|Dungeons & Dragons: Rock Paper Wizard (2016)
|Meeple Like Us
|Josh Cappel, Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim
I’ve spent a lot of time imagining myself as a wizard. Like… a lot of time. More time than a grown man should ever invest in the pursuit. Every time I walk up to an automatic door with a pen in my hand I point it and say ‘Alohamora’. Usually anyway. Sometimes I forget the right spell and yell ‘avada kedavera’ and presumably kill it stone dead. I treat every remote control like a magic wand. I want to have the power to silence with a gesture and compel with a word. I want to be able to incinerate disobedient house-elves with a flick of my fingers leaving them gently smouldering around the kitchen like logs carelessly thrown on a hearth. I would like my very name to be a killing word.
Given that it’s almost certainly for the best really that the closest I’m going to get to this a vigorous round of Rock Paper Wizard.
Right, here’s the deal. You know how Rock, Paper, Scissors (RPS) works. Each player says ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ and then chooses a finger formation based on the choice they make. Rock crushes scissors. Paper covers rock. Scissors cut paper. It’s as commonplace as it is simple, and is so fundamental to game design that you can’t escape its influence. This model of ‘one thing excels against another thing and is weak against a third’ informs everything from unit design in wargames to character powers in Overwatch to deck composition in Magic: The Gathering. It’s called a non-transitive system and mechanisms inspired by these are incredibly common. Non-transitive systems offer one of the simplest ludic architectures from which a consistent meta-game can emerge. Since each selection is balanced (ideally) against the other possible selections the variety in play comes from how people make their selections in the larger context of repeated plays or how they are balanced in aggregate evaluation. Each game of RPS is a single data point in a much larger game space of assessing intention informed by the contemplation of past behaviour. It’s not really a game of making your choice in the hope the odds are in your favour. It’s a game of making the choice that is best for what you think your opponent will do. I’m not going to try and convince you that RPS is a great game, because it isn’t. Its properties though are important tools that can be leveraged to great purposes in the hands of a skilled designer. It doesn’t always have to be perfectly balanced, but the basic idea of ‘A is good against B and bad against C’ crops up again and again and again in game design.
RPS is very simple. Too simple, in fact, for the meta-game of play to be very interesting. Many attempts have been made to expand upon RPS over the years. One of the most notorious is the Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock variant roundly mocked on the Big Bang Theory. Designed by Sam Kass and Karen Bryla it expands the possibility space of the game to offer a much greater range of possible options while retaining perfect non-transitivity. However, fundamentally the game system is unchanged – only the range of options are expanded. It’s a bit like using a multiple deck shoe in blackjack – the balance and distribution of outcomes is retained but the additional cards influence the ease of predictability and in the favour of the dealer. Sometimes adding additional elements of the same does something considerably more subtle to the overall meta-game than might be expected from the numbers alone.
I say all of this not particularly as a lesson in game design but to set the context for what Rock, Paper, Wizard (RPW) does to iterate upon this system. On the face of it RPS looks like mere wish fulfillment for frustrated muggles. In actuality though it shares more of its DNA with something like Cash and Guns than it does RPS directly. It has a commonality with RPS in terms of how players interact but everything else is fundamentally different. It would be a disservice to dismiss this game on the grounds that RPS is a trivial and solveable game. It would similarly be unfair to disparage it as a basic variation within this family of profoundly limited non-transitive experiences.
The core conceit of the game is simple. We’re all wizards looking to steal coins from a sleeping but aggressive dragon. Gold from its hoard is strewn all around the cavern in which it sleeps, and the wizard that gets closer to the dragon than any of his or her colleagues will be able to scoop up the richest haul. To that end, we’re all jostling for position like irritable shoppers on a cold Monday morning before work. Dammit Claire, just use your card – don’t try to pay for your coffee by cheque as if we were still stuck in the nineties.
In order to arrange the happy state of affairs where we’re stuffing the pockets of our robes with pilfered gold, each of the wizards has access to a communal spell-book containing incantations that can be used to discreetly advance a player’s agenda. Rock Paper Wizard is a game of subtle signals and nuanced duels amidst the grimdark set-dressings of a dragon-based economic apocalypse.
I’m kidding, I’m kidding, it’s not that at all. It’s about picking the funniest spell available to you and targeting it at the richest vein of potential comedy. The spells you cast in RPW don’t get assessed in the aggregate, or tournament style such as in Rock Paper Scissors. They’re directed mischief with a destination that is entirely intentional. We each have a wizard we’re attempting to drive closer to the gold, and everyone else is competition we’re trying to send flying out of the mouth of the cave.
It’s this directed intention, along with the fact that powers don’t adhere to any formal expectation of transitivity or otherwise, that renders the easy Rock Paper Scissors comparison to be only skin deep. There’s little, if any, obvious balancing in Rock, Paper, Wizard. The spells that you cast are handled with physical gestures, but their impact is situational and often not entirely within your control. Intention here is often aspirational and you need to take that into account when you make your decisions. There is no overall symmetry of effectiveness in Rock, Paper, Wizard and as a result the meta-game that it permits is intensely difficult to navigate.
Each round, a spell-book of cards is dealt out – this a communal resource, and it represents the physical gestures everyone has available to make. At the end of the round, the first spell in the spell-book falls off the front, the others shuffle up one, and new spell is dealt out to the other end. A first player is selected each round, and it’s this wizard that will be the first one to trigger any of their spell effects and resolve them. All the others are resolved in clockwise order. When everyone is ready to go, the lead wizard says ‘Rock! Paper! Wizard!’ and everyone chants along and thumps their fist into their palm in the traditional manner. After ‘Wizard’ is chanted everyone reveals the spell they want to cast, aimed at the person at which they want to cast it and all hell breaks loose.
