Everything I Know About Gaming I Learnt From Dogs

“Not everyone has to want to win, but everyone has to play as if they want to win”
– Reiner Knizia

To be fair, some of it I already knew but I relearnt it watching dogs.

Dogs are born with a lot of instincts, including the instinct to play. But those play instincts are primitive. They know only a few basic game “concepts”; basically just activities they find fun. These are pulling, shaking, and running.

Everything else they have to learn. There’s the wrestling game and the chasing game and the being chased game, and they generally learn these from their humans or other dogs. They also – importantly – have to learn how to ask for what games they want, and how to negotiate with the other players. I had a nervous little dog once who loved to be chased more than anything but his nervous temperament meant he found it almost impossible to successfully get other dogs to chase him. Negotiating to get the play you want is a lot more complicated than learning how to play the game. It is therefore, a sign of canine intelligence and sociability. An average dog can learn a game. A smart dog can ask for and get it, and knows who to ask to play it with, and why. The smart kelpie I dogsit knows that only dogs about her size can wrestle, but small and large dogs alike will chase her.

And when little dogs are chasing her, she stays in the open, where their little turning circles keep them close. With big dogs, she runs straight into the undergrowth, where her superior vision and agility lets her equal their speed.

Nowhere, though, is negotiation and game learning more clear than in the game of tug-of-war. Here the game is very simple: one dog on one side of an object, one dog or human on the other, and each pulls as hard as they can. Now the thing is, dogs differ on how they play it. Some dogs are chewers and hoarders and when they win, they run off with the toy and chew it or bury it or just revel in the having. Some dogs are runners and when they get it, they run off with it to be chased. And some dogs are pullers. All they want is to pull. A dumb puller thought will pull and pull and get the object, run off with it, and then wonder where the game has gone. A smart dog knows the fun is in the pulling not the having. A smart dog will, the moment he wins, give the object back.

And a really smart dog will, if they sense they are winning, pull less hard, or if they sense they are losing, change position to get more ground. It’s not enough to pull, you see – it has to be a close-run thing. It has to be in doubt.

A friend of mine has small children, and like many small children growing up in the Australian world of summer sun and swimming pools, they spend a lot of their swimming time playing Marco Polo, a kind of sound-based blind-man’s-bluff. Their pool is miniscule and his reach enormous, he could easily catch the children. So he cheats – he peers through cracks in his shut eyes and makes sure he gets them sometimes, misses them others, but always, always, comes close.

A big part of what game design is for is to do all this negotiation for us. By selecting what game we want to play, we make decisions about what kind of game we want, and what kind of play is allowed and accepted, and we signal to everyone present what kind of gaming goals we have. But because of that, a lot of the decisions we’re making become subconscious and invisible, and we don’t know we’re actually making them. Or we pretend that because they are in the game itself, we haven’t chosen them at all, simply had them thrust upon us. So it’s important to understand these decisions or you just won’t see how a game operates.

The fact is, some people are hoarders. They want to win. More than absolutely anything at all, they play for that sweet tang of victory. But some people  – maybe most people – are pullers. They want to pull on the rope. Now, while pulling on the rope, they have to pull. They have to WANT to win. Even though you and your dog knows that getting the rope isn’t worth anything if you don’t try to get the rope as if you want it, the pulling isn’t fun.

The difference between pulling and getting is fundamental to game design. On some level, almost every game has to acknowledge this, and figure out which one it’s about. Yet we never really talk about it.

Take the world’s most popular game, for example, Contract Bridge. Bridge ends all the time, but it doesn’t matter, because the point of Bridge is to win a single hand (in Duplicate) or a Rubber (in Rubber). The moment it finishes, you start another. There is literally no end to Bridge really, it’s just constant iterations of infinite possibilities, and you just keep generating them. During each hand you pull as hard as you can and there’s no risk that the fun will ever stop because as soon as someone gets the toy, you just give it back and start pulling again.

