New on Desk #21 — Muscle Wizard

Another pretty productive week, although in a pretty different field: I spent the lion’s share of my working hours this week reforesting a plot of family land cleared by loggers last year. Even a modest clearing can take a bit of time to replant, so that was pretty much my week: putting saplings down into screef-mounded (yeah, had to look this one up: “laikkumätästys” in Finnish) ground with a potting pipe, enjoying the summer sun. Relatively physical, all told.

Feeling fine working out

So I’ve been reforesting, which in practice amounts to trudging around the screefed forest floor (imagine all the underbrush of the forest, except instead of trees you have holes dug by a digger) with a hip-bag of saplings that you push into particularly favourable spots by the use of a specially designed potting pipe. Not an uncommon activity in rural Finland, particularly as small-time ownership of the forests is still pretty common, so it’s not that unusual to do your own forestry. We haven’t been super-serious about the pace of the work (I think I’ve been averaging like ~250 saplings a day; maybe 20% of a professional’s output), working what amount to half-days, but it’s a taste of real work nevertheless in between sitting in the office. I expect that we’ll start doing longer days next week as the team adjusts to the physical routine.

Planting is not exactly the most demanding physical work out there, but it is still in the broad category of grunt-work primary production jobs that are increasingly consigned to the underprivileged in first world nations. (How this happens depends on the nature of your country; some countries like to cultivate a home-grown lumpenproletariat, while a more egalitarian country like Finland prefers to bring in poor foreigners as seasonal workers to do the jobs we’re too good for.) A “shit job” (‘paskaduuni’) as a young Millenial so memorably described the classification in a television interview some years back. Finnish media has been paying somewhat more attention to the rural grunt-work this spring due to the corona virus, of course; all the travel-restrictions and such are causing difficulties with bringing in the seasonal work-force from poorer countries. The national discussions about rural work being too physically demanding for too small wages have been intriguing from a social politics perspective: I suppose that in a country where literally everybody is too good to work a shit job we’re all middle-class in a sense. I don’t know what we’d do as a national economy if it weren’t for migrant colonialism. (Is that a term? “Migrant colonialism”, having poor people from the colonies come work for cheap in the home country? I think they call it “guest work” in the Arab Emirates.)

The family forests fortunately come with home-grown grunts, so this particular forestry job isn’t affected by corona. I’ve found to my satisfaction that my personal life-long dance on the borderline between “buff” and “obese” has been increasingly leaning towards the former, which makes this sort of sunny work easier. The back (fundamental bottleneck in physical work for heavier dudes) has been holding up fine, and I could generally expect to double or triple my daily planting output without too much trouble if there was need to get serious.

I might in fact be in the best shape of my life this summer; I’m even doing pull-ups, which isn’t as trivial as it sounds if you’re the rotund sort. This won’t work for everybody, but for all you neckbeard barrel-type pokemen, I recommend a regular gym regimen as a basis for keeping in shape; I got into weight-lifting late in life, but it’s pretty much changed the basic strategy and feel of my physical exercise routine. Probably don’t bother with dieting per se, at least for me any appreciable weight loss requires pushing the energy economy so low I can’t do anything else. Develop a bit of muscle, and it makes moving your own body so much easier, which will have all-around benefits for everything else. Slimmer body types won’t understand what I mean here, the life experience is so different.

I suppose what I’m saying is that muscle wizards are real — it’s not a choice between muscle and magic, building that STR score up will ultimately help with the wizarding as well.

Monday: Dragon’s Castle

As I described last week, my personal goal is to wrap this campaign up tomorrow. The groundwork for that was set beautifully in last Monday’s penultimate session, too, as we put the player characters who hadn’t yet been thoroughly tested through the wringer. In Act III of Mountain Witch you’re supposed to test and resolve the Dark Fates of the characters, and it seems that we certainly got into that. Here’s the score-card:

Charles Summers possesses the Dark Fate of Flawed Blood, manifesting as this enchanting tragic backstory about two brothers and a distant father figure. Charles is actually Victor, the younger half-sibling who has pretended to be Charles to Sir Nathan, the man whose son he killed. We got into Victor’s story pretty well earlier at the end of the 2nd Act, which means that I’ve been happy to let him coast for the 3rd Act. I will still need him to decide whether he really is happy to let others make the crucial decisions for him, but that can well wait until the fourth Act as far as I’m concerned.

Abraxas Wilde possesses the Dark Fate of Cursed by Darkness, manifesting as a very authentic Gothic Romance with several tragically dead wives and horrible body horror. We’ve established the basic backstory in Act II, so what I have for Abraxas in Act III is fundamentally simple: given that you’re a sniveling goth-boy, flustered into emotional paroxysms and existential indecision by anything and everything, what happens if the Count resurrects those poor dead wives of yours? Have you been honest when you’ve been giving these long monologues to us about how they’re the only thing you cared about in this rotten world? Or have you been lying to yourself and us all along? If you were being honest, then surely this generous gesture of the Count’s proves to you once and for all where your loyalties should lie?

Dragoslava the Dhodoru possesses the Dark Fate of Cold Vengeance, being as how she has so very little in this world: her people, the Dhodoru witch cult, have discarded her for the supposed curse in her blood, and her only friend and supporter, her sister Josefka, was murdered by the Chosen One, upon whom she swore futile revenge. Given that Dragoslava slew Nyx, the Chosen One, in Act II, the only thing I wanted from her in Act III was simple: I wished to know if she had any reason left to live for, now that her vengeance had revealed its hollow nature.

Eric LeCarde possesses the Dark Fate of The Dragon’s Pawn, indicating that Count Dracula has his claws on the man in some way. LeCarde’s story is the most convoluted of all, as we have learned that he is actually the thought-to-be-dead elder brother of Victor Summers, meaning that he is Charles Summers; Dracula in his infinite wisdom had actually resurrected the boy, giving him the heart of the last member of the Belmont clan (known for their Indefatigable Will) to return him to life. Since then, living under the false name of “Eric of the Witch Spear”, the boy has served the will of the Count. He has little choice, as his heart rests on the palm of the Count’s hand, magically speaking.

