First up, I’d like to immediately link away from my content (marketing, what’s that?) so I can give credit where it’s due for the title: Ars Ludi’s Grand Experiments series. I’ve toyed with ideas I’ve considered experimental before, but this is one that really deserves the title, I think. Thanks for the inspiration, Ben.
The Eponymous Baron
This idea arose while re-reading a game I had meant to play for a long time but had never gotten around to: The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It’s named after the eponymous baron Munchausen, who was renowned for telling outrageously exaggerated tales of his adventures abroad near the end of the 18th century. In the game, you take on the role of a noble much like Munchausen, and tell similarly outrageous stories of your own adventures in the same time period, with the goal of the game being to tell the best (most entertaining) story possible each round.
The relevant feature here is that, per the rules, you can offer corrections to other players’ stories in order to complicate them at the cost of one of your limited number of coins (coins are otherwise used to vote for the winner of the round). The player being corrected can offer a coin – and an insult – back, upon which the initial player might insist that he is correct and return with two coins (and, of course, another insult). This can, of course, lead to a betting war (and a lot of language cribbed from the Shakespeare Insult Kit). If a player runs out of coins yet refuses to yield in the betting war, or if the insults get a little too saucy, a duel can be called by either participant to resolve the matter of honor.
Duels, of course, require proper accoutrements.
As says the Baron regarding dueling –
I am advised that it is the fashion to name this part of the rules the ‘Combat System’. That is an ugly phrase which stumbles off the tongue, and sounds like a Prussian manual on methods of elementary sabre-play. I disdain it. Should its coiner take exception to my contempt for him and his phrase, let him challenge me and we will see if he knows aught of real systems of combat, while I reduce his britches to lace.
As I have observed earlier in this volume, if in the matter of an objection or a wager a player should insult another’s veracity, title or pedigree, then the injured party has the right——nay, the obligation——to challenge his insulter to a duel. Such a trial by combat may also come about if during the course of a wager one party finds his purse exhausted but does not have the grace or good sense to withdraw, in which case he may demand that the other stand down his claim, or face him on the field of honour.
The calling of a duel will cause an unfortunate interruption in the flow of the game’s stories, but so be it : where the honour of a nobleman is concerned, everything else must stand aside while he defends himself. Fighting over matters of honour is a dangerous business which may bring poverty, injury, death or——a worse horror——ridicule to the participants, but it is as necessary as beefsteak to an Englishman, gold to a Swiss, or avoiding baths to a Frenchman.
The system for fighting a duel is simplicity itself. Once the injured party has issued the challenge, the two duellists must choose friends or companions to be their seconds, agree on a weapon——rapiers are traditional and come easily to hand at most parties or places where the genteel and well-educated gather——and then go outside …
… If you are weak of blood, soft of flesh or lilied of the liver, or——by way of furnishing you with a convenient excuse——you are in a hurry to finish the game, or there are ladies present who would be shocked at the sight of blood, or you are unable to retain the rôle you are playing at the thought of noble combat, and find yourself reduced to a common peasant once more, or if you are Welsh ; if any of these things be true then you may avoid the physical combat of a duel. Instead, just as you are playing at being a nobleman in my game, you may play at fighting a duel with a set of rules I have devis’d for that very purpose.
The alternate system he proposes is, what else, best 2 out of 3 rock-paper-scissors (a game invented by the Baron himself, of course).
This assumption that one does not have the proper accoutrements for dueling – the swords or other weapons, the exterior space, and the willingness to potentially be injured, among other things – is well-founded. Indeed, most people do not have such accoutrements, and even if they did have them would probably be unwilling or unable to use them.
I am not one of those people.
My membership in an excellent historical fencing club makes me uniquely qualified to, in fact, duel with swords. Or at least training swords, which, lacking points and edges, are relatively safe when used in conjunction with modern sport fencing masks and other basic safety gear.
I hope it is needless to say but I will say it regardless: do not try this at home. I am in many ways a very poor fencer, but I have also been instructed on the rigors of safety in real sparring with realistic weapon simulators by a qualified martial arts instructor. Unless you can say the same, you should not attempt this. Ignore this warning at your own risk.
You want immersion? I got your immersion right here…
This experiment, in effect, accidentally re-invented stat-less LARPing, which I’m told already exists. Whoops.
Anyway, there’s a whole can of worms to discuss regarding player skill and character skill, but I want to set that discussion aside to instead talk about immersion. One of the things a lot of people talk about in RPGs is about feeling lost in a fantastic world that is not our own, playing a role that is not theirs. Referencing frameworks like MDA we can see that this notion (“immersion”) has a category in their rigorous list of aesthetics: Fantasy.
Well, I can tell you now, having done it: actually dueling (with minor concessions for safety) is a lot more immersive than pretending to duel using rock-paper-scissors.
Before I move on from immersion, since Baron Munchausen is a game that advertises itself as one involving drinks of some kind, I’d like to take a second to advise against mixing the immersion of real drinks with the immersion of real sword fighting. The reasoning behind that, I hope, is obvious.
What did we learn from all this, anyway?
While the original conception I had was of swords because that’s literally what the text playfully suggested and it leapt immediately (…after over a year of re-reading the game…) to mind, it turns out that any “weapon” works really well here. Nerf guns are the next obvious candidates (“nerf guns at 10 paces”), but a foot race, single-life super smash brothers game, and so on serve pretty well, too. As long as it’s a skill-based activity it works to what I’d call some degree of excellence.
The key to why this is the case is simple: you’re replacing what is effectively a random chance of victory (rock paper scissors can be played against the player if the player is bad, but rock paper scissors is optimally played by acting randomly) with a chance of victory that depends on the actions of the player such that the player can actually affect the outcome in a knowing way. It’s effectively the difference between resolving a dispute by flipping a coin or resolving a dispute by playing a game of chess: the latter is rich with agency (the ability to make informed decisions, translated into actions, that causally determine the outcome of events) while the former is… not.
This is a really extreme example of a simple principle: give players more agency. It makes them feel more in control of the game experience, and it certainly makes them feel more engaged and immersed since their decisions have direct causal consequences. If we return to the aesthetics from earlier, we could probably call player agency principally Expression.
Plus, honestly, sword fighting kicks ass. I mean, come on.
However, I can only sidebar player skill vs. character skill for so long, and like all principles this one doesn’t always apply. There’s of course the problem that if you’re meant to be playing a great duelist but you get romped by the other players’ superior athleticism it takes you right out of the Fantasy on account of the disagreement between the gameplay and the narrative (this is academically referred to as “ludo-narrative dissonance”). Furthermore, the sort of competitive gameplay on display here isn’t a good fit for every game, and Baron Munchausen just happened to click. Lastly, giving the player more control isn’t always correct: sometimes you want to disempower the player, or else you want to generate outcomes that players rarely create themselves. This last set, of course, is dangerous, since player agency is what makes games unique as a medium, but they can’t be discounted entirely.
So, ultimately, what happens when you substitute the actual task being resolved as the resolution mechanic in a game? A lot of interesting stuff.
That’s long enough about what I think, though. What do you think about this crazy idea I had? How has it changed your view of immersion, player agency, or even of the player vs. character skill debate?
’till next time,
The Hydra DM