Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Estimates & Intentions

I enjoy reading scholarly works about the adventure gaming hobby; they help me take a step back and look at things from different perspectives. My most recent reading in this vein includes Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity (2020) and John M. Lillard’s Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II (2016). They might seem to cover very different subjects, but, upon reflection, I’ve found some of their core gaming themes quite sound and relatable to my own experiences. Both demonstrate games as interplay between participants assessing the immediate situation and making decisions to change that situation in their favor. I sometimes feel like a simpleton in the shadow of these scholarly analyses of the adventure gaming hobby. Some of their revelations seem so obvious once articulated despite the depth of subsequent discussion and investigation they can inspire. Often I find myself reaching conclusions and then responding to myself with, “Well, duh.” I’d like to think I redeem my naivete in my subsequent reflections on the subjects at hand.

Peterson’s book focuses on numerous issues the early roleplaying game community debated in the pages of fanzines and presented in early rules, most focusing on how to play the game. What’s the right mix of treasure and danger in a dungeon? How should alignment influence character action? How much of the rules system should players know? Arguments about game issues we’re still rather heatedly debating today. They all flow from a core element: a dialogue between players and the gamemaster with “statements of intention” centering on their characters and a fictitious game world. “Both speakers [the gamemaster and the player/‘caller’] phrase their statements as contributions to a common story, as if they are taking turns adding sentences to a fictional work in progress.” Die rolls or other game mechanics accompanying this dialogue determine the results of statements of intention; whether player or gamemaster character actions succeed based on limitations of the game world rules.

I recall a friend’s mother who spoke out when folks assailed Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s. During this “Satanic Panic” people worried the game would warp kids’ souls and inspire them to take violent action. My friend’s mother always asked how many of these critics actually took the time to observe a game – goodness knows she certainly hosted enough game sessions at her home to know – and said the kids sat around the table spending more time talking and arguing about rules than playing with the innocuous character sheets and dice. She had a point, the game was more focused on dialogue and rules than anything malevolent (though eventually the naysayers nixed the middle school D&D club).

Before formulating a plan of action in a “statement of intention” communicated to the gamemaster, a player must have a good sense of the in-world situation the character faces. A phrase from Lillard’s analysis of Naval War College wargaming compliments the concept of gameplay as a dialogue between players and gamemaster. Admiral William S. Sims, president of the Naval War College at points both before and after the Great War, mentioned the estimate of the situation, “the act of processing available information and determining a course of action.” These “estimates” served as essential elements for naval wargaming, with players evaluating the situations on the maps or boards and giving orders to units to affect the situation, changing it for another round of estimation and orders...all with the goal of altering those situations in their favor.

The process seems much like roleplaying gamers assessing gamemaster statements of what their characters experience and making decisions – through “statements of intention” – to alter their situation. As part of the game dialogue, gamemasters present situations to which players react in character. Players assess these situations – making an educated guess, or “estimate,” of the circumstances – as detached players familiar with challenges and potential outcomes from the perspective of game mechanics or as characters familiar with setting elements...but usually varying degrees of both. They communicate their response – a choice of action – as a “statements of intention” in the dialogue with the gamemaster.

One might even overlay these concepts on board games, with each player making an estimate of the situation and taking actions in an unspoken “dialogue” with other players in the form of turn-taking and game-process interactions.

I’m struck by how the earliest text-adventure computer games (what we’d now call “interactive fiction”) rely on these two concepts. They consist of a typed dialogue between the player and “gamemaster” (in this case the computer program) in which players make an estimation of the situation, provide basic “orders” on what they’d do under those circumstances (“go north”), and receive a response from the computer adjusting the situation. It may seem very basic, but it provides the core operating structure for interactive fiction classics like Zork and Treasure of a Slaver’s Kingdom.

Although I’m not familiar with play-by-post games (either by snail mail, e-mail, or forum postings), the format also illustrates perception/analysis and communication of intent in a written dialogue format. Whether face-to-face around a gaming table, writing detailed posts, or even communicating via real-time online interfaces (as many have for gaming and work throughout the pandemic year), whether engaging in roleplaying games, board games, or wargames, these two concepts distill the game process to its core elements: players evaluate their immediate situation and make choices – stating their characters’ actions, making moves, or giving orders – to alter that situation in their favor according to the particular game goals.

How do we as designers and gamemasters foster this interplay between perception and dialogue? We strive to present an engaging setting with plenty of elements with which characters can interact, with conflicts where their choices can change the game world in their favor. Settings and conflicts must have meaning to sustain player immersion; they must relate to the characters as issues in which they have a stake and thus have an interest in affecting. Roleplaying “games” still require some framework of rules (or perhaps rulings) to adjudicate effects within the game world; the rulebooks, character sheets, and die rolls that in some ways characterize roleplaying games. But for immersive games where players identify more with their characters and the setting, these story elements – character, setting, conflict – should play a more prominent role than game mechanics. These elements fuel the players’ (and hence their characters’) ability to estimate of the situation and influence it through a dialogue with the gamemaster.

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John M. Lillard’s Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II offers a broad history of the Naval War College’s games leading up to the war with some specific examples supporting the author’s views. For those exploring this period and these concepts it proves an accessible read backed up by solid research and charts examining data. Wargamers, particularly those interested in WWII naval action, may find it adds another perspective to the existing scholarship on the NWC activities in this period, works the author cites and which offer additional reading opportunities for those exploring this subject.

Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity examines how the emerging roleplaying game community interpreted broad rulings and general advice in the earliest published games, ranging across a host of controversial subjects about the “best” ways to run them. It primarily draws on fanzines of the time gives some specific, individual perspectives on these contentious issues. Those who enjoyed his past work in Playing at the World or the comprehensive game histories of the Designers & Dragons series may enjoy this focused look at the early gaming community...and issues that still provoke debate today.

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