[The Fantasy Trip: Wizard] One little booklet = 100,000 words

Started by Ron Edwards, August 17, 2010, 03:02:45 PM

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Ron Edwards

In late 1978, I bought a little item at the hobby store next to the gas station a short and dangerous bike ride away from my house. I think I bought it because the store prominently displayed the banner "Dungeons & Dragons Headquarters," but didn't actually carry the game. In late 1978, there was no such thing. The 1974 version was long vanished into the clutches of original users, the 1977 Holmes version was no longer in print; and the 1979 Advanced D&D Players' Handbook and the reprint of the 1974 version were still a year in the future. This store was quite small and focused mainly on miniatures and paints, so it didn't carry lines of books like RuneQuest or Tunnels & Trolls. I'd discovered that a Judges Guild "character pack" was not itself a game. Wizard was the only playable 'thing' in the store that looked like D&D. The $3.95 purchase was a major investment, as I struggled every week to make the nut for a few comics which varied from 35 to 50 cents each.

Wiizard was Microgame #6, published by Metagaming, authored by Steve Jackson. The Microgame series was based on the idea of a short pamphlet, a battlemap, and a set of tiny flat figures-illustrations you cut apart with scissors, for a short-form, half-hour wargame. You might have heard of the first one, which I believe retailed at $2.95; it was called Ogre. Microgame #3, Melee, published 1977, retail $2.95, was a dueling game between two fighting men, and a year later Wizard was published as its systemic partner for a dollar more, for duels between, well, you get the idea. On each cover, over the titles were the mysterious words, "The Fantasy Trip."

The above links show the covers for the two games which I got that year, and which I still own, but they don't really convey them as physical objects. They're stapled booklets, made of glossy, decent stock paper along the lines of most magazines, and reasonably sturdy compared to many. They're printed on folded single 8.5" by 7" pages (probably 8.5" x 14" originals), so they're 8.5" tall and 3.5" wide, an attractive ratio which you can see in the images. The fold is pretty thorough and "broken in," so the booklet lies very flat when closed and close to flat at any page. The cover is the same stock as the interior, and counting covers as pages, Melee is 6 sheets and Wizard is 8, for total page counts of 24 and 32, respectively. Wizard has relatively more text as well because it doesn't have ads. Each has a battlemap; the one in Wizard is about a third larger and includes some shaded hexes to suggest a tunnel down the center. Wizard also has more counters, in two colors (red and blue) instead of one in Melee (purple).

These two little games, each of which contains rules solely devoted to butchering one's opponent, are among the most significant and influential publications in role-playing. I think they represented the first instance of characters wholly built through point-buying, and perhaps the first skirmish-type combat rules for a role-playing game, in which placement and facing were explicit through the hex-map. (Bear in mind that every combat round in D&D of that time was a full minute, and a combat round in Tunnels & Trolls was five minutes. RuneQuest was scaled more finely in time, but had no physical placement rules. I'll have to find my old copy of DragonQuest to compare as well, because I remember physical positioning was more explicit in that game.) Maybe Wizard was more influential than Melee, if that can be parsed, because of the three-cornered attributes (Melee had only two) and the more complex variable of spell-casting burning one's hit points, so to speak.

The ensuing history is a little complicated and not really my point here. Various ownership changes are important but not worth going into here. The two little games were the basis for a number of similarly-packaged solo adventures, including one, Grailquest, in which ethical choices were more important than the various choose-right-or-die options. In 1980, Metagaming released The Fantasy Trip: In the Labyrinth, a role-playing game which worked off the two microgames' core mechanics and introduced skills to be paid for with IQ points along with spells. The RPG which featured a lot of influences from the early Metagaming books, though, was Champions, which also introduced negative points. Champions then profoundly influenced GURPS, which initiated a dance of mutual influence between editions of those two games which goes past the scope of this post. This trajectory of design has everything to with the point-structure schemes of all RPGs ever since.

To my surprise, at this late date: Color text and the relationship of system to the SIS
The following text pieces are taken from the inside front covers of the two games.

Flavius Marcellus, youngest centurion of the Legion, was angry. They had been in this forest for three days. The German barbarians weren't showing themselves, except to pick off an occasional scout. And now Honorius was overdue from sentry duty. If that old fool was dozing off again, there'd be trouble.

As he stepped into the glade, Flavius saw movement at the other end. Honorius? No! He sensed, rather than saw, the shaggy clothing ... and the ready bow. His soldier's reflexes launched him into a charge. Burdened as he was by helmet and greaves, he could probably get that barbarian before ...

An arrow snapped. Flavius felt pain, but not much, thank the Gods for his armor. He moved in, weaving to spoil the archer's aim. A second arrow missed. As Flavius neared, the barbarian moved to put his back to a tree. His third arrow went off as the Roman swung his sword. It struck, but the armor stopped it. Flavius' own swing went wild, but his opponent was forced to drop his bow.

Now the German tribesman had come up with an enormous broadsword, and the two were trading hacks. Slowed by his armor and shield, Flavius despaired of strking his agile opponent. Nevertheless, he did, wounding the barbarian badly.

The bleeding German tried to sidestep, but Flavius but him off. Somehow, the tribesman's desperate stroke hit home. Glancing off the shield and through armor, the broadsword bit into Flavius' side. Giddy from the shock, he abandoned the attack for a few seconds, content to parry and wait. The swords clashed and sparked.