Chess, on the other hand, has a problem: once you start winning by enough, it’s hard to stop. This is fine if you’re a hoarder. No problem at all. You WANT to win in as few as moves as possible. Chess gives no points for taking longer to win – in fact you can often lose by delaying too long, no matter how much kinesthetic pleasure you find in moving the little pieces. In other words, chess is a game which supports hoarders more than pullers. BUT it has a compensating factor: if you lose a piece, you can sometimes get it back. And you can also force a stalemate. This means that even if the other dog has a lot of the stick, it’s not a foregone conclusion despite their advantage. You can keep trying for the hoard victory AND you have a different mental puzzle to solve, pleasing the pull victory. Poker’s mechanic for going all-in also lets you have a chance even when you have lost a great deal of your betting power, to keep the pull interesting and the outcome in doubt, even though the swimming pool is very small and your arms are long.

We know this most often as a catch-up mechanic, and it is common. Sometimes they exist simply by making the score visible, encouraging people to attack the leaders. Others are more formally built into the mechanics, like the way victory cards choke the deck in Dominion. Famously, games that obviously lack these mechanics are considered broken and unfun, like Monopoly and original Risk. Monopoly very quickly tilts towards a winner, at which point the fun of pulling becomes almost zero, and the game is an extremely slow drawn out dragging of the bone to one dog’s side. Only hoarders enjoy that. Indeed, most people stop even bothering to pull back and the game is won by the dog who is most stubborn, who cares most about actually holding the bone. So it only appeals to people who REALLY want to have the bone. And pullers hate it.

Collaborative games are an excellent place to see this model at work. Generally, nobody wants a collaborative game to be too easy or too hard. They don’t want a puzzle they can unlock so it becomes easy, or something that is hard no matter how the random elements falls. What they want is it to be close. Which would make no sense if they wanted to get the bone. They want to pull on the bone, and snatch it only with all their strength at the last possible second. And the mechanics of the best collaborative games are designed to make that experience happen, to make the pulling always exciting. Not to reward you for getting the bone as quickly as possible.

Perhaps the hardest games to balance on this issue are games where one person plays all the rest. And the reason is that here, the game mechanics can only go so far. If the game has too much luck or obscures skill too much, it’s not fun. You want to feel like you have to work to get the bone. But if someone is just much stronger at pulling they’re going to win every time. Or if they get a few lucky breaks the same thing can happen. Quickly you can get a game where even if the pulling is still fun, a huge advantage can appear which detracts from that sense of suspense. Now for people who like hoarding even a bit, this is still okay. They don’t mind winning or losing even if it isn’t close because that’s still interesting and exciting to them. But for pullers, this state of play is not at all fun. Without the suspense and thrill of a neck and neck pulling match to the last sinew, there’s no fun and the more a clear winner emerges, the less that excitement can remain.

I am such a player. And I don’t like playing things like Descent or Fury of Dracula because I don’t like hitting my friends as hard as I can, from either side. I don’t mind being first in a race to VP but the antagonism of direct battles wears me out. It’s too much about the getting, not the pulling. And so as soon as leads start to accumulate, I cheat. I favour the loser. Because to me a close game is a thousand times better than a won game, by anyone. And indeed, if it’s me versus four other players, then I ALWAYS want the four people to win more than me, because that’s much more joy, all round, then me winning and four people losing. Because I don’t value the bone personally. It means nothing to me. I want the pull.

That doesn’t mean that Fury of Dracula is a bad game. Far from it. It just tells us who wants to play it, and who doesn’t. Who enjoys playing it, and who doesn’t. And why.

Often, in gaming, games are instinctively designed for hoarders. We’re so into the idea that games have winners, and sports have winners, we assume the trophy is the point, that the point is to get to the finish line, to hear the final siren sound and to have, at that point, more points than anyone else. But if you watch a few dogs with bones for a few seconds you can tell in a moment the hoarders from the pullers – and you can also tell those who are pullers but don’t know why the pulling stops when they win, and get sad or frustrated. Who come running back to their humans and go “why did the pulling stop?”. Because, silly doggy I explain, you pulled so hard you won. And I will now teach you a better skill: to pull as if you want to win, but not so much that you DO. Because winning is the last thing you really want.

Figure out which dog you are, or how much of a % you are in each direction – it’s not necessarily either/or. Then figure out how to negotiate for the kind of play you want. Figure out which games give you more of one and less of the other. Figure out which gamers are which and play the right games with the right people, or the wrong games in the right way (hoarder games can work fine if everyone is a puller, and vice versa). Figure out which hat you’re going to wear at which table with which games, so you get the most out of every game you play.

