2013-05-25 : Complete Games

Hey! Jeff Russell asked me some sharp questions about The Sundered Land on G+ and I want to share them here too. They're about what makes a game complete or not.

Here's Jeff:

-For these games at least, what was your criteria for spelling things out with rules, and what to leave to players figuring out in the process of following their goals?

-In determining this, did you add rules as the need came up, or did you start with more and ruthlessly eliminate rules that seemed unneeded?

-Was this design/group of designs partially an extreme dramatization of separate subsystems and clarifying their focus?

Here's me (very slightly edited):

I'm going to take those in reverse order.

This group of games didn't start as subsystems, no. It started with the situations.
1. What's a kind of high-stakes situation for people to be in? (example: guarding a caravan under attack)
2. What are the players' opposed goals in this situation? (example: defend the caravan vs destroy it)
3. What tools do the players need in order to pursue their goals? (example: competent characters vs a vivid threat; clear directions about what to say)
4. When those tools come into contact, that's when there needs to be a mechanically-structured conversation. What kinds of contact can the tools come into, and what kinds of conversation do they call for? (example: when the hazard's going to attack, the Hazard player needs to give warning; when a character goes into danger, roll to decide which of 3 conversations)

So I never conceived of these as subsystems of a single game. They were always separate games that happened to share setting and design space.

I didn't create more rules and edit down either, no. Once you have a situation and goals, they imply the shape and extent of the design, if you see. I just created the rules that the situation and goals required.

The rules you see in the games now account for about half of the rules I created. But that's because in the design process I created rules that didn't work, and had to throw them away and try again, not because I created extra rules.

I wonder if I can articulate this! A complete game can be just about any size. The size of a complete game depends upon the complexity of the design, not upon the completeness of the design, does that make sense? Given the same setup and goals - you're guarding a caravan, I'm trying to destroy it - I could design a 64-page game too, if I multiplied the moving parts. It might mechanically differentiate weapons from each other, it might mechanically differentiate a flying hazard from a crawling one, it might mechanically differentiate the characters' skills. It would take correspondingly longer to play. It wouldn't be more complete, it would be more complicated.

1. On 2013-05-25, Vincent said:

Now, for these games, I intentionally chose setups and player goals that would let me create small complete games.

I was about to say that other combinations of setup and player goals might demand larger minimum games, but then when I started to try to think of examples, Vast & Starlit contradicted them.

It may be that you could design any roleplaying game in 1500 words or so, if you were willing to sacrifice complication, and if you were competent to do it. It may be that my instinct that some rpgs have large minimum games comes from a commitment to a certain level of complexity, not a true assessment of their requirements.



2. On 2013-05-25, Jeff Russell said:

Hmmm. Is "completeness" a measure of fit to (dare I say?) creative agenda, whereas "complexity" is a measure of, uh, gameyness? Maybe not, this made more sense to me before I verbalized it.


3. On 2013-05-27, Vincent said:

Well, uh, yes, now that you mention it. I hadn't made that connection.

Ben and I have been calling "gameyness" Technical Agenda.

Do note - I say out of pure pulse-pounding terror - do note that this isn't about GNS, of course, but about each game's unique and individual creative & technical agenda. Thinking of a game's creative agenda as G, N, or S will mess this understanding up badly.


4. On 2013-05-27, Ben Lehman said:

I'm not sure any game can be designed in that space, for a satisfying (to me) definition of "any game."

i.e. I want to create a specific emotional tenor in Hot Guys Making Out, that requires characters, described as they are, and the rules, described as they are. Honestly I think I may have scrimped a bit on text length in that game, and it's still 5000 words or so.

If you'd like to try to write a game in 1500 words that retains the pacing and emotional content of HGMO, which doesn't require extensive genre foreknowledge, I would be both surprised and happy.

In general, I'd rather embrace nanogames as a neat design space of their own, rather than trying to force them into a general design requirement.


5. On 2013-05-27, Vincent said:



6. On 2013-05-27, Ben Lehman said:

That said, it is possible that you could write a game that is, for marketing purposes, equivalent or better (i.e. wider audience w/o sacrifice audience core and more saleable) in 1500 words.

That's a reasonable definition of "any game" and is also scary.


