2005-04-18 : The Structure of the Game

Joshua M. Neff:

In DitV, you have 3 pages devoted to "The Structure of the Game," which you present as "If Dogs in the Vineyard were a board game, this would be the board."

Why don't all RPGs have this in them? Why don't all RPGs explicitly tell everyone playing them game "this is how you play the game, this is what you do"?


So...should all RPGs have this kind of focused "here's how to play the game"? Would some really cool games lose something if they were more focused?

I'll admit my bias up front and say that I don't know any really cool games that aren't as focused as Dogs. I know a bunch of games not as focused that are potentially really cool, and it's too bad they didn't go the whole way.

But that's just me. What do you all think?

1. On 2005-04-18, Vincent said:

I should specify: procedurally focused. Universalis is a good example of a procedurally focused game without preexisting fictional content.


2. On 2005-04-18, Judd said:

I am digging games that know what they want to be when they grow up (get played) and tell the players how to successfully do so.  I have friends who would strongly disagree with me, who dig those systems (GURPS, HERO, d20) that claim to be blank slates for the players to fill in.

I have been having more fun with games that have a razor sharp purpose and rules that back up their play really well.

An old gaming buddy referred to me as a game snob due to my love of these games.  I replied, "Yes.  Yes, I am."


3. On 2005-04-18, Jeff Rients said:

Hi Vincent, long time listener, first time caller.

I don't own DitV, but I'm a big fan of up-front "here's what you are supposed to do" signs from the designer.  I have often relied upon sample adventures and examples of play as my big cues for approaching the game in hand because designers (or their editors)can be unnecessarilycoy about these things.  As a result all my D&D ventures are to some degree nothing more than a pastiche of the Keep on the Borderlands.  That works just fine for me and I think it truly plays to the strengths of most versions of that game.  I would argue that the D&D Basic sets published in the 70's and 80's were all very focused procedurally, in as much as they had almost no rules for any activities other than the dungeon crawl.  I'd also argue that they were really cool games to play, especially the pre-Mentzer versions.

I'm also reminded of Merle Rasmussen's designer notes for 2nd edition Top Secret, published in a hoary old back issue of Dragon magazine.  In that article he provided a flow chart for espionage adventures.  I wish I had owned that issue when I was desperately trying to figure out how to structure scenarios for the James Bond 007 game from Victory.



4. On 2005-04-18, Ben Lehman said:

Polaris has a bunch of that stuff, but you already knew I was going to say that.

The old Marvel Super Heroes game had some very detailed things, but still not as good as Dogs.

D&D Basic (red box) is about as clear as you can get.



5. On 2005-04-18, Brendan said:

Wow.  Jeff, you don't have a copy of that flowchart lying around, do you?


6. On 2005-04-18, Brendan said:



7. On 2005-04-18, Jeff Rients said:

Brendan: I ought to be able to come up with a copy, but it might take me a day or two.  Email me if you don't have it in your box by the end of the week.



8. On 2005-04-18, Ninja Hunter J said:

Yeah, send that to me, too: . I'm curious about that for tangentially related reasons.


9. On 2005-04-19, Kaare Berg said:

I'd say that Dying Earth by R.D.Laws also has a very focused "this is how you play" section.

I've grown to prefer this kind of focus personally, but I've also learned to bring this kind of focus into a game if the game is lacking it itself.

What I am wondering is what would be better spent ink, a segment on how to bring focused play into a "blank slate" game or a focused procedurally?

One would seem to reach a wider audience (i.e more sales)yet be more demanding prep wise, while the other seems to give more direct bangs for your bucks, but being more limited in scope.

Puns nearly intended.

Or I might not have gotten it at all.


10. On 2005-04-19, Charles said:

My answer is a question. My question is this:

If Ars Magica had been more focused would we have gotten what we got from it?

I guess my answer to my own question is:

Possibly. If its focus had been correct. If it had focused on the idea of co-GM'd play and the idea of having the players play a small village, then it might have given us as much of what we wanted, without ending up with the baggage as well.

Or, if it had said: make up a cool (but playable) magic system, here's how, it would have given us something better than it did.

On the other hand, if it had been more focused about playing out years over the course of a campaign, and how to end up playing your character's apprentice from childhood to elder mage status, then we probably would have gotten nothing from it (much like Aria). On the other hand, if Aria had spent more time on how you were suppose to play it, then it might actually have been playable.

So I suppose I think focused is better.

I would be interested to see a game that was about how to make a sprawling detailed world, and how to play session after session of conversations between a bunch of not hugely important people somewhere off in a corner of that world. Just because the game book is tight and focused certainly doesn't mean the play style needs to be.

Certainly, a game book that spent all of its time talking about a specific, cool, sprawling world, without talking much about the specifics of how you build on it, or of how you play session after session in which no one ever faces life or death threats, and in which no one actually reveals their terrible secret, and make it gripping, would be much less useful, interesting, or likely to produce that style of play.

When I look at a game that details a really cool world, I usually walk away saying, "Okay, but how do I play it?"

I guess I do find it more interesting to read a game book that says "Have you thought about playing like this?" even if I'm not going to use those particular mechanics.


11. On 2005-04-19, Jeff Rients said:

"On the other hand, if it [Ars Magica] had been more focused about playing out years over the course of a campaign, and how to end up playing your character's apprentice from childhood to elder mage status, then we probably would have gotten nothing from it (much like Aria)."

