Monday, June 23, 2014

Rewarding Degenerating Gameplay: Lessons from Gijón and Pernambuco

This post is about game design.  Just bear with me.

In the 1982 World Cup Group stage, the West German and Austrian teams found themselves in an odd situation.  With the Algeria-Chile match already played, the West Germany-Austria meeting in Gijón, Spain would be the final match of Group 2.  Based on the point spread of all four teams in the group, West Germany and Austria knew exactly what results would allow both to advance: a marginal (1-2 goal) West German victory.  After West Germany scored in the first half, both teams settled into what was effectively pantomime.  For the remainder of the 90 minutes, they politely passed the ball in their respective halves of the field, opponents occasionally making halfhearted challenges - but no real scoring attempts.

The strategy was transparent to everyone, from the announcers to the angry crowd.  Though popular culture condemned the match with names like Nichtangriffspakt von Gijón (Non-Aggression Pact of Gijón) or, even more pejoratively, the Anschluß, it ultimately allowed both teams to progress out of the Group stage.  West Germany made it all the way to the final.

To half-solve the problem in subsequent World Cup Group stages, FIFA scheduled the final two matches for any given Group to take place concurrently.  In the case of West Germany-Austria, it would have prevented the teams from building a strategy based on the outcome of Algeria-Chile.  However, FIFA didn't really fix the underlying issue, which was the design of how teams accumulate points in Group and how those points determine who advances out of Group.  And now, on Thursday, June 26th, it's possible we could see a repeat of the Non-Aggression Pact of Gijón at Pernambuco, Brazil, when Germany faces USA.  As in 1982, due to the point spread between Germany, USA, Portugal, and Ghana in Group G, both Germany and USA will advance in the event that they draw - regardless of the results of the Portugal-Ghana match happening simultaneously.  Given the widespread condemnation of what occurred at Gijón in 1982, it's unlikely to happen again, but nothing in the rules would prevent it.

When designing the rules for any challenge-based game, regardless of the form it takes, it's important to consider how the structure of the rules may promote working against the spirit of the game.  What designers allow players to do may inadvertently reward behavior that even the players themselves find to be boring and unenjoyable.  If these behaviors are advantageous enough, players will gravitate toward them with increasing frequency until they become the de facto "correct" tactics and strategies for play.  One of the most commonly-discussed features that produces this effect is save scumming.  Being able to save and load your game at any time is extraordinarily valuable for players, if simply for convenience.  However, the way save/load works in conjunction with other mechanics can strongly promote reliance on save/load to overcome difficult situations.

As an example, many role-playing games use virtual dice to "roll" a check when attempting to overcome a single obstacle, such as a locked door.  In such cases, the player typically has one "try" on any static obstacle.  In practice, they effectively have as many tries as they want as long as they are patient enough to reload.  This type of interaction doesn't test players' skills in any new way, it doesn't ask players to attempt any different tactic, and given the "one try" system the designers put in place, it seems to go against the spirit of what the designers were trying to accomplish.  While players love succeeding at overcoming obstacles, the percentage who love doing it via save/load is probably very low.  Even so, that's what the game's design promotes doing for the best outcome.

By writing all of this, I have no intention of placing any blame or fault on the players.  In challenge-based games, designers present obstacles and create the rules and tools for overcoming those obstacles.  Players can hardly be faulted for finding and taking advantage of shortcomings in how the systems interact.  In the aftermath of Gijón, both teams had to deal with the anger of World Cup fans - especially fans of the Algerian team, who had been denied a chance at moving on due to the West German/Austrian collusion.  And there is no doubt that the players who suited up and went on the field that day did not spend their young lives dreaming of strategic pantomiming.  Still, FIFA's rules promoted that behavior - and still promote similar behavior.  A repeat of Gijón at Pernambuco would produce justified howls of outrage.  Still, a paraphrase of the old maxim applies: don't hate the players, hate the game design.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Ars Magica Longevity Rituals - More Gradual Aging for Magi

I read an entry on Timothy Ferguson's blog about how to re-model Ars Magica 5th Edition Longevity Rituals for more interesting flavor and to shift the apparent aging of Hermetic magi.  Because AM5 lacks a core central mechanic for adding and removing Virtues and Flaws post-character creation, Warping and Mystery Cults effectively became the de facto ways for doing it in supplemental books.  While I don't think Mr. Ferguson's idea of longevity ritual as a Hermetic Exoteric Mystery is a bad one (especially for flavor, which the RAW longevity ritual rules conspicuously lack), it doesn't address how Hermetic magi age.  I.e., it does not fundamentally alter how the Aging tables work, nor definitively when magi will start adopting Longevity Rituals.  That is, arguably, the larger problem with the RAW: given good enough rituals, many magi will look like they are in their 20s-30s well into old age.

Mechanically, I believe the simplest way to address this is by adding a new "apparent aging" range to the bottom end of the Aging table.  The precedent for this can be found in the core Aging table itself.  Aging Crises are a big deal in AM5.  Even if you resolve any given Crisis, you still acquire Decrepitude and potentially a bunch of Aging Points.  To make Aging Crises a potent threat even at relatively young ages, both 13 and 22+ on the standard table result in "sufficient Aging Points... to reach the next level in Decrepitude, and Crisis".  Since most characters start rolling in their mid-30s, that means that, barring modifiers, a roll of 9 (+4) would immediately result in Decrepitude and Crisis.  13 remains a real threat for most characters unless they have a truly solid Longevity Ritual.  It's a landmine on the Aging chart relative to the results around it, but its presence is important because it significantly increases the probability of hitting Crises at young ages.

Similarly, putting an additional apparent aging range low on the Aging table may seem unintuitive, but it can produce the mechanical results you want.  By overlapping the main apparent aging range (3+) with a negative range, you can create a higher probability that magi will slowly continue to gain apparent age even with powerful Longevity Rituals.

E.g., we could add an apparent aging increase result between -5 and -7.  Let's say a maga has a total of -7 to her Aging roll due to Longevity Ritual (-10), being a maga in a Spring (-1) covenant, and her real age (37, +4).  The die rolls produce these results:

10-7 = 3, apparent age increases by one year
9-7 = 2, no apparent aging
8-7 = 1, no apparent aging
7-7 = 0, no apparent aging
6-7 = -1, no apparent aging
5-7 = -2, no apparent aging
4-7 = -3, no apparent aging
3-7 = -4, no apparent aging
2-7 = -5, apparent age increases by one year
1*-7 = on subsequent die, 5+ = apparent age increases by one year (and other deleterious effects on a 9 or 10), 2-4 = no apparent aging, 1 = roll again and quadruple

As another example, with -12 to the total roll, the maga would still get an apparent age increase on a roll of  7, 6, or 5 (-5, -6, and -7) and would have a ~48%+** chance of hitting an apparent age increase on a 1 (subsequent rolls of 3, 8, 9, 10 or potentially another 1 would do it [and worse]).

So even with a very strong ritual, there's always a good chance of hitting an apparent age increase.  Magi aren't guaranteed to hit those numbers, but over the course of many years, they are much more likely to hit them.  And if that probability isn't high enough, you can extend the range from -4 to -7 or -3 to -7, which would result in the magi apparently aging at about half speed.

* Since Aging rolls are stressed with no botch, the potential for an apparent aging increase will change based on what result a 1 on the die would normally yield.  However, this is also true with a lot of results on the standard table due to how exploding dice work.

** I'm not doing the exact math on this, but a quadrupled roll of 4 or higher will always result in an apparent aging increase (at least) and an another 1, in addition to being extraordinarily unlucky, would guarantee Crisis.