Sunday, January 24, 2010

On game design theory and its applications

As you can certainly tell from past posts of mine (check posts marked "creative agenda" if you don't believe me), I'm not one to shy away from Forge-style theorizing. Over time, and especially in the past year or two, I've had a wonderful opportunity - meeting up with a lot of folks from Story-Games has given me the chance to seek out all these cool indie RPGs I'd heard so much about.
When I finally got to play Polaris, for instance, it was a little bit like a rite of passage. Though, I have to admit, it was a lot more inspiring to put together La Familia and, somehow, have it work even better than I'd imagined.
So yeah - I've gotten to see the concrete results of what some would call theory-wank. I've definitely met my fair share of folks who don't much care for the deep end of RPG theory/design, and usually that's a-okay.
I say "usually" because I've definitely gone through a period wherein I've proselytized on behalf of story-games in general, and Narrativism-supportive games in particular. When this proselytizing has worked, so much the better, and my excellent! recent game of Polaris shows that pretty well.
But when big-time RPers haven't been interested in what I'm pushing, I've come to realize that there's a sort of fault-line between us. Nothing personal or ideological creates this divide; it's not as big or as complicated as that. Plain and simple: I had bad experience X, they had bad experience Y, and while X led me to seek out a fundamentally new way to RP, Y simply led other folks to seek out new people with whom they could play.

Let me unpack that a little: for me, the biggest bad experience I had in RPing was, bluntly, a big difference in priorities at the gaming table. I can even point to the precise moment when this started to really gel for me as something I needed to address; it was after a couple of years of lurching around at the Forge, where I had yet to really grok anything about the Big Model, but I was very eager to try out all these cool new games I saw - the subject matter, the creator-owned nature of the games, the collaborative process of design via the forums - - it was all pretty great.

But - my precise moment. I was playing a game of Exalted, and I was running an Abyssal, essentially a sworn soldier of darkness who drinks blood to gain power and wants to unleash oblivion upon the world of the living. Fun stuff! I didn't just want the cool powers available to him; I was also really interested in his story - why he was a death-knight, what he thought of oblivion, his dark masters the Neverborn (shudder), etc.
I'll spare you a lot of the details, but he eventually realized that he really, truly believed in total, worldwide destruction, you know, as a good thing, and quite sincerely at that. His dark masters, however, were content to jockey for power between one another, fighting each other as much as they fought their sworn enemies, the Solars (sun-themed heroes). So, over the course of the game, I explored the relationship between my character, other Abyssals, the Neverborn, etc., trying to drum up fellow "true believes" to the cause.
It didn't go well, but at least one of the other player-characters was also an Abyssal, and so we schemed and argued together about the point of unleashing destruction.
At the end of the game, we all confronted a Big Bad of some kind, possibly a servant of the Neverborn, a rogue Neverborn, something like that. There were some Solars fighting the creature, too, and I decided the best possible way to finish my character's story was to try and join the side of the Solars, begging their forgiveness and wanting fervently to have comrades who were just as true-blue as me.
They were very, very hesitant to accept me, what with our races' vendetta and all, not to mention the battle going on, but hey, they didn't kill me! That was the last session for the campaign, as well, and I felt, at long last, like I really got to tell a story! with a game, instead of being actively thwarted from doing so. Sure, the game mechanics got in the way (whiffing sucks! I advise all game designers against it), and only one of the six people playing with me actually showed any interest in what I was doing (they were content to be "run through" the scenario in a very traditional way).
Realizing I was out of step with the group wasn't new; realizing what it was that made me out of step was a bolt of light in my eyes!
Since then, I've gobbled up every Story Now game I can get my hands on, and I've even made forays into Gamist play, as well.
But, like I said, I've noticed that some people just aren't as excited about trying new ways of gaming as I am, and sometimes folks who *are* that excited don't have any desire to elaborate on it in the kind of language that I do.
Which is, you know, okay and all, and I'm definitely thankful to be around more people these days who like indie games.
It's a little weird to also note how quickly the *application* of theory, or at least the observation of Forge theory put to practical use (i.e. a game design, and then the playing of said game), makes all the verbosity of forum theorizing kind of melt away - I can much more intuitively guess at what Creative Agenda(s) a given game system supports best, as we play, which I've mentioned before (in the context of how simple CA really is, once you see it in action). Other concepts, like Fortune in the Middle, turn out to be equally simple in application - it's as simple as "can I affect the final result after we roll the dice, or do I need to put all my Boost Power in *before* I roll?"
And yet, naturally those little tweaks can make a huge difference. Fortune at the End does not do well with a Story Now agenda, as it really saps player agency away (in my opinion). If Fortune happens, and then we can tweak it, even if said tweaking is limited and finite, it at least gives us one more meaningful choice to make, as players. [lol i totally meant fitm WITH TEETH]
I was playing Last Night on Earth, uh, last night - it's a zombie apocalypse board game. There's a touch of Fortune in the Middle in there, as it happens - when you're inside a building, you can either move or search (as opposed to just moving, if you're outside), and searching gives you a one-card draw from the Hero Deck (Human Deck? I forget). The FitM part is there because you roll the d6 to see how far you can move, and then you get to decide whether to take that move OR search. It's nifty!
Heck, come to think of it, Step On Up play is all about meaningful choices, too - they're just more strategic or tactical instead of thematic. So yeah, FatE (ha, irony) has been a procedural default for some decades now, in most games I've encountered, but when you make that tiny tweak (courtesy of theorizing Forgies, thank you verra much! ^_^), things begin to flower, as Mao would put it.
Anyway - I've learned that RP theory has undoubted practical applications (duh! Actual Play!), but not everybody wants to see under the hood, or think about how to build a better car, when they like their driving experience just fine, so far.