7. On 2013-05-27, benhamill said:

If Sundered Land is an indication, genre foreknowledge is a thing. It is, depending on your reading, either relying on a ton of genre foreknowledge, or is super flexible about genre. Both are fine, but if you're trying to evoke something specific, you may need more explanatory text.


8. On 2013-05-27, Vincent said:

Yes, absolutely.


9. On 2013-05-27, Vincent said:

Go back and read this clause again! "...if you were willing to sacrifice complication..."

Under what circumstances would you be willing to sacrifice the complexity of a game you were designing, and under what circumstances would you be unwilling? Ben L. wants his game to have a certain pacing and emotional impact. Ben H. might want to evoke a more specific genre, or handle genre more specifically.

Those are both perfectly legit reasons to want more complexity in the game you're designing, which means that the minimum size of your game is larger than if you were willing to let those go.

Don't take me to be advocating for smaller games than you want to create. Take me to be advocating for games exactly as small as you want to create.

I've just designed (most of) a game based on Aliens. I hoped to keep it to 750 words or so, but to do that, I would have had to treat alien parasites and alien predators as mechanically interchangeable, and fighting an alien threat and traversing alien terrain as mechanically interchangeable. I decided to write a longer game that served my more specific vision instead, right? You should make that decision yourself for your own games too.

But at the same time, it would have been mistaken to call the 750-word version incomplete.


10. On 2013-05-27, Ben Lehman said:

But, like, there's a certain degree to which the technical agenda frames what game this is, right?

Like, I can write a super-short version of every GMed game with four words*. That doesn't mean it's really the same game in any practical sense.

What I find really interesting is my experience of writing 350 word D&D (a challenge I'd recommend to any game designer, btw) was that I needed to make the genre and tone considerably more specific that D&D, rather than less. It's not just less text -> less specified. It's considerably more complex than that, I think.


* Whatever the GM says.


11. On 2013-05-27, dwbapst said:

"What I find really interesting is my experience of writing 350 word D&D (a challenge I'd recommend to any game designer, btw) was that I needed to make the genre and tone considerably more specific that D&D, rather than less. It's not just less text -> less specified. It's considerably more complex than that, I think."

That is a great exercise. I want to go try that. The sad thing is that I'll never know what I would have tried if I hadn't played World of Dungeons already.

But this complex relationship between number of moving parts and specificity of agenda, maybe at some level, it's because creative and technical agendas aren't separate things. The range of creative agendas that one can experience in any given session of 'DnD' is enabled by the range of moving parts included. In other words, maybe one could write a nano DnD game that allows you to do everything DnD does, but there wouldn't be enough technical support for those creative agendas for the game to work / be interesting / be fun ( least for the creative agendas generally approached in DnD).

Vast and Starlit allows for a lot of lee-way in gameplay (from what I understand from snippets of actual play accounts; haven't gotten to play it yet), but it's also very specific in particular ways, in that every character was a prisoner. It's kind of like how Steve Gould used to discuss the subject of evolutionary constraint: that constraint in one area allows for increased lability in another. With limited length, I think the choice of constraints becomes important, but those constraints don't need to mean removing specificity from the premise nor making the premise more specific.


direct link

This makes...
BL go "+1"
VB go "Right on."
anon go ""Lability"! Awesome word"

12. On 2013-05-27, J. Walton said:

Dammit Vx and Ben, stop saying everything I'm thinking so I can join this conversation. Seriously, though, I'm right with you on all of this: complexity vs. completeness, the technical agenda sometimes IS the game, etc. Anything can be the game, I suspect, including Ben's four words (the GMless version is "whatever y'all decide"); the real issue is not completeness but whether the game does what you want in an amount of space (social, physical, textual, emotional) that you find aesthetically and practically pleasing.

Personally, I find it invaluable to start out designing as small as I possibly can because it forces me to make decisions about what the game IS instead of letting me dilly-dally and put them off until later.