Then, suddenly, it ended. Flavius' shortsword went under the German's wild slash and bit deeply. The unarmored savage staggered back; Flavius followed quickly and struck again. The barbarian collapsed, either dead or too badly wounded to stand. Flavius was hurt, but well able to walk. In the bushes he saw what was left of Honorius ... but he was all right. He had revenge for his man ... and maybe a prisoner. He bent over the savage ...

and a bit later on the same page

The narrative above was taken from an actual game. The COMBAT EXAMPLE (page 20) takes the same fight and shows, using the Melee rules and dice rolls, how Flavius bested his adversary.

Yzor wondered, for at least the fortieth time that morning, how he had gotten into this. Only last night, he had had nothing more pressing to worry about than the weather - and here he was, in a duel to the death.

Of course, his mentor Aronnen had explained it all. "Basically, son, it's an attack on me. None of the masters of the T'Reo school care to face me in the arena - but it was easy enough for them to bribe a proctor for validation when you were called out. They won't do it again - but you have no choice, if you wish to stay here. You must fight. Do you even know this Krait who claims you insuilted him?"

Yzor did, vaguely. His opponent was a boastful little man of his own age, hot-tempered, of no great learning but small and quick as the snake whose name he bore. Like Yzor, he was an advanced student in martial magic - but once already Krait had killed in the arena.

Then the gong rang, and Yzor exhaled and stepped into the arena. At the other end, he saw Krait. Abruptly, the gong rang again.

Yzor took a slow step forward, framing in his mind the spell that dazzle Krait and spoil his deadly accuracy. His hands moved, and a flash came - but not before Yzor saw a wolf appear at Krait's end of the hall. At least, he thought, it'll dazzle the wolf too. He had no doubt it was real; Krait was too unsubtle to throw an image, and not learned enough to use an illusion. But he ... Suiting actions to thoughts, Yzor pictured a wolf. The knot of force appeared - an illusion. Well, at least my spells are working. Krait was standing still, with a look of concentration - casting a protective spell on himself, no doubt - and Krait's wolf was rushing for Yzor.

Then it was on him - but his illusion was on its tail. The Dazzle had slowed its reactions just enough to let Yzor jump back, leaving the two wolves to fight. A glance at Krait showed him glaring at the wolves. He knows it's an illusion, thought Yzor. Can he master himself and disbelieve?.

Evidently not. Yzor's wolf remained - but Krait's disappeared. He gave up on it! thought Yzor. Knew it wouldn't reach me! And he's slowed ... but then, across the arena, Krait's fist moved, and Yzor felt his ribs crack. Barely strong enough to stand, he stood and watched as his own illusion raced across the sand. Krait had to be weakening too ...

The little man was staggering as he looked from Yzor to the "wolf." He started his punching gesture. Yzor waited. He felt the blow - saw Krait collapse - saw through his illusion's eyes as it bit ... and knew it was over.

and on the final page of rules text

The combat in the Introduction came from an actual game.
(explanation follows)

Are you seeing what I am seeing? Perhaps I should make it clear that every last detail of the actual rules are aimed at one thing only: butchering your opponent. The characters, or "figures" as the text calls them, are strategic and tactical devices toward this end. This is a wargame in which your army has two legs and whose actions are devoted solely to personal attack and defense. There is no mention of nationality, wizard schools, or any context for the fight. You do not play your way into the fight, nor do you play the aftermath, or at least nothing of the sort is mentioned. And during the fight, the notion of talking to one's opponent, for instance, is a non-issue.

But in those color stories, the full, and furthermore rich and evocative components of Exploration are there in spades. Setting? Check - in Melee, there's geography, military history, nationalities, cultural differences, distinctive clothing; in Wizard, there are apparently schools of "martial magic" not out of place in a Shaw Bros flick, complete with wizardly politics. Character? Check - note that in each case a certain degree of attention is devoted to the protagonist's youth, in that they are trained but inexperienced and in each case (I think it's implied for Flavius) have not yet killed anyone. I'll hold off on more Character talk until we look at System because the two are so integrated. Situation? Holy shit, check and double-check, these are a study in people trapped in a violent situation due to politics and social status. If you take these stories as part of the book, then the back-stories of the fights are crucial; in other words, the fight itself is deeply embedded in significance for many other characters, and the protagonist is in a pickle because of it in each case.

System multiplies each one of the previously-mentioned components, such as building a correspondence between point-builds, spell/weapon options, and thematic content (e.g. the T'Reo school is brash and ambitious, training its beginners in the quick kill) for Character and Setting, and equating the youth of each character with beginning-"level" status in points.

But I really want to focus on how the relationship of System-to-the-rest applies to resolution in action, such that game mechanics like damage are deeply integrated with Character and Color. The stories are suffused with emotion, from the first sentence in each, and the emotions develop in direct tandem with the movement options chosen and the results of every roll. Pain, fatigue, fear, acknowledgment of risk, finding a personal well of determination in the clinch, and profound relief at the conclusion ... it's all there. It's all tied into how the dice rolls bounce, which in each case is significant considering that Wulf (the German, named in the fight explanation) and Krait were totally robbed by shitty damage rolls. It's also all tied into the larger picture of that social situation, that particular confrontation, and that particular set of cultural tags that anchor the stories in the reader's mind, or at least mine.

I admit all of this might be an over-romantic interpretation, as who knows whether the claim that "this story was produced through play" was true. But at the very least, and abandoning the quagmire of talking about the author's intent, I can speak to the impact this had on me as a gamer, or as a creative person who was attracted by role-playing. For me, it's the essence of System Does Matter. Why? Because even the picky details of combat resolution are not there in addition to fictional content such as character-in-setting-specified-to-situation, but because the dice and numbers are the medium of expressing those very things through play. If you buy into "this story was produced through play" to any degree, and look at what the writer of these pieces un-reflectively believed about gaming in this fashion, embedding and integrated resolution and other aspects of System into the very spoken fabric of fictional-content was as automatic as breathing. He didn't have to work at it. You imagined this stuff and talked or wrote about it deeply, in order to get the fight mechanics going. And you used the fight mechanics, without fail, to enrich and move along those fictional elements and to give them broader emotional punch. After a little back-and-forth between those two sentences, they become indistinguishable.

