2013-09-24 : What even IS the object of an rpg?

This is quick, but I may need to go into it further if it isn't clear. Questions very welcome!


The object of a game is a feature of the game's design.

Whether the game text explicitly states the object of the game, or leaves it implicit, or is silent on the matter, or misleading, or even lies like a lying liar - this is a feature of the text, and doesn't bear on the reality of the object of the game. The object of the game remains what it is, because it is what the game's design makes it.


1. On 2013-09-24, Vincent said:

This does mean that when we go to a game's text to see what it says about the game's object, as here, even when we can read an object in the text, we're kind of going on faith that the text is both telling the truth about it and adequately self-aware.

Honestly it wouldn't surprise me to find quite a lot of wishful thinking in those passages.


2. On 2013-09-24, Judson said:

Honestly, it would surprise me to find one of those passages that wasn't mostly wishful thinking.


3. On 2013-09-24, rabalias said:

So, the object of the game isn't necessarily what the rules say it is. Is the object of the game whatever the players are trying to get from play? Or could it be that the object is something else entirely? If so, does that mean they're playing it wrong?


4. On 2013-09-24, Tybraal said:

Your idea might be analogous to the idea that "no law can define how it should be interpreted" because someone always has to interpret that written ruling. This can be extended to cover all pre-designed material such as game rules.

The fact that you are writing a game for roleplayers to use in their playing of an actual game based on your written game means that you cannot, as a game designer, directly control what objects the players pursue in the course of their game. Based on my experience a written (or otherwise pre-designed) roleplaying game is like a blueprint for a played game that may or may not be followed.

I wonder if I got your point correctly?


5. On 2013-09-24, Rafu said:

I read the OP and thought: "Yes, please! Finally we're talking game design as a separate thing from instruction text."
Then some of the comments made me go: "Uhm, maybe this is not an obvious distinction yet. I wonder why?"


6. On 2013-09-24, John Mc said:

I'm with you 100% Vincent.  Trying to find the object in some texts only reinforced it.

However, how well can we define an object for a game, given that it isn't laid out for us plain?  Do you think we could nail it down in all cases, most cases, or few cases?

Is the object of the game actually local to the people playing the game at the moment?  Potentially shifting with different honest attempts to play the game?  Or does the object lie in the design regardless of how the players interact with it?

I'm particularly curious because you brought up the point about the object not being spelled out.  It strikes me that if this isn't handled well two separate groups (or even two players on the same couch) could interpret the design differently.


7. On 2013-09-24, Vincent said:

John: "However, how well can we define an object for a game, given that it isn?t laid out for us plain?  Do you think we could nail it down in all cases, most cases, or few cases?"

It's the crucial question and my opinion is kind of uncompromising.

The object of the game isn't something the designer can hide. If a game has one, we should be able to see it. Failing that, we should at least be able to see the design clearly enough to begin to figure out what it is. Failing that, we should still be able to talk intelligently about what it might or could be, given what we can see.

Otherwise we have no earthly business designing games of our own.


8. On 2013-09-25, ctrail said:

I'm not convinced that a game text can lie about what the object of the game is. For example, the objective in Chess is to checkmate the opposing player. If I wrote a game text for Chess 2, which states that the objective was to capture all of the opponents pawns, but which in all other regards is the same game, I think we can agree that the object of the game has changed exactly because the game text statement of the objective of the game has changed.

Are you saying that roleplaying games are special in that they have objects that are independent of the game text? Or was my example atypical in that my new game objective was very close to the old one? If we imagine Chess 3 where the game text says that the objective is to tell the best story afterwards using the moves as inspiration, I'd again say that the objective is exactly what the game text says it is, but perhaps in that case you would disagree?


9. On 2013-09-25, Vincent said:

ctrail: If in Chess 2 you state in the text that the object is to take all your opponent's pawns, but the rule remains that if you checkmate your opponent's king you win the game, then you haven't changed the object, you've lied about the object in the text. If you change the rule, THEN you've changed the object.

