Photograph courtesy of Conor Ogle via Wikipedia

Human nature never changes. That’s what makes science fiction and fantasy accessible to modern audiences. Often, it is by denying that fundamental truth that poor science fiction and fantasy are created. This was especially rife in the 50s, 60s, and 70s (in terms of television and movies) and the 30s, 40s, and 50s in terms of written works. The popular thought at studios and other such dens of iniquity was ‘slap some makeup on there to make them alien and their motives don’t have to make sense’. The end result was the B-grade movie and the B-grade novel, and though the best of them could be entertaining at times, the majority were simply awful.

It follows that a roleplaying game needs to respect the foibles and flaws of human nature or it, too, will be bad science fiction or fantasy.

But a game’s internal environment, which comprises the plot, characters and background, is not a state of objective reality, it is a state of subjective communications between GM and Players and vice-versa, overlaid and interrupted by objective descriptions of actions and conditions that have been translated into game mechanics by the game system.

It is the GM’s responsibility and burden to generate an internal environment that is conducive and appropriate to the genre and subgenre of the game to be run. His primary tools for achieving this are his narrative content and the ability and manner in which he delivers it.

Good narrative can get players into the right mindset, which is reflected in the attitudes, choices, and dialogue from their characters. It can convey factual & consistent details of the environment while communicating texture, mood and tone. Such narrative is sometimes disparagingly referred to as ‘flavor text’, an injustice that I personally have been guilty of from time to time; it’s so easy to discount its effectiveness and impact. This article is going to focus on one area of flavor text, and how to make it work to strengthen a campaign.

Vices and Flaws

So let’s think for a moment about those human foibles, and how we can use them to convey flavor and reinforce genre.

Gossip can be used to reflect the adaption of technology into everyday life – we have Twitter, for example, as a medium for exchanging news and opinions with others all over the world.

Vices reflect the technology that’s available. You can’t have designer drugs without a certain level of technical expertise in chemistry being extant; you can’t have really exotic foodstuffs without a certain level of transport capability and a reasonable degree of exploration. Vanity talks about clothing styles, Lust informs as to the state of medical knowledge – are the women healthy or do they have obvious infirmities? Social issues such as population levels, economic woes, social classes, and so on, can also be addressed with a sentence or two while discussing such flaws in the human character.

But, of all the vices, none can better inform the audience – your players – better than gambling. This is a lesson that was first intimated to me when watching the original Battlestar Galactica, whose opening episode I saw in a big theatre (long before I saw Star Wars in a small country cinema). Starbuck was gambling, but it wasn’t a common game that we all knew, though some elements were similar to poker. As a result, it not only informed us about his society, it made that society accessible.

Who gambles? Where? What limits and restrictions? What is legal? What is ethical? What is criminal? What are the social conventions that surround gambling?

What games do they play?

The Mechanics Of Improbability

If probability is about how likely an event is, surely gambling is about how unlikely an event is. Games of chance succeed with the public if they ensure that the potential payout is greater in the audience’s mind than the unlikelihood of that outcome, while such games succeed with the house if those payouts are less than the cumulative losses of those who do not achieve an improbable result.

When creating a new game to reflect your society, there are three aspects that need to be considered, and they go hand-in-hand. The first is the improbability of the various winning results, which specify the payouts. In this respect, games essentially come in a couple of basic varieties; there is the poker paradigm, where the winnings derive from a ‘pot’ to which all players contribute in some measure, for example; and the ‘roulette’ approach where the improbability of the outcome is awarded by a payout determined by the size of the stake and the specific outcome.

A number of articles on this site have hinted at the Poker-oriented opportunities in this respect. I wanted, this time around, to concentrate more on the formal elegance and drama of roulette. It’s not too difficult to set up a game simulation – and that’s what we’re discussing when we are talking about an RPG – with any given chance of winning, and a relevant payout for achieving that winning result. You can get any reference information you need in this respect from Wikipedia’s article on roulette, or one of the articles on Poker Odds from the same source.

Note that the roulette article seems to contradict my earlier statement about the odds and the desirability of playing the game – the payouts shown are a fraction below the odds of them happening – but they are close enough, and often you can place a single bet with multiple chances for a payout at the same time.

How much effort you want to go to in this department is up to you, because it doesn’t matter what the gameplay is, there is always a simple way to simulate it using basic dice rolls. For traditional roulette, a d20 and a d6 (for high-and-low) will do the job – if the d6 comes up high, add 18 to the result on the d20; if you roll a 19 on the d20 then reroll it; and if you roll a 20, that’s either “0″ or “00″. An even simpler approach is to roll a d20 and call the result to determine the player’s “luck” for that hand or spin, and invent the appropriate results and narrative as you go.

