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
|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.