The Universal RPG Play Loop

by jachilli

In game design, the designer wants to put the player into what’s known as a “game loop,” a repeated sequence that the player can learn and depend upon, and that helps the designer communicate the essential experience of the game. In many Facebook games, for example, the game loop is plant, harvest, build. In Assassin’s Creed multiplayer, the game loop is hide and seek. In EVE Online, each of the subsystems points back to spaceships fighting.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, of course, because it’s my job to do it and it’s my goal to keep it as uncomplicated as possible for the player. I’m not a big fan of complex systems for the sake of complex systems. I’m not a big fan of difficulty for the sake of difficulty. I think game design is at its best when it’s simple. The strength of a game is in how it allows the players to relate to one another and the systems are all vehicles for that experience. If players can find new uses or clever interactions with simple systems, I think that’s infinitely better than having them solve a difficult system, because it’s more open-ended.

So, given that I’m finishing my most recent game supplement (the V20 Companion for Vampire: The Masquerade), I’ve been going back over the material in the book, making sure that all of the material therein has an appropriate place in the loop. Tabletop roleplaying games are an interesting model because, in my experience, the loop is identical in all of them. The set dressing can change a million and one times, of course, but the ultimate expression of the game, whether you’re playing D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Dogs in the Vineyard, or Vampire, is one of situation and response. Vampire observes event. Vampire participates in (or evades) event. Consequences of action (or inaction) apply. New stimulus results and the loop continues.

One cycle of the tabletop RPG play loop

Now, I’m not saying that every game is the same, of course. I’m saying that how we play these games is a universal construct. The gamemaster presents a situation, the players respond, and the resolution occurs. This resolution leads to the next situation, etc., which keeps the loop in motion. At some point, the action concludes (at the story’s end, when the final challenge is overcome, or just when the game peters out), but every action taken at the game table, regardless of the game, has results and creates a new situation.

That makes me nervous, actually. If there’s one thing I’ve learned form 16-plus years of professional game design, it’s that nothing is so goddamned simple, and if it looks like it is, there’s something horrible about to happen and derail the whole sequence. My loop here is either too general to have much value — which I don’t think is the case — or it’s not accounting for something.

I think the simple loop does have value, because it informs both the core game and the supplementary material. If, for example, I tried to cram a resource-farming loop into Vampire, it wouldn’t work. To a degree, there’s a resource-farming loop that’s integral (vampires need blood and Willpower in order to use their powers or even just stay vital), but that loop is part of the central “situation happens, vampire responds” sequence. If I tried to force an additional interaction of “go back to your blood castle and fertilize your fang trees,” the game would take a radical departure from the expected roleplaying game sequence and the Vampire: the Masquerade experience in particular.

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