The Travels of Mendes Pinto: Team Game
Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Pinto: Part IISergio Mascarenhas
May 31, 2002
The Travels of Mendes Pinto: Team Game
Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Pinto: Part IISergio Mascarenhas
May 31, 2002
Well, the slowdown in TToMP made me think. The past discussions have been nice but I guess we are all getting tired of it. I suppose there's a question we all are asking ourselves: "the debate is fine but... when do we see the damn' game book?!"
That's it. I decided to break the flow of the column and start to present the real thing. This month we will not only speak about TToMP but we will also start to see it.
Before I proceed, I have to mention that Steve Darlington is no longer able to provide his excellent Devil's Advocate criticism. I loved to interact with him the past year. I hope everything is going for the best with you, now that are on the move Steve.
First things first. Characters in TToMP don't exist in the vacuum and players need to get a grasp of the game world before they start thinking about characters. The entrance door to that world is the introductory chapter, ence this is also the first chapter to be produced and the one I present for discussion in the present column.
This month you get three products for the cost of one. The first and second drafts of the Introduction to the players' book of TToMP line of RPG books and my notes on how I come to write it the way I did. The first draft is the one I've written. The second one resulted from Stephen's editing revision of the first draft. There is a long way to go before we get to the final version, though. First, a lot of things may change due to your input in this column's forum. Your suggestions and criticism are invaluable. Second, there are the formal aspects that from now on will require our attention. Layout has been ignored so far, but the moment we start looking at the end product, we need to work it out. XXX volunteered to get in charge of the layout. A big applause to him, please. [Author note: When I wrote this I hoped that column-on-waiting #1 had gone online and someone had volunteered to take charge of the layout. By now you know that my plans did not materialize as I wished. Still, I decided not to change the text of column-on-waiting #2.]
Art and maps come next or, to be more precise, at the same time. James Stubbs (MetalMan for the uninitiated) will contribute to art but right now my main issue are maps. I need someone to draw the maps for TToMP players guide. I think that maps are a great way to convey information on game settings (see a little more on this bellow). I need someone that's good at the highly specialized job of drawing RPG maps. If you think you qualify, send your CV and full body photo... I mean, just say so. I look forward to have you in TToMP team.
INTRODUCING THE INTRODUCTION TO THE TToMP PLAYERS BOOK
Introductions: what are they for
What should we include in the introduction to TToMP players' book? The best way for us to make up our minds is by looking at other RPGs to see what works and what doesn't. Since I'm starting the discussion, right now I'll confine myself to what works to me, of course. You'll have time to present your case in the forums.
I have to remind what's the purpose of the book we are designing: it is supposed to be the players' book (please, refer to my previous column where I discussed this http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/columns/ruleslaw26jul01.html ).I'll recall that in my concept a player's book presents the essential rules from the point of view of the players. I designated this book the Core Rules Book for TToMP, named it 'The Annotated Book of Mendes Pinto, vol. 1' and assigned the code AB01. It is to be complemented with a book directed at the GM, the Game Masters Book ('The Annotated Book of Mendes Pinto, vol. 2' - AB02). So, I draw a sharp line between information that is relevant to the players and information that is relevant to the GM. This is important if we compare this book to what we may call omnibus RPG game books. These are books that attempt to present all the data needed to play the game. An omnibus book should include all the data that, in my approach, is contained in both AB01 and AB02. On the other hand, since my books are for a specific game world, they have more setting-specific information than what can be found in game books for games that also separate a core rules book from a game masters book, but where these are not setting-specific. I'm thinking here on the D&D line.
In any case, the game designer must consider the whole (data for players and data for GM; data about rules and data about setting) that has to be there if a game is to happen before deciding what to put where.
Now, the introduction to AB01 (the book I'm designing right now) is intended to allow players to understand where they are going to play - I'm talking setting here, not about your house in the French Caledonia - and what they are going to play (the characters in a role-playing game, of course). What exactly should I put in the introduction?
Based on what I said above, it is clear that the introduction is meant to be exactly that: an introduction to what comes next. That means that there must be a balance between what we place in the introduction and, well, what comes next. That requires us to place the introduction in the context of the omnibus of data that allow players and GM to start a game of TToMP (AB01 + AB02).
As I said before (http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/columns/ruleslaw30aug01.html), I don't believe that placing an extensive and lengthy set of data on the setting first, and the rules next is a good approach. The introduction is there to provide a rapid to digest but effective look into the setting so that the players will be able to learn the rules and understand these in context (1). I see no point in forcing one to go through all the details about the setting before starting to play. This may be ok for the GM (I don't agree with it, but I see the point) but is unacceptable from the point of view of the players. For one, they are not supposed to know all the details. These are for the GM. For another, they want to PLAY. They want to play AS SOON AS POSSIBLE (2). Reading two hundred pages of setting material is NOT the fastest way to dive into a RPG.
