A big secret of tabletop RPG design is that roleplaying games play themselves. Get the right group of people together and they’ll have fun telling a good story, regardless of which edition of which game they’re playing. The hard parts of RPGs are things the designer can’t control: social dynamics.
What good are rules at all, then? Rules serve two purposes: to enable and constrain the play. The rules of an RPG serve to make the creative process easier by enabling story, and they constrain the scope of the story to keep the group within a manageable narrative space.
In my role as lead designer on Future Proof Games‘s upcoming tabletop RPG Rosette, I’ve made tons of decisions regarding how the rules work. By the request of one of my patrons, I’ll go over that process from a high level.
Continue reading Helping RPGs Play Themselves
Years ago I wrote a piece on the original mod version of The Stanley Parable. It’s since been remade and released as a for-sale title with very high production values, which I got just after release.
I’ve played a few remakes of old games or overhauls of mods, and it’s always an uncomfortable experience. Everything in the game is familiar but different, and I constantly find myself wondering, “Did this happen in the original and I’m just forgetting? Is it totally new? Is it similar to an old bit but different enough that I don’t recognize it? Did I just miss it the first time?” Stanley weaponizes this feeling, even for new players who didn’t experience the original.
With The Stanley Parable, you never know what to expect.
Continue reading Unsettling Uncertainty in the Stanley Parable
Valve Software advertised their release of Portal 2 using an Alternate Reality Game, or ARG. A series of puzzles led to a game that encouraged players to play a set of indie games in order to release the game early. The players participated, and Portal 2 was released 10 hours early.
A lot of people are upset about this.
At first I was really confused about how angry people were acting, even accounting for the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. Valve had put together a cool set of puzzles, offered a bunch of indie games for cheap, and then actually gave players a real-world reward for playing. However, I’ve realized that the displeasure the ARG created is due to a classic problem in game design: miscommunication leading to false expectations.
Continue reading PO(r)TA(l)T(w)O
Games are simulations.
Games take a set of rules describing how things work, and they apply those rules to a world state to determine how that world changes over time. Sometimes the rules are very simple; “Snakes and Ladders” has about four rules. Sometimes, they are extraordinarily complex; World of Warcraft has rules that govern the actions and interactions of thousands of actors at once, with each actor having maybe a hundred different ways to affect the progress of the simulation. All games, however, share these fundamental attributes: they simulate the changes in a system over time using a set of rules.
Inherent in their status as a simulation is the fact that games are abstractions. No simulation can be an exact model of real life. Therefore, games use only a subset of the rules present in the systems they simulate. Sometimes, games simulate the real world: Roller Coaster Tycoon simulates the everyday workings of a theme park. Sometimes, they simulate a fantastic world: Morrowind is a simulation of the fictional fantasy island of Vvardenfell. Sometimes, they simulate an abstract world: Conway’s “Game of Life” simulates a world composed of either a grid of unicellular organisms, or a world of multicellular organisms with a very strange way of living. In all these cases, however, the designers of the game have chosen which rules to include in the simulation and which to abstract away. Roller Coaster Tycoon does not require the player character to get sleep. Morrowind allows the PC to eat, but does not require it. The “Game of Life” uses a very limited set of rules.
What distinguishes a game from, say, the sort of airflow simulation used by aerospace engineers? Player interaction. In games, players can modify the progress of the simulation. They can change the starting parameters, or choose what an actor will do, or even modify the rules of the simulation as it progresses. It is this interactivity that is essential to the nature of games. Games simulate worlds, but their most important property is that they allow the player to affect the simulation. It is from this ability that goals emerge, that agency arises, that fun appears. Games are simulations with life.
There’s a certain class of player behavior in tabletop RPGs and LARPs that often causes issues. It’s when a player notices a way to be really good at something. There are two ways this is done, and they have gained the nasty names “min-maxing” and “rules-lawyering.” But this isn’t actually a bad thing.
Continue reading Exploiting the Rules
In this podcast, I discuss the player-author contract. An interactive work sets up a trust between the player and the work’s author. This takes the form of a contract which, when violated, can cause the player to reject the work.
The Player-Author Contract
The work can be played by the player.
- Violated by games which are unexpectedly incompatible with the player’s system.
The entire work can be played by the player.
- Violated by “game-breaking” bugs as in Battletoads and Pac-Man
Through playing the work, the player can affect the progression of the work.
- The events in the work are governed by a set of rules.
- Violated by some Choose Your Own Adventure games
The rules of the work do not change without warning.
Any player failure can be avoided by player actions.
- Violated by really hard games.
- Subverted by I Wanna Be The Guy and similar games and custom levels.
- The author provides some goal that the player can pursue.
The player can evaluate progress toward a provided goal.
- Violated or subverted by Noctis.
- Let me know if you know a game that violates or subverts this!
Also see Without a Goal: On open and expressive games by Jesper Juul.
The music for this episode is “Broken (DURDEN version)” by DURDEN and featuring Trifonic & Amelia June, and is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 license.