Tag: game design

Faith in Play #24: The Christian Veneer

This is Faith in Play #24:  The Christian Veneer, for November 2019.


My attention was called to a crowdfunding effort for a Christian-themed game.  This was long enough ago that I expect, or at least hope, that nothing I say will impact the success of that funding effort, because it really looks like it might be a good game and I hope they succeed in bringing it to print.  However, it was presented to me through a Christian gaming forum, and the tag line was

Be the first of the wise men to reach the Christ child in Bethlehem. A new Christmas game tradition.

It was being produced by a company named Christian Haven, which is confusing because it appears that that actually is the name of the senior designer on the project, and not a clever idea for a name for a company that produces Christian games.

My gut reaction to that blurb was, how is it not a remake of Parcheesi?

In fairness, that’s a bad reaction on two fronts.  First, just because a game draws strongly on the design of another game doesn’t mean the new version is not as good or better than the old.  I spent many hours in past decades enjoying the game Sorry, which is essentially just Parcheesi with cards and a few other quirks; Trouble is also Parcheesi, but with the Pop-o-Matic® dice thing (a great idea for kids’ games because you can’t easily lose the dice).  Another version of Parcheesi could be a fine game, and shouldn’t be discounted simply for being a bit derivative.

It’s a bad reaction on the other front because the game is a lot more complicated than merely a remake of Parcheesi.  There appears to be the potential for intricate strategy, the involvement of random complications, and the necessity for resource management.  Its resemblance to the classic board game is minimal.

Yet my problem is whether it is a “Christian” game.

Perhaps I am too hasty.  Nothing on the funding page claims that this is a “Christian” game; it is billed as a “Christmas” game.  Christian Haven can’t help having been given that name.  On the other hand, one of the mechanics involves answering trivia questions, and half of these are Bible-based (the other half based on “history”).  It is clearly a game for Christians.  That of course does not make it a Christian game—there are many things marketed to and for Christians which in themselves are not “Christian” and which are sometimes even a bit dubious in their values.  I could raise issues with any game, but I have fewer complaints about this one than I have with Monopoly.

I am thrown back to that unanswerable question:  what would make a game “Christian?”  I proposed a design for an activity I called a Christian Game a couple years ago, and one of my readers teased that only I would call an exercise in Biblical exegesis a “game.”  I’ve commented before that I don’t have a definition of “game” that would include everything I would include and nothing I would exclude, and that only complicates the matter.  Yet I find it difficult to label anything “Christian” beyond people and groups of people and their interactions.  That in itself suggests that there ought to be something like a Christian game.  However, I’ve been Chaplain of the Christian Gamers Guild for about two decades now, and the only use of that phrase I can genuinely defend is that it identifies any game played in a Christian way by Christians.  You can’t put that in a box.  A Christian theme and a Bible trivia mechanic make a game that will appeal to Christians and not to others, but that’s just a coating on a game.  If it were about Muslim pilgrims racing to Mecca and had Koran trivia cards, it would be the same game for a different audience; that version would no more be a Muslim game than this one is a Christian one, because the game has not changed, only the veneer.

Again, none of this is passing judgment on whether the game in question is a good game.  It probably is.  I just don’t think it’s necessarily a Christian game, and wouldn’t want it marketed as such.

Editor’s note: The name of the game in question is Stella Nova: Journey of the Magi.


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RPG-ology #23: Nonrandom Thought

This is RPG-ology #23:  Nonrandom Thought, for October 2019.


A long time back in Faith and Gaming:  Mechanics we talked about Fortune, one of three methods of resolving outcomes in our games:  the use of dice, cards, and other randomizers to create unpredictable random outcomes.  We discussed then the question of how Christian faith relates to randomness.

Of course, the randomizers we use in our games are not entirely random.  That’s what we’re talking about now.

17th Security Forces Squadron Police Officer, John Hernandez, practices approaching the scene of an active shooter during the tactical driving course at the shoot house on Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, Feb. 27, 2019. Individuals practiced engaging targets while operating a vehicle and navigating through multiple advanced driving courses. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Seraiah Hines/Released)

As I was musing on probabilities, I read a headline that stated that there was a drive-by shooting in a nearby town.  I’m sure that the town would like to think of itself as a city—it happens to have the largest geographical area of any municipality in the state, and I am told that police in our county seat jokingly refer to their law enforcement division as “the real police,” but it is largely rural space save for a long developed commercial district along three or four crossing roads.  The headline surprised me, and got me wondering about the probabilities of being killed in a drive-by shooting.  It appears that there are hundreds every year in the United States, so the probability of someone being killed in such a shooting on any given day is near one hundred percent—but the probability that it would be any specific individual is negligible, something that could not reasonably be anticipated.

Still, I doubt anyone would argue if I suggested that the probability of being killed in a drive-by shooting is significantly higher in sections of Chicago than it is in the rural counties of New Jersey.  Such shootings may seem in one sense completely random, but they aren’t completely random.

