Justin Achilli

Tag: players matter

Toxic Community and the Illusion of Agency

Bioware has a reputation for storytelling, but it’s taken some hits recently. Over at gamesindustry.biz, I saw an article about the negative environment at Bioware’s social site, however.

Part of the negative attention Bioware has received lately I think comes at the intersection of predetermined narrative and player input. With the negative reception for the conclusion of the Mass Effect trilogy, I think this is a self-created problem for Bioware.

Plainly stated, certain single-player and quest-heavy computer RPGs cultivate the illusion of choice, that you’re in control of the character’s fate. Over time, as the player experiences the game, the illusion grows, but in the end, when the game (or trilogy) concludes, that illusion evaporates abruptly. The end — whether it’s a single ending or one from an array of multiple endings — happens and the player responds with, “What? That wasn’t what should have happened at all!”

dragon_problemAnd that “should have” is the point of divergence from player expectation and the game-as-product that was delivered. In a scripted storyline, as all narrative-construction games must be, because that’s how they’re coded, the player is not in control of his fate. In tabletop RPGs, the gamemaster can’t help but give a mutually achieved story result. In most computer games, particularly those that rely on scripted stories, it’s all but impossible. Marketing, positioning, and development promises for computer RPGs, however, very often posit just the opposite, that every decision the player makes ultimately collects to create a unique ending that is the culmination of his — the player’s — story.

This simply is not true. In any game with a scripted narrative, the best the player can accomplish is some amount of steering the story toward one of the pre-written eventualities built into the game during development. This has always occurred to me as a weird way to allocate development, as well. Your player won’t see a significant portion of the experience you’re paying to develop. It’s as much movie as game, and the player isn’t really telling his story, he’s only pantomiming his version of the permitted story. I remember seeing a marketing promise about Dragon Age’s story component: The claim was that it had as much “content” — a word that represents a loathsome reduction of the craft of storytelling to a product — as nine fantasy novels! Well, so what? If I wanted to read novels, I’d read novels instead of playing a game. And most of that, the player won’t even see, given that he’s making choices in game that wall off a distinct portion of it. “Features a ponderous volume of writing ill suited to the medium into which it’s been crammed, but don’t worry; you’ll never see most of it” makes for a poor bullet point.

The blame here, unfortunately falls on both sides. It falls on the side of the developer perpetuating the lie that the player controls his fate, when really, he’s in control of (meta)gaming his experience toward his desired result. It also falls on the side of the player for not adequately understanding what he’s buying, or, worse, willfully ignoring that reality. Certainly, the player is less culpable in this arrangement — he’s actively being lied to — but, as the old saying goes, fool the player once, shame on you, but fool the player twice, shame on him. For many players, I believe the potential of the outcome outweighed the inherent limitations of the medium, and then reality intruded.

Games that make this plain don’t suffer the same sort of hostility, at least with regard to the illusion of determination. You’re telling Niko Bellic’s story, or Ezio’s story, or Gordon Freeman’s story: There’s no misstatement there. But when the scope of the degree to which the player’s ownership of that story conflicts with what the player has been led to believe, when the amount of Shepard’s destiny that the player controls is at odds with the amount he’s told he controls, that’s where the letdown of expectations occurs. I’m not generally disposed toward the use of phrases like “entitlement,” but in this case the player has been told one thing and given another. So long that continues happening, especially in the epoch of eight-figure development budgets, the feeling of frustration will persist.

Ghibli-Style Storytelling

Yesterday, Madeleine and I went to see Nausicaä at the Ghibli Collection retrospective at the Carolina Theatre. It’s an excellent movie, my favorite of the Ghibli films, and one that works whether you’re a kid or an adult. On an immediate level, the conflicts are thrilling and visceral, and the characters are appealing or engaging — you empathize with the good guys and you love to hate the bad guys even as you come to understand them. The backstory, with the world-ruining Seven Days of Fire and the struggle between Pejite and Tolmekia, the Valley of the Wind caught in the middle, gives meaning to those conflicts, defining them instead of subsuming them.

