Thursday, February 28, 2019

Aphorisms about Game Design Theory (lazy blog post)

I haven't forgotten. One blog post per month, at least. Here we go ... So I have a group on MeWe that talks about philosophy and game design. It's basically me collecting ideas (for now, that is). You are welcome to join, of course. However, since I suspect the overlap to be minimal (to say the least), I thought I'd share a little something I wrote over there.  It's a random collection of thoughts on design. Enjoy!

Day 1:

I need to apply some discipline here to keep going. So I thought it'd be nice to share some of the observations I had while tinkering on games. Small sprints on a daily basis. This is social media, so let's keep it random as well. Fell free to chime in while we are at it.
Here goes: Something I try to do as often as possible, is feeding my subconscious with all sorts of different patterns. It's not as much about reflecting new content, it's just taking it in and trusting that it somehow helps shaping whatever I'm working on. To enhance that, I try to follow my "whims" as much as possible as well. If I'm in the mood for some victorian drama, it's what I'm following up on, if it's true crime, I'm all over that. Doing so helps finding an understanding of what you like and you'll seek and collect that with more care. It also helps finding connections between patterns that are not that obvious. It's also something my girlfriend hates, because she sometimes just wants to watch stupid tv.

Baseline is, feed your brain not for immediate benefits but for building a frame of ideas to draw from when you sit down designing stuff. Sorry if that was too obvious ... Is it something you guys experience as well?

There was a short argument that this can't always be achieved, and my answer to that fiat was:

Time definitely is a restriction, as is compromise ... What I wrote is more like something a designer should aspire to, if that makes more sense.
Day 2:

There is no game out there that fully realizes what a role playing game can be, but there are some that come close, if only in different areas or aspects of that nebulous new media. Seek those games and push the boundaries they found. That said, don't make the mistake assuming some game or another is better than other games just because it's newer. That's not how progress works. They are all forays into the dark to see what sticks and what doesn't. Knowing that should encourage you to create and look at all games, old and new, for inspiration. There's also no way to know if something is "right" or "wrong" that way. Tinker, publish and play to find out.

Day 3:

A feeling (or measure?) for scope is one of the most crucial skills a game designer needs. It's not only about knowing what it means if a game checks "all the boxes", it also means to be able to extrapolate that for the game being written. This relates not only to the level of detail a game might need (or not), it also entails how different manifestations and interpretations impact a game on all levels of resolution (immediate, midterm and longterm implications, for instance). Power levels, tact regarding the terms a game uses ... All of that needs scope to be integrated properly.

Day 4:

When you write rpg rules, you basically do so for at least 4 different readers with just as much different assumptions. You'll have those intending to DM the game and they'll focus on how to use the game for what they had in mind or for the inspiration of the next campaign. While understanding the game is necessary for the first reader to get in a position to use it for the next campaign, it is the sole reason for the second reader, which would be the players. They (ideally) want to learn the game and (maybe) learn how to exploit it as well. For both readers the game needs the structure to be read front to cover as well as being an easy reference during the game and preparation phases. The third reader is the collector. They can transit to become reader one or two, but the main reason for a purchase would be the look of a game, which would be (in order of significance) artwork, production value (is it coffee table worthy?), layout and whatever could be gained from short pieces of text (interestingly enough, this works well with clones of well known games, as it mostly proposes variants to a known set of rules and thus allows directly going into referencing). The fourth reader might be an odd mix of all other possible readers (optionally split into several new readers, obviously, but they form very small groups, so ...). Here you'd have those just reading games for the fun of it (a rare breed), reviewers and critics as well as other designers looking for inspiration (or checking out the opposition). All those readers need to be addressed to some degree and there's definitely some overlap. Depending on how you aim to market your product, you'll have to make some decisions. Can you think of other readers?

