Archive for July, 2022


Perceived complexity vs. familiarity

July 15, 2022

I was trying to write a whole different blog post but this RPG design side thought took over, so here you go:

Perceived rules complexity scales inversely to how often you have to use the specific rule in the game.

This started from me thinking about visual design and a few RPGs that tried to use icons to replace text for certain things like stat blocks and how it didn’t actually make things simpler. Now, in CCGs icons often work well, but the big difference is that in a CCG you have to use/interact with those icons every turn, so you become very familiar with them. In RPGs, many of those icons you look at a few times in a session, so they often become forgettable because you’re not using them enough.

This led me to thinking more broadly about RPG rules and complexity, and how basically many games have complex core systems that people consider “normal” but the only reason is because they’ve had to use them over and over in play, whereas a subsystem that is simple or at least not MORE complex seems difficult because they don’t remember it off hand, need to look in a book and then use it.

Now, this is of course why “unified conflict resolution” was such a big deal; if all of the rules and sub rules follow the same design logic (“Rolling higher is good”, “Any conflict is one stat rolled against another stat”, “A failure always costs Plot points” whatever), it means even if you’re using an unfamiliar sub rule, at least the CORE idea of it, you’ve practiced many many times.

Anyway, the biggest point I think in terms of design is that if you know some rules will come up rarely, it might make the most sense to figure out the simplest version of them, because they’re just going to automatically become “weird” or “complex seeming” compared to what they are.

(Of course, if it’s something special and ritual in a way, you might want to play UP the procedural fact to help cement the experience, but that should be pretty rare.)

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5 Games to Learn From

July 5, 2022

Over on Twitter Liber Ludorum tweeted: You’re teaching an RPG design course. What are the 5 “perfect” games you assign your students to study?

This is actually a pretty great question to work with. I think “perfect” sets a high bar, but for “open a discussion” theoretical conversations, it’s not a bad choice to go a bit too far to at least get people to stretch their thinking a bit.

Here’s the five games I think are worth studying, the order I would have people look at them, and what I think they demonstrate:

1001 Nights

1001 Nights you get several key things straight out the gate:

  • Improv
  • Roleplaying’s simplest rule “I say something and it happens”
  • Pacing mechanics
  • the inspiration value of setting
  • “Pull” mechanics design

The overall trends worth learning from 1001 Nights is that all roleplaying is just making stuff up with your friends, asking questions and adding to what’s been made, to make even more cool stuff. While 1001 Nights is lightly adversarial, the reality is as players it’s more fun to tell a fun story, whether that’s your characters working together or not.

Primetime Adventures

Primetime Adventures teaches:

  • Flag mechanics
  • Narration Trading
  • Direct Reward Mechanics
  • Another type of Pacing
  • Collaborative Setting creation

PTA is a game that pretty much is the perfect Narrativist game. It also shows how you can take a relatively traditional structure (1 GM, 1 character per player) and by focusing the pacing and reward mechanics around a Flag mechanic system, consistently get story and theme focused play. It serves as an excellent contrast to mainstream RPG design in that many gamers believe you either a) need to have mechanics for everything and/or b) need to have open ended campaigns, to “create a good story” and PTA serves very much as the opposite – sparse, but direct, constraints to focus and channel play into a fun, powerful experience.

The Drifter’s Escape

Drifter’s Escape teaches:

  • Productive adversarial design (the two GMs vs. the Drifter, the two GMs vs. each other…)
  • Mirroring mechanics to diagetic fiction (Being the person w/o power, scrambling to get by)
  • Prompt oracles/good random table design
  • Building completely to a theme
  • Meaningful corruption mechanics (mostly, actually, by way of fiction)
  • Players’ judgement and the weight of fictional positioning

While PTA is a perfect game with a broad fiction space (“create your own setting” etc.), Drifter’s Escape is about a specific set of themes and punches you with it pretty quick. The rules encouraging the GMs to lie to the Drifter Player is an intense power imbalance that is being deliberately used to reflect the power imbalance a Drifter has; they’re homeless, they have no friends here, and they’re going to have to figure out how to get by while everyone is going to use and abuse them. Mechanically it is an easy game; it is not even as complex as Poker, fictionally, and emotionally, it is a harrowing game, and often unsettling.

Mouse Guard

  • high structured scene economy
  • heavy setting/background use
  • structured & strategic conflict design
  • Short vs. long term resource management
  • Character advancement

In certain ways, Mouse Guard is very traditional; there is a GM, there is a party of adventurers facing danger. However, the deeply specific scene pacing and conflict system produces a much more tight, and clear experience of play than most of the traditional games. While it has the most heft in terms of pages and mechanics, how the mechanics interact and affect play are fairly straight forward and rarely go beyond a 2-3 step process.

Apocalypse World

  • Modular design
  • GM advice (“Directive Rules” vs. Procedural)
  • Error resistant mechanics (system doesn’t fail if you forget some rules)
  • Layered, non-correlated pacing mechanics
  • Designing PCs to “aim” at each other in interdependence
  • Fiction focal rules

Apocalypse World is also somewhat traditional with group structure, but extremely untraditional in terms of the advice and expectations which the GM and the group is expected to follow. While Mouse Guard’s multiple layers of mechanics are pretty clear in what they’re doing, Apocalypse World’s mechanics are often indirect, or somewhat hidden in the larger play effect and that makes it more difficult to figure out how they fit together and what they’re doing. You could say that most of the Moves in the game are designed to either aim you at another player, another NPC, a threat character, or have one of those folks come TO YOU. (And, when you look at some of the Powered by the Apocalypse games that spun off of it, where they fail to load up their games with this constant pinballing of conflict, they tend to fall flat.)

