Friday, December 05, 2003

ForeSight Revisited and the Theory of Fun

It seems that after a long time in the wilderness, ForeSight is going to be published (or republished, depending on how you look at it) and so the history of this project has been turning over in my mind.

ForeSight was originally designed in 1984. It was first used outside my circle of friends for a small role-playing tournament in Armidale (a small town in northern New South Wales) in early 1985. One of its key design constraints from day one was that it be easy to pick up and play.

I designed ForeSight as a direct consequence of the “death” of SPI. I had just spent nearly six months writing a sourcebook for SPI’s UNIVERSE, which I considered to be the first Science Fiction role-playing game to be worth playing. I thought UNIVERSE suffered from not being generic (or as I would later put it, “transparent”), in that it tacitly assumed, within its rules, that the setting worked in a particular way (e.g. psionics existed and were required for interstellar travel). In effect, UNIVERSE was like a Science Fiction equivalent of RuneQuest, only without any explicit information on Glorantha.

I thought that UNIVERSE’s background setting needed to be explicitly documented to allow players and gamemasters to make sense of the rules, and so I designed a very detailed setting that was consistent with UNIVERSE’s implied setting (insofar as that was possible: in UNIVERSE an admiral’s annual retirement income was not enough to rent a “common” household robot) along with rules to fill yawning gaps in UNIVERSE’s existing rules (e.g. rules for building your own spaceships that didn’t have gaping loopholes).

Now, I was young so perhaps my naïve belief that the world’s (then) largest game company would even consider publishing a supplement to its science fiction RPG that defined its setting without having consulted the designers of that game (who presumably had their own setting) may be forgivable. (Certainly, Chaosium would have laughed at anyone attempting to write a complete description of Glorantha having read only RuneQuest 2nd Edition, but as I say, I was young and naïve.)

In any event, SPI was not long for this world, and before they had time to reject “The Gamemaster’s Guide to UNIVERSE”, TSR had taken them over via means described thoroughly elsewhere (look for Greg Costikyan’s blog using Google). The last thing TSR would be doing any time soon was reprinting SPI’s RPG rules or new supplements for them. (Eventually, Ballantine reprinted UNIVERSE, with a very useful skill summary table, and DragonQuest 2nd Edition, with a few errors corrected. Years later, TSR would publish an incompetently bowdlerized DragonQuest 3rd Edition for reasons that escape me.)

So I found myself with a pretty nice science fiction setting and no rule system to use it with. (Traveller, like UNIVERSE and RuneQuest, tacitly assumed a background setting, but in its case a background setting that made no sense. Furthermore, it was missing an experience system and pretty much missing a resolution system. It seemed to be inclined towards combat but its combat system was terrible.)

One day I had one of my usual arguments with a bunch of friends who played AD&D, my position – as usual – being that AD&D was so awful that it would be hard to deliberately design something worse, and was told – as usual – that if I were so smart I should design my own game system. Given my “need” for a good Science Fiction role-playing system, this time I decided to do so.

ForeSight was not the result of any kind of “not invented here” syndrome. I was perfectly happy to use DragonQuest or RuneQuest for fantasy gaming. My friends used Champions and other Hero System games for superhero and pulp games. I’d used UNIVERSE because it was the best system available, but it was in desperate need of reform, and between all twenty-odd of us we had three copies of the rules, and two belonged to me.

UNIVERSE had several key shortcomings that had to be addressed immediately:

