Game of games - Nth Society

작년

Disclaimer: while I've been considering this project for over a year, I do not claim to be an expert in any field, least of all tabletop RPGs.

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The Nth Society was born out of a frustration with computer games which were in my view unsuitable for experimenting with a voluntaryist social situation. The closest were probably MineCraft, Rust and Second Life. All there are largely about making a place for yourself in the world (a base), some kind of society within which you can roleplay if you choose, with the ability to obtain and trade stuff.

They fall down though in "realism", more accurately verisimilitude, the appearance of reality. In my view that means some important aspects of reality are modelled and appear in the game. For example, no magic, supernatural or god powers, telepathy, etc., has bodily limitations (re: food, rest, sickness, strength capacity, etc), ability to craft, hunt, trap, reasonable resource availability and difficulty of access, context of human civilization and ancestry (naked adults do not just pop into existence with no history), and so on. I went into some of these requirements in previous posts like this one and this too.

Therefore it seems obvious that the Nth Society should also be a computer game which improved on the aspects we found lacking. It would be a kind of Microsoft Flight Simulator for just plain people trying to make their own way. 😅 It was never explicitly stated but the kinds of scenarios that personally came to mind were wilderness homesteading, nomadism, and reclaiming abandoned urban centers. It would have just been simpler on every level to be away from existing society. However I'm sure there's a variety of opinion on this that existed in the ideas group at the time.

We ran a writing competition to get ideas for what people wanted to see in the game. I always considered this actually "playing the game" in the sense that contributing to the game was a kind of metagame which satisfied the core goal of the game right from the start:

To design, develop and play a game which explores life in a voluntary society.

In light of my recent research into roleplaying games it's even more clear that writing fiction is essentially playing the game, as arguably all types of RPGs are collaborative storytelling. Even when the plot is entirely prewritten, it's about how your lead your character(s) through it, and most of the time there's far more flexibility than that, up to complete improv storytelling.

So let's zoom out for a moment and consider the idea that the Nth Society "game" could be played via multiple already existing games.

Exploration between games on a theme

If the idea is to explore voluntryism we can do this in any number of games, especially those we run ourselves. I read a lot about some so-called ancap MineCraft servers which were interesting but ultimately doomed efforts to explore these ideas on that platform and took the lesson early to not try that. The game encouraged anti-social behavior, lack of stake in the "society", trolling and "might is right" logic.

It never occurred to me that pop up tabletop RPGs could be a similar setting within which to play. It's clear this approach would have some advantages, such as ultimate flexibility and a high degree of "skin in the game", as well as very close social relationships as a real time interpersonal imaginative exercise. The ideas that players try out as characters could evolve freely and would allow for a larger variation of structures, scenarios and even time periods.

It presents difficulties for some assumptions though. The computer game paradigm has something which voluntryists will be fairly concerned with - persistent property. Now, even if the game does not recognize property exactly (which is what I always insisted should be the case), the land would still be there when you come back tomorrow, and so on. World and object persistence is important for "owning" something to be meaningful, or so we reasoned anyway.

However I would lose no sleep if I give up on those kinds of requirements right now. Why should I, the player, need persistent property to take the game seriously. Can the character I play take it seriously in the game, and can't I dig deep to get into that character while I control them? And still, that's assuming I "have" a character. Some games are so free and collaborative that players pitch in here and there for characters as it makes sense, the focus being more on the larger story.

In fact we could even refocus and say that the story is what really matters. If so then the writing competition was more playing the game than anything else we've done. That imaginative exercise was a single player version of what we can do with an RPG. If you have time please read the winning entry The Nome by @adigitalife and check out the shortlist, it might inspire you as it did the community before.

A unifying theme

Let's continue to entertain this approach for a few minutes. It might be beneficial if there were a unifying entity which was incorporated in every game (even if it is minor or shoehorned in). This could be the Nth Society itself, that it exists, has existed or will exist in the game world in some way, shape or form.