I'm pretty sure I'm not the single person who looked at it this way, even if we were in the minority. And let's suppose, just for a minute, that someone involved in producing this game had a similar view. If so, that recasts the wargaming-to-roleplaying mythology a little bit. The mythology, which was certainly active at the time and remains so today, is that a whole bunch of gear-head, military-obsessed, borderline-autistic wargamers grunted and fussed over little men on a battle-board, and that somehow, a brilliant, inspired, and above all uncharacteristically imaginative role-player invented the new hobby out of whole cloth from such unlikely clay. We already have ample evidence that this isn't true no matter how many self-identified members of the two "sides" repeat it. And perhaps The Fantasy Trip microgames' thought-provoking combination of remarkable Color-powered imagination and elegant, even surgical mechanics better reflects the mindset out of which role-playing was forming; although the publication dates are a little late to claim they were themselves the transition, that doesn't stop them from being one person's articulation of that transition in his own time to do so.

If all that seems too purple or abstract, well, maybe it is. Maybe another issue makes more sense: I can't recall any color text in any book of any version of D&D which related system to the other components of Exploration as deeply and integrally as these do. Instead, with books like Forgotten Realms and however many similar ever since, there's a purported connection between a DM's vision of the campaign's story and a novel (or series), in which references to system are more like product placement. So the message to the hopeful user of the game is, the story-of-play is the same as write-my-novel. I think this is exactly the origin of the "system doesn't matter" claim in the hobby, as well as the grotesque confounding of "story" with metaplot.

In other words, and putting aside the merits or lack of merits in something like the Forgotten Realms books or The Wheel of Time, "a good story" or "a real story" was perceived to emerge from a DM/GM with a story-vision, to be visited upon the players, exactly in the same way that a novelist's story is visited upon the readers - as opposed to play itself, with decision-making spread across the participants in distinctive ways, and with its mechanics inserting good and bad bounces for characters, to produce such a thing.

(more in next post)

Ron Edwards

Playing Wizard
Earlier this year, Tim Koppang and I played a duel, and he was surprised at how much 'game' there was in this little packet. Unfortunately it wasn't much of a game, as he wasn't too good at building a character, and as it happened, I screwed him over by accidentally forgetting to pay ST for maintaining a spell, which would not have allowed me to win the way I did. Clearly a rematch with both of our brains activated is called for.

You create your character by distributing 8 more points across ST, DX, and IQ, each with a starting base of 8, for a total of 32 points. ST is simultaneously your spell-casting battery and your hit points (1 being knockout, 0 being dead, very unforgiving); DX is your target-number-or-less for a 3d6 roll to do anything, including casting spells; and IQ sets both the highest level of spell you can learn (8 through 16 in pre-ITL Wizard) and the number of spells you know. The rules include strict options for movement and actions, with special emphasis on engagement; in classic wargame form, you dice off (1d6, no mods) for initiative, which allows the winner only to move all his figures first, then the loser, and only then do the figures act in order of DX. The slight artificiality of this procedure must have pose a little trouble for the writer of the color pieces, as he had to provide decisions and a certain physical flow for what is a pretty stilted (but tactically interesting) mechanic.

I brought it and Melee to GenCon as well, for display, discussion, and play purposes. I had been thinking over the years about the math, and the example characters. So for GenCon play I wanted to try out a particular build, ST 10, DX 13, IQ 9, with the tactic of either summoning a wolf, then "splitting" it with a wolf image, and having both wolves attack; or "splitting" oneself with a doppelganger image, and then simply charging with staffs. To clarify, images and illusions and summoned beings are indistinguishable to the senses; an image vanishes when it touches something or is touched, and it's dirt cheap in ST; whereas an illusion is just like a real thing except it can be disbelieved, and it's also pretty cheap; and a summoned being is real for all purposes as long as you pay maintenance ST. I didn't stick solely to this idea, but it was what I tried most often.

It was fun to see people's reactions upon looking at these rather elegant, nicely-colored, compact little games. Some cried out in delight to see an old friend, and others who were unfamiliar with them were intrigued, "What is that?" A bunch of little startups got pre-empted by booth work, so James Brown, Vincent, and I never really got to our actual planned fights. But I won a round against Ed Heil, who definitely wanted a rematch, and played against a few other people too.

The game vs. Matt Snyder demonstrated something important: the dice really matter, and sometimes what appears to be utterly stupid can work. Matt's character had ST 12, DX 8, IQ 12, which by any stretch of the imagination is cuckoo, but a couple of lucky to-hit rolls and one crucial damage roll brought him the victory one little ST point ahead of my character. If each player is reasonably strategic, the outcome relies heavily on nuances of dice. Whether this is good or bad is an interesting question. For beginning characters, it's perhaps a little frustrating, but maybe not for more resilient and resource-heavy characters. It certainly makes me look again slightly at the concept of "balance." If the point-builds of characters are perfectly balanced, then could we not merely discard the game entirely and merely roll dice at each other? So is such "balance" fun, once achieved? I don't have an answer for this.

