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    Iain, Ian, and You


    Our brains are divided. This is a biological fact, but it’s also something we see in the things our brain produces, from music, art, and food to society, governments, and economies. It’s also something we see in our games – in how they’re designed, in how their played, and in which ones we prefer. Come along with me while I discuss neurology, psychology, autism-spectrum disorders and, as always, your games.

    The Developer and the Designer
    You’re probably at least vaguely aware of the pop-culture psychology that talks about how different hemispheres of your brain affect your thinking. You might’ve heard or described someone who is very logical or good at math as “left-brained,” while your flaky artist friend you might call “right-brained.”
    A lot of this pop psych, like a lot of pop science, is misleading, focusing more on headlines and eyeballs than on the actual science. The brain shares what it does across the hemispheres, the structural differences can have little meaning, the brain builds and re-builds connections, and individual brains vary significantly. It’s kind of reckless to say something like “language is managed by the left side of the brain!” because ‘language’ is actually a pretty complex process and it pulls a lot from the right side of the brain. There may be a tendency, over many individuals, for the left side of the brain to favor certain aspects of grammar, but that is a less interesting headline even if it is more accurate.

    That caveat aside, the ability of the hemispheres to favor certain actions and processes in general is real. Lateralization (as it is called) isn’t a myth, it’s just not the whole story, and its explanatory power is limited.

    What is most interesting perhaps is that we see a pronounced effect of this in animals. It's not a uniquely human phenomenon, it's something that even birds and fish do. Presumably, this is because it has an evolutionary advantage of some sort -- a division of labor an attention that can be useful. Animals tend to use their hemispheres to separate the world into information control and routine behaviors on the left, and novel events, emergencies, social pressures, and intense emotions on the right. As we’ve built on this underlying framework as humans, this has become complicated, but there are still some broad generalizations we can posit. The left brain tends to help us focus narrowly, specifically, in an ordered and mechanical way. The right brain meanwhile helps us deal with novelty, to understand big ideas, abstractions, metaphor, and uncertainty.

    So it’s pretty clear what that might mean in game design and game play, right?

    Last week I talked about Skinner Box D&D and Toybox D&D. A while back I talked about mortality and gameplay vs. story (link). I’ve also talked about rules and rulings. You should be detecting a theme here, an underlying tension between something that is concrete and specific, and something that is broad and big-picture and difficult to understand. There’s always an acknowledgement that we need both, but there is this tension.

    And this tension is reflected in the structure of the brain of every person who picks up a dice and pretends to be another person, and then tries to marry those two sides of the brain at once.

    So then you have two sides, and they reflect two broad distinctions in focus for the game. On the left, you have the developer – the gal who checks the math, who strikes the balance, who ensures that the format is the same, that no one is favored, that everyone is equal and that things shake out as you’d expect from the numbers.

    On the right, you have the designer – the big-thinker, the story-maker, the one who inspires new ideas and drives development forward, who directs the ship into dark waters to explore novel concepts and large abstractions.

    When a game is at its best at your table, the two are working in concert in every player. The math works right, the story is driving the action forward, everyone feels like they are on an adventure and no one stumbles over awkward mechanics.

    When a game breaks down, it often breaks down along these lines, too. It becomes unmoored and meandering and unbelievable, or it becomes rigid and inflexible and overly rules-heavy.

    My bro Iain McGilchrist breaks it down a bit here:

    [ame="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFs9WO2B8uI"]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFs9WO2B8uI[/ame]

    The Leftward Drift
    You might see that Iain spoke toward the end of that video on how the left hemisphere has been favored in history, perhaps unfairly. The logic insists on itself. You’d also be familiar with this idea if you’ve read much about emergence, essentially the idea that things tend to become more organized without necessarily requiring outside guidance. Our societies, in many ways, do that -- more laws, more detail, more restrictions...they arise spontaneously, and appeal to our left-brained desire for order.

    We can see this also happening in D&D: the more iterations and editions it has, the more rules and more detail and more balance and more “developer-y” the game becomes. As humans, we impose the predictability and reliability of the left hemisphere’s worldview on the riotous chaos and surprising unpredictability of our own imaginations and thought processes.

    You can see this easily enough if you try to create a 1st level fighter by hand, by RAW. Do it in OD&D, then do it in 4e and compare the amount of calculation you do, the amount of rules you need to memorize, the amount of options you need to take. As D&D has developed, it has sought greater precision, greater definition, and greater detail.

