Saturday, November 7, 2020

Vagueposting- Boardgamification

I've heard a few interesting design philosophies (or more accurately, interpretations of design philosophies) from certain old school games. Back in the olden days of OSR, which was much before I was even alive, the game was smaller in scope. You can see this represented in the rules; Elves are immune to Ghoul Paralysis because in the game's scope, Ghouls are the specific threat with paralysis. There's less of an interest of holistic, setting or in-universe concepts. It's very game first. The same interpretation could also be said of the original five saving throw categories; these were almost supernatural luck or defenses against specific threats, not a full character breakdown or abstract saves that can be called into question for anything related; saves vs dragon breath or breath weapon specifically works against dragon breath. It's not a dodge, it's your defense against dragon breath.

I think this concept, which I am hearby naming Boardgamification, is something I want to explore more. I'm 100% sure this has a different, better name somewhere else, but until I find it I'm sticking to it. Let's define the term a little bit. Boardgamification is the reverse-engineering of a tableop game system or storytelling system which tries to break the game into core components, make them specific and as simplistic as possible, and rebuild the game with a similar tonal fidelity as to the original. You're trying to make your tabletop games play like board games, and not good board games, but the Ameritrash board games from your childhood. You know, that Dracula board game where you have to find the holy water, stake, and garlic to kill Dracula not because they do anything special or have associated mechanics with them that would make them a good fit to defeat him, but because that's what is used to kill Dracula.

HOWEVER, it should be stated here that this is not trying to make D&D or various roleplaying systems into board games. That's not the point, this is very much supposed to be about tabletop games. I like tabletop games; like many of you I'm sure, I got my start in this hobby by making up my own rules for board games I owned; opening up the idea space. In RISK, cannons could shoot from a territory away. It had nothing to do with the game balance or concept that a cannon was just ten regular soldiers; it was a cannon. I also know that “artillery” is the real term for these pieces, but I don't care. They're cannons. They shoot.

For the optimal, platonic ideal of a roleplaying game then, we could see the ease of rules and learning that a board game might have, in combination with the unlimited idea space and universe-sharing of a tabletop game. These two ideas are not mutually exclusive, but they don't mesh well either. The more you codify into rules the less arbitration you allow, but the more arbitration you allow the less it feels like a solidified “whole” ala a board game. I don't think it will be possible, or even necessarily desirable, to actually accomplish “Boardgamification” of your favorite tabletop game, but I felt like writing on this topic, and have several elements or suggestions as to how one could do it.

Make Things Binary (Combat)
I think one element of Boardgamification is the removal of game elements that have multiple states or variable values such as hit points, modifiers, currency values, etc. Monsters are either beaten, or beat you. There isn't a long battle sequence or blow-by-blow combat. There can be random chance here, such as with a simple contested roll adding a stat or character/combat value, but this takes away the directness of a cardboard token.

I think in the same way, the flat out denial of characters to do certain things (but on the flip side, ability to always succeed certain things) is an important element. If you try to Boardgamify a tabletop fantasy adventure game; you could take out combat stats entirely. Note: I'm using D&D classes, races, and archetypes for these examples but you could take this idea for anything.

Wizards, Hobbits, Lantern-Boys; these are noncombatants. They will get punked by a giant rat. It's not something to be ashamed of, that's just their place in the world.

Thieves, Elves, Hirelings; these can fight basic enemies. They can defeat skeletons, slimes, a lone wolf or goblin. Pairs of giant rats or a single venomous snake.

Then you have your Clerics, Dwarves, and Fighters. These can fight. They can defeat an Orc, a pack of wolves, a gang of goblins, a giant spider or wyvern.

Notice we're not caring about the individuals here. It doesn't matter if the Fighter has a bit more strength then another fighter, or has better gear or a bit more experience. It's like a set breakpoint of strength. Imagine in your mind the amount of strength and fighting skill a human could accomplish; this becomes your benchmark. But do you know what humans cannot defeat? Ogres. Dragons. Wizards. Powerful creatures or beings that go beyond what a normal person is capable of fighting in combat. It operates on horror movie logic; the monster of that caliber cannot be harmed by normal means, you have to find a special way to beat it. The combat system is abstracted to either one on one combat duels, or is kept at that abstract level. Doesn't matter if your party has three fighters and a bunch of hirelings or whatever; a band of orcs will beat you. No normal person can overcome an army that greatly outnumbers them. If an ogre is chasing you down, you can't beat them. You might be able to send a warrior in long enough to distract them, but all of your warriors put together will just get clobbered; you might injure the ogre or make enough time for others to escape, but you cannot achieve a meaningful victory. You can't kill it or make it retreat from you force of arms.

