Monday, September 14, 2009

The Hybrid Computer-RPG

Once upon a time, way back in 2000, Ryan Dancey of the Wizards of the Coast conducted a very extensive market study of D&D players. Among other things he wrote:
"I believe that in the fairly near future 'paper' RPGs will hybridize with computer assistance - not becoming 'computer RPGs' as that term is commonly understood, but not being games played simply with paper anymore either. Consider this a 'forward looking' terminology."

By the time Ryan wrote this in 2000, I had been designing and programming my own Hybrid-Computer RPG system for 6 years. It has actually taken me this long to get this far. Please believe me when I tell you that I am more shocked than you by how long this has taken. But I had first to learn how to program, then to massage myself into a form that could be programmed, then program it, test it, iron and polish it, and gosh that took me all the way until 2006. Zounds. And then, because there were still bugs, and I had a nifty "quick" idea on creating a mini-system for the LRPGSW and starting with that as a Web Application, I jumped onto that in early 2006 and am now very close to releasing that into the wild.

But that's not quite the topic for today, just a bit of context and history. I'd like instead to talk just a bit about why I believe in the Hybrid Computer RPG (HCRPG).

One thing that I think most people at a causal glance would agree is that the rules for most RPGs are pretty complicated. Not all, but most. Compared with earlier games such as board games, card games, chess and checkers, and the like, RPGs represent a quantum leap in terms of how many rules there can be. Tons. And the Gamesmaster not only has to remember those rules, but he or she must also handle a whole variety of other tasks, such as game-math, non-player character tactics and activities, and also remember the story from who knows who long ago. It's not an easy thing to be a good Gamesmaster, let alone a Great one.

Gamesmaster responsibilities can be categorized into two basic parts:

1. World Weaving - all of the activities around the conceptualization of settings. This includes creating political social and religious histories, characters, places, campaigns and adventures. This is a skill that requires a creative mind with knowledge of history, sociology, theology, political theory, various sciences and anthropology. It also requires good narrative skills, either verbal or written. And perhaps some map making skills, and technical knowledge of weapons, armors and certain kinds of equipment. A fertile imagination is a must.

2. Adjudicating - all of the activities around running a game with the players. This includes the ability to remember the rules (and not confuse them with however many systems the GM has already learned), which is overall related to memory. This also includes the skills of math, improvisational character acting and descriptive narration, diplomacy (with the Players who may not agree with every call the GM makes), and again, a fertile imagination.

I've noticed as GM that a good portion of my time in the game is taken up by number crunching and rules management (looking up rules, or fiddling about with rules, massaging rules, arguing rules, and getting a bit angsty about rules). I'd say at least half the time. At least. And when one has a half dozen friends over who are waiting with baited breath for every answer to the question "Well, what happened?!" the GM definitely has his or her hands full. Sometimes, the Gamesmaster even has to run roughshod over the rules. It happens. It's a tough job. A very rewarding one when done well, but a tough job no matter how you slice it. No one said Gamesmastering would be easy.

And so what do I as Gamesmaster want from my computer? Why I want it to do the dirty work. The foot pounding. The garbage collecting. The scrubbing and remembering and most of all, the number crunching. I want it to quickly and efficiently tell me what I don't know off the top of my head about the world, it's history, the current status of the characters, and generally speaking act like my faithful butler, bringing me information about former campaigns at the touch of a button, making sure that I don't forget that +2 bonus on the sword that Rantheon found in the fourth chamber of the Wizard King's dungeon, and being an overall GM's Assistant while I both engage in World Weaving and when I'm in the heat of Adjudication during the game play itself. I want it to help me Gamesamster.

That said, do I want it to also take over the creative function of my World Weaving? No. I sure don't. But, do I want it to help me by keeping track in an orderly way what I've World Woven? Um, why Yes, I do. Do I want it to tell me how my NPC's are going to act? Nope. But do I want it to tell me when my NPCs are about to die? Oh yeah. I sure do. I want it to do all the calculations in the game because it's faster and more accurate than I am. And I want it to show me all the stuff I have stashed away about my world that over the years I just may have forgotten. Ya know? All that. That's what I want from Mr. Computer.

By 1994 it was becoming apparent that no one was working toward the goal of creating the software that would help me to Gamesmaster my world. There were computer games, and Computer RPGs, and soon to be MMORPGs, but there wasn't much talk about Hybrid-Computer RPGs. It took until Ryan Dancey wrote about it for anyone to even mention it. But that's what I wanted. And so I taught myself programming, database modeling, and all that would be needed, and then set about converting my Elthos RPG rules system into a HCRPG system. And I do believe that this is something Gamesmasters need. A computer program that helps us run our games, and gives us the freedom to create and run our own Worlds. Is that so much to ask for from the computer? I don't think so.

But there's been stabs in the direction of the HCRPG. Fantasy Grounds is a latest incarnation that I know of, but it ran off in a direction that I felt wasn't quite where I wanted to go with mine. Then there was E-Tools, but they vanished into the ether again. And there's a myriad of little bits and parts of tools, such as character generators and excel helper sheets, and PDF Character calculators... but all that stuff does not really form into one coherent system that helps me End-to-End as a coherent system. And that's what I want. And so, I'm still plodding along with my project. And as it happens, I'm actually almost finished with the Web Application that handles the light-weight "One Die System" rules. It will be out soon. I'm hoping in November I'll be able to open it up for Beta Testing. And then you'll see why I am a believer in the Hybrid-Computer RPG. Fo shizzle.
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