    Iain has a concern about this leftward drift, and I think it’s a concern shared by a lot of D&D players about the same drift in their beloved game: we’ve entered a paradoxical world. We’ve pursued fun, but we’ve found more rules and more details and more decisions than we’ve ever had before. We’ve come to see that the endpoint of rules development is to demonstrate the limits of rules development. The need to control our characters has led to paranoia: that we need rules and balance for everything. We’ve rejected the big abstract challenging obtuse metaphor, and we’ve reduced all the actions of our imaginary magical gumdrop elves to rules things. We get a hall of mirrors effect: rules interact with rules that interact with rules, without ever referencing the engaging undefined awesome they're supposedly drawn from.

    This is the other side of the phenomena I talked about in the article on character mortality. What started with us taking a set of rules and imposing a personality on them has gone straight through to the other side where our systems now must provide rules for everything that imaginary character is capable of. Our desire for rules over rulings has somewhat turned into rules for the sake of rules, rarely drifting into the territory of the wild, the unknown, and the dangerously un-fathomable.

    There’s a guy who can show us what that can look like in the human brain. A man with the same first name, in fact. His name is Ian Bates, he loves World of Warcraft, and he has Asperger’s.
    [ame="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fziRzD05yI"]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fziRzD05yI[/ame]

    Navigating the Corpus Callosum
    The video’s a pretty powerful demonstration. When you’re done reading my sterling words, I’d recommend you read Ryan Rigney’s article, too. It nicely captures what it’s like to be so ensconced in the left-brain worldview that you lose much of your ability to veer right when necessary, and how a game that fosters both interaction and attention to detail can help both sides. He was talking about World of Warcraft, but everyone reading this article already knows that D&D is even better at both! Take the lore of the Forgotten Realms, and put five people in a room with it, and you have more extreme detail and more extreme social interaction than the computer game provides.

    Of course, Asperger’s syndrome is an extreme end. It’s over there with highly detailed rules modeling for every possible character option. That's all on the other extreme from the sort of free-form storytelling I pointed out in the rules vs. rulings article. Clearly, neither unilateral extreme is a good place to sit for long, but a truly versatile game would be able to be ultra-detailed and consistent at the rules-wonk's table, while still being open-ended and abstract and relational at the free-form storyteller's.

    Your own game probably wades between these two poles, too. It might even change with the years or with the game. Most mentally normative people naturally resist the extremes. This is really a fairly uncontroversial statement, though you might not think it judging from some message board debates: none of us are quite as extreme or unreasonable we're likely to believe others are. The D&D rules even support this moderation. Even at their most intricate and detailed, or free and open, the D&D rules were never very totalitarian. Neither should we be.

    The reason we might be is because we become reactionary. Iain’s talk implies that the tendency of our systems (including our games!) to have emergent complexity is something that we must be on guard against, so that it doesn’t replace our ability to adapt and change. Ian’s need for order, though rather extreme, isn’t entirely alien, either. As we’ve explored a few times in these articles, that order is valuable, and helpful. But if we panic in the face of openness and unpredictability, and we deride order and rules as more trouble than help, we being to vilify something that is inherently in each of us. Our brains are divided, but they are not split. We need to work in both hemispheres to keep our games engaging, fun, and entirely involved, or else we’re denying our natures.

    Now, how this looks at any one table is going to be unique. We don’t all want the same rules, or want the same freedoms, for our own idiosyncratic reasons -- our tables aren't monolithically divided in the same way. So tell me about your games. What’s an example of a rule you really like for something abstract and disembodied? What’s a rule for something concrete that you’d like to ditch? Do you have die rolls for ordering a beer at the tavern? Do you surrender encumbrance rules and just wing it? Let me know how you tweak both halves of the brain, and get them to work together at your tables. When do you roll the dice and do the math, and when do you embrace something more chaotic and unpredictable and interactive than that?
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  • #2
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    I design and play D&D as a Reality Puzzle Game. It's a memory test, but strategy (beyond choice making) matters too. It's to your benefit to think a few moves ahead.

    I basically explain it as imagining the world expressed to you by another as "real" because we often think of real as existent, an actuality we are not the whole creator of.

    To further explain it from other games I mention computer software. Do you treat computer software as your clay to create your desires? Or do you use the software as a game attempting to figure out how to accomplish your goals within it?

    I describe this as Puzzle or Palette thinking. And it's really just a perspective shift. I think when we move ourselves into character perspective we move ourselves as puzzles. Palette thinking is acting as creator of out environment except for the palette.

    I think this is basically your Skinner Box D&D or Toybox D&D.

    There are more absolutist ideologies on both sides, some that remove Free Will (choice making) as existent and others that place "Agents" in the roll of omnipotent omniscients. In my opinion, it's best not to go too overboard either way or you get shut down rigid thinking or a culture of collective solipsism.

