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Mike Sugarbaker

What is a role-playing game?

5 min read

A funny thing happened in 1974, and I’m not talking about me being conceived. (That was very, very serious.) What happened is a new category of entertainment product was created: interactive entertainment. A couple of guys from Wisconsin broke games – literally broke what they are – and changed history.

Nearly all games, up until Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson published Dungeons and Dragons, are closed loops. You follow rules, and those rules produce new conditions and states of the game that feed back into the rules. They look like this:

closed loop

Now, somebody might make stuff up about conditions or states of the game, that’s fine. It might look like this:

closed loop with offshoot

It looks like that because there’s no room for what anyone makes up to actually come back in and change the game’s conditions or states – and certainly not its rules. Just try it: first, say that your Monopoly pawn is a retired vaudeville performer trying his luck in the real estate market because your pawn is the top hat. You might get a laugh. Then try landing on Boardwalk and saying you should get a discount because the seaside patrons remember and love this ex-vaudevillian. Unless the other players are about three years old, that bullshit ain’t gonna fly. The loop is closed:

closed loop, no reentry

What Gygax and Arneson did that made their game the hit it was, and the classic it remains, was to open the loop. They deliberately put a place in their rules for wandering out of the loop and making stuff up, and the stuff you made up could come back into the loop of the rules, and determine in part how the rules created new states and conditions. You might say it looked like this (I apologize for the increasing crudity of the diagrams):

open loop

Or at least, that was how Gygax and Arneson intended things to look. They were wargamers, or at least they produced D&D for an intended audience of wargamers. Their basic intention was to make a medieval-fantasy skirmish-combat simulator, but to juice up both the combat strategy (by having a human adjudicate tactics that the rules hadn’t accounted for), and the overarching game (by connecting combat encounters with an ongoing story). It wasn’t supposed to be anything more than that. (To his dying day, Gary Gygax referred to speaking in your character’s voice as “community-theater crap.”) But – and this was already happening according to some observers when D&D was published – many people took that opening in the loop as an invitation to do something quite different, like a pull handle on a door that swings both ways but has a sign that says “PUSH.” They wandered out of that opening in the loop, and didn’t find that they had much desire to come back in. (They were, according to designer Robin Laws in his book *Hamlet’s Hit Points*, perhaps nudged along by something as simple as the narrative implications of changes to a player-character that persist from game to game.) Their games started to look like this:

50/50 open loop

And then this:

inverted open loop

They could be heard saying things like, “we had a great game last night – we hardly even used the rules,” which might otherwise merit a DOES NOT COMPUTE from many people.

All this is basically a long-winded way of saying “a role-playing game is a game where the fiction is a part of the rules,” as player, designer and theorist Neel Krishnaswami">put it. I would actually say that a story game is a game where the point of play is to make fiction which can in turn affect the rules by which you play to make fiction, and a roleplaying game is a story game that hews to the traditions of gameplay that started in American skirmish wargaming and were crystallized by Arneson and Gygax. (I prefer to make that distinction because established players of RPGs associate those traditions so strongly with the popular term for what they do; given that the media generally does too, I’m happy to leave them their term, and assign the more general meaning to the term with less baggage.)

A lot of people hate it when you try to give a necessary-and-sufficient definition to things that they’ve only ever really defined as “this thing we do.” Heck, the word “game” doesn’t really have an iron-clad definition itself. And these definitions are bound technically to exclude something that, in practice, probably shouldn’t be excluded. It doesn’t matter. An imperfect definition really is better than none at all. I don’t think it’s coincidence that ten or so years after Scott McCloud defined “comics” – another culturally marginalized “this thing we do” – as not having anything inherent to do with the subject matter it had normally focused on up until then, we have so many dramatically better comics that we essentially have a new medium on our hands. I want the same for story games, and I’m tired of waiting.

Mike Sugarbaker

The undiscovered country club

3 min read

So there are these guys calling themselves the Verne & Wells Society who are setting up a “country club for geeks” in the Seattle area, as an alternative to mere hacker spaces or gamer pubs. They seem a little obsessed with their own story; they’ve been posting a lot on G+ about the evolution of their brand and their frankly very simple concept (I already told you the whole thing) instead of showing much of what they’re actually going to build, be, or do. It may be that I have them wrong, and they were never planning to actually build a physical club, although the occasional event seems like a lot to ask $300 a quarter for. But the whole deal is at least potentially interesting.

