2013-10-28 : A Question about Objects

Quoth Nick:

The way I see it, a game has:
- a reason for playing, the thing that's enjoyable about it;
- a job for each player, the responsibility they're asked to take on so that everyone can get their enjoyment.

- Reason to Play: to find out whether you've got the smarts to win.
- Each player's job: to try to achieve checkmate.

Murderous Ghosts, explorer player:
- Reason to Play: for me, to find out what the explorer makes of their terrifying circumstances; could also be more like chess, though - to find out whether you've got what it takes to escape unmurdered.
- Job: to try earnestly to escape unmurdered.

Apocalypse World:
- Reason to Play: to find out what the characters will make of their world.
- Job: MC - to make the PCs' lives not boring and the world seem real; Others - to play their characters as real people.

What I don't get is which of these (or what else) is "the object of the game". Because! Quotes:
- "In Murderous Ghosts, the object for the explorer player is to escape unmurdered."
- "The object of Apocalypse World is to find out what these characters will make of their world."

... which to my mind are different parts of the game, as per my breakdowns above. For MG you've given the player's job, but for AW you've given the reason to play.

So which, or what, do you mean by "object of the game"?

This isn't a nitpick or a purely definitional question; it's about how I should interpret your posts - in particular the Recipe vs. Game one. What you've listed as the object for Murderous Ghosts, I totally get that it's "worth pursuing only because the contention with the rules makes it so" - indeed the pursuit and the contention lead to the enjoyable thing I've listed as the reason-to-play. So sure, it's a game rather than a recipe.

But what you've listed as the object for Apocalypse World seems, to me, to make it a recipe - it's "worth pursuing all by itself, because it aligns with your natural interests" (of liking cool stories). In my breakdown, it's the reason-to-play, not the job, and I *don't* find that I have to contend with the rules to achieve it - indeed I find the rules *help* me achieve it.

So assuming that all makes sense - and of course I'm happy to clarify anything that doesn't - what am I missing here?

Looking forward to your thoughts - thanks in advance!

Thanks, Nick! Sure thing.

My answer to "which is the object of the game?": Take any goal, job, play-to-find-out, whatever. It doesn't matter what it is, how it works, or what level of play it occupies, from the most immediate to the most long-term. "Roll only 6s," "impress your little brother," "get $500 off your friends," "get your little meeple onto the most lucrative square," "say the most heartrending thing," "reform our political system into a more humane version of itself," whatever.

It becomes the object of a game when you design a game that makes it the object.

I could design a game where the object is to roll only 6s. I could design a different game where the object is to impress your little brother (and players without little brothers can't win!). I could design a game where the object is to reform our political system, if only I had the reach, the resources, and the design skill.

Does this answer your question? There's no particular kind of goal that is only and always the object of a game. Any kind of goal might be the object of a game, if the rules of the game treat it as the object. The object of the game only exists when the game's rules create it, and a game's rules can make practically anything into its object. It's just then a question of whether the designer can pull it off.

My answer to "but Apocalypse World doesn't make me contend with its rules": It would be much, much easier for you to find out what my character Barbecue will make of his world if you could just ask me.

"Hey Vincent, what does Barbecue make of his world?"

"Oh! No sweat. He creates this oasis of normality amongst all the weirdness. He enforces it with good humor and violence only when it's called for. Gradually his people become wealthy, and some of them set off to establish their own little oases after Barbecue's model. It turns out that in the face of cheerful normality all the weirdness in the world breaks down, and doesn't invade, and that creepy-ass metal-gnawing eyeless child was just a figment of his imagination after all. Ta da!"

But no. In Apocalypse World I don't get to just tell you like that. You don't get to just ask.

The game's rules have value because they don't let me just make up the story. I have to confront the challenges before me, contend with the MC, the other players, and the game's rules, in order for Barbecue to make anything of his world.

I'm asking everybody this all the time! Do you know the game Eat Poop You Cat? There's a game whose object is extremely easy - "the object is to see what we've done at the end" - but whose rules are so interesting and fun to contend with that it's a compelling game anyway. Minecraft is another example. Most roleplaying games*, historically anyway, are the same way. Apocalypse World too. You WILL find out what the characters make of their world, unless maybe something interrupts the game. That's fine, it's like Eat Poop You Cat in that way. It's okay if the object of the game is basically given, if the game's fun to play anyway.

