Archive for the ‘musings’ Category

Timing mechanisms: seeded in resources

Monday, September 18th, 2006

Continuing our discussion of mechanical timing mechanisms, today brings us to a technique I call seeding effects in resources. This is not something that many games that I am familiar with use, but it is an effective technique for providing randomly timed events at generally predictable points in a game.

There are games that do use this mechanic, but I’m not sure that they are widely enough known to use as examples.  So I’m going to construct a hypothetical one.

This game uses regular playing cards for something.  It’s not important what.  All that matters is that cards are drawn on a regular basis, and they are never shuffled back into the deck.  The game uses three separate decks, a new deck replacing each other deck as the last card is drawn.  The second of the three decks has a single joker in it somewhere.  When the joker is drawn, some effect happens.

This reliably generates the special effect somewhere in the middle of the game.  This guarantees time for build up and cool down.  While the effect can be generally predicted, it is still randomly triggered.

There are some fairly obvious uses for this sort of mechanism for roleplaying games where you might want to reliably produce certain types of effects at certain points in the story.

How else might you seed events into resources?

Timing mechanisms: progressive goals

Friday, September 15th, 2006

One common method of timing games is through what I call progressive goals.  This method involves a sought incremental goal that, when it reaches a certain point, signals the end of the game.

This is the 300 points for either team in a standard game of Rook.  This is the ten for a single player in a standard game of Settlers of Catan.  There is a final goal that all players work toward that, when attained, signals the end of the game.

This method is not often used in roleplaying games.  In fact, the only game I can think of off-hand that does anything resembling this is The Shadow of Yesterday.  The transcendance rules in TSOY provide a progressive goal that signals the end of a character.  (Though I do think that a case could be made that My Life with Master operates on a similar principle in which the players are trying to accumulate enough Love to trigger the endgame.)
This is clearly not fit as a game-timing mechanic (nor is it intended to be one).  For one thing, it times only a single character.  The game doesn’t end just because one or two character transcend.  But more importantly, there is no pressure to work toward transcendance.  In Rook, why would you play if not to earn points?  But in TSOY there’s all sorts of other stuff to be done in play.  This allows players to bypass the progressive goal altogether.  They can pursue some other goal instead.

This phenomenon is common to most roleplaying games, and may actually end up meaning that this is a method of timing that is generally unsuited to roleplaying.  This method requires the game mechanics themselves to quantify play goals, and that may simply be too difficult to do.  (Even in MLwM you can run into this problem, where players are having so much fun being evil and villainous that they don’t pursue the destruction of the master.)

Play still takes too long

Thursday, September 14th, 2006

In one of those bits of irony that suggests to me that Tony Lower-Basch is reading my mind (or that I’m reading his), he’s been talking a lot about today’s topic over on Story Games this week (How shall I create my character for this session?, Social footprint, and a number of other threads).

Roleplaying games still take far too long to play. The fact that a one-shot tends to take three to four hours to play through, and even short-form games like Primetime Adventures take fifteen to twenty hours to play through, makes the investment of time and energy to play roleplaying games extremely high.

This high time-commitment may very well be an outgrowth of story-oriented roleplaying. Consider how much time it takes to read an emotionally impactful novel or watch a moving film. Now consider how much editing it took to maximize emotional impact. Is it simply the nature of the beast that creating a meaningful story takes four hours if you’re lucky? I don’t think so.

One of the problems here, at least I see it as one, is that most roleplaying games are what I’ve seen Shannon Appelcline call ‘un-constrained games’.  That is, they are games that just go on and on until someone calls an end to them.  There is no mechanical ‘timer’ built in.  So, in the interest of considering timers in roleplaying, I’m going to look at some timing mechanisms in games over the next couple of posts.

First off, some roleplaying games have them, or have something that could easily become them.  Primetime Adventures has a timing mechanism in its Budget< ->Fanmail economy.  The system constantly loses resources and has no way to replenish them.  Eventually the system runs out of resources altogether.  So this isn’t a totally new concept for roleplaying.  Tomorrow and at least part (maybe all) of next week is going to be devoted to considering various timing mechanisms and how they work.

Low permanency and remixing

Wednesday, September 13th, 2006

One of the great things about relying on memory to contain the primary record of play is that it allows for some amount of subtle editing.  This is due to the fact that memories are imperfect.  We have this thing where we misremember what really happened, or where we unconsciously alter our records of play in order to assist some goal.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example.  A couple of sessions ago, let’s say about three weeks of real time, our hypothetical game had a character who agreed to go on some quest for some McGuffin.  None of us really remember the circumstances all that well because, at the time, it wasn’t all that important.  But now, at the point in the story where we are in the current session, it would be awesome if the character had originally been extremely reluctant to go on the quest, but had agreed anyway.  Since we’re relying on imperfect memory, we can just shift our memories slightly and discover that he really had been reluctant.

This isn’t quite a retroactive decision.  We’re not deciding right now to agree that he was reluctant three weeks ago.  We really are thinking that he was reluctant.  Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t, but since our records are imperfect and somewhat malleable it doesn’t actually matter.  We can not only act as if he had been reluctant, we can actually believe that he was at the time (as opposed to saying, ‘guys, I know that he was enthusiastic way back when, but it’ll be cooler if he wasn’t').