While I was reading about these guys, my girlfriend was over in the living room watching classic Trek on Netflix, specifically “Amok Time,” the first episode that was ever performed by Portland’s Atomic Arts “Trek in the Park” troupe. So I’m listening to Spock, Kirk and Bones while I read the Verne & Wells brand philosophy of “science, technology, escapism and play”… and then I think not just of Trek in the Park, but of the old Star Trek Experience in Vegas and how it dumped you into perfect Enterprise hallways that seemed to just keep going… and I think, is a swanky LEGO night the best we can do for escapism? Is the throwback to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and the fakey steampunk aesthetic that will inevitably follow, the best way to honor science or encourage play?

The problem with the “geek country club” concept is “country.” If you want wealthy geeks to pay $1200 every year for someplace nice to eat and drink, build them the fucking Enterprise.

Think about it: you check in at the front desk, step into the “airlock” to get into uniform, then step into that corridor (or a near enough facsimile that avoids infringing copyrights) and head for Ten Forward, or perhaps you report to a mission on the bridge, or a shuttlecraft – one of several spaces devised for a relatively simple digital game along the lines of Artemis. After all, a country club needs something to do. We ought to be able to beat golf pretty easily.

You wouldn’t need the $70 million in starting capital that it took to build the Vegas attraction. It wouldn’t need to be substantially nicer than what LARPers have been known to build themselves, especially since members will feel more pride of ownership than a tourist would. You could start small – the above is fairly unambitious – and grow slowly. San Francisco would be the perfect location, not least for its fictional connections to Starfleet.

If I were a bigger Trekkie, I’d be on this already. As it is, I’m waiting on the upper-class marketers of the world to expand their vision.

Mike Sugarbaker

I spent a month elsewhere in the galaxy

1 min read

Another do-stuff-for-a-month project, this time in short fiction-y bursts. K and I made up some characters last year for a webcomic we may yet do, set on a space station; I decided to spend some time with them. They’re shitty first drafts, but they’re a bit fun. I put them over on Tumblr, just to test the platform out. You might enjoy them.

The Outer Belt Diaries

Mike Sugarbaker

Blogcaravan, a weird new thing for WordPress

3 min read

I’ve continued to think about web forums, the problems with them, and how to get them to support better, more human conversations. Lately I’ve been pleased to find that some folks in one of my enthusiast-communities are thinking about it too. (Historically, the clientele at the story gaming forums I frequent have taken the attitude that, despite Clay Shirky’s oft-linked and oft-repeated insistence that “software” and “social” can’t be taken separately, forum software can’t do anything at all, not even the littlest bit, to lessen social problems on forums. Seems like an odd stance for a bunch of people who generally reject gaming’s cherished notion that all you need is a great GM, and the game system you use doesn’t even get a vote as to how your game goes.)

Specifically, a group of some gamer friends of mine wanted to try an experimental structure they called Storycaravan. In Storycaravan, blog posts made by members of the group would be echoed onto a central, forum-like site which would give each post its own, separate comment thread. Commenters would have to formally register with the site, and when someone made a new comment, the post on which the comment was made would pop to the top of the page, like on most forums.

It dawned on me that WordPress could make just about all of those things happen already. The only piece I would have to supply was the sort: the means to bring a post to the top of the page when it got a comment. (WordPress already has a Recent Comments widget, but it turned out not to be very reusable for this purpose, for a lot of wacky reasons.) So here it is: Blogcaravan, my first WP plugin.

There’s a huge amount it doesn’t do, and it may be doing even less in the near future – I may be able to do a better job of filtering the functionality to leave pages alone when appropriate. But I love the notion that by keeping functionality narrow, I can support a lot of unexpected new combinations. (For Storycaravan we’re blending it with the FeedWordPress aggregation plugin.) I hope it will be of use to people who want to do forum/blog hybrids without starting from forum software.

Mike Sugarbaker

We made a comic and it's pretty good

1 min read

My girlfriend drew it, and I wrote it. (That means it’s a product of the Soft Sciences!) It’s called Dangerous Aromas and it’s about intrepid coffee buyers who will stop at nothing to win the Bean of Excellence competition. It’s rad. Check it out.

Mike Sugarbaker

Some new things I'm doing

1 min read

Think Again, My Friend! I’m the host and producer of this new comedy podcast in quiz-show drag. Learn while you laugh while you listen while you learn.