This is the stuff of great gaming and storytelling. The immediate conflicts draw you in as a player or audience, and the setting serves as an engrossing backdrop and framing device that gives you context beyond the moment-to-moment action. The exposition helps the story instead of dominating it. At no point does the player/ audience member have to endure a narrator or gamemaster monologue.

Video game narratives are too often by people who would rather be writing something else — something in which their audience is captive and hangs on their every word. Video games don’t work like that. They’re of a nature interactive, and choice is what makes the game, not the story. The story is just that: a story. Whether done via text or engine movie, canned interaction in video games can be a reward, but it’s very often wielded as a cudgel. The more the player reads text or watches cutscenes, the less she’s actually playing the game, making the choices that define the interaction of the form. Just as a player doesn’t listen to music when she wants to read a book, neither should she have to read a book or watch a movie to play a video game.

An Upcoming Political System

You may or may not be familiar with Tera. I wasn’t, but then I took a look at this E3 piece about it and it piqued my interest.

I don’t care about any of the classes and races. They seem pretty standard, and look like they reinforce the tank-DPS-healer trinity that’s largely behind why I wasn’t paying much attention to Tera. What caught my eye was the politics system.

There’s an interesting hybrid happening here. On the one hand, you can just grind your politics points — which is fine. That’s their core gameplay, and there’s the reward. On the other hand, though, players can award other players points, effectively having a voice in the political structure akin to a vote.

Devil-Elves of the Underwear Frontier League

Early on, Aion promised something like this, but failed to deliver at launch. Players were supposed to be able to good-karma other helpful players by way of appreciation, so if you were friendly and helpful to the community, you would have a bunch of those points that you could spend in the shops. A pretty cool way to incentivize and recognize helpful behavior in a medium that’s usually sorely missing it. But, yeah, they shipped without it and I don’t know if it ever made it in.

Back to Tera, it’ll be interesting to watch where this goes. If the system is poorly designed, it’ll be easy to put my faction on top and never lose that privilege. But if the system is interestingly designed, it can make for shifting play conditions, a gameplay benefit to socializing with other players, and a real sense of a living world. The persistence and transience of reward can really make a feature like this shine. “Let’s log on today, guild — we’ve got to protect our influence. Oh, no; we lost it to our rivals, and now we have to either earn it back or play under their terms!” Awesome.

If you’ll indulge me, I don’t have high hopes for it based on the other pieces of Tera I’ve seen, but let me tell you, I absolutely love being wrong when a game really delivers on a feature it promises to make its own. I think EVE’s free-form territory development gameplay is a great example of this, but it’s not the only way to address the design.

On the Community’s Esteem for Vampire

Last year, one of my goals was to undertake a collaborative project. I had a start or two, none of which panned out — I wanted something to happen with CLIO, but it didn’t really pick up any steam — but as of last week, I really hit the motherlode. The announcement of Vampire: The Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition and the open development process by which we’re doing it has really scratched the itch for me.

In some cases, it’s done its job too well (which is a wonderful “problem” to have). We’ve received so much feedback, I can’t personally respond to all of it. I’m watching everything that’s said both in the dev blog comments, the #v20 Twitter topic, and on the White Wolf forums, as well as watching a handful of other places where feedback’s going on, and there’s just so much that as much as I want to engage all of the comments in conversation, I just can’t discuss it all. As much as I want to, I have to actively remind myself that I have to get the book itself done. It’s certainly walloped my productivity here at my blog, too.

Much of the commentary is surprisingly good. Aside from a bit of grousing here and there about my involvement, lots of the feedback is remarkably insightful. While some of it falls outside the scope of what we’re trying to do, which is revisit the classic Vampire experience and not create a new “edition” of the game, the comments have been a wealth of input derived from years of playing the game and sharing it with players.

I’m gobsmacked. Even the stuff I can’t directly use is well-reasoned, demonstrably true in many cases, and obviously the product of people getting together to tell Vampire stories. To a creative person, a designer and developer in my case, this is the ultimate compliment. For my work — and of course that of others, as I certainly have no desire to downplay or exclude their contributions — to have entertained so many people, given them enjoyment, stoked their creative urges, or fueled a night’s debate whether it be on rules or the mysteries of the setting is the consummate validation of what I hope to have brought to the game.

