I'm trying to work on a blog post about, oh, the state of the art in rpg design, and no kidding, but the AC is out in my office and it's over 80°F in here. I can't even think, let alone work, let alone pontificate.
I can still whine, but seriously that's all the mustard I can muster.
edit: Now with pontification!
1. On 2009-09-09, Arturo G. wrote:
Vincent, this is the most nonsensical excuse I have ever heard to skip writing about the state of the art in rpg design (and I have already heard some).
BTW, how much is 80??F in celsius degrees? Come on, it is only 26-27??C. It was more than 32??C today here, in North-Central Spain. And I don't have AC at the office. (Well, sure it is much drier here).
Anyway. If you cannot write, don't blame the weather. Blame the state of the art in rpg-design, which is much more complicated and torrid than the weather. :-)
Ha ha! Okay. I'll suck up and pontificate after all.
Start here. The lesson of Pit is this: the rules have an effect on the players that isn't the same as what the rules have the players do. In Pit it almost looks like an accident! It's not one, of course. Change anything about the rules - choose a different sorting algorithm, enact it differently, or to some different end - and you'll change their emergent qualities.
Earlier this summer I said this to Simon:
Designing a roleplaying game means more than designing rules that we can all agree to play by, and that are playable. It means designing rules that capture us - rules that become a vital part of our experience of play.
This is what I'm talking about. Designing a game means designing its emergent qualities.
An example: Luke and I talked at GenCon last year, and shared an observation that it's satisfying for a group to see a difficult mechanical process through. Some Burning Wheel conflicts, some Dogs conflicts, they're frustrating in the moment but at the end of them you're relieved, you're satisfied, and the game overall is stronger and better than it would have been without the group's accomplishment.
Another: When a group in play develops a strong but unspoken shared aesthetic, the game can feel like mind reading or magic.
So, the shared satisfaction of seeing a difficult process through, the thrill of coming to an unspoken shared aesthetic - these are things you can design for, and should design for, and you can't do it by designing an overt mechanism for them. They exist only when real human beings enact the mechanisms you design.
So that's the start. Next: (1) design as many subsystems as your game needs, not too few; (2) your real game is the interaction between its subsystems, not its rules themselves; and (3) treat both the game's fiction and the game's participants' visions as subsystems too.
Like, to create a game that delivers the satisfaction of seeing a difficult process through, you can't write rules for seeing a difficult process through. You have to create a difficult process, and make it so that when it comes down to it, the group will see it through.
To create a game that delivers the thrill of coming as a group to an unspoken but strongly shared aesthetic, you can't write rules for establishing a shared aesthetic. You have to write your rules such that coming to a shared aesthetic is how the group will naturally respond.
An example: Luke an I talked at GenCon last year, and shared an observation that it's satisfying for a group to see a difficult mechanical process through. Some Burning Wheel conflicts, some Dogs conflicts, they're frustrating in the moment but at the end of them you're relieved, you're satisfied, and the game overall is stronger and better than it would have been without the group's accomplishment.
It took me a while to work this out with Dogs - that is, I was trying to get the mechanical process of conflict out of the way so that we could "get on with the game", not understanding that the conflicts with their physical movement of dice, addition and interaction with the traits was the central part of the game. When I understood that these actions, these mechanics were the game, the game worked for me.
I agree that there is a certain aesthetic and emotional satisfaction to be gained from the system itself, more so if there is a resonance between the system and the theme. A great example of this is the Skull dice in Steal Away Jordan - snatching it up is like saying "Screw this. I need this thing, and I don't care about the consequences." If you touch it, you must use it.
I'm fascinated with emergent properties, and intrigued how you can actaully design rather than just discover them.
This is kind of a synthesis of "fruitful void" and "design for how the players interact with each other" thinking, right?
A lot of this stuff is SO much clearer to me after playing a full "arc" of Dogs from character creation through to that character deciding not to be a Dog anymore.
I realise you're talking about "subsystem" in a very general sense of specific applications of rules, but I think some of this also applies to the more everyday-use meaning of the word in the sense of seperate discrete systems for handling different aspects of play.
I think as a design element, the subsystem has been denigrated for a long while in favour of unified mechanics. I think partly that's a reaction against the bloat of AD&D and similar games, where there are all these subsystems but they never really do anything in the game, they're just dead weight. I think the urge in design was to move as much as possible to simple, elegant systems that could handle anything, and for indie games it became a kind of badge of membership to use the same system for resolving all kinds of conflicts.
So it's exciting to look at the potential for subsystems of this kind in design, for exactly the reasons you describe. Thinking about subsystems as producing a certain experience, and the interactions between those subsystems creating a kind of tension. Like how our Dogs play changed a lot once we worked out just how nasty getting shot really was. The subsystems influence play even when they're not in use.
Simon C: The subsystems influence play even when they're not in use.
This is so true. In Trail of Cthulhu, everyone has a Drive - the thing which makes them go into the dark basement. There is a small mechanical reward for following your Drive into danger, and a penalty for not doing so.
There hasn't been a single playtest or reported example of actual play where someone has had to apply the penalty. The existence of the Drive mechanic, and the Drive itself written on the character sheet is enough to affect play alone.
To reinforce this fact, we playtested an adventure in both BRP and ToC - the BRP group, without the Drives, simply didn't engage with the adventure and instead behaved like sensible NPCs.
Just when I am arguing with a friend about a game design that need a fruitful void. We want to make a game with heroic protagonists. He proposed a gauge of heroism and I was like trashing inarticulate grunts about fruitful void and emergent properties.
Now I can make him read this post. Thanks Vincent. I definitely agree about what Alex D. told about you.
It occurs to me that many "subsystems" aren't delineated as such at all in indie games, despite quietly existing in actual effect; but I don't know if they are necessary to achieve complex emergent properties.
Or if those really are subsystems or just the natural results of the system interacting with people. What, exactly, comprises a subsystem?
A friend of mine always liked the idea of a game where you don't know how good your character really is at something, and that got me thinking about games where the mechanical representation of your character and the description interact in weird ways: You can look at "A dirty world" and see something that does that brilliantly. One of the surprises of that design is how constant character identity can be in spite of that fluidity, and the way you can look down at your sheet and wonder how much our character is actually deceiving themself by maintaining that identity.
It seems a lot of the time you can hide changes in the conflict mechanic itself, in the non-linearities of scaling, but in other times it's about what stays on the sheet between entering and leaving different subsystems, and their different relevance in each.