Archive for the ‘theory’ Category


Luck vs. Skill in games

February 20, 2017

A generally good talk on the differences in game experience and what it means for your game.

While this is directly applied to gamist RPGs, the interesting twist to realize for other types of RPGs is that you are looking at how well the rules allow you to navigate either in a Narrativist experience or Simulationist one as well, and the level of mastery required.  Also, and specific to tabletop RPGs, is the element of how much the fictional positioning plays in this whole experience.


Tactical games, stats, and balancing

July 13, 2016

This is a pretty excellent video explaining the issues around balancing with attributes and stats, and the issues of things like dump stats and so on.  Since the videogame in questions is directly descending from D&D, and the speaker is also a tabletop gamer, the information is very directly applicable to tabletop games and design.

What I think is really interesting is that he highlights the difference between characters being “viable” vs. “optimized” and that the greater the difference between the two within your given game, the harder it becomes to balance encounters.  He also points out that if something is basically required for viable play, it shouldn’t be optional, as there’s no real play value gained by hiding “gotchas” or traps in character creation, which is a pretty common problem for tabletop games.



Signal Boost: Emily Care Boss’ RPG Theory Roundup

October 2, 2014

Emily Care Boss has an excellent post listing links and history of RPG theory.

Given that she created the “Lumpley-Care Principle” along with Vincent Baker, which basically highlights the point that anything that happens in the game fiction, does so because the group assents to it – which is a fundamental point to how tabletop roleplaying works, you should definitely check it out.


Designing Easy-To-Modify Games

July 8, 2014

One thing that’s pretty interesting is the level to which tabletop RPGs expect the groups playing them to hack and change them.  There’s pretty much three ways to address that, and it’s worth considering how those work:

“Design it yourself” (AKA anti-design)

This would be “Rule 0” or “if you don’t like these rules, make up your own”.  This has been in rpgs for decades, and specifically is a non-helpful way to do things.  It also gets used a lot as a defense when the rules didn’t do what they’d claim they were supposed to do.

I’ve heard arguments in the past “no, no, really the game was made poorly to FORCE you to become a better gamer”… which… is ridiculous.  You might make that argument about certain forms of training and the need to ramp up difficulty, but in games?  Difficulty should be about a challenge factor in playing the game, not a challenge to making the game work – the challenge in basketball is playing basketball, not tying people’s legs together and blindfolding them and giving them a half-flat ball.


This is pretty much the easiest way to make an easy-to-hack game, though the changes are all effectively superficial.  The Pool, HeroQuest, octaNe, Universalis, Fudge, FATE…  all of these games have easy to swap labels while keeping the mechanics identical.  What’s the difference between a heavy armored robot and a small fast robot?  The labels “Heavy” “Armored” vs. “Small” “Fast” applied to them.

On the other hand, while this allows easy genre and element swapping, it doesn’t actually make for any mechanical differences in hacking by itself.  Often these systems use a universal resolution and there’s not a lot more to hang on it.

Unified Principles

Vincent Baker has a nifty chart about how rules work vs. how we actually play at the table. (you should read the whole post, it’s almost 9 years old but still very relevant).

This is an idealized design-to-play set up.  The turquoise is the actual rules in the game book/text.  You’ll notice it’s like 98% within the other circle – which is “how we play at the table”.  In other words, nearly all of the rules or advice in the book are actually useful in play.   You’ll notice of “How We Actually Play”, the part that isn’t covered by the game text circle, is broken into two sections – Ad Hoc decisions, and Principled Decisions.

Principled decisions are the choices you make because they fit in with the principles the game has communicated to you on how things generally work in the game.

Say you’re playing D&D and there’s a gas explosion in a mine.  “Oh gee, the book doesn’t have rules for that… but it’s a LOT LIKE a Fireball or Dragon’s Breath.  Let’s say it does this much damage and you make a Saving Throw for half damage”.   You can make that call and it works with the game because it’s based on common principles within the game.

So part of a game design is how well you communicate the principles of your game – which doesn’t have to be pages of theory and designer notes, but it does need to be consistent across your rules.

Hacking a game and considerations

So, from the other side of this, as a gamer, it’s worth looking at what you need to consider when hacking a game, which then shapes things people should think about when we’re talking about game design for modification.


How much does modding the game risk throwing things way out of wack?  Some games are pretty open to tossing stuff in without too much trouble.  Some games are an exacting system of currency and bumping it around breaks things quickly.  If you are designing a game with the intent for people to modify it, you need to try to aim for less fragility and be clear about which parts are more/less able to be fiddled with before breaking.


How much effort does it take for me to hack things into your game?  Is it a few minutes or nearly hours of trying to put together numbers?  Less crunch makes easier hacking.

Complex Combinations

How many OTHER rules do I have to think about this hack intersecting with?  Are there ways it could do things very different than what I intend because of a complex interaction?

Existing Tools

What’s already in the game as rules that I could use right now or with the most minimal changes?  Why should I use one as opposed to another?  (Example: when should you make this an attribute roll vs. when should you make it a skill roll?)


What are general goals of the rules?  What are rules they follow over and over?  What sorts of things work against this?