If you’ve ever been a Vampire player, and especially if you’ve been one one of the contributors to the V20 Open Dev process, thank you. A hundred times, thank you.

Departing From the Script

The best tabletop session I ever ran was one that threw me completely for a loop.

Pantaloons are key.

I had maps. I had encounters. We had some bottles of wine at the table and the setting I was running was my Belluna D&D campaign, which is a sort of romanticized Renaissance Italy with plotlines shaded by the Borgias and the Godfather. I had a roughly plotted scenario in which the players were supposed to fight their way onto a guarded ship at the wharf, find the cursed clock that was a actually a bound time elemntal, and track it back to the abandoned church at which the session’s bad guy was holed up.

The players didn’t want any of that.

As players, we got buzzed on the wine. As characters, everyone got loaded, fell into the canals, started a street party, and dragged a parade of partygoers to the docked ship, where the sailors joined the festivities and the PCs crept on board to find the clock clue I had originally scripted them to have to fight to find.

I didn’t use two-thirds of what I had written. It was glorious.

I didn’t force the story into its predetermined script. The players saw a portion of the setting that they liked and they ran with it. The GM and the players participated together.

Roll One and Die

This guy will either explode you into your component molecules, or he will hide behind the barbarian.

Warhammer Quest used to have an interesting mechanic surrounding its “wandering monster” encounter system. Every turn, the player with the wizard character rolled a die to determine his available Power (the magic resource) for the turn. On a roll of 2-6, the wizard has that much “mana” for the turn. On a 1, however, the wizard has no mana — and a random encounter occurs.

This is pretty consistent with the Warhammer world. That is, when something kind of bad happens, something god-grindingly awful usually piles on top of it. As a pacing mechanic, though, it’s neat game design. It makes for spikes of “SWEET MOTHER OF CRAP WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE,” which is the sort of thrill that makes a game that has randomness as such a central element exciting. It’s way more engaging than rolling poorly in Settlers of Catan — 2 or 12, nothing happens, because nobody bothers building on those number distros unless they have to.


"And then I was, like, 'Wait, my Humanity is FOUR? But this is only the second session of the chronicle!'"

I used to employ on one of these “trouble spots” during convention and demo games of Vampire I’d run at shows. (I always create pre-gens for convention games, since for a demo people won’t have their own, and because the scenario construction for Vampire relies a lot on the types of characters undertaking it. I didn’t want to take the chance of having a political mystery scenario written and have to shoehorn trenchcoat katana mirroshades Kindred Braveheart into it.) I’d dole out characters by whatever method — one of my favorite methods is “give me three adjectives that describe the character you’d like to play” — and then I’d have each player roll a 10-sider for his starting blood pool. And then, to illustrate the potential of the system, I’d have each player spend a blood point at the beginning of the session to reflect the mystic consumption of vitae.

The results were what you’re dreading: Someone inevitably rolled a 1 on that blood poll roll, and upon spending that first blood for the night, awoke into a ravening frenzy. This was a convenient, exciting, in medias res method for illustrating the blood mechanics, the Beast, and frenzy (and probably Humanity and the Masquerade…) all at once. The game got started with a holy-smokes action sequence, but still got to hit the thematic high points of Vampire.


The system I lovingly know as “roll one and die” makes for a fun and thrilling tipping point, but it’s not universally employable. The drawbacks to using it as a common design principle are few, but can be significant.