A possible approach is to provide no introduction to the setting and move directly to the rules. This is required by games that are not setting specific like D&D (3). Since this type of games are not setting specific apparently separate rules from setting, so they require a setting book to provide the game world. Actually this is only partially true, and an understanding of why it is true only in part points to a major concern that should be in the mind of any game book designer: the balance between what can be left implied and what needs to be expressed in the book.
For example, take the D&D 3rd ed. Players Book. We cannot say that it does not include setting content. In fact, it is filled with setting content. It defines races, classes, technology, magic, etc. All of these are setting materials at hearth. They are just not tied up to a specific setting. Instead, they are tied to a genre: medievaloid fantasy. An enterprising GM and group of players may start a game using only the PB. This is possible because D&D relies in the knowledge on the part of the players of the conventions of that particular genre. It presupposes that they read fiction or lores, saw movies or videos, discussed with friends or heard from their elder medievaloid fantasy stories. Because of that they can come out with the specifics of a fantasy setting that conforms to the conventions of the genre. The GM may actually do it on the fly (a small map, some place names, basic demographic and geographical data, and go) or steal from the treasure trove of fictional settings readily available in all corners of the different entertainment industries (literature included).
So, books like D&D PB have setting material. What they don't have is setting-specific material. And they rely to a long extent on what I termed implied setting (or genre) knowledge. That's why they can live without an introduction to the setting.
A case more in point is RuneQuest, my first RPG (4). I loved it then and I keep loving it now, and one of the reasons why I love it so much is precisely because of what I'm talking about: how to provide information to the players so that they get a good grasp of the setting without being overwhelmed by before moving to rules and play. How does RQ achieve this?
First, RQ mixes very well setting and rules information. The presentation of rules is accompanied with leads to how they did fit the setting, usually through examples of play.
In fact, in some sections there was almost impossible to distinguish setting materials from rules materials. This is most obviously true about cults. In Glorantha (the setting associated with RQ) cults play a major part in the lives of characters. They not only define what characters are but also what they can do (thus defining the choices open to their players). Cults are also deeply connected with the different cultures of the world. The end result is that the description of a cult in RQ is a major source of both setting data and rules.
Second, RQ is as graphical as possible. By "graphical" I mean the ability to provide an 'impression' on the players of how it is to be a character in the setting. It can be done through image or text. The word "impression" is very important. It points to the ability to generate an understanding in the most concise way. For instance, hundreds of descriptive text, fiction and images may end by not providing an impression but a headache while ten pages of well selected and compacted data may provide just the right impression, specially if coupled with a sparse usage of art that provides the right clues that produce the required contention of disbelief (not that the B&W art in RQ was excellent, far from it, it's just that it provided the right impression).
Fiction is to be handled with special care. In the case of RQ, it provides fiction the way that it should be used in RPG books: in examples of play, highlighting the setting, the rules and how setting and rules interact to produce an unique gaming experience (5).
Furthermore, RQ provided a wealth of descriptive and narrative setting materials spread along the book. I already mentioned the case of the cults where it is not even easy to distinguish between what is setting and what are rules. Finally, there were the maps. More on that latter.
Third, the RQ rules book never loosed the sense that it was a game resource. It was intended to lead a group of people to play a game. That's why it provided in-depth the game RULES and an IMPRESSION of the setting. Because that's all that one needs to START gaming. Granted, to KEEP gaming one needs to deepen the initial impression on the setting with an accumulation of knowledge on its intricacies. But this knowledge should not be required at the outset. On the contrary, it is supposed to grow in time, reflecting the acquisition of knowledge by both the players and their characters. The corollary is that the whole plan of the game books should reflect this by providing in the first pages the minimum of setting data that creates the required impression needed for the players to know where they are, and lead them right away to the rules that turn setting for setting's sake into setting for game's sake (6).
RQ did this through a short introduction of 4 or 5 pages where it presented the basics of the game world. Again, stile is important, it pays to be concise and factual. RQ achieves this by providing a global description of the world supported by a map (did I mention how important maps are? I must not forget to develop on this), a time line of recent events that have impact on the lives of the characters and by drawing analogies with our own real world (like saying that the setting is close to a Bronze Age civilization) that save on the need to provide lengthy explanations - the implicit knowledge I've spoken above (working on the assumption that role-players are an educated bunch of people that know what something like "Bronze Age" means).
In a sense this is not all that different from D&D. The main differences are that, since D&D is not setting-specific, it dispensed the introduction to the game world and D&D does not use examples as effectively as RQ.
And the Introduction to AB01 will contain...
Basically, three things:
The chapters that follow the Introduction in AB01 present both the rules and additional setting material (7), allowing the reader to learn more about the setting as he learns the rules (or vice-versa, learn the rules has he learns more about the setting). The introduction is to be the opening to what comes next.