Day 5:

This one is about playtesting new rules. Actually, you might say, it's about why games need to be played to be evaluated, because rules that might sound well on paper (and you will have those), might actually fall short in the game. Sometimes simply for having the wrong dynamic in play. So for one, if everyone at the table is not using a new rule repeatedly (even the one who wrote it), you might need to do some changes. That's not to say the rule is worthless and needs to be ditched, but it will need readjustment. Realizing that taught me not only to "read" games, it also showed me how to manipulate the flow I want in my games by using, for instance, the right markers at the right time and in the right place. Character sheets are a huge part of this, but information design in general is crucial ... That's why games have phases in combat and similar structures. Rules are carried by mnemonic patterns like that and applying those patterns is part of the design process.

Day 6:

People can work their way around processes with between 3 and 7 steps. Everything below that is boring as fuck ("My attack roll also resolves damage and endurance AND the enemy's attack! "Slow down, bro, this isn't always about efficiency."), everything beyond that will have people ask you about the rules (for instance) constantly. Having three steps to everything is a save bet (3 classes), but going 4 or 5 can work, if it's not overdone or rules that get frequented regularly (because routine helps a lot) and 6 or 7 will stretch it and most likely only appeal to those people into more complex games. Incidentally, that is the reason for having all those little sub-systems in OD&D and AD&D, because once you play and you decided for (race and) class, you reduce your choices from "unlimited"* to "manageable". It's also why THAC0 is brilliant just because it is counter-intuitive: it's a clear distinction to the other number systems in the game and therefor better to be remembered (and it has, what?, 3 steps?). So if people get easily bored with your game (applies to mid- and long term as well, like campaign play, for instance), think about adding a couple of steps to it. If people tend to re-read rules a lot although they are into the game, categorize a bit more. Not necessarily ditch some rules, just group and differentiate by the ratio outlined above (races, classes, spell-types, combat phases, you get it).

That's it for today. Tell your friends. I'm here all week.

*Btw, common mistake is to think a game like AD&D is too complex, often enough because just reading rules from cover to cover definitely makes it look that way (ironically just for the reasons discussed above). However, and I really want to stress this point: where it matters, when playing the game, if designed properly (with little sub-systems and the right groupings, with steps between 3 and 7 for everything, all that jazz) it'll feel never too complicated (might include a learning curve, though, but I, for one, always appreciated that).

This, as well, provoked a comment (and I really provoked it with my comment on games being light on combat in the beginning there). The argument being made was, that while it might be true for most (if not all) areas in game design, it might not apply in combat, to what I wrote:

I think we mostly agree. I can't dismiss your argument as anecdotal, though, as there is something to it that needs to be addressed (still anecdotal). An easy way out would be to say there are different preferences and reduce this to a matter of taste. It can be that, as you could say that it's what works at your table. The counter argument would be that it is possible to make every game work with the right people. One is about reducing your selection of games to the whim of the folks you want to play with, the other is reducing the people to the whim of the game you want to play. Both work, both have merit. That's not what it's about, then. I've actually seen a couple of games that offer (at least) two ways to handle combat, but that's just as an aside.

The argument that I'd be trying to make here, is, that there are two kinds of role playing games out there: those that let you explore (AD&D, as an example) and those that offer a room where you can express yourself (the PbtA games, as an example). The first works with critical hit tables and dungeons to loot, the second not so much (or at least not in the same way) but it offers a frame or a couple of frames . Consequently, both games will come with a very different set of conditions to work properly, and they don't mix well.

