2013-08-02 : Conversations and Games

At Ropecon, I presented some of my newer RPG theories. Here are two connected points.

I didn't quite manage to articulate the connection between the two points in my presentation at the con, so for any of you here who happened to be in my audience there, this might clarify them.

1. An RPG is a game. Games have objects and tools.

Your object in Chess is to checkmate your opponent's king. Your tools in Chess are moving your rooks on the square, bishops on the diagonal, other pieces in their ways, capturing, castling, etc.

Your object in Super Mario Brothers is to reach the end of the last level. Your tools are running, jumping, throwing fireballs, breaking bricks, etc.

In both of these cases, the tools you have make it possible for you to achieve your object, but not easy or certain. This is a key idea, the distance or tension between the object of the game and the tools it provides.

Choose your favorite RPG. What's the object of the game? What tools does the game give you? Do they make achieving the object of the game easy or hard, certain, unlikely, or impossible?

In an RPG:
You character might have a goal or goals.
As a player, you might have your own individual goal or goals.
The game has an object, built in by the designer.
The designer had goals for the game's design, publication, etc.

We RPG creators aren't accustomed to thinking or talking about RPGs as games. We often neglect that RPGs can, should, and do have objects as part of their design, and that it's the object of the game that gives its tools their value.

2. An RPG is a conversation. Conversations have order and matter.

This thread is a conversation. The matter of the conversation is (barring threadjacking) these two pieces of RPG theory by me. The order of the conversation is: I make my opening post, then everyone who feels like it makes comments and asks questions, which I answer. Since the matter of the conversation is mine, I'll take a position of authority and responsibility in the order of the conversation.

At Ropecon, Johanna brought Kevin and me on stage together during the closing ceremony, and we had a conversation. The matter of the conversation was Kevin's and my experiences at Ropecon. The order of the conversation was: Johanna asked Kevin and me questions, and played to the audience. We were all responsible for making the conversation entertaining for the audience, but because she was the MC and Kevin and I would be offstage again in three minutes, Johanna took extra care to keep the conversation light, lively, and funny.

The key idea here is that the order of the conversation you have depends upon the matter of the conversation. When Eppy and I are making business plans for [redacted], we order our conversation in a different way than when we are discussing horror flicks.

Choose your favorite RPG. Over the course of play, what variety of matter does the conversation cover? How does the order of the conversation change to suit the changing matter? Does it?

1+2. In an RPG, 1 and 2 come into contact.

Here's a conversation we can have about violence:
Our characters are long-time friends who have come to a very serious disagreement. They're grappling physically for control of the spaceship's steering.
1. You say how your character, who is bigger and stronger than mine, physically dominates mine.
2. I choose whether my character submits to yours or stops grappling and draws her laserblade cutter.

Here's a different conversation we can have about violence:
Our characters are long-time friends who have come to a very serious disagreement. They're grappling physically for control of the spaceship's steering.
1. We both roll dice. Since your character is bigger and stronger than mine, you roll at an advantage compared to me.
2. Whichever of us rolls higher, that player's character seizes control of the spaceship and chooses where to steer it.

Rolling dice, taking turns, choosing between options, saying what your character does: these are tools in an RPG.

How do you choose which way to order the conversation in your game? Which of the two conversations is the better one? The answer is: it depends upon the object of your game, and the tension you want to create between the object and the game's tools.

Questions and observations very welcome!

1. On 2013-08-02, Rickard said:

I'm all with you. Good that other people think of this too. I've started an article series on G+ that is called "Designing a session". Sure, roleplaying games are games but you shouldn't design for a game, but for a session.

To see it from this perspective will help you think how the participants should communicate and what tools to help communication. But it's more than that. In a session, you also need a certain uncertainty (not only dice rolls) to make things interesting, you need reintroduction to make the story of the session feel solid, you need tools to free every ones' minds and tools to build a positive group dynamic where all people pick up and build on each others' ideas.

