Archive for the ‘theory’ Category


Bastionland’s Intrinsic/Diegetic Theory

August 29, 2020

This post over on Bastionland on intrinsic/extrinsic and diegetic and non-diegetic fun has a great system for talking about activities and subsystems you build within a game. (Vincent Baker’s post on cues and fiction from 2005 ties in very well with this.)

What’s really useful about this from a design stand point, is that it helps you figure out how a tool is generating the behavior and fun you’re getting from it, or, as a way to consider “why isn’t this quite right?” (Or, “Is this not a good fit for the TYPE of fun I want this game to create?”)

Cohesion vs. incoherency in design

For example, one of my favorite mechanics is Primetime Adventures‘ Fanmail system – it would count as both Intrisic and Extrinsic Non-Diegetic fun – you get tokens that increase your effectiveness in play, but those are given as part of the social reward between players – the group applauding your roleplaying (and, also, encourages everyone to entertain the group as primary behavior). It’s a powerful play loop. (Along with the other mechanics in the game, it sets up the Fruitful Void Vincent Baker referred to.)

The opposite sort of thing might be one of the things that was quite common in 80s and 90s game design – an essay or whole chapters on what “good roleplaying” was supposed to be but worked in direct contradiction to the rest of the mechanics – the Intrinsic and Extrinsic Non-Diegetic rewards were at odds – you were supposed to rely on group social pressure to stop players from following the reward path built into the system too deeply. A lot of the hanging “one-true-way-ism” attitudes about Immersion is leftover from the demonization of Non-Diegetic aspects of play from that era.

Fine tuning design choices

Anyway, from a high theory point, it’s a useful set of axis to start narrowing down some of the issues when people start jousting about Creative Agendas – there’s a LOT of range of different design options and ways to have fun within ANY one of these and I’m thinking this grid is a good way to start isolating factors even within the same Agenda in a way people can identify. (“I like cars” is a phrase many people can say, but why they like them, and what for, can be DRASTICALLY different.)

I think the most use you can get from this early in a design is if you’re looking at other games and trying to identify what’s working or not working in a given system, and when it comes to games you are designing, probably not until you hit the point where “some things just AREN’T working” and you can’t figure out why. That’s when it’s probably good to step back and ask if it’s missing aspects are turned to the wrong type to function well.

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Betrayal games and how to ruin friendships

August 8, 2020

I was initially going to write this up as a post as normal, but in working my thoughts out on Twitter, I pretty much said everything I wanted to say, so I’m just going to copy and paste the text here. Sorry that it’s going to be short and disjointed sentences due to that format.

There’s a dividing line between the games that involve bluffing and betrayal that are generally bad for friendships and ones that aren’t.

It depends on 3 things:

1) Opposition vs. false alliance

Poker everyone knows they’re against each other. So there’s no feeling of betrayal because there was no illusion of being allied to begin with.

2) Personal appeals as the means of bluffing

In Poker, the cards and chips serve as tools you can bluff with or deduce information from. Games like Mafia or Werewolf, the primary means of bluffing is how well you can manipulate your friends.

There’s a certain psychological trick in these games that amplify that feeling of betrayal.

As humans, we are generally understanding that lies scale to a situation and we accept how/why someone would lie depending on context.

“How are you doing?” / “I’m fine.” is a way to simply acknowledge each other & avoid deep/uncomfortable conversations for the situation. An appropriate scaled lie. If you’ve got serious lies that it turns out involve trauma in your life, people are more understanding. Same thing.

So let’s say we’re playing a game of Werewolf or Mafia and there’s no money on the table. There is effectively “no stakes” that are meaningful here. In order to lie successfully, “You gotta trust me” “Please don’t do this, we’re friends” puts the friendship as stakes in play.

So, our brain goes, “You wouldn’t put this high of stakes on the table for an empty game” and that’s how the feeling of betrayal creeps in on one side.

The other side is the person who IS telling the truth and not believed. “If you won’t believe me when there’s no stakes at hand, what will you do if it’s something important that affects my life? I thought we were friends.” is the feeling.

Then there’s a third strategy – sowing distrust away from oneself. That depends on playing up negative emotions between other people in the group. So… gossip to tear people down.

3) Time

Finally, here’s the one that I think amplifies the previous in a really bad way; time. A 20 minute game of lying to each other is a short, quick thing. A 2, 3, 8 hour game is not. That’s the timescale we start talking about interrogation & brainwashing sessions lasting.

Games where there’s an agreed time limit or mechanical limit (including “when you run out of money” in Poker), don’t have this as much, while open-ended games do. People are tired, irritable, but again, “you wouldn’t put this much in for a low stakes game, right?”

People break down over time, and thinking also chews up emotional resistance. It’s why interrogations and brainwashing work this way. But you’re doing it for a game. So the brain assumes this must be, for the only thing that matters; friendship & status of self.

You trigger physical survival mode responses, then play emotional manipulation for long periods of time. So yeah, if a friend betrays me in a 20 minute game, haha, that’s good fun. If a friend betrays me in a 7 hour game and I’m exhausted, that’s just inflicting bad brain stuff.

So basically…

So why are these games so popular? Well, strong emotional stimulus STICKS with people. I think, for some people, there’s a “gotta win” drive that might be normal competitiveness, or, the desire to win from losing previously, as a “redemption” model in their head.

That said, I’m all for betrayal games where there’s mechanical tools besides “know how to plead your friends into believing you” and “know how to read when your friends are turning on you” that don’t last more than 2-3 hours at most.

Just be aware when people say a game “ends friendships” it might not just be people being sore losers and immature, you might be playing a game that’s well engineered to create negative spaces in friendships and add a dose of torturous stress on top of it.