Most importantly, don’t spend your life pulling with hoarders, or trying to hoard with someone who just wants the pulling. Don’t sit staring at the bone wondering where your pulling game went, or stare up at the human wondering why they are waving the bone back at you when they should be eating it. Be a smart dog. And play well.


An old piece on Ryan Reynolds

Ryan Reynolds is pretty awesome and Deadpool exists because he’s awesome. For some more insight into that, here’s a bio piece I wrote for People five years ago.

Last year [2010] he was named People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. He was married to mega-babe Scarlett Johansson. He’s been immortalised as the king of partying thanks to his role as the king of college, Van Wilder.

Yet neither the ladies man nor party boy role seems to sit perfectly on Ryan Reynolds, and neither Hollywood nor the public seem to know exactly what to make of him. He’s made more movies in more genres than any other big star in the last ten years, leaping from pretty boy to action hero to serious dramatist quicker than the human eye.

And now he’s a superhero – smacking around aliens as the space-cop Green Lantern. But who is Reynolds really, under that mask?

Starting Young

He was born in 1976 in Vancouver. His father Jim was an ex-professional boxer and Canadian mountie; the tough old Canadian dog had four big sons (Ryan is 6’ 3”) and he raised them all to be like him: strict Irish Catholics, and fighters. Ryan was the youngest, and grew up fast, with a furious passion for life. His two oldest brothers became cops like their father, but Ryan always had to go his own way. He shunned more “Canadian” sports like hockey and basketball to play one his brothers had missed: rugby union. He was forced to stop after receiving his sixth concussion – at only age twelve.

Needing a new outlet, he turned to acting, despite suffering from great insecurity, something he’s never completely escaped. In 2008, he told reporters that he still feels “like an overweight, pimply-faced kid a lot of the time”.

Reynolds failed his high school drama class, but was still interested in acting because of his childhood rebellion (which included setting fire to his high school): “I knew I could [act]”, he claims, “based on the skill with which I lied to my parents on a regular basis.”

He was right. Aged just thirteen, he beat out over 4000 hopefuls to win a part in the Canadian teen soap opera Hillside (shown in the US as Fifteen). His rebelliousness turned into independence: a few months later, he was shooting a TV movie in Sri Lanka – alone. A year after he returned, he moved to Ottawa to get more work. His parents weren’t happy about their fifteen year old son living alone on the other side of the country, but Reynolds thrived on being alone, and wouldn’t be told no.

When work dried up in Ottawa, he dropped out of college and moved to Los Angeles to find more. On his first day in LA, his jeep was rolled and stripped for parts, but Reynolds was undaunted: he drove it without doors or bonnet for years. He needed that determination, because the jobs were slow to come. He was getting only small guest roles in TV shows while working night shifts as a grocery clerk.

Working hard was not something he had a problem with. He would later credit his success to his self-discipline and drive: “I’ve always felt if I don’t just have a natural knack for it, I will just out-discipline the competition if I have to — work harder than anybody else.”

He worked hard enough to take some time off: in 1997, on a whim, he threw a few possessions in a knapsack and hitchhiked across Europe for a year. It must have helped: he came back to land his big break in the sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place.

Wilder Ride

The show was a hit, running for four years despite schedule changes and cast shake-ups. More importantly, it was the vehicle Reynolds needed to launch himself into feature films. It was just a year after the show’s end that he was cast as the titular hero in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: Party Liaison.

Like Animal House, Old School and other college classics, it was only moderately successful in the mainstream, but hugely popular among the college crowd.  Van Wilder became a name synonymous with partying, and Reynolds was expected to live up to the character. Years later he remarked: “I would walk into a bar and people would start lining up the shots. You could sum up my career at that point as a free shot at a bar.”

That notoriety soon became international, preventing Reynolds from enjoying his return trip to Europe, and he knew he had to distance himself from the character, professionally and personally. “I went years without even saying the words ‘Van Wilder’” he confessed. “Even saying it now is a big thing for me.”

