Tuesday, May 1, 2018

RPG Design: Rules to Project or Rules to Experience?

This is sort of an intermission between development posts for be67. It's something that occurred to me a couple of weeks ago and I see it resonated in my blog-roll every so often (like, three times today alone!). I'm going to lean myself a bit out of the window here and say that there are two major and distinct game design schools in RPG Land. RPGs are either one or the other. Let me explain ...

CAVEAT (just in case someone is looking for a fight): Although I believe myself to be clearly on the one side of this (for reasons I will illustrate below), I don't think that any one side is better than the other. As a matter of fact, the one thing that unites (or divides, for that matter) all DIY designers out there is getting it done or not and I'd argue that it is just as hard to build and write a streamlined minimalist game as it is to write rules that reflect how a world should react to a character out of luck. I also might not be the first to formulate those thoughts. If that's so, I'm happy to just repeat them.

Surrealist game, he said

Patient Zero for this was a post over at Realms of Chirak about surrealism in gaming (I'd tag Nicholas, but I somehow seem to have lost that power here in blogger). That post is interesting for a couple of reasons, but what triggered this particular train of thought was him talking about a game I never had been exposed to: Over The Edge (thank you! now I want that and it doesn't exist anymore).

What he said was, that it is (one of?) the first role playing games out there to embrace surrealist elements. Then he goes a bit into the setting and I went off to read a bit more about that setting (which is cool shit, don't get me wrong) and then I read that it is a very rules light game ...

... wait a minute, I thought, so the surrealist elements come from the setting, not from the system? Well, if you check out the character sheet, you'll see quite fast that there isn't happening a lot from the system side of things (from what I could gather, it's a nice system, though).

It certainly isn't the first time I encountered a game like that (and I'm not talking about games featuring surrealist elements, although one could make an argument for OD&D in that regard). Tékumel is a strong contender for a setting-driven, rules-light game and among the first to be published. Talislanta is another one (No elves!), but that just might be the hand of Jonathan Tweet again, so it only counts half way, I guess.

D&D can be surreal, and you know it ... [source]
I wrote in a post not that long ago (still lost ... can't find it right now, but it's the thought that counts) that strong settings are narrative expansion of the rules and just as strict. All you'll need with a strong setting is a minimalist or light game to make it work (which is one way to see it). I'll leave it at that for now and come back to it later. The distinction we need to make here, is that the game is not heavy on the mechanics, but heavy on the context (or subtext?).

It's Setting vs. Rules, then?

So what are we talking about here? There seems to be a shifting scale between, say, the established story of a game and the rules that determine the outcome of interactions with said world. Both feed the narrative that emerges at the table and the degree with which they dominate is close to the distinction I'm trying to make, just not quite right.

As far as I can tell, this more is about how much is projected into a game and how much is created procedurally. You'll obviously have both aspects in every game. However, I think we can make a clear distinction by looking at the rules of a game for attempts to generate an experience rather than leaving room for projection.

I'll elaborate. Let's take Dungeon World as an example (because I read and reviewed that one). It is very rules light, only has a couple of rules to play with. Everything else is just labeled differently, so the impact on the narrative is shifted with different words describing (mostly) the same mechanic.

DW is interesting as an example for another reason: it shows how OD&D as a set of rules is canonized to a degree that you can actually project it on a lighter system and produce the same feel for the lighter game (if all involved know what D&D is, I'd argue). In the reviews back when I described that as "scripted D&D" and that is just another way of describing the phenomenon.

The "XYZ Hack" is another great example for games like that. Take a light system, change the words and use some strong idea or another as platform to project. Everyone has an idea what pirates are, so pirate games are easy like that. Same goes for Cthulhu games or Pulp games or Kung Fu ... just look at the list.

To a degree you'll have that with every role playing game, as I already pointed out. People will bring their ideas of stories to the table. Always. The difference is, if you need to bring that knowledge to the table, or if the game also delivers and challenges some of that itself.

An easy example for this are the insanity rules in Call of Cthulhu games. The game will tell you how your character goes insane, what that means and how to do something about that while playing the game. Port those rules in any other game and see how it completely changes the flow of that other game.

SWAT guys playing Ballerinas ...

Here's another example for projection versus experience. You bring to the table what you know. If that's all you need, you'll be good to go. The rest is negotiation of the validity of that knowledge with all others involved.

Say, a SWAT team plays some rpg in their off hours (or as training?) about being a SWAT team. They could just go and use something Powered by the Apocalypse or a Hack variant or some other set of minimalist rules and everything else would just fall into place.

But have them play a couple of ballerinas in a Black Swan scenario, and I imagine they'd be as lost as most people. If they were still up to it (because, lets face it, people don't really want to invest that much into the games they are playing ...), there'd be two ways to make this work:
  • (1) would be offering them the setting heavy variant (see above, could just be an extension of a rules light system and still work)
  • OR
  • (2) you introduce them to a system that already took care of the heavy lifting and allows the players to explore that theme themselves.
And that's how you make ballerinas out of a SWAT team. A system like that would seek the essence of what it means to be a competitive ballerina (to stay with the example here) and allows players to explore the game's theme by producing results that form the emerging narrative in a meaningful way towards said theme, not towards the players expectations.