I guess it would have supported my Color/SIS point if I and the other players had made cool names and cool circumstances for each fight, but we didn't. Somewhat hopefully, I like to imagine that after a couple of people get familiar with the rules, and when they start messing with the hex-map to make interesting obstacles and items, that such a context might come into play. But that's to be discovered in the future, and the most experienced person with the game that I talked to, Mike Holmes, spoke instead about how after the 100th guy you stat up and send at the other guy, you kind of stop caring about any such thing.

And that raises a really good point: the role of character death. If you go by the strict rules, just about the only way you develop your character is to keep killing your partner player's characters. Which kind of sucks, because by definition, the two of you can't enjoy the game in the fuller SIS-based way I would like to imagine is possible. That could well be why people who enjoyed the virtues of the game may have jettisoned the Color/SIS aspect in full, posing "figures" at one another indefinitely.

I found myself re-experiencing, although not quite the same way, my long-standing desire to play a number of duels with more advanced characters. The 32-point beginners have effectively one good shot in them; after a couple of rounds, their STs are sucking wind and they're either one missed spell or one point of damage away from passing out or dying. The text points out that a duel between 40-pointers, each with two 32-point apprentices, and especially using the courtesy rule which forbids missile spells as first actions, is "interesting," and I believe it. I'd like to try that or anything like it one of these days. I'd especially like to see some fighters mixed in, because Control Person would be a lot of fun.

One problem with the system, when one starts thinking more SIS-like instead of strictly tactically, is that improvement doesn't scale for shit. After maybe 36 points, and definitely after 40, the characters are past the hump of the 3d6 bell curve for both DX and IQ, which means all character differentiation is lost aside from the tactical question of which spells they know and the associated tactics of which they choose to cast; they might as well not have to-work rolls or ST costs any more. Also, it simply doesn't work for me to say that my wizard with ST 17 is more burly and physically scary than the starting fighter with ST 15, with his battleax (that's how they spelled it) and its feared 3d6 damage. Even with the fighters, it's the same; I kind of like the mental image of the wiry fencer with ST 9 and DX 15, and if I bulk him up to ST 14, does that now mean he's gained 75 pounds of muscle?

That's one reason why, in the modified version I worked up as an RPG in the early 1990s, I had the character's "real attributes" max out at 40 points, and then increases beyond that only applied in certain ways. In other words, you might have IQ 20 and get the increased number of spells, but your personal max of 14 or whatever would be what you rolled to resist Control Person or to disbelieve an illusion.

Anyway, this post is threatening to meet the claim of its title, which was not intended to be literal. Any and all questions, comments, experiences with this game, et cetera, are welcome. It'd be fun to know what others thought when they tried it out, and whether they have any interest in pursuing further play.

This thread has a sister topic in the Adept forum: TFT: Wizard and Sorcerer origins.

Best, Ron
edited to establish interlinks


Interesting post.

...What's SIS?
QuoteIt certainly makes me look again slightly at the concept of "balance." If the point-builds of characters are perfectly balanced, then could we not merely discard the game entirely and merely roll dice at each other? So is such "balance" fun, once achieved? I don't have an answer for this.

Yeah, the thought's occured to me at some point.  Well, I guess the idea is that different tactics are disproportionately effective under different circumstances, so that you'd have to pay attention to the Situation and the current variables of engagement (including how healthy or buffed your or your opponent are in what ways,) to determine what tactics will be contextually unbalanced in a way you can (for the moment) exploit.  Overall 'balance' is achieved by either (A) providing niche roles within a larger party or (B) recommending a range of conflict arenas or opponent configurations to allows a wide range of tactical variations to shine.

Ron Edwards

Hi Morgan,

I've written a lot about "balance" in the past, which here I'm putting in quotes because it tends to mean whatever a given person wants it to mean. I outlined the versions I've encountered in my essay, Gamism: Step On Up. Since the article is about lots of stuff you may not be interested in, here's the quote:

Balance: the sort-of issue
"Balance" is one of those words which is applied to a wide variety of activities or practices that may be independent or even contradictory. (See the linked threads in the Glossary.) The word is thrown about like a shuttlecock with little reference to any definition at all. That's the current state of the art. So I'm taking time-out on the Gamism-only discussion to go on a full GNS balance rant, because the assumption that Gamist play is uniquely or definitively concerned with "balance" is very, very mistaken.

- Compare "balance" with the notion of parity, or equality of performance or resources. If a game includes enforced parity, is it is balanced? Is it that simple? And if not, then what?
- Bear in mind that Fairness and Parity are not synonymous. One or the other might be the real priority regardless of which word is being used. Also, "Fair" generally means, "What I want."
- Are we discussing the totality of a character (Effectiveness, Resource, Metagame), or are we discussing Effectiveness only, or Effectiveness + Resource only?
- Are we discussing "screen time" for characters at all, which has nothing to do with their abilities/oomph?
- Are we discussing anything to do at all with players, or rather, with the people at the table? Can we talk about balance in regard to attention, respect, and input among them? Does it have anything to do with Balance of Power, referring to how "the buck" (where it stops) is distributed among the members of the group?

They can't all be balance at once.

Within Gamist play
- Parity of starting point, with free rein given to differing degrees of improvement after that. Basically, this means that "we all start equal" but after that, anything goes, and if A gets better than B, then that's fine.
- The relative Effectiveness of different categories of strategy: magic vs. physical combat, for instance, or pumping more investment into quickness rather than endurance. In this sense, "balance" means that any strategy is at least potentially effective, and "unbalanced" means numerically broken.
- Related to #2, a team that is not equipped for the expected range of potential dangers is sometimes called unbalanced.
- In direct contrast to #1, "balance" can also mean that everyone is subject to the same vagaries of fate (Fortune). That is, play is "balanced" if everyone has a chance to save against the Killer Death Trap. Or it's balanced because we all rolled 3d6 for Strength, regardless of what everyone individually ended up with. (Tunnels & Trolls is all about this kind of play.)
- The resistance of a game to deliberate Breaking.

