Commentary, alterations, and additions for fantasy board and card games. Also home of the developing OFGI (Open Fantasy Game Initiative) as time permits.

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Shackling the Demigods

or how (and why) to temper player control of the game environment itself

One aspect of modern fantasy games that has popped up more and more is the ability of players to take control of and use the game’s environment against each other. It usually has nothing to do with character-based ability (granted or earned) inside the game itself. It is a moment where a player, not its character, tilts one or more aspects of the environment against competitors like a divine influence. Hence I’ve labeled it the “demigod mechanic.”

Personally, I don’t like it, but there are good and bad reasons for its existence and continued use. One is well intentioned in putting intention into the game’s opposition to characters. The other reason perverts the game’s inherent structure and subverts the reason for having “characters” through which players must act within the game as personas off on an adventure.

THE ENEMY WITHIN:
The Adversarial Consciousness, or AC

Most fantasy games with a developed environment — board games more than card games — have a touch of FRPG (Fantasy Role-Playing Game) in them. Admittedly, some just give this heritage lip service via motif and superficial elements. Others inherently can’t support much of this in the way they are designed; after all, they aren’t actual FRPGs and aren’t intended to be so.

In FRPG, there is one participant who is the GM (Game Master, by any other term) who does not have a character but is rather responsible for managing everything else in the game environment. This includes making choices — injecting consciousness — into any adversarial force(s) opposing the characters. Some games, like Descent, which lean toward FRPG from inside the board game realm, still use the GM paradigm. They are the exception, for they are often simplified FRPG adapted to the workings of a board game.

Generally board gamers do not want to be left out of the action as a GM. They all want to play a character (or the illusion of such) caught up in adventure. Yet in some character-based board/card games there is still a need for an intelligent opposing force standing against all characters’ hope of success and/or victory. This is the case whether characters are adventuring cooperatively, competitively, or both. Without one player sitting out of the adventure, there may still be a need for that Adversarial Consciousness (AC) built into the core game or its scenarios.

THE ULTIMATE GOLEM:
The Automaton AC [Some Assembly & Magic Required]

AC is difficult to synthesis in a board game, and even harder to do in a card game (if it requires one). Even video games involving highly sophisticated decision patterns inside their programming have limits. This is where the difficulty of overcoming monotony rears its ugly head.

In most fantasy board games, the reactions of the AC (if the game has one) are either scripted (a preset timeline) or triggered (something happens to cause a preset AC reaction inside or outside of sequencing). The best games, or their scenarios, use both. Either of these have the drawback that after multiple plays the AC becomes predictable and the game scenario becomes monotonous.

The counter balances for this are expanding game environment opportunities, components, subplots, and variety of encounters along the way to an ultimate goal. Or even providing whole new scenarios of play. But in the end, that central “plot” structure built into the game’s own mechanics varies only a little, if at all. 

Game developers know this, and there is little to be done about it, so don’t fault them. It is the nature of the beast. Without a living intelligence involved, the AC can only do what it is pre-designed to do. As players, we have to accept this, for it is part of the inherent limits of a board or card game. Getting around it without a person stepping aside to make decisions for the game environment would create so many complexities that players would either find FRPG more inviting or go looking for simplicity elsewhere in another board/card game.

There is a limited answer to this problem, which is already in growing use, but it has produced new problems of its own for the way it is implemented. Worse still, it is used less and less for an AC, if at all, and more to another purpose.

IT’S ALIVE:
A New Consciousness for the AC

In order for the AC to take action with intention — within the limits of the game’s mechanics — it needs to have intention. That means the intervention or assistance of a human intelligence. If the game is to be one for only players, without anyone sitting out the adventure as a GM, there is only one source for that intension: the players themselves.

One prime example is found in Dungeoneer. By the way, it isn’t a pure card game, since one of its decks is used purely to build an adventuring “board” that can be different each time.

During the game, characters build up “Peril” points, and the amount indicates how severe a Peril can be “played” against that character. As players draw cards for their own character, they end up with Boon and Bane cards in their hands. Boons are for their own characters, but Banes are the new way of supposedly breathing consciousness back into the AC.

Banes are played against another player’s character if that target character has enough Peril points to pay the cost of the Bane. If so, the cost is deducted form the target character’s “Peril” points, and it must face whatever nastiness is listed on that Bane card. The changing level of Peril points keeps the players in check from throwing whatever (whenever) troubles at each others characters… supposedly. The players give a sense of purpose, intention… conscious choice to the AC in attempting to stop or defeat other characters. At least that’s how it should work.

The Runebound expansions known as Character Class Decks have the same basic mechanic using different terms. It does raise an eyebrow for how similar — nearly identical — they are to the Dungeoneer mechanic. But Dungeoneer had it first between these two, and by three years at least.

This is not unusual. The way laws work, and the fact that most game mechanics can be traced back for hundreds if not thousands of years, means nearly all game “mechanics” cannot be copyrighted.

