2013-09-03 : Ordering the Conversation: How do you choose?

Okay, friends! Here's where we get into it.

In this game, you play a wizard. You wizard's goal is to bring the world to its supplicant knees. If you can see your wizard to this accomplishment, you win the game. Any other outcome and you lose.

On occasion, in play, you'll have your wizard perform the gestures and pronunciations necessary to cast a spell. Naturally enough.

When you do, what conversation should the group have?

Here's one possibility: When you have your wizard cast a spell, you get to say what the spell does and doesn't do, in every particular. If one of the other players wonders about some detail or other, they should ask you, and your answer is the answer.

Here's another possibility: When you have your wizard cast a spell, roll a die to determine the wizard's casting potency. Consult the spell description to find out what the spell does, given the casting potency you rolled.

Here's a third possibility: When you have your wizard cast a spell, the player on your left temporarily takes on the character of the realm of magic. Tell that player what you want the spell to do. That player considers and tells you what that effect will cost you. You must decide whether you pay the price. If you decline, you get no effect from your spell.

There are further possilities beyond counting. Every single way that any rpg has ever handled spellcasting, plus every single way that any future rpg might handle spellcasting.

As the designer of the game, how do I decide which to use?

If I invent a cool way to handle spellcasting, how do I decide whether it's suitable for this particular game?

I was going to launch into my own answer here (including a link to the ancient but still pertinent 2005-06-06 : Immersion, Rewrite), but you know? I think I'll throw it open instead.

You, you're designing a game, right? How do YOU decide?

1. On 2013-09-03, E. Torner said:

I look at what the genre demands, think about how past human players have encountered said incentives, and try to find a meeting point between the two.

Possibility 1 emphasizes individual player creativity, and is limited only by the extent to which the player decides to limit themselves (thanks to the social situation or otherwise). Magic becomes a direct extension of human will.

Possibility 2 encourages the idea of magic's inherent unreliability, and makes the game designer the ultimate arbiter as to what is and isn't permissible in the game world.

Possibility 3 offers the decision up to other group members, who will likely "decide" that magic is cool, but comes at a cost which may or may not rope in the rest of the PCs (depending on whether or not they're playing to lose).

So you've got 3 different types of structured conversations here: 1) player-centered, 2) game-book-centered, and 3) group-centered.

Each one directly impacts how magic works in the diegesis: 1) magic expresses will, 2) magic expresses almost-scientific formula, 3) magic expresses value and sacrifice.


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2. On 2013-09-03, Ben Lehman said:

What do you want the game to be about?

Make the player do that thing.


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3. On 2013-09-03, Vincent said:

With you!

If I'm making a game where the player wins if she can manage to see her wizard to world domination, which do I choose?

Not possibility one! Then she'll basically be able to win whenever she wants, all she'll have to do is cast a spell and say that it brings the world to its knees. Unless there's something else in play that would keep her from saying that.

What about possibility three? Is the player on her left also trying to win? Is there a conflict of interest there? Or will the idea of "take on the character of the realm of magic" be enough to set the conflict of interest aside?


4. On 2013-09-03, Ben Lehman said:

Well, how do I feel world domination is achieved? Is the magical world a political entity, who I must negotiate and manipulate and reason with? Then 3) would work.

Is it about luck and planning for luck? Then 2) would work.

Is it about the capacity of your imagination? Then 1) would work.


5. On 2013-09-03, Rickard said:

To make a system create a result, you must make it's components interact. The result is called emergence. Four people in a room creates a closed system. When they interact, an emergence will appear.

I know five groups of components that can exist in an activity.
- meaning (questions about existence)
- structures (techniques and game mechanics)
- group (the participants and their relations)
- fiction (a story being revealed)
- setting (world and it's occupants)

Components from same group can interact with each other or a component from one group can interact with a component from another group. It all depends on what the designer think is the interesting part of the activity.

It's not that simple, because we also got four different reasons to engage in an activity - and we have all of them at different levels during different situations.