This is one of the reasons that low-permanency mediums are so cool.  They permit a sort of editing that’s much harder to accomplish in something with more permanent records.  We can, within certain limits, change the history of play and have the new version of that history be the one accepted by the audience.

Low permanency and live performance

Tuesday, September 12th, 2006

One advantage that the low-permanency of roleplaying brings to the table is the same advantage that other low-permanence mediums have.  Consider anything that’s about live performance: ballet, live music, theater, etc.  Each of them have a sense of uniqueness.  A sense that this performance is special and never to be repeated.

There’s this interesting, for lack of a better word, ‘vigor’ to live performances.  There’s this interesting energy that comes with live performances.  I believe that this is, at least in part, due to the inability to edit.  There’s this interesting pressure to get it right the first time because there is no second time.

There’s also a certain intimacy to live performance.  No outsider will ever be able to have that experience.  This is not the case with recorded mediums like film and text, in which an outsider can come in later and get the same content as any of the participants (though, of course, the context will be different).  This is especially true of live creative acts like roleplaying, where it’s difficult to reproduce even a similar performance in terms of content (though, interestingly, the context is easier to recapture).

Low permanency mediums are risky

Monday, September 11th, 2006

You might remember that one of the things I talked about way back in that huge Medium Matters post was low vs. high permanency.  ‘Permanency’ is really just a poor term that roughly means how solid, accurate, and concrete your record of play is.

The vast majority of traditional table-top play (of all sorts of games: board, card, roleplaying, etc.) is very low permanency.  Records of play are purely mental, and suffer from selective editing and all the problems associated with having a single, interested viewpoint.  We often remember different things because different things strike us as important in play (this move, or that character, or drawing that one card).

On top of that, we often remember things that are contradictory.  I remember you winning because you played one thing, and you remember winning because you played something else.  You remember allowing something to happen reluctantly, while I remember you enthusiastically supporting it.  Memory is a tricky thing, and the fact that we rely on it for so much of our record-keeping in play is a big deal.

Of course with short-play, single-session games (most board and card games) this is no big deal.  We don’t really care all that much whether you won that game of chess with a knight’s fork or a bishop’s fork.  We remember that you won, and we could just sit down and play another game in an hour, which is way more interesting than arguing over what happened in the last game.

But in roleplaying games, which carry a tradition of linearity, we can’t go back, and we can’t replay things.  This can cause friction since what we do now is based on what we did before.  Suddenly it matters whether a character was reluctant or enthusiastic, the story may depend on it.

Today’s post is something of a warning.  I’m talking about risks.  But the rest of the week is going to be devoted to why these risks are worth it, and what amazingly cool things they bring to the table.

Hurdles for new publishing models

Friday, September 8th, 2006

I’ve been talking this week about some of the ways that the dominant model of roleplaying game publishing constrains roleplaying both economically (in that there isn’t a solid existing market spot in the mass market for the purchase of rules), and in design (limits on the sorts of mechanics that can be functionally used). In doing so, I’ve been advocating the consideration of other models for publishing.

But there are some pretty big hurdles to new models. The two big ones are that you are starting from scratch, and that they cost more money.

The current model of roleplaying publishing (by which I mean the publishing of rules/procedures and expecting players to provide all other components) has been extensively developed by some really smart and dedicated people. Just take a look through the Forge’s publishing forum to get a good look. The dominant model has been honed over years, with hundreds (if not thousands) of man-hours invested in learning and teaching techniques.

New models are going to lose a lot of that accumulated knowledge. While some of the lessons will still hold, a lot of them will need to be reconsidered, and some of them will simply no longer apply. This means that new models of publishing are going to require significantly more time and effort to work through. This is compounded by the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, there are not analagous communities (at least not in terms of accumulated experience/knowledge) for other models (such as board game or card game publishing).

Second problem is one of money. The current dominant model is basically built upon the sale of information. In the digital age, information is cheap to produce. Publishing a game that includes components is necessarily going to be more expensive to make. It also requires a higher level of capital investment in materials for prototyping. In the current model, all you need is a word processor; but in a more component-oriented model you need scissors and glue and markers and all sorts of other things.

So, while it’s easy for me to advocate new models, I acknowledge that it’s way easier to talk about them than to build them. That doesn’t dent my enthusiasm, but it does suggest that changes are going to be slower than I might like.

That’s it for crazy publishing models for a while.  Tune in next week for an exciting discussion of why low-permanency mediums of play (such as face-to-face play) are amazingly cool.

New publishing models allow for new games

Thursday, September 7th, 2006

Continuing with the theme of what, precisely, we are publishing in roleplaying, today I’m going to suggest one reason I consider extremely powerful for trying new ways of publishing games: adopting new models allows us to publish games that we can’t publish in the current model.

