Conflict resolution, Part 2: Randomness

First, go watch White, Brown, and Pink: The Flavors of Tabletop Game Randomness from GDC 2018. I’ll summarize a few points below, but in far less detail than that video.

In designing games, a degree of uncertainty is essential. – Greg Costikyan, “Uncertainty in Games” (2013)

According to the video, there are 4 main types of uncertainty you encounter in games:

  1. Hidden info: Obscuring a hand of cards
  2. Performance & skill: Most sports
  3. Opponent uncertainty: You don’t know exactly what your opponent will do
  4. Randomization: Dice, spinners, and the like

For RPGs, you tend to see a bit of all 4, though “performance and skill” is often minimized by game systems. It doesn’t matter how good your skill is – the dice roll is all that matters. And this might be a fair representation of the fact that the massively interconnected and, practically speaking, random world we live in tends to wreck the best laid plans. For the system I envision, I’d rather see skill (as both roll-playing skill and strategy) have a stronger effect on the outcome than just flavor, and actually reduce opponent uncertainty. The costs of failure will be clear, and you’ll be able to see the impact coming from a mile away if you fail badly enough.

Let’s talk about randomization. Every time you need to resolve a conflict, you will parse the game state, decide what action to take, and see the results of your actions. In a game, you can explicitly support randomizing the game state by randomizing the starting map or the available items to select (cards in Dominion, tiles in Azul, among many others). Randomizing the input of a player’s actions allows for a high level of strategy and self-determination. Contrast that with result/output randomization: If everything is based on a pure dice roll, it’s down to luck – not strategy or skill – leading to frustration.

Randomness also matters for correlation: As events happen over time, do they say anything about the other? True randomness, aka white noise, is totally unpredictable. This is rolling a 20-sided die to see if you succeed. Each roll has a 1 in 20 chance of hitting a number, and that has no impact on the next roll. This leads to players powergaming and exploiting loophole in, I believe, an attempt to mitigate a system that is completely random.

Interestingly, “white noise” is often a bad UX outside of games. Consider a music player set to shuffle. A true random selection could play the same some 10 times in a row. Instead, a good music player avoids the same song. A great music player gives the option of not even playing the same artist next. Another implementation is red (Brownian) noise: the individual variation from one to the next is small, but random. The range of outcomes in the short term is very predictable, but over time you can have a very high variation.

Most interesting, and according to the video often pleasing to people is pink noise: a high chance of small change with a small chance of big change. It allows players to plan actions with reasonable confidence, but never guarantees success. Rolling multiple dice (taking either the total or the difference), or card distribution.

To catch up, I wanted to design a conflict resolution system that allows for uncertainty without white noise randmization. What games include all four pillars of uncertainty, and pink-noise randomization? Casino games. Poker and blackjack, specifically.

Game Design – The Story of a Session, Part 1

While this doesn’t directly effect the conflict resolution system itself, one thing I’d like to come out of this game design is a game that can tell a story in a single session, with minimal prep – or carry itself over a multiple sessions. Yes, you can run a pre-generated one-shot adventure in Dungeons and Dragons, and most other RPGs, but that’s really an open-the-box-and-go experience. Even a premade adventure takes a significant amount of time for the GM, and new or lapsed players will spend half the session trying to figure out what, exactly, they can do.

With this in mind, I’m setting up a few scenarios to evaluate ideas against.

First, we have the Randoms. This is a group of friends who play games regularly but do not generally engage with RPGs, as they’re seen to take too much time and prep work. This group does, however, play Legacy games as a semi-stable group. They’re able to complete a game (or two) in a given session, with occurs once every month or two. There may not be a permanent GM with this group. This is a younger group, a relatively diverse as far as race, gender, and socio-economic backgrounds.

Second, we have the Dungeoneers. In one form or another, they’ve played RPGs, possibly going back decades, in various groups. Now older, this group has coalesced from their current social circumstances. They’re a regular group, generally playing one game at a time, with one GM, until the story completes. They’re past ‘power leveling’ as a way to mark achievements, but appreciate progression as a marking of progress at some lecvel. This group is probably far more homogenous than the Randoms.

