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Loops vs. Grind

February 24, 2015

I try not to do too many “pure theory” posts, but recent gaming and some conversations with Quinn Murphy, has given me some thoughts I think are key mostly to design, though given the way a lot of RPGs work, that also influences how you run a campaign in the long term.

Moment to Moment Fun

Bungie, the developers of the Halo videogames, are often quoted as pointing out their design method is to try to make a few seconds of fun, then keep doing that, over and over, until you have a full game.   This is emphasizing the moment-to-moment kind of fun, and videogames are quite good at it.  Tabletop roleplaying games have this too, even if the moments are more “minute to minute” rather than seconds.

The trick in this, is identifying what is supposed to be fun in this experience.  Videogames will have stuff like, “Running and jumping on things is fun!” “Making things explode is fun!” while tabletop RPGs have a different focus such as, “Being Spiderman is fun!”, “Smart tactics in battle is fun!”, “Showing courage in the face of adversity is fun!” and so on.

The problem is, of course, while videogames can focus on the literal moment to moment – where what you have your character do constantly is the “kick off” of the fun, in tabletop, it’s a structured conversation – you say things, the other players say things, and this mediates back and forth to create the actual experience.

And that experience isn’t coded into a computer that will reliably do the same things over and over, so you have to design procedures that allow groups to consistently get to the thing that is fun for this game.

What is the moment to moment fun supposed to be for your game?

What do you have in the rules to support that?  What choices are players required to make?  What input are they supposed to give?  What does the system/rules do to create that?

Play Loops

Beyond the momentary fun, you talk about larger loops of decisions, rewards, and experience.  This is actually the place RPGs have had the biggest effect in game design – the idea of leveling up, gaining resources, and long term play in this manner is pretty much a big thing which has ported over to many other games.

Play loops are on larger scales than moment to moment – we can talk scene to scene, over several scenes, over several sessions.  You can have several loops working inside each other or parallel.  Figuring out how fast a loop should complete and what decisions or actions it encourages is critical.

When it’s done right – you’re rewarded for doing the thing that is fun, so it’s doubly reinforced.  When it’s done wrong, too slow, or against the grain of the point of the game, then it’s a grind (see below).

Focusing play or nothing at all?

A key consideration RPGs have to take into account is managing the fiction – how do you keep the group contributing and pushing the imaginary events and conflicts into the ways that make for the goal of that you want with your game?

This is the baseline issue of whether your RPG is well designed or not.  Unfortunately, many games simply lack this and it becomes “style” or “experience” to find ways to make up the difference, which is why a lot of games have problems and fall down a lot – if you can’t consistently meet and create at the same fun spot – the fun is sporadic or absent.  If you are working to get to different kinds of fun, you can be fighting against each other and again – sporadic or absent.

A clear loop of procedures allows people to more consistently hit the expected fun zone, which is why a lot of narrowly designed games, or even boardgames or videogames have eaten up a lot of the RPG crowd as time goes on.  The more reliable fun, wins.

Grind

The difference between a loop and a grind is fun vs. boredom.  When a loop is kicking off fast enough, and in the right way, you have a great reward loop. When a loop is taking too long, or is about doing something that isn’t fun or the point of the game, you have a grind.

The easy example might be to point to videogames.  In Final Fantasy games,  you mostly fight and explore.  That’s pretty much the core fun of those games.  But they started including mini-games, which, instead of being side extras, became things you HAD to do as part of play.   Now you have to learn a different game, that is different than the core experience… and often put in lots of time.  If it happens to be a game you like – great.  But for many, it turned into a grind.

This is true also of loops that take too long.  Fighting the monsters might be fun, but fighting the SAME monsters, over and over, for hours on end, without any changes to the situation, isn’t.   Videogames fall into this pitfall because they often use it to artificially extend playtime without having to add real content.   RPGs usually fall into this category by designing for campaign length play that people aren’t able to fit into their lives.  The loop has to close sooner, and change the variables (difficulty, give you new options via powers, etc.) or it becomes boring.

This is actually a massive pitfall for RPGs.  You have a slow moment-to-moment play, commitment times are usually 3-4 hours of play, weeks on end, months on end, and you can’t really play alone.   Having a grind is killer to sustaining play.  If you don’t have a reliable loop of what play is supposed to be, effectively all play becomes a grind, because the struggle is just in coordinating to play in the first place.

A useful question to ask about loops for any game you design, or play is: “Will I ever see this happen?  Under what conditions?  Is this reasonable to ever expect?”

If you can’t keep a group together for more than a month or two, do you need to buy tons and tons of supplement books for high level play?  Do you need a mega dungeon?  Do you need to prep for months of campaign?

