Thursday, 9 December 2010
BattleTech 2.4: Purpose of House Rules
Why have house rules? Or a more helpful way of phrasing this question, what purpose do house rules serve?
From a purely pragmatic perspective house rules are the players of a game system using their power to audit what has been given them, by saying "yes but" to the rules of the game. However, as soon as one enters house rule territory one has to get others to agree with you about your "yes but", which often leads to a reversion to a "yes but, let's just use the rules as written".
Now I've made it clear in past blogs that I'm an OSR kinda gal, and for me realism and BattleTech are not synonymous, which means I can accept I'm just playing a game. However, the pedantic wargamer in me also wants the rules to touch some sort of base with reality. Fickle female I suppose?
This also touches on some science fiction mantras that writers use when creating new universes for their stories. Change one thing to the reality of your universe to allow your story to work, but follow the laws of physics etc with the rest. Of course it's not that easy to do this, and writers end up using a combination of unobtainium and handwavium at times, but in principle less is more. Stories where the writer moves further away from "keeping it real as much as possible" tend IMO to be writing science fantasy, rather than hard science fiction.
Like most things though, there is a continuum from hard SF to soft SF to pure science fantasy. Hard SF tend to limit things like tractor beams and anti-gravity usually, because they indicate soft SF by having consequences to the universe that are conveniently ignored. Scantily clad women and muscle rippling heroes with swords tend to fit better in a science fantasy setting.
Where does BattleTech fit then?
Well it's not ultra hard, despite of having no anti-grav and tractor beams, because too much unobtainium and handwavium exists around the size of the ships (mass to volume ratios too low), and having ludicrously high thrust drives with handwaved reaction mass. For more on this I can highly recommend the Atomic Rocket's website.
Therefore I've decided I'm going to put BattleTech in the soft SF category, especially since the literary form of the universe is predicated on telling stories within a pulp fiction/juvenile rite of passage mix. So it's a bit borderline to science fantasy, but on the whole BattleTech keeps itself in the middle-lane.
So what leads me down this tangential path from my starting position of house rules. It's the "yes but" part. The rules of the game do not simulate the novels particularly well. To some extent it's good that they don't, because games follow rules, whereas stories are about emotional and physical responses by the characters to situation the plot has landed them in. Both have logic driving them, but the purpose of games is to play, whereas stories tell a tale about people. Of course games can also tell stories too, but that really would be going off on another tangent.
Either way both stories and games require people to spend time to enjoy the pleasures that each offer, and this is where my "yes but" comes from. I no longer have the time to spend playing a game that will require more than a few hours of my time. Long gone are the day where I would stay up until the early hours of the morning involved in a role playing game, or a weekend playing a wargame.
Books are easy enough to put down and pick up. Films generally don't run more than three hours or so, but wargames can run for 10 to 15 hours, and what is worse not have been played to a satisfactory conclusion. Large games of BattleTech fall into the latter category. I'm not saying it can't be done, I'm just saying it is hard to pull off without a lot of preparatory work by everybody involved in playing the game, and the thing is that I don't have the time to do this anymore. Again I'm long past the time in my life where I can rattle of chapter and verse on any set of rules, let alone BattleTech.
So what's my plan? KISS; Keep it Simple Stupid. Seriously, simplify the games and then simplify some more. The problem is not only how, but by what has to be be simplified?
One evening this week I went to a lecture by Professor Jamie Angus on compressing sound recording through digital encoding. She was a fascinating speaker, and even though I have little interest in audio engineering (I just like listening to music), when the presentation moved into system analysis and statistics I saw the same patterns I recognise in the probabilities from using dice to generate outcomes for games. Fascinating stuff, and most of of it way above my head. Link.
She described a three stage process for digital audio encoding, which is about reducing the number of bits of information it takes to record a piece of music. The first stage is the use of lossless compression, which leads to the second stage of "quantitative entropy" that can allow music to be compressed further, but with various levels of information lost depending on format choice. Running in parallel is an intermediary third stage, the "psychoacoustic components" to the digital encoding, which one can then use to massage the music. Psychoacoustic modeling accounts for things like how loud music shadows underlying tones that precede it, which can then be removed with no audible loss. Thereby saving a bit of information in the process. This allows the encoder to take into account masking of sounds that occur due to the biological limitations of the ear's acoustic range, and the brain's processing of music and people's affective responses to sound combinations.
