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Different games, different problems

January 20, 2019

I’ve been spending a bit of time watching videos on games criticism, most of which haven’t been particularly stand out, but I do notice that a major difference in quality of analysis depends on how well a person can figure out what issues they’re pointing at and to what level these are solved or solvable problems.  So, some categories for thinking about game issues, both useful for analysis or design.

Baseline Function

The first question is whether the game is possible to play at all.  For videogames, this is obvious, since the game crashing, freezing, control problems, deleting saves, etc. is out and out unplayable.  For tabletop games, the question is about whether the rules are communicated well enough that people can play.

In Tabletop RPGs, this particularly is a hard one to mess up, since so many people are used to just fixing issues on the spot or simply inserting play expectations from other games.  My stance that you shouldn’t HAVE to do design work for a game you paid for has been one of the most contested ideas, but it’s one I stick to.

This category is pretty rare to find as a major concern, though a lot of gamerdom likes to take any issue and say “This game is completely unplayable”, which, of course, means you have to try to pick out exactly what they’re talking about.

Actual Design

Assuming the game functions (which is, the lowest of bars to meet), then you can actually get into what kind of game you have created, where the fun parts are, what choices or skills you have to develop to play it well, and where it challenges you and what feelings the game can induce.

For a good understanding here, you have to be able to identify – what kind of fun the game is aiming at, how it does that and whether that’s working for it or not, and to separate whether it’s your preferred kind of fun or not.  Again, unfortunately, we see a lot of people say “not MY type of fun = broken”.

Content Length

Content length is probably one of the best things to get a grasp on in all forms of media, games included.  What makes a great (movie, book, tv series, videogame, rpg campaign, etc. etc)? It knows when to stop.  Every kind of thing has a limit to about how much good you’re going to get out of it, and beyond that, you just dilute what is good with time wasting badness.

For example, there’s been plenty of comedy movies made where you  take some joke or schtick that is probably great for a 5 minute skit, where it would be hilarious, but it’s painful to watch as a full movie.  Or a TV series hits the point when it’s not good anymore, because they’ve mined out the good stories (or, at least, the stories their team is capable of envisioning.).  Videogames and tabletop RPGs both suffer the problem of often working backwards – “X part is fun, therefore if we add another 50 hours onto it, it will be 50 hours of more fun, right?”, which isn’t true.  Other types of games are usually much better at realizing different types of fun can only put out so much, and to cut it around that.

Game analysis about content length is usually… not great.  That pitfall of “Well just give me 50 more hours of what you gave me in the first 10” is something a lot of gamers get into, as well.   The reality is that anything that is really fun, leaves you wanting more because it stops before it stops being fun.

Artistic

There’s definitely something to be said for games as visual, auditory, or crafted materials done right.  We love a great sound track, a good sense of visual style, illustration or character design, animation, a great set of cards, a crafted token, etc.

Review on these grounds typically tends to be more informed, if only because all these artistic aspects we already have existing critical language and tools of analysis for.

Media Violence

First – I don’t mean “oh no, this game depicts violence” but rather, when the game is a propaganda piece of emotional violence – racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.

It’s not hard to see the problem if the whole game has an overt premise along these lines, but what often becomes the point of contention with the usual gamer population is when a game is about a normal game thing (“Save the Kingdom” “Fight the aliens”) and throws in these things on the side, mostly because the creators have internalized the bigotry so deeply they don’t even SEE what they did as wrong.

Nothing kills fun as fast as getting randomly hit with “You people should know your place” equivalent when you were,  you know, playing a game about racing or something.

Communicated Expectations

Understanding what you’re getting into with a game is more important than many other types of media – because the commitment level is higher.  You may have to learn new rules or mechanics, develop skill to play the game.  It may be hard to tell how long you will be playing the game overall, though the more time you’re expected to put in, the more you need to communicate what kind of game it is.

This is also why short games can be more experimental.  If you have some weird one-trick pony game that gives a unique experience, but isn’t that “fun to play”, and it’s only 5 minutes long, that’s not so bad.  If you have a game that is 80 hours of play, I want to know what to expect ahead of time before devoting time to it, much less 80 hours.

You also need to understand the longer the game is, play itself creates the expectations – switching it halfway through, or at the end, might actually anger players.  (Much of the backlash to the Mass Effect games was that a core game loop – make a story decision, get a cutscene or NPC acknowledgement about those choices, was removed for the end of the trilogy.).