What is the expected rate of this loop turning over?  What actions does the group have to take to make this happen, and how likely are they to do so?  Is this fun enough to make it worth it?

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Go Make Me A Sandwich – Breaking in to the industry

February 18, 2015

GMMAS has great posts, often, and this one is for women breaking into the industry.  This first part hits a key point of publishing everyone can use, and something I point out quite often:

…There are so many tools now that allow people to self-publish exciting and polished games that just plain didn’t exist when I started dabbling in self-publishing nearly seven years ago. It is absolutely possible for a one-person operation (like yours truly) to make and publish games that people want to buy.

There’s also the issue of economics. Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press wrote this fantastic look at the economics of publishing from the standpoint of one of the “big dogs”, and it’s a great look at why freelance writing is not well paid, and why it’s not ever going to be well paid in the current market. The fact of the matter is that very often, a tiny self-publisher with a tiny audience can shoestring a game of their own and still make more money than they’d make freelancing for one of the big companies.

The giant indie push from the Forge back in 2003-2004 wasn’t telling people to self publish to be part of the cool kids club, it was telling people to self publish because otherwise, the money is shit.  How much you get paid, whether you get paid on time, a year or two later, or never at all, all that is pretty much a big deal.

Bigger Plates Don’t Fix Small Pies

The existing RPG market is just too narrow and small to support anything more than that.  It was the problem detailed by Ron Edwards in The Nuked Applecart and played out repeatedly over the last 15 years in indie RPG publishing.  The folks who have optimized to this arena usually pull a few thousand dollars a year, with a few stars pulling something like $20,000 a year after nearly a decade of games and promotion… in other words, still not great money.

And the issue is the same as it was more than 10 years ago – many people are planning their business around business needs, but “pursuing legitimacy”.  If you want to be a “REAL” publisher, you need to push out X amount of product a year, have X amount of full time employees, have books in X amount of stores, etc. etc.   Given the tiny space of the market, none of that makes sense for most of the publishers.  On the bottommost line for ethical interaction, you have to wonder about businesses that are effectively planned to NOT pay their workers, and how one can consider that a legitimacy to pursue…

 

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Community Radio: Strangeness on the Airwaves

February 14, 2015

Quinn Murphy’s Community Radio, the Nightvale-with-the-serial-numbers-scraped-off RPG, is now available for sale.  It’s a great short game, going for $3 a PDF.

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Monster Defined Settings

February 8, 2015

One of the best ways to set up a fantasy setting is to have a single monster, or class of monsters, that changes the way everything in your world works.

Years back, I had this idea of a giant flying beast, wingspan large enough to cover valleys – it flew slowly, it never stopped flying, and any human caught under it’s shadow – died.   So all of human society was built around having these roofed way points and hiding spots for when it would come around.  The point was that the monster forced everyone to have to crowd up and deal with each other more, exacerbating personal drama between the characters in the community – pretty similar to how zombies work in a lot of zombie stories.

Videogames like Final Fantasy X also did a great job of presenting an uber-monster (“Sin”) that the entire society, religion and world was revolving around.  Recently, anime like Attack on Titan have become popular – again, a single type of monster – the horrific Titans, altering how everyone lives.

I remember seeing an RPG.net thread where they talked about a city built around a captured Tarrasque – it constantly would regenerate, so they could keep harvesting bits from it…

It’s a fun exercise to create a fantasy world that is different with a simple starting point and creates some interesting pressures and problems beyond “army of undead/orcs” or “random lich/dragon” problems.

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Signal Boost – Justice Points – “Dragons Aren’t Real”

February 3, 2015

Justice Points is a podcast I just got into, but the most recent podcast has my friend Tanya talking about I Need Diverse Games.

Towards the end of the podcast, there’s a pretty great conversation about games that try to deal with discrimination, but then fail to understand that racism has particular experiences to culture – the racism of the real world, Post-Atlantic Slave Trade, is not the same kind of racism (such as dealing with colorism) you’d get in a setting dealing with racism against elves.   This is a common issue I find in media – these really ugly and clumsy attempts to do parallels to racism, but effectively still operate on real world racism without even understanding how/why that works.

The tabletop RPG example I think of the most is the Anima RPG, where in the history lore, it had a part close to “the people here aren’t enslaved despite having darker skin”…which the game had zero note about skin color to slavery previously.  Or the first edition of Diaspora which had “Kill the White Devil” Aspect applied to “Savages” (which, to their credit, the publisher apologized and removed).

It’s so jarring and weird when modern racism bits are inserted into games or settings which… basically have no reason for it otherwise.