  1. Its resolution system was entirely special-case driven. There was no general rule on how anything worked, instead you got a formula and modifiers to cope with each individual circumstance. (D&D 3rd Edition has just managed to attain this level of imperfection!)
  2. It was not “transparent” in that if you looked at your setting through the “window” of the game system, what you saw was grossly distorted. (No RPG is perfectly “transparent”, although GURPS at least tries. D&D is perhaps the most egregious example, in that it has all kinds of ridiculous assumptions in its rules that aren’t even intended to reflect the settings the designers had in mind when they designed it.) Setting-based assumptions were ingrained into every single game system, starting with character creation.
  3. Its character representation rules were ugly. Most characters had the maximum possible human strength, one attribute was on a different scale from all other attributes (for no good reason), while another attribute (Aggression) frequently dictated a character’s behavior and wasn’t something he/she chose during character creation.
  4. A lot of its systems were complex and inflexible. UNIVERSE was designed by war gamers and you could tell. The encounter system, for example, assumed characters (and the parties they encountered) were pretty much automatons.
  5. Key rules, e.g. starship design and robot design, were missing. Why would I want to design new rules for a “dead” game system?
  6. Playing the game required a lot of bookkeeping. E.g. you needed to track experience points separately for every skill.
  7. Playing the game required frequent references to the rules. Some common procedures (e.g. encounters and reactions) were simply to complex to remember. And the special-cases in the skill system always needed looking up. (Even the Ballantine edition’s two page summary of all the skill special cases was only a partial solution.)
  8. Some of the game design was just plain bad. E.g. the number of experience points needed to improve a skill’s level increased linearly with level. So far so good: rules that create laws of diminishing return are, in general, a good thing. But the benefit obtained from a skill level increased linearly with level, which in effect simply meant that skill improvement became choppier with level, and there were no diminishing returns. In summary, the skill system was complex with no end benefit.
  9. The combat system (even if you don’t use it, it’s nice to know it’s there) was both ugly and poorly designed. In part, this was because UNIVERSE tried to cope with vehicular, personal, melee, and fire combat with one set of rules. In part, this was because UNIVERSE owed a lot to tactical board wargame design ideas SPI presumably had “lying around” (it's almost certainly no coincidence that SPI's single-man tactical combat games, Patrol and Sniper, used the same scale). In part, I just don’t think the designers really thought it through. The single worst feature was simply this: combat was resolved on a 5 metre hex grid. A game that doesn’t differentiate between grappling with someone hand-to-hand and standing three metres away is, in essence, not a role-playing game. Or to look at it another way, the most popular kind of weapon in modern and science fiction is the handgun whose accuracy diminishes from very high to very low between zero and five metres.  (I won’t even go into how bad Traveller’s combat system was, but let’s remember that I think UNIVERSE was the best set of rules then available.)

So, at the very minimum, my game would need to address these key shortcomings. Although I didn’t necessarily articulate all these ideas at the time, ForeSight’s design principles were clearly a direct reaction to my problems with UNIVERSE, and thus I wanted to be sure that:

  1. ForeSight should have one resolution system for all purposes.
  2. ForeSight should be transparent.
  3. ForeSight should be able to represent any realistic fictional or historical character.
  4. ForeSight's rules should be as simple and intuitive as possible. It should be obvious how and when to ignore and adapt them.
  5. ForeSight should include all the key rules systems a player would reasonably need for a science fiction campaign. No expensive supplements required to build spaceships or play a mercenary.
  6. ForeSight should require little or no bookkeeping.
  7. ForeSight should be playable with all the rules you could remember.
  8. The intention of ForeSight’s rules should be clearly explained, and its rules should implement these intentions.
  9. ForeSight’s combat system needed to kick ass (and shoot ass and stab ass). It needed to cope with the key situations in action/adventure stories, such as hostage situations, ambushes, and negotiations turned sour. Most RPG combat systems (adapted, as they were, from wargames) tacitly assumed that you will almost always fight a meeting engagement (military units move into range of each other). Anything else is more or less ignored, or handled by “surprise” rules. Adventure stories almost never involve meeting engagements. So this is a big problem with almost all RPG rules, but it’s truly appalling when combatants have firearms (or magic spells), and the first shot often decides the outcome.
  10. ForeSight should be easy to learn.

This seems like a nice set of nearly mathematical axioms, but where does "fun" come into all this? Does fun, somewhat like humor, disappear when carefully examined? Fun is something that eludes theory but can be handled practically. Simply stated:

  1. One designs a game one imagines will be fun. (This is a creative process, and defies theory.)

  2. One plays the game.

  3. One enhances or leaves alone the things that were observed to be fun, and changes, removes, or streamlines the things that were observed not to be fun.