Some of the communicated expectations happen in the lead up to the game being released, as well as the advertising and imagery around the game.  You can find a lot of criticisms about games where these things mismatch – whatever genre you tell people to expect out of a game, that’s what they’ll be looking for.  And some of it might be having to deal with existing preconceptions – if your game seems “close” to something that exists, you’ll need to highlight what it does different so people don’t get caught up expecting it to do what it’s not about.

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Commitment Design

January 17, 2019

When you create a game, you’re creating an experience.  Like any kind of art, it need not always be fun or enjoyable in the immediate sense of the word, but it should be something people are generally glad they experienced.

It’s also true that sometimes, unexpected experiences* are part of what you are crafting.

That said, the more time, energy, effort, cost, someone has to commit for the experience?  The more you should be giving them in the way of information about expected experience so they can decide if they want to put the commitment in, or not.

This is critically true of games, if only because games usually require more investment for someone to play them (learning rules, possibly mastering some level of skill) and, unlike most other media – there’s no standard for how long a game is (especially when we talk about games played over multiple sessions).

This is why, media that keys off an unexpected experience, usually works best if it is short.  If I play a fun little puzzle videogame, that turns out in the end to be really dark and heavy, but it was only maybe 30 minutes long – if I didn’t like the experience, I also didn’t invest too much time and effort into it.   If I play a game that demands 90 hours of my time, then turns around and changes the expectations drastically, I might be actively pissed, since I put a lot of energy into getting whatever I was getting from the majority of the game.

(Longtime readers might remember my analogy of people wanting to play Hearts and getting Poker suddenly thrust into their face – this same logic applies to a game design as well, especially where the game dictates specific experiences.)

A well designed game makes the experience of playing it part of the reward – it’s fun to play.  And, of course, if you pull that out from people to something they don’t enjoy, you have effectively “punished” them for the effort of playing your game.

*Obviously, I mean the overall experience – such as a genre or type of story or gameplay, not, say, “Wow everyone should know the entire plot of a story before experiencing it”.  If I watch a comedy, I don’t expect heavy tragedy.

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Conflict, Flags, and Communication

January 8, 2019

We’ve been playing a Universalis game, and we’re about 7 sessions in so far, and the game clearly has legs for a lot more, if we wanted.  One thing that occurred to me is that we’ve always managed to do a good job finding the juicy conflicts we all enjoy, without the need for a Flag mechanic in the system.  Which got me thinking a bit more about what is happening differently here?

Flag mechanics in action

Flag mechanics are used a lot in Narrativist focused games where protagonists are controlled by a single player, and circumstances of fictional conflict around that protagonist is created by someone else (usually the GM, though other players often can contribute as well, through other characters’ actions and dialogue, if not authorial level mechanics).

What the Flag does, is allow the player controlling a protagonist to say “Here is where I think the fun conflict is for my character” to everyone who can bring that conflict into play.  You can take the same character – “Master Swordmaster” and have very different games and stories depending on whether their Flag is:

  • “Face my rival and take back my Sifu’s school” or;
  • “Let go of the path of killing”

Both could be really fun and interesting – but again, very different.

Alternatives to Flags

Other games have different means of getting around this.  Ben Lehman’s Polaris, for example, uses the antagonist player’s declarations and the bargaining mechanics to allow people to hone in on what conflicts are actually meaningful rather quickly (if a player isn’t fighting back against the conflict, it doesn’t matter to them.).

Universalis, takes a very different approach – everyone can be the generator of character motivations, declarations of success/failure, and circumstances that create conflict.

You don’t need a Flag because there’s no separation of who is the one controlling character motivations and who is the one creating conflict throughout the game – you only make the division potentially within a specific scene, and, often enough, we might take up the side of characters we don’t actually WANT to win the conflict, but in order to just see the most interesting thing happen.

For example, if I want to see two brothers end up in conflict, I could, simply spend points to set up motivations that are at cross odds.  Because this is happening in front of all the players, and everyone has the potential to challenge or block me, it’s not like I need a singular Flag to point it out – people go “Oh! I see where you’re going!” and either stand aside or drop more points in to further cement/twist that situation, or oppose it.

Underlying Play Structure

Ultimately, in all these Narrativist games, we’re basically looking at the classic story formula:

(A Character) -> (Has a Motivation) -> (Takes Action towards that) -> (Thing in the way of the Goal) -> (Outcome, potentially with costs) -> (feeds back into Character to change or stay true to their current self).

So the question is, where and how do your mechanics help the group walk through each of those steps?

Flags fit well for games with traditional player/GM roles because they tell everyone the Motivation (sometimes which Actions might make sense or not) and also allow the GM to come up with fitting Obstacles and Outcomes in that chain of events.

