The Gamemasters

The Contrarian: Roll the Dice


The third time I went to GenCon, the big tabletop gaming convention, I was a freshman in college with no money. I borrowed my parents’ minivan and an inflatable air mattress, drove to Milwaukee, and lived in a parking garage for four days. I slept in the van, ate Slim Jims and string cheese I stole from a gas station on the drive up, and every morning I’d do my best to get clean in a public bathroom with paper towels and a bar of soap. I was a hardcore gamer, but I refused to surrender hygiene.

You do these things for the one you love.

My love in those days was tabletop RPGs. A month later I loved ’em so darn much I started my own game company, Pagan Publishing, and for the next twelve years I produced books and magazines for the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. I was obsessed with games, and all I wanted was for tabletop games to be the greatest thing in the world.

I did my best. We made great books, won awards, and had critical acclaim out the wazoo. But our audience was tiny, even by tabletop standards, and as the years went by and my friends were getting married, buying houses, owning cars, and not eating frozen burritos, I began to wonder if toiling in poverty was worth it. We ran our company as if we were Al Qaeda, living communally in a flea-trap house, doing everything online, surrounded by cheap food, loaded guns, and plausible deniability. We played a lot of games, rolled a lot of dice, and believed we were changing the world – a small part of it, anyway.

One day I did some freelance writing for a computer game company. They sent me a check – enough to buy frozen burritos for a year. My brain exploded.

Unfortunately, so did the brains of the people who played that game. It was Acclaim’s long-forgotten title, Magic: The Gathering: Battlemage, a game so flawed that it shipped broken – you had to download a patch to even make it work, and “downloading patches” was kind of a wild-eyed idea in 1997. My first experience was a disaster (except for the paycheck), and it was years before I tried again. But already I knew one thing: I hated writing branching-tree dialogue with a passion, or at least branching-tree dialogue for a game whose only permissible conversational outcomes were Gain Money, Gain Card, Gain Territory, and Enter Combat. (“New underwear on Christmas is more fun than this,” raved Gamespot, and they were right.)

The next time I wrote for an electronic game, I was in better company. Bungie Studios hired me to write for them, pre-Xbox, and as a Marathon fan I was jazzed. I wrote a big, epic story, a real gut-churning tale of empire, conquest, and mystical destiny. It was rich with symbology and put the player in the role of a true conqueror, laying waste to entire regions with the forces at his command. I still love that story, to this day.

Bungie canceled the title. I was not batting a thousand in this bold new medium.

The problem was perspective. I wanted to take my expansive tabletop visions and realize them on screen, make them extensible and responsive, have characters who grew and even changed their minds when you least expected it. I imagined a wide-open world of dynamic elements in which themes had mechanics just as detailed as bullets, where subroutines equaled subplots and plot twists, not rocket launchers, spawned nearby.

These are not the traditional strengths of videogames. I had a lot to learn.

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I’m reminded of Eric S. Raymond’s essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar. He wrote about the differences between top-down, monolithic software development and bottom-up, open-source development. But the metaphor applies here too. If you’ve ever seen pictures of a baroque cathedral, you know the obsessive detail and ornamentation the designers put into it. When the city fathers of Seville decided to build one, their stated goal was to create a structure so amazing that future generations would think them mad. You don’t often see that attitude in public-works projects, but European cathedrals were special that way. Money and talent poured into them and they became wonders of the world.

Yet around any great cathedral, what did you find? Poverty, little houses, narrow streets, peasants. All of that work went into one great edifice, an enclosure so vast as to screen the outside world from view. This is how people build videogames: a constricted realm that seems huge, ornate, and impressive, yet is merely an island within an empty ocean. If you escape from the confines of a videogame level, as software bugs often allow you to do, you literally fall off the edge of the world. There is no there, there.

That’s the cathedral approach.

Tabletop games take place in bazaars. They are sprawling, diverse creations, and you quickly become convinced you can find anything in them if you look long enough. You’re right: If you poke and prod and chatter for enough minutes, the gamemaster can hurriedly expand the bazaar, right there on the spot, then throw back the curtain and show you what you were looking for as if it had been there all along.

I’ve run tabletop games with no preparation other than a stack of photographs and an opening scene, spinning that into an intricate, multi-session mystery on the fly. Whatever wild-ass guess my players came up with was the right wild-ass guess, because I’d take their idea and run with it. It’s not that hard. Veteran gamemasters do this stuff all the time. Players love to rummage and GMs love to haggle. Between them, they wander the bazaar until they find the plot.

Thinking about this stuff, I IM’ed an old friend of mine from tabletop gaming. These days, Mitch Gitelman is the Studio Manager for Microsoft’s FASA Studio. He was the producer on the MechCommander series and the first MechAssault, and executive producer on the Xbox game Crimson Skies. FASA Studio, of course, grew out of a tabletop game company that did Battletech, Crimson Skies, Shadowrun, Earthdawn, and other titles.

Mitch got into videogames during the equivalent of the Wild West days, in the heady time shortly before the first Playstation, when people were still figuring out what “multimedia” was and “CD-ROM” was still a cool buzzword. He was one of many tabletop game writers looking to move into videogames, starting with computer projects. “I was a Mac guy. I didn’t tell anybody I didn’t know how to use a PC,” Mitch says. “I just kinda winged it.”

Things were different then. “My writing partner and I got in with Sony and Psygnosis and made our first deal in a goat pasture in Wales. The producer asked us how much we wanted. I pretended to add up some numbers, then quoted a figure double what we expected. They said yes. Then I said I had to talk to my partner. We stood to one side, surrounded by goat shit, and I babbled at him: ‘What’s a pixel? What’s a polygon?’ I was scared out of my mind.”

In the years since, Mitch has worked with a lot of other tabletop designers who are getting into electronic gaming. It’s been a bumpy ride.