A specific note on maps
I love maps. No RPG setting book should be without a good map, if not a set of maps. A good map provides a lot of information and its outlook set the tone for the game.
Why do I love so much these maps? It is not simply what each conveys on its own. It's the way they work together. The combination of these maps provides a zooming effect that is a very graphical way to move the player from a global perspective (the map of Glorantha) to an in-character perspective (the maps for the adventures).
This is especially useful for the GM. Game-mastering takes place at the micro level and the place where the first scenarios and gaming sessions take place need to be presented in detail since they are the focus of that micro level. But it's important for the GM to relate this to the general knowledge about the world that the PCs should have (ditto for the players) - the macro level that the other maps provide.
That's why I consider that the CRB for a setting-specific game should at least contain a map providing the common view and knowledge about the world that we should expect from a starting PC. This focus on the knowledge of a starting PC needs to be emphasised. The CRB is intended for players, not specifically for the GM. The setting information it must provide is the one expected on the part of PCs. The maps contained in such a book are just a way to convey that data.
On the other hand, the GMB should contain maps covering the same regions but with a lot more detail and data on them, including data that corrects common misconceptions that may have made their way into to the players map. Other books in the game line should provide detailed maps for the placements of scenarios and campaigns.
How does this translate into TToMP? Well, AB01 needs to contain a map of the globe. This map is to be complemented with a more detailed map of Asia since the PCs are going to adventure there. These maps should work to set the mood of the game and provide the information that a Portuguese going to Asia for the first time would have collected at the moment of his arrival in India. An important thing to consider is that the view of the world must reflect the perceptions of 16th century Europeans, not what we know today. For this purpose the map is to be based on 16th century maps.
Furthermore, There is no need for a detailed map of Europe and Portugal - from where the PCs come - since they are not going to adventure there. On what concerns GM resources, AB02 must contain similar maps to the ones present in AB01 but with a lot more detail.
A starting GM also needs an introductory campaign (or a set of liked scenarios). The respective book would include a map of the region of the campaign or linked scenarios (actually two maps, one for the players and one for the GM according to the principle mentioned above) and maps for the different placements within that region where action takes place.
The end result is that TToMP players will have at their disposition a set of linked maps that produce the desired zoom effect that links the macro and micro levels and provides data that may prompt role-playing.
The maps included in the draft of the Introduction were based in 16th centuries maps like map 1 and map 2. They include the data I think should be present in AB01 but need to be redrawn to get the feel and look of the old maps. Is there someone that can help me on this?
A note on art
I know what all of you are thinking: Will there be naked or topless chicks in AB01? The answer is simple and straight: Of course! And for once we do not need to feel ashamed of it or to consider it is politically incorrect. The plain truth is that, at the time, going topless was very much on the customs of South and Southeast Asian peoples.
And don't get me started on Kajo Rao.
And a final question on names and geographical descriptions
1. All through the draft I used the names of places and people in Portuguese. I did this because it is more faithful to the setting, it may be more colourful to non-Portuguese gamers and it is easier to me (I don't need to check the English correspondents). What do you think about it? Should I do this or should I use the equivalent English?
2. The geographical notes I provide in the draft combine my notes based on my readings of the sources with quotation from the sources. What would you like:
That's all for this month. It is a lot, I must confess. Your inputs on the introductory chapter will be incorporated into the final version of the introduction.
Next month I'll move on to character creation.
In the meantime, if you are good at drawing maps and have some time to spare, I would really like to have your help in designing TToMP maps.
(1) While I was writing this column there started a forum in the Game Design Forums that covers some of the issues I'm discussing. Please check http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?s=4391243f83d69b352bb0c3095f384cf0&threadid=207
(2) Granted, there are people like me that enjoy reading RPG game books by itself. But this is different from the intended purpose of the book whish is to provide a gaming tool.
(3) By the way, I should recall that it was the D&D line that defined long ago the way to distribute data I favour: CRB + GMB (for the sake of simplicity let's consider that in the context of D&D 'GMB' means 'GM Books': the DMB plus the MM).
(4) I'm talking here about the 2nd edition boxed set. It included the main rules book, BRP, a booklet that provide a simple introduction to role playing, Apple lane, another booklet with a couple of scenarios and several other materials. Truth be said that the rules book followed an "incomplete omnibus" approach. It had all the rules but he didn't include enough setting materials to allow the GM to set up a game in Glorantha, the setting presented in RuneQuest. For that purpose the GM would need to buy several other books, most notably Cults of Prax (an essential collection of major cults).
