System Opacity vs. System Mastery

November 25, 2014

System Mastery

System Mastery is how much you master a given set of game rules – outside of sports and games of physical capability, most games in the world are built on this as the primary method of mastering and going deep with a game.  Mastery requires an analytical mind to see how the rules operate together, and how they apply in the variety of situations that come up in your games.

System Opacity

System Opacity, on the other hand, is about how much the game mechanics are built on hiding what they do as a false barrier to mastery.  I say “false” because it’s not actually about more skillful understanding of the system, as much as leaping the first hurdle of what hides the real effects of the rules in order TO be able to make real decisions.

In tabletop RPGs, an easy example is useless skills or powers in a game, that sound useful, but when you actually look at how they interface with the system, they’re quite bad choices.   These really only serve as traps for new players, and create an artificial hurdle in that once you know about them, you consistently avoid them to the point they might as well not even be in the game.  (This is also true of a lot of videogames that rely on certain character builds, or bottom tier fighter characters in fighting games.)

Part of the opacity can be a complete lack of explanation, or an incorrect explanation (“Hey, what do Traverse Points do?”  “Um… I dunno.”  “What’s the difference between having 5 and 7 of these?” “I’ve got no idea.”).

While it’s true you can have a good system hidden underneath system opacity, it’s also a bullshit hurdle to have in the first place.  Historically a lot of games have used opacity to hide the fact that they don’t actually have much strategic or interesting choices to make as part of their system at all.

From a play standpoint

Some games include archetype characters – characters that are either mostly or completely statted up, to speed play.  Part of this is that you don’t have to sit for 45 minutes to an hour as someone thumbs through a book figuring out things, but part of it is that you get to skip a lot of opacity hurdles.    “I want a character who can do this” “Here’s a pre-made build, pick 2 things and go.”

But even if you have pre-gen characters, it might be necessary to explain or have at least some basic clues as to what the character is good at and how they interact with the system.  If a set of rules demands multiple abilities or choices to work in concert, a player should be informed that’s a key point of the character – otherwise, it’s just that you’ve cleared the building hurdles but not the “how the heck does it work?” part.

A good system shouldn’t fall apart under this kind of help – there should still be meaningful choices to make IN play, even with a bit of general advice.  You can tell someone good strategies for chess, for Street Fighter, for all kinds of games, but the strategy alone doesn’t make you win all the time – there’s still deeper to go.   If the game relies primarily on building a specific character set up with no other choices (“Use your fire attack.  Every turn.”) then there’s not really a lot to the actual game itself.

I am finding most of the time when I am writing a quicksheet for how to play a game, half of it is actual rules processes, the other half is helping navigate opacity in the system itself.

From a Design Standpoint

From a design side, opacity is more of a habit it seems like for a lot of people.

“Well, you have Attribute A, and you add Attribute A to Attribute D which gives us Sub-Attribute F, and Sub Attribute F is averaged with your Class Modifier G to and your Weapon Speed H which impacts your Initiative Die and determines if you are going to go first or not.”

Guiding rules for designing transparency, away from opacity:

1. Removal?

Can I take out steps?  Do these extra steps contribute to fun in my eyes as a designer?  What happens if I “cheat” and have the game go without doing these steps?  If we’re playtesting, does anyone feel constrained by not having more steps/choices in the process?  Is there any reason to not go with the optimal choices I can already see?

2. Sets/Less Choices?

Does this work ok if I reduce it to simply 3-4 choices from a list?  Do we have to have players divvy up 100 points among 7 categories?  Is there really a value in choosing between having 32 points and 35 points in this category?  Could I just say Set A, B, C?

3. Guidance

Explain what anything in the system does, both mechanically and how it comes back to impact play.

“Traverse Points are what you spend to run a bit faster, when you’re in trouble.  Although you only directly spend them when you need to push yourself, being tired, injured, or using lots of effort can reduce them – which might leave you short when you really need them.”

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