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Keith Burgun’s Strategy Triangle

June 24, 2020

If you’re looking at doing gamist design, this is a pretty excellent framing for understanding the balance of strategies, which are usefully summed up as early/mid/late game wins.

This is a bit long of a video, and rambley, but you can check out the chart and a short PDF with the basic ideas from his site at the cost of “pay what you want”.

What I find particularly useful is that this sums up one of the key problems that often hits us in bad gamist mechanics for RPGS – where players are locked into a single strategy, there’s no meaningful choice in play.

D&D and many of it’s descendant games have this problem. In older D&D, when you move from having a group of characters per player, and a host of options on any given round, to only having one character, your options are rather thin. People have noted that “attack/heal/retreat” is not that interesting as an individual choice, but when you have 5-10 characters the question of how many do you pull back to heal, how many should be trying to get the damn door open and how many should watch the side corridor is much more interesting, even if each individual character has “one action” – the point is the player has many.

In the video, he talks about you don’t want to have a whole faction, or a character in a fighting game, locked into one strategy, though you might have a unit in a wargame do so (bc the faction provides other options). Again, the player has choice, even if a unit is narrow in capacity.

Feats and power-tree build games suffered from a different issue – you may have a few viable options, but the nature of the build locks you into doing one thing, almost all the time. So the amount of meaningful choice in play simply disappears.


Gamist Design: Status Effects

May 29, 2020

I try not to do too many “here’s a video, watch this” posts, but this video covers a lot of ideas for gamist design – though it covers videogames, it’s not hard to see the overlap with tabletop games, especially when they talk about how many of the alternate mechanics are basically to create complexity beyond “I hit, you hit” gameplay.

The key issues about reward/payoff, and reliability, are huge. We used to see this kind of analysis in the old WOTC D&D forums, which, despite anything else, drastically improved the dialogue around gamist design in a general sense, from the prior fuzzy “If you don’t like it, just make up new rules” or “Well, just rule that it doesn’t work and then the players have to do something else” handwaving.

If you’re considering doing gamist design, do watch this video for a good summation of the usual sorts and what pitfalls to avoid.


Provoking GM Creativity Via Rules

April 4, 2020

I’m running a game of Apocalypse World and one thing I’m noticing this go around is a way in which the rules do this slick shifting of traditional GM narration framing.

GM as fact creator

When you’re running any game where the GM is expected to create/assign aspects to the world and narrate it, you’re always having to decide “HOW do I decide what is true?”  That may be information you’ve prepared ahead of time (“This character is this strong and has a Strength score of 17”) or it might be something you assign in the moment.

Going from facts to facts

In traditional games, the usual mental framing for the GM when you DO assign something in the moment is what is the most logical thing or really to think of it as if you were looking in on an existing world and what would fit there.  Of course, it’s just you assigning it, but these mental framings are important in terms of how you approach and do things because they shape what you end up doing.

So you’re running a game and there’s a fight and you’ve “assigned” in your head where the enemy is (“Over there, behind the table, taking cover”) and antics happen and the player decides to have their character take a quick look and trying to figure out where the enemy is now.

In this traditional framing, you run through the usual factors “Where would they want to go? How fast could they get there?” or maybe the game assigns a speed stat and you can use that to figure out the positioning and go from there.  (Obviously, all these facts and what ‘makes sense’ is genre context dependent – a superhero game works on different expectations than a gritty street crime game).

Most traditional GMing, the established facts are the PRIME thing to consider, the priority in deciding what new facts and events to create.

Sometimes go to the edge cases

Continuing from the prior example “Where is the enemy?” has a range of possible answers – and you can think of that range as a bell curve – the thing that makes the most sense given established facts is the largest, mostly likely distribution, while the edges are less likely.  If you always pick the middle, things get less interesting, and, as a GM, you’re likely to always go for it because it’s the path of least effort.

Apocalypse World shoves your focus as a GM to the edges, with one simple phrase in many of the moves: “…but expect the worst.”

If we were simply using the facts for new facts and sticking with the most likely answer, then “Where is the enemy?” has the same answer whether you rolled well or rolled poorly and got “…but expect the worst”.

This is only triggered in Apocalypse World when players have a Miss on a roll, this means the answer, the outcome or fact you create as a GM should be substantially different – that fact exists as a Schrodinger’s Cat – an undefined quantum state – until the dice are rolled and you narrate it.

Often times when these rolls come up and I don’t think I have a good answer, I am pushed to improvise a situation that I never would have thought of, had not prepped, and makes the game much more interesting.

Example of Expect the Worst

A couple of sessions ago, a player character was hiding in the husk of a burnt out car while two gangs were fighting in the street.  She made a Read a Situation Roll and asked “Who’s in control here?” and, by the facts, kinda no one was, in the chaos.  But “expect the worst” made me consider “What would be the worst situation? I mean, being caught in this situation is already… bad.”

Oh, wait, of course.

“You just know to look over your shoulder, and you see the ripple in the sky is opened and the psychic maelstrom is looking down on this.  It’s watching, THIS fight, specifically.  The maelstrom is in control here.”

What does that mean? Fuck if I know.  I just know the situation immediately is made worse, if not in a obvious fashion, in a “well, whatever the big picture is, this is extra, especially, not great.”

It encourages you to create twists that you, yourself, as a GM don’t see coming at all, while still retaining a moderately traditional GM role.  As I often say, the simplest rule is “I say a thing and it happens” so every other kind of rule should provide something more interesting than that – having outcomes force the GM to look at the edge cases, “plausible if not immediately obvious” is a pretty great rule to work with.

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