As I listened to her talk about this I had an eureka moment about applying this to games. If you agree that games are based on information theory, then what we want is for the outcomes to be calculated with the minimum of loss: all be it of detail resolution, realism and time among many things, rather than soundwaves. In this case I'm going to target one particular loss that BattleTech manages poorly, and that is the time spent by player's resolving each turn of the game, which increases as the number of battlemechs and players rise in a game for my examples.
From EastwoodDCs Giant Battling Robots I know that 2D6 encodes 3.27 bits of information, link.
I also glean from then same article that 1D6 rolled twice encodes 5.17 bits of info. Both of these are relevant to BattleTech, because both mechanisms are used in the game to generate combat results. The first 2D6 for one's to hit number, and 1D6 rolled twice when damage goes internal (Ed. correction, except that in BattleTech the first 1D6 roll is actually a 1D2 roll, so instead of this encoding 5.17 bits of information, it only has 3.58 bits, assuming I've got my maths right?). These rule mechanisms tell us the maximum amount of information that can be encoded, or in game speak the granularity of the detail that can be resolved, or accounted for. For instance as Steven Satak in his blog The BattleTech Reader made some relevant comments about the limit that the groundscale imposes on the game, link:
His comments were about the 30 meter hex size and how the game rules breakdown, and this is a good example of granularity in a games resolution of underlying detail, and illustrates what the game designers assumed could be ignored, discounted, or waved over.
Now if I've understood EastwoodDC & Professor Jamie Angus right, then approximately three bits of information is all that you can encode when rolling 2D6. Now I put my neck on the line and see how stupid I can be made to look on the internet. This means that rolling 2D6 encodes just a little bit more than rolling one D8, and I'm now going to round down and treat them as synonymous to each other, because it allows me to use heuristic analysis based on 8 bit computer systems.
Now when one applies modifiers to a 2D6 roll, if one knows that it only encodes 3.27 bits, then a modifier of one is equivalent to one bit. If I'm correct then a modifier of three is equal to three bits of information, which has the effect of reducing surprise in the diced for result? Such modification of the base 2D6 roll is therefore highly significant, which seems to me to support my proposition about the modifiers for targeting computers and pulse lasers in the BattleTech game being too coarse.
"Yes but" I hear, but what about the modifiers that you get from movement that make it harder to hit a battlemech, aren't they the same? Yes they are, but they add to the granularity of the game, not take away from it. By granularity I mean that more bits of information are added to finesse the combat results, whereas reducing the information in the 2D6 combat roll coarsens the granularity of the combat resolution results.
For instance, my hunch (WAG), is that if BattleTech had used 1D6 rolled twice to resolve hits, and 2D6 to resolve internal damage then the minus three modifiers of having both a targeting computer and pulse lasers would be far less unbalancing, because 1D6 rolled twice encodes 5.17 bits of information, rather than 3.27 that the current 2D6 system can encode. Now if I've not just made a complete ass of myself, which will then require me to edit and delete said parts of this blog, where we go next is to look at "the what" consumes time when playing BattleTech?
Reducing the amount of time it takes to resolve the action each turn will streamline the BattleTech game resulting in either quicker games, or more turns in the same time period. So what is the first step?
First we start by identifying where dice rolls, or modifiers are not needed, because if you can reduce the number of things one has to do in a turn, then the game will go faster.
Secondly, using the concept of digital encoding would allow the compression of game data, while still retaining the original granularity of the game play. Where this choice comes into conflict with the need for speed, the encoding model would indicate the appropriate game mechanism (choice of dice to roll, or rule) to use so as to be able compensate for any loss granularity from the reduced number of dice rolls. I imagine this will be equivalent to the concept of reverse shadowing in psychoacoustics; where a sound is revealed that was previously hidden by the change in timing of a louder passage in the score.
However, big problem number one. Taking the standard BattleTech rules and rewriting them using this model of information coding goes way beyond any set of house rules that I've encountered in all the years I've been playing the game.
Quite frankly this really would be BattleTech 2.0, the next generation, or re-imagined game universe, and I can't see anyone from CGL reading this and saying to themselves "you know what, why don't we let her do this?" I'm under no illusions here, as after all CGL have said that no outside contributors are being sought at this time, and as and when they do seek new freelancers, it will be to fulfill their long term business plan for the game. Given that CGL have not yet finished their six volume core rule set, one which is rumoured may/has been cancelled, I'm not so much holding my breath, as waiting for Hell to freeze over.
So do I now go back to my metaphorical drawing board and rethink my approach to house rules, or do I run with the idea of compressing the core rules of BattleTech? The former is quick and easy, the latter not so much. Time is probably going to dictate what I do next.
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