Blending pen and paper role playing games with interactive storytelling: mechanics

I promised a follow-up post to my original thoughts on blending pen and paper role playing games with interactive storytelling, but I'd like to take an aside to talk about mechanics in tabletop games.

Mechanics in tabletop games are there to help facilitate a particular type of story. When we think of a game like D&D we immediately think of buff warriors, wizards, elves, dwarves, and rogues / thieves banding together with the occasional cleric to go into a series of rooms, kill the monsters, and gain treasure for their effort. It's become such a cliche that there are games that openly mock the concept to great effect (Steve Jackson Games' Muchkin comes to mind, along with many others). The mechanics of D&D support this kind of play, delineating characters into various core attributes of Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma (there may be others in later editions and other versions of D&D, but these were current when I imprinted on D&D) With these attributes you would define your character. Throw some spells and equipment on your character, choose a race and alignment for other benefits, and you were ready to tackle the world according to D&D.

For many folks D&D is the first and last of their experience with tabletop roleplaying, so when thinking of a RPG they immediately bring up this concept in their head. And while that may be excellent for some folks it does tend to foster particular styles of play.

I've been noodling around an idea for a while for a game where you play a group of individuals building computers in a computer company in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There was so much drama and intrigue that I find fascinating in this period that I feel others might enjoy as well. I've noodled various systems for this game and different styles of play. I'd like to show what different systems might look like in this setting.

The basic ideas are that a group of engineers and a founder get together to form the company. Over time they build their first computer, which is entered into the market. The computer competes against the market with various decisions either faring well or terribly in the marketplace. Ship with too little memory and no expansion and people degrade it as a toy. Ship with too much memory and the machine is expensive and solely used for business. Ship with little external documentation and your company can reap the rewards of creating software internally, but with little 3rd party support. Ship with too much documentation and your machine is regarded solely for hobbyists. Also not reading the market properly could result in shipping a machine that underperforms in the market. There's a lot of interesting ideas that can come from reading the market and shipping machines and software to meet that, but there's also the human aspect of the company and the personalities clashing internally that could really add a dimension to the whole struggle.

If I were to port this setting to D&D I'd have an immediate problem: strength is not terribly useful for a bunch of programmers and hardware engineers building a computer. Constitution might be useful for how well someone could pull several all-nighters in a row, but do I have something in there for making saving throws against complete exhaustion? What of modeling the intelligence fog of crunch time, or trying to persuade others by using your charisma? And how would one model the company itself?

Sure I could bash something together with D&D to try to get the market that D&D holds (which is alot) but ultimately I'd be trying to merge two sets of ideas that aren't going to mesh well. The focus of the game would be on combatting fatigue, stress, and other things that are designed to wear characters down and create tension. D&D also rewards clever behavior with experience points, so at some point these plucky engineers would become super-engineers and dominate the game. That's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking for struggle, not conquest.

I bring up D&D not to disparage the game but to highlight that a set of rules and mechanics that are designed for one set of play aren't necessarily the best mechanics to plop onto another setting in the hopes that they'll magically make things interesting.

The same is true of the more simulationist game systems like GURPS or even Basic Roleplaying (BRP). They're not going to model what I want to show in the game.

I've thought about Fate and Fudge for this game. Fate and Fudge allow for a more story-focused modeling of entities and characters. So you could have an attribute for things like "hacking" for how well someone could cobble together a solution based from Terrible to Superb (or even Legendary). You could have attributes for things like Willpower to show how much someone can stick with something before bailing. You could even have a Stability attribute to note the rapidly erosion of one's ability to drive themselves through crunch time. This would model the characters well, and could even be used to model the computer and the company that they have formed. So there are options there. Depending on the type of story that you want to tell you can reframe the encounters and the focus of the game (Is this the story of the engineers, the founders, the computer itself, or the company? What is the main focus and the emotional pieces you wish to highlight?).

Fate and Fudge give you a lot of flexibility (almost too much at times) because you can add things to this that might never come into play.

If we wanted to just focus on the computer and the company we could turn this into a euro-style board game with various pieces of the computer represented as tiles. We could then add a market board to show how the computer is performing in the market. Perhaps we could also show the interpersonal interactions of the employees as some abstract performance tracker. Maybe it could be a card game where folks draw various bits of the computer and then have to create a low-cost, performant computer using 1980s technology? (Can't make a low-cost machine because you drew the S100 bus. Sorry, Player 3.)

We could also put the computer and company into the background and focus on the interpersonal relationships of the employees. For something like Dramasystem we could make relationships between the founders and employees and use the success and failure of the computers and company for Tightening the Screws, which is a term used to highlight more dramatic tension in the game. The themes could be of working toward a common goal, betrayal, wanting to outshine the rest, I work with fools, our success depends on this machine or we're doomed, I can't work for that man again, and more. And this is where things get interesting because you're focused solely on the mindset of the characters themselves and the stories they're living. The computer and company fall into the background only to resurface as dramatic tension between the players.

These are just some of the ways I've been tackling the question of how to portray this story. There's no right way to model this (though I'd argue that using D&D to model this is assuredly the wrong way), but different ways to highlight different aspects of the story. And this is where mechanics become a useful tool and show the opinion of the game designer for how they wish the scenarios to play out. Fate is about interesting people doing interesting things. Fudge is about flexibility in telling the sorts of stories you wish to tell. Dramasystem is about letting the mechanics serve a story and hitting certain story beats without having to explicitly model them. And board games are about using mechanics to drive uncertainty and tough decisions.

Which brings us to interactive storytelling. If we just port the mechanics of these games to the computer we'll arrive at an unsatisfactory result. The mechanics are there to facilitate play around the table and to help drive the story along. With interactive storytelling the computer is having to take on the load of not only rendering the world but the other players. With something like Dramasystem the point of the game is to get everyone else around the table to work together to create the story through various dramatic scenes and point spends. Porting those point spends to the computer won't provide a useful result.

This is also part of the reason why the earliest computer-based RPGs used D&D as a model. D&D is number-based and can be codified into the computer with ease. It has a binary result: you hit or you miss, you get what you want or you don't. It even has tables for things like treasure, wandering monsters and even randomized dungeons. One such game (Rogue, and Rogue-likes) take this to the extreme and create randomized dungeons and randomized results. The pass-fail idea of D&D and the idea of using numbers is directly portable to the computer. But trying to have the computer handle a game like Fate where you can create aspects for the world based on your own abilities? That's harder.

But I still think there is value in applying the ideas of pacing, story beats, and dramatic tension to interactive storytelling. This is where the computer could be taught how to model human fickleness and emotion. This is where the creativity of the storyteller could influence computer-generated AI to behave less like a traditional NPC in a computer game and more like a player at a gaming table saying "how will my needs be met?"

More to come.