Technically Playable Games

This is part 2 of my 2-part answer to an apparently simple question, which is, "Vincent, why don't you just add the obvious character creation rules to your swashbuckling romance game and publish it?" Part 1 is here: A Pragmatic Theory of Playtesting, and my swashbuckling romance game is here: A Swashbuckling Romance Game.

Creating a Bell Curve

Imagine that when you create a game, you're creating a distribution curve. Picture every experience that anyone will ever have playing your game as a point under the curve, and imagine how they stack up. It's some kind of skewed, humpbacked bell curve, and you'll never know the real shape of it, but imagine it.

This curve is the origin of the "conversations you always have." The experiences that people have with your game that lead them to come to you and say "I hate highlighting stats" or "why is it that you get a reward for taking a blow?" or "Apocalypse World blew my mind!" are common under the curve, that's why they're common in the conversation.

Games that Don’t Take Off

Now, imagine that you've created a game where the common experiences - the peaks in the curve - are not interesting experiences. The game works, meaning that people can play it as you've designed it, but the experiences it commonly gives them don't stand out. They lead to no common conversations, or, at best, "we played your game! It was fun, good job! Next week we're going to try another game!"

I like to call games like this "technically playable," dismissively. Technically playable games are easy to create, once you've got the basics of game design down. I've created many, knowingly and un-. I've written before about games that take off vs games that don't, and this is what I'm talking about: games that spread by word of mouth on the strength of the experiences under their curve, vs games that play perfectly well but don't.

Some rpg creators think that this is primarily luck. I do not. I think that this is primarily because of the qualities of the common experiences under the game's curve, with luck playing a supporting role.

Your Goal for Your Game

So then, here's my answer: the obvious character creation rules won't create enough startling and thrilling experiences to make the game take off. If I add the obvious character creation rules to my swashbuckling romance game and publish it, it'll be technically playable, but that's not my goal. I want better for that game.

Installment 2015-10-17


Topic: But why?
Started by Christopher Wargo on 2015-10-22
3 replies by Vincent, Christopher Wargo.
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Topic: The role of the GM...

On 2015-10-18, Trumonz wrote:

Hey Vx!

So I think this is dead on, but I wonder about the role of the GM. You talk here as if the game produces results within a bell curve without much reference to the GMs and players who are actually playing the game. 

Here's an extreme example: I've written an AW game that relies heavily on knowing something about the drug war in Mexico. For most groups, the rules alone are going to produce one bell curve in which they construct fiction without a lot of the knowledge they need for the game to function. In other groups (that already possess the knowledge of the setting), that bell curve is wildly different.

Do you think of these as the same bell curve? Does GM knowledge/skill/etc just shape the bell curve (perhaps even giving it two separate but equally engaged sets of experiences?

On 2015-10-18, Vincent wrote:

Good point!

I think of it as one curve for all the groups who are well-prepped, another curve for groups who aren't, and an overall curve that combines them.

What's challenging about it is that I probably designed the game for the well-prepped groups, right? But that doesn't keep the poorly-prepped groups from having their experiences and bringing their conversations to me. So when you're working on a game you make decisions about whether and how to systematically turn off poorly-prepped groups, work to carry them along, or let them flail, knowing that you'll hear about it from them.

But like I say, I'm a big believer in good games for small audiences, absolutely.

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Topic: Just a check
Started by Gordon on 2015-10-18
1 reply by Vincent.
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