The publishing model that is typically used for roleplaying games acts as a constraint on design in similar ways that games act as constraints on fictional input.  The constraints can foster creativity, but in doing so they place limits on creativity.  That is, the constraints are powerful tools, but they are artificial ones that sometimes need to be discarded.

Consider Joshua Newman’s Under the Bed as an example.  It’s a game that is practically unworkable within the traditional roleplaying publishing model.  Sure the rules could call for the player to write down the various traits on their own, but that’s not going to fly with most gamers.  And look at Jason Morningstar’s Shab al-Hiri Roach, with its roach cards.  Both of these are games that don’t work in that traditional publishing model.

Most board and card games have components that act as short-cuts and reminders more than they act as necessary elements of play.  Games with scoring tracks, or fake currency allow you to track important numbers without relying on memory or scribbled notes.  Contrast this with roleplaying games in which you are forced to rely on memory or scribbled notes.  This limits how complex you can make the game.  Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard is a great example of this: there’s a practical cap to how complex a character can get and how long a conflict can go based on how many traits you can track in your head.  A character should never get so complex that players might forget whether they have used any given trait in the conflict yet or not.  This is fine, but it’s also limiting; there’s nothing wrong with having characters who can be played completely mnemonically, but there’s nothing wrong with having characters that can’t either, as long as you have the tools to make that possible.

The current publishing model for roleplaying games, with its focus on publishing texts and not components, must therefore rely on ‘found’ or ‘common’ components for play.  This, in turn, forces an interesting inverse consideration on publishers.  Games can be published that require relatively common components (d6s instead of d12s, for instance) in order to target a wider market, but doing so inherently limits the design.  In the current indie roleplaying game market, if it requires anything more esoteric than a polyhedral dice set, some glass beads, a deck (or two) of playing cards, a pack of poker chips, or a print-out of a provided PDF file then it’s hard to sell.

I’d love to see some of the ideas that would surface if we weren’t so constrained by our ‘selling books’ publishing model.

Publishing procedures vs. publishing components

Wednesday, September 6th, 2006

Building on our discussion from yesterday in which I suggested that the model that is generally used for publishing roleplaying games is similar to the model used for publishing card and board games, today I want to discuss a fundamental, and possibly important, difference.

Publishing roleplaying games is about selling procedures and rules. When you think about it, this is not the model employed by other forms of games (with the possible exception of CCGs, which I’m hoping to go into more depth on tomorrow). Board and card games are about selling components not rules. In fact, most game publishers have their rules available online for free.

Most roleplaying games don’t provide components at all. You are required to print your own character sheets (though the resources to do so are generally provided), and you have to bring your own dice/cards/whatever to the table.

This puts roleplaying games in an odd position commercially. They don’t fit into the conceptual slot for games because what is being ‘sold’ is fundamentally different. They don’t quite fit into the traditional how-to model (things like cookbooks), at least not in the Forge paradigm, because it is expected that you will follow the directions provided precisely, and not change things up.

The question that comes to my mind when considering all this is: must we publish roleplaying games in this idiosyncratic manner? Must it be about selling procedures? Could a workable model of roleplaying publishing be built around selling components? What about selling teaching texts? Would those still be roleplaying games?


What is it that we design?

Tuesday, September 5th, 2006

The Forge philosophy of roleplaying game design resembles philosophies of board, card, and (traditional) video game design.  That is, the product is designed to be played as-written.  All rules-changes are intended to be front-loaded as a design consideration rather than a play consideration (rules variants, video game mods, etc.).

This is a very workable model.  It has resulted in some extremely tightly designed and very fun games.  However, as we are constantly reminded, gaming is really all about actual play.  And it turns out that designing games isn’t the only way to impact actual play.

It’s not like this is all that revolutionary: I know people who own libraries devoted to improving their chess and/or go play, and there’s always Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering (by Robin Laws).

But let us consider another potential model: the model of hobby crafts.  While there are many publications that are simply step-by-step instructions for hobby crafts, they tend to be written in a slightly different tone.  It is not expected that readers will duplicate your steps precisely because it is assumed that their needs are at least slightly different from the writer’s.  Thus it is expected that the reader will take your instructions, and tweak them to get what they want out of them.

Further, there are many publications in hobby crafting that are focused purely on techniques.  Articles about a cool new material, or about a neat way of accomplishing useful effects, or a cheap solution to a complex problem are extremely common.

I’m not advocating that we give up our games model of publishing roleplaying stuff, but I am suggesting that we consider interesting new ways of publishing.  Just because we have traditionally worked within the game design paradigm doesn’t mean that there aren’t other really cool things we could be doing.

Changing things up

Monday, September 4th, 2006

I’ve decided to spend this month trying something different with the blog.  There are a number of reasons behind this, but a lot of the impetus for actually doing this came out of a discussion I had with Mo Turkington back in July.

So, for the rest of the month I’m going to try an experiment.  If it works as well as I hope, it will likely result in a permanent format change.  What I’ll be doing is posting about a different topic each week (or two).  Every day I’ll write 150 to 300 words on that topic.  Each post will be short and focused.

