Designing Spaces for Design DiscussionsJuly 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.
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?
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?
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.