Playing With Immeasurables

December 7, 2019

Today I’m thinking back again to the things that make tabletop RPGs unique compared to other games.  Boardgames, card games, and videogames all have very well developed design and theory, and yet none of these can be applied 1:1 to tabletop RPGs despite a great deal of overlap.

I’ve spoken before that my definition for RPGs is “Roleplaying games are games where imaginary fiction is the focus of play and influences choices and outcomes of play.” and I still think that holds very strong and works well in defining the difference, though I realized another nuance to it.

Can’t put a number on it

The nature of using fiction is that it creates qualities that are not measurable by clean numbers or ratings.  You can measure a character running out of hitpoints, you cannot measure for you, the player, the experience when your character’s sidekick, the NPC who has been with you through countless adventures – dies.  That’s an emotional experience or tie that isn’t a number.  That weight of story capital is something which RPGs operate heavily in, as a normal aspect of play.

This also means that the where, why, and how of fiction becoming important enough in play to define your choices, is always in part, something that goes into directive rules and not procedural rules.

I think some of the best design looks very hard at when/where the quality factor of the fiction matters, and deliberately provokes and plays with it.  For example, Polaris and Thou Art But A Warrior use clear procedural bargaining mechanics (“I do X” “But only if Y also happens”), but the key to that system is that eventually the “But only if” eventually crosses lines of things you don’t want to see happen in the fiction.

Putting Birds on a Railroad

This also ties back to a core issue for RPGs – if players have input into the fiction, in any sense, there will be input that is not so easily weighted by number, value or some kind of mechanical bit that can be reasonably measured.  Which means your whole system structure either has to allow for the game to adapt and deal with these things, or very high restrictions to minimize the fiction effect.

One of the early questions for games that utilized narration trading, where a player could make statements about outcomes or the world, in the same way a GM normally is granted power to do so – is “What’s to stop someone from saying ‘I punch the world in half!’?”.

Well, the answer is the Baker Care Principle:

The fictional events of play in a role playing game are dependent on the consensus of the players involved in order to be accepted as having occurred. All formal and informal rules, procedures, discussion, interactions and activities which form this consensus comprise the full system used in play. 

There’s always an informal veto power at hand, because all RPGs deal in both creating and manipulating imaginary fiction – much of which may be undefined and sees detail added through play (“I use the stick to wedge it open.” “Oh it’s not long enough” “I thought it was used to hold up a tent, doesn’t that have to be X long?” “Oh yeah, that makes sense, I guess it IS long enough. Cool, roll the dice.”).

So… it turns out the actual ability to adapt is right there – it’s the ability of the group to communicate and negotiate which in turn means good directives are absolutely key, because the ability to coordinate needs those directives as the starting point and guides for the outcomes.  I’m unable to recall if it was Ben Lehman or Vincent Baker who said “RPGs are structured conversations” but it applies completely here.

(I often point out that my Same Page Tool is born of the failure of games to do just that- it’s a menu list of directives to help people find common Creative Agenda and avoid mutually exclusive playstyles communicated as compatible.)

We take the fiction, we make the fiction

Modern RPG design takes this idea of how to build rules (both hard procedural and general directive) to get the group to know what fictional elements matter and why, and how to bring them into play and how to create fun imaginary events in response.  The rules are about directing the spotlight, loading up the stakes and consequences, pacing the action, and producing fun outcomes within that space as well.

And, those rules should cover the majority of the focus of the game, which means the parts which depend solely on group negotiation are small and easy to the point of feeling invisible to the group.

I’m seeing a strong split in game design at this point, between design which does this and design which doesn’t.  I suspect much of the problem play I grew up dealing with will continue as long as people continue designing while missing the fundamental element of tabletop RPGs that makes them different than any other form of game.

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