2010-01-28 : Compiling

Most of a year's worth of rpg theorizing:

"Designing a roleplaying game means more than designing rules that we can all agree to play by, and that are playable. It means designing rules that capture us - rules that become a vital part of our experience of play."

Causes, effects, fictional, real-world. Adequate fictional causes. Of IIEE, initiation and execution.

Players' jobs. GM's job. Responsibilities and the tools to fulfill them. Lazy play.

Authority, no; instead, responsibility and assent. "Assigning authority is just one way of many to go about soliciting assent."

Resolving players' conflicts of interest by promoting one above the other, no. Resolve players' conflicts of interests by reconciling them.

Subsystems: the meat of your game design is in the interactions of its subsystems, not in the subsystems themselves. Your real design is emergent.

Naked rpg theory makes a very poor game. "RPG designs manipulate social interactions, that's all" is the position from which you begin to design, not the goal of your design.

What a game calls for. Your 3 insights: insight into your subject matter, insight into roleplaying as a practice, insight into human nature and human experience.

Seed content.

The game's fiction counts as a subsystem: design it. Set it to interact with the others. It is a full participant in your game's emergent play.

1. On 2010-01-28, Joel said:

I like these summaries.

"Designing a roleplaying game means more than designing rules that we can all agree to play by, and that are playable. It means designing rules that capture us - rules that become a vital part of our experience of play."

Yes, THIS. I think I missed this idea the first time around; I love the way you've put it! This exactly what I feel in my heart when people talk about not needing rules for this or that, or rules as a mere tool for staving off UNwanted play. I want rules that are a delight to use!

Resolving players' conflicts of interest by promoting one above the other, no. Resolve players' conflicts of interests by reconciling them.

Dude. I'm going to freaking tattoo this on my arm for the next time I'm looking at conflicts of interest and fretting over what to do. Thank you!

For the rest, thanks for putting all these concepts in a handy list for review!



2. On 2010-01-28, Guy Shalev said:

The first and third insights seem to be two ways of saying the same things.

As to the fiction, your ability to design it is... limited. You mean design the way people use it, handle it, and some of the properties it might have (such as "Dark", or "Deals with corporations")? I may agree with that.


3. On 2010-01-29, Simon C said:

Guy, I think what Vincent means about the fiction is that you have to design the role of the fiction in your rules, and thus, by extention, you can draw out the kind of fiction you want to see.

So, for example, Poison'd never tells you what to do with your characters, but because of what parts of the fiction the rules care about, what things have to happen to trigger rules, those things consistently come up in play.  That's designing the fiction.

Vincent, am I reading you right?


4. On 2010-01-29, Vincent said:

Joel: Cool.

I have a (probably outdated) fear that people will read "resolve players' conflicts of interest by reconciling them" as "resolve PCs' conflicts of interest by reconciling them." Which is super duper utterly NOT what I mean.

- Resolve players' conflicts of interest by reconciling them.
- Resolve PCs' conflicts of interest by escalating ruthlessly until one or the other PC is a broken shattered husk of a soul, bereft, humiliated, and ruined forever.

Or, y'know, as much of that as is genre- and subject matter-appropriate.

Guy: Your ability to design everything is limited. You still have to design it.

Simon: Yeah, and more. Poison'd is a very clear example, in fact. Look at the fiction of Poison'd in play, starting with the opening circumstances, including the PCs' backstories and stuff, and going through to the end of the story. I don't create any of it, you do, that's the point; but I did design it.


5. On 2010-01-29, Josh W said:

So basically Vincent, we try to get players to become callous towards the welfare of their characters by bribing them with something else? :P


6. On 2010-01-29, Vincent said:

No. Well, maybe occasionally, I suppose, depending upon the needs of your design, but that's not what I'm saying, no.


7. On 2010-01-29, Chris said:

You get players to get their characters in situations that fit the game- sometimes that's against the characters' interests, sometimes it's with it, depending on your game.

I mean, think of how TSOY's Key of Love might get your character to act towards his or her interest, or just as likely, against.


8. On 2010-01-30, Ben Lehman said:

So what next?


9. On 2010-01-31, Vincent said:

I've been thinking hard about that for a couple of days, as it happens.