After learning that the party intended to take the route through the Tower of Science, I decided to have them meet with Dr. Frankenstein (one of the loyal lieutenants of the Prince of Darkness here), hard at work resuscitating Dr. Wilde’s dead wives. Should be good for a laugh or two. It was pretty exciting when the party managed to disorient and split apart on the Upper Battlements of the castle, such that Wilde and Summers managed to reach the Tower while the rest of the party got lost in the Mirror Labyrinth, the series of hallways that connect the inner castle locations together.

The sudden events turned into artistic victory, as they often do, as while Summers and Wilde were investigating the miracles of science, the rest of the slayers found their way into the Dark Chapel, where we had a very successful and tense scene confronting certain psychological realities in the lives of the characters. LeCarde was forced to encounter the shade of Old Man Belmont, the man whose heart he now carried; the shade proved a non-issue as a guardian of the accursed whip Vampire Slayer (that the characters were here to get), but LeCarde could not escape the fact that taking up the whip would be an open rebellion against the will of the Master, so it was still a tense situation.

Meanwhile, Dragoslava, and the ever-perky NPC Marie-chan, were both entrapped by Death, perhaps the most fundamentally loyal and potent servant that the Prince of Darkness has at his disposal. Death was, I thought, very successfully rendered as a terrible philosophical foe: characters could not do anything, including fighting Death, before they overcame their own fear of Death. To do so, most characters would have to give up on their burdens and accept that they would never live to achieve their goals. In other words, they had to be willing to let go of their Dark Fates.

Dragoslava for her own part was quite ready to lay down her futile revenge now that the literal person who had slain her sister was dead; the dark spirit that empowered and drove the murder may still exist, and actually possess her close companion, but for Dragoslava the revenge was dead. She eagerly embraced Death, and went further than just giving up her Dark Fate: she also discarded her “Life Scent”, the dangerous Dhodoru curse that had made her an outcast among her people to start with. Death eagerly lapped it up, of course, being ever thirsty for life.

The big climax of the situation was that after embracing Death, Dragoslava had rather little reason to let go. I asked the player to justify why she wouldn’t just die right here. My best argument for her was that by dying she could join her sister and be together with her once again. She wouldn’t even have to let go of her childish ideas about Dr. Wilde, for surely becoming a whimsical vampire woman would only improve her chances on that front. A good deal, I thought.

LeCarde, however, thought different, and fought very hard to “save” Dragoslava from a fate she had very clearly chosen herself, in full amity and understanding with the GM. Disregarding the chill touch of death LeCarde attempted to move Dragoslava, but failed utterly. It was pretty clear that Dragoslava would be joining Team Death here, except that LeCarde figured out to try a different string: he would awaken the GM NPC Marie Renard from her death paralysis and have her help him with Dragoslava. Marie had so many Trust points from Dragoslava that she would surely successfully “betray” her before she died!

I’d been keeping Marie strictly off the situation not only because NPCs shouldn’t steal the spotlight from player characters, but also because Marie was, in my judgement, completely paralyzed by the fear of death that Dragoslava had so handily learned to live (or, well, at least die) with. She hadn’t moved an inch after the moment she saw Death and realized that the only way to move forward was to give up on ever seeing her friends again. (Marie’s Dark Fate is, I suppose, “Unrequited Love” for her circle of friends.) If she did that, then what reason would she have to move forward? She could move in neither direction.

The magical reasoning worked really well in this scene in general. “Magical reasoning” is the dream logic used in fantasy literature over such fantastic things like how two people sharing one heart react to the presence of the personification of death, or whatever. Orthodox Mountain Witch is a relatively earth-bound game where you don’t necessarily get much of this, but in the Dragon’s Castle you’re usually neck-deep by the end of the game. So it was here, with various players establishing as per their narrator rights all kinds of things.

Death worked particularly well, I thought. I was entirely ready to have a traditional boss fight (as in Castlevania games, where Death totally is something you whip up just like any stable-boy), but to do that the characters would have to first break through the fear of Death, which for each character presented their own customized issues. LeCarde was immune due to possessing the Heart of Belmont (Indefatigable Will applies, in other words), but any of the other characters could have potentially been paralyzed just like Marie was, unable to resolve her fear of death without help from a friend.

LeCarde and Marie hadn’t exactly gotten off on the right foot, as Marie, being the well-meaning soul she is, was naturally suspicious about Dracula’s lieutenant like LeCarde changing sides. LeCarde had, however, won some trust (as in, Trust points) from Marie, which now proved critical as he pleaded with her to help him save Dragoslava from Death that was just over there, by the altar (Dark Chapel, remember), chilling out and slowly leeching her life force. So please Marie, help me save her!

One of the interesting things about this entire scene was how dice rolling had a secondary place next to the sort of implicitly qualitative social resolution rules the game has. Much of it is basically house rules on my part, as players can do things like expend Trust to demand answers or seek understanding from each other. Worked great here as LeCarde tried to break Marie out of her death paralysis, and the resolution was entirely up to whether the player could convince me that she would listen.

LeCarde had two Trust points from Marie to begin with, so not very many. He opened by spending a point of Trust to Understand Marie, at which point I moved from atmospheric color commentary to straightforward exposition and explained the psychological conundrum to LeCarde’s player: he realized, watching Marie mumbling and crying to herself, that the girl couldn’t move because she was unwilling to abandon her friends.

The next move, in which LeCarde also spent a Trust point, was to Earnestly Beseech Marie: the Trust point would guarantee that Marie would believe LeCarde’s words, and that she would be forced to make some choice immediately, rather than continuing to prevaricate. I found the latter effect hilarious, as the Trust rule in question is intended to cut player hesitation short by having another character call you on your indecision and end the drama scene. I guess it works for breaking through magically imposed indecision as well, though!

