Saturday, October 15, 2011

Baseball, Board Games, and D&D

Right around the same time I was getting into role playing games, my older cousin was getting into Strat-O-Matic. Basically, you roll d6’s and consult player cards for the result of the at-bat. There are rules variants depending on how complex you want it to be, and of course you can play solitaire. To get a sense of it, you can try out a flash version of an at-bat here (just click the green circle to get started quickly).

I haven’t really played the game in decades - I’d like to, but don’t have a copy - probably it's only something hardcore fans would be interested in playing… or maybe gamblers. The prediction accuracy is excellent, allegedly having a batting average variance of only .015% (.007% for homerun average). Of course, that would be for last season, so its value for the current one is arguable.

Strat-O-Matic has its competitors, the most popular of which might be APBA. Avalon Hill also produced baseball board games. Way back in ’62 they came out with Baseball Strategy. It uses “Fast Action” cards instead of dice to randomly determine outcomes. I recently picked up a much later version that AH released in 1980. Here are some scans if anyone's curious.

I’ve been been tossing around some of my own ideas for a baseball board game - admittedly much less simulation and much more gonzo. It’s a mash up of D&D and basic baseball rules, something I call Goblinball. I first began thinking about it when I attempted to improvise a game during one of our regular S&W sessions. That didn’t quite go the way I’d expected when the party brazenly attacked the hitter and catcher and all hell broke loose from both bullpens. I'd expected that to eventually happen, but hoped there’d be some bets and baseball drama first (bad calls, taunting, hit by pitches, etc.)

What’s interesting to me about the process of trying to hack them together is realizing how much they already remind me of one another. There’s the battle between pitcher and hitter, with each side “rolling” to see if they succeed against the other. There’s the saving throw of the defensive players who must catch the ball or tag the runner out, or perhaps dexterity checks on either side to accomplish their aims (or skills if you must).

The flow of a baseball game reminds me of D&D. A typical game can last hours, and occasionally goes longer than anyone expected (without a set end time). The storytelling is something like each person briefly becoming a radio broadcaster and relaying the game action. The DM is both pitcher and umpire, throwing the group various curveballs. I like how everyone has their own moment to shine when at bat; each individual describes his character’s action and makes a combat or other type of roll. When the party is in the field, they’re shouting defensive information and advice.

Describing and simulating actions in baseball and D&D also seem similar because of the limits of the field of play itself. In baseball, you can’t stray from the running lane and must move through the bases to score. It’s exactly this structure that makes the game easier to simulate. We don’t need to explain how the player goes to first, the player just indicates what his move is and we both make assumptions. He doesn’t have to describe every step - we both understand that there’s only one place to go and that the critical move was made a moment ago. The pitch and bat swing is analogous to the “What does your character do?” and “I do this.” exchange. In other words, it’s a linear, storytelling game.

Compare this for example to soccer (another game I enjoy)… Imagine describing the action in detail here. Sure it can be done, but it's painful: number 14 receives the ball, she dribbles 10 feet west, turns 30 degrees and moves a few feet forward, now back 4 feet, etc. The playing field is literally a field, whereas the baseball field is a field of probability and a track.

Hmmm, maybe I’m not describing that quite right. How about this: the randomness and uncertainty of a soccer ball or player’s location at any given moment is much higher than what can similarly be found in baseball. It’s this greater certainty principle in baseball that allows us to better design tools to simulate and measure the actions that happen there. D&D is a more linear game, based on the nature of back and forth discourse that moves the action forward. We aren’t all moving forward together in that field, we’re generally waiting for one described action to inform the next.

Just some pre-beer/game thoughts - in closing: Go Tigers!
Update: Facepalm.


anarchist said...

You might be interested in this:

It's an attempt to model baseball using d20 rules.

anarchist said...

I wonder if this is why American football simulation games often use a kind of rock-scissors-paper with attacking and defending strategies, rather than having each player as a piece.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I'm not the only nerd who combines love for baseball with love for tabletop gaming! It's nice to salve the wound of a season without October baseball by pulling out the AD&D books.

Incidentally, AH eventually introduced Statis Pro Baseball which is what I ended up with. I enjoyed it, and eventually moved up to High Heat Baseball when that was so excellent, and am back to Out of the Park Baseball now that it's become so robust.

christian said...

I try to talk sports with my fellow gamers, but it never goes well. I just sit there is brain dead silence as they discuss MMOs. No one ever wants to talk Cy Young candidates.

I love games within games and think that you could run and ENTIRE campaign based around a goblin ball season. The of field and off field dramas would be epic.

"Hey, bastard, you thought it was cute when you came up and in on me, didn't you? Well, there aren't any umpires around right now in this here alley, so you and me are going to have a little fight."


anarchist said...

There's also an RPG about baseball, called The Tools of Ignorance:

ze bulette said...

@Anarchist: Great links, thanks!

@Barrataria: Statis Pro is the one I have - I'd assumed it was just a renamed version of the earlier game by AH. No? OOTP is amazing.

@Christian: Whoa, a whole campaign based on goblinball... now that would be gonzo indeed.

David Larkins said...

Games within games are the best. The one Type IV campaign I played in featured a PC vs. kobold tribe basketball game "for all the marbles." We played it as a skill challenge.

Christian: I don't follow sports closely, but I know what you mean - I'd happily talk that over MMOs; geeks are way too insular and self-referential sometimes.

christian said...

larkins: In the 80s we played a lof of Car Wars. We would run a five duel "season" and our sessions focused on the duels and the things that happened in between. It was so cool!

I love the basketball league! I have to check that link out. :)

Unknown said...

Unknown said...

nuff said

ze bulette said...

Nice! Thanks for sharing that.

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