    But in regards to Dungeons & Dragons I don't think there's any doubt it's historically a cooperative simulation game hidden behind a screen and treated like a reality puzzle. You don't have to play it that way, but it can be both beneficial and pleasurable to do so. Just look at all those who play computer games (software) as puzzles.
    Playing a game is a study. Storytelling is personal composition.

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    Ignore Walker N. Waistz
    I have found that somehow, the new Marvel Heroic Role-Playing rules from Margaret Weis's company sit in this sweet-spot between the rules and the creativity that I had forgotten was there.

    Superhero games tend to be where RPGs in general hit their limits. Comic book heroes tend to be able to do all sorts of crazy things that robust rule-sets have trouble with. If you choose an entirely narrative game, where it almost feels like you're just making things up, it allows for this, but it doesn't have enough structural to feel substantial. It stops feeling like a game, because the obstacles become relatively meaningless. Conversely, a very intricate set of RPG rules lends more than enough structure, and excels at establishing obstacles and making achievements feel substantial by making gauging relative difficulty an exact process, but those same features mean you can't have Superman move the moon out of orbit to solve a problem, because that is beyond the scale of the rules.

    I recently completed a year-long campaign of Green Ronin's d20 system based Mutants & Masterminds, which is a very granular rule-set, in which you can pretty much build anything and your character's parameters are defined very exactly. But in the end, it didn't feel much like playing superhumans. It felt like playing very tough D&D characters. And the exact math coupled with a need to adapt a large variety of concepts made it feel like every character you made was just a slider along the same spectrum. Slide it to the left, and you're Batman, hitting very accurately but doing very little damage; slide it to the right, you're the Hulk, hitting very hard but swinging wildly and often missing. Somewhere in between are everyone from Spider-man to Thor. It ended up feeling like a very precisely delineated variant of rock-paper-scissors.

    Somehow, the new Marvel rules seem to have found a perfect balance. I am not even sure I understand why, but I have never been this over the moon over rules before. Settings maybe, but not rules.

    Perhaps the magic has to do with the fact that you can just sort of take any action narratively feasible, but your character sheet lists all the die effects you can apply to doing so. Since every roll is opposed, one way or the other, there is enough challenge to make achievements matter. There is enough system for your mind to hang onto, enough structure to make it feel like you're not just improvising, but that system still gives your imagination all the free room it needs to fly.

    Kamikaze Midget, I don't know if you are familiar with the new Marvel system, but if you are, I wonder if you have any insights how it does what it does, in terms of the issues you've discussed in recent blogs.
    Last edited by Walker N. Waistz; Friday, 16th November, 2012 at 04:59 AM. Reason: typos

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    A lot of the things discussed in this article are why I like a game to have a good "physics engine." It's not because I'm a stickler for the rules, and/or because I a can only enjoy realism (though, I do tend to prefer games which have more of a nod toward it.) No, the reason is because -if the game world functions well without me needing to fiddle with it- I can spend more time thinking about story and my creative vision. When I have to disrupt my vision because the metagame concepts (i.e. level, wealth by level, the game assuming I have certain items, and etc,) force me to bend my creative vision to a set of laws and orders which don't make any sense to me. I lose my vision to the vision of someone else. So; oddly, I find that a game which starts with a better set of law and more order allows me to be more creative. That's not to say I need a ton of rules; I don't, but it does help to have rules which work in a way that is consistent with my vision and helps me to create my vision rather than one which gets in the way of my vision by enforcing a bunch of arbitrary rules which really have no context or meaning outside of the gears of said rules. I think some of the problems you highlight are more a product of modern D&D than they are a product of rpgs in general.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Walker N. Waistz
    Kamikaze Midget, I don't know if you are familiar with the new Marvel system, but if you are, I wonder if you have any insights how it does what it does, in terms of the issues you've discussed in recent blogs.
    Marvel is interesting. I've got some experience with it, and I think you're right in that it tries for a sweet spot between "rules for every little thing" a la Mutants and Masterminds and "whatever you want" from some of the more open-ended superhero RPG systems. IMXP, it hits that spot for me pretty OK, involving lots of die rolling and detail, but using your super-traits as a launching point rather than as a defined element.

    I've got a handful of other minor issues with it (mostly in the pacing department), but it does hit that zone pretty nicely!

    A game that goes a bit too far in the open-ended direction for me personally might be Sufficiently Advanced, (a post-singularity sci-fi RPG), which relies on very open-ended character traits and dice that don't represent specific traits as much as they represent general-purpose technology. Very open-ended, very right-brained, but not detailed enough for me personally.