  1. I stay away from that stuff simply because I always get it wrong. Like, I'll notice a game has a lot of rules that help that encourage noir style stories, and I'll say something like, "This must be simulationist, since it does such a good job of simulating that genre.", but then someone will tell me that its narrativist because it empowers players to tell noir stories rather than deal with the realities of life in 1930s California.

    I totally get fortune at the beginning, middle, or end. I just always get it wrong what type of game that makes in terms of GNS.

    Like supposing I make a game such that you need to create sets of numbers to overcome challenges, and I want to make it fortune at the beginning. I don't know why. Maybe I want to make a game like those Myst computer games. Let's say the game uses a bunch of d20s, and the player's stats represent "nudges" (meaning if you have a 1 in Smell, then the player can describe the PCs smelling something that leads to the solution to the puzzle, and then the player gets to nudge one of the d20s to show one of the adjacent faces.) I get how that might be a good game, in that it would force players to take some responsibility in describing scenes and NPCs, and the PCs might have to work together to get the nudges they need to move forward, or they may need to spend from a finite resource, so they would be forced to ask if success here is worth it if it might mean failure later. Maybe the finite resource is "inspiration" and you get more of it by reading (making up) passages in books about the people and environment in this dimension.

    What is that? It seems tactical. It involves story telling and using all the senses. It does a decent job of creating a similar atmosphere to a video game. Actually assigning a G, N, or S category to it is where I get tripped up.

  2. Well, I've posted a fair bit about what I think GNS is all about; to bottom-line it, you have to be playing a game, and be human, to have a Creative Agenda. Games don't *have* them, they only *support* them, and it's an active process, at that. Whether the '30's noir California game is Sim or Narr comes down to, largely, whether people going for one agenda or the other feel the game is a strong fit or not, at the least.

    Speaking of your "nudges" game - what if the players portrayed angelic beings of alien grace and origin, sent to earth to deliver a message, or divine wrath, or something? And, over time, the thin mortal frame disguising their divine essence begins to break apart, and they *voip!* back to Heaven/the Ether/between the gulfs of time and space/etc.

    This could go in any Creative Agenda direction, too - is the game mainly about exploring the experience of being such a creature (Sim), is it a race against the clock to complete your holy work before you dissolve (Gamist), or is it about the venal politics of Heaven and the pain of moving among mortals but being separate from them (Narrativist)? The very basic mechanics and setting/situation don't pull off the CA alone; you have to take that idea and start applying it in terms of what kind of play you are looking to provide for a group, and go from there.

    By the way, how'd you find my blog? ^_^ I'm curious whenever I get traffic from folks I've never met... unless we have, of course!

  3. I'm just bouncing my way through the maze that is the internet. You are on Vulpinoid's blog list, and he and I are RPG Labrats - I started reading your stuff because I also want to try Polaris, and the Giants in the Thicket idea seemed really sweet to me.

    You are way more out-of-the-box than most of the stuff that goes on there, but one does get the occasional gem, perhaps some weird setting, perhaps a discussion of weird randomizers or cool diceless systems. I remember one idea where adventurers had to spell things with scrabble tiles to overcome challenges.

  4. Thanks for the praise! I pride myself on being "out of the box", though I admit I do it a bit for its own sake ^_^

    I'll check out that site you mentioned - new RPG sites are always worth a look.
    I'll try to devise a bit more clarity on Giants in the Thicket, too; with any luck, I'll be able to strongarm some local gamers into a very rough playtest, to get a sense of the shape of the thing.
    Lastly, I can't endorse Polaris highly enough. It is a solid story-game with a really exciting, flexible setting and an interesting corruption/end-game mechanic. Check it out as soon as you can!