Add in that not all countries respect others’ copyright laws, and international law is only as good as the weakest set of laws between contesting companies of differing countries, and just about anything goes.

I am of course oversimplifying, but I’m betting few of you have a deep interest in the laws of the gaming industry. So long as one company doesn’t use copyrightable aspects of another’s game, they constantly “borrow” from each other — and from players own additions, for that matter.

So this is how intention was put back into the Adversarial Consciousness without one person being forced to sit aside and do no more than that during a game. All of the players (as possible) individually contribute to AC’s decisions. Sounds like the best solution? No, not really, but it may be the only one. The problem here is the AC’s intention changes erratically.

IT’S INSANE:
The Schizophrenic AC

schiz·o·phre·ni·a [skit-suh-free-nee-uh, -freen-yuh]
  1. Psychiatry. A severe mental disorder characterized by some, but not necessarily all, of the following features: emotional blunting, intellectual deterioration, social isolation, disorganized speech and behavior, delusions, and hallucinations.
  2. a state characterized by the coexistence of contradictory or incompatible elements.

The problem with a player invested AC is the lack of continuity. It is unfocused, or rather its focus is narrow and in the moment, rather than looking to all of the characters, all of the opposition, ranged against it. This is true whether the game in question has an ultimate force or enemy seeking some grand effect or just looking to stop the characters from achieving their individual goals towards winning the game. It might work if the effects played were predominantly tossed at the lead or strongest threat to the AC, but that’s not really how those cards are being played. And we all know it.

Even if the players all work with the AC’s purpose in mind instead of their individual goals, there’s another bigger problem. Investing that shared collective of intentions into the AC isn’t the reason for this mechanic anymore. The very way this mechanic is implement, and another reason why it is done, hints at why I call it the Demigod Mechanic.

IT’S ENSLAVED:
Demigods and Meat-Puppets

Most fantasy tales involve heroes (or villains) on quests, missions, or just traipsing about looking for power, riches, and glory. They could end up at the far reaches of a vast land. This means that “character” interaction is often minimal if the represented land, board, or other playing area is quite large. The only factor that changes this is when the land, the field of movement and play, is micronized.

Talisman is a good example, for as much as its generic spaces where Adventure cards are drawn represent multiple instances of said terrains between other locations, the number of such is small and movement is one dimensional. Characters move along a set course, clockwise or counterclockwise in three concentric regions around the board.

Even with the game’s purely random movement, characters run into each other sooner or later. The more characters in play, the more often it happens. That’s what modern players seem most interested in; getting at each other, sometimes to the point of a death match video game. There’s nothing wrong with that at the character level, but in other games like Runebound this is not so possible. 

Talisman has its own variation of a demigod mechanic — its randomly potent Spell cards serve a similar purpose. But that’s a topic for another time.

Runebound’s board is much more like a “land” or small continent. Characters often end up far from each other. The focus is more on what each one can accomplish on its own. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, except that modern players expect that competition be involved not only in succeeding in what they do but in hampering and/or rubbing out the competition. And there’s nothing wrong with that… if it’s actually the characters doing it.

So how does a game satisfy that base bloodlust when characters are rarely in reach of each other? The answer is in the very term “demigod mechanic,” for the competitive interaction is no longer about “characters” in the game; its about “players” outside of the game environment.

The only part the character plays is as target. The player is no longer invested in the character, which at this point isn’t even an avatar. The characters have become meat puppets to be manipulated, demigod-like, by the players. The AC’s schizophrenia magnifies to the point where it fades like a mad but impotent specter to be ignored until any ultimate challenge in the game is finally faced.

Cards acquired by players to play against each other no longer represent, nor function as, the game’s internal opposing force trying to stop all characters. And that is the primary way this potentially useful mechanic for the AC is now used… mostly because it was implemented the wrong way or for the wrong reasons. It was implement for the sake of Player vs. Player in a game that was supposed to be about Character vs. Character, and the difference between the two should now be obvious.

Frankly, I think I’d be better off going back to the video game death match. It’s pure, with no complicating purpose other than to kill anything that moves but me. It’s usually got a nice tight environment in which all combatants are forced to maneuver, but that’s not why I (and others) play fantasy board and card games. We like the idea of competing against that ominous evil in an epic quest, with other characters either in competition, cooperation, or both. It’s not as complicated or time consuming as an FRPG, but in some cases in can still be far beyond something like Monopoly. But there is still the need for that ominous something to have a purpose in its ultimate Adversarial Consciousness.

SHACKLING THE DEMIGODS, or Players:
Tempering Peril Play with Peril Activation

As inferred and implied, there is no easy solution here, nor a perfect one. There never will be. Without one person invested solely in the AC, the players are the only ones present to instill it with moments of purpose. If this takes the form of cards played against other players’ characters, then the players have to be able to play the cards for the AC. I reiterate — for the AC, not for themselves.

