Friday, January 27, 2017

Fast-Forward Time

The title of this post comes from an answer to my previous post, written by Ant Wu:

"Having a player resource that is unchanging like a college, academy, or conservatory is nice, but may not be completely believable. It is a game-inspired resource, not necessarily a narrative one, especially if you can just fast-forward time."

It does strike me as odd that the writer perceives that a narrative is something anathema to "a fast-forward," but that is not my goal here.  Nor do I want, especially, to dispute the writer's point.  I only throw it up to highlight the apparent dismissive idea of fast-forwarding the campaign ~ as though it is, somehow, a sort of cheat, or bamboozle, or reach around that circumvents the all-important tempo that the players must subscribe to if they are to role-play.

Suppose that we are running in a campaign ~ yours, perhaps ~ and we have accumulated a comfortable pile of wealth, enough to sustain ourselves for at least a year.  And suppose the question arises, "You arrive at the little town of Liddick.  What do you wish to do?"

And if we, the party, wish to answer, "We settle down," is that allowed?

I suspect that in most campaigns, it isn't.  I suspect that most DMs would ask, "Do you wish to retire your characters?"  I suspect most DMs would quickly transform Liddick into a town full of adventure.  Suddenly, there would be hidden passages leading to dungeons, there would be criminals of every stripe come to rob we players of our money, a host of intrigues, unexpected hordes invading the town and what not.  I feel confident that we would be compelled back into the narrative because it must be so, else what is a DM for?

Yet suppose we don't have a DM that rattles the cage, but that we adopt the ordinary, expected lives of everyone else in the local community.  What ought to happen?  Rolls for wandering monsters?  Day-to-day encounters?  With what?  We're in a town.  We're paying our bills, paying our taxes, buying food for ourselves, investing in the local economy, perhaps buying some land, perhaps buying some animals, perhaps taking a little time to improve ourselves.  Where is the wrong in that?

But there is "wrong" ~ one can hear the implication in Ant Wu's words: especially if you can just fast-forward.

Now, I don't mean to deconstruct the writer; I very much doubt that his intentions included any special read into this particular assemblage of words.  We are dealing here with an habitual perspective, not a premeditated one.

The passage of time in most campaigns is fixed.  Time passes very slowly in the dungeon, then at a median pace between the dungeon and town, then very fast in town.  It can take four or five sessions to play out an hour or two in a dungeon.  It can take just enough time to describe the journey (the first time) between the town and the dungeon, where we roll the possibility for an encounter or two, potentially filling up one whole session.  Then, in the space of an hour or two, a week goes by in town.  Then we are headed off to the dungeon again.

In most campaigns, this is it.  Town, road, dungeon, road, town.  We might vary it with town, road, town, road, dungeon, road, town, road, town, road, dungeon, road, town and so on, but the pattern is there.  The game, according to every source we can read, every source we can buy, every source espoused by the manufacturer, fits the formula.  The town for supply.  The road (path, trail, whatever) for narrative and creating tone.  The dungeon (ruin, caves, lost city, whatever) for the actual game.  This is it.  More to the point, for the general community, not only is this all we're allowed, this is all we're entitled to want.  If we want anything else, if we challenge the formula, we are a pariah upon the very community in which we dare to commit our voices.  There's no room for us.

So why would the passage of time ever need to pass more quickly?  To what purpose?  Getting to know the community, establishing an enterprise, castle-building and anything else not having to do with a dungeon are not game elements ~ that is why the rules for such things always stress two conditions: how much does it cost to build and how much does it cost to maintain.  There are never any rules for what it produces, who it attracts, what status is offered or what purpose it might serve, because the fundamental reason for the player castle's existence is that it is a money sink.  It costs, thus emptying the player's wallet, thus requiring more dungeoneering.

Fast-forwarding to things like the harvest, or the taxes we might gain (always described as paltry), or an education we might pay for, these things circumvent the strict town-road-dungeon formula.  They seem, therefore, weird, different, even surprising.

Yet isn't life-span just another resource that should be available to the players?  Isn't the number of years they have left just another limited supply ~ apparently unlimited at the start of the game, but steadily less and less so as the player moves towards the age when they will lose their strength, constitution and dexterity benefits.  Why shouldn't this, and this alone, be the only meaningful price to pay ~ along with, of course, the price of feeding and supporting oneself?  Why is this never considered?  Players in the game never seem to age . . . primarily because they are go-go-go all the time, living fast and dying young.