But nothing yet, at least not for public display.


10. On 2010-02-01, Simon C said:

At the moment I'm excited about the interaction between game rules and the already existing relationships between players.

Like, currently all games I'm aware of treat players as interchangeable units.  When you sit down to play the game, all players are equal, until given extra responsibilities by the game.

What if this wasn't the case?  What if game rules cared about who is dating whom?

This is a slightly different question that what Ben asked, but I think it's a pretty unexplored area of theory and design.


11. On 2010-02-01, Vincent said:

Simon: In my terms, that's an insight into roleplaying as a practice. I don't expect to see any exploration of it - appropriately! - except as it marries to corresponding insights of the other two sorts. There's no reason to design a game whose rules care about the preexisting relationships between the players, unless those relationships bear directly and significantly upon the game's subject matter or what the game has to say about real human nature.

In other words, I don't think that technical developments like those are very interesting by themselves. They're interesting in service to a whole game.

I can think of a few games whose rules flirt with the players' real relationships, but none that really care about them. Breaking the Ice, with its switch between the players; Sorcerer with its Sex And; Bliss Stage with its crushes and Spione with its trespasses, potentially.


12. On 2010-02-01, Ben Lehman said:

In Bliss Stage the subject matter of the game matters more for out of game relationships than the crushes rule.

Do out of game relationships matter to play? Oh yes, constantly. As do people's romantic and sexual mores. And, futhermore, gameplay feeds back into real life relationships. But the crushes rule isn't the vector for any of that.

Rules like those from Breaking the Ice, Spione and Bliss Stage don't really do what they seem like they're doing. In a way, they're even more generic than other rules. Their primary purpose is to escalate the intimacy of play with a little bit of truth or dare.

It works well! But I think if you want the relationships between the players (and the individual traits of the players themselves) to matter you have to look into other rules than that*. My favorite means of doing so is requiring the players to pass personal judgment on the fiction in some manner.


* And rules other than the ones you have in Beneath the Honeysuckle, Simon.


13. On 2010-02-01, Ben Lehman said:

Actually, I come off a little bit harsh, there. The purpose is not only intimacy-escalating truth or dare, of course. Each rule serves another purpose: in Spione, that the trespass is at the moral scale of the players; in Bliss Stage, that the anchors are all of sexual attractive genders to the players, in the right ratio, and secondarily some bits about ethnicity which are not for public-internet discussion; in Breaking the Ice, that the characters have some fundamental point of different between them.

*But* I don't think that these rules do a good job of making the players' differences matter nearly so much as, say, the judging rules in Bliss Stage or the Dr. Freud note in Dogs.


14. On 2010-02-01, Vincent said:

I'll cheerfully accept any and all corrections and expansions on the subject. I was casting about for games with written rules like "if your character attacks your girlfriend's character, take +3 to your to-hit roll," and those were as close as came to mind.


15. On 2010-02-02, Simon C said:

Yeah, those were the games I could think of as well.

Ben, I think you're essentially correct about Beneath the Honysuckle (pdf here:, if anyone's interested).  I'm just sorta flailing in the direction of those kinds of rules.  I'd like to think that there is substantial judgement of the fiction in that game though, it's just implicit, rather than explicit.  How do you know if a Knight lost his honour? Who do you give Heart to? etc.  I think it's an area of the game that needs work though.

What I was thinking about with Beneath the Honeysuckle is that roleplaying is a really intimate, intense, vulnerable act.  It's kinda sexy, even.  But for a lot of us we learnt to play, and most of our experiences of play are with groups of just men (or boys) often during adolescence, a time of incredible insecurity, messed up interpersonal relationships, and frequntly homophobia (and the attendant hatred of the feminine, and anything that makes you vulnerable).  Basically, roleplaying is kinda gay, so we butch it up with swords and guns and fighting and shit.

I think we also inherit from that tradition a stringent divide between players and characters.  I think a lot of games really strictly police that boundary, maintaining the fiction that it's just a game, that it's not personal.

So I guess I was trying to break down that barrier a bit, and that's what I'm getting at with all the "prettiest player goes first" and "if you're in a romantic relationship, your characters are bitter rivals" stuff, and with the thing where if you're playing in an all-male group, your characters are all gay.