That is our objective when we design fortune mechanics for our games:  attempt to reflect the probabilities of any particular outcome.  It is not particularly likely that a character would be killed in a drive-by shooting, but if we have that in our games we want it to be something that might happen in our cities and probably won’t happen in our towns.  On our “wandering monster” tables, dragons are very rare and orcs rather common, because we envision our fantasy worlds as overrun by orcs but containing relatively few reclusive dragons.  In some situations we achieve that by “curves”—the roll of three six-sided dice to generate character abilities in most versions of Dungeons & Dragons is a solid example.  One character in two hundred sixteen will roll a natural 18 strength; a like number will roll a 3.  One out of seventy-two will roll a 17, and a similar number a 4.  Most characters will roll more or less ordinary strength, between 8 and 13, just as most people have average strength.  The “randomness” is structured.

So, too, in combat, in most games there is a value that hits and a value that misses, and a range of values between the two for which how good the two combatants are, one at offense and the other at defense, determines which ones hit and which ones miss.  There is randomness—you can always roll a miss no matter who you are—but it is controlled.

So how do you do that?  This column can barely begin to scratch the surface of such discussions.  The primer in Appendix 3:  Basic Dicing Curves in Multiverser:  Referee’s Rules is eleven pages long.  There are a lot of ways to use dice to create different kinds of outcomes, and some of them are considerably more difficult to calculate than others.  However, the calculation process is part of the game design process:  you need to work out how your probabilities are falling.  This will at least get you asking the right questions, and in today’s world once you’ve asked the question you can find the answer somewhere.

Probably.


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Faith in Play #19: Simulationism

This is Faith in Play #19:  Simulationism, for June 2019.


One of the complications of discussing whether what’s called “simulationism” in Ron Edwards’ Big Model is that even Ron Edwards has had trouble figuring out what it is.  We have looked at gamism and narrativism, and decided that there are Christian values in those approaches to play, even if there are also pitfalls.  Yet if we’re going to consider simulationism, we’re going to have to understand what it is.

As I covered in the third part of Theory 101 for Places to Go, People to Be some years back, Creative Agenda (or the French translation Théorie 101 – 3e partie : Les propositions créatives), simulationism is driven by the desire to learn, to know, to experiment and understand.  That’s why it seems to have so many expressions–from the players who have their characters leap off cliffs because they have calculated that the fall won’t be fatal to those who become involved in the minutiae of combat to those who explore geography and culture.  Simulationism is expressed in other activities, in participating in war reenactments, watching travelogues and cooking shows, even taking college courses as a recreational activity.  For many people, the drive to know is what controls the way they play their games.  It is something of a vicarious experience, the feeling of being there, and so coming away with some notion of what it would be like to be there.

Simulationism is walking a mile in the other man’s shoes.  It is exploring what life would be like in another time or place.  It is learning, gaining knowledge.

I once had a debate with my brother in which he put forward as a premise that knowledge was inherently good, and that it was always good for knowledge to be disseminated to as many people as possible.  I objected to the premise.  Knowledge, I asserted, was a useful tool which could be used for good.  I think that is where this discussion ultimately takes us:  how will we use the knowledge we gain from our play, our experimentation, our vicarious experience?

That doesn’t mean that such play, such motivation, is wrong if we can’t identify the benefit before we play.  Scientists (and there’s a simulationist motivation if ever there was one) speak of the importance of “basic research”, that is, experimenting in directions with no immediate obvious value because when you don’t know what you might learn you can’t predict how it might be useful.  Many of our modern conveniences have their roots in someone simply wanting to know what would happen if, and then asking how that could be used.  Learning has value, even when we don’t always see the value immediately.  The high school student who challenges that he’s never going to need to know the math or science or history lessons he is forced to learn is short-sighted, and life will probably surprise him at some point.  Not everything we learn is useful, but it is often the case that we learn useful things from unexpected sources.

There are pitfalls in this.  Sometimes we want to know some things that it is better not to know.  We have all heard the idea that you “can’t unsee” something, and there are undoubtedly things you wish you’d never learned.  That doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t have learned them–only that sometimes what we know is not always an encouragement to us.  We would like to keep our minds always on the good, pure, honorable, of good repute, excellent and worthy of praise, but then, we are also to be wise as serpents while being innocent as doves.  Maybe there are things you don’t need to know, that would tear down rather than build up–I am persuaded that I don’t need a comprehensive knowledge of horror movies, although I do need a working knowledge of some of the important ones (Poe, Shelley, Stoker, Alien, Terminator) just to do my job.  Maybe you need to know more; maybe you don’t need to know as much.  Yet learning is valuable, and simulationism is about wanting to learn.

So we find once again that Christians can find value in all three of the “creative agenda” that drive our play.  It’s just a matter of understanding how to do this to the glory of God and the edification of ourselves and others.


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Faith and Gaming: Christian Games

boardgame_journeys_paul
The Journeys of Paul board game by Cactus Game Design, Inc.

Last month’s installment of Faith and Gaming, Making Peace, was the twelfth in the series. We’ve been talking about the integration of faith and gaming for a year now; and that in itself could be a call to go back to the beginning and consider our basic purpose. But I recently read these words in a public forum, from a Christian who is a gamer; and this idea (edited for punctuation and grammar) also brought me back to the preliminaries we discussed a year ago, the basic reason why we’re talking about faith and gaming at all.

I’ve never been terribly fond of Christian games, though, to be honest with you, partly because I think that the subject matter is where I draw a line between fantasy world and reality. I don’t want to put my Christianity on the shelf with my gamebooks. I keep my Bibles in a different bookcase…

I agree, but I disagree. Read more