Thursday, December 29, 2011

Game or Simulation; Operation Praying Mantis

The week between Christmas and New Year's has been pretty quiet around the house, so I figured I'd take an hour and pre-blog before the New Year's revelry. 2012 is shaping up as a very strange year for me, after my long stint with TSR/Wizards of the Coast. Looking into the Magic 8-Ball of life, I'm getting the not very helpful result of, "Answer hazy, ask again later." Where will Christmas of 2012 find me? I'm not sure. Maybe I'm in the game biz, maybe I'm doing some other sort of writing, maybe I'm looking at a relocation, maybe we're fine where we are. I'm not a big fan of uncertainty (who is?) but I look forward to seeing what comes up next.

Idle aside: We are now deep enough into the current century to drop awkward verbalizations such as "two thousand twelve" or "twenty-oh-twelve" or "two-twelve," all of which I hear every now and then. We spent the last ninety years or so of the twentieth century saying things like "nineteen oh five" or "nineteen fifty-six" or "nineteen ninety-one." So I hereby direct that people are now to simply say "twenty-twelve," or twenty followed by the last two digits of the year read as a double-digit number, when referring to years in the 21st century. When will Alex graduate high school? Twenty-thirteen. When did the Phillies win the series? Twenty-oh-eight. Just like that.

Gaming Thoughts: This week, it's D&D. I have long held the belief that D&D is not actually a game. It's a simulation. Games have objectives and winning conditions. Games tell you what you can do when it's your turn, and define concrete, specific actions that you can choose from. Simulations are imaginary worlds defined only by a set of "physics" -- things that are true in that world, such as "fall a thousand feet and you die" or "dragons breathe fire." In a simulation, you define your own objectives and you can do anything you want that conforms to the physics. In fact, thinking of clever ways to make use of the world "physics" is a lot of the fun. You need to start a forest fire? Great, dragons breathe fire. Maybe you could use a dragon to do that. Any objectives you come up with are self-imposed in a simulation, and you can modify or abandon them at will. There is no set action that wins or loses the simulation, other than you just stop doing it.
   This, by the way, was the genius of Jonathan Tweet's work on 3e D&D. He recognized that D&D is a simulation, not a game, and directed a serious and comprehensive look at the physics of the world.
   Now, "simulation" is kind of a dirty word in the RPG or board game design business. Us professional game designers warn each other all the time about dropping too far down the rabbit hole of simulation, which we generally seem to think is the antithesis of fun. I think part of the problem is that we mix up the ideas of "low abstraction" and "simulation." A highly detailed combat system taking into account many factors about your character and the thing you're fighting has low abstraction, and therefore simulates combat quite accurately -- but that does not mean it is a *simulation.* After all, that combat system could be a part of a dueling game that proceeds toward a clear win or loss, and might be the entirety of the game... or it could be a piece of the "physics" the world-simulation operates under. In a simulation, you might decide to explore what happens when you bust a lantern over your enemy's head. A low-abstraction simulation tells you exactly how to do that. A high-abstraction simulation probably groups that up with "improvised attacks" and gives the GM some guidelines on evaluating the results. A game, however, tries very hard to not let you make up actions that aren't what the game designer wants you to do.
   This is the essential philosophical divide between 1e/2e/3e and 4e Dungeons & Dragons. 4e leans much harder toward "game" over "sim."
   This may sound like I'm really flogging "games" as bad RPGS or crowing that simulation is best. That's only somewhat true. Simulation is hard to GM, it's hard to teach, and it doesn't fit well in a busy schedule. There are many different ways to experience a concept like "D&D," and that can embrace true games (such as the recent Castle Ravenloft or Wrath of Ashardalon boardgames) as well as classic open-ended simulations such as regular RPG play. The "right" version really depends on what you're looking for in your play time.

Politics/Current Events: More saber-rattling in the Persian Gulf, it seems. Here's a story that is worth keeping an eye on:

Iran is reminding everybody that they can make the costs of oil skyrocket any time they choose, while we're reminding Iran that we wouldn't take that lying down. The first thing I think of whenever the Straits of Hormuz come up in this sort of story is Operation Praying Mantis, which is virtually unknown to the American public for some reason. Most people have no idea that the US Navy fought a one-day war against the Iranian Navy back on April 18th, 1988. Now, at the time I was just about to be commissioned as a naval officer, so I had reason to pay attention. But still I can't believe that something that involved this much shooting is just not *remembered* by our country. Here's a link:

A few months ago I told one of my co-workers, a guy 40 years old with an interest in military stuff, about this, and he just had no idea any of this ever happened. Amazing.

The Finer Things: Silver Lake Roza Red. We had this very nice Washington blended table wine with our rib roast Christmas dinner. My wife doesn't like astringent wines at all, so many reds scare her off, but this was quite smooth without being really fruity. Washington state has about the second-best viticultural region in the country, behind only Napa valley in California. Every year or so we drive over Chinook pass and spend a couple of days visiting wineries out in the Yakima area. The drive along route 410 is maybe one of the top ten drives in the country, by my way of thinking, and the vineyards are just amazing. Strange thing, though--the last time we were out there, just a couple of months back, it seemed chardonnays were crazy hard to find. Going out there regularly you see the vineyard's offerings change over time, and I guess the chardonnays just weren't their best in the last couple of years.