16. On 2010-02-02, Simon C said:


Ben, I think you're selling some of those rules a bit short.  You're right about Bliss Stage, of course (I played for the first time recently and had a really good time, cheers).  I felt a kind of jolt of warmth for the other players at that stage, as we'd all shared something really personal.  But I don't think after that those names become just names.  I know I felt when I was threatening another player's anchor like it was more personal because of that connection through their name.

Breaking the Ice's switch is a bit more complicated, I think.  It's not just about there being something of significance that's different between the characters, it's that you're playing a trait, a significant trait, that you don't have and the other player does.  That gets into all kinds of politics of representation, trust, and so on.  I think ultimately it serves to make people play their characters with more sensitivity, and with more sense of feedback between players and characters.

Same with trespasses in Spione (although I've not played the game).  Your in-play treatment (judgement?) of trespasses matters because they're connected to things that actually happened.  You're not talking in the abstract, you're talking about things that matter to your friends.


17. On 2010-02-02, Simon C said:

Sheesh, maybe I should take it to my blog at this point.

Vincent, I totally see what you mean by it being "an insight into roleplaying as a practice" and hence a subject for design rather than theory.


18. On 2010-02-02, Ben Lehman said:

Hey, Simon. It's strange. I agree with you about most of what you say (more about Honeysuckle when I actually review it.)

But at the same time, I see other rules which less transparently draw on the players themselves to be considerably more useful in making players non-generic. For instance, in Bliss Stage, the personality, history, beliefs and relationships of the scene judge matter a lot in terms of how the scene is played, because they effect the results of the scene. I think that that's a considerably more fruitful direction to move in rather than explicitly drawing on player traits.



19. On 2010-02-02, Simon C said:

Interesting.  I have to say that I didn't give a lot of thought to who the judge of the scene was when I was playing scenes - I just played 'em as I saw them.  But I can see how that could change in a smaller, more connected group, over a longer period.

So, to look at this from another direction, here's a thing I found playing Dogs:

Sometimes playing Dogs I found people would use their character as an excuse to not make a judgement about the fiction.  They'd veil their own judgement behind "what the character would do".  Some of the most affecting play, for me, was playing with a character who was essentially a cypher.  I found strong character traits sometimes got in the way of powerful play.  The interesting interaction for me was between the Players and the town, not neccesarily the characters and the town.

I guess some of that's a Right to Dream vs. Story Now thing, but I feel like it relates to what we're talking about.  What do you think?


20. On 2010-02-02, Josh W said:

The most basic example of real life relationships coming into game I can think of: Who is GM?

In the same way, I think you can chuck differentiated roles around so that people can grab one they like, but you also probably need a good way of encouraging players to shift them around to get past the "random assignment" stage. Then you can interact with players relationships and social structure via the interactions between those roles.

Isn't that one of the ways that "my life with master" goes hardcore? When the fact that that guy is playing the master becomes important?


21. On 2010-02-05, Dave L said:

Since we're doing a recap of last year...

I was drawn to 4e D&D because it the rules make it so easy to adjudicate any action.  Yell at someone to surrender?  Sure, Cha vs. Will, low normal damage.  Knock someone off balance?  Sure, depending on how you're doing it, Dex or Str vs. Fort.  Easy.

In play, it never turned out that way.  All those "rightward pointing arrows" told me why - the water flows down the channels the rules make, and there were too many other deep channels to get into that.  Powers draw attention from the fiction to the character sheet cues.

Huge insight into my games.  Huge insight into what I like and don't like about RPGs.  Huge insight into why some games felt "gray", even though the story was awesome.

Those series of posts may have been the most influential to me since reading the Narrativism essay on the Forge.


22. On 2010-02-06, Piers said:


you're absolutely right about the effects of the system.  Playing, I found that I usually used my powers because they were effective in a guaranteed way and there didn't seem to be any way for you to adjudicate improvised actions fairly: either improvised were too effective (in which case, why have powers?) or too ineffective (in which case why bother?). After a while using powers straight-up became routinized. It is notable that the contextual nature of powers in Apocalypse World, by contrast, means that this problem doesn't come up at all.

For what it's worth, though, I had fun.


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