Why not live slow?  Why shouldn't we enjoy a little good life, a few months, a year, between our adventures?  Why shouldn't we make friends in the community, engage ourselves in their struggles, gain their perspective, apply ourselves to preserving them as well as ourselves, all the time living a year a session, until we reach our sixties?  Why must everything fit the timeline of the dungeon?

By my count, most games I've seen hardly last forty sessions.  If each session covered the events of a full year, a campaign that ran every two weeks would last 18 months.  And would the DM not be challenged to come up with a meaningful set of events to make a year seem important?  Would the players not be put to problem solving, if the challenge was how to steadily expand their assets year by year, rather than their experience or the number of magic items they possessed?  How would the game actually be any different?  Would we not still be role-playing?

Apparently not.  Perhaps we can't imagine four persons engaged in a unified struggle against an enemy unless they also happen to be trapped in a room between hosts of monsters.


kimbo said...

Interesting directions Alexis.

The dialling up and down of time resolution only has been used only as a way of skipping boring bits rather than used as intrinsicly different game aspects.

This appears a different game only because D&D as we know it lacks detail (rules) at different time resolutions beyond fantasy commbat simulator and has lacked reason for doing it.

I think the difficulty people have with this is a difference in what they want the game to be either as DM or players... or think they want it to be... but would you agree that you dont know you like or want something if its not on offer to even try it?

D&D as exploring to kill things and take their stuff at combat resolution at one end
D&D as open fantasy world where you can try anything you want
at any level of detail time and space resolution.
I know which one i want to play in.

For the game to mature into being about what players want to interact with
this development is needed.

Long winded way of saying thankyou, keep going, this is good stuff.


Ozymandias said...

I conceived a rule a couple years ago about changing that's based on a Lean Six Sigma principle: that you can change a culture if you convine at least 30% of the population. The specifics of this rule - what size population are we discussing? Which cultural elements can we affect? How long does the process take? Which class gets a binus to this process? - still elude me, but it is an example of this sort of game design: here is a real-world premise/principle/theory; how can we apply it to the game?

I think the reason we don't have more of these rules, "officially," is because such game design is hard. And the harder the task, the less likely people are to have a go at it. (Which is another premise, which makes me wonder if we can create a rule for motivation, where the base value represents the perceived difficulty of the task we are attempting to motivate others to accomplish...)

Samuel Kernan said...

It seems quite right that the rules offered have a huge effect on how time passes and what players and the DM consider possible. If offered sufficiently detailed rules for running an estate year to year, I could see a certain group of players interested in spending less time engaged in resolving combat, and less fine-grained combat rules to accomplish that. If a party becomes a regional power by their wealth and influence, they might spend more time ordering others to do violence than actually engaging in fights themselves. They send off a company of soldiers commanded by the loyal captain of the guard and well-furnished with horses and supplies from their estates, and three months later they find out what has been accomplished.

Embla Strand said...

One of the other reasons, possibly, for the lack of rules is also that accounting would seem to be a large part of this process. Now, I like accounting a lot, but I am also aware that not all players/DMs share that interest.

Agravain said...

I think the fundamental problem lies in the complete absence of the framework needed to be able to have a meaningful gameplay outside of dungeons. There is absolutely zero rules about managing a manor, let alone a full country.

Building all of that is also really, really hard. You, as a DM, would need to have a good understanding of economics, politics, sociology, management, architecture, etc. Even if you had rules for it, dealing with a problem that has so many levels and interconnections will need much more time compared to filling a dungeon with monsters (and many DM can't even do that properly).

Running such an encompassing world would be a full time job for a really competent DM... But instead of pen and paper, I see it more likely to happen with a computer simulation.

Alexis Smolensk said...

But the rules for a framework like this DO exist. There are literally hundreds of games now designed exclusively for things like managing a country, or an estate of some kind, a town or an enterprise. It is only that these rules are found in Video Games and not Role-play.

And these games are wildly, tremendously popular. Players sit up to 80 hours a week to play them, to tweak the little numbers so the people of the town like us a little better, so that the income goes up three percent, so that a union is built between us and our neighbor and so on.

All that is really needed for a company to manage is to deconstruct a game like Europa Universalis, then build it for RPGs.

Drain said...

You're talking about trying to pry gameable parts of domain-level play without the videogame's systematic advantages.

The road is daunting: the generalized view holds that it's either better done with processors or sweeping & dice-light mechanics; going for the middle road, crunchy yet relying on a framework such as D&D might well be a recipe for, well, tilting at windmills.

Also, settling down and drugding out for a year or thirty is seen as anathema, the very thing one sets out to avert by sitting down at a table to play D&D - and I mean stricto senso, this might not be true of many other RPGs - in the first place.