The closer together the text describing the object of the game and the rules that create the object of the game are, the less likely you'll be able to lie convincingly, of course. "Wait, on page 1 it says that the object is to take all my opponent's pawns, but here on page 3 it says that I win if I checkmate my opponent's king! What gives?" But take a 300-page text where the game design isn't cleanly delineated from examples or from strategy- or style-guide advice. You can imply something plausible on page 1 that the non-obvious emergent qualities of the rules on pages 210-280 contradict, and get away with it.


10. On 2013-09-25, Vincent said:

ctrail: In any case, I think that lying about your game's object isn't something you'd want to do or choose to do on purpose, except in very unusual circumstances.

Willow Palecek's brilliant game Sunshine Boulevard is an example.


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GcL go "Also, not-RPG Train"*

*click in for more

11. On 2013-09-25, Gordon said:

So, continuing the uncompromising: unclear object, problematic object, contradictory object = unclear/problematic/contradictory design? If so, I think I agree, although I'd add (as maybe Vincent would to? I'm not trying to say he would/wouldn't) that there are both difficulties and opportunities in unclear/problematic/contradictory. Many difficulties, both obvious and unexpected, and opportunities that may be tricky to develop, but are real and not-rare.

This creates a kind of "lying" about the object, and I'm not sure what to make of it (and am very interested in what Vincent makes of it). For example, in the Doomed Pilgrim, I (uncompromisingly) would say "The implementation of thematic elements can both reinforce and undermine the stated objects of Doom the Pilgrim/Pass Safely." For reinforce, undermine, and all the various shades of both that can happen, play may end up being either enjoyable or dissatisfying. Which is not to say we can't point play towards "better" options, but it's only pointing, not actual steering.

Or maybe not - maybe I'm missing a point, or jumping to a later stage (what "object of [the] game is a feature of the game?s design" means) prematurely.  Because I just realized my claim may well be that, in this sense, many RPGs can't help but lie about their object. Huh.


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12. On 2013-09-25, nolandda said:

It is probably a good thing that I don't design games because I still don't understand the sense of the word "objective" that the esteemed V. Baker is using here.

When talking about a game I understand it to mean something like "algorithm for declaring a winner or a winning team".

Objective of chess: Checkmate, Objective of baseball: more runs, etc

However there are whole classes of games that I don't think of as having an objective at all, and it includes tabletop RPGs. 

Perhaps some concrete examples would clear it up for me.

(1) What is the objective of the game Telephone?
(2) What is the objective of Cat's cradle?
(3) What is the objective of "Playing House" (possibly getting close to RPGs here)?


13. On 2013-09-25, Vincent said:

Nolandda: Oh sure. It's quite straightforward. You know how when you aren't playing Cat's Cradle, you're just going about your life, you don't care whether the string is in good formations or not? In fact it never crosses your mind?

1) To find out how the message changes.
2) To make string formations.
3) To perform your adopted role.

It's super important to keep constantly in mind that "tabletop RPGs" is NOT one game. Shadowrun is one game; Moldvay Basic D&D is one game; Shock: is one game. Each has its own object, all its own: Shadowrun has a different object than Moldvay Basic D&D does and than Shock: does too.

If there exists some particular tabletop RPG with no object, that's fine, but that fact tells us absolutely nothing about whether another particular tabletop RPG has an object or doesn't have one.


14. On 2013-09-25, nolandda said:

Vincent: Thanks. That is straightforward. And good point re: tabletop RPGs having different objectives and not lumping them all together.

Now to see if I have learned anything let's see if I can come up with a better definition than in my earlier post.

How about: "The object of a game is the experience that well intentioned players are expected to work toward by the rules and social environment (if any) of the game."

