Thursday, July 14, 2005

Roadmaps and Toolboxes

So Bankuei of Deep in the Game recently posted about the Roadmap to Play he sees in RPGs. In his terminology, all games are roadmaps to Fun, and some games are good maps that get you there, and other games are not good maps and don't.

I agree with the latter half but not the former half. That is, some games are good maps and take you to Fun, and other games aren't good maps and don't -- but the reason that some games aren't good roadmaps is because they're not roadmaps at all. It's like trying to use a granny smith apple to tell you how to get to Nova Scotia -- and then decrying that the apple is a 'bad map'. Most of the Forge games are roadmap games, because with their eye on making Actual Play hit a Creative Agenda with precision, they are highly didactic, highly focused, and rather explicit. This is great -- it makes really good maps -- but not all games need to be maps.

This ties into what Ben was saying in Brand's blog Yog Shoggoth's Dice, in the Intensity and People You Don't Play With thread. Perhaps we have a little too strong of an emphasis on focus, to the point where the insistence on focus is turning into a predilection for intensity -- and not all games need to be hardcore Agenda X with the volume knob turned to 11. (It occurs to me this is much like my perpetual pet peeve where people conflate precision and accuracy, but that's tangential.)

There is another scheme from which to design a game, not the roadmap but the toolbox. Examples are GURPS, Universalis, HERO, and their ilk. These games basically present the players with long lists of options and lets them do whatever they like with them. There are always house rules and "drift" in these games; in fact it's necessary in order to play them, but this is okay because that's part of playing the game. These games don't tell you what to make with the tools and materials they give you; they let you do whatever you like with them. Play in these games does not begin when the adventure or campaign begins, it begins when the GM and/or players sit down and start making the adventure and characters. In GURPS, with which I have the most familiarity, you can sit down and make vehicles purely for the enjoyment of making vehicles -- who needs to actually roleplay driving around in them?

Toolbox games are more flexible than roadmap games, but also less structured, with fewer guarantees that your actual play will hit your desired agenda. It's much more up to the GM and players to take the tools and build what they want, rather than follow directions to get where they want. Perhaps the game-as-published does not have rules that explicitly support Aspect X that you want to focus on; it's your job to make Aspect X important to your game, either in-game with character decisions and how you narrate, or by making house rules that highlight the things that are important to you. A lot of people dislike toolbox games because they are 'bland' and I think it's this that they are complaining about -- these games do not provide any color (or setting or situation or character), just system.

This sort of game appeals to a certain kind of player, who wants to do things his own way. They don't want to follow a map; they want to build something of their own. GURPSfolk, at least the guys on GURPSnet, are usually highly (and weirdly) creative people who take GURPS off into horizons that other people wouldn't have ever thought of. They play games that have just as much focus on interpersonal relationships or spiritualism as any other game, often creating new game stats and rules to support what they want. That said, the type of player that the toolbox appeals to is not the mainstream player, and this approach does not have the broad-based appeal or instant-gratification that a roadmap game can offer.

A week or so ago I was musing on what gaming offers the player that the player wants, and I think this is one of the things that RPGs can offer, but that RPGs don't necessarily have to offer -- the DIY Fun Offer. This is the sort of game that can advertise 'Imagine Incredible Worlds!' and 'Play Any Character You Like!' on the back cover -- and can do so legitimately. Dogs in the Vinyard and Sorcerer can't (and wouldn't want to) -- they offer something different, something more specific, precise, and focused.

Neither approach is wrong, both have their advantages and disadvantages, but the distinction is, I think, and important one, because the game products offer players different kinds of play experiences. This is not a distinction about Actual Play; this is a distinction about Game Design and the products that a game company or indie developer create. When sitting down to design, this is an important question to ask oneself: are you trying to write up a guided tour, or are you handing the players the keys?


At 10:55 AM, Blogger Nathan P. said...

Would a toolbox game not be improved by providing stucture on how to use the tools? That is, if GURPS (I'm not too familiar, but just cuz it was your example) had a section that said "You and your group are going to have to take whats provided here and add to it or change it in order to have your brand of fun with it, and here are some methods for doing so".

That is, there must be ways for toolbox games to minimize the unfun parts.

At 12:31 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

My current thoughts on the matter is that the two approaches are relatively antithetical to eachother: "play this game this way" and "play this game however you like" are pretty much at odds.

Which 'unfun' parts are you talking about, exactly? I think a good chunk of the issue is that what is unfun for one player is fun for another -- there are lots of folks out there who are completely disinterested in calculating the cubic foot volume of the crew cabin of your space ship.

Similarily, I'd mount an argument (not the best argument) that people enjoy working towards and finding new ground in the implicit social contracts and creative agendas of the players involved. These are folks that, instead of starting out with a play experience in mind and gauging their success by how on-target the play turns out to be, these guys put some things together and 'see how it works out'. Sometimes it crashes, sometimes it soars, but the experimental experience is worth something in and of itself. Now mind, I'm not sure if I buy that, but I think it's at least plausible.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Nathan P. said...

I guess I mean giving tools to make tools. F'rex, if the book has all these kewl powerz for blowing shit up and stuff (the default setting, or whatever), there could be a section that says "if you find that your games end up being about relationships, you can map the blow-shit-up-is powers to relationship-related powers in the following manner: say that your shit-I'm-dead points are shit-I'm-pissed points. Call the powers things like Virulent Disagreement instead of Explode Head..." etc.