  1. It is not the case that 4E "tries very hard to not let you make up actions that aren't what the game designer wants you to do." Well, except that it's clear that the designers want you to do whatever you & your players want. Yes, there are lots of "preformed" actions one can take, but those aren't all, despite what some people seem to think.

  2. Was Praying Mantis the time the Iranian air-liner was shot down? Maybe, because an awful mistake was made at the time it has not been discussed often to avoid remembering the incident? But you are spot on... and the straights into the Persian Gulf are very very important for the whole world and the need to keep them working is critical.

  3. Funny you should mention Praying Mantis - I just saw a documentary piece on this a few months ago. It was from a series called Hero Ships. The episode focused on the Samuel B Roberts. Thanks for the wiki link.

    Hope you and your family are having a good holiday. Best of luck to you in "twenty-twelve"! I wouldn't be surprised if you find yourself busier than ever in the coming year! :)

  4. I cannot disagree stronger with your statements regarding games and simulations, at least in the way you presented them.

    The problem with the blank usage of "simulation" is that isn't enough to work with: you have to define what it is a simulation OF. Now in 3e you had the attempt to make a simulation of a fantasy world. If it succeeded or not is somewhat up to personal taste - I very firmly stand in the "no it does not" territory, as the closer you try to examine it, the more the game falls apart. But 4e is very much a simulation in of itself - it's a simulation of heroic fantasy, be it heroic fantasy literature or movies or what have you. I can so very much more easily create the pulp heroes such as Conan or Fafnir in 4e then I could in previous editions that they actually inspired!

    I think the big flaw comes under the idea of "rules as physics" that 3e damned us with. The idea that the physics of the world would be pushed into the rules themselves. But as I mentioned, that very swiftly falls apart when you look at it in anything but the best light; from the somewhat nitpicky nonsensical nature of the economics, to the hilarious reveal that normal level 1 peasants with 8 strength couldn't chop down trees, to the even more nonsensical way Profession works, and so on, and so forth. With previous editions you didn't have that, because Gygax never cared about trying to simulate physics with his rules. But 3e tried to encode rules-as-physics and created a rather sloppy mess out of it.

    Thus, I find it very odd that you grouped AD&D and 3e together. I feel that, especially as far as "simulation" goes, there's a stark difference between AD&D and 3e, just as much as there is between 4e and the aforementioned 2. I'd even say there's a difference between AD&D 1e and AD&D 2e, where the first was penned by Gygax who very much wrote in that simulationism was NOT the goal of the game by any means, and even explicitly stated that the XP rules (gold for XP) were done to remove "simulationism" and instead focus on the game aspect.

    In the end, if we're going to focus on the game as attempts at creating a full simulation, I find myself asking: "Would I want to play any edition for this?" And my answer is "No." There are games that do the "simulationistic" experience far better then D&D has ever had, be it GURPS or HERO. D&D has always been very *light* on the simulation-esque experience, and I think trying to push further into that while still hanging onto D&D-isms such as classes only leads to a bad game.

  5. ...Man I did not mean to make a dang essay out of that. Apologies for the WORDSWORDSWORDS

  6. Rod: The Iranian airliner you're referring to was shot down by the USS Vincennes in July of 1988, several months later. There was a lot of skirmishing in the Gulf over the course of a year or so, which doubtless contributed to the Vincennes' tragic mistake of identifying the airliner as an attacking aircraft.

  7. ProfessorCirno:
    Excellent points, sir. I'd rather start a conversation than fire off my insights into space. You are correct in observing that 4e aims to be a simulation of heroic fantasy, rather than a "whole" fantasy world, as 3e aspires to do. 4e simulates the world like Hollywood builds a town set, while 3e tries to describe the town as it would "really" be. However, there are aspects of the 4e design that are very deliberately driven by gameplay, not simulation. For example, the AEDU scheme was designed as a game of resource management within the "game" of the D&D adventuring day -- I was there for the design and development discussions. The simulation cladding was layered on top of that resource game. Earlier editions approached that resource management game from the exact opposite point of view: Given X resources derived from the world-sim of your character, how do you choose to spend them? It's a subtle difference, but an important one, I think. And that's why I lumped 1e and 3e together--both approached that resource question the same way.

  8. Re - Operation Paraying Mantis

    This is an excellent series on a sort of parallel track:

  9. Couldn't figure out how to send a personal message here, so I sent it to your old WotC blog. Might be something decent in it for you to play around with, or maybe not. Just making sure you know it's there. I'm not sure what username will show up, it's Enabrantain.

  10. Weird, because I recall the Praying Mantis events quite well... And I am Italian. But maybe the fact that I was in the navy and I am a naval history buff helps :D
    Anyway, it was an awesome display of combat dominance... I suspect it would be more of the same today, despite the increased threat.