When it comes to goals, agendas, objects, or whatever you want to call it, it's important to only give directions. To create something to strive for. The game should give the players an (or several) overall direction(s), but each scene should also be framed with a direction in mind. A drama book of mine told me that each scene should have a decision, a revelation or an escalation of a conflict. Note, escalation. Most indie games out there both creates and solves a conflict in each scene.

I can't press enough on directions. A direction can change during the coarse of the session. A direction doesn't have to include planning, and planning is one part that often kills the dynamic communication between the participants. If person A already planned something, and person B steps in with an idea, it will either ruin A's plan or make A block B in an attempt to save the plan. That will ruin the group's dynamic.

I really like your list of objects. It's important to notice that the player's and the character's object doesn't have to be the same and the all characters can have different objects. Good stuff! The only thing I would like to add is that the objects should be known by every one, so each person can build on that. Another thing that helps create a positive group dynamic. In the example above, person B could either adopt the A's plan to avoid clashing, or create situations to force A's character to defend the plan.


2. On 2013-08-02, Vincent said:

I have a public thread on G+ about this too, and as always the conversation there is off to a faster start. Follow both if you like!


3. On 2013-08-03, Gordon said:

"1+2. In an RPG, 1 and 2 come into contact"
Hmm.  Anything more to say about the nature of this contact?  I mean, I start to think about both the wonderful opportunities and the significant complications that result from choosing NOT to stay all or mostly within 1 or 2, but perhaps that's a tangent.  Or perhaps not.


4. On 2013-08-03, Vincent said:

Oh, sure.

The tools of the game include the order and matter of the conversation. In Super Mario Brothers, there's usually no conversation. Discussing movies with a friend, there's usually no game. Playing an RPG, there are both.


direct link

This makes...
GcL go "Excellent!"*

*click in for more

5. On 2013-08-05, Vincent said:

Further developments on G+ here.


6. On 2013-08-05, timfire said:

Vincent, you said, "the tools you have make it possible for you to achieve your object, but not easy or certain. This is a key idea, the distance or tension between the object of the game and the tools it provides."

Could you unpack that? My initial take is that you mean that the rules of a game create, uhh, let's say artificial constraints. And a certain challenge is created because you have to achieve the object(ive) while working within the artificial constraints.


7. On 2013-08-05, Vincent said:

Timfire: Well, the whole thing's artificial. In chess, is it an "artificial constraint" that you can only move your bishops on the diagonal, not on the square?

If so, then yeah, I guess so. But I'd say instead that in Chess, the ways that your pieces are allowed to move plus the object of the game are what create the game.

In The Mountain Witch, if I recall, the object of the game is to climb the mountain and kill the witch. If I could just say "I climb the mountain and kill the witch," there'd be no game. The game comes from the particular, specific relationship between the object of the game and the tools I have at my disposal.


8. On 2013-08-05, Gordon said:

So, I mentioned this somewhere over on G+, but I'm not sure I did so in the right context (disclaimer: I'm feeling particularly lost right now about etiqutte on the interwebs, what to say where, the right way to stay focused on what the host seems to want to be focused on, and, well, all that).  So let me try here:

The character/player/designer goals you mention in the "In an RPG" section of 1.  Am I reading correctly that these are explicitly NOT the object of the game, built in by the designer?  I mean, I'm not saying I think you're claiming they're unimportant.  But defintely distinct from the object?

If so, I'd love to read a bit more about how they interact with the object, with design, and with play in general.  But would it be fair to say that part of the value here is in seperating them out from the object?  That we become able to talk about the object without talking about those things. I mean, still acknowledge that those things matter, just not include them directly in the discussion of objects and tools?

I'm a bit concerned that the effects of those things (esp. "player goals") are so strong that trying to push 'em out of the basic-level discussion is a bad idea, but I'm also excited by the idea of mitigating the headaches that happen when you do include 'em so fundamentally.