There are a number of reasons for this:

  1. I’m finding that it’s much easier to digest things in more, smaller chunks than in large posts.
  2. I’m hoping that this will produce more discussion.  Rather than picking out a point or two from a large post, each post will be small enough that it only has a single point.  That way people can talk about very specific things.
  3. It also provides more separate threads of discussion.  With more separate posts, there are more places to talk about things.
  4. It makes me more nimble.  I can address a question about a topic more quickly.  As it stands I usually don’t come back to a topic that needs clarification for months.  This way, I’m hoping that if a question is posed on Tuesday, I can address it on Wednesday or Thursday.

So, that’s the plan.  Feel free to chime in here with support or opposition.  I’m curious to hear what you think.  Of course, you’re welcome to wait a few weeks before commenting, if you want to see this thing in action.


Transparent mechanical purpose

Thursday, August 31st, 2006

All this talk of social hacking actually does have some application, and that is what we shall discuss today.

The Forge design philosophy is closely tied to its play philosophy which, over-simplified, is that you play by the rules precisely as they are written.  You do not tweak them, at least not without playing them as-written enough to understand what those rules do.

There is, however, an extremely common opposing philosophy which I shall call the ‘pick and choose’ model of play.  This model is built around the idea that every play-group is playing a game that is ultimately idiosyncratic.  They are constructing their own procedures of play by pulling useful tricks and techniques from myriad other games to support whatever the group’s play goals are.

In some ways, the Forge model is an interesting sort of shortcut for writing roleplaying games.  (Note that this is not a bad thing, merely the way things are.)  Specifically, writing for people who utilize the Forge model of play allows you, as a writer of games, not to explain yourself.  You can include a rule that is designed to (say) control pacing of the game, without explaining that that is the purpose of the rule in the text.  (Note also that this is the model of the vast majority of board games.)

This works because you may assume that the players will play the game as-written and thus learn, through play, the purpose of the rule in question.  They will experience the ways in which that particular mechanic impacts pacing, and with that experience will come some ability to modify the mechanic to alter its effects.  Also with experience comes evaluation: it may be decided that the group does not require a mechanic to regulate pacing, perhaps they can handle pacing better on their own using their own procedures.

This model teaches players and groups how the mechanics impact play based entirely upon using those mechanics in the real world, with little (if any) exposition within the game text.

Unfortunately, this is pretty incompatible with ‘pick and choose’ style play, in which players will be evaluating whether they wish to utilize certain mechanics before experiencing those mechanics in play.  This a priori (before experience) judgment of mechanics stems from a desire to maximize fun now.  The group does not want to have to test the mechanic over a couple of sessions only to find out that it actually is not as much fun to play with the mechanic.  (Note that this is partially, perhaps even significantly, a function of the staggering length that a unit of play has in roleplaying.  Properly testing a mechanic for group suitability could take anywhere from four to twenty hours.)

Writing for ‘pick and choose’ style players requires an explanation of mechanical purpose.  What does this mechanic do for play?  The group needs to know up-front, at least in outline, why they should bother with your mechanic.  What is it that this mechanic provides that their group would love to include in their play?

One big thing that explaining your mechanics does that can be seen as a negative is that it makes subversion difficult (if not impossible).  If you (for instance) have a game designed explicitly to make people question their beliefs, and you feel questioning beliefs is something that everyone should do (especially people who don’t want to do so), then explaining your purpose will cut out that critical target audience.  You can’t ‘trick’ your audience into learning something that they would not have sought out on their own, which is unfortunate.

I really want some discussion on this topic.  I’d love to hear from both sides of this issue about why one system is better than the other, or even just a list of advantages to be had from one or the other.  I’ve gotten us started above, what else have you got?

Who needs mechanical resolution?

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

I’m making a terrible habit of late posts.  Ugh.  I need to get on top of this.

One of the games I got to play at Gen Con this year was a three-person playtest of Jonathan Walton’s very interesting take on Avatar: the Last Airbender.  The three players involved were Jon, Shreyas, and myself.  All three of us are pretty big fans of the show, and had spent part of the trip to the con discussing it.

This is to say, we were all pretty much on the same page in terms of interpretation of what the show is about and how it works.  We did not need a game text (either flavor text, atmospheric text, or even mechanics) to make sure we were all working with roughly the same imaginative content.

When we sat down, we pretty much just had Jon’s character sheets and his Dharma Paths (which are pretty dang cool).  No real mechanics established yet, other than some sketchy ideas about how the sheet changes and how Dharma Paths progress.

We spent the first half-hour or so tossing around mechanical ideas, trying to figure out enough procedure to sit down and play.  We got some really sketchy ideas down based on the four elements (a fairly central concept to the show), and set to playing.

There was a lot of fun stuff going on in the game, but the one thing I wanted to highlight because it’s what I’m talking about today: we didn’t have any mechanics to determine success or failure.  Not at the task level, not at the conflict level, not at any level.

This is significant because, as I see it, the vast majority of games coming out of the Forge design philosophy have, historically, been primarily focused on resolution mechanics.  (It should be noted that reward mechanics are likely more central to the Forge philosophy, but that they are predominantly tied into resolution.)  There has been a shift in recent years toward pacing mechanics (Primetime Adventures) and front-loaded situation generation (Dogs in the Vineyard, Shock:, etc.).