  • It can’t prevent a character from participating meaningfully. If all the player does once he’s rolled his one is sit there and wait for his next turn, that’s not an engaging design. The Warhammer Quest rule, for instance, lets the wizard character continue to play his turn, whether by using magic items, attacking with a physical weapon, etc. The Vampire example places the character front and center in a dramatic scenario, and gives him a handful of situational escape or conclusion possibilities. Both of their outcomes engender clever thinking and force accountability.
  • To that end, it doesn’t port well to a solo environment. If the only player who has any input suffers the double-whammy of something bad appearing, and the resource to be used against it is absent, well, that’s trouble. (Of course, Warhammer’s propensity for piled-on catastrophe often turned up triple-whammies, in which the players, already beset by monstrous hordes, are ambushed by an EXTRA BONUS monster horde, oh, and the wizard still has no mana to sling into the fray. Good God, loving this game was masochism.)
  • Players are a cowardly, superstitious lot, and the guy who rolls a one — even though he’s the only guy who ever has to roll that die, so it’s bound to happen eventually (one time in every six, actually) — becomes a veritable Jonah when the inevitable finally happens. This isn’t a problem in most cases, but with particularly salty groups, it’s no fun to be That Guy.
  • If “roll one and die” occurs too frequently, it ceases to be exciting and instead becomes tedious. The Vampire example (even in a non-sadistic convention environment) lets a vampire watch as his precious resource (blood) dwindles, but allows him to choose when her replenishes it. Warhammer Quest balances roll one and die with the presence of the other characters, and the options of items and melee.
  • It’s dangerous to rely on this as a balance mechanism. WQ flirted with this, because the wizard is a powerful character class, but in general, a system that depends on randomness to enforce balance is going to face trouble in the long run. Most cases with play out according to the balance, but statistically, what about those poor slobs at the low end and the lucky stiffs at the low and high ends of the probability distributions? “Wizards suck! All they do is cause problems,” and “Wizards rule! Nothing bad ever happens to them and they always have more than enough Power to face the enemy.” You have to be a hardcore fan of randomness to enjoy the highs and lows of this feature type as a character trait.

What do you think? What games, whether tabletop RPGs, boardgames, or video games, use a system like Roll One And Die to good or bad effect?

Talking at Flowcharts

Task resolution systems. Oh, good heavens.

When these players' characters talk to an NPC, they're talking to the GM, who can improvise or rationalize a genuine personal response.

In many modern tabletop games, you have a core mechanic that resolves most game situations. Whether combat, occult research, technological repair, or fast-talking the security guards into beliving you’re supposed to be here, there’s a common system to it all. It might be a d20-based system, or perhaps it uses the storytelling rules, or perhaps it’s the One Roll Engine or the Coinematic Unisystem. It might be damned simple or it might have graduating complexity. Combat is probably more specific and complicated than the other situational resolutions. Tabletop RPGs do have their roots in wargames, after all.

Most importantly, though, tabletop roleplaying games have a GM: real, live, thinking (in most cases) rules arbiter and narrative director who can interpret dice rolls, take the role of non-player characters, and improvise situational results.

In most cases, you don’t have that in a video game. You don’t have a guy there who can, through informational relay and creative interpretation, change the results.

In most cases, that’s fine. Most games are designed to do one thing well, so the fact that there is no “hacking” resolution mechanic in Starcraft II doesn’t matter. Lara Croft doesn’t have a portrait-painting minigame. Minecraft isn’t “missing” cryptography.

In most cases, though, the gameplay designed for non-combat contested tasks is just the combat system with anemic set dressing and a whitewash vaguely suggestive of what you wanted to do. The vast majority of computer roleplaying games are designed with combat first and foremost. “Roleplaying” in a computer game context really means “advancement,” not “you take on the persona,” and as such, fighting stuff to level is your primary gameplay.

What if my character wouldn't say any of these? Then all I see is broken immersion and a game that wants me to play it on its terms, not mine.

Fast-talking or seducing an NPC with a social character in a computer RPG is usually just reskinned combat. You’re clicking the social attack button and subtracting that social attack value from whatever social defense value belongs to the NPC. You click your numbers at its numbers and eventually something happens, which is probably a text dump. It’s exactly the combat resolution system, except that combat has all sorts of nifty particle effects and fancy animated maneuvers and yomi-based move-and-countermove. Social interaction challenges maybe have some facial expression changes and your reward is READ THIS, FUCKER.

Combat has open-ended results, but when dealing with a computer-controlled NPC, the social interaction reward is either the linear plotline that you would have been on anyway regardless of your conversation, or it’s an extra handful of clicks through a dialogue tree (which is actually probably a dialogue diamond that’s  going to likewise direct you back into the linear plotline that you would have been on anyway regardless of your conversation).