Note that I'm not agreeing or disagreeing. It can certainly be done, it's more of a case of cost-benefit. People who spend hours poring over realm statistics intersect with D&D players to what extent?

Alexis Smolensk said...

It's true, video games have systematic advantages.

They also have systematic disadvantages. They can't create game structures on the fly to adapt to a player's creativity and they are made with prejudices and agendas that can't be changed. They're fast. They're not flexible.

I understand that you're not disagreeing, but you are rushing to make the same point that everyone else makes, that I hear over and over where it comes to game design. It's hard. Oh, so hard.

Does anyone have any idea how many person-hours are spent making these videogames? In some cases, they measure in the tens of thousands, spread among hundreds of people. Of course it is hard. Moreover, who says that RPGs can't be adapted for automation? I don't speak of the actual role-playing part, but I am just one person and I have a trade-system that crunches over a million numbers and variables in just 45 seconds of punching buttons.

It isn't that people CAN'T put in the energy to vastly expand the RPG, it is that companies can't see the straight path to profits. We're not there yet.

But think about it. Players sitting around a table, using computers to play the grittiest form of Settlers of Catan that anyone right now can possibly imagine, right down to the single individual killing the single bear on the single hill; and it is all handled by mechanics that need no more programming capacity than your simplest video game. Where people can play out a single hour as easily as they can play out a single year, and vise versa.

The day is coming. So don't tell me it's hard. Everything is hard. We're only where we are right now because people with a vision didn't care about that.

Ant Wu said...

1. The split isn't wrong or right for me. It's gamist or simulationist (or narrativist, but that doesn't apply to my previous comment).

2. Do you not consider the mechanics of games which already do this to be particularly useful to a longer span of roleplaying? "A Quiet Year" already hits on using limited time as a resource, with the deck as your time limit. "Settlers of Catan" is competitive and thus not as good a source to adapt from, but if you had the GM playing as every faction but one, while the player played as just one, you'd have a clunky start to some sort of win or lose condition for large management structures.

3. You admittedly could set up conversations from the perspective of making friends in the community. I'm struggling a bit because you said this isn't about how folks use it, but just about whether it is usable, and those are to me the same thing.

Like, if you are a GM with a vast amount of life experience, you can perhaps simulate the breadth of community life upwards into your sixties.

But it's hard to make a *system* for doing that. That depth and breadth is a product of a well-lived life, not of any game system.

I'm 23 and still *in college*, for example. Some GMs start while in high school. I dunno mechanics that can make the bardic college simulation truly work for us - the relevant "mechanic", so to speak, seems to be to live through the part of life where we consult alumni and the part of life where we return to the college to talk to old professors.

James said...

Everything I wanted to say violated the rule against talking about your own game, but I consider time skips a major part of my game. If my players want to skip ahead a few months, I am okay with it.

Baron Opal said...

The rules certainly exist. Birthright, Ars Magica, Pendragon, Harn, and I believe Adventurer-Conqueror-King all have rules for managing and gaming at a manorial or domain level, with or without a significant passage of time. Not all of those are D&D related, but they all have ideas and mechanics that can inspire or adapted.

The main unit of time in Ars Magica is either rounds (combat) or seasons (manor). A couple years can easily pass in an afternoon of gaming. So this change in time scale is certainly possible.

Ozymandias said...

Agreed that the rules exist, but I'd argue that they are nowhere robust enough to be satisfying for a sustained game. I'm working through the Birthright rules and I find that they're too simplistic, in the sense that they don't provide enough guidance, explicit or implicit, for adjudicating unexpected situations. Personally, I think that sort of limitation in piblished material has contributed to the pervasive attitude among players that that type of game is to be avoided.

LTW said...

I anticipate my group fast forwarding months or years, settling in a town or city to ingratiate themselves with the locals, build, craft, learn from artisans, research new heists, etc... I do fear I am lacking in ability to be able narrate the time span for each player in a meaningful way.

For example, the first few questions will likely be: "How man rich merchants or nobles have I befriended? What are their names and how do they make their money? You can tell me the details later. How many have heirs?

How would you handle this above Alexis, maybe I am fielding the questions wrong?

My thought is, each player will command a small project worth of information, which I will happily provide. It just seems daunting, definitely more work than offering an adventure hook. I think this is why DM's don't want to fast-forward, because its a lot of work.

As for manorial management mechanics, I am in desperate need of a good system.

Ozymandias said...

I find random tables help most in situations like this. Just roll a few times, create some ties and relationships, build a narrative, etc, and when you find yourself running out of ideas, roll again.

Matthew Mantel said...

