2011-01-10 : Social Context and Design

Let's start with Ben, since Ben so graciously provides us such a good start.

June 18, 2005: The Infamous Five
June 21, 2005: I want to play the "Bang hot goth chicks" game

Let me pull out two quotes. First is from the comments on June 18's post, by James:

Use Ron's advice for writing games: visualize what you want play to look like, and only use rules that support that. Except in this case: Visualize who you want to play your game, and only use rules to appeal to that set of people.

(emphasis mine)

This is how I design. For Apocalypse World, in my imagination, I started with Meg, assembled a playgroup of her favorite people to play with, and designed a game that they would love. At every step of the design, I held my work up to "will Meg and her playgroup do this? Will they do it enthusiastically, instinctively, with relish?" If I didn't think they would, into the dustbin, no more consideration.

Second is from June 21's post, by Ben:

A great example of a game that fails to consider the social context level of play is my own Polaris. My self-identified "target audience" is people who have been through the Amber / Nobilis / Theatrix / Freeform cycle of play, and are frustrated at the stalling of those games and the "certain sameness" that creeps into the play of each one—essentially a slow drift towards Gamism with a strong emphasis on precedent and pre-positioning. Systematically, Polaris can answer to this in a number of ways (giving strong system tools for making things happen without a heavy mechanical component), but it totally fails on the social context level. The players we're speaking of are largely mid-20s to late-30s. They are professional types with jobs, children, highly stable gaming groups, etc. The game fails in two ways. First, it requires a specific number of players... This may require breaking up the old gaming group, something these players would never do. Furthermore, it absolutely and totally requires everyone's presence at every session... And, by presence, I mean full on-the-ball awareness. It has no concessions for sick kids, vacations, a rough day at work, whatever. This, it will be attractive to them as a game, but I imagine most players will find getting through a full 4-6 session storyline difficult.

I learned that lesson! When I designed Apocalypse World for Meg and her ideal playgroup, I designed it to be fun and rewarding for them, yes, and I also designed it to fit into their lives. It gracefully accommodates sick kids, vacations, off-the-ball players, long stretches with no play, changes in the playgroup, individual cycles and levels of engagement and disengagement.

There's lots more to talk about in Ben's posts. But to start, designing for a social context means design, long before it means publication and marketing.

1. On 2011-01-10, Vincent said:

Oh, here's an interesting thing. Meg and her ideal playgroup, they're pretty much indifferent to post-apocalyptic fiction. The game's setting isn't one of its selling points, to its core audience - if anything, the game has to win them over to it.


2. On 2011-01-10, Simon C said:

That's really clever, and also sensible.

Is there scope for asking people to do things that may not come naturally to them, that might make them uncomfortable, but that you think they might come to love?

How much can you ask someone to stretch themselves? Should play always be easy?


3. On 2011-01-10, Vincent said:

Is there scope? Of course!

How much? Well. You get to design your game to be as demanding as you like, but your audience gets to choose whether to try it and whether to stick with it. That's how you find out whether you've judged them well - if they do the unnatural thing you ask them to, then you have. If they don't, then you've misjudged them.

Should I underline that? Maybe I should. If your audience doesn't seize upon the game you've designed for them, you have a choice. You can reevaluate your own judgment, or else you can throw blame. Blame your audience for failing to live up to your ideals, blame cliques and status-attention in the scene, blame me for monopolizing their attention, whatever. My suspicion is that reevaluating your own judgment will give you the most fruitful way forward.

Anyway, some audiences are notorious for putting up with things that don't come naturally to them, but which they'll come to love.  Burning Wheel's, for instance - you can see it in how they LOVE Burning Wheel, because they've EARNED it. Others are notorious for not, no matter how much they might. Western Massers, for instance - you can see it in how fickle we are, and in how Burning Wheel makes us cry. If your game commands an audience like the former, you have a lot more room to make your game demanding.


4. On 2011-01-10, Vincent said:

I should underline that too! Burning Wheel commands the audience it does because it's designed to that social context, directly and brilliantly.

There are two ways to mess it up: a game that appeals to Burning Wheel's audience but doesn't give them the challenge and reward they want, they won't seize upon. A game that is challenging and rewarding, but appeals to an audience that doesn't want that challenge or those particular rewards, they won't seize upon. You have to hit both just right, the way Burning Wheel does.


5. On 2011-01-10, TomR said:

Interesting.  It's tangential to your point, but I'd like to hear how you see AW handling irregular players.  I was thinking that if I was going to build out some new character classes for AW, they would all be for the "intermittent player", the person who can't always show up.  Their powers would all have an "absence" factor which causes their powers bulk up if they've missed a lot of games, but that factor also aggravates specific types of threats/fronts.  So when they do make it to game they're super-effective but they have to be because their very presence makes stuff worse somehow.


6. On 2011-01-10, Simon C said:

Thanks Vincent, Burning Wheel is a great example. I think it judges its audience very well, like you say. Folks who loved AD&D and Hero Quest are willing to put in that work. Heck, I think some of them even demand that kind of work.