Exploration: to discover the components and find their interaction.
Expression: to express yourself through the activity.
Competition: to be challenged by the activity or the other participants.
Sensation: to feel, to experience, to get an insight, to escape from reality.

Playing one game can activate several of these engagements at different levels while another game activates them at another level. Even playing the game for the first time will be different compared to if you played the game a lot.


Now, an extraordinary thing happens when you combine the components with the engagements. To explore the structure of the game (ex. tactics), to sensate the setting, to compete with the group. These are all emergences of what the system creates, and these are the reasons why the magic system will be different to one another ...

... or traditional. I mean, if you played a game several times and picks up another similar game, you will expect it to have the same ratio of engagement as the previous one. The same goes with designing similar games. You draw from your experience in how you normally play them, and will therefor create a similar emergence from what you've done before.


6. On 2013-09-03, Rickard said:

Poop. Missed ending the bold tag after "Exploration".


7. On 2013-09-03, Vincent said:

I'll get it for you. Stand by.


8. On 2013-09-03, Vincent said:

Meanwhile, could you restate it without the named categories? I'm pretty sure they're just obscuring your point.


9. On 2013-09-04, Peter Borah said:

My answer doesn't involve any sort of rules, but merely my intuition as a designer. What sorts of things do I want people to say? I write the rule that seems to most consistently lead to them saying those things.

For instance, I want the wizard to have to say many words, many of which about her struggling and failing. I therefore don't write the first rule, because many players will say only a few words, and mostly about succeeding.


10. On 2013-09-04, Vincent said:

Peter: Cool. Makes sense.

Can you say anything about why you want the wizard to say words about struggling and failing?


11. On 2013-09-04, Josh W said:

It's hard to work this out in general, so I'll be specific, hopefully that will illuminate something:

In this situation, I'd want people to want to be wizards in order to pull off their goals, but I don't want them just to be wizards.

This means that magic has to help in their goals, but they cannot just hit a cast a spell button and implement the formal magic procedure in order to do that.

So where does this conversation fit in that overall scheme? Is it at the climax (wizards prepare for ages then pull off a grand spell)?
Is it a momentary tool in goals that are achieved another way (so it creates leverage of various kinds that are then used to bring people to their knees)?
Is it somehow continuous through the course of the game (everything is feeding into the spell you are pulling off)?

Next I'd want to create interesting or amusing interactions between the players, do they compete for resources? Do they seek multiple different overlapping kinds of leverage? Do they deal with the conflicting effects of their spells on the world?

This sets up the things that the mechanic will need to call back to or set up, and also some other constraints.

I suspect that if I was actually building this, I'd want two types of spell, the quick magical spice of doing wizardly things to make your life easier, and the big spells that you use as you're getting more malevolent. But as I'd want people to feel comfortable with the latter idea, the conversation would have to be compatible with both.

For that reason out of what I've come up with so far I'd focus on spells as leverage, with basic spells being of the "harry potter enchanted cutlery to cut up your steaks" style of thing, and then slowly upscale into stealing people's rain, turning their doors into walls, causing their fires to attack them, that sort of thing. Having the players as competing terrorists with their own armies of random objects seems an interesting sort of concept.

This best fits the second option, although given that it's effects will be mostly preparatory, I would want the random element to represent something fairly permanent. So the levels of control over an object would be dependent on some feature of the object, and the power rolled for the spell. There'd probably also be rules about getting there first, or about removing people's control of things.

As may be implicit, if they want to make people bow, living creatures cannot be a part of what the spell effects.

To create a reward cycle, you could have other people increase the wizard?s power by doing certain things for him that he can't do by magic, so there is a sort of escalation of tyranny.


12. On 2013-09-04, Gordon said:

So the core questions (as to which rule and evaluating suitability) are about this particular game, involving wizards and winning/losing?

I'm going to want to establish some context about the game, in terms of who's going to play it, the logistics of playing it, why I'm interested in designing it (artistically and otherwise), what form it's going to take as a product/work, what accumulated expectations might exist among people likely to play such a game, and etc.  I probably won't have (or even try to develop) a full understanding of all these up-front - maybe never, on some of 'em - but I need some level of clarity about them to move forward.