He chose his next roles carefully to get that distance: he put on thirty pounds of muscle to be a vampire hunter for the action-packed Blade: Trinity and kept it on to play an ass-kicking federal agent in Smoking Aces. Next he was a lovable teacher in School of Life and an earnest husband in the remake of The Amityville Horror. He kept his toe in college comedies with Just Friends  and Harold and Kumar go to White Castle but was also turning himself into a soft-edged romantic lead in Definitely Maybe, Chaos Theory and The Proposal. And all in five years.

In fact, in the ten years after Two Guys… ended, Reynolds made a total of twenty three feature films. It was no wonder his image had trouble keeping up.

Just when he seemed to be becoming the go-to guy for romantic comedies, he switched back to action, of the superhero kind. He appeared as the sword-swinging Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and is currently working on a spin-off film for that character. He’s just about to grace Australian screens as Green Lantern, a fighter pilot who joins an inter-galactic legion of super-policemen after inheriting a ring of alien power. He’s also had his name attached to playing super-speedster The Flash, and played a parody superhero called Captain Excellent in the quirky comedy Paper Man.

Underground Appeal

Headlining a major superhero film and big-budget romantic comedies definitely put Reynolds on the A-list, but he has continued to work on less mainstream projects. He appeared as three separate characters in the art-house picture The Nines, and said it changed his outlook on his whole career. “[That movie] was such a wake-up call for me. I loved the process. I loved the character I was given to play. That was the birth of my own ambition. There were particular films after that that I went after. I had a new view.”

He got the film he wanted in Buried, and gained world-wide critical attention for his role in it. An independent co-Australian production, Buried tells the story of a US trucker working in Iraq who wakes up to find himself buried underground in a coffin, with only a lighter and a mobile to help him escape. For both films, Reynolds aided funding by working for just minimum wage, plus a share of future profits.

His increasing versatility and art-house turns have led some to compare him to George Clooney. Both have been awarded Sexiest Man Alive – Clooney in 2006, Reynolds in 2010. Both are never without a gorgeous woman on their arm, but shy away from long-term relationships. Both are political animals – Clooney is a campaigner for intervention in the Sudan, Reynolds writes for the left-leaning internet news site The Huffington Post. Reynolds also ran the New York Marathon in 2008 to raise money for Parkinson’s disease research, after his father was diagnosed with the condition.

Covering so many bases requires almost super speed. His pace might explain why his marriage to Scarlett Johansson only lasted two years, the longest of any of his relationships so far. Or maybe he prefers to be the wanderer: he’s certainly kept his youthful passion for never slowing down or looking back. He still loves to travel under his own steam, and recently traversed both New Zealand and Australia on his motorbike. He also admits he rarely watches his own movies. “I don’t want to invest too much in the outcome,” he says. “For me, the crux of the experience is doing it.”

Five Things Gamers Can Learn From The Princess Bride

Do I need to link back to previous installments? Maybe you should follow my blog more closely instead! Maybe you should be a vet or fly a jet. I don’t know, I’m not the boss of you. But if you like these, keep sending submissions, this one is from Luke Parsons.

1. Don’t Fear The Bluff Check

There’s a tendency for GMs to fear charismatic PCs. There you are setting up an amazingly difficult or complex combat encounter and then one smart-ass in the party convinces the ogre to turn into a mouse and boom, it’s all over – and it feels like cheating. Now, sure you can use the same mechanics for all challenges but regardless it’s important to understand what good bluff checks look like and how they can enhance your story – and how they’re an essential part of picaresque adventure. And Princess Bride is build on amazing Bluff checks that show how it should be done.

It does this first of all by just assuming that this is a standard, not an afterthought: the three trials Wesley must undergo are skill, strength and wits. Building it into the framework means you and your players will anticipate it and use it often, which is the key to not making it feel like a cheat. Good fight scenes appear in games because we do them all the time, good bluffs appear if we do them all the time. The most memorable ones in Princess Bride include Wesley bluffing Humperdink about his strength and bluffing the gate guards with the holocaust cloak, because they have the most riding on them, but bluffs are everywhere if you look. The sword fight between Inigo and Wesley involves both of them bluffing, and Wesley lies to Buttercup to test her love. And the bad guys, of course, lie like rugs. Then there’s the intimidate checks (“I have no gatekey”) and the persuades (“Please, I need to live”), and the bit where Wesley is climbing and can’t trust Inigo’s word because of all the bluffing going on. As you can see despite being famous for swordfights Princess Bride is thick with charisma tests and it’s because they come so thick and fast that they don’t feel like cheats. They feel like part of getting things done. Build them in to everything and they’ll work so much better.