But even here we can see the gameplay and create interplay. The Wizard is weak and feeble, but can fry an ogre's brain.with a lightning bolt or blow up a room full of Orcs. The Thief isn't as powerful in combat, but can kill anything a normal human could kill with a sneak attack and a good stab; like a Wizard. This still applies to the fiction in the genre; a thief could sneak up on a Wizard but not an elf archmage; their long ears will hear you, or their magic is so advanced they can sense your presence. Maybe Fighters can equip the magic weapons that let them beat things beyond the keen of normal men; no human can beat a dragon, but with the magic lance they can. Clerics fight pretty well, but are the only force your party can muster to destroy a hoard of zombies or is the only person who has any defense against evil ghosts and intangible threats.

Make Things Binary (Saves & Spells)
Once again; I'm using combat as an example because it tends to be the most complex part of a game. But you could apply the above to anything. Only thieves can climb walls. Only Clerics can heal people. Only Monks can cross rivers by running over them, or know the tea-ceremony protocol to avoid upsetting the Emperor.

In the same vein, traps and saving throw style mechanics can also be removed or stream lined. Instead of a modifier or roll-under saving throw number, you could just pass or fail based on your character. Of, you're a Thief? You disarm the trap before it goes off, allowing for player skill and interaction or not, without needing to roll anything. This is also an element where leveling up or progression systems could come in; the higher level you get, the more you can automatically disable. Maybe thieves don't automatically disable traps but can bypass all of them without getting hurt, making them good at exploring but not always being able to clear the way for their fellows.

I also like the idea of traps and saves being conditional and direct. They do as they are written. You have a Dexterity of +1? You don't fall in pit traps. You have a Dexterity of +2? You can't get hit by blade traps. If you fall in a pit trap it hurts your feet and makes you move slower/makes wandering monsters more likely. No hit points or damage, just an arbitrary effect that lasts for the rest of the dungeon. You could pretty well match the tone and pacing of a traditional dungeon crawler with this; characters lose limbs and take wounds even if they don't have hit points, like a stack of status effect cards you'd shuffle into your personal deck in a deckbuilder like Slay the Spire. You just get worse as it goes on. The hole where you stick your arm in just cuts your arm off, that's it. The magic trap saps your mind, making your clumsy and stupid. Now you can't read; no spells or scrolls. It's that simple.

Spells work under the same effect, but I feel that in a system like this the one exception could or should be magic. Magical effects could have a degree of randomness, rolled by the DM in secret, just to keep things spicy. If you're not a Wizard trying pretty much any spell is a deathtrap. The DM might give you a 10 to 15 percent chance to successful cast the spell. Once again, the negative effects of enemy spells or failing your own spells is a set condition. Your life force is drained, take a hit or fight as one combat “class” weaker as per the binary combat rules as above. You get cursed, enemies target you first or you are subject to bad stuff. The spell goes haywire; anyone in your party without fire protection is toast.

Magic Users cast spells the best of course, and spells in this context could be items. Spells don't have levels or scaling, they just do what they do. That was always one thing I liked from the boardgame, Talisman, which I'm sure many of you played as an intro to or even at the same time as playing tabletop games. Talisman had different random event spaces or adventure cards where you could get “spells”. Certain characters in that game just always had spells or a certain number of spells; but even a troll with 1 craft or a warrior or amazon could still get a “spell” from a random event and just hold on to it. I also love how even that game has a Wish spell; the Demigod card is probably one of my favorites. Wishing with restrictions in a game like context like that is so much fun. I love the design of it, even if it is bloated trash. Also, I'd consider Talisman's combat to be about the absolute limit of complexity for tabletop Boardgamification; but I do love the disparity between regular and psychic combat.

Progression from spells could also work in a similar manner as above. Apprentice Wizard? Fireball can kill anything a Fighter/Cleric/Dwarf can kill. Master Wizard? Can destroy giants or dragons (who aren't red!), as the biggest threats in the game. I personally like lightning bolt as the single target killer in this game's context; I didn't set out to write another game based on Boardgamification though we're getting pretty close here.