With that said, I'd add that the principles discussed above still apply with combat as well. All preference changes is that you'll most likely shun games that allow levels of detail you won't need if it is inventing funny shit when opportunity arises. Stuff like that would get in the way and as far as design goes, the difficulty would be to adhere to those conditions (I'm not sure, but moves might do something like that in Dungeon World, right?). Still, the choices you'll have in those games reducing combat to just a blip in the game, will (if done right) offer just a couple of choices or phases in order to not overwhelm. Another example: how many special powers have the monsters you use in your games? More than 3? Maybe the well-known ones like dragons. More than 6 or seven? Would that even work? 6 or 7 might work for an end boss or something like it, but beyond that? I don't think so. The rules apply.
As well as:
Addition: there's a whole subset of arguments connected to how the advent of D&D 3e with it's streamlined rules led to the simplification of rules down to that bare minimum that fuels the games where people play to express themselves instead of exploring a (for lack of a better word) 'simulated' fictional world. Consequently (or so I'd argue), it's simplification what you provoke if you are not distinguishing rules to bring them to full effect (said sub-systems). Some of it is (maybe) that it's nowadays just as easy (and maybe enjoyable) to mimic those original games without going through all those motions. However, it's different vantage points and I'd go as far as saying different gaming experiences with different needs to cater to.

That's a lot and I hope you all find something worth your while in it. There'll be more of the same in the days to come. However, I'll probably write something else here first. Join us over at that social media place, if you want to. You'd be most welcome. Either way, share your thoughts :)



Wednesday, January 16, 2019

UbiquiCity Book 2: Undercurrents (now in stores!)

A cyberpunk/science fiction story I wrote got published as part of an anthology. If you dig what I'm doing here, you might want to check that out, too! Here, have some details (a fair warning though, as an author of one of the stories, I get my share for each sold copy):

I'm so happy about this right now. When Tod Foley put out an open call for authors in his second UbiquiCity Anthology, I tried my hand and he actually gave it a shot. I mean, you write and write for years to get an opportunity like that and there it was all of a sudden. I gave it my best.

However, that shouldn't be the only reason to go over to amazon or rpgnow to get that collection of sci fi tales. And it needn't be. As far as I can tell, all those stories are great, every one of them carrying nuggets of inspired (and inspiring) ideas and concepts, as you'd wish from a collection of sf stories.

Found at amazon or rpgnow!
They are also part of a huge universe that Tod is in the process of creating for the last couple of years. It started with the first UbiquiCity anthology, keeps growing on the dedicated website and will ultimately lead to a big and universal rpg sourcebook about that city the stories are set in. It's all connected (and brim full with easter eggs as well as a growing history). From what I have seen, it's a thing of beauty.

There you have it: a great collection of stories of which I have the honor to be part of, with lots more to discover where that came from and yet more to come (although it all stands well on its won, if you don't want to dive into it that deep ...).

Just don't take my word for it (beware the author, see above). If you are in the mood for some science fiction, check out the preview that is provided by the vendor of your choice instead (which will give you a good part of the excellent first story!).

If that tickles your fancy, the rest might as well. If you need a bit more convincing, check out two more stories I wrote for this setting over at thisisfractopia (for free, you can find the first story here and the second story here, a third is already in the works).

It goes almost without saying that I'd be very happy to hear your thoughts about it. Sharing and spreading the good news is also very appreciated, naturally :)

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Let's talk Setting and Genre, Folks (Design Post)

Happy New Year! Thought I'd do a "year in review" post or some such nonesense. It's just, there didn't happen a lot here, and I sort-a-kind-a already did one of those in November 2018. No need to repeat myself when I'm already low on content here on the blog. Instead I thought I'd try and open the new year with one of my design posts. People seem to enjoy them well enough.

Distinctions matter when writing games!

You could say they matter everywhere, but that's not what I'm about. What I'm aiming at is more in the line of thinking that you can not build meaningful tools for your game if the areas that need designing aren't properly defined.

Let me get into this a little bit more. That games have different areas with varying demands for design is plain obvious, I think.  That a gamemaster will need different tools than a player might be among the first to come to mind. Non-player characters can't be as detailed as player characters (in most games anyway). Or (something I had to learn the hard way just the other day) information design is a completely different animal than game design (there is a difference between writing rules and writing rules, goddammit).

Great example how things can be the same and still very distinct ... [source]
The distinction between setting and genre, on the other hand, is not among the main concerns mst of the time, although its a crucial one from a design point of view, as setting and genre do very different things in a game and therefor need different tools if they are to be utilized properly.