LeCarde had a perfect argument, too, given that Marie would believe him: he told her that he had himself been death some eight years in between being murdered by his brother and revived by the Count (as we’d learned earlier), and that he could guarantee to Marie that death was no choice here: she would never meet her friend again, for death was the ultimate loneliness and annihilation. It made no sense for her to hesitate, as the only victory to be had would be by boldly opposing death.

After breaking Marie out of her death paralysis LeCarde attempted saving Dragoslava again, this time with the annoying NPC to help. In the rolling Marie (I guess LeCard helped a little bit, too) completely abolished the emotional stranglehold that Death had on Dragoslava; she actually ended up chasing Death away from the Chapel on her lonesome, screaming threats and cursing at it in her inimitable style. Quite memorable, and the players finally had something conclusive to point to regarding Marie: despite her mainly being a complication to their quest, here she carried her weight, saving Dragoslava from certain Death.

I thought LeCarde was also very impressive, both in the conviction he showed in not accepting the “Dragoslava goes into the campaign climax as a vampire, hey?” idea, and in how he pulled through a win in a generally rather desperate-seeming situation. I had no clue in advance if he could do anything about Marie’s fatal doldrums, for instance, but a way through was ultimately discovered.

Now the last thing we have to do in the 3rd Act is finding out whether Dr. Wilde decides to go with his wives (quite convincingly being resurrected by Dr. Frankenstein as we speak), or what. Once that’s dealt with, the survivors, if any, will have their shot at Dracula. So far Dracula’s 1–0 against slayers over the history of the Dragon’s Castle (he crushed our tabletop party last fall), so it’ll be interesting to see how it goes this time around.

Thursday: Flame/Star/Night

Last week’s Varangian Way was so definitive that the playtest crew decided that we could afford to work on the other game development project on-going at Club Hannilus — namely, Flame/Star/Night, the slice of life iron age fairy tale game Tommi has been putting together.

F/S/N is just about the opposite of Varangian Way as a game development project: where Petteri has been brooding over his baby for years without bringing it to playtest, Tommi just wrote up a tight alpha draft and brought it to table. The development process is a joy to follow.

As expected from a tight text, the game’s procedures were rather solid. We weren’t the most facile group to learn the rules with, and Tommi clearly struggled with the presentation logic, but the fixed-start (think Poison’d) opening was compelling and we had no difficulty at all getting on board with the little character ensemble that was quickly set up. The game’s core promise is that it follows the lives of a mythic iron age farming community, and the character creation encouraging PCs of various ages and backgrounds does a good job in starting us up on the way.

My only real complaint so far is that we ultimately didn’t get to play very much yet. I understand we’ll continue with a second session on next Thursday, which should give us a chance to experience the seasonal activity rules and how those work out for slice of life storytelling.

Margin Commentary: Some Fate, some GNS, some Game State

I’ve stumbled upon a surprising number of blogs this week. I don’t usually read much in the blogosphere, but when people link stuff, I often take a look. Check this out:

Sami offers an analytical overview of FATE (in Finnish), which I think is largely spot on. It’s a solid adventure fiction rpg rules set for groups that revel in princess play simulationism; that’s its thing, it’s one of the clearer examples of how to do that sort of stuff. The “story game” angle is a distraction, you should just focus on how to have your Wolverine-Raistlin multiclass badass be cooler than ever before. (I would say that it’s a railroad game as well, but the game’s ideological underpinnings strongly refuse the term, so I’ll just say that the GM should prep clever setpiece scenes so they have something to show on game night.)

Tommi has an overview on the theoretical difficulties of the concept of game state in roleplaying games (again in Finnish), which I think is an interesting topic to consider, as I think that game state is a good thing to understand for roleplaying games. I, to nobody’s surprise, have sympathy for the Forgite concept here: the game state consists of the Shared Imagined Space + Exploration. The issues with deciding which fictional things are part of the game state are, to my mind, resolved by distinguishing between private and public imagination: you might have all kinds of personal ideas about what is true in the fiction, but those are just your ideas, not part of the game state. The actual game state that players operate over in rpgs is always a much simpler thing than the subtext it engenders in private imagination. That orc only has green skin and a pig’s face in your head, I only ever said that it’s an orc.

Necropraxis investigates the true nature of GNS theory (this one’s in English!), and does pretty well, I think. I have a lot of sympathy for the comparison between GNS theory and psychotherapy as activities. As we’ve discussed, I think that looking at player preferences in terms of activities doesn’t really capture much about the nature of the underlying creative agenda; it’s like trying to explain football by claiming that players “like to kick a ball”. Sure, they probably do, but is that why they play football, or could there possibly be some longer-term motivations in play there aside from the core activity not being incredibly unpleasant? A true behaviorist would answer negatively, I suppose; you kick the ball, therefore you clearly like to kick the ball, and that’s all the explanation I need for why you play football.

Disc Golf Galactic Summer Rematch, delayed

Hey Antti, I’m sorry about having been tree-planting the whole week. We did this dance throughout the week with me dodging all challenges to reconvene on the Snake Mountain links for an epic rematch. It wasn’t that I was afraid of bleeding (despite the ominous mutterings that have been following me around ever since I became the Golf God), I just literally didn’t have a night off over the week without having a broken car at the same time. Let’s try this again next week, weather permitting.

I acknowledge that it would be in bad taste for me to strut about in full Galactic Golf God regalia, swollen head and all, while simultaneously dodging challenges, so I promise I won’t actually sit the throne until I’ve conclusively demonstrated my superiority to all naysayers. I’m not returning the furniture, though, that would just be a waste of time considering how one with the cosmos I am nowadays; it won’t be long until I am victorious on all courses and beyond.