1. On 2013-10-28, Vincent said:

* Quoth Epidiah Ravachol: "tee hee hee."

Questions, comments, observations, further heckling from Eppy, all welcome as always!


2. On 2013-10-28, Nick said:

Great! Thanks Vincent.

Re which is the object: I think I see. What I haven't yet got is how to apply that to the design process. I can see what the fun part of my game, the reason-to-play, will be, and what jobs I'll need players to do. Then I can see whether the rules support those things. But if "the object" could be either of those or something else entirely, I'm not sure where to look to see if my rules make it so.

This comes with other questions like:
- Surely if it's that flexible, there can be more than one object?
- Do I need to know the object up-front, or will it emerge from the design process?
... but I suspect they're all variations on the same not-yet-understanding.

(I'm not asking you to answer those questions, unless you want to! That's just where my head's at. They're probably best answered by trying things in practice.)

Re rules-contention: Sure, it'd be easier to just ask you (in AW) or to just do something and look at it (in EPYC) - but most of the time the end result wouldn't be as good. I take time and care, following the rules, to get a better result. (Much like a recipe, in fact!)

That said, maybe your "it's fun even though the object is given" is in fact the same as my "better result"; different names for the same thing.


3. On 2013-10-28, Alex D said:

"Do I need to know the object up-front, or will it emerge from the design process?"

I expect there'll always be an object! If you don't design one, it'll be there, of course, subconscious and emergent.


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4. On 2013-10-29, David B said:

Hmm. One thing that's not clear for me in all this is the implicit role of potential failure here. With a recipe, assuming the recipe is well written and one has a basic capability in cooking, one could legitimately expect to never fail in following it. Whereas in many games one may fail to reach one's goal becuase the rules prevent it (such as in zero-sum games where there can be only one winner).

There's also a big difference between a game where the rules' obstructions actually provide the means to obtaining the goal and one whose rules actually all but guarantee that sometimes playing will be a waste of time. Compare for instance the goals of Apocalypse World versus playing poker for money.


5. On 2013-10-30, Vincent said:

Somebody answer me about Eat Poop You Cat!

Nick: "I can see what the fun part of my game, the reason-to-play, will be, and what jobs I'll need players to do. Then I can see whether the rules support those things."

Cool, you can see everything I can see. I'm not talking about anything beyond that stuff.

From here the question isn't "spot the object," it's "HOW do the rules support those things, and is it the best way?"


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6. On 2013-10-30, timfire said:

[OK, light bulb moment, I just looked up "Eat Poop You Cat" and realized it's a game I've played numerous times, but my friends who taught it to me called it something different. So I know what you're talking about now.]

Vincent, I have to disagree about the object of Eat Poop You Cat. I think the game has a more concrete object than just "to see what we've done at the end". The specific challenge of the game is to interpret & translate the picture/sentence as accurately as possible, or at least in a way that it's meaning is clearly communicated.

So on a group level I would say the object is to see how closely we can maintain the meaning of the original sentence (as the stack makes it's way around the group).


7. On 2013-10-30, timfire said:

I meant to add:

I would agree that a lot of the fun of Eat Poop You Cat comes from "see[ing] what we've done at the end", because the results are often very silly. But I don't believe that's the object of the game.


8. On 2013-10-30, Vincent said:

timfire: So your position is that when a sheet of paper preserves the original meaning, we've achieved the game's object with that one, and when one doesn't, we've failed?

If all the sheets of paper preserve the original meaning, we've won, and if none of them do, we've lost?

My take is that the rule that you should try to preserve the meaning is part of the rules, not part of the object. If you could just draw and write whatever, seeing what we'd made at the end wouldn't be interesting, it'd just be stuff.

But even if I'm wrong about Eat Poop You Cat, I think it stands that the object of many RPGs is to see where it takes us, and we're counting on the dynamics of play to make that interesting and challenging.