The Soft Sciences, the name of my comics collaboration with Kalina Wilson. We’ve made a silly adventure comic that’ll be online soon.

I am really oddly satisfied that I was able to get those two domain names.

Mike Sugarbaker

The Month in Comics

1 min read

My girlfriend and I recently made good on a pledge to draw journal comics, for some definition of “journal,” every day for the whole month of May. You can find them on Flickr, along with those of several artist friends of ours, like the inestimable La Nina.

Mike Sugarbaker

I'm speaking at Interesting Portland, April 9th 2009

1 min read

So there’s this thing! Yeah. Like the Ignite events, only more expensive and less irritating. I’ll be trying to teach everyone in ten minutes how to play story games. (Well, not those exact ones I talk about in that old post; more like a hyper-streamlined, more general, low-impact version. But one that totally works, and currently powers my own play.) If you’re in the area, you should totally come. If you’re not, I imagine there will be videos eventually, and I’ll pass you a link unless they’re somehow incriminating.

Mike Sugarbaker

The loneliness of the wrong-system chooser

4 min read

First it was Betamax. Our household didn’t choose it, but if it had been up to me, we would have. I was ten years old. My dad had just announced we’d be getting a VHS deck, and I remember looking up at him – not many memories of that, we were already close to the same height – and arguing that all sorts of people said that Beta had better picture quality and was more durable. I felt confused and powerless when he wouldn’t listen. Within months the available Beta rentals at Five Star started to thin; within a year they were gone. I felt kind of at peace with that, probably because I had no trouble renting anything.

Then it was the Mac. In 1986 you either had a PC and could play all the games, or had an Amiga and could play mysteriously awesome games no one’d heard of, or you had some other shit and were a loser who hung out at friends’ houses a lot. Don’t get me wrong, we had great stuff at home – we had HyperCard – but we didn’t have status. The arguments didn’t happen to us so much, because there “wasn’t” an Internet yet, but on one notable occasion a friend and I had finagled an invite to the home of a girl I had a crush on, so we could set up her stereo; some other kid who was there started talking smack about Macs for no real reason, and somehow I got sucked into fighting over it feebly with him while my undistracted friend accomplished all the useful, girl-impressing tasks. Yes, I learned to program, sort of, with HyperCard; yes, Defender of the Crown had a certain majesty in black and white when it (finally) showed up. Yes, the Mac II made things a lot better. Still, none of us Mac users of a certain age ever forgot – our superiority was not a real thing. We cooked it up ourselves; when we went out in the world, it had no currency.

Then it was the Sega Master System. I hope I don’t even need to say more. (Space Harrier, though: yeah. And Great Volleyball, out of which my brother and I wrung a truly odd amount of fun.)

Now it’s the T-Mobile G1. All I see is iPhone app announcements and developer opportunities, in the music blogs, the game blogs, the web-dev blogs. The Android platform gets some dap too – it’s evident that this time I have at least picked Sega, not 3DO – but that doesn’t help me when I have to fight with the G1’s camera again, or stumble through the Market looking for something, anything that doesn’t suck ass (illiterate app comments scrawled on the listings like they’re bad YouTube videos), or watch performance slow and slow as I get further from my last hard phone reset. Yes, it’s not that much longer until the apps will get better, but let’s be honest: they’ll never catch up. I abandoned all my noble open-source principles as soon as they failed to reward me. I want an iPhone so bad.

Last month I was at the mall finishing holiday shopping and saw that my shiny new phone was out of power again – I must have left GPS on by accident, damn my eyes – so I stopped into a T-Mobile store to borrow a cup of the ol’ juice. They kindly offered me a power adapter by the G1 display, and I soon found myself in conversation with a prospective buyer, talking the phone up. The social pressure of being in a T-Mobile retail store that was doing me a favor is only a partial explanation. I suddenly recovered all my moral dudgeon against the locked-down, anti-user iPhone and its monopolistic store full of 99-cent farting applications. I told this guy about the $400 unlocked dev version of the phone when the sales guy’s back was turned. I talked about the coming paid apps. I talked up all the promise that I wanted so much to believe in again.

In summary: OMG I HAVE SUCH TERRIBLE PROBLEMS (soon we will all be checking Twitter from the fucking bread line)

Mike Sugarbaker

Small pieces, not even joined

1 min read

Like everyone, I am blogging less and Twittering more these days. Follow along if you care to.