As an extreme, I might decide (might be forced to decide, in a not-Vincent-indie design environment) that whatever is "the way spellcasting has always worked" is the rule I must pick, and that de facto means it is suitable.  Any issues with that will have to be dealt with elsewhere in the design.

I guess the pithy version of this is to add "know why you want the player to do that thing" and "make sure you can (or at least are likely able to) make the player do that thing" to Ben/Emily's answer.

Back to this game, though. I think the key is that "bringing the world to its supplicant knees" is an imprecise condition.  Spellcasting need not be the primary design area where that imprecision is developed - heck, the imprecision could be dealt with up-front by saying "this is Highlander, There Can Be Only One, that's the world on its supplicant knees."

But once we understand how this particular game is going to deal with that issue (each player defines world-on-its'-knees for their character, a GMish type does so globally, precision develops in play, partial versions of all the above, and more), I'd like spellcasting to reinforce that process in some way.

Which is plenty tricky even WITH context and clarity (in this case, about a supplicant world).  Without 'em, I think I'm lost.


13. On 2013-09-04, Rickard said:

Meanwhile, could you restate it without the named categories? I?m pretty sure they?re just obscuring your point.

Stating a point without explaining it would be pointless. Designing for emergence is pretty much what Ben Lehman said: what do you want from your game?


14. On 2013-09-04, Ben Lehman said:

Uhm. Wow. I don't see the congruence between our statements at all. Can you help us see that?


15. On 2013-09-04, Vincent said:

Rickard: So your point is that your experience emerges from what you do and why you do it in combination? I'm down with that.

I'll let you off the hook! I don't agree with your categories, and I'm not interested in being talked into them (so, please, don't try). Category schemes like those, in my experience, don't add to, only interfere with, the conversation that's worth having.

Josh, Gordon: Cool, makes sense.

Everybody: It's not just spellcasting, right? Just as Josh and Gordon say, there needs to be a whole game full of these conversational structures (let's call them subsystems!). For each and every one, you decide whether it's right for the game by how and whether it serves the game.

With me?


16. On 2013-09-04, Rickard said:

So your point is that your experience emerges from what you do and why you do it in combination?

It's more why you do it and what toys you can play with.

I mostly researched these categories to challenge myself to design in different ways. :)

Uhm. Wow. I don?t see the congruence between our statements at all. Can you help us see that?

We're pretty much saying the same thing from a different perspective.

You: "What do you want the game to be about?"
Me: What kind of emergence do you want?

You: "Make the player do that thing."
Me: What kind of components shall we include to play with to create that emergence?


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17. On 2013-09-04, Gordon said:

Vincent: I'm probaly entirely with you, but - are you looking to explicitly include or exclude anything in particular from how we determine if it serves the game?  Say I decide to include a subsystem because it will help me sell supplements to the core system, or because it will encourage people to develop related content of their own to sell/give away online.  Are you including those kind of decisions in "serving the game", or are you talking more about serving the game within the, um, creative confines of its designed object(s)?

My instinct is that, for the purpose you seem to have here, it's best to exclude things like, ah, crass commercialism and overt idealogical agendas.  But there's enough fuzzy cross-influence I'm not sure if a clear line can be drawn ...


18. On 2013-09-04, David Berg said:

I'm with Gordon.  I'd specify that I need an audience in mind.  Since I'm only motivated to design games I'd want to play, that's usually "me and a friend I play games with".  So, what am I offering to Al with this game, that he can't already get elsewhere?  Which of his skills am I testing, which of the experiential aspects he prefers am I promoting?

I think asking these questions is the easy part.  Coming up with good answers is hard.  For me, anyway. 

I just wrote an example of how I'd go about giving Al the mix of strategy and negotiation he prefers, and what sort of conversations that would lead me to design.  It's 4 medium-sized paragraphs.  I'll post it if you think that's constructive here, Vincent.