Less Numbers
This is a similar but less extreme version of the binary success or fail states. Instead of hit dice, just have hits. Creatures with 2 HD now can take two hits before they die. Weapons and armor is adjusted similarly and player-facing mechanics don't have to be the same as enemies! Enemies just take two hits to die, but they deal their normal attack damage and effects to the party members- would make it feel less like the DM is picking on a single player if a monster keeps trying to kill just him.

Players can pick their weapons for boosted effectiveness for killing stuff. Swords and Axes deal 2 hits worth of damage each hit from the sharpness. Blunt weaponns like maces only deal 1 hit per turn, but it has an armored piercing conditional effect. Two handed weapons deal an extra hit worth of damage and get to go first. Maybe the special powers of Fighters in this system is they can deal one or more hits worth of damage, where as everybody else cannot. You could also tie this into a randomized to-hit roll, same with a d20, but this time fighters deal one hit on a miss and two hits on a hit, where as everyone else deals zero to one damage on their rolls.

Instead of having a ton of stats or attributes for characters, you keep them simple and direct. You instead fold the stats into the other mechanics of the game. This is something I am quite proud of from Dickhead Barbarians, a game I made that is rife with Boardgamification. Ice Warriors are just immune to fire and get an extra wound, thus they are extremely tanky. Cannibal Giants can intimidate enemies and, as such, are even more combat monsters then they imply. Dickhead Barbarians also featured random chances to get wounded and specific item counters to it; helmets don't increase an abstract AC value but instead grant damage to a specific threat in the form of slingers, who aren't super common nor have a high chance to wound you in the first place. As such, you could easily see helmets as a sort of late game bonus or way to optimize your army once more important items have been purchased.

Folding in probability into the mechanics of the game as above I think is another huge step. There is a lot to be said about designing games with probabilities in mind, if they be fair or unfair. That's something I want to explore more in the future.

Specific Use Cases
Typing up Dickhead Barbarians had me thinking specifically about use cases, especially for items. On the one hand, this is very tightly woven with the concept of Boardgamification and, in my opinion, very thematic and cool. Magic stuff especially- anything that can bend the rules in a game with very rigid rules becomes unique and interesting. Rope can only be used for climbing down pits, lets you explore areas with your limited resources. The map just prevents a “getting lost” random event or condition, weapons only allow you to hurt specific enemy types that are otherwise immune to attack. Nobody questions how your character can carry and use an axe, sword, bow, and magic sword. That's not really the point.

But on the OTHER hand, this concept hurts some of the openness of tabletop games in general. Why can't you use the rope to tie up prisoners, or the axe to help chop down a tree? It's part of the tabletop experience to allow that kind of freedom. It creates a disconnect between tightly woven rules and in-universe suspension of disbelief. Why can't the cannons shoot?

One solution to this issue could just be how rules are presented in tabletop game rulebooks. Every item in the equipment list is not listed just as itself, but as though it is an independent game piece with its own specific use. Rope is not listed as per price by the foot and that is all. In that context, the player is supposed to infer what rope does from the game and universe; it's a tighter fit for roleplaying and saves space in the rulebook, but doesn't fit with our ideal of Boardgamification. So instead, list rope as “lets you descend safely from walls and cliffs.” It now has a specific use. BUT the players can still use it in another capacity. You can tie a piece of meat around the end and drag it as a lure for a monster, or use it to tie up prisoners, or to make some hackjob armor that you wrap around your body with metal plates. It's still open for roleplaying, but in the context of the game and rules it's still a game piece.

Another example of this would be weapons. Touched on earlier; different weapons aren't presented in this hypothetical rulebook with stats or weights or anything. The spear isn't a d6 weapon with reach and versatile weapon. The spear just “Keeps charging enemies from hurting you.” This gives it a use, a specific advantage to carry it around, but it doesn't have combat stats or powers to be specifically considered at all times for a character's “build”. Some games, like Dungeon World, already sort of have this because of the abstraction of damage; your damage dice is primarily based on your character class, not your weapon, stats, or skills. As long as you have a “weapon” in our game, you fight to whatever degree you can, but each weapon is like a tool with a specific use.

