2014-07-16 : When is a game a game?

This is for Tim Koppang, for his reservations here.

I find that I don't have much to say, except that:

1. RPG theory is how I talk to designers, not how I talk to players, let alone how I talk to non-players. A game text is how I talk to players. I don't really know how to talk to non-players. So any supposition that I'm talking about how to market games is way way off.

2. We're indie! I don't get to tell anybody what's what, I just get to say what I think and let everybody else make of it what they will. So if thinking of your game as a game messes you up somehow, for goodness sake, don't do it.

3. However, where maybe I can see that some designers might be messed up by thinking of their games as games, I do think that it's a poor designer who is incapable of seeing their game as a game. You should have the ability, so that you can make the choice. Poor as in poverty, not poor as in bad.

I do think that many RPG designers are unnecessarily poor in this way.

Comments, questions welcome.

1. On 2014-07-16, Barnes said:

This might be off the mark, but I see the dividing line between whether something is a game or not as whether it is intended for, or used for, play. In regards to Ben's comment about Minecraft creative mode being a "digital toy," I think that's fair. The moment we start using it for play, objectless or not, it becomes the component of a game or a game itself.

Is it a useful distinction for thinking about, categorizing, or limiting the scope of thinking about games with? I don't think so.


2. On 2014-07-16, Tim C Koppang said:


You said that the term "roleplaying game" was a marketing term in your previous comments, which is why I latched onto that. Perhaps it would be better to avoid the issue as a distraction.

As for the rest of what you are saying, I'll save it for a separate response after I organize my thoughts.


3. On 2014-07-17, Tim C Koppang said:


Here's my beef: you're throwing around terms like "poor," "ignorance," and "prejudice," which makes it sound as though your way of thinking is fundamental, expansive, and inclusive. If true, get me some of that! Especially if it helps me to communicate more easily and design games in a way that frees me from the shackles of my old way of thinking. The problem is that I think we may be talking past one another because I find myself wanting to apply some of the same labels to what (I think) you're saying. In other words, I read some of what you write and think to myself, "Why is Vincent trying to limit himself in that way?" It's confusing!

Take the following two paragraphs as a question. Please correct me where I'm mistaken because I'm making some assumptions about what I think you might be saying, and those assumption could be incorrect:

When I see you makes strong comparisons between RPGs and board/card games, when I see you label the term "RPG" as nothing more than marketing, it seems to me like you're saying that RPGs, board games, and card games (and another other type of game for that matter) not only fit into the same category, but also follow the same set of core design principles. You say that designers should at least have the ability to look at their RPGs as games (as board/card games?), and imply that by doing so they will, what?—be able to make better games? That to me rings false. What's more, I'm certainly not going to cram RPG design into the same set of design constraints as board games. Board games are awesome, but they attack the design space from a different direction that is fundamentally focused on competition at the expense of thematic premise, "roleplaying," etc. Requiring RPG design to follow a similar path just doesn't make any sense to me. It seems limiting and backwards-thinking. I want to open up my designs to do things that board and cards games do not or will not do.

Historically, some designers tried to cram their RPGs into the design space of traditional board and card games, and then got themselves into trouble. I thought we were trying to move away from those sorts of limitations. Frustratingly, I see some games veering too far in the direction of board games, and paying a price for it: those games tend to "play themselves."

On the other hand!!!—After reading and thinking on the subject, I'm not sure I have understood what you are saying. I certainly agree (strongly!) that we can learn a lot from board games. If you've read my games, Mars Colony especially, you know that I draw heavily from board games. In Hero's Banner, the three influences are basically a resource pool. Players move their resources around in a zero-sum game. In MC, there is a similar mechanic. More directly, the core dice mechanic in MC is based on a board game, Pass the Pigs. The thematic tension of MC is created in much the same way that Pass the Pigs creates competitive tension: through a push-your-luck mechanic that then feeds into the fiction. Board and card games influence my RPG design so naturally that I think it's getting in the way of me understanding your point.


4. On 2014-07-17, Vincent said:

Yeah, no, I'm not saying that you should design a roleplaying game as though it were a board game.

I'm saying that if you compare RPGs, board games, sports, solitaire puzzle games like Sudoku, card games, gambling games, video games, New Games, and those weird things your uncle used to do to make you laugh and/or trick you, you discover fundamental similarities. Then you can take something cool from a video game, say, interpret it in the light of the fundamental similarities between all games, and gain insight from it into RPG design.

This is how I read your last paragraph; I think we agree more or less perfectly.

I'm basically just saying, "you know how you can get ideas for RPG design from a good card game?" And going into why and how I think it works.


5. On 2014-07-18, plausible.fabulist said:

You should certainly have the option of thinking of your "game" as a game. But that doesn't mean it is limiting or impoverishing to be able to think of your game as a toy, or as an artwork, or as a component of an artwork (the way a script, props, and costumes are components of a play).

"Game" is a category which very snugly fit, say, boardgames whose object is to win (competitively or collaboratively) by optimizing numbers, and whose fiction, if any, is decorative. That is, if the object of an activity is "maximize these numbers", then the natural set of interesting places to look for inspiration is well-described by the set of things we call "games". If the object is "entertain yourself by fooling around with the thing" or "find out what happens narratively", the natural set of interesting places to look for inspiration is somewhat different; toymaking and art become, respectively, suddenly relevant. (If the object of the game is "produce some delicious food", cooking becomes suddenly relevant)

I don't think it's fooling ourselves to say (to admit?) that RPGs are something of a hybrid form. By historical accident, RPGs started out as boardgames and added theater gradually: but it's equally possible that in an alternate timeline we could have evolved, say, Fiasco, by starting with theatrical improv and ultimately adding some dice. In doing so, sure, we'd be drawing from games—adding mechanics from games—so mechanics from games would be an interesting place to look—but our natural inclination might be to primarily frame what we were doing in terms of writing stochastic theater pieces, with games as a side course.

"If you compare RPGs, board games, sports, solitaire puzzle games like Sudoku, card games, gambling games, video games, New Games, and those weird things your uncle used to do to make you laugh and/or trick you, you discover fundamental similarities."  Yes: also, if you compare RPGs, novel-writing collaboration, improv theater, improvisational dance, themed shared world anthologies, and telling each other ghost stories around the campfire, you will discover fundamental similarities. Whereas I don't think there's a route from Sudoku to novel-writing collaboration, as activities, that doesn't go through RPGs—that's what I mean about them being a "hybrid form".

So: sometimes it might be useful to *stop* thinking of an RPG as a game, and think about what the same tools and behaviors would look like if you regarded them purely as part of, say, a theatrical or creative-writing enterprise (similary, calling Minecraft a toy is an abdication of your analysis only if your analytical toolset for game design is richer than your analytical toolset for toymaking).

I guess I'm asking, if I amend Tim's original question to "I'm not convinced it's useful to RPG designers to [always] think of their games as games", can you take it seriously?


direct link

This makes...
BR go "or rather your paraphrase of Tim's question"

6. On 2014-07-18, Vincent said:

Improv games are games.

My answer is the same: if you don't find it useful, for goodness sake, don't do it.


7. On 2014-07-18, Tim C Koppang said:

Vincent, cool. Thank you for taking the time to clarify. I was obviously thinking you were trying to make some larger point up front, but I can see now that you're working towards it over the course of multiple posts. I'll follow along.


8. On 2014-07-18, Vincent said:

No sweat!


RSS feed: new comments to this thread