Even with those recent shifts, though, there’s a strong focus on resolution mechanics, especially with tying them into thematic ideas.  Shock: utilizes praxis scales, which are highly thematic, Dogs in the Vineyard utilizes things that describe individual characters, as does Primetime Adventures.

I bring all this up to suggest this: resolution mechanics are not a necessary aspect of design.  They are an option, and can be a powerful one, but since mechanics necessarily reduce flexibility those mechanics reduce the options available to players.  This focusing can be purposeful and powerful, but it isn’t something that your game has to use.

So the question for you, gentle reader, is this: if we dump resolution as a primary focus of mechanics, what else might we pick as a mechanical focus?  In Jon’s Avatar game, mechanics are primarily a pacing thing.  They are designed to maintain a fast-paced game, and to provide some interestingly varied narration.  What else could our mechanics be about?


It’s all socially mediated

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

Let this serve as a warning: today’s post is high-theory, and application is unlikely to be deeply discussed.

Last week I talked about tabletop game design as interface design.  I suggested that social interfaces are inherenly flexible because they do not require specialized knowledge to hack (or rather, that socialized people already have that knowledge).  This was contrasted with video games, which are more rigid and require less widely available resources (both knowledge and tools) to hack, thus making them less flexible.

Today I am going to examine things from a slightly different angle.  Today I am going to discuss why all multiplayer games are socially mediated.  Yes, this turns out to be pretty much a ‘no duh’ issue.  Games involving social interaction are socially mediated?  Shocking!

Still, maybe there is something to learn here.

Remember last week how I was talking about the fact that no game is able to completely convey all of the necessary interface to a social group and that groups are thus required to fill in the gaps on their own?  There is a similar phenomenon going on with non-roleplaying games of all sorts, only it is not as visible.  Speicifically, this filling-in process is harder to notice because there is an entire class of things that must be filled in, and thus the class itself is often overlooked.

That class of things is what I am calling (here, for the first time) ‘utlimate rewards’.  Many roleplaying games have a ‘what is roleplaying’ section in them somewhere (though this section is not always labeled as such).  This is the section of the game that explains at least some of the final rewards you get from play: social interaction, telling cool stories, making hard choices.  This is the section that tells you how play rewards you.

Compare this with most board and video games.  Their reward structures are primarily internal (you score points in Galaga, or you do damage to your opponent’s life-guage in Street Fighter 2).  There is not meta-consideration here.  There is no explanation of why you should care about points or life-guages.

I do not think that many people are going to suggest that scoring lots of points is fun in and of itself, while I do think that plenty of people are willing to buy into the idea that telling stories or interacting socially are.

So, while roleplaying games tell you what sort of ultimate fun the activity is supposed to provide, other forms of games rarely do.  Of course, for most games it is rather easy to analyze them and see that they are clearly designed to have social competition plugged into them.  That is what high scores are all about, after all: being the best.

But social competition is a high level bit of social interface, and it does not have to be employed.  That is, the reason for playing these games can be hacked (since that reason is not integrated into the interface).  Maybe you play a game like Galaga cooperatively, switching off between levels to see how well you can do together, for instance.

This suggests that the fixed interface elements are simply tools employed within a social interface structure.  Perhaps Galaga is especially well-suited for use in competative interfaces, but it is simply a tool that can be creatively employed in other sorts of interfaces too.

I could continue rambling about this for a while, and at some point it is possible that I will discuss smallest-unit interface elements, but I am pretty sure that you have heard enough for now.

The hobby gets bigger, and more expensive

Monday, August 21st, 2006

Today I am going to lament a trend I see in small-press roleplaying publishing, and then try to explain why I think the trend is sadly inevitable.

The trend in question is the publishing of semi-complete games.  This particular rant was kicked off by John Harper’s extremely cool game Agon.  Don’t get me wrong, Agon is one of my favorite games of the year so far.  It’s tons of fun.

But it’s also flawed, and clearly so.  I will not be at all surprised to see a revised edition out by next year (since it’s printed through Lulu, it could be even sooner).  Agon‘s not alone here, either.  Primetime Adventures and Dogs in the Vineyard both did similar things (though the tweaks to Dogs are pretty minor).

This drives me crazy.  When I plunk down my hard-earned wage-slave cash for a game, I want that game to be polished and clean.  I don’t want a work-in-progress game, I want a complete and excellent game.

This is compounded by the nature of the medium of delivery.  I buy books.  Those books are static, and if I want the new and improved version of the game, I’ve got to spend even more money to get it.  Thus rendering my initial investment sort of obsolete.

This sort of behavior is generally not tolerated in console video games, but is in PC video games, mostly due to the fact that you can patch a PC game.  But you can’t patch a book.  Like a console video game, you’ve just got to buy everything all over again.

Sadly, I think this trend will not only continue in roleplaying, but I think that it is inevitable.  As more and more people produce indie roleplaying games, there are more and more games clamoring for attention.  This forces members of the community to apply stricter and stricter criteria to the things that they will spend their attention on.

