Archive for the ‘theory’ Category


Structural vs. Fictional Engagement

October 12, 2021

I’ve been thinking about a strong play preference issue that generally hasn’t had a good set of tools or common language to talk about.

The Tavern Brawl Example

Let’s say we have two different action-adventure fantasy RPGs and both are dealing with the classic tavern fight. In both games, the barbarian hero breaks a stand holding up a keg, causing it to roll and slam into some bad guys.

In Fantasy Game A; there’s rules for figuring out how hard it is to do the action, and what happens to the bad guys when they get hit with a rolling barrel – these could be charts and specifics, or a generic chart with some GM guidelines, but either way, there’s some kind of solid mechanics in there.

In Fantasy Game B; there’s a checklist of tropes – “Use environment in a fight” and the player just checks that off and describes what they’re doing.

In both games, the fictional events are the same, but the way the player and the group has to engage with the rules to get there is very different.

Structural vs. Fictional Engagement

In Game A, the players have to engage with the mechanics and some system mastery to figure out how to get the effect they want. It’s a very game-mechanics orientated way to get the outcome (which is not to be mistaken with Gamism as a goal). In Game B, the players mostly have to think about how to make something fit within the fiction – there’s very little system steps or strategizing around the process to get there.

Now, this is actually kind of a strong game preference issue, and it’s not necessarily that a game will be all structural or all fictional; rather, that different games choose when and where they want to do one or the other, and different people dig into them accordingly.

While I used the trope of the Tavern Brawl, you can see how this links to things like games with social “combat” or influence rules, or resource management, or political alliances, or romance, or motivation mechanics… So maybe a very useful tool would be looking at what subjects a player has preferences for structural engagement vs. fictional engagement? I need to develop this out more to build that, but it is helping me better understand what I like about certain games vs. dislike (which… isn’t the same as “the game is well/poorly designed” – someone can make a world class version of a dish you don’t like, you probably still won’t like it.)

It’s probably a good exercise to sit down with a couple of your favorite games, and note where they sit on that scale and what you like vs. wish were a little different for you and you might see some interesting trends/ideas about the RPGS you like and why.

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Situation Mechanics and Interactivity

September 13, 2021

Quite a few games have mechanics to randomly introduce events or elements into a situation; that could be a chart you roll for weather, or the classic random encounter chart. More modern games move into stuff like immediate conflict/situation shaping elements; (“Roll this chart – Oh, Aunt May has been kidnapped!”).

It’s a good way to broadly emulate genre expectations, however, depending on the group’s preferences, this could either be awesome and low-crunch ways to make play flow, or it could be undermining a key point of what they’re interested as the focal point of play.

To be clear, I’m also not talking about the issues of random tables producing inappropriate or ridiculous outcomes, nor that they might be outside of a group’s comfort zones, etc. based on their own personal lines/veils or genre expectations, rather, I’m talking about interactivity.

The nature of most of the random event generator style mechanics is that players don’t have an interaction before the point of effect; they don’t really have any way to modify or mitigate it, or, that it only happens behind the scenes and they’re not really aware of how/what they’re doing modifies those odds.

You could say that a key point to any focus of play (in old school Forge terms, the Creative Agenda), is that there’s interactivity with it.

Consider the classic Gamist vs. Narrativist split – “The story is just nice fluff to get me to the fights where I can make some tactical decisions” vs. “Fights are cool but the buildup and fallout of what happens with my character is where I make the important choices”. The part that isn’t a focus of play can often fall by the wayside with non-interactive elements that simply skim over it, and the part that is critical people want to have choices and options about.

I think this is one of the reasons the Apocalypse World style countdown clock has become a popular mechanic; the events are telegraphed, repeatedly, and players have opportunities to interact and stop problems (or, to realize, often too late, that they took too long in dealing with them and now they’ve blown up into a bigger crisis).

I’m going to have to come up with a stronger classification for these, but I think it is something very useful to nail down in terms of which games people prefer or don’t care for based in mechanics and systems. There’s a million and one dungeon crawl games, but even people who are into the genre might only like a narrow subset based on WHERE they want interactivity vs. WHERE they don’t.

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GDC talk: Indie RPGs and Narrative Design

May 28, 2021

This talk is from 2019 but now is available on Youtube. A very cursory overview of some ideas in RPG design, focused a lot on games and the folks who came out of the Forge and Storygames circles. This is a lot of what helped develop my Same Page Tool and you can also see on the right hand side of this blog, the link list with Forge Theory entries if you want to read about the stuff around Player Agenda or Big Model Theory.


Guaranteed Input

March 21, 2021

Many months late, I come across Cavegirl’s Theory of Hard & Soft Tools which is an excellent summation of the design issue around types of player input, GM fiat, Procedures vs. Directives, undirected broad authority, and the old conversations around Push & Pull play and mechanics.

For the last month or so I’ve been trying to formulate a good way to talk about hard tools and “guaranteed input”, but that post kinda covers most of it. This idea is also one of the points of why narration trading is an easy and useful feature to include in games aiming for Narrativism; when the whole group has the potential to completely change the direction of any story, railroading, or Illusionism cannot function.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because on one hand, there is a treasure trove of design theory available (GDC talks, boardgames, etc.) RPG design is only -just- starting to tap into it and a lot of the old spectres keep popping up, including confusion “light systems”(short word count) for being the same as systems that are supporting or complete when mostly it shovels the work onto the group or the GM and provides rather inconsistent play experiences across the board.

It is true that the simplest rule is “I say the thing and it happens” and everything else is more work, but fundamentally for play to have a direction and momentum, mechanics should be contributing to that as well. A system that “gets out of the way” is basically saying you’re going to swim because you’ve found all vehicles are bad because you kept driving cars into water and wondering why they don’t float, instead of trying something that does what you are trying to do – get a boat instead.

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Video on Situational Game Design

March 11, 2021

Longtime RPG theory heads will see parallels with Vincent Baker’s stuff on How Rules Work, The Fruitful Void, etc.