Monday, December 12, 2005

Games, The Standard, and Spoons

Originally this was going to be a thread called "The Problem with Game Designers" and posted into Indie RPG Design, but most of what I'm saying has already been said in a couple other posts there. I don't want to retread old ground, but I do want to look at it for a moment, if only because those other things weren't put together like I've got them put together in my head. I also get borderline pissy and certainly ranty, and I try to keep that sort of thing off the Forge So.

The problem with game designers is that they don't ask questions about their game designs. This is originally inspired by the posts to Indie RPG Design where people copy-paste a segment of their game from their word processor into the forum, and then append a line something like "Whaddaya think, guys?" Some of them want a round of applause, which is pretty much not at all what the Forge is for, but I don't think it's really that many of these posters.

I think that most of them are looking for validation, yes, but most of them are looking for validation of a very specific kind. They chose this section to make into a forum post; why? There's something about it that bothers them, or (more rarely) they're going out on a limb and want to make sure they're not crazy. But they don't say, "Hey, this bothers me" or "Is this crazy?" They don't ask the question that they really want to ask.

In parallel, there are the guys who post asking what the proper way to do something is. How do I write my setting? How many skills "should" I have? Or the real gems like, How much XP should it take to level? To these posters, there is some inviolate, universal standard of how RPGs are supposed to be designed, and they want to hear the hallowed voices of the Forge compare their efforts with the standard. Certainly, the experienced, published designers of the Forge know the standard better than these new guys do, so they ask.

Of course, there is no standard. The requirements of any piece of art is idiosyncratic to the artwork itself. The experienced, published designers of the Forge at least know that. An RPG does not need levels, skills, XP, or even settings, but it is hard communicating to the poster that the thing that they've been so worried about is, well, not necessary. This applies to the "How many skills?" guys as well as the "Whaddaya think?" guys -- their participation at the Forge is predicated on an assumption about game design that says that there's a right way to make games and there's a wrong way.

Which is, in a word, bupkiss.

The new guys post to the Forge without asking questions because they think the questions are self-evident -- or they hope they're self-evident to the experienced designers who should know these things. The guys posting and asking the "should" questions just go a step further into the confusion by assuming that there is the standard that their design will be stacked up against. They're comparing themselves to something that doesn't exist; I can't think of a surer plan for failure. What both these guys need -- and very occasionally get -- is a "There is no spoon" moment.

We tend to ask the "Big Three" questions: "What's your game about? What do the characters do? What do the players do?" The answers from pre-spoon-moment posters are invariably, "Having fun. Save the world. Have fun." Because when you are laboring under universal standard of RPG quality, the answer to the Big Three is always the same, and large parts of it can go unsaid because they're part and parcel of the standard. We don't need to say "the players each take one character and portray their actions, constrained by the abilities and knowledge that that character has" because that's how roleplaying games work, isn't it?

Again, bupkiss.

Oh wait, you thought I meant the fictional universal standard was bupkiss, there, didn't you? No, I meant the Big Three questions are bupkiss, because they're not doing what they should be doing. They are not providing the No Spoon Moment; they are assuming that these posters have already had it when it's patently obvious that they have not. This is asking someone questions that they do not have the context to answer correctly; it borders on intellectual dishonesty. It is toying with them.

Alternately, a common response to pre-spoon-moment designers is "Go play these games.Go play Sorcerer. Go play Dogs. Go play Universalis." Which would probably work, excepting of course that it isn't going to happen. (It also makes the Forge look like all it does is pimp its own games.) Most of the time, we don't even say, "You are making a lot of assumptions. Go play X." First-posters who have not been reading the Forge for months and years are not going to arrange to get their friends together to play a game just to see the brave new world that nobody is telling them is there to be found. "Go Play X" is just as much bupkiss as asking pre-no-spooners the Big Three questions. It doesn't work.

I'm looking forward to the Intro to Big Model forum/article/whatever, because I'm hoping there will be a thread there specifically designed to provide the No Spoon Moment. If there isn't, I'll start one. I don't know exactly what shape it will or should be; I know that one way would be to list common assumptions ("each player plays one character"), point out its fallacies, and provide examples of alternatives. But even that would be a dull tool to use -- it'd get long, pedantic, not incredibly entertaining to read, and worst of all, it would dilute the single point that needs to get across: "Roleplaying is people collaboratively imagining events. Everything else is optional. No really, everything else. Designing a game is directing that activity towards a specific purpose. You, as the designer, choose that purpose. Everything else that you add needs to serve that purpose." Would that provide a No Spoon Moment? Maybe. Would examples help? Maybe. But it would sure as hell be more likely to work than the Big Three or telling them to go play Sorcerer.