2. Make Your Villains Talented

One of the reason we fear the bluff test is it can make your villains look like punks. It’s a tough road to hoe for GMs – you want your players to kick ass but you want to honour their awesome by making that victory feel difficult. Sometimes a villain can be pathetic like a Wormtongue or a Renfield but mostly we like villains to be spectacular in their own way. Common ways to do this is with the intricacies of their plans and the height of their ambition, but these are often invisible to the PCs since they are caught within them, and even with cut scenes and prologues to let them know the bad guy, you can’t give away too much of the plot or you’ll ruin the game. Princess Brides’ excellent solution is to give the villains great talents that are somewhat tangential to their plots. Part of this is obvious in Inigo and Fezzik, who quickly become PCs because they’re so awesome, but also in the true villains.

Principally among this is Humperdink’s hunting skills. Even the woman who hates him says without doubt that he could track a falcon on a cloudy day. Rugen, meanwhile, is a master of science and technology. Mad science, perhaps, but his intelligence is undeniable. And the two care about each other as only old friends can, which isn’t just a one-off joke but another way of showing the virtues of these men. And when Humperdink’s plans begin to unravel, he shows fear and anger, screaming into Wesley’s face with his rage at her inability to forget her farmboy and love a king, fear storming across his face when Buttercup catches him in lies. He may be a moral vacuum but Humperdink CARES and we admire him for that. It’s even possible that war with Guilder is a good idea for the future of Florin – there’s certainly evidence that Humperdink is a visionary and plans far ahead. And he’s no fool – he triples the gate guard and doesn’t take unnecessary risks and lives as a result. He probably even gets his war. But we still feel he gets enough comeuppance because the heroes get what they came for and get away. Sometimes, as GMs we put our villains up to be killed because our angry players really want that last blow to fall to “win” the game. Don’t do that, at least, not much. Give them other goals that matter more and the villain will resonate more as he lives on to show off more of his great talents.

3. Never Skimp On Your B-Plot

Speaking of other goals, Princess Bride’s A-Plot is, even with its funny twists and turns and genre-subversions, is pretty run-of-the-mill. Dashing young man wants his lady back from the evil king. And sure, it’s B-Plot is not exactly ground-breaking: boy seeks revenge against the man who killed his father. But if you ask anyone what they really remember about Princess Bride, the thing that made the film legendary and enduring, it is Inigo’s story. Inigo is cooler than Wesley but more than that he is more complicated – he is driven by a much darker passion, twisted with frustration and agony, and it has led him into drunkenness and thievery. As much as Wesley claims to be the Dread Pirate Roberts it is hard to imagine him really doing much piracy, whereas there’s a darkness and sadness in Inigo that speaks of terrible sacrifices and black choices. A lot of this comes about by accident (and casting), but a weaker story might have skimped on Inigo’s denouement. At the very climax of the story when they are desperate to get Buttercup and escape, the film takes fifteen minutes to follow Inigo’s plot. And we linger on him at the start as well, his history and background is explored intimately before he even crosses swords with Wesley.

As GMs we tend to want to keep things simple. A good adventure has a single plot line with a clear, obvious goal, so that everyone knows what they’re trying to do and when they’ve done it. We might be tempted therefore, should a player want to fulfill a personal side-quest, to give them short shrift. Don’t so that. Remember time is entirely elastic in fiction, and if your A-plot is as nice and simple as described, there’s no problem putting it on hold for half an hour, those clear lines will make it easy to pick up again. You know you need to get from A to B but you can keep that while still allowing the player to skew off to C and come straight back. So let them, and indulge them. Because precisely because they don’t feel like the A-plot they often have more resonance with the players; they feel more like they chose them and that they define them more. Everyone knows the evil wizard’s going to die but that game where you found your ex-girlfriend along the way may stick with you for life.