Plotting at Patreon

As I mentioned last week in passing (and as you might have noticed from all over the blog), I started a Patreon program to encourage people to correspond with me with perverse incentives: you get to correspond with me by paying money, which hopefully results in more correspondence.

Seems to be working so far, as I managed to publish a pretty cogent summary of my possible publishing plans for the summer, and got some quality feedback for it at Patreon and elsewhere. I also learned that Patreon has an absolutely horrible comment thread interface and nobody should use it ever unless they think Twitter is a good idea. But the exchange of perspectives was good despite the interface.

The big prize of the week’s plotting is a list of possible publishing projects that I put together. Basically, I’m considering maybe publishing a new gaming product later, and made a list of possible things in the desk drawer that are pretty ready for prime-time. The list’s 13 items long, and that’s without breaking down items like “some OSR thing” into a real list of alternatives. It’s going to take me a while to just make a choice here.

As I described at Patreon, the plan would be to whip up a crowdfunding campaign around a project that has a good chance of fulfilling the Quest for Lucre. (Doesn’t exactly seem like World of Near alone is up to the task.) This one’s a choice that I won’t put up for a popularity poll, but I do welcome individual perspectives. So far most people are telling me that instead of working on a story game like I don’t know Fables of Camelot or something like that, I should offer an exciting OSR product. Apparently the OSR demographic is doing well and has plenty of money, which makes success in crowdfunding likelier.

State of the Productive Facilities

As I predicted last week, I haven’t really put pen to paper on any new essays this week; the tree-planting and certain boring office things have claimed the time. Next week’s more of the same, except the memo that haunted me this week has finally been slain, so who knows, maybe I’ll start on that next CRedux article.

Meanwhile, we’re entering the last week for this month’s poll. With my new Patreon scheme up it’s going to be pretty certain that I’ll only choose the foremost popular topic as the winner here, so the competition for first place is as fierce as ever. We’ve finally started seeing some differences in the lead, too, which might well be because I specifically adviced you all to abandon your second-favourite and just vote for your first pick. After running the exact same poll numbers for the first two weeks, the two leading contestants “Sacrament of Death” and “Historiography of D&D” are at this writing at 23-19; a clear lead for the Sacrament! Still a week left, so maybe you’ll find some friends at ENWorld or somewhere to vote for the D&D.

[May 2020] What should I write about in more depth?

  • [theory] Historiography of D&D (19%, 32 Votes)
  • [theory] The Sacrament of Death (17%, 29 Votes)
  • [design] more C2020 Redux (16%, 26 Votes)
  • [design] TSoY and SS update (14%, 23 Votes)
  • [theory] A Big Model overview (10%, 16 Votes)
  • [design] Microfit wargame (5%, 9 Votes)
  • [writing] Chronicles of Prydain setting notes (5%, 8 Votes)
  • [design] HX Fighter Program Wargame (4%, 7 Votes)
  • [writing?] Hellraiser and Evangelical Christianity (4%, 7 Votes)
  • [design] Let's get Subsection M3 moving again! (4%, 6 Votes)
  • [practical] How to create online play tools in Google Sheets (2%, 4 Votes)
  • [writing] Superhero Tulpas (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 61

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17 thoughts on “New on Desk #21 — Muscle Wizard”

  1. Thank you for the mention.

    Since I already did my part in trying to not have the hobby and academic language swallowed by English, I can use some English here. (Maybe I should try continuing in Norwegian or something. Leser du skandinavisk?)

    The problem with only restricting the game state to public information lies on two levels.

    The first is that game state is more fundamental than player knowledge about it. Many real time strategies had an option to turn off hidden map or fog of war or to keep them, and in a similar way, many games can use precisely the same rules with various levels of knowledge for the players. (Strategy and tactics will obviously change, and possibly the feel of the gameplay.) But since game state is that which gives (when combined with player choices and resolution mechanics) the next game state in time, and these (in many games) work agnostic of what the players know, it seems inelegant to tie game state to player knowledge.

    The second, more practical, issue is that the concept breaks down in the presence of non-public information. In OSR, I have committed to the contents of the dungeon, say, and they are used to determine what happens in play. This process happens whether any other participant in the game knows about it. The same is true of other situations with private knowledge; I do not know the mechanical stats of the characters playing in my D&D games, typically, yet they certainly are parts of the game state. And what about when there are several mutually disjoint groups playing in the same game world? Or even a larp where “mutual knowledge” does not really exist.
    “Breaks down” might be too strong a claim; “fails to give insight into” might be more accurate. My prepared bangs in Burning wheel are in the air and speculative, whereas my prepared dungeon in OSR play is not.

    A concrete example: A dungeon was cleared once upon a time (I do not know if the players remember it anymore). I restocked it and a couple of big scorpions moved in and I added them to the place’s encounter table. In the most recent D&D game I rolled a random encounter, which was a reference to the table of that dungeon, which resulted in the scorpions. One of them was killed, the other escaped and was not followed. Now there is a single scorpion in the location and the encounter table.
    More dramatic situations of this nature have also taken place, but this is quite nice in its clarity, I think.

    This chain of events is completely clear if take the game state to include the presence of the scorpions in the cave. A straightforward use of restocking and wandering monster rolls which created particular events. Seeing this course of events in terms of consensual knowledge misses the point or requires some remarkable theoretical contortions. Or maybe I miss something.

  2. “My prepared bangs in Burning wheel are in the air and speculative, whereas my prepared dungeon in OSR play is not.”

    I guess it’s impossible to draw a clear line between these things – one bang or dungeon feature might be written out, another jotted on a scrap of paper (lost or cryptic even to you within a month), a third merely in your head at breakfast – which means the game state is inherently unstable / in constant flux.

    I initially scoffed at the whole concept but I get some use out of it insofar as analysing it shows some interesting complexities of the activity. I can make neither heads nor tails of this complexity though.