And now some of the comments above seem more clear. Like how the objectives of certain players may not be in sync with the objective of the game. And in some cases it might not even be all that dysfunctional. For instance that one kid who is motivated to intentionally screw up the message in "Telephone". Everyone there really wants the message get screwed up anyway so if he is subtle about it people will enjoy his own personal objective in play.

On the other hand if I "Play House" because I am motivated to be the mommy so I can exert power over my friends that is pretty dysfunctional.


15. On 2013-09-26, Vincent said:

Yep! Right on.

What I always say is that the game's rules supplace our normal interactions and the game's object supplaces our normal interests.


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16. On 2013-09-26, Ben Lehman said:

What I always say is that the game?s rules supplace our normal interactions and the game?s object supplaces our normal interests.

I am pretty much 100% sure that this isn't true.

I'm pretty sure the correct word is "supplement."


17. On 2013-09-26, Vincent said:

I like "supplant" (which is what I actually usually say, I don't know why I said "supplace") because it's appropriately emphatic. "Supplement" may be more typical, or possibly more correct, but it badly underplays what I'm saying.

For instance, "supplement" doesn't account for the dollar auction, or for the kind of competitiveness (or even cheating) where you damage a genuine relationship for the sake of the object of the game.


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JMW go "it suplexes our normal intentions"

18. On 2013-09-27, Ben Lehman said:

I think it accounts for those things quite well, actually. Don't consider "normal interactions and interests" to be all sweetness and light.


19. On 2013-09-27, Robert Burson said:

I'm late, but yes.

So much yes, that games of the past have trained me to ignore the introductory text and I have to make a special effort to read it.


20. On 2013-09-27, Gordon said:

I'd say it's entirely possible - and possibly more accurate - to say that the game-derived interactions are simply a type of "normal" (what wouldn't be?) interaction. Interaction that is influenced by the game-rules, certainly, but not in any absolute way outside "normal," nor exclusively controlled by the game-rules. But that thing I think Vincent is pointing at - where the game rules actively push away some of the (sweet OR malicious) interactions that would/could have happened without 'em - is real, and hard to name.  Displace?  Partially displace? Overlay? "Supplement, perhaps even replace?" Something that conveys a significant alteration without a full or absolute replacement ... "Actively alter?"

All of which, while at some level very important, is at another level mere quibbling. So I'm reluctant to distract from the surely quite useful focus you seem to be striving for, Vincent - what I'm now thinking of as the designed object of the game, and those game-associated interactions that are primarily attributable to that design.

This has inspired a bunch of thoughts, but out of that fear of distraction ... for now, I'm just repeating to myself "focus on the designed object is useful no matter what other factors enter in. Let Vincent keep building, dammit!"

One thing I want to check on does seem directly on-point, though: while it seems right to say that lying about the object is only rarely a good idea, is there a problem in saying that the games' design can certainly (and sometimes productively) make the object of the game vague, contradictory, multi-layered, and etc? I think you've said as much, Vincent, in agreeing with nolandda, but I want to make sure I'm not off-track there.


21. On 2013-09-27, Gordon said:

Perhaps ritual gets at supplement/supplant


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22. On 2013-09-28, Vincent said:

Gordon: "One thing I want to check on does seem directly on-point, though: while it seems right to say that lying about the object is only rarely a good idea, is there a problem in saying that the games' design can certainly (and sometimes productively) make the object of the game vague, contradictory, multi-layered, and etc?"

I'll go with only rarely a good idea in that case too. I think that the best way to design a game is practically always to give it a straightforward, easily understood, easily pursued object, and to tell the truth about it in the text.

Even in Beloved and Sunshine Boulevard, while the objects are traps and lies, they're nevertheless easy to grasp and easy to pursue.

It's not my job to tell any designer what not to create, though, so "can," sure, no skin off my nose. It's between you and your audience, not between you and me.


23. On 2013-09-28, Ben said:

So is it obvious, or controversial, that a game can be designed with multiple objects—that is, that designers can expect, and welcome, that, different people will be playing different games with the game?