4. Death Is Never The End

The other reason I think people like The Princess Bride is it is surprising. It’s a see-saw plot but to an extreme level most people don’t expect: it’s not just that the heroes have successes and failures, they have EXTREME success and failures. Sometimes things are so bleak characters have no option except suicide (with dagger or shrieking eels) other times it’s a delightful romp. Sometimes they get what they want only to lose it a second later or discover it is the same as losing everything. Wesley and Buttercup survive the Fire Swamp only to end up back in Humperdink’s clutches; enemies become allies and Buttercup is constantly having her love and hope snatched away from her. Indeed, in the first five minutes of her story, she goes from haughty mistress to love-struck fool to heart-shattered bereaved. It is the latter, of course, that the story hinges on: twice, Buttercup thinks Wesley is dead and gives up hope, and twice is proved wrong at her lowest hour.

This isn’t just the theme of the film, though, it’s good story-telling in general. Yes, we get sick of bad guys watching the water surface and assuming the hero must be dead, but death not being the end works as a trope because it hits us in our heart of hearts. We know – and this is doubly true in a game where things have stats – that death is the ultimate end. We don’t need memento moris to remind us; death stalks us everywhere. Stories allow us the audacity of hope against that, to believe in miracles, to say to the god of death not today. Can it be contrived? Yes. But even the most impossible survivals can be believed if written well, which is what you see in Princess Bride. We shouldn’t buy for a moment that the deadliest pirate ever lets one man live – but we do, because we ache for it to be true and because Wesley tells it so well. We shouldn’t buy that terrifying life sucking torture is survivable but we do because it’s deliberately NOT a “natural” death. You can use your magic or your superpowers or whatever the same way: set up deaths that aren’t open and shut. Bury the body under an avalanche of rock. Allow for the possibility that they’ve been merely sucked into an alternative dimension or can be pulled out of hell. If zombies and liches exist, then there may be other ways to reverse death. If you build these things in advance, we will buy it when death isn’t the end. And the great thing about doing this is it means when people are really are dead, it hurts EVEN MORE.

5. Make Resurrection Count

The caveat to point four is this one: cheating death is only okay if it is hard. Even in a film as silly as Hudson Hawk, the last-minute resurrection of Tommy at the end cheapens everything because it’s not justified in the slightest. Yes, “I escaped somehow” can work if done at the right time, but not to beat back death. Death is just too important to be cheated like that. And Princess Bride shows there are two distinct parts of this: the buy out, and the cost. Wesley saves himself from death with a plea, but then can’t simply return to Buttercup because he is trapped being Roberts’ valet. The quest to engage Miracle Max brings Wesley back but the cost is his persistent floppiness. For something to hit home as a cost, it needs to both parts of the equation. You also need a time period where people really doubt they can come back, as well, so that’s three parts. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

D&D’s magic tends to invalidate the first one, but almost all games forget the second one as well. Great quests or epic items are required but then things are good as new. You don’t have to come back like Christopher Walken in the Dead Zone but a small penalty to your character’s rolls will make death’s sting so much more real. Something that slows down the whole party is even better, like not being able to cast the spells or pick the locks they depend on quite as much. And this applies on the small scale as well as the large. When someone goes down to zero hit points, leave them hanging for a while before announcing their fate. Move the spotlight somewhere else. It hurts, but it’s the good kind of hurt. And then when it comes to those stabilizing rolls, put the focus on them. Get the players to tell you what they’re doing to bring their friend back to life. Get some blood on their tunics. This is important. Death is important. Most of our RPGs are about fighting for our lives, if you don’t care about death and the reset button, you cheapen every part of the game, not just those moments.

Indeed, perhaps the single greatest moment in Princess Bride is when Inigo “dies” – and then comes back, using just his persuade skill to do it. The ultimate bluff check, perhaps, for the ultimate resurrection, in the ultimate B-Plot, fighting one of the ultimate villains. But we buy it. We buy a man coming back to life and we even forget he’s still holding in his guts when they find the horses. Because it hurts so much when it happens, and the buy out is so tricky, and he doesn’t just spring back to his feet he staggers up inch by inch, building momentum into an avalanche that is one of the greatest scenes in film, because of how it goes from total death to total victory. Make them work for defeating it, and you never need to actually kill them. They’ll remember the work so much more than any fait accompli. They’ll remember a reversal a thousand times more than a simple end.