My big two offenders, largely because of their profile rather than doing it any worse than any other game, are Fallout III and Dragon Age. Both of these are basically combat engines with varying amounts of text piled into the interstices between combats. In Dragon Age, you can have extra cut scenes or dialogue options as a social character, but eventually, you’re going to do that goddamn quest or the game isn’t going to move forward. Fallout III lets you choose a flavor of additional dialogue text, but in no way does its claim that you can make any sort of character you want change the fact that you’re going to be firing that hunting rifle at mutants’ heads way more than you’re going to be Diplomacying the world into revitalization.

These are not “social interactions.” These are more obstacles to click through to get to the big fight at the end that you’re going to have to have anyway. At the best — at the very apex of what they can achieve — they’re lore-delivery vehicles. To paraphrase one of my recent favorite observations, an NPC is just an object you click to get text.

Clicking "mock" on an NPC is not the same as talking to a real person and having an interaction. Also, I'm pretty talented at UI design.

For true “social interaction” or investigation in a video game (to distinguish it from a tabletop RPG with a GM), the gameplay has to be different from the combat engine. If the combat engine requires me to select a target and then spam the hell out of the special attack buttons, then a social interaction engine that requires me to select a target and click the hell out of the “fast talk” and “devastating repartee” buttons is no different from that combat engine.

This guy thought he had a "relationship" with an NPC, and the truth of the matter was more than he could handle.

Further, when you put “social interaction” in a multiplayer game, and all it requires of the player is to click on some predefined sequences with an NPC, the designer is spitting in the player’s eye and insulting his family for three generations, at the very least. Social interactions are for interactions between players, not the limited-output constructs of the game. Whispering filthy innuendo to your PSP isn’t social interaction, either, so stop trying to tell a player that talking to an inanimate object is. This is a simulation of social interaction, just like videogame combat is a simulation of actual physical violence. Capcom doesn’t tell me I’m really engaging in some badass karate maneuvers when I’m playing Street Fighter.

Like I said, good heavens.

 

Asynchronicity

Lots of pictures of young women with game peripherals draped over their private parts turn up when you Google Image Search "Adult Gamers." Think about that next time you tell someone you're a gamer and you wish they would take you seriously.

One of the most difficult challenges to hobby gaming is scheduling time to play. The extended time necessary to play most tabletop RPGs — four-hour sessions are the short games — compounds the difficulty.

MMOs have a very distinct edge in this regard. First, their massively multiplayer nature means that, whenever you log on, you’ve (probably) got a vast quantity of other players on at the same time, who are potential co-players in whatever game occupies your attention. There’s no making sure the schedule is clear, finding babysitters, or juggling existing plans because everyone in-game when you log in is already there. Second, most games, whether the vastest of level-grinds, the most expansive of sandboxes, or the briefest of skirmish or challenge scenarios, have digestible amounts of content. “Quests,” upon which many MMOs rely, are basically bite-sized protions of content, designed to be consumed while the player has a finite quantity of time to spend in-game. You can string as many of these together as you want for an extended period of play, but in their simplest form, they’re discrete measurements of play.

(Single-player games do this, too, of course, but since my real enthusiasm is for people playing games together, I’m not going any further down that path.)

Time is the resource in question.

Both of those points, though, have a common element: time. Time is the hurdle facing all players of long-form games. Even this isn’t solved in MMOs. In fact, it’s part of the economic model. The only resource of actual value a game takes from a player is time. In-game currencies can be acquired through play or purchased, but the investment of time a player has to make to play the game is what’s really being “spent.”

So, then, let’s say I have time to spend, but I don’t have it consistently or for long stretches. My solution, then, to play games with other people, becomes doing so asynchronously.

The computer games that have made the greatest breakthroughs and acquired the greatest migrations of players to them in the past three years have been asynchronously played games. Words with Friends. Farmville. Mafia Wars. Puzzle Pirates. In all of these, you drop in, play your piece, and then get back to what you’re doing. Your time in-game might be ten seconds or it might be two hours — but you dictate when and for how long you’re going to play. Whether the game is turn-based or real-time doesn’t matter. The fact that you play on your schedule is what makes them playable. You play them because they’re fun, but also because they’re convenient. Playing them dovetails with your lifestyle, and doesn’t put other things you’re doing on hold.