This is pretty standard in MMORPG and other large-scale online game design, for instance. Rather than a single "this is what the goal of this game" is, you have a constellation, even an ecosystem, of types of players and the games that they'll be playing. "Ecosystem" is a good word because often they support each other. "If we attract enough of the socializers hanging out here, they can act as cannon fodder for the PVPers and provide liquidity for the traders, while sufficient number of traders are necessary for the problem-solvers, and..."

Probably less applicable to tabletop rpgs, but maybe for LARPs, or other larger scale exercises? Is there any usefulness to think about there being multiple "games you can play with this game"...?


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24. On 2013-09-29, Vincent said:

Ben: Obvious to me! I hope not controversial.


25. On 2013-09-29, Mads E. Kirchoff said:

In the Fastaval/Danish con scene we have an named genre for games that lie or hide facts about the basic premise of the fiction, and quite often lying about the object of the game as well in process. Very much in the same vein as GcL's example with the train game, it's all about providing a very mean or disturbing, plot twist and giving their actions consequences they couldn't foresee. The genre is aptly named "mindfuck". It's reasonably popular, perhaps due to our almost masochistic taste in roleplaying, but it's recognized as problematic among a good amount of the influential designers. There's a dissertation here if you can stand some google translated danish.

One important point is that lying about the fiction or object of the game trains the players in anticipating these twists, not only making it less effective henceforth, but also in general damaging the social contract if you anticipate the rug being pulled from under you. Perhaps more relevant in a scene where players are likely to play multiples of such games, though.


26. On 2013-10-01, Josh W said:

On your uncompromising opinion, can you play a savyhead without "things speak"?

Perhaps you could say it like this "player motivation and directed-ness is a non-negotiable component of a tabletop game, and if you're going to be designing anything, you have to be able to work with those interactions" - or if you're good and being clever, around or against them etc.

I think you can do this by trial and error, or by unconscious copying, but being able to interact directly with a text in advance of playing to do it is so much faster, especially if we are working on games that are longer form, or we're being conservative with our freinds' time and effort.

But yeah, basic tool, sometimes hard won.

It occurs to me that this kind of design understanding can completely stop designer led "mindfucks". You read the game text, and go "hang on I'm supposed to want to x, but you quite clearly are going to just y if I do that."

Supposing you want some of that, you can pull that off with GM only chapters/books, or assuming all of the books are just for the GM, and I'm sure some games somewhere have created "player only" books too. There's also games that mix up their text in odder ways, like D&D 3.5, which although it probably wasn't intended that way, is very good for playing weird games like that from a non-GM end, in that you can try to get a book brought into the group's rules cannon, used by a few people and then pull out content from it that sends things in a very different direction, requiring players to completely reinterpret their motivations towards the game.

A complete game text, open (and feasibly readable) to all, cuts out potential for that kind of confusion/deception about what the players are there to do, at least up to the limits of your group's ability to read designs. And conversely, a game that succesfully orients players to what's fun about it skips a whole load of analysis.

Now this is going further afield, but all roleplaying games that include future fiction into their system will be incomplete to some degree, and so many will be open to their object changing through player additions. I think that too is something you can effect in your design, the extent to which it diverges from itself in terms of motivation, or rolls back to the original line.

As a blunt example, just like you can have lines and veils and stuff to protect players, you can have lines and veils to protect the object of the game. In no chess game do people sign a peace treaty between white and black, that they will share the board and stick to "their own" coloured squares (sorry bishops), rpgs naturally open up possibilities like that in fictional content and it's relationship to broader context or in the rules that come from it. So groups will often skip out certain stuff that undermines their character's mission or the attitude the players take to that mission.

Conversly, games like sorceror find their object in finding out precisely how the core relationships of the game will break down, with the end game marking out the different ways that the original object has been voided in the case of this character.