Within Simulationist play
I am forced to speak historically here, in reference to existing and widespread Simulationist approaches, not to any potential or theoretical ones. So think of Call of Cthulhu, GURPS, and Rolemaster as you read the next part.
- One fascinating way that the term is applied is to the Currency-based relationship among the components of a character: Effectiveness, Resource, Metagame. That's right - we're not talking about balance among characters at all, but rather balance within the interacting components of a single character. I realize that this sounds weird. Check back in the Sim essay to see how important these within-character interactions can be in this mode of play.
- And, completely differently, "balance" is often invoked as an anti-Gamist play defense, specifically in terms of not permitting characters to change very much relative to one another, as all of them improve. This is, I think, the origin of "everyone gets a couple EPs at the end of each session" approach, as opposed to "everyone gets different EPs on the basis of individual performance."
- Rules-enforcement in terms of Effectiveness, which is why GURPS has point-total limits per setting. Note that heavy layering renders this very vulnerable to Gamist Drift.

Within Narrativist play
This gets a little tricky because I can't think of a single coherent Narrativist game text in which balance as a term is invoked as a design or play feature, nor any particular instance of play I've been involved in which brought the issue up. But I'm pretty sure that it's a protagonism issue.

"Balance" might be relevant as a measure of character screen time, or perhaps weight of screen time rather than absolute length. This is not solely the effectiveness-issue which confuses everyone. Comics fans will recognize that Hawkeye is just as significant as Thor, as a member of the Avengers, or even more so. In game terms, this is a Character Components issue: Hawkeye would have a high Metagame component whereas Thor would have a higher Effectiveness component.

Balance of Power is relevant to all forms of play, but it strikes me as especially testy in this mode.

That's the end of my balance rant, but I beg and plead of anyone who reads this essay: I would very much like never to hear again that (1) Gamist play must be uniquely obsessed with balance, or (2) if play is concerned with any form of balance, it must be Gamist. These are unsupportable habits of thought that pervade our hobby and represent very poor understanding of the issues involved.

All the stuff about Gamism is relevant to the present thread, because at face value, Wizard is strictly a competitive pocket-sized wargame, full stop. I'm a little surprised at how well my first item under the "Overall" heading matches what I was musing about here.

I use a lot of Forge-specific terms and talk. You can find definitions for most of the jargon we've worked up over the years in The Provisional Glossary. However! This was definitely a document of its moment, and is not an official dictionary. Different people have identified mistakes or things needing clarifications in the six years since I wrote it. I should also stress that it comes in two parts, the crucial first part which includes a diagram and only seven terms, and the less-important, minor-terms part that follows.

As an example of some of the changes in those six years, what I called "metagame" in the quoted text is now called Positioning.

"SIS" are the initials for the term Shared Imagined Space, which apparently evolved from the external term "Shared Imaginary Space" and took on unique meaning in the discussions here (Moreno has recently done the legwork for how the term was introduced and evolved here at the Forge, in Who REALLY coined "Shared Imagined Space"?). The simple answer is that, although we all have our own private imagery or notions of what's happening in the fiction of play, what each of us at the table can legitimately work with, as we play, is what's been said and heard about it so far. Whether this "said and heard" subset of all the imagining is the most important part, well, that's a matter of taste (I say yes, Mike Holmes says no), but I think it's fair to say that this subset has to exist in order for the role-playing to proceed without endless, even corruptive debate about what's happening at all (I call this phenomenon "the Murk").

I also like to emphasize that in my use of the term, "imagined" is a participle, not an adjective. In other words, imagining is an action, and when we further specify that it's shared, we have to be referring to communication.

Let me know if this helps or makes sense.

Best, Ron


Thanks Ron- I've read through your essays at some length and have a handle on most of the jargon.  My thoughts on 'balance' were specifically with reference to the Gamist paradigm you present, and I largely agree with, since it's clear the example you gave in the OP is largely Gamist in emphasis.  However-

Quote- Parity of starting point, with free rein given to differing degrees of improvement after that. Basically, this means that "we all start equal" but after that, anything goes, and if A gets better than B, then that's fine.
...Or it's balanced because we all rolled 3d6 for Strength, regardless of what everyone individually ended up with. (Tunnels & Trolls is all about this kind of play.)

To be honest, I reckon this approach has been downplayed substantially over the years because it doesn't work particularly well for Gamist play- it might even represent some embedded relics of Simulationism.  My experience on this front is limited, but to my understanding the sole real function of 'levelling' mechanics (with ever-growing XP requirements) is to ensure that, over the long haul, everybody gets powerful at the same rate.  (I'm aware there are Gamist RPGs that eschew levelling mechanics, but they do seem awfully popular, particularly in video games.)  The old 'everybody roll 3d6 for your stats, in order' procedure was ditched from D&D long ago, and 4E allows for extensive retraining of a character, so that nature is a minor consideration next to nurture.  I just find it difficult to imagine a Gamist group playing together enjoyably long after the point where one or two players are obviously, and irrevocably, overshadowing the rest.

I suppose it's related to the question of 'how long is the length of a Go?'  In order for particular players to demonstrate superior grit or acumen, there must be at least the potential for significant variations in performance- but that 'window of exploitation' could- and probably should- be momentary or situational, as opposed to, say, the length of an entire campaign.

