Archive for the ‘theory’ Category


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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Fiction Feeding

October 1, 2019

Between a couple of games I’ve been playing in and some game design I’ve been doing on my own, I’ve been thinking about something that I’m calling “Fiction Feeding Mechanics”.  These are formalized sorts of designs that come directly from Mo Turkington’s theories on Push and Pull in TTRPG play.

(Also for new readers, whenever I say “Fiction” in reference to tabletop RPGs, I mean the imaginary stuff that’s happening in your campaign and session that you are playing.  Not necessarily whether the game is tied to an existing property or book series, nor the setting stuff specifically.)

Fiction Feeding Mechanics

Game mechanics that take place in the course of regular play that specifically ask questions for people in the play group (players, GM, sometimes specified, sometimes not) to answer that feed into the fiction directly.

The most popular example these days is Apocalypse World Moves – stuff like “You get to ask the GM ‘What is the biggest threat I should be looking out for?'”.

Consider how much more directed this is, than “I rolled 3 successes on Perception. What happens?”.  The classic traditional game mechanic measures success but doesn’t direct narration, which means sometimes you get weak or empty answers, and not necessarily because the GM is trying to cut you out of something, but because it’s a non-directed mechanic and there’s a lot to track and do in play.

Also compare to narration trading games – in those games the key component is who gets the right to TELL something, but it’s not well directed.  The benefit is at least the creative work is spread around so the GM isn’t the only one stuck doing the work, but if the game also expects to limit the scope of outcomes, it simply moves the question of “What are 3 perception successes in the fiction?” to a different player.

As I have often said, the easiest game mechanic is “I say it and it happens.”  So, the second easiest game mechanic is “I ask about it and someone tells me.”  A set of directed questions allows play to move in meaningful directions and avoid things like the jokes about players poking at a normal chair for hours.

Fiction that shows up in play

An important point here, is that a lot of traditional games have a lot of questions during character generation, but much of them end up left behind once play starts.  Sometimes these are because the questions are… not good questions (“What’s your character’s favorite color?” etc.) but also it can be because the game doesn’t have good ways to bring the answers into play.

By putting the directed questions into regular use mechanics in play, you find that it builds a loop of “fiction drives mechanics, mechanics feed fiction”.

Anyway, if you’re designing games, consider what questions would regularly show up in the kind of story you’d want of your game.  The key to a good question is that it either leads to more questions or it leads to more choices/decisions/actions, but not resolving everything.

For example, in a murder mystery game, “Who is the killer?” resolves the situation and ends play, while “Who is hiding something? Who is afraid? Who is desperate? Who is resentful?” are more interesting questions, because while none directly solve the scenario, they bring you along towards it’s resolution (and often along the way show you dead ends, albeit interesting ones.)


The rules that do nothing

May 14, 2019

I ended up coming across The Law of the Conservation of Complexity which basically says, for a given situation, there’s a fundamental baseline level of complexity that you can’t simplify any further.  The interesting part is a second note:

One interesting element to this law is the suggestion that even by simplifying the entire system, the intrinsic complexity is not reduced, it is moved to the user, who must behave in a more complex way.

This points to an issue that is longstanding in tabletop RPGs – what the rules don’t cover by procedure, the play group must do.

In some cases, this is trivial (“name your character”) or well covered by established genre expectations and group expectations.

But in many cases, you can find a number of games which were designed with rules minimalism only because the designers couldn’t figure out what TO push and promote, which then ends up either giving very bland play and/or a lot of creative fatigue on the play group to make up the difference.

While the design maxim is true “emphasize everything and you emphasize nothing”, we seem to have a lot of people who also need to hear “emphasize nothing and you emphasize nothing” as a point as well.

I noted years ago that “the easiest system is ‘I say a thing and it happens'” however, rules should provide you something more interesting as an outcome than that to have a reason to exist.


Different games, different problems

January 20, 2019

I’ve been spending a bit of time watching videos on games criticism, most of which haven’t been particularly stand out, but I do notice that a major difference in quality of analysis depends on how well a person can figure out what issues they’re pointing at and to what level these are solved or solvable problems.  So, some categories for thinking about game issues, both useful for analysis or design.

Baseline Function

The first question is whether the game is possible to play at all.  For videogames, this is obvious, since the game crashing, freezing, control problems, deleting saves, etc. is out and out unplayable.  For tabletop games, the question is about whether the rules are communicated well enough that people can play.