(5) I just can't see the point of fiction for fiction's sake in RPG books. A game book is a game book, is a game book. It is not a disparate collection of short stories. When I read a piece of fiction in a game book I want it to provide relevant aspects of the setting, of course, BUT I want more than that: I want also to get a grasp on how the rules allow me to impersonate my character in similar situations. I want fiction to make me a better player, not to make me a better literati. Otherwise there's no point to use fiction.
(6) A key assumption here: AB01 is, like in D&D, the critical book without whish there would be no game, to the point that in the limit a game can run only with it. So when I say "the first pages" I mean "the first pages of AB01", the first thing a prospective player or GM would need to read to learn the game. This should be enough to create the impression the players require to get into it. That impression is to be developed with the reading of the rest of the rules present in AB01. After that, actual play will do the trick. The case of the GM is a little different. He may require a lot of other documentation, specially if he is in no mood or has no time to develop it himself. Mendes Pinto book, AB02 and the other game resources should be there to fill all the gaps that the GM will distil to the players in countless hours spent around the table.
(7) In theory AB01 should be the only required game book needed to play in the world of Mendes Pinto. Any enterprising GM could dispense AB02 and other game resources if he is willing to do the research on the period or if he has access to Mendes Pinto's PeregrinaŤ‹o (either the Portuguese original or a translation). This is not to say that AB02 and the other books in the TToMP line are useless. AB02 in particular collects all the data on the setting and presents it in a way that is directly oriented to facilitate the creation of a game by the GM, something that is not there in non-game materials.
These last weeks [Author Note: Helas, "these last weeks" are long gone by now] there were a couple of excellent forums in here ("Fear & perception in combat") and here ("No Dice, No Stats, Just Character background").
The first relates to something I'll have to discuss in this column. The second relates to things that have been discussed in the past. Since I barely have time to write my column (and keep a watching eye on RPGnet) I could not participate in the forums but they are on my bookmarks list now.
Andrew and me are moving in parallel, and "No Dice, No Stats, Just Character background" shows it off. Yet, in the end we will do things differently, of course. He sums up very well the issues that a plain-language system has to address when he says the difficulties are about 1) how do players know the odds, 2) how do we modify odds, 3) the usage of situational modifiers, and 4) arbitration of favouritism and fairness on the part of the GM.
I think Andrew does not really address the last point, though. My answer is that no game is able to insure this arbitration by itself. All in all, it all goes down to GM fiat. Take, for instance, D&D. Yes, there is a nice mechanic providing a power scale that allows us to know whether the PC is stronger of weaker than the NPC. Does this avoid favouritism or unfairness? Obviously not. There are countless ways for the GM to be unfair or one sided that the rules cannot work against: he can sheat; he can use overpowerful NPCs; he can wear the PCs with endless minor encounters; he can put them against an infinite horde of enemies, each one of them perfectly balanced when compared with the PCs. He may use all kinds of tricks to make things work the way he wants.
Fairness and non-favouritism are not in-game concepts. They work at the meta-game level. They do not concern the characters and the setting. They concern the players and the GM. So, they cannot be dealt with in-game, they have to be faced at the meta level. This is true about any type of game or style of play.
IMO the more one tries to balance things by building balances and checks into the rules and the setting, the worst. It creates the illusion that the players are not in charge of fairness, takes out their responsibility for their game. Furthermore, the multiplication of rules is always bound to produce more opportunities to develop new tricks, new possibilities of bending the game to where one wants it to go, to be unfair and partial.
Just think of the poor GM that spent two hours designing that major NPC with all its nice and well thought out details, plus five hours designing several secondary NPCs and dozens of minor NPCs. Plus more several hours thinking ahead the possible interactions between the GM now-beloved NPCs and the PCs. Think of him when the players (the choice of words his critical here; players make decisions, not PCs; players interact with the GM, not PCs; role-playing always happens at two levels and one of the major difficulties is to be able to arbitrate correctly among these two levels) in an unforeseen twist, jeopardize all those hours of planning and design by either not interacting with the Major NPC or putting him to rest right away.
I said it before, I'll repeat it again: IMO fairness is achieved by acknowledging that it is the responsibility of players and GM. And having a system that works on that assumption. That's why TToMP will use a system where ability scales are relative in the terms I discussed in a past column:
When players design their PCs they have to decide how do they compare among themselves. When they do this they establish a pact among themselves as players that they will respect the relative balance between their PCs.
When the GM designs his NPCs he has to decide how do they compare to the PCs. So, he knows that he has to keep things balanced, otherwise players will not get involved and there will be a conflict. Of course, the players don't know the details of the NPCs but they know how the GM designs them and what to expect from the GM behaviour.
All these comparisons are direct: It's NPC A against PCs 1., 2., 3.; PC 1. against PCs 2. and 3.; it is not NPC against PC mediated by a rulezy scale that can be used as a defence in case of a conflict among players. The system makes obvious when all the NPCs excel the PCs (either individually or collectively) and vice-versa.