    Quote Originally Posted by Johnny3D3D
    So; oddly, I find that a game which starts with a better set of law and more order allows me to be more creative.
    I plan on getting into this a bit more in the future, but it's sort of like how improv performers have "stock scenes:" knowing they have something they can fall back on that is automatic lets them be a little more chaotic with their scene in-the-moment.

    Of course, the flip side is that you get people who feel like they're trapped by those mechanics, if they're looking for something more open-ended.
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    For an example of what I am trying to get at, I'll bring up the ability to improvise.

    Note: I'm not trying to pick on D&D, and what I'm about to say isn't in any way intended to slight a particular edition. I simply chose it because it's an easy to illustrate example.


    For the most part, ability scores do not have much of a meaning in the context of the in-game fiction when I'm playing the current edition of D&D. What does it mean that an epic level monster has a charisma score of 40? Does it say something about the capabilities of the monster or is that score there simply because the game says it should be at that level? I tend to believe the latter is more true.

    So, what does that have to do with improvising?

    Well, while I am more then welcome to make things up as I go, I have little context to base my decisions on. Damage, HP, ability scores, and a plethora of other statistics have nothing at all to do with what feels right to me based upon my mind's vision or my desire to be creative. Instead, those statistics are very heavily tied to the concept of level. It is not a concept which is difficult to understand, and I most certainly can work with it; I've been playing D&D for quite a while. However, I find that (as briefly mentioned previously) I need to bend my vision to the desires and assumptions of the system more so than I am able to simply just create what makes sense to me and roll with it.

    In contrast, I am also a GURPS 4th Edition player, and those numbers actually mean something tangible. Because of that tangibility, if the PCs run afoul of the town guards, I have something solid to base what I feel the skill of those guards should be. If the typical guard is an average swordsman, I know offhand right about where his skill level should be. Likewise, if the captain of the guard is an expert swordsman, I know offhand right about where his skill level should be, and I also have a pretty good idea of what his other abilities should be. I feel more able to improvise based upon my vision and what feels right to me rather than feeling so beholden to metagame concepts which don't really have any sort of tangible context within the fiction of the story.

    I chose these two systems for my example because I think they illustrate different styles and allow me to contrast easily. While many people say D&D 4th Edition is a very easy game to learn and run (and I highly agree that it is,) I find that it's not always easy to improvise without needing a book in hand because I'm improvising based on abstractions and out-of-game information.

    Consistency is also an issue. I've also learned (while playing D&D) that knowing how one piece of the game works may give me no insight at all into how something else works. I'll actually pick on 3rd Edition here and bring up the rules for turning undead. I had a heck of a time remembering those rules; more so than I ever had for grappling. I was rolling a d20 and then comparing that to a chart so I could roll some d6 which I then compared to something else. I had no idea what was going on. I may not even be remembering that right.

    Bringing up consistency brings me back to improvisation too. Looking up a rule in a book is not difficult. In the case of turning, if I were going to play a cleric, I would put a bookmark in that area of the book or I would write down the things I had a hard time remembering. However, that is another example in which I would have a hard time improvising an answer and having it be close to the "correct" answer.

    In contrast, even if I completely blank on a rule in a game where there's a good "physics engine" that makes sense to me and where there is better consistency, I can guess at what feels right for the outcome and it will be pretty close to how things should work --even without stopping to look it up. Overall, my preference --when I want to be creative-- is to be able to express my vision and have a game which helps facilitate my story rather than one which opposes my vision because it has a vastly different view of how the world should work than I do.

    For me personally, I find that I have better results when I'm using a game in which the 'physics engine' of the world more closely maps to what makes sense to me. I'd rather be able to create my vision and roll with it than need to worry about shoehorning my vision into the metagame concepts of a system which don't have any kind of tangible meaning within the fiction. I find that to be true even if I am playing an outlandish and completely unrealistic game because I can always start with the more solid baseline and abstract away from it if need be. I find that going the other way --starting with something more abstract & chaotic and then trying to pair that down to a more solid experience is more difficult and hinders my vision. That isn't necessarily something which requires a lot of rules, but I do think it requires a certain style of rules; a certain consistency and style of law at the base.

    As a GM, I never feel beholden to RAW. I am well aware that individual groups can (and do) tweak systems to get an experience which suits their table best. Even in GURPS, I prefer to use a house rule which changes how Will relates to Int, and in D&D I do not run skill challenges anywhere near how they are written, and I do improvise D&D monsters. However; in the case of the current D&D edition I still find that doing so requires me to understand a sort of second reality --the reality as dictated by game. Having to take my vision and then bend it to conform to that second reality is (I feel) more difficult than if I did not need to do that.

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