Too unexpected? [source]
They are not negotiating and projecting as much as they are experiencing and interpreting. As they get better at playing the game, they come to an understanding of the underlying themes on a more visceral level ... (you are still looking at that Kirk picture, aren't you?)

You could say it is the long held distinction between so-called "storyteller games" and games that "simulate", but I always questioned that distinction and the above explains why to some extent. However, I might add that all role playing games actually tell a story or simulate in the true sense of the word (which explains why people fight so hard about those definitions, btw, they are not apt to begin with).

Different approaches, I'd say

I'm not saying writing a game to allow exploring a theme is more difficult than writing one that offers projection of known and agreed upon themes, but the difficulties are distributed very differently for each. And the distinction is very real (although overlap, see above).

The complexity for offering a platform for players to project themes upon can go from minimal D6 to GURPS (or other universal role playing games) and all of them are in their way equally hard to design, I imagine.

As far as strengths and weaknesses go, I'd say those games allow easy access for players and low investment on the plus side. Both aspects will get people together easily and get you playing fast. Very nice for short games and one shots.

The downside, however, is that games will most likely lack depth, while only rarely challenging the players and the DM or only in the most superficial way (you have no hit points, you are dead ... but even that's not always the case). The lack of depth and exploration (other than on the narrative side, I suppose) will not allow for huge campaigns and lend itself to entertaining mini campaigns. At least it'll be difficult to keep a story alive for long.

The other side of the spectrum would be games that offer the exploration of their themes through the rules. While campaigns can be longer and more satisfying, because all involved will continually be challenged by the game to learn and extrapolate, instead of just telling/negotiating what's going to happen, it's also a serious commitment. Not everyone is willing to do that.

Also, even if all the rules can be learned during the game, you still have to remember them as the game progresses. You have to want to get better at the game (and, arguably, be able to do so) to really benefit from the game instead of getting, say, frustrated. Ideally, a game will lead you into it's depths, though.

With those games it's also very easy to make mistakes in the design. If a game like that is not well designed, it'll fail.

D&D as prototype

D&D is the best example for the latter variant. Especially in it's early "final" stages, the D&D Rules Cyclopedia and AD&D. Highly abstract, high complexity, lots and lots of exploration and little sub-systems to boot (down to having little rules for different monsters!).

It'll keep you engaged for years and then some. Classes are not only different, they are distinct and offer a wide range of different play-styles. The rules are easy on the players in the beginning and grow with the characters.

It's also a true game of exploration, in every sense (which ultimately is why young children find it so appealing!). Fantasy as a genre also played a crucial role in that its generic nature allowed the game to manifest through the rules instead of, say, setting distinctions (a mistake AD&D 2e did, arguably) or strong themes. Just the most basic understanding of what fantasy means was enough to play the game.

D&D, still surreal ... [source]
What's more, the game allowed an easy exit along the way. You just want to play the first 9 or 6 or 3 levels? It's all fun and easy enough to do. However, if you go in deep, you'll find it's very deep indeed, as there are rules for warfare and domain games and becoming gods, for instance. There's also room to develop your own game out of it or add new rules. Or just take aspects of it and run with that for a while.

D&D can do all that and did it so good, in fact, that those rules and it's vocabulary became iconic enough to be used as a theme as well, just as explained above. It helped creating a very successful video game industry and all role playing games developed after D&D did so in distinction to it. Think about that for a minute.

Two schools

Anyway. That's D&D for you. The problem with all that is to decide whether you'd rather explore or project in your games (and you could project exploring, for that matter), or which to what degree. It might come down to taste, and that isn't even a constant. However, knowing is half the battle, right?

As far as developing games goes, I think we are talking two different schools here. Or two different disciplines, if you will. And they are distinct in that they each try to create a very different style of role playing. Each are equally difficult to design, make no mistake about it. However, distinct they are and that comes with huge ramifications as far as definitions go.

Here's something useful to take away from this: if you want to find out if a game is for you (or why a game doesn't work for you), look back at the games you liked so far in the most abstract way you can muster and with the distinctions made in this here post. Then check if that new game does that or not.

So if you are into projecting games that are low on setting, something like Dungeon or Apocalypse World might be totally for you. High complexity experiences, but low time investment? Check out indie rpgs like My Life With Master or 44 (or a bazillion other indie games in that direction). Highly modular, lots of projection, descent mini-campaigns? GURPS or BRPG or universal rpgs in general might work. And so on and so forth.

It'll also give you some indications what players you'll want. I had a game of WitchCraft once go south because the players totally where projecting and ignored the rules to an extent where people with super hero characters played as if they were normal and weak. The game offered no challenges for them on that level, and they weren't happy when the things started happening the game demands to challenge the characters ...