All the other forms of Gamist 'Balance' you mention seem, to me, to spring from the same basic motivation:  the desire for (A) choice/variety and (B) an appropriate level of challenge.  A wide range of potential dangers means lots of different situational parameters to exploit or work around, and resistance to breaking means, as you pointed out, simply that there is no single tactic or strategy which invariably works under all conceivable circumstances.

I could add another potential example:  Classic sim-style wound penalties in combat could well be considered 'unbalanced' from a Gamist perspective, because they cause a single failed task to increase the likelihood of subsequent failures in a cumulative fashion.  It's a double hose.  In other words, beyond a certain point (often one or two good hits,) the competition ceases to be a competition and becomes an all-but-foregone conclusion, and those initial hits might have been pure bad luck and nothing else.  They increase the amount of play where there's really no appropriate challenge in evidence.

Thanks for the clarification on SIS.  To my mind, I think the examples you cite of 'Balance' within Simulationist play are mostly relics of abashed design, particularly with reference to anti-Gamist defences or Metagame components.  To be honest, I don't understand why a solidly Simulationist design would incorporate explicit metagame mechanics at all- wouldn't metagame be, by definition, the manifestation of an external, out-of-SIS agenda, and therefore run counter to the idea that Internal Cause Is King?  I would have thought metagame was something coherent Sim design would seek to minimise so far as possible?

With respect to 'Balance' in Narrativism, I think this comes back to the points you've raised about Gamist/Narrativist symmetry: in the absence of Sim, they're very very similar in mechanical terms.  This really only clicked for me when I read up on the rules for Agon, which used conflict resolution, explicit endgame mechanics and a 'divine favour' resource that reminded me a little of spiritual attributes.  Apart, of course, from all the in-game text that made it crystal clear the point was to Win Win Win Win Win, it seemed to me that relatively few mechanical tweaks were needed to accomodate Nar play.

But if you have some numerical method for presenting adversity and mediating inter-player disputes over scene outcomes in a way that's fair and impartial, then of course the various numbers on the PCs' sheets will need to exhibit rough parity in a way that's closely reminiscent of Gamist concepts of 'Balance'.  In the absence of Sim, I find there's often very little distinction between Effectiveness, Resource, and Metagame (or Positioning, or whatever the kids are calling it these days, :p) so that they all mung together to the same lump total regardless.

Altogether, I think that the Narrativist and Gamist concepts of balance are at some level closely related, since they both involve players with a strong OOC agenda that want a roughly equal degree of influence over the outcome of events (and to the extent or scale that they are permitted to affect the flow of events at all, which is another matter.)  By contrast, I don't think that 'balance' is particularly meaningful in Sim play that isn't actively damaging itself in a misguided attempt to fend off or mollify non-Simulationists.  Perhaps the most 'purely' Simulationist approach to character creation would combine some form of random stat-generation with a lifepath system akin to Burning Wheel's, and the latter makes no attempt whatsoever to guarantee that characters have parity in terms of resources, effectiveness, skill proficiencies, or anything else.  (That said, I guess it could be argued that BW's heavy Nar elements- i.e, the Artha system- do actively compensate for this?)

Ron Edwards

Hi Morgan,

Sorry it took me this long to get back to you. It's really sinking in how much RPG rhetoric about "balance" can use this little game as a touchpoint for critique.

Another variable that occurred to me, reading your post, concerns commitment to a single Wizard character, which is often linked to some back-story or situational framework for a fight, or perhaps linked to some specific Color. For me, this was a key factor in my early fascination with role-playing. Krait's arrogance and Yzor's frustration and fear ("I'm not ready for this!") were very strong factors in my anticipated enjoyment of playing Wizard, tied as they were as well to the best book then or now about young students at wizard school, The Wizard of Earthsea. So when I made up a 32-point wizard to use in a fight, it was already wrapped up in colorful and emotional resonance. I had a strong idea already whether my character winning or losing a fight would be good or bad, not in the sense of me winning or losing against another player, but thematically.

Arguably, such a priority is misplaced when starting beginning figures in Wizard, just as it's equally misplaced when rolling up a first-level character in Tunnels & Trolls. I bring up the latter game because unlike Wizard it is a capital-R RPG which strongly assumes (and the reader should pay attention) that one rolls up at least three or four characters to play simultaneously, and you should damn well be prepared for their gruesome deaths early on. You're supposed to bring in more of them as they are killed, in a kind of ongoing wave front of character creation in the face of slaughter, and real victory occurs when one or more characters show unusual survival through many adventures.

OK, so therefore, enjoying Wizard might be better in the long term when one thinks not of one character, but of many. In 800 fights, using a dozen characters, have any of them made it through many fights? Luck plays a big role. So does character-building and tactical acumen, at every state, but given some competence in one's opponent player or players, then yeah, luck is huge. Is this the fun? Over the long haul, being determined and savvy enough on the average to tip raw luck's role a few percentage points upwards from 50%? That would certainly be tangibly evident simply through character survival and advancement.

But again, such thinking only applies across many characters, not in the isolated history of one of them, because death = death = no more for that character.

Shifting from many characters at once to a single character is a profound feature of early RPG play. It interests me a lot that apparently, the math of most RPGs is far better suited to the former, whereas the assumption of play and the expected commitment to character-play corresponds with the latter.

