Choices: Emergent vs. Preloaded

June 13, 2008

This excellent post on Enworld explains the difference between 3E & 4E D&D.

It also highlights a massive difference in design philosophy from what has been most of mainstream gaming vs. indie games in regards to loading choices in play.

Most mainstream rpgs usually added more and more layers of complexity onto character building, powers to choose from, and mostly more to resolution without actually adding choices IN play. You have to have mastery at character creation, and naturally new folks will lack this.

A fundamental design focus for the Forge influenced indie designs has been on the experience -in- play, so rules tend to shift away from spending a lot of time on pre-play building and more on constraining play to aim the experience towards making certain choices -within- play.

Some of these are brutally clear- like in Falling Leaves “Will you do your duty or disobey (and risk death)?” or Humanity checks in Sorcerer. Some are subtle, and come out only after playing awhile- Inspectres or Lacuna for example.

It’s funny, because I see this not just as a divide in design, but also a divide in the kinds of players it produces. I’ve seen a lot of traditional gamers freeze up in indie games when the choice time comes out in play. It’s like too muich pressure to make a choice in play, rather than have preloaded all your choices before play. (this includes fictional positioning, and character as well).



  1. Chris,

    I’m thrilled that this blog is back in action. I’ve been meaning to post that to your last three or five or seven posts and just haven’t.

    Great stuff.

  2. Chris,

    “I’ve seen a lot of traditional gamers freeze up in indie games when the choice time comes out in play.”

    How much experience did those traditional gamers have with the indie game(s)? There are studies about the effects of having too many options and the negative impact it has on decisiveness. There’s also been studies (albeit about user interactions with websites) that investigate the type of experience that people want based on their experience and expertise.

    I think it is worth considering how much experience and expertise is being brought to the table at the Forge (and elsewhere). Novice users want things tailored for them –front loaded; Expert users want to constantly tailor and customize the experience for themselves –in-flight (according to at least one study from Penn St).

    These are generalities, of course, but it may have some value when considering design goals and player reactions when those goals are implemented (successfully).

  3. Hey Drew,

    I think you’re mis-reading what I’m saying with front loaded vs. emergent choices. “Front loaded” here does not mean limited choices, it means choices you make before playing.

    For example, Falling Leaves is a game that always boils down to one question- “Do you do your duty or do you disobey?”. This is a limited question, for sure, but it creates emergent choices in play around it.

    D&D 3E is frontloaded- you make most of your decisions about how a character will play -before- you play. And actually, most of my friends can’t deal with the number of choices (and high level of system mastery) you need just to make a character.

    But here’s the other thing- most of the people I play with aren’t roleplayers- traditional or indie. They adapt much easier to emergent choice in play because that’s how most games work. Most games are about choices in play, very few are about choices before play.

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