13. On 2013-05-27, Dan Maruschak said:

The way these issues get framed has an impact on how we feel about them. "Unwilling to sacrifice" conjures images of an obstinate designer, arbitrarily falling in love with something against their own best interests. But it's also the case that you can't arbitrarily excise stuff from a system and still be guaranteed to have the same system—what are you "unwilling to sacrifice" from game X because if you cut it out it wouldn't be game X anymore? I don't think a game's complexity is an arbitrary knob that you can tune independent of other things in a game. I think even framing it as a "necessary evil" that you sometimes need to tolerate as a consequence for achieving certain other goals is a distortion. Do sculptors and painters aim to minimize the scale of their art relative to the visual impact they're aiming for, or do they consider scale one of the intrinsic elements of a work of visual art that interacts with other elements to produce an overall effect? It's easy to fetishize going to extremes along certain dimensions, and that can certainly be an inspiring and motivating constraint for an artistic endeavor, but it's rare that going to an extreme on any dimension will be guaranteed to translate into "better" in some overall sense.


14. On 2013-05-27, Vincent said:

To me, "unwilling to sacrifice" conjures images of a passionate designer committed to an uncompromising vision, standing strong against the siren call of fad and convenience.

I'm not arguing for what you think I'm arguing for, Dan!


15. On 2013-05-27, Vincent said:

Okay, friends, let me draw a connection for you.

When I say "It may be that you could design any roleplaying game in 1500 words or so," what do I mean by "any roleplaying game"? What's one particular roleplaying game, versus another particular roleplaying game, in this context?

Answer: in this context, meaning this post and thread, a particular roleplaying game is a single particular combination of fictional setup and player goals. So here's one roleplaying game: Caravan guards guarding a caravan. One player's job is to create and play a threat to the caravan, trying to destroy it. The rest of the players play the caravan guards and try to protect it.

How many rulesets exist that would let you play this game? A huge number. What's the smallest possible ruleset that would let you play this game? It's pretty small! Smaller even than The Sundered Land: Caravan Guards in the Ruins of the Future. However, The Sundered Land: Caravan Guards in the Ruins of the Future is as small as I could make it and still say what I want to say on the topic.

I would definitely not argue for this definition of "a roleplaying game" outside of the context of this thread, but here in the thread, that's what I meant when I said it.


16. On 2013-05-27, J. Walton said:

Oh sure. But, um, what other definition would you need for other contexts? Just one that goes beyond a single situation and set of agendas? That doesn't seem different in type, just in scope.


17. On 2013-05-27, Vincent said:

In most contexts, saying "as long as the pcs are caravan guards and the GM is trying to destroy the caravan, GURPS, D&D, Sorcerer, and The Sundered Land are all the same game" would be bizarre, unhelpful, or plain incorrect.


18. On 2013-05-27, J. Walton said:

Clearly I didn't get what you were trying to say in that last post, because i really don't get your response to my question. Sure, saying that would be both unhelpful and incorrect. I also think it would be wrong to say that Sundered Land: Caravan Guards is the only thing you have to say on the subject or that you had to approach designing the game the way you did, given your design goals (since goals are broader than any specific implementation). Wait a week or two, after you've had different thoughts or seen a new movie or something, and you might have designed it differently. Plus, a game doesn't arise deterministically from your design goals anyway; you still have to make choices and practice your art (which could happen in any number of ways).


19. On 2013-05-27, Vincent said:

Clearly, since now your response makes no sense to me.

In context of this thread, saying it would be correct and to the point.


20. On 2013-05-27, J. Walton said:

I'm not sure what you mean, or if I agree, but I'm not sure how to ask a question that illuminates the disconnect either. Hmm.

Maybe this: How are they the same in this context? Because we're focusing on exploring the situation of caravan guards and are agnostic as to technical agendas? Surely the mechanics of those games would give our play different focuses and outcomes, even if we used them all to play caravan guards.


21. On 2013-05-27, kiaroskuro said:

so Vincent, do you use complexity/complication as a synonymous of 'greater control/guidance' on part of the designer?


22. On 2013-05-27, Vincent said:

I do not!

It's as Ben and dwbapst say up in comments 10 and 11.


23. On 2013-05-27, Moreno R. said:

It's not only complexity that you sacrifice. It's cleariness that you sacrify, too.

For examplwe: in "Vast and Starlit" (that I finally got from Meg at INC! Yeah!) Epidiah write, at the beginning "Everyone Plays a prisoner..."

What does it means "play" in that context?