Most players will still expect tactical choices as to when and against whom those cards are played. The only solution is to insert a somewhat random filter gate for how played cards are activated. That gate sits between the player playing the card and the other player — or rather its character — being targeted. This filter system is called a “Peril Stack.”

This approach will only work in games where Peril, Bane, etc. cards are played based on the target character having an accounted attribute, such as Peril Points. Games using other methods (tokens, dice, etc.) to throw nastiness at each other need some other mechanic. That can be covered at another time. Here’s how the Peril Stack works.

At the beginning of any turn, before the current player takes action, any player holding a Peril-type card may play it face down atop the Peril Stack. If during the current player’s turn, its character’s Peril points total changes in any way (up and/or down) at any time, it must immediately draw the top card if there are any cards on the Peril Stack.

  • If the character does not have enough Peril points to pay the card’s cost, that card is place facedown on the bottom of the Peril stack. All Peril cards once played will remain in the stack until resolved by a character.
  • If the character does have enough Peril points to pay the card’s cost, it does so immediately and resolves the Peril card. Once a Peril card is resolved, if it cannot be kept for some benefit, it is placed face up next to the Peril Stack in a discard pile for potential later use.

Naying at the Nay-Sayers

Those who justify Player vs. Player as the same as Character vs. Character will be the first to reject this approach. But they just want to retain they’re momentary godhood in making others suffer without fear of their own malice turning back on them. That top card played might not hit the character of the current player taking a turn. It may not even hit the others before the one who played it has to take its own turn. Pay back time from the AC!

We can ignore such players as too lazy to see the subtle tactical choices herein.  After all, I did say any player can play a Peril card on the stack at the beginning of any turn.

Playing Smart with Perils

If the current player holds a low cost, low threat Peril card when someone else puts a card on the Peril Stack, the current player can play its own Peril card on top before taking its turn. Yes, that low cost card has a greater chance of coming at it, if its character’s Peril shifts in any way during its turn. But the option to be certain of a lower threat to face might be worth that tactical choice.

Or perhaps in seeing that other player place a card on the Peril stack, the current character gains a premonition that something bad is about to happen. It doesn’t know what that something might be, but its got a really bad feeling based on its current course of action. It may have “in the moment” choices to avoid taking any risks that might alter its Peril level. Doing so usually includes avoiding going after personal gain, as that is often when Peril points change. In its delay of gains, the one who played the Peril card still gets some advantage.

In addition, all Players see a Peril card go into the stack. No more sudden godhood for any one player striking down another’s character. All characters in the game get this intuition that something nasty has appeared on the horizon. As nonsensical as that is, it levels the playing field.

All Players must decide when and if to play a Peril card, for once it is played, it remains in the stack until any character resolves it. A player with a character “in the lead” might want to start loading the Peril Stack with some lower cost Perils to slow down its opponents. Players with characters that have fallen behind might play high cost Perils at the right moment, for a character in the lead has probably built up some Peril points. But it is all leveled by the Peril Stack, and the uncertainty principle is reintroduced.

The AC’s Grand Plan

The level of additional threats from the AC build up, but they do so in a more sensible fashion, if the players make conscious choices about when to best play their Peril cards. None of them will waste playing a high Peril card if the current player’s character has a low Peril Point count. They want to add to the Peril Stack something that will be encountered before their own turn.

In addition, if all Perils in the stack have been encountered, any that were discarded are then shuffled and turned over for a new Peril stack. Perils in players hands are then played on that stack as usual. This approach to Peril play can mean tempering the play of Perils, and thereby most players will be quite careful early in the game in what they place on the stack. But as the game progresses, and characters take actions to avoid an unknown Peril, the Peril discard pile will grow. Even when all the cards have been draw and encountered, the discard pile gets shuffled and turned over. This functions logically as the AC stepping up its efforts against the characters as the game draws closer to its ultimate climax.

The decision as to when Peril cards come into play is still in the hands of the players; they can choose when they think the odds are in their favor against their opponents. But ultimately, the game itself decides what happens as the Peril Stack grows in size and potency. The AC acts as the demigod now, and Players are reduced to its supplicants. The cards they play on the Peril stack are their wishes and prayers for the AC to turn away from them and go after their competitors. But the AC has its own goals, and it is spiteful and wicked.

IS IT ALL WORTH IT?

This is just one possible solution to pulling the Demigod Mechanic into check and using its devices for something better — that Adversarial Consciousness that exists in the best high/epic fantasy games. It might not be the only solution, and it certainly needs more thought and refinement. But it’s the only notion I’ve worked out that partially satisfies the intended goal. There is a need to enliven the AC by putting the Demigod Mechanic into the AC’s service. That being said…

I invite everyone interested to offer up their own solutions. In fact, if you have one that addresses Peril-like influences based in tokens, dice, etc. instead of cards, that would be great as well! The more ideas generated, the more we have to (1) pick from for our own preferences and/or (2) amalgamate into something more refined.

I’ll leave it at that with my thanks for taking the time for another long read. Happy gaming!