Third, we have the Streamers. This is a group that plays every week on a fixed schedule, with fixed roles, and is invested in the creation of a story and a world as a long-form piece. I call this group the streamers after groups like RollPlay, Critical Role, Dice Camera Action, or Acquisitions Incorporated: C Team. These players are into the characters and story above all else.

One group I’m not considering are the hard-core dice rollers – the power levelers, min-maxers, and spreadsheet gamers for whom combat is the primary activity, and stories are an excuse for violence. Without meaning much judgement, whether you’re a wargamer or an old-school RPG player, you’re well covered.

Why conflict resolution first?

The simple fact is, once the setting has been laid and the characters created, 90% of an RPG session is spent resolving conflict in one form or another.

Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, and its various hacks/remixes have an interesting take on this. Yes, it’s a dice-based game (you roll 2 6-sided die), but the resolution explicitly allows for a mixed success. If you roll 10 or higher, you have a “full success” and have only positive outcomes. A total of 7-9 indicates a mixed success – you have a positive outcome, balanced by a negative. Rolling less than 7 means you fail. That does not mean your action actually fails – if you’re performing a skill check on something that is so easily accomplished as to make a roll nearly meaningless (such as opening a door), you may complete your action – but will face significant repurcussions (such as: you break the door so that it cannot be closed, you are spotted or are so loud you attract attention, you open the door to reveal a waiting guard, etc.) You don’t forget how to turn a doorknob.

It’s this range of success to failure, with the ability to decide your outcomes that makes this system so interesting to me.

So, to modify yesterday’s list a bit:

Users/players: One Game Master + multiple players (target will be 3-4 non-GM players). Some players may not be at the same physical table.

Actions: Actions that bring conflict may be Combat, Skilled Action, or Role-play

Conflict: Player vs GM, Player vs Player, and Player vs Environment. The basic steps of any conflict are:

  1. Initiation
  2. Resolution
  3. Impact

Possible impacts:

  1. Full success
  2. Mixed success
  3. Failure
  4. The repercussions of success and failure follow logic, and roughly outlined (to allow for flexibility for the sake of gameplay and drama).

The difficult of an action will be impacted by a character’s skill level, whether a player-character or NPC. There will also be generic levels of difficulty for non-character-conflict tasks.

Some actions may be near-simultaneously, so we must have the equivalent of an “initiative system”, which allows for clear decisions on what action/player gets priority.

Goals:

  • Resolution should allow for some degree of strategy for both the current action and future actions.
  • Players should have significant freedom in strategy. The GM system should be predictable, but all for unexpected outcomes
  • Random chance is not eliminated, but the risk should be estimable.
  • A truly simple action should be easily achievable. A risky one should be “high stakes.”

Conflict Resolution in RPGs, Part 1

Imagine, for a moment, you’re an adventurer, creeping down a hallway towards a treasure just out of reach. Or, imagine you’re defending the last remnants of humanity from an alien onslaught. The only thing in the way is you and your BFG-401K. Perhaps you’re a hacker, preparing to reveal the misdeeds of a corporation who has been slowly poisoning its customers.

In a video game, your skill comes into play. Whatever the situation, you choose your action in the split second – should you attempt a headshot, or aim for the body? You inch as far away as possible from the sleeping dragon and slow your movement. What transpires is, generally, a measurement of your skill and ability to navigate risk. Statistical variables may come into play, but the modern theory of ‘good gameplay’ puts large pieces of the success or failure on the player. Randomness exists, but for flavor and variety.

Contrast this to Dungeons and dragons and other dice-based tabletop RPGs. You roll a certain type and number of dice. You add or subtract a modifier. Your success or failure rests on picking a skill with a high modifier, and hoping you meet the target number. There’s no skill or strategy to this. There’s less ‘game’ here than in a game of craps.

Further impacting the game, a success or failure in one roll has nothing to do with the success or failure of the next. Perhaps a skilled game master will change the difficulty of the next roll (by raising or lowering the target) based on your roll, but the roll for the next action is not materially impacted by the first action – a 20-sided die has a 5% chance of landing on any particular number, no matter what. It’s the bad sort of random. Any tweaks to this system happen because a person wills it so, not because the system accounts for it.