The author is assuming that I know that he is talking about a rpg, and the I already know how to play a rpg. But let's say that this is not the case: if I never played a rpg, I could take that "play" as in Monopoly or Risk, there are counters,or cards, and I have no idea I have to role-play anything.

In the rest of the text, Epidiah specify that the players take turns in setting up a scene, so I know that the game is divided into scenes. But i would not be able to play it. I would assume that there are cards missing, or that in any case I don't have all the pieces of the game.

Just to be clear: I am not ONLY saying that these games are not teaching text for role-playing. I am using that as an example only because it's simple.  But what I am saying is that even if it's true that every game assumes a certain knowledge from the player (You need to know how to read, for example) and in this manner restrict they base audience, when you write a nano-game you risk reducing the audience so much that at the end you have to "cheat" explaining how to play by voice or in other texts, giving the informations that the nano-game lack.

It's not a problem for nanogames only: recently I was talking with a friend of mine who has arleady played a lot of rpgs, but she has a lot of difficulties with Monsterhearts. Why? Because of the way the scenes structure in hard-wired in the experiemnce points system. She had already GMd Apocalypse World and other Indie rpgs, but they allowed her to play in a sort of "fluid time" that was newver really cut in scenes, but had the time fast-forward and slow again depending on the situation (as is the assumption in D&D for example)

Then she did read (and GMd) Trollbabe, that spend A LOT of pages to explain its scene structure, and when she played Monsterhearts again, she used Trollbabe's scene structure to play it, and this time it worked.

What I am trying to say? That the axis from "nanogames" to "longer games" is not only about complexity, and often, a nanogame can be much, much more complex that a much longer game (compare Vast and Starlit + supplements with Spione, from a technical point of view). It's more about "who will be abe to play this", and even having played and GMd a lot of forge games doesn't count, if they were not THE exact hames that used THESE specific techniques


direct link

This makes...
BL go "Your mom's the GM"

24. On 2013-05-28, Vincent said:

Moreno: Problem is, long texts aren't that great for teaching skills either.

I'm pretty pleased with how The Sundered Land approaches it. Time will tell how well it works, but so far so good.


25. On 2013-05-28, Mads Egedal Kirchhoff said:

The lesson I'm taking away from nano game concept has nothing to do with complexity or simplicity, it's solely about brevity. Namely, I'm impressed with how much complexity can be communicated in 1500 words. I think it would be a trivial task to find a game which has the same complexity as the sundered lands put together, but more than twice the text. These nano-games have a complexity-to-word ratio than most games I've read. Having played AND hacked Fiasco before reading it, I was absolutely shocked that the book was more than a hundred pages long.

I think it's true that we have to assume more about the knowledge of the reader when prioritizing brevity, but many a text underestimate the reader and drag on, rather than let them infer and understand the game on their own.


26. On 2013-05-28, Vincent said:

I agree entirely!


27. On 2013-05-29, benhamill said:

That ratio is actually something my group struggled with a bit when trying out Apocalypse World. It's not nanogame brief, maybe, but there's still plenty of stuff in there that's merely heavily implied than laid out. Also, we were coming from a very, uh, traditional gaming habit and so could have used some more, "Notice I didn't say X? Don't X." Not that that's Vx's job. Just that we realized we were doing a bunch of stuff the rules didn't say to do and, gasp, didn't seem to fit into the game well.


28. On 2013-06-09, E. Torner said:

Games that are long of text are not necessarily complex. Both Unknown Armies 2nd edition and the Baron Munchhausen RPG have famously hundreds of pages in their rulebooks, when both can condense their rules into less than a page. But both of those designs also hit their target genre spot-on, with all the rules one needs to do so.

Epidiah Ravachol developed Vast & Starlit (I think) partially out of a development phase in Swords without Master when he was trying to explain the game through three different methods: narrative, by example, and through commands. Hitting the target genre spot-on is hard, especially because different people have different learning styles with regard to rules!

In fact, nano-games of this variety aren't even new in the gaming scene. I just found James Ernest's business card, which has this complete game on it called "Fight!" 112 words long. Takes "Two minutes and up" to play, and teaches basic combinatoric math through coin mechanics.

We must unlearn what we have learned.


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