At 6:46 AM, Blogger Troy_Costisick said...


I think you have a good point here, Josh. You have a lot of good things to say. I would like to take up the subject of the Big Three with you for a bit if I could.

They were origonally intended to give the "There is no Spoon" moment to designers. The first question is there to point out just how under-developed most initial designs are and were especially at the time of its invention (whenever that was). The second two questions point out the difference between player and character. That is a distinction that a good number of designers don't even know exist. Just check out the posts on RPGnet (I know you have hehe).

I will agree with you on one point, though when it comes to them. They aren't doing their job very well. They require a lot of follow up comments and prodding to get to the No Spoon. That's where they are failing. That's where work needs to be done.

As for the "Go read Sorcerer et al" statements, I whole heartedly agree! It's uncommon to find a new designer willing to go out, buy three or four games, play them, and then come back to us with his new found knowledge. That's just unreasonable to ask, I think- despite the fact that in the end, it is a good idea.

Lastly, I'd like to add that hammering someone over the head with the Fantasy Heartbreaker articles also does nothing to help nascent designers. It's cruel. It's lame. And it certainly isn't helpful. It's just a cop out for people to say they have posted something and feel better about themselves for it. It's not encouraging indie design and publication in any way.

Anyhow, good post. I've found that you and I have a lot in common in our beleifs when it comes to RPGs. Glad I found your blog.



At 7:47 AM, Blogger Adam Dray said...

The Big Three (and the rest) have another purpose. They're a well-considered and well-tested set of questions for interviewing the author about his game. The questions remind me to get the big picture and not get too embroiled in a discussion about a skill system until I've made sure I know what the designer is trying to do with it.

You're not going to write a good question or three that invariably leads to a Zen moment. Perhaps we're better off smacking our students with sticks, or responding in riddles and koans. It worked for the Masters.

But the Big Three are convenient questions that, once answered, open the door to us to start talking about the possibilities the designer is ignoring and his inherent assumptions.

At 9:16 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Troy & Adam -- The Big Three are useful for people who have already had their No Spoon moment and are starting off on a new game. This I'll agree with wholeheartedly. I think it also subtly promotes diversification, since you don't want to answer "What do the players do?" the same way every single time. It appears that Game Number Five for most designers must involve playing cards, for instance. ;)

Troy, I hear you, but I'm not really proposing bashing them with Fantasy Heartbreaker stuff so much as the "default social structure" that so many folks take for granted (a handful of players, a GM, the players have one character and are limited to Actor stance, the GM preps the entire story start to finish before play, etc). I'm way more about function and procedure than content. Even if designers go back and make a game that has that same basic structure (like, say, Dogs), knowing that those are decisions to be made and not axioms to be assumed informs the design.

At 10:10 AM, Blogger Troy_Costisick said...

Heya Josh,

I’m with ya, bro. The traditional, “default social structure” as you put it is clearly evident on design boards that are older than The Forge with posters who got online after The Forge was well established. I’d also toss in inane arguments over whether 2d6, 1d20, or 1d100 is the ultimate and optimum die to have in a game. Those kinds of arguments were left behind ages ago on the Forge but you don’t have to go too far back on places like RPGnet to find them.

So yeah, I’d love to find a way to get designers (including myself) to question their preconceived notions and habits. To do that, I think we’d have to look at what the default social structure accomplishes for them. We’d need to zero in on what functions in a game they serve and why these newer designers don’t question them. Then we’d need to ask “Why” they are doing it that way. Or at least that’s my first stab at a solution. What do you think?

I don’t want anyone to think that I’m saying stuff like GMs, one character per player, levels, experience points, and the like are bad-evil mechanics that should never be used by games ever again. I’m not. I’m saying that those tools are no better than the multitude of other tools out there, and until one explores a good number of alternate possibilities, then choosing some of the “traditional” gaming structures is an ignorant choice. It’s that ignorance we want to fight.



At 3:05 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Exactly, Troy. It's not that these elements are bad, it's just that these are all specific elements that have specific effects on play, and one should only include those elements in one wants those effects.

One pre-prepared GM with multiple actor-stanced players, each with one character defined by level, accumulating XP (and loot?) to increase level and effectiveness -- I think that's the bulk of the "default social structure." This structure emphasizes teamwork towards an objective past adversity in a delimited setting repeated in an iterative process. Which is, yup, a dungeon crawl or its latter-day equivalents, a shadow run or a special-ops mission.