    1. It is possible that there is a continuum. I do not think this is an example of that.

      However, we (at least I) should remember that plans for future moves are not part of the game state, but rather the player model, which the game state does not include.

      Bangs in Burning wheel are plans for future moves. Hence, they are, by definition, not part of the game state.

      Whereas the OSR dungeon is part of the game state in the sense that I have to take it into account when operating the resolution system. If the entrance is under a rock and someone lifts the rock, I have to describe the entrance.

      Necessity is not the important thing here. The important part might be: When describing a game, we divide it into game state, rules and players (which are here taken as black boxes). I am intentionally ignoring the matter of changing rules as a part of play, here, for simplicity, and ignoring some other stuff that could be part of a more complicated model.

      We are given a game state at a given time, say t=1. Then, the players make some decisions (as allowed by the rules). These decisions, plus the rules, determine the game state at time t=2.

      Roleplaying creates stories which have continuity, which is caused by them following the general rules our own reality follows. (Yes, even that zany game you are thinking of obeys or plays with the common laws of causality and identity and such, or otherwise the resulting narrative is complete nonsense.)

      One question is: should this continuity be a part of the game state, the rules, or the player model? All of them, to various extents? Depends on the game? Depends on the purpose of the analysis?

    2. Hej Johann,

      På et litt annet emne. Kjender du til noen gode svenske rpg-Discord-er? Jeg er mest interessert i teori og OSR, men en aktiv rollespill-Discord kunne være interessant sjøl om det snakkes mer om andre ting. Jeg bare gjetter fra navnet og kanskje husker fra Story games at du kunne være svensk; ursäktä mig om det inte stemmer.

  3. I’m German and we have indeed crossed paths before at Story-Games. Johann is an old-fashioned name in Germany (and with the surname Mitland a pen name playing on John Lackland in my case), but more current in Sweden (and Finland), right?

    Anyway, it seems reasonable to separate stuff like future plans into a player model, hugely complex all by itself. What about as-yet-undefined aspects, e.g. a room labelled “Trolls” with no information on their number or a procedure to determine it? It seems the gamestate would have something to work with (e.g. if the PCs make a lot of noise, they will presumably attract the trolls’ notice) but lack information (to be then provided by a black box).

    As you can probably see, I’m grappling with the boundaries here. At which point do my plans, promises-to-myself, inspirations, knee-jerk reactions etc. become part of the gamestate? Is externalising them (e.g. by writing them down), however temporary/subject-to-change etc. that might be, the point?

    (In other words, when exactly “is” the entrance under a rock?)

    1. Okay, sorry about the wrong language. “Johan” would be the common Swedish name and the Finnish relatives would be “Juha”, “Juhani” and “Juhana”.

      The troll thing is fairly clear to me: If whoever has committed to having them there, and if such a commitment is part of the system (more-or-less in the Forge sense; that the role of the participant is to make such commitments and that is a rule, even if an implicit one, I guess), then there are trolls there. Presumably their actual number has not been determined yet, and as such, is not a part of the game state.

      However, suppose the size of the room has been determined. This also sets a limit on how many trolls fit there, in all but the most cartoony of games, at least. However, and I am writing as I think here so errors are very likely, the game state does not make deductions. The participants have to do that, maybe when following the rules. In a traditional game it might be that the rule is “the game master decides unless it is written down in the adventure module”.

      The player is a black box for this type of analysis; for contrast, game theory is about what the optimal choices are, economics about what kinds of incentives there are in effect and what kind of choices a rational agent would do, and psychology about how and why a person might act in a certain way. No single theory can do everything.

      > As you can probably see, I’m grappling with the boundaries here. At which point do my plans, promises-to-myself, inspirations, knee-jerk reactions etc. become part of the gamestate? Is externalising them (e.g. by writing them down), however temporary/subject-to-change etc. that might be, the point?

      Externalizing is certainly not the point; one can play mental chess without a board (or could, if one were skilled enough).
      I am tempted to say that things that are operated on by the rules, or could be, are parts of the game state. But that would be wrong: Consider the starting position of chess; having the corner squares empty (no rooks) would have no effect on the game at that point, though it would certainly affect the game at further points. But maybe the game ends right away as one of the players quits, or the players otherwise get no possibilities to move the rooks.

      One rule of (a specific style of) OSR play is that the referee simulates the fantasy world. For the purposes of game state, it might even be that the referee is a part of the rules system, rather than a being player, or at least this might be fruitful way of seeing it. Is something a part of the world that is simulated or not? That determines whether it is in the game state or not.

      No myth (or improvised, if you prefer) play would then be characterized by the game state being limited to stuff that has seen play.

      One could think of a game where the contents of an adventure module are in the game state, but there is a (possibly implicit) rule that the contents can be altered to avoid character death.

      When is the secret door under the rock? This depends on the game system (wide sense, maybe not the same as the Forge sense, but maybe yes). No myth says when someone looks. OSR says when the referee commits. ORganized Pathfinder play probably has the adventure module determine such things. It is probably pretty common to play so that it is there in the game state, but the game master can alter the game state for social reasons, or maybe even at will; in the latter case, it is probably an instrumental question about how the game state is actually defined.

      Anyway, I am just improvising and sharpening an idea here, so please question and point inconsistencies.

  4. Still trying to get a handle on the game state here. Would it be correct to say that it contains all the stuff we might use as input for a hypothetical AI tasked with simulating (not running) an RPG session?

    If that is correct – and I’m not sure about that at all – an OSR referee’s ‘committment’ would seem to fall squarely into the black box category.

    (I mean, I’m committed to losing a few pounds but that does not mean I can resist the burger joint on the way home. From past experience or the attractiveness of this week’s special offer etc. we might assign a probability, of course.)

    The AI might be fed the information (1) which black box will eventually provide (2) which missing data (3) at which level of credibility/authority.

    (Not quite sure I’m talking sense here.)