Now, let’s be honest that no one will actually be aiming a plasma rifle during a tabletop RPG, and that these games scratch a far different itch for gamers. But within a setting that is mostly, if not entirely, theatre-of-the-mind, what if we developed a system for interacting with the world in a way that better enabled player strategy and choice, while still allowing for randomness and the excitement of the unknown.

Consider poker, blackjack, and other card games. You can build a strategy, and choose what, when, and how to play your cards. You may have terrible luck, or great luck, with your draws. But you can work within those cards to best your opponent, whether it’s the house or another player. Once those cards are played, they’re done, at least until the deck is recycled.

So, I’m going to attempt something entirely mad: Creating an RPG, using card game mechanics. I’ll definitely explore blackjack as a base, but I will also look at creating a system which borrows elements from various poker elements and other games. I’m going to start with the basic system for player interaction, and then build a world, character generation, and game systems from there – publishing as I go.

Here’s what I have so far:

Users/players: One Game Master + multiple players (target will be 3-4 non-GM players). Some players may not be at the same physical table.

Conflict: Player vs GM, Player vs Player, and Player vs Environment. The basic steps of any conflict are:

  1. Initiation
  2. Resolution
  3. Impact

Actions that bring conflict may be Combat, Skilled Action, or Role-play

The difficult of an action will be impacted by a character’s skill level, whether a player-character or NPC. There will also be generic levels of difficulty for non-character-conflict tasks.

Some actions may be near-simultaneously, so we must have the equivalent of an “initiative system”, which allows for clear decisions on what action/player gets priority.

Goals:

  • Resolution should allow for some degree of strategy for both the current action and future actions.
  • Players should have significant freedom in strategy. The GM system should be predictable, but all for unexpected outcomes
  • Random chance is not eliminated, but the risk should be estimable.
  • A truly simple action should be easily achievable. A risky one should be “high stakes.”

My goal is, over the next few weeks, to settle on details of this and find a way to move this from an abstract system to a game.

Redesign + 2

Almost exactly 2 months after launching the new and improved danielboyle.net, I wanted to talk about how I feel about what I’ve done.

First, I still feel good about the structure and design direction. My primary goal of better representing my eBay work has been mostly met. I need to continue iterating on my content, though. I feel like I should either push my work presentation in a more visual direction, or improve the written content further. Of course, I have to watch what I actually write in a public arena, given that I have to watch my confidentiality with regards to product impact at eBay.

Second, I want to further automate content updates, if not for more ‘custom’ pages – my eBay work, for example, then at least for the side projects and some other things.

Third, I need to optimize my images. I am sure I’m wasting significant bandwidth.

2 Years Later

On the evening of Tuesday, June 12, 2018, I released the first update to my website since sometime in 2012. This has been in progress, according to this blog, since February 2015.

Let’s talk about what has changed since then.

First, my last update happened shortly after joining eBay, after being laid off from Critical Mass and deciding to leave the advertising industry. I cannot understate that this is the single best career decision I’ve ever made. eBay is not a perfect company, but it has treated me and most of my coworkers well, on balance. Most likely, I updated my CV. I never did add any work from Critical Mass onto my portfolio. That’s ok – there’s no skill used there that isn’t shown elsewhere.

Second, much of my new work is not, visually speaking, showy. I believe the previous version of my website was designed back in 2010 – when I was planning to be in the ad industry for some time and it became entirely obvious that Flash would die soon. More and more people would need to see an image-heavy portfolio on their phones and tablets. The design was optimized for displaying lots of projects and relatively little text. With my shift to a product and UX design role, I needed room to go in depth with my work, plus other needs documented here.

So, over 3 years since starting and almost 2 years since my last post, I’ve launched the beta version at beta.danielboyle.net. It’s not perfect: I haven’t optimized the images and code. I haven’t even really proof-read it (yet). But I’m happy with it right now. One of the things I like most? It doesn’t look like every other site out there. I plan on adding more editorial design as time goes on

Next steps:

I’ve slowly been working on ideas for other design projects to tackle such as visual design, editorial design, game design, and more.

