Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Speaking of Greg Costikyan ...

Here's a presentation he recently gave about the value of randomness in game design. Be warned: it's long and a bit rambly, but it's definitely interesting, especially if, like me, you see randomness as an essential feature of games rather than an accidental property of "primitive" designs.


  1. I generally enjoy reading Greg's essays on game design and the game industry. I believe he wrote an essay entitled "They Sinned For Your Dice" which explained how pricing works for products.

    This is a little long, and I don't have the time to digest it all. But I will read it at my leisure later in the day. Thanks, James!

  2. Right or wrong, that perception perplexes and irritates me; hence my recourse to disingenuousness as a commenting posture.

    Then please do yourself a favor and stop reading this blog. I know I'd appreciate it greatly and I expect many others would as well.

  3. s there something wrong with the comments section or am I missing something in the above post?

    Also James,
    I've been wondering about your reasoning behind calling yourself "Diabolical leader of the Old School Taliban". Don't get me wrong, I'm not offended by it, I have no interest in political correctness, and I get the joke. It's just that the Taliban are pretty awful. As I see it, it's not all that different from calling yourself "The Gaming Hitler of the Old School Reich".

    I enjoy your blog and I'm certainly not trying to start a fight. I just think it's in poor taste (even if it makes a sorta-funny point about some factions of the OSR).

    This comment has gone far from the topic of today's post, so I'll get off my soapbox now.

  4. The Taliban thing is a reference to an over the top comment posted on RPGnet about "the gaming Taliban."

  5. James, if you must, you can lose the "Taliban" bit, but please, please don't ditch the houris. Thank you.

  6. "The Taliban thing is a reference to an over the top comment posted on RPGnet about "the gaming Taliban.""

    An over-the-top comment on RPGnet? I'm SHOCKED!

    Thanks for the clarification.

  7. Costikyan's one of my favorite developers and theorist/writers. His old article on "game vs. story" is one that I truly say "I wish I'd written that first!".

    Richard Garfield also had a great article called "Luck in Games" (Game Developer, November 2006). Thesis went like this: (a) Games start out with big random elements, (b) They evolve over time for less randomness, because the "experts" like making things more predictable to show off their superior skills; and (c) Keeping a strong random element lets beginners have a greater chance of besting experts, enticing them to more play (but, generally aggravating the experts).

  8. They (games) evolve over time for less randomness, because the "experts" like making things more predictable to show off their superior skills

    Unfortunately don't have the time to check the Costikyan lecture, but I gotta say the above is a really salient point in regard to RPGs.

    The progressive codification of an RPG can be in response to players who think that RPGs are something one should be "good" at, and only see the measure of that value in relation to mastery of the rules. As a matter of fact, didn't the famous WoTC survey say something to that effect?

  9. I enjoyed Greg's presentation.

    I agree, his arguments are applicable to role-playing games, and have particular relevance to wargaming and board games, where you have more "turns" and therefore more dicerolls to smooth out randomness.

    As he points out, the fewer dice-rolling iterations, or the larger the impact of a particular roll, the more likely luck rather than skill will prevail.

    Having said that, I play Settlers of Catan fairly regularly. In that game, it is critical that you get a good spread of different numbers, because if your "numbers" don't come up early in the game, you often face an insurmountable challenge in trying to catch the front-runner.

  10. I think that random events are vital to a good RPG. However, the components of random encounter tables must make sense to a DM and fit in the DMs milleaux, which means that roll playing is no excuse for poor DM prep.

    In most cass D&D is a linear game, and most battles to the death are battles of attrition. In how many D&D games a 9th level warrior can be slain by a single arrow fired by a goblin? In the real world is it possible to get kileld from a single bullet or a single random arrow hitting throat in Middle Ages? Not a problem, I got critical hits tables adding to the realism by making combat non-linear.

    Non-linear combat is what keeps random dice rolls from becoming a statistical ceratinty. In other words, Fighter Level X attacking a Monmster Level Y after all the mpdifiers are applied, will score Z number of hits doing average damage over A-number of rolls. The more times the dice are rolled the more certain these averages. I've seen protracted battle go on for 12- 15 rounds and with these repetitions game goes linear. Not so if the outcomes of the dice in combat are non-linear. If there is more narrativbe tied to each roll, and if more results as a result of each outcome, then the randomness of the combat is tempeerd by the skill of the player. Let's say that a mounted warrior rides in the middle of the players. He has bouses raining sword blows from above (pluses to hit, players minuses to hit all armed with the D&D traditional Longsword). A smartpayer with a spear, can attack the horseman at the safe distance. He cann not get hit while he rolls to hit with no penalty. But let's say that we have a SMART player who KNOWS history. He chose a Voulge-Guisarme, a Bill Hook or a Military Fork. Each of these pole-arms has a LARGE HOOK on the back of the head of these pole-arms. The Player then declares: I am trying to hook the bastard and pull him off the horse! (historic use of these pole arms). This player's attack rols will do no damage. If this player attacks from the front and gets a critical hit OR if he gets behind the Mounted Knight and scores a regular hit: The ple-arm warrior hooks the Mounted Knight and pulls him/her off the horse. At this point, the players can either capture this Knight or hack him to death. Three players swinging swords getting at least two free rounds to attack the Knight while he is trying to get on his feet. Of course, if all three players fail their "to hit" roll and the knight scores a hit, the Knight may get up on his feet and gain defensive posture OR on citical success, The Knigt gains his defensive combat stance with the weapon in hand. In this use, the "To HIt" roll determines not so much the outrcome of an attcak, but the success or faiulure of ANY combat action relating to movemet, position or the actual blows of the participants.

    In this example the die rolls are backed by more narrative and the outcomes carries more significance forf the in-game events. There is an elements of randomness, which can bring a killing or crippling critical hit, and this randomness is tempered by the player's skill in the game. Used in such a way the AD&D's famously abstract combat system is no longer abstract, but vivid, and it accomplishes this without resorting to tedious blow-by-blow die rolling and wothout hit location tables.