Like, mechanics for drifting the game, essentially.

Does that make more sense?

At 1:46 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Rules for Drift? It's possible, I suppose. Theoretically speaking, you could go whole-hog and basically make the Nomic of RPGs, where the focus of the game is Drift and modifying the rules. I don't know if you'd really have a roadmap game, though -- you'd have a toolbox full of toolmaking tools. You'd still not be explaining how to use the tools, you'd be explaining how to modify the tools. How the tools relate to Actual Play would still be at the discretion of the players.

At 11:25 AM, Blogger Nathan P. said...

Right. Im saying that I'd rather have a box full of tools to make the tools that I want, rather than a box of tools that I need to bootstrap into my game. And that this would be a welcome evolution of toolbox-style games.

Like, when I go into the shop, I'd rather have a table saw ready to go rather than unassembled and in a box. I mean, sure, I can put it together, but it's going to waste my first couple hours. If it was there in the first place, I could go ahead and start cutting wood.

At 10:22 AM, Blogger Lee Short said...

All this talk of maps presumes that you know where you're going before you start the game. Every single good long-term campaign I have played in started out headed toward a particular theme and got hijacked at least once along the way. To stretch the map analogy, we started out on the road to place X, got part way there, and decided that place Y (which we couldn't see from the start of the road) looked really cool. Now, if we were playing a "roadmap game", we'd never have gotten to Y -- the roadmap went to X and nowhere but X (tight design, and all that). Even a "toolbox game" as you have defined them won't really get you to Y either; you've already customized the toolbox and made your map to X. At best, you can back off and rebuild your road map to get you to Y.

So I think there's a certain advantage to having a game that's not tightly focused.

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

nathan --

I'm not getting the two parts of your comment to work together in my brain. You want things customizable in the first, but you want it pre-assembled in the second? Don't those two preclude eachother?

Lee --

I agree, although I'd say that 'advantage' is much like an evolutionary advantage, in that it is not an across-the-board advantage applicable to all things, but it is an advantage in fulfilling a niche role. Some games will flourish because they have that flexibility; other games will flourish because they are spot-on-target every time. There's room for both (and other variations to boot). The important thing is that the games have coherent designs to accomplish their goals, whatever they may be.

At 3:18 PM, Blogger Nathan P. said...

Ok. Well, first off, here's my basic point: I agree with you, and (but?) I think that there are ways to make a toolbox game that more reliably creates fun.

Here's my last try at a metaphor to explain how that is, and if it doesn't work, than I think it's just time to move on...

Say you have a set of plastic models (like Space Marines from Games Workshop). Now, these come in multiple stages, from the raw plastic thats poured into the molds, to the parts that you get when you buy the box, to the actual model that you, the modeller make out of those parts, to the finished, painted model thats ready for the tabletop.

Now, take the finished, painted model as Fun. Right now, I see many toolbox games at waaaay back at the molten plastic stage - sure, the raw materials are there, but the GM and group needs to make the molds, pour the plastic and put together the models before they even get to painting them. There's a hell of a lot of things that can go wrong in that process. I think that toolbox games could be improved to the box of parts stage at the very least - as in, here's all these parts that all fit together to create a fairly well-known result. There's still room for modeling your own pieces onto it, or filing down the unwanted flash, or whatever, but you don't have to go to the effort of making the pieces in the first place.

Does that make more sense? At all?

At 11:51 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

To attempt an analogy, nathan, it sounds like you want Hero but with the templates and basic sets of elements already created, so that you can take the bits and pieces, put them together, and go.

While I won't discount that, I think you're missing the fact that, for some folks, the making-of-molds and pouring-of-plastic steps are the fun. The finished product is part of it, sure, but the process is just as important and entertaining as the product.

This of course doesn't preclude folks (presumably like yourself) that don't especially find those steps fun. There's room for everybody and their preferences, whether they want to be given action figures, prefabricated parts of action figures, or plastic with which to make action figures. The folks who just want the immersion and decision-making of roleplaying will take the action figures and go; the folks who want to do the building and customizing will take the pieces and do their thing; the folks who want to be architects and create their experience from the ground up will take the molten plastic of Hero/GURPS, et cetera.

I can't think of a game off hand that really fits that middle-of-the-road path; perhaps Powered by GURPS titles like Hellboy fit that mold, or some of the new GURPS template-books.

At 11:54 PM, Blogger Rob Muadib said...

This is awful late and a bit of a threadcrap but the whole "toolbox with instructions" largely is the approach I am taking with my game T:COTEC. (you can find more info about how it works in my latest Wild Musings blog post).

Anyway, the game focuses on getting ALL of the players to take part in creating the game world for a particular campaign, using the various detailed designed systems present in the game, ala GURPS/HERO/EABA, etc to construct the invididual game entities and such to stage the game they are interested in. It also includes more top-level design tools for creating the world, cosmology, Metabilities and other speculative elements, Races/Peoples etc. (Ripping off Aria mostly, with shared character and world elements similar to Ars magica, as well as fun nitty-gritty design systems like world design, vehicle, creature design similar to old traveller.( Well, it will when I actually get them written up.)

It also adds some very explicit "control" currency similar to coins in Universalis. So we have a structure on how to use the tools, in which everyone can use them, and have means to get other players to play with cool stuff they designed. A rather novel extension to the traditional universal system setup.


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