“They’d devise context, scenarios for what was going on in the game, but they never thought about how to communicate this stuff to the player. I realized they were unconsciously expecting to have a gamemaster there to set the stage. I told one guy, ‘I can’t ship you in the fucking box!'”

For one project, testers reported the real-time targeting was frustrating. The tabletop designer working on the game was used to systems consisting of math and dice, not physical skill. “What he considered game design I considered scribbling on a cocktail napkin. We needed actual mechanics, moment by moment, incorporating physics and player feedback, not just an abstract roll-to-hit system.” Finally the lead designer made the bullets magnetic, so they would actually drift slightly to hit their target if they were passing nearby. Suddenly, the game was fun. “That’s the kind of solution tabletop guys don’t see, not at first.”

Mitch’s current project is a tabletop gaming property adapted for videogames. “We’ve stayed away from hiring tabletop designers for this,” he says. “I don’t want them slavishly adapting the source material. First and foremost, they have to make a fun videogame for people who never played the tabletop game, which is mostly everyone.”

Tabletop designers do bring useful skills to the table – or rather, from it. Mitch cites texture as a big one, and he doesn’t mean bitmaps. “It’s the feeling that the world is bigger than what you’re experiencing in this moment,” he says. “Tabletop people can bring the illusion of depth. They’re good at building a world that has internal logic, a sense of why.”

He’s talking about the cathedral and the bazaar. When you bring the people from the bazaar into the cathedral to spruce up the place, they set right to work on the stained-glass windows, creating mostly opaque views of what lies beyond to convince the players in the cathedral that there’s really something outside. They’re good at it.

But even here, the strengths of tabletop designers vary by type of game. Bioware has created a series of games that feel and play surprisingly close to tabletop RPGs, from the +1 Swords of Smurfing to the huge cast of characters and sprawling environments. They conjure up the feeling of an endless bazaar by layering on tons of story, even though your actual freedom to change or direct the story is very limited.

Other games make the effort but don’t have a good way to express that texture. Look at City of Heroes. It’s a terrific game, a real breakthrough in focused MMOG design. But the developers like to trumpet their 560-page story bible, in which decades of superhero history are lovingly inscribed with all their battles and villains and conspiracies and secrets. Tabletop gamers love that stuff, and as the co-author and publisher of a 432-page gaming sourcebook, I know what I’m talking about.

But could anything be less relevant to the actual experience of playing City of Heroes?

Really, they should touch a match to that whole document and stop talking about it. City of Heroes is a game of team combat, not storytelling. There is no exploration, no problem solving, no rivalries, no relationships. Everything is one superhero fight after another. The game needs cooler tactical scenarios for team combat, not cooler stories. They shouldn’t be ashamed of that.

This is the kind of area where tabletop designers screw up. They get wedded to their richly textured worlds and intricate storylines, and they lose track of the fact that videogames are a completely different medium. They’re capable of being fun without any story or world whatsoever. Tetris is one of the best games ever made, and there isn’t a tabletop designer on the planet who would have thought that one up. But there are plenty who would have ruined it.

Even so, story has come a long way in games, given its albino, blind-eyed beginnings in the Colossal Cave. Look at the evolution of Doom. The first game had no story at all, just a premise: Space marine fights demons on Mars. A decade later, Doom 3 had a seemingly endless series of audio journals left by dead scientists spilling out their grim portents. You couldn’t go five minutes without somebody downloading their life story to your datapad. Half-Life and its sequel showed us how to tell stories without cut scenes, by having events unfold right there in front of the player in the game. They’re simple steps, but important ones.

It’s pleasant to contemplate these simple steps, but the sad truth is that this sort of storytelling doesn’t particularly need tabletop game designers like me or Mitch. It’s mostly straight-up writing, in the style of movies or novels. Like movies, in fact, games can achieve that sense of texture through visuals as well as exposition. The unresolved mysteries of the Combine in Half-Life 2 had little narrative presence, but visually they were subtle and intriguing.

So what is there for tabletop designers like us to do? What makes us genuinely valuable and different from the latest twitch punk promoted out of QA?

The good news is convergence. Thirty years ago, some bearded grognards on a college campus drew some dungeons, rolled some dice, and realized they had entire worlds in their heads for players to explore. Sitting around a table, the gamemaster was omniscient and omnipresent, able to conjure up characters, dialogue, plots, and settings out of the very air and weave them into a coherent experience. The players could, quite literally, go anywhere and do anything, and the gamemaster would keep expanding the bazaar around them. They created a place bigger than any one person’s imagination, a bazaar big enough to encompass all of them.

Videogames haven’t caught up. They aren’t even close. But on a clear day you can look out from the windows of development studios around the world and see a distant glimmer of what might be. Unlike the bazaar, the cathedral is constrained by technology; indeed, by architecture. As technology improves, the possibilities do, too, not just for prettier graphics, but for smarter games and extensible, dynamic worlds. When I finished playing the first KOTOR, I was baffled that the game simply ended; momentarily, I expected the final cinematic to fade out and then return me to wandering around the universe having adventures. It would have felt so natural. That was a glimpse of the future of videogames, just a tease, but there’s more to come. Another ten years and we may start having some real fun.

Those of us from the tabletop world, the hardcore gamers camping out in parking garages at GenCon, have been living in the future that videogames are now starting to comprehend. We may be slow to learn about magnetic bullets, and our cherished storytelling may sometimes prevent us from seeing when the gameplay is what’s really good. But the truth is that we’ve mostly just been waiting for you to catch up.

We’ve got lots to talk about.

John Tynes has been a game designer and writer for fifteen years, and is a columnist for the Stranger, X360 UK, and the Escapist. His most recent book is Wiser Children, a collection of his film criticism.

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