19. On 2013-09-04, David Berg said:

Er, "I'm with Gordon" referred to post #12 above.  Cross-posted with #17.


20. On 2013-09-04, GB Steve said:

How long do you want the game to be? If it's a race to be the first to be to win, then I'd have some resource or countdown based system. If it's a pipe dream then it may emerge from play, or at least colour play but I would make sure it was difficult in some way, either by requiring time, or components or other people or outrageous and unlikely circumstances.


21. On 2013-09-04, Ben Lehman said:

Rickard: I still don't get it at all.

That's fine, you don't need me to get it. But the stuff I'm talking about isn't emergent. Generally, it's direct and clearly stated.

(i.e. I want players to think about what perfection means. I will instruct them to think about what perfection means.)



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22. On 2013-09-05, Clayton Grey said:

It seems like a lot of people are chasing the tail. I believe I'm with Gordon, but I think the context you're providing is clouding the real question.

Your example case seems to suppose that spell casting is the featured means to overcome the world. In order to answer this question in full, one must at least understand the mechanic/subsystem's role in relationship to the rest of the system and your design goals. Maybe featuring spell casting would be antithetical to your design intentions?

But lets get jiggy with it:

Evaluating a subsystem outside of intentions or goals is a challenge, because there are many fruitful decisions that can lead to different kinds of games based on the desired reading.

For example, lets say we wanted to make a game about being all-powerful wizards in a world full of regular people. One or more of you will bring the world to it's knees as a by-product of your natural all-powerful state.

In that case, the first possibility isn't a problem because it's a desired inevitable outcome. One might design the questions that other players should ask of that player to inform the other phases of a turn and how they should play out as a result of the casting.

That is to say: those are all valid subsystems if they accomplish your goals for the larger system. So to answer your specific questions:

The group should have a conversation about the spell casting that compliments that subsystem's role in the larger system.

As the designer of the game, I should consider my goals and decide if the subsystems I'm considering are appropriate. If I'm not sure, I probably need additional constraints.

But really what your asking is just:

Does [subsystem] embody [intention]?

Where a subsystem might be "dice based look-up tables" and "uncontrollable power" might be the intention. In which case, I'd say, it could probably work!

Providing a broad description of all mechanics in terms that effectively relate how players feel as a result of interacting with them would be quite a literary feat.

While my mental footnotes fail me, there is an inherent aspect of games that require interaction to understand. You seem to be asking for a way to communicate that experience gap without needing to play.

If we knew that, games would probably be boring.


23. On 2013-09-05, Vincent said:

Clayton: I agree with you about everything you say except what I seem to be suggesting or asking for. Nope!

Otherwise, right on. With you.

Oh, except that bit about "the group should have a conversation." I hate that bit.


24. On 2013-09-05, Gordon said:

"Oh, except that bit about ?the group should have a conversation.? I hate that bit."
Vincent:Do you still hate it if it reads "Spellcasting should be a conversation that compliments that subsystem's role in the larger system"? I'm not Clayton, so I don't know if that's what he meant - but that's how I read it.

And odd feelings of satisafaction that people are "with me" aside, as far as I can tell what that really means is you're with Vincent.


25. On 2013-09-05, Vincent said:

Gordon: Ah! You must be right. That makes a lot more sense and I don't hate that a bit.


26. On 2013-09-05, Clayton Grey said:

Gordon: That is what I meant, but I was trying to stick closely to the phrasing of Vincent's specific question.

Vincent: That was my answer to the question YOU asked. ;)

"When you do, what conversation should the group have?"

Well if the questions are to be taken only at face value, I'd have to say we're lacking enough substance to provide a great answer without swimming around.

I stand by the part preceding my supposition with regards to your questions, and I amend that the rest is my own read on a more generalized form of the inquiry!

It's definitely fascinating to read how people approach this.


27. On 2013-09-05, E. Torner said:

Vincent's like "How do we structure the conversation? Because that's an important aspect of game design."