27. On 2013-10-01, Gordon said:

Ben: Having different objects of the game at the same time (I'd say) can certainly be problematic, but also: divergence of GM- and player-object has been accepted (if not fully analyzed/understood) for, like, ever. Then again, with the "In The Labyrinth" example I posted over in "Game Texts on the Object of the Game", different objects using the "same" game are placed in different play-instances. That's surely easier, just like some CRPGs choose to have separate PvP servers and PvE servers.  It's also interesting to me that one of the ITL objects clearly meets the "straightforward, easily understood, easily pursued" standard and the other mostly doesn't, but - different topic?

Vincent: I like the "straightforward, easily understood, easily pursued" standard, and I think that tell the truth is already covered (do it, unless [super-special case]). I'll add "vague" from my list as totally the same as "lie." But multi-layered and/or contradictory? My concern is, um, not fully formed. That there are common RPG objects of the game which are inherently (and often productively) not straitforward, nor easy to understand/pursue? I mean, a designer can still communicate that fact clearly, and there's usually a way to get easiER to pursue. But maybe I'm worried about skipping over the step of taking something multi-layered/contradictory (that is, NOT straightforward, easily understood, easily pursued) and turning it into something which approaches that standard. Then again, that's the job of the designer, isn't it?

Well, I've about talked myself into believing my concern is about something more pure-analytical than the practice of design, and "straightforward, easily understood, easily pursued" is a fine description for what the designer is striving for (if not strictly accurate about what she or he actually CAN do in some cases). So I think I can sit with that and move on, though insights from Vincent and others are of course welcome.

Josh "Conversly, games like sorceror find their object in finding out precisely how the core relationships of the game will break down, with the end game marking out the different ways that the original object has been voided in the case of this character." I'm going pick this apart a bit because it helps illuminate a distinction I've been making, and I hope I've been doing it right (or at least, as Vincent intends). Here goes: the object of the game in Sorcerer has nothing to do with the original object of the character, and is entirely with your "finding out precisely how." The design of the game uses the imagining of what the character wants to support the player in pursing the object of the game, but the two are not the same. Which maybe is what you meant, but separating the goal/object a character might have from the designed object of the game has been important to my following along here.

Hope this is somehow useful,



28. On 2013-10-02, Josh W said:

Gordon - I glided (glid?) over some stuff there that I probably could have mentioned, I follow the sort of thing your saying, but what I meant sounded similar but was a little different.

Basically, we don't play sorceror games where the players are not sorcerors. (As far as I know, I'm not a massive expert on this game, maybe some people have continued playing a character after they give up their demon stuff and succeeded? Anyway, I'm sure it's not the norm.)

That should be obvious really, but the situation set up is designed to create tensions we are interesting in exploring, with the characters motivation and goals as part of that. All of the four outcomes shortcircuit that tension.

Now mechnically, the dude could just keep on being a sorceror for ever, there's no automatic mechanical death spiral, just some hard stuff. And I suppose potentially they could get the outcome where they get what they want demon-style without breaking everything, and carry on.

But even if they do that, they've sort of managed to get beyond the core tension of the game, they've found out how to do what is supposedly incompatible with humanity for human ends.

Basically, the game continues until the players and GM break it by pushing it out of it's loop. That's the motivation of the players. It's not just some sitcom about a secret drug dealer trying to keep it going, it's breaking bad, where you know at some point the wheels are going to come off.

That seems a cool dynamic for me really; lots of people have learned from the whole "price of power" side of things, but I also like the idea of creating games specifically to break out of their own loops.


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29. On 2013-10-02, Gordon said:

Josh - I think I follow all that, and it's good/true/useful/cool. My concern is that some of it isn't about the "object of the game", but rather some specific stuff about how you go about playing the game. And confusing those two things has certainly tripped up MY thinking more than once! It's certainly good design (I'd think) to have the specific things you do be relevant to the object of the game (understanding that there's a tension between making it possible but not trivial to accomplish), but I was using your post to remind myself/others that the two are NOT the same thing.

At least, I think that's part of what Vincent is saying here.


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