Break this to interesting effect. Take away the exhaustive GM prep, the limitation of actor stance and levels and you have Dogs in the Vineyard. Which still has the emphasis on teamwork, an objective, and a delimited setting, but is not about power-mongering (lack of levels / scoring) and pits the players in moral instead of tactical choices. It's still very very iterative.

Remove the exhaustive prep, the levels, the actor stance, and the one-player-one-character, add in a reward system that reinforces character exploration, and you have Full Light, Full Steam. Emphasis is on character and setting exploration in an open-ended setting (but close-ended situations). There's still objectives, there's still adversity, but they're character-based. This would lose the teamwork emphasis except for the addition of other decisions that re-emphasize it (rules for cooperative actions and an attribute dedicated to command). Very little emphasis on increasing power and effectiveness.

Am I making sense or talking crazy-talk?

At 3:36 PM, Blogger Troy_Costisick said...


Nope, you are crystal clear. What you had to say was read, understood, and assimilated with absolute clarity, Josh.

I believe your vision and mine are 100% compatible on this subject. And it is my hope that we can turn this common ground into something useful for newbies. Heck, useful for ourselves too!

This new blog format (I say new, because these sorts of conversations are the sorts that used to go on in the Forge Theory forums) is useful for one thing; it helps us better formulate our ideas before we post them in Actual Play, Indie Design, or Publishing on the Forge. Maybe someday we'll have something to post up there based on this initial conversation that'll make a difference. That would be nice. :)



At 4:07 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Now I'm wondering it's possible to identify what each element does to a game.

actor stance - encourages introspective characterization, makes the character a player in a situation rather than an author of the situation.

GM/player divide - encourages teamwork among players, supplies adversity, creates power divide. cetera.

The reason I say such is because, in addition to taking things out, indie games put new stuff in.

At 6:34 PM, Blogger kesher said...

I don't know if this helps all that much, but here's a variation on the three questions that was posed at the Game Design seminar at GenCon:

1. What is your game about (the Theme)?

2. How is your game about what it's about (what, mechanically, makes your game about it's theme)?

3. What do you do in the game to award addressing the Theme? (i.e., what behaviors are encouraged and how are they encouraged?)

This is a really important topic, Josh. I've been seeing a lot of what you're talking about lately in Indie Design. It also makes me wonder if perhaps the closing of the other two forums isn't going to create a glut of this kind of stuff for awhile...


At 10:41 PM, Blogger Citizen Chimp said...

That change from "what" to "how" in question two seems meaningful to me. I also might add, "How is it not about everything else," but that would be impossible to answer.

When I wrote a entry for the Ronnies, one of the comments I got from Ron Edwards was that it "begins with a fantastic basic context, but halfway through it spins into Shadowrun ops for standard RPG goombahs..."

I thought a lot about that. In hindsight, it seems fairly obvious. Even though I had read the Forge for a while and could throw around terms like IIEE, stance, resolution, etc, it was harder to omit the RPG tropes than it was to include my cool new idea. I read threads like
[LoL] Strength or Prowess
and I wonder if that guy is having the same problem I did.

At 9:22 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Those are good questions, Kesher, but I'm thinking that they're still post-spoon-moment questions, in that the first question "What is your game about (Theme)?" still assumes that the designer understands that games can be "about" things that are not dungeoncrawls or equivalents.

And until we have something that more consistently delivers that spoon moment, I think we will, as you say, be seeing a lot of undirected designs being posted up in Indie Design -- in lots of ways the removal of the abstract forum has lowered the apparent bar for entry at the Forge. The intent is to use the Big Model lexicon in Indie Design, but internet users are like four year olds: out of sight, out of mind. I'm hoping the Intro to Big Model forum (or whatever) will amend that.

Chimp (who are you at the Forge?) --

Yes. Yes, yes, yes. It's one thing to say things, and another thing entirely to actually implement them. It's incredible how many old habits creep back into designs as we write. FLFS isn't 'clean' and pretty much won't be by the time I print it. I'm in that sad position where I'm looking forward to my next project, and the one beyond that one.

At 12:06 PM, Blogger Troy_Costisick said...


I can relate Josh. I know something I design even just six months from now will be better than anything I have on the table atm. It's cool, though. I know I have to take the steps I'm taking now in order to get to that better place.

As for the n00bs, I'm looking forward to the Intro forum (or whatever) too. I hope to be a large participant in that. If it doesn't happen or live up to what I think/hope it should be, that's where blogs like this and others (including the one I had to get just to post here) will have to take up the slack.




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