(It’s not just games that work like this. Lots of modern activities effectively work like “life apps.” Do them in between other things, or do them as low-intensity activities while you’re engaged in something else, whatever makes you happy. Swimming through Wikipedia is one of my favorite life apps.)

So, here’s this amazingly convenient way to play, and with a set of enjoyable systems that take advantage of the play pacing, could have tremendous application… so why haven’t traditional roleplaying games adapted to this model? De Profundis gave it a shot, but it for the most part actively eschewed “digital” play as unevocative of the original Lovecraft source material, favoring post-and-stationery letter-writing.

Asynchronous! Like this... electric spindle motor. Okay, smart guy, you come up with a good illustration for "asynchronous."

Asynchronous roleplay does occur, and is often found in various free-form forums scattered around the internet and somewhat in the MUDs that still operate. These suffer the same drawbacks as other attempts at bringing roleplaying into a digital medium, in that most attempts at campaigns and longevity collapse under pacing concerns, player absence, player disinterest, and the simple fact that they’re constructed to be synchronous (with an implicitly slower pace) rather than asynchronous. Many rely on turns or an egalitarianism of participation, instead of capitalizing on the punch-in, punch-out nature of convenience-driven play. MUDs, given their (potential) size, have the best records of longevity, but they’re not always accessible quickly or for pop-in, pop-out.

I’m reluctant to stand by the blanket statement at this point, but I’ll advance it as a theory: Sandbox or open-ended games seem to work better in this medium than narrative-driven or scripted campaign/ chronicle types, largely because they thrive when players are proactive rather than collectively reactive.

We're going to have to face this problem in shifts, sometimes together, often apart.

I’ve dinked around with the format a little bit. For a while, I ran a play-by-Wave game that was a bit like Ultima Online in its construction, but I made the error of running it at a structured period of time, like a table game only using Wave. It came apart within a few weeks. I’ve run forum games that quickly ground to a halt for the usual reasons. I’ve played-by-email with rapidly declining interest exacerbated by incongruities between my readiness to play and the game’s structure for allowing me.

Agency is one of the key points. Just like gathering around the computer (instead of the table) at a certain time didn’t work, throttling the experience through a GM-type player likewise doesn’t work, as it impedes the asynchronicity. If you check back in and the GM-player hasn’t moderated the last “turn,” well, you’re stuck. That suggests the necessity of each player to change or contribute to the environment via participation, rather than a reaction to another player’s impetus (though reaction to another player’s input is always an option).

You and I, we want to play, but we can’t match a schedule. We want a roleplaying-type campaign, but we also want enough rules so we’re not just improving a text story — we want to be playing, not just generating words or narrative. We want to play for an arbitrary duration, at irregular intervals. How do we accomplish this? And then, once we have the game established, how to we turn it into a business model?

Principles of Play

In part of my everyday game design duties, I have to think not only about why people play games and the actual construction of singular systems, but also about how people play games. Some of how people play is unique to the medium. Tabletop games, for example, play differently than computer games or games with no “referee.” In thinking along those lines, I took a few notes as to how I have observed myself playing games.

Systems should never ward a player away from a course of action or punish her for taking a specific tack.

Be an arbiter, not a dictator: The GM’s job is to build a framework and to interpret the rules. The game exists for the edification of the players – including the GM, it should be said – not for its own sake. The integrity of the written experience is secondary to the participation in and enjoyment of the game.

 

Rulings, not rules: I borrow this phrasing from Matt Finch’s Quick Primer for Old School Gaming , but it really is a universal principle. In older World of Darkness material, I was a big fan of, for example, Discipline powers that we described as a general effect, but then left open to interpretation. “The Storyteller will determine…” any number of things, and that gives both players and GMs an enjoyable amount of leeway to explore what’s both cool to do and appropriate to the themes of the game.