When there were fewer games, you could get away with just paying attention to the stuff from people who were willing to discuss their games intelligently.  Now, however, there are too many people involved to do that.  This generates some pretty obvious problems for playtesting, especially for playtesting outside of your local group which is a super-important thing to do.

So people are moving to publishing sooner.  Often, one of the big things that will boost discussion and play of a game is having it in print.  Part of this is that it’s an illustration of dedication: you were willing to put in the work to get it done.  Part of this is that it’s an indication of excellence: you feel that your game is, right now, good enough for people to buy and play.  And part of it is added value: people can talk about your layout, cover, form-factor, art, and all sorts of stuff in addition to the content of the game itself.  This means people will talk more about your game.

All of this comes together to make this early publishing phenomenon inevitable: if you want people to play your game, putting it in book form is one of the single most effective pieces of marketing you can do.  And really, I’m glad.  This means that more people are writing (and finishing) cool new games.  But it makes me sad too, because it seems that some of these games really needed another dozen hours of playtesting, but they weren’t going to get it without a book.


Social hacking – how tabletop games empower players as creators

Thursday, August 17th, 2006

My apologies for dropping off the radar last Thursday and this Monday. I had big plans to continue updating throughout the Gen Con thing, but those fell through in the light of the unabating awesomeness. Then I returned home to find that the draft of today’s article had mysteriously disappeared. This is constructed from memory, and as such is not nearly as polished as I might have liked.

Following my explanation of how I see games as interface, I believe that this article will be pretty obvious. One of the primary advantages of the roleplaying medium is its socially-mediated nature. Roleplaying can be ‘hacked’ using purely intuitive tools in real-time, which makes it extremely flexible.

Games are socially-mediated as opposed to being mediated through some other structure. A common mediation structure for games is computers. Console gaming and computer-based gaming are mediated through the structure of the computer’s hardware and software. Hacking games through this structure can require significant amounts of work. You need to have significant familiarity with hardware and software in question to even know where to begin your hacking. You must also have access to hacking tools and expertise in their use.

While writing a mod for a game like Half-life is not precisely an obscure process, not just anyone can do so. You need a team of programmers and artists and sound people, all of whom have specialized training in their field.

Contrast this with hacking socially-mediated acticities. Part of the process of socialization, which everyone undergoes, is learning about social interaction structures and at least some ways of modifying them. You are taught a set of authority structures (such as teaccher-student, parent-child, older sibling-younger sibling, and best friend-best friend), and are also easily able to swap between them. You are able to take the role of student in class, but then take on the role of teacher when helping a friend with their homework.

Further, you learn to pick up new power-structures, and how to modify existing ones. You might, for instance, learn to take a more friendly position with relation to favority teachers, or to mix a sibling relationship with elements of a friend relationship.

All of this is fairly intutive. It is likely not less complex than the set of skills required to make a computer game, but it is a set of skills that you learn in order to survive in society, and so it does not require ‘special’ training. In a sense, everyone is already well-trained to do this sort of hacking.

That is not to say that people could not be more-well-trained, for it seems evident that they could, and that is definitely a goal worth pursuing. But everyone who is socialized already has a significant amount of this training right now.

The point of all this is that games which are socially-mediated are subject to social hacking. This allows participants to be creative not just in the content of play, but in its very structure. Consider how many people play Monopoly with house rules like getting money when you land on the ‘free parking’ space, or not auctioning off property if it is not bought.

Players of socially-mediated games are able to, in some sense, create the game they are playing as they play. They can compensate for poor interface (with respect to their specific circumstances) on the fly, and may choose to use a process of trial-and-error to improve their overall gaming experience.

The flexibility that this imparts to socially-mediated games is enormous and important, and it forces us to look at game design from a slightly different perspective.  We are designing interfaces that may be less-than-optimal for any given group, and we must expect them to change what they need to change.  I plan to discuss (at least) two major implications all this has in the coming weeks: 1) All games are really socially-mediated, they just use complex tools, 2) We need to present games in a different, more transparent, way if we want to utilize games as teaching tools (that is, if we want people to use the existing interface structures in an effort to teach something).

Games as interface

Monday, August 7th, 2006

I realized the other day that my specific take on roleplaying, especially roleplaying design, stems from a somewhat odd outlook on interaction in general. I see games as social interfaces. Literally, not metaphorically.

The game\’s mechanics are the points of fixed interface. In \’Monopoly\’ the rules tell you that you gain money in certain situations and lose them in certain other situations. This is a point of interface. It shapes the sorts of interactions you have with your fellow players. They must pay you in some situations, and these payments hurt them and help you.

This is important stuff, and it explains precisely why system does matter. Interfaces shape interaction. A \’good\’ interface is one that shapes actions in a positive way for whatever purpose you have. In the same way, a good system is one that shapes play toward whatever it is you play for.

It is important to realize that games can only fill in part of the necessary interface for social interaction. They do not provide all the necessary tools. Games don\’t teach you to talk, or use non-verbal stuff. Instead games provide a part of the interface needed for interaction. They provide some mechanics and some goals, but are not sufficient for interaction on their own.