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Updates and a request for help

February 1, 2015

I try not to do too many posts here about my personal life, since, I figure folks are here to hear about gaming.

I know a lot of you supported me in 2013 when I first got diagnosed and thank you for the support.  My recovery hasn’t been as fast as I had hoped, and I’m still struggling to make rent and move on.  I’ve put together a video about some of the experience and what you can do to help your friends or family who might be going through cancer or surviving a serious health crisis.

If you can help support, it’d be much appreciated.  Thank you again.

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Toxic Commitment Design

January 21, 2015

This talk from Raph Koster on subscription/microtransaction service videogames has some really important parallel issues for tabletop RPGs.  The relevant stuff starts about 9 minutes in, particularly the points of how to keep players engaged in your game (in a long term hobby sense, not moment to moment of play):

What’s really interesting is at 12:11, there’s a list of emotional drivers – which is the key point of what I’ve been thinking about.

Emotional Pressuring

You’ll notice that guilt is the first thing on Koster’s list.  I don’t think it was intentional on his part, though it certainly is a major tool for keeping people into high commitment activities – you can see it appear in church attendence, exercise programs, community groups, and so on.

“Advice”

First, there’s plenty of games which have pages upon pages of an identity based on a form of One True Way-ism to cover for bad design, espousing what “good roleplaying” looks like, “good roleplayers” and how “creative and special” gamers are, often with jabs or insinuations at what the opposite is like.

This makes the text itself, in communicating how the game works, the philosophy and the goal of the game, a form of propaganda in this way.  “This is what good gamers are like, therefore you must do these things to be a good gamer, or you’re a BAD gamer.”  Simply parroting the ideas creates a pressure between actual group members as to a value system – identical to any other cultural formation.

Questioning people’s self esteem to “dare” them into doing what you want, or hitting on emotional triggers to reduce people’s critical judgment skills in decisions is well known to anyone who’s worked in aggressive sales, advertising or done media studies, and taken to more extreme levels shows up in abusive behavior and the emotional manipulation tactics of con artists and “pick up artists”.

Behaviors

But most of these games don’t stop there, they also will often include specific advice to socially pressure the group – the easiest example is the “punish the character to passive-aggressively force a player to change”.  Advice on how to lie to players, or similar, also can be found.

These behaviors are about pressure and conversion – and unsurprisingly the behavior pattern is the same as religious fanatics.  If you talk about a different way to game, or even play in a way that is different than their chosen One True Way, they fall into projection and assume that you are trying to stop them from playing however they want to play, and will take it away from them.

Selling “identity”, not design

Together, both the text and behaviors encouraged produces a situation where people are trying to live up to a standard of “good gamer” and a social responsibility to the group, which isn’t necessarily built on fun.  It’s an easy way to dodge out on having to live up to better game design.  “The game isn’t broken, you are.”

Back in 2006 when I wrote my “Fun Now Manifesto”, people got very, very angry – some people saw me saying “play with people you like” and claimed “Chris wants me to get rid of all of my friends!!!” (… … …wow… …).  But when you look at it in this lens of building a gaming identity off of some kind of duty or identity to live up to, and not… actual fun, it makes sense why they are so vehemently upset – all the sunk cost of effort and unpleasantness they’ve had to put up with just to be “good gamers”, I’m saying is worthless and senseless suffering.

It’s why “No play is better than bad play” was such a revolutionary idea – it shifts the point of play back onto what it should be – fun, not some obligation to suffering. (or, the fact that suffering should be considered normal in roleplaying as an activity anyway…)

Love, Community, Creativity

There’s a lot of other emotional drivers on that list that tabletop RPGs can hit quite well.  It’s a lot easier these days with the power of the internet and cheap computers – you can share the things you love about your style of play, your chosen game – you can make a blog where you come up with new monsters, spells, dungeons, robots, campaigns, etc.  You can record your game sessions or write up actual play reports.

This has been the reason open source design, free rules, fan-wikis, and so on has been a net positive for many roleplaying games – it allows fans to become the promoters and build their own community.

Easy Alternatives

When you make it easier to play a game – easier to start, shorter expected commitment, you don’t need to shame people into sticking into it.  Because it’s easy to get into, people have an easier time getting into play, and they’re not left unable to play for months on end because they “can’t find anyone”.

Second, when you have compelling design that does something fun, people will start talking about it.  People become fans and advocates all on their own and they push your game for you.  It’s also worth considering that many games are not in competition for exclusive play – many people enjoy both Monopoly and Chess – as boardgames, it’s not like people are choosing between the two, and in the same sense many roleplaying games can provide unique enough experiences that you can build a network of potential players without having to fearfully indoctrinate people against playing other games.

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