Best, Ron


Quote from: Ron Edwards on August 21, 2010, 06:56:16 PMArguably, such a priority is misplaced when starting beginning figures in Wizard, just as it's equally misplaced when rolling up a first-level character in Tunnels & Trolls. I bring up the latter game because unlike Wizard it is a capital-R RPG which strongly assumes (and the reader should pay attention) that one rolls up at least three or four characters to play simultaneously, and you should damn well be prepared for their gruesome deaths early on. You're supposed to bring in more of them as they are killed, in a kind of ongoing wave front of character creation in the face of slaughter, and real victory occurs when one or more characters show unusual survival through many adventures.
Ah... that would explain a few things about the chargen system.  You're not married to any single character, so I take it rolling up a single character is more like a temporary gamble than a strategic commitment-  I guess another way to look at it could be that 'length of a Go' here is the length of an entire campaign?
QuoteShifting from many characters at once to a single character is a profound feature of early RPG play. It interests me a lot that apparently, the math of most RPGs is far better suited to the former, whereas the assumption of play and the expected commitment to character-play corresponds with the latter.
Yeah-  I remember the Earthsea series with considerable fondness myself, and once tried to draw up a design brief for an RPG in the setting with a couple of other folks.  One of the conclusions we reached was that character death shouldn't be the result of accident, given the lack of resurrection mechanics and the general potential to screw up a long-term story-arc.  (Nowadays, I'd probably incline toward using some adaptation of Mouse Guard, which has some strong similarities in terms of setting and little-p premise, and, of course, only allows character death with the player's permission.)

Ron Edwards

Hi Morgan,

I don't think we played T&T long enough, nor did we use the multiple-character approach well enough (i.e. from the beginning), for me to say for sure, but my current take is that "marriage" to a character does occur. It's emergent, however, from which ones survive and under what circumstances. I don't know if you've seen my old posts
Killed me a player-character (spit), [Tunnels & Trolls] Second level characters, and [Tunnels & Trolls] Half-elves are poncy nancy-boys. I'm thinking especially about Maura's unspeakably obnoxious character Henk, but also about Julie's interesting and also funny tactic of making every new character another sibling.

I should also point out, cynically, that Maura's first character was extremely lame in effectiveness but happened to roll quite high for starting money ... which meant after the next bit of delving, that player was able to juice up her next character's money with the legacy from the first. So in some ways, one's resources as a player are best understood as spread across the current characters rather than isolated in each.

But back to TFT: Wizard, the more I think of it, the more the T&T approach seems like a better route to fun: make up four or five characters for each player, then run a bunch of fights, leaving half of them alive, and continue, but make up new characters to fill in the total amount for each person; keep going.

Perhaps over time certain personalities and color would appear and develop, especially if 'younger' characters were created as apprentices or other in-setting relationship terms. Setting and context for fights might become an important part of the experience. One might even imagine, at the risk of playing-before-play, that the two players might ally appropriate characters against an external "NPC" foe at some point.

All of which appears to me as a kind of tragic road-not-taken in my own role-playing history. It sounds like a hell of a lot more fun than how I was learning "to play right" from the people around me in 1978-81.

Best, Ron


in other (barely related) news, it's really disconcerting when you get taken to the archives from one of these links:  The pages look exactly the same, so you think you're on the same old forge, but all the "new" tags are wrong and nothings up since May onwards.  Weird world.
My real name is Timo.

Larry L.


Very awesome. Thanks for writing this up. I'll try to make some time to post some observations.

Nick Caldwell

Adding my thanks for sharing this -- but also to say that in a weird twist of fate I read this thread and played my first game of Two Hour Wargames Red Sand, Blue Sky gladiator game -- which sounds like it has all the components of Melee and needs its own Wizard rules for completeness. 

To give a brief description, RSBS uses a single stat, called Reputation.  A typical gladiator has Rep 5 or 6.  You get a starting dice pool of 5 times your rep.    The points system for buying fighters is based on how much armor they have -- there are 12(?) hit locations that can be armored (unarmored is 3, each point above that you pay for).  Finally, more armor slows you down.

So right off the bat -- you know how experienced your gladiator is, which also tells you his endurance in the ring.  You know how fast he can move  and you know you better protect your right side because you decided to only armor your left to save on points.  (and you would do this especially if you were playing the campaign game and needed the points for some other fighter).

For an attack, you and your opponent decide on whether you want to burn 1-4 d10s to roll under your Rep.   Run out of dice and you are "spent" -- essentially at the crowd's mercy.

Hits and damage can also burn dice from your pool. 

So there's this great tactical choice -- do you keep burning 4 dice for each attack, knowing you are tiring your fighter and hoping to get in a good damage roll that takes your opponent out?   Or do you bide your time and fight defensively and wait for the other bloke to burn up?

And talk about color -- everything in the game is table driven so you can even play it solo.  Hit on a leg and you might slow your opponent down or it might just be a scratch; hit on an arm and they might drop their shield or be knocked down. 

And every action is burning dice -- you can watch your dwindling dice pool and just see  your fighter trying to catch his breath.  It's intense!

All of which goes to say that while I haven't played Melee -- I get what you are saying.  I just experienced it with RSBS.  Now I just need a good magic system to go with it and Wizard might just have it with a bit of tweaking.


Nick Caldwell

For more info:
Board Game Geek review: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/82020/red-sand-blue-skies

For purchase:

Ron Edwards

Hi Nick,

It should be interesting to compare the two systems. Here's what I'm inferring from your post.

1. In TFT (here, I'm using TFT to mean only the original two microgames, not the extensively expanded later versions and their umbrella RPG, In the Labyrinth), there is no way to spread points across several characters in a strategic fashion. There's mention of playing groups against one another, and such play is explicit in the Death Test adventure modules, but points remain character-specific. I don't think there's ever mention of "divide 110 points across three figures" or anything like that.