Here's an example, a modification of the game Fiasco: Galapagos 1932, a playset for the Fiasco roleplaying game. Fiasco is to tabletop RPGs as like the Unreal engine or Unity is to computer games. It's a platform upon which individual playsets are made, and or you can build your own of course. Here's the blurb:

Nearly a century after Charles Darwin wrote about the wildlife of the Galápagos islands, a group of German homesteaders saw the island of Floreana as a new Eden, a tropical paradise where they could escape a troubled world.

Word of their success travelled, however, and soon other settlers began to arrive. Some came to join in the paradise, some to seek adventure, some to get rich.

But Floreana is a small island, and competition for the limited resources means not everyone can get what they want. Like the Biblical Eden, this paradise cannot last forever...

Sounds a lot like it deals with the right subject matter. If this "new Eden" was inconsequentially to be called "the Nth Society" then Hey Presto, we've got am Nth Society game. No matter what happens, it's sure to be something we can make interesting, and it seems set up to be directly in the area of interest.

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Options for play in the wide world of RPGs

I have recently spent what I consider a tidy little sum on a number of RPG rulesets, expansions, gaming resources and so on, in the interest of this new approach to the Nth Society project. Many of the sources however are Pay What You Want on DriveThruRPG, so freely available or you can contribute to the author. It's actually quite amazing what you can find here.

In the short time I have been reading these manuals, guides, instructions and suggestions I've gleaned a little knowledge on what is generally out there, though this is bound to be woefully incomplete. Here's my attempt at a summary:

Size and scope

The body of instructions for an RPG might take up several hundred pages, or just one. The larger works are either platforms upon which various specific scenarios / games can be played, or once of structures in the service of a single scenario.

Platforms generally refer to their main rules as "core" documents, thus we have Fate Core, which is the core ruleset for the Fate platform. These can be complicated and verbose, so many have an abridged version which might be called a quickstart or in the Fate case, Fate Accelerated Edition.

Dungeons and Dragons is another well known platform, specifically in the high fantasy genre, and the sci-fi genre is another popular one. But traditional fantasy and sci-fi are not in the area we set out to explore with Nth Society, it was to be in the modern setting. More useful then for our proposes would be either explicitly modern settings or platforms which do not put their games in a particular genre or style. These are can be called "universal" or "generic" systems. Fate is one such system, as is Insight, Cortex, USR, Forge Engine, 50-50, Risus, Heads or Tails, Fugue, Follow, or Microscope. This is obviously a very partial survey and I haven't read any of the rules of these in detail, but if you check them out you'll find them either free or reasonably priced, and they might be useful for us.

Some wear proudly their minimal ruleset and seem to position directly against large weighty tomes such as you find in DnD and Fate. From what I've read they tend to hand a lot of control to the players, favor shorter playtimes and generally rely on collaboration around the table.

Follow the leader, or not

With the exception of some quirky games, RPGs seem to fit into the broad categories of either Games Master (GM) lead, or GM-less. I only have personal experience with two RPGs and they fit into either camp, so I'll use those as examples. As a caveat remember I am no expert and there's bound to be a lot of variation out there, but if you survey the literature you'll find a lot of games self describing using these terms.

Dungeons and Dragons is a very GM heavy game. Typical the GM (or Dungeon Master / DM as they might be called) spends a huge amount of time creating the world before players have much involvement. Perhaps they will follow a prewritten book or create their own world, but either way there is general a lot of prep. Then during play the GM does a lot of the heavy lifting, though they can delegate some responsibility to players, and often heard that a good GM will let the players do the storytelling almost as much as the GM. While exceptions will abound, in general the world is the GMs. They lay the traps, they know where what the villain is up to, they will even usually know more about the players than they do about each other, at least at the start of the game.

In DnD it can be super fun to delegate that responsibility to someone else to plan surprises, twists, challenges and rewards. It feels pretty cool when you work together with the party to defeat the monsters the GM has prepared, and satisfying for the GM to see their hard work delighting their friends as they play.