It might be overlooked easily because we don't often see it as clear in other media as we do in role playing games and there isn't much need to distinguish them in other media to begin with. They are used as authors see fit, be it for books, movies or computer games (I'll have to go deeper into that further below).

However, since the emerging stories of our games are in part due to the decisions the players make, in part due to the random results a game's engine may produce and in yet another part what the gamemaster makes of all that (or how), it seems imminent that the tools we use to achieve a satisfying result need to be properly designed specifically for the areas they are used in. For that they need to be recognized and distinguished first.

Proper distinctions make a narrative more powerful!

I had a discussion about this very distinction with a player once when we tried to get on the same page about what to play next. Had I known back then what I know now, I could have made a strong(er) case ... well, let's have the argument first: the proposition had been to play Castle Falkenstein (classic steampunk setting and tropes) in an America how the game it envisions (the idea was to use Sixguns & Sorcery). Now, Castle Falkenstein (from all I could remember) wasn't heavy on the crunch or the players. You could get away with playing a proper Holmes or Tesla, the game wouldn't kill you off easily.

What the player envisioned when he heard that proper Wild West was on the table, he wanted it to be gritty and deadly, Sergio Leone-style. He'd accept steampunk as decoration, but what he couldn't understand was that a game like that came with certain restrictions, one of them being that it ain't The Proposition (Australian Western written by Nick Cave, who also did the music score, very much worth seeing). I said back then (rightly so) that the game is not able to carry that kind of action, I just couldn't explain properly why that is. All I knew was that he wanted to play a different game.

You can see right away: not a romanticized version of the past [source]
Here is the thing: the system needs to support the emergence of the narrative at least to some extent, because if it doesn't or - even worse - if it contradicts the expectations people bring to the table, they'll feel the game lacking although it might not be the game's fault to begin with. You can have a Superhero campaign that is gritty, you just shouldn't use Marvel Super Heroes for it. At least not RAW, a hack might be able to fix a problem like that ... most of the time.

There is a point, though, where you have to change a game so much, that it ends up being another game. And that is because games are written with a specific genre in mind regarding the resolution of conflict. Setting is merely the stage and the requisites (which would be the gamemasters material and tools).

Done right and used as intended, role playing designs should lead to a satisfying gaming experience. Trying to get this right is one of the main motivations for me (and others, I'm sure) to write (or hack) games. It's why we tinker.

Genre is the pattern you want to see emerge ...

Definition-time! If you search for a definition of "genre" you'll find it intermingled with "setting". Interchangeably so, even. That goes back to the original meaning of the word, which is "kind" or "sort". One could say genre is a collection of abstract terms accumulating to a specific pattern that is recognizable. You don't need all the pieces to recognize it, but enough to make it click.

We have certain expectations when consuming other media like movies or books. If a movie is labelled "romantic comedy", it's what we want to see and if someone were to die an explicit and grizzly death in that movie, it'd feel wrong. This can get a bit more complicated when genres get mixed and when done well, it'll enhance all genres equally (Wes Anderson movies are like that). Either way, genres follow very general patterns we know and recognize to a degree that allows us to communicate them. We also know how to play with them or what variations of them might look like. The setting of a story is part of that, of course.

If your game needs to evoke a certain genre, you basically need to dismantle those patterns and find ways to let your rules dissolve in patterns that resemble the genre you want to emulate. It also needs to create room for the players to enforce those patterns themselves (since they are participants and not merely spectators).

Covers are good examples for showing characters interacting with their environment [source]
Here is an example: in the dystopian game I'm working on is a rule that will get the character in trouble if their dice come up with an 9 and an 1, even if the roll is a success. The rule helps supporting the drama that comes with living under an oppressive force. It's a pattern people expect to encounter regularly and it emerges from the system (of the game, ha!).