This is where things get interesting. Since any given game can only provide part of the social interface necessary for interaction, the game has to plug in to the existing social interface of the group playing it. This is where you can run into trouble: the game-interface that works great among people with certain types of existing social interfaces can crash and burn in social interfaces that are even slightly different as long as that difference is in the \’right\’ place.

Of course people can develop new pieces for their core social interface such that they can successfully utilize the game-interface in question.  In fact, this is one of the important functions of games: they provide new methods of interaction and enforce them.  This creates a forced learning environment in which the players use and absorb the new methods and are able to evaluate from experience whether those methods are worth incoporating into more general interactions.

So, I see games as interfaces for social interaction.  And it struck me that not everyone else does, and that I might make more sense if it was understood that I\’ve got an odd view of things.


Audience as author – uncertainty in roleplaying narratives

Thursday, August 3rd, 2006

This post has been in the works for a while, but Neel Krishnaswami articulated much of what I was going to say extremely well in a comment in the 20 by 20 Room discussion A Little Bit About Context:

o the setting description in the rulebook
o the rules of the rpg
o the GM’s notes about the game setting
o each player’s writeups of their PCs
o each player’s logs or journals about the game
o the improvisations and rulings accumulated during play

Usually, none of these will be consistent with any of the others! (Eg, the setting material in the rulebook includes references to wizards doing things that cannot be supported according to the game rules.) So a critical activity in game *play* is resolving inconsistencies between the different texts — that is, how the participants choose a normative interpretation out of all of the stuff created to date. IMO, a lot of what we call a “style of roleplaying” is just having different priorities about which are the master texts of the roleplaying game, and also when each takes priority.

Emotionally, I don’t come out of an rpg session with the idea that I understood what was going on at a deep level, in the same way as all the other players. Back in Boston, for one of my groups I was the writeup guy who put stuff on the web. Doing this pretty much cured me of the notion that I saw pretty much the same game, because the act of writing up a game helped jog my memory of the things that the players did while writing, and while doing every single writeup I found that way more significant dramatic action had taken place than I consciously remembered as significant. (Signficicant, as in, “Oh cr-p, she IS being mind-controlled by vampires!”)

So after having my nose rubbed in this fact 150 times or so, I was finally convinced that we won’t all be on the same page about a game, any more than we’ll be on the same page about a movie we all saw. That’s okay though, because yammering about our differing interpretations is hella fun.

Neel is pointing to something extremely important here: the narrative generated in a roleplaying session is much like the narrative generated in any other medium.  That is, they are open to interpretation.  This is due to the fact that it is simply not possible for a narrative to include all the relevant facts.  Things are just too complex for that.  So, instead, the narrative leaves holes for you to fill in.

In roleplaying this is complicated by the fact that the audience is in the position of the author as well.  This means that each player has a sort of authorial authority that lends itself to their specific filling in of those holes.  The ability to say ‘When I said X, I intended it to be in support of idea Y’ is an important one.  The social power dynamics of author-audience are rather confused in roleplaying because everyone is an author and everyone is the audience.

But this turns out to be a good thing!  Uncertainty of this sort is what allows us to enjoy stories in different ways, and what allows us to enjoy the same stories despite our different backgrounds.  And as Neel says at the end of his comment: it can be tons of fun comparing our interpretations.  I mean, I love explaining how I thought a character was being a jerk because I interpreted his actions in one way, while someone else thought the character was being heroic because they interpreted his actions totally differently.

The point of all this is that all authority distribution is about who’s version of the filled-in story we are going to use at any given time.  In ‘traditional’ play, this authority is divided up at the beginning of the game, and then locked.  One person has authorial authority over each aspect of the game.  No element is authored by two players.  Whenever any question about what a character’s motivations ‘really were’ arises, every player knows to turn to a single person for the ‘official’ or ‘canonical’ answer.

A lot of more recent games have played with distributing this authority in a different way.  Specifically, authority over any given element varies based on a number of different factors, intead of being fixed at the beginning of play.  In Universalis authority belongs to whoever has most recently paid for it.  In Polaris authority is based on who is currently the Heart/Mistaken/New Moon/Full Moon as well as which ritual phrases have been recently employed.

I know I am not saying anything new or revolutionary here.  But I do think that, as much as we talk about authority distribution, we rarely think about what it really means.  The authority we are distributing is that of the author.  What we are divvying up is who gets to say what ‘officially’ happens in disputes.

One thing that is important to remember is that just because you have the authority to fill in a hole, does not mean that it will happen.  It may never get brought to anyone’s attention that there is a dispute.  While you may have been given the authority to decide motivations for a specific character, that does not prevent me from ascribing my own motivations to them if you do not make yours explicit.

Which leads me to an interesting question: how often in play do we specifically not seek clarification on an issue, how often do we fail to ask the authority what the official position is because we don’t want it clarified?  How much of our play involves skirting around official pronouncements because we are completely happy with our own private interpretations?