    1. Consider you see a snapshot of a chess game, or maybe an entire chess game, one move happening every five seconds. You see the pieces on the board. You see an indication about whether the kings or the towers have moved so that they are no longer eligible for castling and you see an indication of whose turn it is next (imagine some lights that blink on and off). You do not see the rules, the players, the pieces moving or being moved, what the players are thinking, what would be good moves, whether they are playing physically with a board or just memory chess that someone else is moving on the board for them. You do not see whether the moves or the board configuration are legal, but you might be able to deduce this from your knowledge of chess.

      The single snapshot is the game state at a particular point of time. The sequence of the snapshots is the sequence of game states.

      (An alternate way of communicating the same information in chess is specifying the sequence of moves the players have made. In practice this is, or at least used to be, more convenient. Note, however, that strictly different things are being communicated, then, even if the same information can be reconstructed from both alternatives.)

      Changing something you have committed to as OSR referee would be the equivalent of changing where your warships are in Warship, or changing your scripted moves in Burning wheel extended conflict, or changing the word the others are trying to guess in Alias, etc. The typical way to accomplish this in practice is to write down the commitments; adventure modules are examples of this. Honest mistakes and cheating are possible in all of these.

      I would say that the game state in this type of OSR play would include the facts established about the fictional world and the game mechanical variables that have been defined. Rules and player decisions change the game state over time; they are not parts of it. (The complication of rulings is better left for until the basic idea is understood.)

      Game state over time would be sufficient for showing a step-by-step movie of what happened in play, in the fiction and on the rules level. Here they enter the dungeon, this one is an elf with three hit points; here they turn right; there comes the ghoul who strikes the elf; the elf has 1 hit point remaining; the cleric brandishes her holy symbol; the ghoul escapes; the party retreats.

      You would not know if the players knew the ghoul was there or why they went that way. You would not know if the game master fudged the damage roll or if it was rolled honestly or rolled in the open or not.

      On the other hand, you would know if the dungeon was generated as the adventurers moved in (as it would appear in game state as the play went on) or was pregenerated (and there all the time). You might see a generic secret door first, and then the referee improvises an opening mechanics for it (which you would not see), after which the opening mechanism is part of the game state (which you would see).

      If someone makes a mistake which is corrected, then you might see inexplicable changes to the game state. Suddenly two ghouls turn into three or someone gains 4 hit points due to an error in accounting or reading, for example.

  5. “Changing something you have committed to as OSR referee would be the equivalent of changing where your warships are in Warship”.

    I see your point (I think) but “commitment” seems altogether too fuzzy to me (unlike the position of a chess piece or warship). Moreover, I think a refereee, whether OSR or illusionist, typically does have the authority to change the gamestate, albeit to different extents (and again, this is a very fuzzy area), and in stark contrast to boardgames etc.

    I guess I do not find the concept of gamestate useful to my understanding of roleplaying games at this point (or of Calvinball, Ephraim Kishon’s “Jewish Poker”, Cowboys and Indians, and similar games played wholly or in part in the mind etc.).

    No disrespect is intended — it is entirely possible that the concept is too abstract for me.

    1. I think it is worth it to understand a concept. Then, when thinking about roleplaying, you have one more perspective to bring to bear. I am running a sandbox game with several groups and one-shots, so game state is an entirely natural way for me to think about the entire thing. If I we running (for example) short no myth games, then it would likely be of little use.

  6. I’d like to apologize for being dismissive of the theory yesterday. I think I’m frustrated because I don’t get it. I’ll give it another shot if you’re still up for it — perhaps it will at least clear up my misconceptions or what the model covers and what it doesn’t. False expectations on my part might be at fault.

    I’d consider the following at least potentially relevant to the game state:

    (1) the SIS (or rather a whole set of shared imagined spaces if there is secret information only shared between some participants)
    (2) everyone’s PIS (privately imagined space) — there’s probably a term for that already, but you get what I mean
    (3) various data which can be nailed down to varying degrees (granting it more or less weight when one attempts to introduce it to the SIS): a rulebook, a .pdf of an adventure module, GM notes in the margin of the module, a Tolkien scribble on a napkin, e-mails, conversations, promises etc.
    (4) various … I dunno … ephemeral stuff (beliefs, social norms, personal preferences, relationships etc.) which exists in the participants’ minds, which the model treats as black boxes

    (If I have already made an error in dividing stuff as above, please let me know! It’d be exactly the kind of error one is blind to.)

    (a) I find it unsatisfying (due to unrealistic expectations, perhaps?) to relegate stuff to the black boxes because it seems highly important to the game state in the case of RPGs, Cowboys & Indians etc. (not a problem with board games, I think). See my example below.

    (b) I find it hard to delineate (3) from (4), e.g. when to decide that a GM is ‘committed’.

    In Chess, a photo of the board plus the information whose turn it is, is enough to let anybody continue the match.

    In Cowboys & Indians, a photo of Billy up in the treehouse and Jake down below would seem to give Billy the advantage but is missing crucial information. The snapshot provides only a tiny and not even particularly important part of the gamestate: If Billy has just shot Jake five times and Jake has duly clutched his chest and cried out, then it is his turn to shoot Billy. They both propse stuff for inclusion in the SIS almost continuously and a complex social negotiation determines which stuff is accepted.

    I think RPGs are similar insofar as a lot of really important stuff is in the minds of the participants. This creates a problem: If we exclude the contents of everyone’s mind from the game state, we are missing crucical information. If we include the contents of everyone’s mind, we are dealing with a wealth of stuff which cannot be directly observed and may not even be accessible to the participants themselves.

    1. Good discussion, both of you. I’d participate myself, but I’m too busy. Interesting to read, though.

      I’ll add a completely useless nitpick so nobody else needs to: competitive Chess cannot be reduced to a board state snapshot due to a few niggly rules that reference past board positions. The most important ones are about castling (you can’t do it if either piece has already moved) and draw rules. For example, if the game draws after 50 moves without a piece being claimed (a common draw rule nowadays in high level Chess), you need to maintain a 50 move history as part of the complete game state to know whether a draw is approaching.