But that’s simply simulating the existing and traditional game of roulette; what we want is something that expresses a bit more “genre” than that, for use in those games that aren’t set in a reasonably modern era. That means that we have to look beyond factual sources for the basis of our fictional game.

Visual Distinction

The second aspect of the fictional game you are creating is to consider the look-and-feel of the game – not the gameplay, but the components, table markings, and so on. This is where your imagination can really run riot. Instead of a traditional round wheel, why not an elliptical one that has some wedges larger than others? Or two contra-rotating wheels with gaps in the inner one for the ball to – possibly – bounce out from into the better-paying but less-likely outer wheel? Or a three-dimensional globe that can spin on two different axes at the same time? Or a wheel with zones of increased or decreased gravity?

Or, for fantasy analogues, why not a spinning wheel with a rotating (and hidden) inner section concealed by a keep tower, with the ball fed in through the top and emerging at an unknown speed and direction? What could you build with a touch of magic in the construction – perhaps a roulette wheel with more valuable numbers (ie bigger payouts) partially protected by miniature Gates that can randomly redeposit the ball? or a wheel above a larger non-rotating wheel and a maze of ‘tunnels’ under the upper wheel, the ball possibly falling into various pits and ending up somewhere on the lower wheel – or perhaps re-emerging from the central column of the upper wheel? Think of everything that’s been done with pinball machines, then build those tricks into a spinning roulette wheel…

The difficulties of translating the visual distinctiveness into real odds quickly makes clear the benefits that can derive from a more abstract, less realistic, method of simulating the progress of the game. If you’re an expert physicist and a pretty good mathematician, you could work out from these descriptions and a bit more detail exactly what the odds are of any given result, based on the permitted patterns of laying bets – but it’s a lot of work and slim rewards. Ultimately, that much detail would interfere with the gameplay at the RPG table as well as the gameplay at the simulated casino table; the abstract approach is infinitely preferable.

The Nature Of Play

The third and final aspect of the simulated game to consider is the gameplay. Are games normally fast-moving, or slow and deliberate? Do players of this game interact with each other, or with a simulated bank, or with a rotating dealer’s slot? Is whoever won the last hand the dealer for the next? Or is it whoever last lost a round? Again, let your imagination go wild. Why not a roulette game with a card-playing component, where each winning hand was placed around the roulette wheel as the “numbers” on the wheel? High cards would tend to dominate, and there would be sequences and multiples of some numbers, while others would not be present at all. The lower the number on the card face, the less likely it would form part of a winning hand, and so the less likely it would be to appear on the roulette wheel when the card phase was complete – and the bigger the payout if the ball landed in that particular space.

Direct Experience

In order to really get this aspect of play down pat, to give your imagination something to build on, the best approach is to actually play some games. Virtual roulette played over the internet gives you the foundations and language that you need in order to successfully describe what the characters are experiencing and seeing. Of course, you could also visit a real casino, but that’s likely to be a lot more expensive and a lot more inconvenient than learning in your own home.

There are lots of sites out there to choose from, of course, and not all casino sites are created equally. Some are better than others, some have better layouts or more help for the novice, or any number of other differences. And some are less trustworthy than others. Fortunately, help is at hand, thanks to the website which offers reviews of a number of different online casinos, and some helpful information pages to help you decide where to risk your hard-earned cash. After all, just because you’re learning how to play, and what it feels like, doesn’t mean that you have to take a loss, right? You may as well at least try to win, or at least break even.

As usual, there are common-sense guidelines that you should follow. Have a budget that shows how much you can afford to lose in gaining this education, and don’t exceed it, no matter what. Set yourself some time limits as well. Keep security uppermost in your mind – only give your financial information to a website that tells you that you can trust. And remember that for these purposes, breaking even is almost as good as winning!

Putting It All Together

Here’s another way to look at what you are doing when you create a game simulation in this way, especially one that has been tailored to the fantasy or science-fiction environment in which your adventures are set: you are creating an element within your game setting and permitting your players to interact with it, while being careful to shunt technicalities and game mechanics to one side; combining narrative elements that are unique to your game setting with roleplaying activity within that setting in such a way that the social, economic, and legal fabric of the world you have created is translated from dry words on the page into something that lives and breathes. In other words, into something that imparts genre, flavor, setting, and fun.

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