Wrapping up immersion month

Monday, July 31st, 2006

Well, it’s been a wild ride. And whether anyone else found it fruitful or not, I know that I did.

That said, I do believe it’s a good thing that I set a one-month schedule up front. There are a lot of things I think need more discussion. I think that a lot of the discussions I got started in this month have barely gotten through the ‘getting on the same page’ stage and into the serious development stage.

Still, I definitely want to thank everyone who chimed in this month. Everyone who commented gave me something to think about, and a lot of it is stuff that I’m thinking about still.

But I think that, overall, this was an interesting experiment that didn’t work out as well as I had hoped. I was hoping that by spending an entire month on a single topic we could build some month-long conversations with major posts in the middle to provide some direction.

Unfortunately, I was unable to deliver on my end of that bargain. The way I usually operate this blog is to plan articles out months in advance, which is what I did here. But of course doing that is directly opposed to nimble responses. My articles weren’t able to build upon the discussions taking place in the comments of previous entries, and thus the articles were unable to take advantage of the expertise of other people. Which sort of defeated the purpose of the month-long discussion.

To everyone who participated, thank you. To everyone who participated expecting a nimble discussion, I apologize. I realize that it may appear that your comments fell upon deaf ears, seeing as how I didn’t modify any of my rhetoric based on them. But I did listen, and I am thinking about what you’ve said.

A couple of final notes: comments on any of the articles is welcome indefinitely. The end of immersion month doesn’t mean the end of discussion of immersion for me. It just means I’m going to talk about something else for a while. If you want to discuss anything in any of the articles feel free to comment or email me.

Finally, I’ve been frustrated with myself this month due in part to what I see as a mis-execution of the discussion, but mostly because I feel like I haven’t communicated myself well. It’s possible that this is pure personal bias, but I haven’t felt that any of the objections raised against my definition of immersion have been objections against what I’m actually thinking. My inability to either A) figure out what’s different about what I’m thinking, or B) explain what I’m thinking in such a way that people see that it’s not different from what they’re thinking. The fact that I’m not sure whether I need A or B only adds to the frustration.

All the negativity aside, I do feel like it was a productive month. I thought some cool thoughts, I feel I understand immersion better, and I like to think I’ve contributed at least a little something back to the community.

This coming Thursday we’ll be heading back to our usual semi-random topic selection method.  I’ll be talking about why having too much information might be a good thing.


Learning to immerse

Thursday, July 27th, 2006

It turns out that I have something of a vested interest in my understanding of immersion (beyond the fact that I suggested it).  The reason for this is that if immersion is, funadmentally, interaction that is not consciously mediated then incompatible play-styles are not necessarily incompatible.

What I am suggesting is that by gaining familiarity with a given procedure one can learn to engage in that procedure without conscious intent.  The implications of this are that all those mechanics that people complain ‘break immersion’ do not do so necessarily.  It seems clear that they do break immersion for certain players, but at the same time players can learn the mechanics well enough that they will no longer be disruptive.

This also means that players can learn new types of immersion.  The types that they can engage in are not hard-wired or anything like that.

Of course this is not to say that anyone should learn these things.  Just because it is possible to learn to immerse while using any mechanic (and I do literally mean ‘any’ here) it is not necessarily worth doing.  Some people are perfectly happy just not using the mechanic in question.

Because while you are learning to immerse with a mechanic, it does disrupt immersion.  There is always going to be a transitional period between the introduction of a new mechanic and the ability to use it without consciously thinking about it.  Further, this transtional period can be extremely long depending on how unfamiliar the mechanic is.  I think it would be rather silly to recommend that players spend six months learning to immerse while using an extremely disruptive mechanic, not enjoying their play as much as they could throughout the familiarization process, unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

That said, sometimes there will be a compelling reason.  For instance, sometimes there is someone that you very strongly desire to play with (a best friend or spouse perhaps), but who prefers a style of play that is currently incompatible with your own.  Of course you could just do some other activity together, but sometimes you just really want to share a specific one.

Another thing to remember is that not all mechanics will take six months to familiarize.  It might be worth having less-than-maximum fun for two or three sessions in order to maximize everyone’s fun over the course of a year-long campaign.

The point of all this is not that everyone should learn to immerse using disruptive mechanics.  Rather, I am trying to highlight that this is one option, and one well worth considering, when a group is trying to work toward more fun play.

And now, at the end, I shall provide some examples of what I consider to be proof that this happens (The examples probably should have been placed earlier in the article, but…)

  • I have seen players using homebrews involving rolling dice who do not really notice when the dice are rolled, or even consciously interpret them, but none the less utilize the results in their interactions.
  • I have seen players who are able to stay immersed when the GM tells them how their character is feeling (i.e. ‘you are really getting pissed off’).  Of course I have also seen players for whom this is totally disruptive.
  • Most table-top immersives learn to filter out their surroundings.  They can, to some extent, ignore background noise and interruptions.
  • Many people who play online games consider themselves immersives, but they are able to filter out an incredible amount of extraneous information.

The question to people who immerse is: Does this strike you as accurate?  Have you ever done this, or noticed other people doing it?