Pendragon played with the Boy King supplement has that same focus, albeit with knights rather than wizards.  As far as I can tell local play groups prefer the Boy King generational saga to all other possible modes of Pendragon play.  I might ascribe that preference to the fact that the Boy King campaign has an overt procedural approach.


12. On 2005-04-19, joshua m. neff said:

Rats, I had no idea you had addressed my question, Vincent. Just found this today.


I think there is, of course, room for all kinds of RPGs, both unfocused (GURPS, HERO, and the like) and focused. Personally, I would like to see more focused RPGs. Mostly, this is based on comments from non-gaming friends of mine, generally to the tune of, "It looks interesting, but I don't get what you do in the game." Now, I don't know anyone who says that about Monopoly or Risk. You open the box, there's a sheet with the rules clearly explained, and everyone sets out to play. A good middle-ground game is the Buffy the Vampire Slayer board game. In the game, one player plays the bad guys (acting, in many ways, like a GM), and the other players play one of the Buffy characters—one to each player (like one PC to each player). The main characters all have "hit points" and act slightly differently in play (Willow gets more Magic cards, while Buffy gets more Weapon cards). You move around the board, which is a map of Sunnydale, and when a good guy and bad guy fight, you roll dice to see if you cause damage. It's a sort of proto-RPG. And I think it's brilliant. I'd love to see more RPGs like this, where the way you play is explicitly laid out for non-gamers.


13. On 2005-04-19, Vincent said:

Joshua, that's interesting: I see focused design as being for my benefit, not for the benefit of non- or entry-gamers. I mean, I'm sure that it makes roleplaying easier and more fun for them too, but just because it makes it easier and more fun for everybody.


14. On 2005-04-20, Tom said:

Very closely related to this concept of "here's how you play" are the "Examples of Play" sections.  Frankly, I find these preferable because once I see an example, I'm usually good to go.

The failing for most RPGs is that they usually use these sections to highlight just one aspect of the game (usually, whatever rule they happen to be explaining at the moment).

Nobilis and HeroQuest both have several long, drawn-out examples of play that not only cover the in-game rule system stuff, but they also cover a lot of the out-of-game group interaction stuff.  HeroQuest is particularly good about this.  They use the same gaming group for all their examples, and right from character creation, you get a feel for what each player is like.  One especially notable player is Jane who is a bit of a problem player.  The examples of play show how the GM deals with her when she acts up (or rather, doesn't act up.  Jane's big problem is that she's only tangentially interested in how the rules work).  This kind of stuff never gets enough explanation in most rulebooks and here it's just presented as part and parcel of how the game is played.

Good stuff.



15. On 2005-04-20, Ben Lehman said:


You reminded me of my Secret Project ???—important the Japanese custom of reperu (full transpcripts of actual gaming sessions) into US gaming culture.

There is nothing to teach you what to do than seeing what people actually did.



16. On 2005-04-20, Jeff Rients said:

I've sent out copies of the Top Secret flowchart I mentioned.  If anyone else is interested, it can be found here:


17. On 2005-04-21, Charles said:


What is the trick to doing full transcripts?

Many many years agao, when we happened to live with a serious musician, and therefore had access to microphones and a multi-track recorder, we tape recorded probably twenty game sessions. Our problem came with trying to transcribe them. It took hours of transcription work per session to recover the session, and that was with skilled typists (admittedly, our play style often involved multiple RP scenes occuring simultaneously, so the cacophony was pretty bad). I keep dreaming of the voice recognition software getting good enough to separate out and automatically transcribe multiple people talking simultaneously, but (as far as I know) it still isn't there.

The session transcripts we have, though, are a lot of fun.


18. On 2005-04-21, Ben Lehman said:

I have some old Amber tapes from way back in the day, too.  Never could type them up.

The trick, I think, is charging for them.

The arduous task of typing them out probably seems a lot better if there's a bundle of CASH waiting at the end of it.



19. On 2005-04-21, Ben Lehman said:

Of course, to charge for them, you have to have totally awesome play, which is riveting and educational.

That's the hard part.



20. On 2005-04-22, Matthijs said:

Focus is probably a good thing for the designer as well. Writing down a fairly detailed procedure of how play is supposed to go will keep you on target through the design process. However, it takes some guts to actually write this down. With Draug, I went the way of making a kind of vague multi-purpose game; ever since I finished it, I've been wanting to make one or two companion games with a much stronger focus.


21. On 2005-04-25, Andy Bitchnipples said:

Actually, Ben, that's Riipurei.

Charles: "What is the trick to doing full transcripts?"

The trick is this:
1) Keep the adventures short and sweet. 2-3 hours helps.
2) Record, AND DOCUMENT, that background noise, too.  Not every call for chips or soda, but the funny side-comments that happen, and write those in. As you do it in the game to break up the game a little, it breaks up the text a little and makes it enjoyable, more real.
3) Otherwise, just toss out a tape recorder in the middle of the table.  One person takes it and types up the notes.


4) The person typing up the transcript can sell it at a gaming convention: add in a cover, character pics and 1-2 "game happening" pics, throw the text in, and sell it for $3 to $5 a pop.  So you get your time back in Phat Cash.

5) Also, people that write up replays are often encouraged by Game Rules for the GM to give them extra XP, etc.



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