In the case of Universalis, however, every single step in that chain can be passed around the table, so players are not stuck trying to “throw messages over the wall” to the GM, but can, take direct action and give traits/facts to characters producing Outcomes as well as changes to the character leading all the way back around.

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Pointer Scenes

September 19, 2018

I’ve been running a D&D game, but doing something very different than anything I’ve done in the past.  Each session, I try to include a scene completely untied to the current situation – a flashback, or a meanwhile scene that points to NPCs or situations tied to the characters, but not in any way that will affect them in the moment.

This might be a flashback to how you first learned swordfighting, or perhaps why you left your noble house.   It might be something happening back in the safety of town – an ally talks about how you once helped them out, or perhaps a helper NPC is struggling to get to where you are to deliver an important item.

I call these “Pointer Scenes” because they point to the player character and/or the setting even if the core situation for the PCs is relatively straightforward.  That said, it does have more to it than just “throw in random flashbacks and cut scenes”.

Be a fan of the PCs

This first rule is lifted straight from Apocalypse World.  But basically, think of these scenes as a chance to learn about a player character and see why everyone should care about them.

Did your player say they had a Fighter who grew up as a Gladiator in their youth?  What was that like? How did they feel about it?  Did the Bard say they’re on the run? Who did they anger?  What was their closest call like so far?  

Aside from getting to know them, also consider if you can set scenes which will show positive sides to the character and admirable qualities, especially early in a campaign.  (We need to care about characters in order to accept their flaws, whereas characters who start off jerks tend to have a much harder time winning empathy or interest).

Spread the spotlight

Try to spread these out among all the PCs.  This may not be possible every session, but do try to give everyone a little space to shine.  If a character doesn’t seem to have a lot going on, consider what backstory or distant events might make their situation more interesting or immediately relevant.

The snobby noble character hasn’t gotten much going on.  Maybe something like a Meanwhile scene where their uncle is trying to pressure the PC’s parents into setting up an arranged marriage for politics.  Maybe a political group like a church or temple is seeking to set up the PC to be made example of.  Because the situation isn’t immediately in the player’s face, they have time to start thinking about how they want to handle it and it’s not a complete surprise when the problems start coming in.

If the scene has little or no choices/interaction from the player, make it shorter

A few of the scenes have no player interaction or choice – such as a meanwhile scene happening, or a flashback/montage.   When you use these, make them short.  They can add context, give info, quickly hammer out something you’d label exposition, but they’re not as interesting as actually playing.

I like to try to also give these scenes ties to what is currently happening to the player character.

In my current game, the elven paladin had a flashback scene to his homeland where people are slowly dying from the heavy poisonous pollen which floats in the air… I tell the player the character is a bit shaken up when one of their companions starts coughing as they go through the forest. 

This both ties into why the character might be remembering this, but also gives the player a chance to roleplay based on the prompt… and mind you – stoically keeping it to themselves, revealing a little concern, or having a very hard time are all equally valid and interesting ways it could go.

Include likable NPCs in many of them

No one wants to be a hero if the world is full of assholes.

Give players lots of people to like – decent folks, brave folks, clever folks, fun witty characters, caring mentors, siblings or best friends, etc.

My basic rule when coming up with these characters is that they want to do right by the PCs (and presumably other NPCs in general) and they may have certain values or ways they go about it.  If you show that off, players will get into them on their own… and the players will choose on their own they need to protect a given NPC or that they want to go track down a character from their past or be very excited to finally meet the character from the meanwhile pointer scene you made.

One of my players has a character who escaped an arranged marriage.  I introduced her aunt who taught her martial arts, then eventually helped her escape the marriage and fake her death while fighting monsters.  ALL of the players love this NPC.  So now there’s a character I know to bring back at some point that will be fun that everyone’s invested in, and I’m pretty sure if I just drop a hint, the players will go looking on their own.

NPCs also allow you to point back to the player characters as well.  You can have scenes where NPCs are talking about what they admire in one of the player characters, what they feel about the risks and choices they’ve made… or, if the situation warrants, if they feel disappointed or betrayed.   First the players have to care about the NPC to even care what the NPC thinks.

Flesh out your setting

Settings are fun.  Worlds of magic and fantasy, sci-fi and alien cultures.  The thing is, the giant setting no one knows about (other than you) isn’t in play.  The setting that is in your notes but not in gameplay, is also not in play.

However, with the power of Pointer scenes, you can flashback or do a meanwhile to events happening long ago in a very far away place.  In other words, you can highlight a lot more of your setting in play.  And teasing these elements gets players eager to start seeing other places and poking around.