      Regarding the game state in rpgs, as often happens I think that you both make good points. I’m inclined towards the “Forgite idealist” position myself: notes and other props and a history of the SIS (the big, fat non-formal clump that makes this so different from boardgames) are game state, everything else is player state. I would even argue that a session break is not “clean” regarding game state because the SIS is mostly stored in faulty human memory, which usually influences things. This is, of course, a coward’s position, as it relies 100% on the analytical nuances surrounding the concepts of SIS and Exploration to achieve clarity. I believe that it’s the most credible attempt at separating between player state and the game state, though. Is the fact that I am sympathetic towards NPC A a part of the game state? Rather, ask whether it’s part of the SIS. The answers will differ wildly between instances of play.

    2. In principle, SIS and PIS are completely separate concepts acting on a different kinds of entities.

      SIS/PIS answer the question: what is known about the game fiction? (And we could certainly expand their definitions beyond game fiction to have related concepts SIS’ and PIS’ which would answer the question: what is known about the game states? The terms at the moment just happen to refer to the fiction.)

      Game state answers a different question: What is the state of the game at the moment?

      Years ago (real life time) in my game a certain temple (of the ghoul) was cleared to some extent. When restocking it a bunch of kobolds, driven away from another adventures location, happened to settle in. This, too, happened years ago. Now (a couple weeks ago) player characters visited the temple, meeting the kobolds.

      The game state – how many kobolds there are there, what treasure they have, are there kobolds or something else in there after all – are entirely independent of whether the players or I remember or know about them. In this sense game state and SIS/PIS are independent. The way I run this game, or the game system (in the broad sense), requires commitment; when I need to find out how many kobolds there are and what treasure they have, I do my best. I check my notes and there I find them. If my notes were unavailable, I would check the original adventure module where they came from, and then make a best guess about how many survived from the raid thereto and what treasure they might have carried with them. If I was on a desert island without access to that module, I would just guess that there 3d6+10 kobolds, which would be close enough.

      But this is me, as the game master, doing work to maintain the game state. It has nothing to do with SIS/PIS – different players, they have no idea where those kobolds came from, etc. SIS and PIS do not have much to say here; maybe the credibility of my claims could be reinforced by mentioning or documenting the history of events, but that is quite a weak description of what is going on.

      Generalizing: The game master commits to things when the game system (in the broad sense) requires it or makes it possible. You could play chess where you write a couple of your next moves down secretly and then play them out in order, skipping any that are not legal at the moment. In this game the moves you have committed to would be in the game state, whereas in normal chess they are not, since they are just intentions.

      Likewise, in a no myth game, keeping elaborate track of the kobolds appeared and how many there were would not be in the game state unless shared with the folk playing at the moment. This makes me wonder how an extended no myth campaign with shifting player base would work. Lots of shared documentation via a wiki everyone must keep up to date with, I guess?

      The issue of how committed etc one is is a distraction at the moment. For simplicity, assume a game system (again in the extended sense) where one commits to something or does not. A hardcore klokkverk-sandbox or a hardcore no myth game are both good models to keep in mind. Figure it out first, and then get to the complications of partial commitments.

      Game state does not consider the intentions and such of the players, much like a radar image of the location of aeroplanes does not tell what their pilots are thinking or whether they are afraid or proud. (Technically, the game state here would almost certainly include the speeds of the aeroplanes, too, and maybe fuel levels, and so on, but I hope the point is clear.)

      For the cobs and robbers, maybe the concept of a Markov process is helpful here. A process is Markov if its next state only depends on its current state, not older history. A simple Markov process: Start with a number, say 0. At each time step, roll a die and add. If I now tell that the state of the process, for example 42, then you can roll a die and add to get to the next step, regardless of its history. You do not how many steps there have been before, and whether the step before the last one was 37 or 38, and it does not matter.

      A simple example of a non-Markov process is one where your state is again a number, but to get to the next state, you roll and add, and also add the state of the system 10 moves ago. Now the state alone, i.e. the number 115, is no longer sufficient to move to the next state; you also have to include information about the history. Maybe, ten moves ago, the state of the game was 12. Now you can move on.

      Any process can be made into a Markov process; you simple include the entire history in the game state. Your game state then be (0, 0, 0, 4, 6, 7, 13, 19, 22, 23, 26) and you could again take the next step. The difference is that a Markov process is mathematically far simpler to work with and computationally lighter. Since we are not proving a theorem or computing anything, worrying about this distinction does not really give a lot.

      Does this help with cowboys-and-indians case, or at least help you to formulate the issue more clearly?

  7. Eero: “notes and other props […] are part of the game state”

    But why privilege physical objects?

    I can come up with only one reason so far: physical objects could provide tangible proof of having committed to a ficitonal detail. This might be used as evidence in a court of one’s peers, i.e. one’s fellow players.

    A sliver of AP: In a (non-standard) D&D game I ran, I changed the stats of some monster (I think it may have been the vulnerabilities of the classic D&D troll – acid and fire – which I found boring because they are common knowledge). When a PC tried to hurt the troll with fire and failed, the player cried foul. I showed him my GM notes and he was satisfied. But if I had merely decided to change the troll’s immunities and never gotten around to writing this down, what then?

    Some proponents of the Klockwerk movement in the last days of Story-Games called for the GM’s prep being tangible to the point where it could be audited.

    That is a legitimate desire but I’m dubious that it is sufficient reason to make physical objects part of the definition of game state:

    First of all, it’s a niche concern, so it is relevant only to a subset of RPGs (e.g. the theory of Klockwerk).