And then everyone's like "Well, everything is important, duh! Why you gotta boil it down to the one thing?"

(Or as Graham Walmsley once put it "You said something simple and human about game design. Now define your terms!")

Just observing.


28. On 2013-09-06, Vincent said:

My read is a little different. My read is:

Vincent: How do you choose?

Everybody: Well you have to know how it'll fit into everything. Or if not know, at least, like, grasp. Intuitively or whatever.

Vincent: I think so too!


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

I see!

Man, my whole field is about constraint ? how can you define your topos so that you don't have to deal with everything in your research design.

Otherwise, my brain goes *poof*


30. On 2013-09-06, Josh W said:

Well speaking as someone who constraint-blocks himself a lot, here's how I try to avoid it:

If you see the majority of your various constraints as grounds for improvement, ie "can I find a way to make this mechanic more like x" then you can start with something that doesn't fit that well, and slowly improve on it.

Dungeon world is a great public example of this, as it started with inhereting the highlighted stat xp thing, then the people designing it tried out a few other options until they found something that suited the game better.

The knack then is finding a good enough starting point that you can keep playtesting and move it in a better direction, after which you'll probably have an epipheny of what's wrong with it and start radically rebulding stuff.


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31. On 2013-09-07, adam mcconnaughey said:

like, a game is a machine run by a group, right? with each of the members of the group working the parts of the machine they have access to, and, hopefully, if everyone works the machine right, some kind of story/experience pops out?

and conversation is the connector between the different individual sections of the machine, right?  with different conversations being different kinds of mechanical relationships; one type of conversation represents my section kicking another section into gear, one type represents your section providing a limiter on my section, stuff like that, etc?

i dunno. it's a metaphor, i think i lost myself.


32. On 2013-09-11, Ken Filewood said:

Hi Vincent.

It's an interesting question.

What follows describes how I decide among options.

I decide by weighing the options against my design goals and make a synthetic judgement about which seems to be the best fit. 

My design goals are usually numerous and diverse.  They are seldom completely explicit and seldom completely harmonious.  I clarify, articulate, change and re-priotise them during the design process.

How I assess and compare options varies a lot.  I tend to spend more time on what I judge to be important, difficult decisions.  Specific methods that I use to assess or compare options include (in no particular order):

1) weighted scoring against my general criteria for the design criteria, or against specific criteria I make up for this procedure;
2) thought experiments and mental rehearsals;
3) talking to other designers;
4) asking or observing my audience;
5) recalling my past experience with the same, similar or radically different procedures in my own or others' games;
6) claims about similar procedures made by others;
7) reports of actual play using similar procedures;
8) play testing;
9) gut feel;
10) switching to another another activity for a while before returning to the decision;
11) considering how each option would interact with the other procedures or candidates for procedures in the game;
12) considering how much of my design/ text would need re-working;
13) asking the opinions of players;
14) pairwise comparison of attractive options; or rankings of a set of contrasting features;
15) shortlisting;
16) detailing the specifics of how the procedure will work;
17) doing calculations, if dice or figures are involved;
18) imagining the typical and extreme cases;
19) estimating frequencies, durations, word counts, group sizes

I work freehand, with a word processor and spreadsheet, by conversation or in my head.

How I decide is a mystery.  The way it seems to happen is that after some assessing and comparing, one option becomes more impressive (clear, salient, attractive, compelling) to me than the others.  So I note the decision and move on.

But if I suspect that I have not put enough effort into the decision I may deliberately put aside the most impressive option and resume assessing and comparing. 

If none of the available options seems impressive, or I am torn between a few impressive options, I sometimes make a tentative decision and move on to something else.  Other times I may apply different ways to assess and compare, look for more options to consider or restore an option I put aside earlier.

Alternatively, I sometimes adopt an earlier tentative decision by default because it becomes 'locked in' by subsequent decisions, or I judge reviewing it a low priority.

The process is non-linear, discontinuous and messy.  I do not usually regard my decision as final until I decide to stop work on the design. 




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