(Yes, this ties into the "this vs. GNS" issues, but I guess I'm trying to avoid what I suspect is a totally unneccessary rats-nest of discussion.  For the record: GNS rocks! Vincent rocks!  Neither are sparkling-rainbow perfection - nor, in my experience, does either pretend to be.)


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This makes...
GcL go "A (I hope) insignificant bit more for the record"*

*click in for more

9. On 2013-08-07, -J said:

I'm still at loss with the goals part. At times it seems very easy, like when you use Mario Bros and Chess as examples, but they are not very informative examples because the goals are very easy to see. Could you provide some more unobvious examples with your own games? What is the goal of Apocalypse World? Kill Puppies for Satan? In a Wicked Age? Poison'd? And perhaps some other RPGs you like to play yourself?


10. On 2013-08-07, Vincent said:

-J Sure. There are a couple of important things to make clear first.

Games can have cooperative goals. Examples include The Lord of the Rings Boardgame and Red November. In these games, the group of players takes a united side against the game design.

Games can have goals that don't include winning and losing. Examples include Eat Poop You Cat and (some ways of playing) Minecraft. In these games, the object of the game is quite legitimately to see what will happen, given the constraints of the rules.

Most RPGs' objects are cooperative and don't include winning/losing, including all of mine before Murderous Ghosts.

The object of Apocalypse World is very explicit in the text. It's to find out what these characters will make of the world they're in. It's a cooperative goal, without winning and losing. The tension in gameplay nevertheless comes, as always, from the uncertainty built into gameplay.

I haven't looked back at my older games for their stated objects of play (except, by chance, Dogs in the Vineyard). I'd expect them to be less explicit.

But I did pull a stack of games off my shelf and look for stated objects of play in them. Surprisingly many had them. I'll write about it soon. Meanwhile, especially given this idea of cooperative and non-victory-oriented goals, I think if you look you'll find the same.


11. On 2013-08-07, Vincent said:

Gordon: You're reading me right that they aren't.

When we design a board game or video game, we don't worry about players' goals that are incompatible with the object of the game. We don't have to worry about them in RPGs either.

When we've talked about RPGs, we've historically confused players' goals, design goals, character goals, and the object of the game, all in a mess. (Just think how true this was in conversations about GNS.)


12. On 2013-08-11, Gordon said:

("preview" seems to choke on anything big, so I'll take that as an invitation to drastically shorten my post.)

Vincent: Thanks.  Yes, in so many ways, but I'm not sure it's true we don't worry about player goals vs. object of the game AT ALL in board/video games, and I'm even more skeptical it's wise to ignore with RPGs.

GNS, I'll say, did show how to move beyond the confusion ("synechdoce"), but - I do like the focus on the OBJECT of the GAME, and look forward to where you go/what you build from here.


13. On 2013-08-16, Josh W said:

This seems perfectly reasonable!

As an accompanyment, just as games are an interlocking set of goals, hopefully put in harmony with just the right amount of tension by the tools, conversations are an interlocking series of matters put into partial harmony by the way we pace and focus/emphasise and bound conversation.

Putting goals in harmony with each other via shaping their means is an old heart-feel of mine, and perhaps the analogy with conversation makes that clearer.

Next, here's a twist: Although thinking in terms of matter and objects and structure is in itself coherent, and leads to a basis on which analysis can be done, there is a whole nebulous airey way of looking at games which is incompatible with this view.

If the object of the game includes not to explicitly not have an object, then to think of it in those terms is helpful, but must be forgotten during play.

This is the same as skilfully addressing a certain conversation topic indirectly without having to go into it in too much detail, you want the conversation to be about it without being explicitly about it, especially if it's your issue.

Or conversely, setting up a situation to put people at their ease who are otherwise very task focused; you want to set things up so that people can do whatever, but don't feel pressured to do anything in particular.

Opening up a space for play.


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