Contrasting heavily with this are GM-less games, which of which Microscope is one. They use some usually far more minimal set of rules to lightly constrain the storytelling process and nudge focus around the group so that stronger personalities do not overpower weaker ones. Preparation can often be zero, where players will instead improvise literally every part of the story as they go, and the rules are there to help them structure this so it's not just a big ol' mess.

It's surprising how well this can work. It seems like it would just be anarchy (chaos) but it often ends up as Anarchy (that sweat utopia of adults making decisions together in freedom). I'm not a games theorist but I would guess that the success of this approach lies heavily on the fact that those willing to come together to play this are those who will be generous with each other in the storytelling too. I witnessed people helping each other out a lot spontaneously, even as they purposely blockaded and sidetracked things for fun.

Beginnings of an efficient way forward

It would be really cool to make a unique Nth Society RPG. That said, why not get started right away with some of the games that are already out there?

The limitations of already existing computer games are baked into their source code and have a high cost to change. But tabletop RPGs are insanely customizable by their very design. There are many ways to slightly tweak them, or even do huge alterations. From what I can gather this kind of remix culture is the name of the game in the community.

In the interest in taking the iniaitive I will pick a couple of them in various and get games started in the near future. We could use a play-by-post method, though I will spend a few days thinking that one through and seeing if there's a better tweak on the idea as it's quite verbose and slow. Maybe that's okay, but I want to just have a little think 🤔

This conclusion is thanks largely to commenters on the previous post, thank you all for your feedback. In the next post I'll get back to you all on thoughts, respond to any further points and maybe have some suggestions of what games / systems / etc. we could start with.

Image references

All images by OncleGabi, an unbelievably good artist who has created a lot of digital fantasy art. Check out the archive of splendours at their Tumblr.

[1] - Myst
[2]- Study (falaises de Presles).

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BONUS

I mentioned flight simulators earlier. Well it turns out someone has created an RPG which you can play on top of those computer games called Flight Sim Air Taxi. You can really find anything out there...

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It would be really cool to make a unique Nth Society RPG. That said, why not get started right away with some of the games that are already out there?

The limitations of already existing computer games are baked into their source code and have a high cost to change. But tabletop RPGs are insanely customizable by their very design. . .

. . .We could use a play-by-post method, though I will spend a few days thinking that one through and seeing if there's a better tweak on the idea as it's quite verbose and slow. . .

Very efficient thinking here. I'm wondering how big the interest in these games are, but if they are easy enough to play and especially online, then they can provide a good starting grounds for the game.

-It's especially intriguing when you think about how these sorts of games resemble the "building of the game itself" as already written about in previous posts.

Things to consider;

  • Will it be entirely practical to play these on the blockchain or is a different format necessary?

  • What rules are realistically enforceable in a game environment not bound by "physical" presence, but by the mind of the arbiter?

  • Could there be perhaps even be goals to the game that involve some real world applications bringing us closer to a modern graphical online simulation (that can eventually seep back into the real world) or the social organization for it?

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Thanks, this is a good summary of perhaps the most important main idea of the post.

In reverse order:

3 - I'm not sure what you mean, can you rephrase that?

2 - This is a key point and something I'm not sure about. I would say that we could be skeptical and use a "wait and see" approach, trusting players to begin with and learn from there. But it's a concern I also share. I suppose this is where the rules come in and I'm not sure which ones are needed. On a per game basis they will be different so maybe it's all just down to experimentation.

1 - My suspicion is that it is not practical to play entirely on the blockchain, but I think I will try it anyway. It will only suit certain games but again in the interest of experimentation why not just see how it goes?

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3 It might even be possible that an outcome of the tabletop is the building of a more advanced game. Intentional from the beginning of the game, or not.

2 I agree. It will take some experimentation. Call it the first game in a series of game building games.

1 Timeliness of interactions is the hurdle that comes to mind, but then again has that really ever stopped anyone in the past from playing tabletop games? It's probably not a great concern in that sense.

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