Why these five, why this order?

Well, the games go from less mechanically complex to more, with AW being “less” rules than Mouse Guard but the effects are more murky and often working off 3 or more steps in effect to see what the larger game outcome is.

Although all of these games are Narrativist in structure, it’s not hard to see how Mouse Guard could tempt a Gamist, and frankly, raw Gamist design theory is well served in so many places I doubt people would need to study specifics in TTRPGS. And as far as Simulationism, I think players would get a good dose of overlapping design toolsets from these games to get a good idea of how that might work in those games as well.

Now, were I actually teaching this hypothetical course, it would be AFTER we’ve looked at and played some of these games that we’d circle back and maybe look at and play a tiny amount of some of the mainstream games, particularly with an eye to contrast and compare on what of these 5 games do differently, does anything feel like it’s missing, and what kind of systems might better serve some of those goals.

Anyway, that was one of the few times I’ve seen a “random hypothetical” conversation question in RPGs actually be something more meaningful than “what’s your 5 favorite spells” etc.

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The Imaginary Places We Call Home

July 4, 2022

Returning to Kamura

Today I turned on Monster Hunter Rise for the first time in probably almost a year. I spent an hour trying to remember how the most basic controls worked, what anything was in my inventory and so on. More importantly, as I walked through the hub village, a deep wave of sadness came over me.

I’m sure this is what people who play the farming games or animal raising games must feel.

A billion untouched new DLC quests appeared in a list. I felt a little like the adult child who left home without a word and showed up, years later, the unresolved duties and expectations left behind. The characters, of course, were the same, and unlike those games that track time, there was no field of dying crops or villagers leaving the town.

I know this is the sadness of our times, of the pandemic, and more, all just hitting me at an angle, but it’s still a real feeling, even if everything is a parasocial projection.

The Power of the Late Sequel and an acknowledgement

One of the truths hidden in The Neverending Story movie, is the way we, humans, interact with fiction. Fictional worlds, settings, characters, exist because we help manifest it in our imaginations. Fiction IS a subjective experience, to a level. And one of the things the Neverending Story touches on, is that perhaps fiction works best when it acknowledges that to a level, too.

When a TV show or movie franchise decides to do a sequel or start up after years and years, just as often there is a tendency to do some kind of “reintroduction” or a “welcome back” within the structure of the story. I don’t think we need a full paint-by-the-numbers recopy of a past work (“Now the unlikely Chosen Jedi will fly a spaceship and blow up the big bad spaceship against all odds”), but I think smart types of echoing or “rhyming” on past ideas and perhaps some acknowledgement that the audience has changed is important, too.

The fictional world, the story, is a place we visit enough, and it can become a type of home we return to. Unlike the real world, where “returning home” is a city that is changed and often a house that is in less repair than when you left, to perhaps find something like an attic or one room that is “mostly unchanged” and the weird disjunction between “the world almost familiar” and “years years ago, untouched” – fiction can mindfully make more graceful introductions to us for “this is what you remember, but here is a room you’ve never seen” tied together well.

The Imaginary Homes We Build (With or Without a Map)

Tabletop RPGs, of course, are naturally a medium where you leave and return to a world, over and over. Perhaps each place is mostly forgettable, like levels in a throwaway mobile grind rpg. Maybe they’re unique and sit in your mind, and you always wonder what they’re like or how they could change as the game evolves. Every week we also generally have lost a bit of the memory; things jumbled, real life kicked our dreams aside for responsibilities and troubles.

Worse, if you go months or years between play. People get sick, have to move, raise families, and more.

Not everyone holds the same memories of that home. Not everyone has the same touch points as what was the most magical, amazing part. And, because it is fiction we’re creating as we’re experiencing it, as we change, the stories we make change drastically too.

In certain ways, we can never go home. In other ways, we can build these homes anew, if we have the mindfulness and will to do so.

Building Bridges

I’m hoping some of the new ways people run RPGs will help us also find new ways to make returning to these worlds easier. I think having stuff like a campaign wiki or a common page where notes and characters are visible can make it easier to refresh one’s mind as a group, or reminisce and keep the memory embers burning. I know a few RPGs have decided to make a “ritual” to help cement experiences of play, and I think if we can find ways to turn what often is “bookkeeping and homework” of tracking events/situations into a natural flow of play, it might be easier as well.

Anyway, this has been me mostly musing about a wave of unexpected feelings that came from going to a fictional village I haven’t seen in a year. Assuming the nation hasn’t completely fallen apart by the time the pandemic ends, I imagine a lot of us might find ourselves starting up RPGs, or hell, visiting real towns we haven’t seen in years, and finding the same “I’m home but I’m home sick” hitting us all at once.

On note of homes

Also, to do something a little different than normal, if you found this post enjoyable, or if it has sparked some ideas for you in your own games or design, please consider tossing a few dollars to my friend who is in the midst of both a housing and a health crisis. She’s trying to come up with about $300 but if you can send $5, $10, or if you’re fortunate enough to give more, it would mean a lot.