Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Game Balance

This weekend, a member of our gaming group, who is currently running a published adventure for us, complained about the endemic preference in the gaming community of "rule of cool" over either "common sense" or "attention to detail." A DM should not have to work out for himself how to sell a party of players like us on a cannibal tribe consisting of thirty or so able-bodied men, one old female witch, and no children, old men, teens, or women of breeding age at all; or answer questions concerning the function of various weapons labeled "exotic" by the system but "bizarre and impractical" by anyone who's ever hefted even a boffer weapon. (The LARP I participated in a few years ago had a couple of enthusiastic makers of exotic "cool looking" foam weapons, which were set out to lure in new players, but which no one ever attempted to use because they balanced like a rhino on a tightrope.)

This is true, and we are in full agreement on that point. However, I had, on my Sims2 newsgroup, been reading the questions, frustrations, and shared strategies of people who went to the opposite extreme - people who fuss endlessly with mods and hacks trying to ensure that all the sims in their neighborhood are all on the same day in the same season and that no individual sim ever has his time duplicated by, for example, coming home from work with five other playables on everybody's individual Mondays, or by spending five hours on a community lot and returning to a home where the clock has only advanced by an hour. Given that a sim's adult lifestage is only 29 days long, and that a sim pregnancy lasts three days, not to mention that vacation destinations and University subneighborhoods run on completely different clocks, it seems clear to me that a sim day is a stylized composite of a whole bunch of sim days and that what other people are calling "duplicate time" is a handy feature of the game that enables your sim to get more than 29 days worth of adult life experience.

Stylization is a necessary feature of games as opposed to real life. Different people require different levels of simulationism in their games - and for that matter, the same person probably requires different levels in different games. I doubt most rabid simulationists want an economic expansion for chess, or that most casual hand-wavers of details want to guesstimate the distance or direction the pieces can move. (Though, having said that, I'm probably going to discover, or be directed to, chess variants that do even more bizarre things.) This is why computer games get hacking and modding subcultures and tabletop games get house rules. Whether clearing away rules that are too fussy and slow down the game too much for individual taste, making new rules that create more structure and make the game more challenging, or expanding gameplay by adding new elements that require fresh new strategies, fiddling with the published rules can enhance the play experience and any corporation that objects to the practice is shooting itself in the foot.

This is not to say that counterproductive extremes do not exist. I've seen people working so hard to make their game - whether computer or tabletop - "perfect" that they kill their enjoyment, turning their games into work. If you don't enjoy it, there's no point to the game. So if you're someone who does that, knock it off. Go do something else - there's no shortage of stuff to do in this life. (May I suggest reading a book?)

On the other hand, some people (and they are usually, in this modern age, professionally involved with computer programming) love to fiddle with system mechanics for their own sake. If you play with such a person, you can't afford to let them kill your fun; but you shouldn't try to kill their fun by nagging them to stop before they reach the point of diminishing returns, either. You have to find some mutually acceptable compromise position.

If you can't, you can't play together. Our current gaming group, consisting of four regular players and two who join us when their schedules permit them to come in from out of town, is the refined core of the survivors of, literally, years of experimenting and seeking for compatible players whose comfort levels are close enough to each other that we never have stalemates because (for example) someone is insisting on running a Babylonian priest in a 17th-century French setting while everyone else argues with him. Believe me, if we ever have a 17th-century French campaign with a Babylonian priest in the middle of it, it will be logical within the context of the game. We don't have the same gaming styles by any means, but we do have compatible faults (says the member who, when DMing, makes her story and characters work and depends on her players to figure out on the fly how it all fits mechanically).

All these ideas have relevance to writing stories, too, but this post is already long enough, most people won't read it, so I'll talk about that on Thursday, God willing and the creek don't rise.

P.S. My eyes are futzing on me a bit and when I came to this page I read last post's title as "Who Ate the Clones?" Which is a whole different story...

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