Rules Transparency
However- all of this above hints at a certain concept. The entire idea of presenting upfront the use of weapons/spells/items/characters and so forth, the exacting and specific counters that each monster or threat has, the limited and reduced scope of the game (Elves are immune to ghoul paralysis) all hints at a certain concept; rules transparency. There is very limited room for incomplete information in a game like this. You wouldn't even want it, as it would be the same as an experience board game player beating a rookie with no experience and doesn't even know what all the cards do. The DM has little room to hide information from the players in terms of how to beat or deal with whatever they are facing- they can hide WHAT they are going to run into, but not how to beat it or what it does because by its very nature doing so would upset the game.

As such, we could safely say a game like this is very much like a collaborative experience. It's a bit like a board game; isometric and viewable from a distance. You can see past the walls on a game board, they're 2d and just drawn on. You have complete information. You may not know what's coming next, but you know what it does if you read every card in the box.

The concept behind this game then is one where all the players know what's going on, or have a good idea. But that doesn't necessarily mean a long tutorial session or having every player DM the game at least once to get an idea. The game's rules can be inferred and understood by the general understanding of reality- that I think is intended in all tabletop games to an extent, without trying to bog this in a realism debate. The understanding that a piece of armor protects you from damage is well understood; it doesn't actually matter how the armor is used to protect you, that can be rewritten to accommodate the game. But if you used it to enhance damage or combat value instead, it might be a bit tougher to teach and understand on a first playthrough.

DMlessness & Design
Another aspect of Boardgamification is, with a lack of needing arbitration and having a more refined scope with known entities in the game space, you remove the need for a referee. Perhaps not remove, but reduce. The game could be run as a collective with multiple players, as long as all of them were on board with what they wanted out of the game and had a rulebook to help guide them.

While I haven't actually played it myself, Kingdom Death has a similar concept going on with its monsters. You fight specific monsters multiple times; each monster has a pattern of attacks that change and evolve during the course of the campaign. The monster's attack deck is seeded with specific cards that are more or less difficult or situational hard for the players to deal with. In the same way, we can use randomness-within a set construct to enhance the game and stand in for a lack of information. Of course, this game follows a trend in a lot of other “modern” boardgames where there are legacy mechanics, hidden booster packs of content within the box that are opened as the game progresses, and are often explicitly stated to be used in a game blind so the players have no idea what to except. The “Dungeon Master” of the game is still there, but an ethereal designer that leads itself to an air of impartiality and wholeness.

This also leads into the concept of a game feeling whole and complete, which is a unique thing that only boardgames and certain tabletop games really end up “feeling” like. Games without need or even implied use of modules or homebrew material; they can stand on their own. This is of course a false messiah, it isn't necessarily better that the game is “done” in the box in that sense, but it just feels more whole in a way that is satisfying. This is one of the reasons why I like writing complete games so much on my blog- WASTED, Flashbang!, Dickhead Barbarians- I really enjoyed being able to publish them on here even if they aren't necessarily as good as a traditional tabletop campaign in terms of quality. These are so fun to make, I feel, because of the wholeness of design. Every part feels legitimate and warranted in the game, it isn't just a part of a boundless or hazy fantasy landscape that you invent in your mind. I'm not saying I don't like tabletop campaigns or endlessly tweaking my homebrew, because that's still a great joy- there's just something special about a complete, full thing being made and presented to everyone. It's Boardgamification, finished and ready to play.


  1. As part of the binary discussion, a lot of older/simplified games work on the principle of cancellation (this weapon nullifies armour, this ability ignores cover, this poison kills) instead of depletion or adjustment (this weapon reduces your armour by 1 point, this ability reduces your cover bonus by 3, this poison reduces your HP by 1d6 per round for 3 rounds), etc.

    On the same axis, damage immunities. This creature is immune to X. This creature can only be harmed by Y.

  2. Huhhh. Yeah, I feel this. I think that boardgamification does something, where it strongly and concretely defines areas of the game, but doesn't try and define the whole world. As opposed to "this RPG can do everything!", which really does nothing. You can still get interesting and complicated interactions between the moving parts of a boardgame-d RPG, but because they are so solid and defined, it's much easier to adjudicate (which supports the DMlessness argument as well). As opposed to, say, 3.5e munchkin-builds, which have rules that are not so strict, and end up being rules-lawyered into ridiculous and impossible states.