    More importantly, there are other kinds of proof: Maybe I bragged to my (non-gamer) roommate that I had changed a monster the PCs were likely to encounter? Maybe I could point out that I’ve already run the new troll for three different groups? Maybe I could make a case for being credible because I changed the last four standard monsters the PCs encountered?

    It seems to me that the real issue is the credibility of a proposition proffered for inclusion in the SIS. Physical objects certainly have a lot of weight but I’m not sure that warrants privileging them on purely theoretical grounds. They’d be one of several factors the system would use to assign credibility (duties of the GM role, seniority in a mixed-age game etc.).

    (A dog-eared, yellowed version of B2 written and signed by Gygax would have a ton of authority for many players.)

    Another sliver of AP: I’ve repeatedly seen GMs who used a screen to lift it to show a particularly unlikely die roll result (“See that natural 20 right there? The goblin really does score another critical hit.”)

    I should note that the “evidence” in my two AP examples can be faked.

    (And Eero is of course right about Chess. I totally forgot about the relevance of the move history and lost sight of it in my example of Cowboys and Indians, too.)

    1. The prop think’s nothing as complicated as all that. The reason why props for some games are part of the game state is that the game system (the arrangement the players use to play) says that they are: there’s a literal rule saying something like “you use this piece of paper to record stuff, and later on when we activate rule X, you look up this piece of information from the paper, and apply it with the rule”. The piece of paper is part of the game state not because paper is somehow more tangible, but simply because it’s part of the entirety of the game that the rules operate over. If the system doesn’t reference the paper, then it’s just an arbitrary record the player is keeping, no different from writing down your Chess moves.

      To say that differently: the game state of Chess is not this physical board and these physical pieces arranged like so. The arrangement is the game state, not the physical pieces. Likewise, the physical records are not the game state in a rpg, but often many games have procedures that are applied over physical notes as well as the SIS.

      In your troll example the apparent system of play is that the GM is allowed to present whatever monsters he wants, and he can even call them “trolls” despite that being the name of a monster in the monster manual. The only requirement is that the GM doesn’t do this arbitrarily on the fly; they need to do it in advance. Your notes satisfied the player because they proved that you weren’t pulling stuff out of your ass. For this game the troll’s stat block was part of the game state because the game’s procedure requires the GM to prep the monsters in advance. There could be a hypothetical second game that has no such requirement, in which case your physical notes wouldn’t be part of the game state – they’d just be your memory aids.

  8. @Tommi: For some weird reason, I was only able to see your post half a day late (which is why I did not answer).

    Let me see if I can get this right:

    (1) The game state contains all information directly referenced by the system…

    For instance, if we agreed that the weather in the game world is always like the weather outside in the real world, that information would be part of the game state.

    (2) … except what’s in the players’ minds which the overarching theory treats separately as black boxes providing all sorts of input.

    For instance, if we defer to Gerald for all things nautical, his knowledge, biases, current exasperation with Nelson, nautical books etc. are not part of the game state. The system says that we’ll query [GERALD] if the game state requires the information [What is the speed of a caravel?].

    This is really no different from Gerald controlling his character.


    “Maze of the Blue Medusa” has an enemy who takes damage when the players make the GM laugh, as far as I recall. Depending on our interpretation, are the GM’s body language or his mood – reduced to [laughing/not laughing] or [amused/not amused] – part of the game state?


    “Figure it out first, and then get to the complications of partial commitments”

    That’s good advice because I was (and perhaps still am) caught up in fuzzy system issues.

    If one were to study our game, it would probably turn out that I’m empirically, say, 78% likely to consult the Monstrous Manual II’s encounter tables when the PCs run off the (prepared section of the) map (e.g. because of a teleport error).

    One stumbling block for me is that parts of system are (1) informal and (2) subject to nearly constant addition and change, making it hard to see what exactly is being referenced.

    (Those black boxes are huge and they change system. Reminds me of Borg cubes!)

    But re-reading your posts helps, Tommi! You’ve already said that you are “intentionally ignoring the matter of changing rules as a part of play”.

    I may understand this stuff yet…


    Regarding the radar example, I’d say a single ping queries the position of enemy planes, a history of pings gives us vectors, and that’s the game state as far as can be determined (unless there is more information like fuel levels).

    And the Markov/non-Markov process does help me with Cops & Robbers, yes. =)

    1. No hurry with responses; I have an RSS feed and respond when I have time. This is not exactly a time-critical issue.

      (1) The weather would be a part of the game state to the same extent that the number visible on a die, after one is rolled, would be part of the game state. So typically yes.

      (2) This kind of analysis stems from game theory (or, further down, from questions in control theory such as at what angle should I throw this ball so that it goes as far as possible; my knowledge about history of science is shaky, so do let me know if I am wrong here). In both game theory and control theory you have some kind of well-defined system which acts according to given rules. Then, you have some kind of agent or a agent (players in game theory, control in control theory) that, when combined with the state of the system and the rules it follows, tell what happens.

      It might be fruitful to model the OSR referee, as well as Gerard who knows about sailing, as something else than players, in this framework.

      So if, in this game, Gerard the players is the one we ask about how high is the mast of the ship, and Gerard is bound by the system (wide sense) to answer truthfully as an impartial oracle, then we can very well consider the length of the ship as part of the game state and Gerard simply as the incidental means we happen to get that information; it could just well be written down or looked for in Wikipedia or whatever.

      On the other hand, if this was a competitive game where Gerard is expected to be silent about the length of the mast when his ship sails under a bridge, but make noise about it if his foe tries to do the same, then Gerard should certainly be treated as a player.

      GM laughter should get a similar treatment, I believe. If the GM has an agenda for which it is important whether they laugh or not, then this should be treated as a test of skill (and this formalism is not very good at handling tests of skills like drawing from a jenga tower or making a penalty shot in football or throwing a dart; the best this formalism can do is treat them as random events with some particular probabilities). If the GM does not have an agenda, then this would be similar to the weather, I think. Certainly an edge case of this formalism.

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