  4. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This iterative approach essentially paraphrases the approach taken by Valve in producing their highly successful and widely acclaimed computer game, "Half Life". Another comment by a computer game designer (I forget his name, but he worked for Electronic Arts at the time) to the effect that a good [computer] game is, in essence, an enjoyable activity combined with an excuse for repeatedly engaging in it, effectively constitutes a usable theory of fun.

A lot of considerations that impact fun are implicit in the considerations above: looking up game rules in the middle of play is not fun and should be avoided. If it were fun, then things would be different. (Paranoia, for example, is far more fun to read than play, so this principle can be turned on its head.)

I owe a lot to the people who tested and criticised ForeSight in 1985 and 1986. I don’t have a list of them all anywhere: they included players in tournaments, friends of friends, and members of ASGARD (our role-playing club). This group was unusually diverse, intelligent, and (crucially) critical.

Unlike many role-playing games, ForeSight was designed from scratch and not essentially something that evolved as a “mod” to an existing game system. Some ideas, notably the resolution system (which is derived from that of Victory Games’ James Bond 007), were adapted from existing game systems, but this was done with a great deal of care (and usually after considering alternatives including entirely innovative systems).

Also, unlike many role-playing games, ForeSight was thoroughly play-tested and blind-tested. I won’t go into what I think of the standards of testing that go into most commercial RPGs.

When it was finished, I sent letters to the three game companies I admired most (given that SPI was gone). Victory Games sent me a horrifying waiver of rights that I had to sign before they would even read my letter. Chaosium said that they were designing their own Science Fiction RPG, “Known Space”, which would be an expanded version of their lamentable “Ringworld” – they didn’t want my game as a whole but they might like to cannibalise it. West End games wanted to see my game. I sent it to them and eventually it was rejected. Greg Costikyan (whom I spoke to) cited some aesthetic issues (it had too many skills – although it had far fewer than their own game Paranoia and covered vastly more ground, and they thought that giving atmosphere compositions in terms of their effect – e.g. “poisonous” – rather than chemical makeup – e.g. “chlorine” – seemed less scientific), but mainly they felt that Science Fiction games were unmarketable. As evidence, he cited disappointing sales of his game “Web War”. So it goes.

I eventually ended up publishing ForeSight myself in 1987. The total cost for printing 200 and binding 150 copies of the rules was $900 (Australian dollars). I sold every copy bar two (which I kept for myself) for $12-15 wholesale (RRP was $25). I also had a small number of copies hardbound. One of these copies has been stolen, and a game collector somewhere has been trying to buy it from the thief for some time. So it goes.

I eventually updated ForeSight. The result, ForeSight Enhanced, was a considerably less professional or satisfying product (it was staple- rather than perfect- bound for starters), which sold fairly well. ForeSight Enhanced’s improvements to ForeSight were largely successful, although most players prefer the treatment of Fields of Knowledge in the original rules, and prefer the way the combat rules in the original rules were presented, although they prefer the way the newer rules work. Probably the single most significant improvement to ForeSight in ForeSight Enhanced was replacing the superficially compelling idea that “older characters have more skills” with the far more useful idea that “characters with more interesting backgrounds have more skills”.

Some aspects of ForeSight have been found, over time, not to be fun, and these need to be changed, streamlined, or removed. The main example of this is spacecraft design and combat. My approach is simple: vehicle pursuit and combat has, over time, been found to be fun, so why not treat spacecraft as other vehicles? This is not realistic, but if I have learned one thing from designing and playing ForeSight, realism should always inform game design, but never dictate it. Another key component of the game has fallen out of synch with scientific thinking and observation (Star System Generation) and also contains tacit background information. This, too, needs revision.

Given the hundreds of players and nearly two decades that have passed since this game was originally designed, the new ForeSight should be a truly robust set of rules. If you've read some of my ramblings, you'll know that I am very disappointed by the tack that game design – paper game design in particular – has taken over the last fifteen to twenty years, learning nothing from what has preceded it (except perhaps how to squeeze more money out of teenagers). I hope if nothing else, ForeSight can serve as a marker for where the State of the Art could and should be. Oh, and I hope that it's even more fun than the original.