Designing Spaces for Design Discussions

July 18, 2009

Looks like it’s time for the annual indie rpg “Tough Love vs. Friendly Space” debate again, in which the usual dodges and circles are drawn.

You know, because naturally the purposes of a fun space to geek out AND a space for hard criticism must always overlap and never be separated, just like how we always put fan conventions and writer’s workshops together, right? Oh wait, we don’t.

Designing for Design Discussions

The issue for design spaces is that it’s about filtering for quality of feedback.

With the roleplaying hobby specifically, we’ve got two big problems – rpgs are pretty time intensive, which makes cycles of playtesting bigger commitments, and second, that many gamers have been indoctrinated to spew truisms or “one-wayism” in their gaming- making for poor feedback. (“Your game doesn’t have a GM!?! No wai it canz work! LOLZ!”)

(There is a third issue that many folks don’t use, and don’t believe that rules actually work. Though it’s usually tangled in with the truism issue above. It’s not hard to see that you’re not going to get good design feedback from people who effectively believe intentional rule design is an impossibility.)

What we’ve seen happen over the last few years is most of the folks who used to post and participate at the Forge have switched over to doing their serious design talks offline or privately. And sure enough, that’s an easy way to filter for quality- find people you know who have good feedback, and talk to them personally- no problems with random internet strangers jumping in and derailing the conversation.

The unfortunate part is, having those public conversations does do a service to the greater community- it not only shows ways of thinking about games and design, but more importantly it shows the manners in which those discussions have to happen for useful feedback to occur. But getting that to happen takes a lot of work, since, effectively you’re now forced to filter a good deal of the internet.

Social Contract

You’ll want to have a social contract- in what manner is discussion acceptable and not acceptable? When there is a conflict, what is the way in which it is prevented from taking over the discussion? When someone comes to the discussion with poor intentions, what are the means of correction and what is the response?

How do we talk about hard criticism? Which is more important – putting it nicely or putting it clearly?

Required Knowledge

What do people need to know to meaningfully participate in the conversation? Is there anything pointing them where they can learn it for themselves?

People used to give me drama about having a list of 4 games for people to go play before talking about roleplaying games here. Ironically, if you wanted to talk about say, classic boardgame design, no one would have a problem if you were expected to at least be familiar with Chess, Backgammon, and Go, for instance (“You can’t have a game where the pieces move differently based on the type of piece! It can’t work!”)

In the same sense, painters are expected to know some classic artists, music critics are supposed to know certain performers/bands, sci-fi writers should have read a few names, etc. in order to give meaningful feedback to others.

Without information and context, it’s pretty much impossible to give useful feedback, despite one’s best intentions.

And anyone who is opposed to even beginning the process of getting more information, doesn’t have good intentions to begin with- either they’re assuming that their voice matters more, regardless of being informed or uninformed (whoa privilege) or else they’re assuming you don’t have good intentions in setting the bar – and if that’s the assumption coming in, what kind of conversation do you think you’re going to have?

Focusing Discussions

Good design discussion comes from depth, not breadth. And, depth is achieved through focusing and avoiding derailing twists. Having a stable set of rules that push people to staying on topic and going deeper with it, is where you get depth. (Filtering out for ill intention and going over 101’s is necessary to even -get- to here).

Specific to rpgs, there’s two things that have to come into play constantly for useful discussion. You need to know what -generally- happens from a given design, and you need to be able to ask what -could- happen to reach for new places.

This is the most useful aspect to public discussions is that you will encounter people who share your experiences AND people who have completely foreign experiences. Both of these give you context and ways of thinking about gaming and design which are necessary in the big picture, as well as spark ideas for things you didn’t think were possible for roleplaying games overall.

Having the social contract in place to let people make statements or questions and get useful dialogue from that- not just arguing (see 99.9% of the internet), that’s the crucial bit.


The people who -do- give valuable input? How do you keep them around? For new folks, it’s the educational quality of what has been learned, but the old hands? It’s about pushing the envelope of what is understood.

I’d say most of the Forge exodus came out of that- the depth digging decreased and the basic education of new folks or, having to filter out problems as listed above took over. So people decided to go to private self-filtered discussions.

So, if you’re looking to start the new design locus? Set your goals very clearly, figure out the controls and prepare for a LOT of work. The internet demands much filtering, gamers are more opinionated than informed, and everyone wants something for free, and expects anything you’re offering to be everything to everybody.



  1. This is all true.

    And this all stacks on the issues of creating spaces that are at least tolerable in terms of race / class / gender relations.

    But you knew that.

    • Yeah. It’s really easy to back off, cop out, because drawing the lines is both unpopular and a lot of work.

      Watching Knife Fight gut both the social contract and required knowledge rules it had in the first year was incredibly disappointing, but, pretty par for the course. Both educational space and/or safe space have requirements that are tough to meet.

  2. Out of curiosity, what were the 4 games?

    • Inspectres, Universalis, Primetime Adventures and either Burning Wheel or Riddle of Steel.

      • Out of curiosity, what suggested those choices to you? Do they map to four quadrants, threads and/or extremes of design?

        Or, is there a risk in giving people more than the list and an injunction to play them? Might we cross the line between required knowledge and received knowledge?

        • Between the four you get: Shared narration, GM-less play, GM improv, player generated rewards, Narrativist play, and a “traditional” game with directed reward systems. I feel it’s a good set of experiences outside what most would dub traditional play. And short of the Riddle of Steel or BW, quick to learn and get started.

          I picked 4 because I figured that’s easy enough for people to do with regular play in a reasonable amount of time. The list came about because people kept showing up to my blog to argue based on concepts which were theoretical to them due to a lack of exposure. I got tired of trying to explain repeatedly what a couple of games would teach them directly.

          Also, turns out most of the folks weren’t really interested in design or theory anyway, after I put that required knowledge rule into effect, the same folks basically stopped talking or thinking about the ideas which were so contentious to them at the time, even on their own blogs or in community forums – kind of an indication they didn’t come to think about the idea as much as to argue.

          And so, this is why you need filters if you’re planning on having a discussion space.

  3. Required Knowledge is pretty much what sums up the key for me. During the design process I got much less from open criticism than I did from just reading, playing and asking a lot of questions.

    Why don’t geeks ask more questions? Is everyone afraid to show that vulnerability?

    • It’s because they can’t see online discussion to be anything other than a tool to draw lines, pick sides and make arguments. Even questions are either attacks or invitations for line drawing.

      The idea that you can both learn more, and contribute more, without necessarily being for or against something is pretty much an alien concept.

      People like to blame this kind of behavior on the internet, but if you watch folks in face to face discussions, they do the same things, just with more polite terminology- the internet simply freezes the behavior in time so we can see it in a greater context.

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