So, here’s an example: Apocalypse World has a principle in the rules of “Soft Moves” vs. “Hard Moves”.  A Soft Move is something the GM does that warns about trouble coming, a hazard or a threat.  A Hard Move is something the GM does that has consequences, now and lasting – whether that’s injury, an NPC getting killed, etc.   A core principle is that you have to give warning, you have to go through at least one Soft Move and give the players a chance to act, before jumping into Hard Moves.

Because this is generally a good principle for a lot of action games (forewarn danger, then enact danger) as opposed to “gotcha!” traps, it is something people caught on to and find AW very hack-able to many other things (Monsterhearts, Dungeon World, etc.).

On the flipside, the D20 flood of bad materials is a pretty good example of what happens when you have both high complex combinations and little in the way of principles communicated.



Player Choice and Narrative

January 14, 2014

PRACTICE 2013: Designing Narrative Choice from NYU Game Center on Vimeo.

23 minutes in, Telltale games talks about how they designed around The Walking Dead game.

What’s interesting is although they’re talking about a videogame, the issues in terms of design and what it means for players carries over a lot for tabletop rpgs.  The two points which they hit on which I think are very relevant are:

1. Choice is how players give feedback to the game

…and in designing a videogame, you need to figure out how to make the game do something with that.  They point out that a lot of narrative tree games usually give you the false choice/all roads lead to Rome approach – you can choose options but they all lead you back to doing the same required thing in the end, which makes them very much fluff choices as opposed to meaningful ones.

This obviously ties over to the problems of Illusionist play since it uses the same tactic as a core part of play, except with more variance in dialogue.

2. Narrative Tree design is a lot of work

For them, they have to develop a giant narrative tree, since the game is just a program that responds to what you do, and they spent a lot of time with a team of writers, flow charts and putting it all together to create a good story.  (and, given that the videogame is short, people do play through it repeatedly).

Compare this to the tabletop game where you have one person trying to design a narrative tree, not just for one player, but several and the fact that unlike a videogame with a clear interface, the players are not generally under the assumption they only have a limited palette of options and on top of all that – will not play through the same situation again.

By comparison, sitting there with your friends and geeking out, “Wouldn’t it be cool if?”  “What if?” kind of story building is actually pretty easy.   Unlike the videogame, you are a living person who can react and improvise on the spot to meet the players’ actions.  All these simple logistical/play reasons, on top of the social problems, are why I think Illusionism is a dead end for tabletop rpgs.


Momentum and modern game design

December 19, 2012

Time to refine a word I’ve used in the past – Momentum.

Before I used it to talk about the flow of play, thinking it came mostly from the group dynamics of the people playing. I think it’s better stated this way:

How often and reliably can everyone playing experience and participate in the fun of what this game is about?

Now, an important shift I had to make, was that I thought Momentum initially as a result of group dynamics, and it is, but I didn’t think back to the fact that the group dynamics (“how do we play this game?”) come from the text.

A lot of rpgs simply don’t have good rules to facilitate momentum for their play – individual players and groups have to make up the difference and become “good roleplayers” for basically kludging together something that was missing key components.

We see this a lot of times in rpgs when groups spend a lot of time, sessions, months even, meandering around and unable to get a solid grasp on not just what “the characters” in the most abstract sense do, but what do THESE characters, Mr. X, Ms. Y, Mr. Z, do in THIS situation? This isn’t an issue of learning the rules, this is an issue of the core focus of play being absent, and the result of a game failing to give people tools to even know which direction play is supposed to go in, much less facilitating that process.

No momentum.

This is basically the point that I think is the defining line between modern rpg design and “broken wheel” design – can the game effectively communicate what play is about and give tools so that a group can reliably hit what is fun for this game?

When you’re having fun, things go by quickly – it has momentum and a lot happens in play. When things are dragging, nothing gets done in play. When the D&D team brought up “20 minutes of fun in 4 hours”, that’s a place where we’re talking about failure of momentum.

This is why games like Riddle of Steel or Apocalypse World tend to get labeled, “traditional” but in fact are very, very different experiences than most traditional games. This is also the reason why nearly any traditional game becomes 1000x more functional and entertaining when you throw a Flag-based reward mechanic on it – it becomes a way for the group to hone in on what play is about and to engage it meaningfully. (Flip side, it’s also why games that reward, “showing up” above actions in play, tend to suffer this problem of stalling out.)

This last year of doing 1 hour games has really taught me that the two aspects of play that define the entire experience for people are 1. Logistics to start (how hard is it to learn, how much set up including character creation, conveying concept & setting, etc.) and 2. momentum in play.

If you can’t reliably deliver fun in 1 hour (really, in 15 minutes), your game just isn’t working.


Short further thought on Procedures & Directives

September 24, 2012

A really simple idea on Procedures & Directives – both are telling you “how” to play the game, just on different levels.

Procedures are like knowing how to row the boat, Directives are knowing which direction you’re trying to go – just because everyone knows how to row an oar, if you’re not coordinated, the boat doesn’t go anywhere really.

While you certainly can make procedures and lock down more play, directives are what allow people to fully exercise creativity and leave things open – this is pretty much where many people who are into traditional rpg design become very excited when they look into how Apocalypse World works- it’s Principles are clear directives which is something lacking in many games (or, worse, games that give directives that are impossible to achieve with the procedures laid out…)