What if the situation is that you are in a mountain town and get snowed in for winter? Travel is impossible? The obvious answer is speed up time. Doesn't seem like a problem to me.

Jeff V. said...

I'd just like to mention that there are quite a few pen and paper games (actually map and counter is probably a better description) that describe how to run an economy or manage a business -- but they go back a few decades and aren't well known these days. Plus, there is a time investment in such games. This might provide some insight regarding the "videogame" comments above.


After the Holocaust, by SPI, published back in the early 80's; describes a post-holocaust USA that is now beginning to reach a stage of economic and political development sufficient for reunification to actually become a concern. You have to gather resources (fuel, metals, food) use them to run your industry, worry about labor allocation to the various economic "sectors" (mining, farming, transportation, fuel extraction), and produce enough consumer goods to keep your population happy, enough food to keep them fed, and enough extra to allow expansion of industry and mechanization (tools, tractors, etc) to allow you to shift labor between sectors. Trade and taxes are integral to the design.

Trailblazer by metagaming; published in the early 80's; set in the far future; basically describes a mercantilist trade empire; you must purchase, transport and sell commodities from planet to planet; you must also purchase ships and "factors" that can hold your commodity units until you can get them someplace where you can sell them for profit. The heart of the system is the various "supply and demand" tables that allow you to determine how many units of a commodity are available at what price, and what you can sell them for in each location. These tables reflect varying degrees of demand as well as varying amounts -- this allows you to sell by "skimming" the market (selling only one or two units in a given locale for enormous profit, but if you try to sell more you saturate the market and price drops significantly) as well as bulk selling (think many units of ore to a refining planet, for example) for much less per unit, but with a pretty steady price base that allows you to sell a lot without saturating the market). Additional rules cover things like smuggling illegal items into planets that specifically outlaw those items... This one is EASILY translatable into a medieval economic system.

Stellar Conquest, by Metagaming; published in the early 70's and later purchased and republished by Avalon Hill in the 80's. While primarily a simulation of interstellar war, you were also required to move population units from place to place who would then produce production points which could be used for both purchasing items and researching new technology.

While all of these put a certain burden of records management on the players, none of them were unplayable in any way, and, indeed gave our play group many hours of fun over the twenty years or so they were in vogue. While I understand that many of the younger gamers lack patience, and some few lack any ability whatsoever to manage math, these simulations were NOT a bridge too far for any of us back in the day -- and I don't claim to be more than even moderately "math literate." In short, rules exist that are relatively simple, yet show the interaction of things like trade and production in a highly effective way, and could, with minimal re-write and some GM management, do exactly what you're talking about here. (I'm thinking particularly of Trailblazer, with possibly some things from After the Holocaust thrown in -- complex, but easily rewritten to both make it more germane to the era and simpler to use. In point of fact, I use the Trailblazer system to manage the trade relations between cities in my FRPG world; it allows me to tell the players what commodities are in demand in city A and produced in city B, so they can run a caravan to city A and realize a profit on the deal...if they can avoid the bandits along the way, that is...)

Alexis Smolensk said...

I vaguely remember the existence of Stellar Conquest, but I never got to play it, or the others you mention. Pity. I always enjoy ideas for trade systems.

Jeff V. said...

There were quite a few others (that I lacked space to mention) that had economic management aspects to them -- War in Europe and War in the Pacific (you manage generic "resources," oil and industry to produce production points which then are expended to "buy" units, which take time as well as costing production points to produce, The Civil War (which added population to the mix, but then eliminated oil and resources; you had to spend population plus "supply points" to produce units (which also took time before they arrived), even things like WarpWar. In addition, you can find some interesting things being published even today if you look at things like Sci-Fi games; Victory by Any Means comes immediately to mind, with its highly macro-economic system.

There's actually a pretty rich vein of ideas for both macro and micro-economies out there waiting to be mined and put into some kind of FRPG format for "domain-level" gaming. There might even be a few FRPG systems out there that do some of this; I'm just not familiar with them all. The intriguingly named "Domains at War" seems like it OUGHT to have something to do with such things, but I don't own it, so I can't say... ;-)

Jeff V. said...

By the way, if you enjoy economic systems, you would get a REAL kick out of After the Holocaust; you even have to fill out a tax form and schedule in order to gain tax dollars (they actually provide little miniature dollars, like monopoly, only smaller, for you to use!), and track how much your industry can expand during the turn! It's enough to give you gray hair! Lots of people hated it, but I loved it!

Alexis Smolensk said...


I am guessing you are not familiar with my trade system.

Jeff V. said...

That would be an affirmative -- at least prior to this post.