In Tabletop RPGs, this particularly is a hard one to mess up, since so many people are used to just fixing issues on the spot or simply inserting play expectations from other games.  My stance that you shouldn’t HAVE to do design work for a game you paid for has been one of the most contested ideas, but it’s one I stick to.

This category is pretty rare to find as a major concern, though a lot of gamerdom likes to take any issue and say “This game is completely unplayable”, which, of course, means you have to try to pick out exactly what they’re talking about.

Actual Design

Assuming the game functions (which is, the lowest of bars to meet), then you can actually get into what kind of game you have created, where the fun parts are, what choices or skills you have to develop to play it well, and where it challenges you and what feelings the game can induce.

For a good understanding here, you have to be able to identify – what kind of fun the game is aiming at, how it does that and whether that’s working for it or not, and to separate whether it’s your preferred kind of fun or not.  Again, unfortunately, we see a lot of people say “not MY type of fun = broken”.

Content Length

Content length is probably one of the best things to get a grasp on in all forms of media, games included.  What makes a great (movie, book, tv series, videogame, rpg campaign, etc. etc)? It knows when to stop.  Every kind of thing has a limit to about how much good you’re going to get out of it, and beyond that, you just dilute what is good with time wasting badness.

For example, there’s been plenty of comedy movies made where you  take some joke or schtick that is probably great for a 5 minute skit, where it would be hilarious, but it’s painful to watch as a full movie.  Or a TV series hits the point when it’s not good anymore, because they’ve mined out the good stories (or, at least, the stories their team is capable of envisioning.).  Videogames and tabletop RPGs both suffer the problem of often working backwards – “X part is fun, therefore if we add another 50 hours onto it, it will be 50 hours of more fun, right?”, which isn’t true.  Other types of games are usually much better at realizing different types of fun can only put out so much, and to cut it around that.

Game analysis about content length is usually… not great.  That pitfall of “Well just give me 50 more hours of what you gave me in the first 10” is something a lot of gamers get into, as well.   The reality is that anything that is really fun, leaves you wanting more because it stops before it stops being fun.


There’s definitely something to be said for games as visual, auditory, or crafted materials done right.  We love a great sound track, a good sense of visual style, illustration or character design, animation, a great set of cards, a crafted token, etc.

Review on these grounds typically tends to be more informed, if only because all these artistic aspects we already have existing critical language and tools of analysis for.

Media Violence

First – I don’t mean “oh no, this game depicts violence” but rather, when the game is a propaganda piece of emotional violence – racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.

It’s not hard to see the problem if the whole game has an overt premise along these lines, but what often becomes the point of contention with the usual gamer population is when a game is about a normal game thing (“Save the Kingdom” “Fight the aliens”) and throws in these things on the side, mostly because the creators have internalized the bigotry so deeply they don’t even SEE what they did as wrong.

Nothing kills fun as fast as getting randomly hit with “You people should know your place” equivalent when you were,  you know, playing a game about racing or something.

Communicated Expectations

Understanding what you’re getting into with a game is more important than many other types of media – because the commitment level is higher.  You may have to learn new rules or mechanics, develop skill to play the game.  It may be hard to tell how long you will be playing the game overall, though the more time you’re expected to put in, the more you need to communicate what kind of game it is.

This is also why short games can be more experimental.  If you have some weird one-trick pony game that gives a unique experience, but isn’t that “fun to play”, and it’s only 5 minutes long, that’s not so bad.  If you have a game that is 80 hours of play, I want to know what to expect ahead of time before devoting time to it, much less 80 hours.

You also need to understand the longer the game is, play itself creates the expectations – switching it halfway through, or at the end, might actually anger players.  (Much of the backlash to the Mass Effect games was that a core game loop – make a story decision, get a cutscene or NPC acknowledgement about those choices, was removed for the end of the trilogy.).

Some of the communicated expectations happen in the lead up to the game being released, as well as the advertising and imagery around the game.  You can find a lot of criticisms about games where these things mismatch – whatever genre you tell people to expect out of a game, that’s what they’ll be looking for.  And some of it might be having to deal with existing preconceptions – if your game seems “close” to something that exists, you’ll need to highlight what it does different so people don’t get caught up expecting it to do what it’s not about.


Commitment Design

January 17, 2019

When you create a game, you’re creating an experience.  Like any kind of art, it need not always be fun or enjoyable in the immediate sense of the word, but it should be something people are generally glad they experienced.