Consider for example if the first wizard (let’s call him Raistlin) casts ‘Wall of Force’ at the second wizard (Gandalf). Raistlin advances two happy spaces, and Gandalf has to take the spell he was going to cast (Antimagic Field) and aim it instead at himself. He moves himself forward two spaces, and his spell is changed to a ‘wild surge’ which means ‘a random draw from the deck’. It’s an ‘Ice Storm’ which move Gandalf back four spaces and Raistlin and wizard three (Hermione) on a farther two spaces forward. Serves you right, Gandalf. Never send a hobbit to do an eagle’s job.
Meanwhile, Hermione was casting an Antimagic Field of her own on Polgara (wizard four), who was casting an Antimagic Field at Hermione. Both targeted each other with the same spell and instead of the intended effect they both have their spells turned into wild surges which get resolved, again, in proper player order. We just take the spells they were going to cast and replace them with a random draw from the deck.
Hermione unexpectedly launches at Meteor Swarm at Polgara, which pushes Polgara one towards the cave entrance. It would have had considerably more effect if it had been a spell lodged in the spell-book but never mind. You’ll get a chance to do something interesting later, Hermione. Polgara then triggers her random spell, which is a Dimension Door – she switches places with Hermione as a result, leaving Hermione closer to the cave entrance than Polgara. Gwen the Sorceress then executes her Wall of Force on Raistlin, but while she moves on by two it has no other effect since Raistlin’s spell is already triggered.
This is how every single round of Rock, Paper, Wizard goes down – you make a plan based on the spell-book in front of you but in the end you just have to accept that what you end up doing is often very far removed from what you had intended. There’s so much magic being thrown around in the tight confines of the cave that if anyone except for the first player does what they had planned it’s a minor miracle. Advancement towards the dragon is at best unpredictable, and at worse completely random. You might have a good plan to get yourself where you need to be, or a fair idea of what’s going to happen to you. None of that translates into being able to turn the situation to your favour. Sometimes the best you can do is say ‘Well, I just hope the wild surge I’m counting on here does something good’. Often it does, but you’re putting an awful lot of faith in the applicability of a random draw from a deck. Rock, Paper, Wizard is not a game you can take remotely seriously.
Even within its own meta-game, RPW works very hard to keep you bereft of sensible, reliable options. The spell-book is always evolving and your favourite spell might well drop out of usability before you even get a chance to successfully pull it off. There’s no such thing as a casting speed, for example – the order in which spells are cast is determined not by the spell but instead by your position around the table. If you’re last to go this round then – well, sorry but you better hope whatever you end up doing helps you.
That severely limits your ability to influence what an opponent might do and the rotating options available rob Rock Paper Wizard of a consistently reliable meta-game. You might suspect that Raistlin has a penchant for Fireballs followed up by a Color Spray but that doesn’t do you much good when neither of those spells are currently available. You might intuit that being the richest wizard will send a pile of imprisonment spells your way, but you’ll look pretty silly if you count on a wild surge by casting your own and it doesn’t pay off. The wizards in this game aren’t all-knowing, all-seeing wise seers and sages. They’re what happens when you send the Keystone Kops off to Hogwarts. Rock, Paper, Wizard isn’t a game about riding the chaos and trying to steer it. Mostly it’s a game about just going limp until the fireworks are over and you can see who still has their eyebrows intact.
Rock, Paper, Wizard then occupies an unusual and not entirely fertile niche in the gaming ecosystem. It’s a game which has elements of social deduction but you’re often too much at the mercy of the choices other players make to benefit from your insights. If you’re the last one to act in a round you are almost certainly spending a spell spinning away into a gaming configuration that doesn’t remotely match what it was you expected. It’s a game about relatively careful planning of how you leverage the evolving spell-book, but one where your diligent deliberations can be knocked entirely off track by the actions of someone else without any opportunity for you to compensate. It’s a game where everyone shares the same options, but randomness through wild surges injects cataclysmic uncertainty into the outcomes. It’s a game where even the scant opportunities you have for self-defence are mired in unreliability. It’s a game that feels like it gives you plenty of options to pick from, but doesn’t actually encode a lot of meaning in any of them. The choices you’re presented with in Rock Paper Wizard are, fittingly, mostly illusions of agency.
In other words, it’s a game where the prime delivery mechanism for fun is failing to accomplish a task and having everyone laugh as a result. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – it’s the core template for a whole pile of games I genuinely enjoy. It’s just that this engine of entertainment runs on novelty, and after a while all that’s changing is the names and the numbers. The cap on the maximum fun in the experience is set very low, and repetition only dulls the comedy to the point of humourless familiarity. Like Colt Express, this is a box with an expiration date on the value of play and that date is set considerably closer in the future than I tend to like.
Rock Paper Wizard still has value though because the rules take only a minute to explain and the payload of the fun is delivered in considerable refined concentrations to begin with. The physical elements of forming hand gestures to time constraints and at a target has its own comedy to go with it even if it that comedy comes from accidental outcome rather than intentional play.
While you’re probably going to find it difficult to get good at Rock, Paper, Wizard you’re going to find that it’s likely entertaining enough by itself to be bad. Tactical consideration won’t take you far. Simply picking something fun and aiming it at someone interesting can extract a whole pile of enjoyable anarchy from these simple, straightforward rules. It’s not a game that I would necessarily go out of my way to recommend, but it’s one that I like having on my shelves when the night wears on and the focus of everyone at the table begins to dull a bit. You don’t need to think much when playing Rock, Paper, Wizard and that can be just what you need at times.