Innovation by the numbers

I think the hardest thing for many people to understand about device upgrade cycles is that, at a certain point, the devices we use constantly are pretty well optimized for their form factors. We get minor updates to cameras, or screens, or processors, but very few true changes to what we consider the core device structure until new materials or technology become available. We’re left with innovating by the numbers. Increase conversion by a few percent. Shave off a millimeter. Pare down an ounce. It’s a natural part of the lifecycle.

At eBay, our recommendations products were essentially paused until a whole new team was brought in that specialized in machine learning – an entirely new technology was required to move beyond minor incremental increased.

And Apple? Well, smartphones and notebooks all have very mature form factors (even with the modern touchscreen smartphones existing for only, what – about a decade)? With no clear, drastic change there’s no surprise that we’re talking about improvements of percentages. The problem is, are you improving the right numbers?

Thoughts on interviewing

While I take a break from redoing my website, I was thinking.

Once upon a time…

For a while at eBay, I was one of the regular interviewers for product manager and developer candidates. As a PM, my workflow was essentially, “Don’t do dumb things.” I certainly wasn’t qualified to ask about their theories on statistical analysis or financial reporting. As a developer, I was best qualified to weed out idiots, liars, and fakers. Instead, I focused on the thought process of solving a problem and unique skills our candidates – and the dreaded cultural fit interview.

Now that I’m in design full-time, I’m thinking about how we interview people again. I don’t need another designer to walk me through their entire portfolio. If I approve you for an interview, I already think your work is nice. I’m bringing you in because I want to hear you talk about how you think and learn about the you that isn’t wrapped up in pixels (and yes, make sure you didn’t fake your portfolio).

To this day, I think culture fit is important. This is not an excuse for a monoculture. This is not a desire to hire people to go drinking with. This is not about finding someone I want to be stuck on a desert island with for a good time.

Coworkers who blow stuff up

For those who missed it, the stars of the now-ended Mythbusters, Jamie and Adam, don’t like each other. They aren’t friends, they don’t go out to dinner, and they don’t miss each other. They did, however, make very good television. Why?

  • Complementary skills
  • Complementary personalities
  • Boundaries
  • A shared goal

It’s not supposed to be fun

I knocked the ‘desert island’ metaphor above, but if you twist it you’ll see a reasonable approach. Being stuck on a desert island isn’t going to be fun. I want shade, fresh water and food – I want to get off the island alive. What’s your toolkit like? What do you prioritize? How do you tackle adversity?

No, we’re not getting stuck on a desert island anytime soon, so let’s drop the abstract metaphor and make people answer some hard questions (or as hard as they get in an interview, anyway). Work *isn’t* always fun. It can be stressful, heartbreaking and generally irritating. I want to know that you’re aware of yourself and won’t run for the hills the first time things get hard and tempers fray. Remember, there are no trick questions here.

Tell me about saying, ‘No.’

Everyone has a line they won’t cross. Where is yours?

Tell me about being wrong.

What’s an opinion or assumption you had that changed recently? Why did it change?

Tell me about being right.

How did you convince others? Were you vindicated after the fact? How do you define, ‘right?’

Tell me about a bit of good luck.

We’ve all gotten lucky. Be honest with me.

What’s the last thing that stressed you out?

What did it take to resolve the situation? Did it bleed over? How do you handle stress?

If you started a business, what would it be?

Starting a business is no easy task. What do you think is worth the stress? Then, build a plan. Find your knowns and unknowns. Prioritize. Iterate. Where do you want to end up?

Credit where it’s due

Slack HQ
Zoe Henry @ Inc.com

I’m not alone in this

The most frustrating projects I’ve ever been involved with have been the internal projects. That website for Tender? Oh, the arguments.

Working on a personal site is just as irritating, but the arguments are just with myself.

Besides the usual ennui and self-diversion around actually designing anything, I’ve been focusing my time on finding a way to write about what I do at eBay. My job title might be “Senior Product Manager” but the fact is my actual responsibilities have been Designer, PM, Developer, Scrum Master, and probably a few others through the last 4 years. Much of the design work is not the most visually exciting. And how, exactly, do you put ‘helped build a new product team’ in an otherwise traditional design portfolio.