It needs more than that, obviously, but establishing those rules from the core will help you getting there step by step. How easy or fast should player characters die? Is there something else at stake? Something that is valued more? Their status, maybe, or their sanity? How powerful are characters in the beginning and how powerful can they get? Or: what scope of development is needed?

All of that describes rules tat are formulated around the player interaction with their surroundings. How you answer the questions above will influence the gaming experience. If you take "genre" into consideration when doing so, you have a good chance that the game will evoke those tropes just by playing it. Players will recognize a genre by playing the game and should also have tools to evoke it themselves.

However, "setting" needs to be distinguished ...

As described above, you usually wouldn't need to distinguish setting and genre that hard when dealing with other media like books, movies or even computer games*. The simple reason for that is found in the fact, that no other medium involves all participants in the emerging narrative as much as role playing games do. Fueling a narrative is as much part of playing the game as exploring its contents is.

Another reason is that role playing games entirely resolve around communication and "theater of the mind", the rules being merely a tool to enforce certain outcomes in the narrative while introducing a certain amount of chance (actually the distinct element that makes it a medium to begin with, but that's neither here nor there). 

In that sense it is very useful to treat "setting" as something that is to be distinguished from "genre". Its emergence is not as much manipulated by the players as it is explored and interacted with. Setting is the stage and the requisites and the only participant able to manipulate that is the gamemaster**.

That is a big distinction, in my opinion. With their character players can do what they want, the restriction only being the social rules established at the table, the system that is used to play and the limitations of language (or the ability to use language ...). What they can't do is introduce elements to the setting that way. They can't just decide that they wield laser guns in a fantasy setting, for instance. That is something they could discover as a possibility and (learn to) use (like requisites).

Morrowind: a great example of a sandbox! [source]
The concept of seeing settings as "sandboxes with toys" is the purest form of that distinction, in my opinion. It still has the gamemaster as the one "building" the stage and requisites and it ideally still - which is more important in the argument I'm about to make - has the designer providing the tools for the "build".

So this is the biggest distinct element I can see here: from a designing-perspective, you need to create different mechanics for creating a world with all its moving parts and for interacting with it. The focus there is very different to creating the "game engine" itself (if connected).

Going full circle, and then some

This is something I realized when writing Lost Songs of the Nibelungs and Ø2\\‘3|| @2091: GMs need tools and those tools need to match the game just as much as the other rules do. It's just not (as much) about the narrative emerging during the game when it's played as it is about creating the world and the interactive elements it can represent mechanically***. There is a special difficulty to make that work well (is my impression so far).

However, that isn't all there is to it. Knowing all this might not only help a designer getting an impression how role playing games can be structured, it will also help gamemasters (those buying and using the rules, one should add) evaluating games they read or already know. The benefit being that it gives you one more (valid) criteria to judge if a game has what it needs to work at your specific table. Or (maybe a bit more important) what kind of work you are expected to add to it to make it work.

Anyway, I hope it does.

That's it for now. To close on a more personal note: I wish you all a productive and interesting and engaging and fulfilling year 2019. Stay awesome, keep it polite and game the hell out of it. I'll take care that the blog keeps it's (admittadly low) pulse and if I play my cards right, I might get a couple of things published this year as well (just not Lost Songs, but I hope to get it done conceptually this year, which would be huge as well). Fingers crossed!

Btw: know your tropes ... then break them [source]

* Computer games are still too limiting to allow free expression of the participant in the emerging narratives they offer. Interaction with the gaming world is way to restricted to allow an exchange as complex as role playing games do.

** There are, of course, rules that give players more narrative controll about those things. It is a meaningful variant, but still just a variant and most of the time the input created that way will adher to the genre everyone agreed upon, the only difference being that it is closer to the understanding of "genre" in other media.

*** Which is where it connects with the emerging narrative and helps forming it in play, although within the parameters and variables established in preparation or offered by the system as part of the rules (think Random Encounter Reaction Rules, for instance) and entirely handled by the gamemaster.