The flashbacks to the elven homeland have got the players very curious about what’s going on over there, but they’re some time away from getting there… but it sets up excitement, all without me having to draw a huge map or do a lot of exposition.

This also allows you to drop in bits of setting in snippets rather than one whole infodump.  This is how most forms of media actually do build up their settings – you see bits as needed and then you learn about the fictional world as you enjoy the immediate story with the principal characters involved.

Up the Stakes / Why this matters

Along with telling us who the characters are and what’s going on in this world, make sure at least some of the scenes also point back to the current thing the player characers are doing in the moment.  What’s at stake?  What can be gained if they succeed?  What can be lost?

The players are currently on a quest to get to an abandoned observatory to make a current, accurate, map to help the army deal with an invading force.  One of the scenes was a meanwhile scene showing one of the characters’ mentors having a strategy discussion with a leader and it boiling down to “We don’t have many odds in our favor and this is going to be ugly.”  So… the players feel a bit more pressure to succeed, but it’s not like the characters know this is what’s happening.

Also notice that as the players become more invested in having their characters resolve past issues, meet with NPCs and so on, part of the stakes become how the characters do things, lines and values they won’t cross, and what the NPCs think of them, as well.

Extra Notes

My games are currently about 2 hours long, with each player (4) getting one of these scenes, which usually last 5-ish maybe up to 10 minutes.  While these don’t make up the majority of play, they do add a lot to the party’s interactions with each other, to the roleplaying in general, and to the excitement about each other’s characters.

My game podcasts are on Soundcloud.  Terrible audio quality, but we’re having fun.

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And there it is.

August 20, 2018

“When they win it’s a ‘meritocracy’, but when we win, it’s ‘Identity Politics'”

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Illuminas Episode 1

August 17, 2018

We’re doing a short run of D&D and posting podcasts of the play.  It’s very casual, so this means jokes, what-sound-quality-we-could-get-from-our-various-headsets, and so on.

Because I am new and TOTALLY AWESOME with OBS, I lost the first session, so you get to start with the intro from the first session, and then we start with the second session.  Enjoy!

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Scene Prompting

August 11, 2018

For the current game I’m running, I’m trying a new thing – I’m basically mashing two techniques together from other games I enjoy.

Apocalypse World Random Questions

One of the pieces of advice AW gives is for the GM to sometimes ask non-sequitur, personal questions of the characters.  You might be in the middle of a firefight and the GM is asking you to remember what your character’s first memory of tasting fresh food with your mother was like.

The thing that these questions do, is they basically provide windows into who the character is, and gets us, the audience, to sometimes step out of getting stuck on the immediate plot issues, which tends to become a sandpit for players in many traditional games.

Tenra Bansho Zero’s Emotion Matrix

TBZ has a chart you roll on whenever you meet another PC or major NPC – and it basically gives you a relationship prompt.  This gives direction and cuts out a lot of the testing and jousting to establish who the characters are to each other.  (TBZ also doesn’t let this be pure random chance – everyone at the table can bid some points to alter the results, and often this is where creative players create amazing situations from it.)

The other thing that this does is that it prompts certain kinds of scenes between characters.  If the characters are “destined enemies”, there’s got to be a point that makes it clear to the audience, that this is going to be ugly.  If it’s a friendship, the players have an idea of what to angle for.

Even though this seems to “take away” some control over your character, it ends up getting players to express who their characters are much better than having no prompt at all.

Scene Prompting

So, I combine a bit of both of those.  What I’ve been doing is making small charts, that suggest a type of scene, and the players will get to roll on it once a session.  I’m still refining how these charts should work, and whether they should be static or change session to session, but they have helped a lot in terms of breaking up the traditional RPG tendency to get stuck in plot and logistics.

1 Pick another player character – flashback scene to how they helped you out in the past

2 Pick another player character – you’re doing something mundane and having fun together

3 Pick another player character or NPC – you’re together and you get to ask a personal question

4 Flashback – name an NPC in your past who tried to stop you from your current venture

5 Flashback – name an NPC in your past who encouraged you on this venture

6 Pick another player character – show off something your character is an expert in, in this area/situation

Notice that all of these require at least one other character to interact with?  Also that none of the ones with other player characters are built around conflict or disagreement?  That’s all intentional.  If you’re playing a game based around a team or party, you should probably have some “team building” scenes that show why these characters are working together, particularly if the stakes are high.

I’ve been tweaking the entries each session, and I’m not sure if there has to be a single, unchanging chart, or if it is always best crafted to specific groups and situations.   Obviously, if your game isn’t based on an ensemble of protagonists mostly cooperating, you would choose some different points of focus.