Do you think everyone likes stuff more if they have to work at it a little? Or do some people not get that at all?

This makes me think about exciting social situations to design games for.

The situation I'm hungry for a game to fill is where you've got a couple of friends who are kind of curious about this gaming thing, and maybe another friend who's played a bunch before. You know you can't get them to commit to more than a couple of hours, and your typical nerdy subject material is gonna turn them right off.


7. On 2011-01-10, Simon C said:


That's a really interesting idea about playbooks to suit a particular social situation. Very clever.

I'm thinking a "Drifter" who gets to come into town now and then, bringing news and trouble.


8. On 2011-01-11, Meguey said:

Two things. First, Vincent nailed the design in 'what would Meg like to play?' of Apocalypse World. Second, all the existing PC splats do work if a player has to miss a session or two, because that's written in to the flexibility of the game. In the three games I've played, we've handled missing players regularly and with ease. So Jim can't be here to play Hooch the chopper this session; ok, so the action will center somewhere else, and we'll just figure he's out with his gang. Jodi's sick, ok, we'll let Dust the hocus hang back with his crew this session and focus in on Rose the maestro'de instead.

And Simon, that group you described is almost hand-picked for a game of 1001 Nights.

Not surprisingly, the first quote is a guiding idea in my design of Psi-Run, too.


9. On 2011-01-11, Simon C said:

Hi Meg,

Good point about 1001 Nights. I got that in my stocking for Epimas, and we're looking to play it some time early this year. It's funny, because it came to mind as a game that, for me, asks me to do something that's slightly outside my comfort zone in terms of "free play" and interactions between players.

Where I think 1001 Nights doesn't quite fit for me as a game for new players is that it asks for quite sophisticated skills from the players. It's quite different from say, Apocalypse World, where you only concern is knowing what your character wants, and how they'll get it, moment to moment in play.

Is that easier though? Now I'm not sure. I know some people I've played with have found AW liberating because their responsibilities are shrunk to very concrete choices in play. On the other hand, I imagine there are a lot of people for whom the broader storytelling of 1001 Nights comes more naturally.


10. On 2011-01-11, Tim Ralphs said:

In my experience, most adults are pretty good at telling stories, given a starting point and an audience. If anyone is likely to struggle with 1001 nights asking for sophisticated skills, I suspect it's people who have roleplayed a bunch of games in a quite specific way already.


11. On 2011-01-12, Per said:

That a very interesting post, Vincent, including Ben's old blog entry.

I guess you need to know the people you're designing for quite well - and knowing them at least somewhat IRL is at least a prerequesite. So no gamer-x or non-gamer-y audiences.

I've been told "design the game you want, man", and responded: "Sure! Of course, what else?" Not so sure after reading this. What is your response to designing the game you and your group want to play, I guess that's as valid as doing it for someone else?


12. On 2011-01-12, Bret said:

Yeah, I've gone from "designing the game I want" to "designing the game I want for the group(s) that will play it."


13. On 2011-01-12, Mike said:

Tim@10: I'm not sure that a starting point and an audience are enough. They may not post here much, but I think a lot of people have major inhibitions about exercising creative ambition in public, and those people aren't going to be comfortable playing a game that demands a lot of this, at least not without being led into it gently via more structured play. Depends a lot on the group vibe, I suppose.

If we limit it to *coming up with* stories, then yes. I'm always amazed when looking at IaWA Oracles how impossible it is *not* to assemble them into a story, in much the same way that it's impossible to look at two dots and a line arranged a certain way and *not* see a face. But the performance aspect is a whole other thing.

(Off-topic: are you the Tim Ralphs from last week's Crick Crack? 'Cos, awesome.)


14. On 2011-01-13, Jeff Russell said:

I think you are onto something pretty interesting, and possibly important, Mike. I'm not *sure* if the direction I'm going with it is applicable to social context and thinking of it in design, but I'll throw it out there anyhow.

I recently ran a game for some friends of mine that asked for a lot of player input in characters and setting and initial situation generation (I stole a lot of technique from AW, for one thing). None of these friends had tried anything other than 90's style trad games and a bit of 4E D&D, and one of them has self-described as just not that into roleplaying (but I don't believe him from the way he creates characters for his side in Twilight Imperium, individual guys in wargames, et cetera).

At any rate, I was *amazed* at the awesome sauce they all came up with for juicy, conflict-ridden interpersonal relationships with the potential to launch into some cool story. It was great! The trouble came in actually, you know, going somewhere with it. The game ended up stalling a bit in that regard.

So, to try to bring it into line with the topic of Vincent's post here, is it useful to approach a game with the social context in mind of people who have the requisite component desires/experiences, but haven't assembled them into the final product (err, meaning 'play style', I guess) that you're shooting for?

To refer back to my specific example, I had a group of people who came up with their own situation, ready for conflict, and who are interested in those kinds of stories, and who like to play games (and most like to play RPGs specifically) but when it came to actually playing/performing, it was a bit awkward. Should I attempt to design the game to draw out the performance aspect, or is that a social context factor I should assume needs to be present already?