2. Hit location is absent in the TFT games. Damage is simply deducted from ST without any modifications except the following:
- rolling 4 on 3d6 = double damage
- rolling 3 on 3d6 = triple damage
- taking 5 or more damage in one blow = -2 DX for the next round
- taking 8 or more damage in one blow = knockdown
- certain weapons do extra or double damage in certain circumstances, e.g. charging with a pole weapon

So where a strike hits is pure Color, unnecessary even to mention if we're talking about raw mechanics, and if mentioned, probably as a function of an exceptionally large or small amount of damage done relative to the weapon's average amount.

3. The double-whammy of spell cost and damage upon Strength (ST) in Wizard is not found in Melee; there is no "endurance" in either game aside from spell cost or damage. In Melee, you only lose ST by taking damage.

I also wanted to get technical for a second, especially since I harped on Color so much in my first post. The damage tables in RSBS, at least based on your description, appear to be a Color-ful damage mechanic. That's a bit different from the near-total divorce between mechanics and Color in TFT.

I have a technical question too, based on my long experience with Rolemaster back in the 1980s. In that game, if your basic roll to hit was successful, the range of possible results was extremely wide. Although there was some attempt to match the degree of success in the initial hit to ranges of effect (i.e. different tables to roll on next), it didn't work out too well because the authors seemed incapable of making a d100 table without putting extreme results at both ends. In fact, the second roll was almost like a new "to-hit" roll in terms of the actual impact on the fight.

So my interest lies in whether, as a player, one's attention is primarily focused on the first roll, to hit, or the second, effectively the damage. Or do I have it wrong, and you go the table based on quantitative features of the first roll alone?

Best, Ron

Nick Caldwell

I'll try to take the first part in order, then dive into the crunchy bits.

1.  In RSBS, you can definitely just pick two fighters and go.  In that case, you just pick equivalent "Reps" and the appropriate stock fighters.  But there's also the campaign game, in which you have a "gladiator school" and a budget.  It's a metagame -- your budget goes towards purchasing your fighters and provides your starting cash that you ante up for each match.  In a way, it's a second dice pool -- if your money is exhausted then your school closes or you have to sell off your fighters to keep going. 

(Also, I was interested in the comparison between this and your Tunnels & Trolls post.  Here you are essentially playing an ensemble cast -- your school almost becomes your character in a way and the individual fighters become your stats)

2. Damage is much crunchier in RSBS and consists of several tables.   Actually, even hitting is two steps -- can I gain an advantageous position?  Then can I get past your defenses?   Once a hit is established, where did you hit?  Did you get through the armor there?  If yes, then how badly?  If no, then am I pushed back or knocked to the ground?  (I'll address the mechanics of this more below).  You can literally publish a blow by blow account of your battle simply by noting these results (and many people do!).   I like this -- a blow to the leg is unlikely to kill, but will certainly slow  your opponent down.  A serious blow to the head and he's gone!  Or no damage at all, but I knock you down. 

So -- to answer your question -- yeah, there's a lot of Color embedded in the tables.  At the end of damage resolution, you will know "I hit him on the arm, he was forced to burn 3 dice from his pool so it was pretty serious, and because of that he dropped his shield."  "Ron Retiaius lunged forward with his trident, slipping under Nick Secutor's shield and piercing his bicep.  Nick's arm lost all feeling and his numb fingers dropped his shield to the sand now red with his blood."

To answer the technical question -- hoo boy.  Here we go:

All Two Hour Wargames, including RSBS,  share a basic mechanic – passing dice and finding results on a table:

  • "Passing" dice.   You have a target number, usually your character's single stat of Reputation.   You roll 2 dice to do something (2d10 in this case).  Roll under your target number and the dice passes.  Thus, you get 0, 1, or 2 dice passing.  So Nick Secutor is Rep 6 -- I roll 2 dice to attack you -- 6 and under is my target dice rolls to succeed.
    (Note that either player can burn dice from the dice pool to roll more dice -- but only up to 2 passing dice count no matter how many you roll).

  • If I'm doing something AGAINST you, like bashing you with my sword, then you roll dice, too and we compare who passes more dice.  If we both pass 2, then my attack failed.  (Or your defense succeeded to put it another way)    If I pass 2 and you pass 0, then you are likely in trouble.  If it's the other way 'round, then I'M in trouble even though I initiated the attack. 

  • You then go to a table.  The basic melee table is pretty simple but there are LOTS of tables.   For RSBS, there is a net throwing table.  There is a throwing sand in your opponent's face table.   There's a "What does the emperor do when you ask for mercy?" table.   And there's a whole slew of tables for NPC actions --- which is designed to allow you to play solo against the system.

So to answer the Rolemaster question -- yeah, I saw this problem with Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.  Oh, look I rolled a 99 -- your head flew off!  Oh look, you rolled a 01 -- you scratched my little toe!

So in RSBS: First of all if I roll well against you, I might be able to flank you.  Then we bet dice from our pool for our attack and defense.  Then if I roll just ok against you there, I might force you to take a step back and burn another die.  My turn's over.   OR -- if I roll really well and you roll really poorly then I got through your defenses and my steel draws blood in some way (another 1 to 3 dice burned based on where I hit you and whether I got through your armor at that location, plus a possible penalty to your next go if I hit you in the leg or something).  OR -- if I rolled really well, hit you in the chest and penetrated your armor - "Game over, man, game over."

But the chance of death, while there, is pretty low if you've got two trained and armored fighters.  Most likely you are going to get beaten up to the point where you are too winded or too wounded (i.e. -- you've exhausted your dice pool)  to continue.  Of course, at that point the crowd gets to give the ole thumbs up or thumbs down! 

(Oh, and then there's the rules for condemned criminals (no armor!) and Big Cats -- and of course I'm going to be adding Dragons and Magic SOMEHOW to this system once I tire of Ancient Rome!)

Cheers, Nick