It’s also true that sometimes, unexpected experiences* are part of what you are crafting.

That said, the more time, energy, effort, cost, someone has to commit for the experience?  The more you should be giving them in the way of information about expected experience so they can decide if they want to put the commitment in, or not.

This is critically true of games, if only because games usually require more investment for someone to play them (learning rules, possibly mastering some level of skill) and, unlike most other media – there’s no standard for how long a game is (especially when we talk about games played over multiple sessions).

This is why, media that keys off an unexpected experience, usually works best if it is short.  If I play a fun little puzzle videogame, that turns out in the end to be really dark and heavy, but it was only maybe 30 minutes long – if I didn’t like the experience, I also didn’t invest too much time and effort into it.   If I play a game that demands 90 hours of my time, then turns around and changes the expectations drastically, I might be actively pissed, since I put a lot of energy into getting whatever I was getting from the majority of the game.

(Longtime readers might remember my analogy of people wanting to play Hearts and getting Poker suddenly thrust into their face – this same logic applies to a game design as well, especially where the game dictates specific experiences.)

A well designed game makes the experience of playing it part of the reward – it’s fun to play.  And, of course, if you pull that out from people to something they don’t enjoy, you have effectively “punished” them for the effort of playing your game.

*Obviously, I mean the overall experience – such as a genre or type of story or gameplay, not, say, “Wow everyone should know the entire plot of a story before experiencing it”.  If I watch a comedy, I don’t expect heavy tragedy.


Conflict, Flags, and Communication

January 8, 2019

We’ve been playing a Universalis game, and we’re about 7 sessions in so far, and the game clearly has legs for a lot more, if we wanted.  One thing that occurred to me is that we’ve always managed to do a good job finding the juicy conflicts we all enjoy, without the need for a Flag mechanic in the system.  Which got me thinking a bit more about what is happening differently here?

Flag mechanics in action

Flag mechanics are used a lot in Narrativist focused games where protagonists are controlled by a single player, and circumstances of fictional conflict around that protagonist is created by someone else (usually the GM, though other players often can contribute as well, through other characters’ actions and dialogue, if not authorial level mechanics).

What the Flag does, is allow the player controlling a protagonist to say “Here is where I think the fun conflict is for my character” to everyone who can bring that conflict into play.  You can take the same character – “Master Swordmaster” and have very different games and stories depending on whether their Flag is:

  • “Face my rival and take back my Sifu’s school” or;
  • “Let go of the path of killing”

Both could be really fun and interesting – but again, very different.

Alternatives to Flags

Other games have different means of getting around this.  Ben Lehman’s Polaris, for example, uses the antagonist player’s declarations and the bargaining mechanics to allow people to hone in on what conflicts are actually meaningful rather quickly (if a player isn’t fighting back against the conflict, it doesn’t matter to them.).

Universalis, takes a very different approach – everyone can be the generator of character motivations, declarations of success/failure, and circumstances that create conflict.

You don’t need a Flag because there’s no separation of who is the one controlling character motivations and who is the one creating conflict throughout the game – you only make the division potentially within a specific scene, and, often enough, we might take up the side of characters we don’t actually WANT to win the conflict, but in order to just see the most interesting thing happen.

For example, if I want to see two brothers end up in conflict, I could, simply spend points to set up motivations that are at cross odds.  Because this is happening in front of all the players, and everyone has the potential to challenge or block me, it’s not like I need a singular Flag to point it out – people go “Oh! I see where you’re going!” and either stand aside or drop more points in to further cement/twist that situation, or oppose it.

Underlying Play Structure

Ultimately, in all these Narrativist games, we’re basically looking at the classic story formula:

(A Character) -> (Has a Motivation) -> (Takes Action towards that) -> (Thing in the way of the Goal) -> (Outcome, potentially with costs) -> (feeds back into Character to change or stay true to their current self).

So the question is, where and how do your mechanics help the group walk through each of those steps?

Flags fit well for games with traditional player/GM roles because they tell everyone the Motivation (sometimes which Actions might make sense or not) and also allow the GM to come up with fitting Obstacles and Outcomes in that chain of events.

In the case of Universalis, however, every single step in that chain can be passed around the table, so players are not stuck trying to “throw messages over the wall” to the GM, but can, take direct action and give traits/facts to characters producing Outcomes as well as changes to the character leading all the way back around.


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.