough, and a hundred heroes would show up out of nowhere to screw it all up.

Partho could hardly contain himself. This would be the greatest discovery in safety research in.. well, ever. Not just safety research! Building a super-weapon that you could actually use would require whole new fields of study. Anti-prophetic architecture. Heroism dynamics. Xenocultural barometrics. Shift schedules written out by hand on whiteboards.

Finally, safety research would get the attention it truly deserved, uniting military security and system integrity planning under a single banner. Partho's hands trembled as he realized what this all meant. With this insight, you could once and for all rule the galaxy in a reign of terror that no plucky band of heroes could ever undo. Partho Borc's name would echo throughout the ages, as the man who finally made galactic empire possible.

But sadly, it was never to be. In a galaxy far, far away, safety research was a thankless job. Nobody listened.

You couldn't even get these people to install railings.