No means no: Or, more positively, a player can conceivably try whatever he wants. Sometimes a character won’t manage to pull off an action he attempts, but at least giving him the opportunity to make the attempt provides much more entertainment, agency, and potential for narrative and gameplay outcome than simply deciding, “No, that isn’t going to work.” The only time to say no is when the GM really means no — no, you can’t fly; no, you can’t guess the cipher off the top of your head; no, you can’t scramble your molecules to “teleport” through the vault door. Unless, of course, you can.

Sure, give it a shot. It seems like it'll have an interesting outcome with success or failure.

Let the player do it: As corollary to the above, if a player says he wants to do something, that’s him expressing a manner in which he wants to interact with the game. Games are played among people, they’re not scripted sequences controlled by an inflexible flowchart. A GM can allow for any number of unexpected digressions from the expected direction — that’s one advantage a living, breathing GM has over even the most advanced supercomputer. When a player comes up with an insightful (or even potentially foolish) solution to one of the challenges the game presents him, let him explore that solution. There’s no prize given and no inherent advantage to following only the rules as written in a roleplaying game. Indeed, the more input the player feels he has, the more engaged his is and the better the game becomes as a result. “Let the player do it” is a central tenet of MMO design, but it’s easily adaptable to the tabletop.

Be open to improvisation: This one cuts both ways. Some GMs rigidly confine themselves to the results of die rolls and reliance on rules as written. Other GMs construct their storylines like museums and allow no deviation from them. Fight those urges. Roleplaying games are the only form of game in which a bit of deviation from the preconception is allowed, rewarded, and a central part of the fun. Let everyone at the table contribute, even if it means changing some adventure notes or adapting a rule into a house rule. Make the game belong to everyone at the table. This doesn’t mean “be capricious.” After all, the rules are there so that everyone can expect the same treatment for a given situation and story notes should ostensibly help you make some sense out of otherwise unconnected events, but in a greater sense, roll with it.

What about you? How do you play your games? What principles guide the “how” when you’re doing the “what”?

Stadium Design

All of the people in this picture are participating in the football game, not just the players on the field.

It’s no secret that I’m an NFL football fan. Every Sunday (and Monday evenings… and Thursday evenings late-season… and some Saturdays during playoffs…) I’m sprawled on the couch, watching a game I love and yelling at the television. I keep track of player stats, monitor playoff brackets, and fume at coaches for things I have no control over.

Outside the actual watching of the game, though, I remain a football fan, and it shapes some amount of the community I have with my friends. When I see a person wearing a football jersey or some other team-branded item, I know I can have a conversation with them. I married my wife at least partially because she was a football, fan, too (and because she liked the correct team).

Where is this all headed?

The metaphor CCP Game Design Director Keli Oskarsson uses is that the game experience is designed for both the sportsmen and the audience in the stadium. “Stadium design” is good design. As a football fan, I’m participating in the football hobby even when an actual football game isn’t on. I’m engaged, I have buy-in, I have relationships, and I’m doing football-related things that aren’t tied to any actual football game in progress.

That’s encouragement for retention. That’s community. That’s an incentive to play or watch more and engage that community and that common interest again — and soon!

From a design perspective, the “design” of the game of football is more than the actual football game being played on the gridiron. Everybody at a football game is “doing” football, even if they’re not a direct player.

Maybe your downtime activity between games is "Think of a way to modify the board before the next session."

That’s a pretty daunting concept from the design perspective. So now, as a designer, you have to design what people are doing when they play your game and when they’re not playing your game?

Not exactly. But what you want to do is give people something to share. In MMOs, you see this a lot in guild culture, where people often join the guild and therein form friendships, and then those friendships keep them coming back to the game. A common interest with an established group of friends is infinitely more compelling and rewarding than the dreaded pick-up group. In a tabletop game environment, let the players engage in downtime activity — a “table talk” mailing list, say, or wikifying some of the worldbuilding elements.

The participation doesn’t need to end when a game session is done. Time out of game planning for the next session is a great example, or spent in a social network tool doing some activity that relates to the game: a Facebook game, for example, that engages people’s existing social networks and then translates accomplishments therein into advancement in the core game. (And I’m not talking those clickfest Facebook games that serve only to annoy your friends.)

So what do you think? How do you keep an ambient awareness or a low-intensity participation in your game when the actual game isn’t happening?

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