It's an extreme case, but I wouldn't have had that problem using a system accommodating this sort of play, like FATE, for instance. Being able to communicate to potential players what kind of game you want to play is a very good thing, imo (although in the example above it meant that two players had to go and one went with them ... which was for the better, I might add).

A hard distinction to make?

If you read up to this point, you'll probably be thinking up examples where the distinction fails. Good. Please challenge this, as I don't think enough people are. I can imagine people going "But we played GURPS for decades now!" or "Dungeon World is not projecting D&D themes on a rules-light system!" or "D&D has no depth!", and that's all fine and dandy from an individual point of view.

However, please consider that it's distinctions like the above that, on a purely pragmatic level, allow us not only to find ways to talk about the games we play, they also offer a way to reflect and position your own preferences in gaming in relation to them. In an ideal case we talk about it and come to a better definition. Nothing set in stone here.

That said, and adding that there indeed is some overlap, I think it is important to understand that there might be play styles that are not compatible at all and what the reasons for that are. Describing this as the distinction between projection and exploration at least has the benefit that it isn't as nebulous as the "storyteller"/"simulationist" approach.

And that's that: i'd love to hear if you guys see the same distinction or something else. Maybe it's really not that much of a distinction but more like a scale of involvement (although I don't think so ... I strongly believe it's a temperament thing, or at least connected)? Let me hear what you think. Opinions and thoughts are, as always, very welcome.

I just liked that one [source]


  1. Just so you know "Over the Edge" is only recently out of print. Copies are available on Amazon for about $30.

    1. Oh? I have to check that action out ... Thanks!

  2. We had a conversation the other day that dealt with me wanting to rewrite a system I was working on. My reason was the resolution of each die roll was too slow for me to feel it emulated the subject matter properly. How does that kind of design fall into your scale? I would think that is projecting the theme through the rules. Kind of designing to reinforce the setting though pace and style of play. Any thoughts?

  3. [cleaned up version]: Great question, Mark. Here is the basic idea: it's the difference between offering a game for someone that has an idea what, say, kung fu is to express that (say, the Wushu RPG) and offering a game that would allow someone who has no idea what kung fu is to experience what that is (or can be). Projection vs experience. I think the conundrum you describe is wishing to have it both ways, a game that's light and fast, while offering an experience. Not sure it's possible to that extent. You either make it fast, so people who know the tropes can summon what they imagine them to be easily or you offer the experience, which necessarily needs to transcend/permeate a theme to offer access. Having both is somewhat difficult, I believe (although slick design can compensate a lot). Does that help? I mean, I'm willing to discuss this! The problem with design that offers experiences, is to lean too much towards simulation (of a complete world). The right level of abstraction is key so that it either is still fast or offers worthwhile little elements that culminate to something bigger without the players realizing it (like with books, for instance). In that, the games that allow you projection are more like movies, while those offering an experience are more like books?

  4. Well, Genre emulation is a thing. It think it is possible to write mechanics which invoke enough off a setting, or genre that the resulting play with those mechanics generates an experience evocative of the setting at the table. Problem is a system written that goal wont be much good for anything else (the quiet year for example or My life with master to grab obvious examples) Nova 75 almost was another good example, in that those rules are only good for playing games based on "sploitation" type films. Using those rules to do a dungeon crawl would be rough. It's projecting through the mechanics I suppose.

    1. "projecting through the mechanics", that's a fair point. However, I think a crucial distinction is how much context a player needs to bring to the table to make a game work in contrast to what he'll be able to take away from it. Is it bad that a game is "just" good for one purpose? Done right it should offer a multitude of variations of the same theme before getting boring (D&D being the prime example here again). The question is, if the game offers something unexpected you have to deal with by using the solutions the mechanics offer in conjunction with player ingenuity and understanding. In other words, what would a player that never had the faintest idea what the exploitation genre is, get out of Nova74? Say, if he'd play the ideal campaign, would he be able to recognize a movie of that genre just because of it? (I think so, btw, because it was some grand design) Would he have the same (similar?) fun playing the game you had seeing those movies? Indie games are particularly good in picking just aspects like that and making them visceral. Here is the premise, explore what that means, be the wiser for it after playing it. Original Vampire was like that (you have no idea what it means to be a vampire, here, have a game to find out). It's a powerful premise. D&D works like that, too, in a way. Both have very abstract rules that pinpoint on the necessary aspect of the themes involved and also offer easy access with escalating complexity ... I'd say, while you start projecting what you've learned playing the game (by using the mechanics properly), the game should advance and force you to take another step (basically hat D&D does: hero game - domain game - epic level game). Tekumel, for instance, had you play barbarians that knew nothing about the world surrounding them ... that's what I'm talking about.

      And playing Nova74 as a dungeon crawl might be tons of fun, actually. Give dem goblins some funky boots and let them shine ...


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