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 :)