(Not to turn this into a 'help me with my game!' thing, just trying to use a specific example to explore the way social context effects game design in more detail, cos it's an interesting and new-to-me topic)


15. On 2011-01-13, Paul T. said:

I've seen that, too:

A lot of people, particularly gamers, love to exercise their imagination and come up with all kinds of cool stuff. But they're afraid* to actually put any of it into action. They might imagine this weird twisted set of relationships, but then be deadly afraid to interact with it or change it in any way. Like they're just expecting to maintain the same Situation with a little bit of dialogue and characterization (e.g. "I sit in the corner, looking angry." "I'm angry about it, too, so I go home to get drunk alone").

*: It may be that experience with certain styles of play has led them to assume/believe that changing the status quo is simply not their job, but someone else's (probably the GM). So they are comfortable with characterization and dialogue, but carefully stay away from anything that might shake things up and Change The Plot.


16. On 2011-01-14, Tim Ralphs said:

Mike@13 Holy crap. I just got recognized on the internet.

Probably you're right. The points I was clumsily trying to make are: 1) that I don't think people come to roleplay assuming that it's not their responsibility or that they don't have the authority to make stories happen. I think that's something that some games teach them.
and 2) That 1001 is gut wrenchingly fun to play and probably accessable to the group described by Simon at 6.

And in order to tie this back into social context, Simon's group represent an important demographic, and possibly one that is often overlooked in game design.


17. On 2011-01-18, Vincent said:

Tom: Irregular players isn't Apocalypse World's ideal. You have to worry about it a little, make accommodations, decide whether you're going to play anyway, and come back with a love letter. But that suits the (notional ideal) group just fine - irregular players is something that group can deal with but doesn't prefer.

An intermittent player-specific playbook is a great idea. I'd love to see what you come up with.

Per: Oh sure. Like Bret says, exactly. I say "I designed Apocalypse World for Meg's ideal group," but I definitely designed it to my own tastes too. A game that Meg's ideal group would love and I'd love to play with them.

Mike, Jeff & everybody:

I had a group of people who came up with their own situation, ready for conflict, and who are interested in those kinds of stories, and who like to play games (and most like to play RPGs specifically) but when it came to actually playing/performing, it was a bit awkward. Should I attempt to design the game to draw out the performance aspect, or is that a social context factor I should assume needs to be present already?

Yes! Yes! That's exactly the question.


18. On 2011-01-19, Matt Wilson said:

Here's a Q for Vincent and Meg:

My limited human understanding is that Meg seems to enjoy Storming a lot too, including being the GM. At least ye olde Storming of yesteryear. So how much does the "Meg needs to like it" factor play a significant role in all of Vx's games?

For the record, I used "what would my spouse like?" as a design goal for a game, and it turned out really well. I'm not the TV uberfan of the household.


19. On 2011-01-22, Zac in VA said:

Damn my Enter key and its overeagerness.

My friends and I just started up a really cool project, and it happened really organically, irrespective of how much Social Context stuff I've been reading lately - we've started up a private wiki to put up a bunch of RPG designs we're working on.
Not just that - all the designs share the following constraint: "Must make sense for just the three of us to be able to pick up and play."
So! All of our games are going to be very ready-to-go, low-pre-play-prep, and easy to grasp, without a lot of explicit layers.
One of my compatriots has a theater background, and is working on "warm-up" games, to get creative juices flowing on short notice.
Also, that game you had posted up a million years ago, with knights, and a stat called "Hale"? I'm finally writing my homage to it - - "Fairytale Knights". Huzzah! Long live social context, and how it drives design (whether we like it or not)!
I'm especially excited that this is happening, because as much as I enjoy a group of four or five and a multi-session mini-campaign, it's really hard to make both happen 'round here.


20. On 2011-01-25, Vincent said:

Matt: At this certain moment, sometime after Poison'd, I realized that I hadn't been designing games that Meg would like, and I expected her to like them anyway. My choice at that moment was to change up and design for her, or else to change my expectations. (Or else to keep living with the constant unhappy surprise of unexamined and mismatched expectations, I suppose.) Anyhow I decided to design for her for a little while.

Once I'm done with Storming the Wizard's Tower and K&C, we'll just see if she likes the next one.

Zac: Cool! If at some point some of those designs become public, be sure to let me know, I'd love to see them.


21. On 2011-01-25, Seth Ben-Ezra said:

Heh. The "one PC, many GMs" structure of Dirty Secrets originated because I wanted to be able to play with my wife, and it was a way of making our playstyles match.


22. On 2011-02-03, Marshall B said:

blame me for monopolizing their attention

Hey, I was kidding about that. Mostly.


23. On 2011-02-03, Vincent said:

Ha ha! I wasn't thinking of you in particular. If you were the only one, I wouldn't've mentioned it.

And I should say, everyone else who's said it has been kidding too. Mostly.


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