9. On 2013-10-30, timfire said:

Talking about my own experience with the game... yeah, I guess you could say that maintaining the meaning translates to a "win" condition. The trickiness here is noone talks about "winning" or "losing" because noone really expects the group to be able to maintain the meaning.

But—in my own experience with the game—the few times we actually were able to keep the meaning of the sentence through the course of the game (which has happened to me 2, maybe 3, times), there were lots of cheering and congratulating each other. Even when we only come close, there's often talk like "we did pretty good that time." That speaks to me of an implicit win condition.


10. On 2013-10-30, Vincent said:

Huh! Not us.

What lesson do you take about RPGs?


11. On 2013-10-30, Nick said:

Vincent: From here the question isn't "spot the object," it's "HOW do the rules support those things, and is it the best way?"

Ok, sure. And, to link this to your conclusion, to check my understanding: sometimes that's by making you do things you don't immediately want to do, in service of what you long-term want from the game.

Should I replace that "sometimes" with "mostly"? With "always"?


12. On 2013-10-30, Josh W said:


There's something interesting about assuming going in that something's not going to end up the same, that you will fail to avoid the obstacles to some extent, that there will be a tension pushing back and forwards and going half way.

It's like a tug of war game where everyone really likes that bit where they are straining on a rope and trying to keep grip and concentration. You don't want to "go easy" in order to prolong it, but you'd like it if it went on for just long enough.

The specific example reminds me of playing "chinese whispers" as a child. If you have good hearing, and you play in a quiet space, it's just too easy to hear what other people said. You can just communicate, and although you could intentionally misunderstand people, it spoils the point of the game. The problem is that there is no autobalancing of audability to get it to the appropriate surreal place.

So how about changing the rules a bit; it happens in a circle, and if ever anyone thinks they hear what someone whispered, they can say it, and if they are right, then play restarts from them, and there is a pseudo-win-condition of getting your phrase all the way around the group.

Anyway, it occurs to me that there is an extent to which games are like rollercoasters, we create a strange enviornment and series of constraints and challenges that pushes us into an alternative state of mind. A rollercoaster isn't hard, but you have to process it, and it's designed to be hard to process, to get your adrenaline going. In a different way, games also push us into an alternative state of mind, by exposing us to something else in force like the ambiguities of assonance, or the partial appearance of systems we need to deduce.

There are some games that force you, by locking into the basic dynamics of conversation and behaviour more heavily, or there are games that invite you in but otherwise stand politely to the side of the social space, (riddles are a classic example), but I think most games I find engaging make you a different person, by how they attach you to a different set of concerns.


13. On 2013-11-03, E. Torner said:

"Any kind of goal might be the object of a game, if the rules of the game treat it as the object."

I'm taking this and using it polemically in my Game Studies Reading Group on Wednesday!


14. On 2013-11-03, Vincent said:


How polemically? Like, what's in your sights? Or what!


15. On 2013-11-03, E. Torner said:

Well, we're reading Jon Peterson's book "Playing at the World" from cover to cover. We're at the part where he's talking about the development of rules systems from, like, chess to Dungeons and Dragons.

What I want the students to get is that every hack made to these various war games over time actually fundamentally change the object of the game, despite any claims to the contrary. This makes the history of game design far more interesting than people make it.


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16. On 2013-11-04, Gordon said:

I'd want to add that there isn't necessarily - I'd go so far as to say CAN not be guaranteed - a 100% overlap between the object of the game as designed and the goal of the game as actually played. So hacks might or might not fundamentally change the way a game is played, and to say it changes (fundamentally or otherwise) the object of the game in the sense I think Vincent is using here is self-fulfilling: that is, the object of a game is defined as "what it's designed for", and so changing the object you design for changes, um, the designed object. Of course.

The link and/or separation (either can be good and/or bad) between what you design for and what people actually do is where the cool/difficult/interesting stuff happens, in my mind.


17. On 2013-11-04, Vincent said:

Gordon: I find this bizarre.

I designed a card game, unpublished but complete and playable. It's called "Pirate Rummy." The object is to empty your hand of cards.

I designed a board game, likewise unpublished but playable. It's called "The Abductinators." The object is to abductinate the most pawns from the board.

I designed a tabletop mini wargame, "Mobile Frame Zero" (nee "Mechaton"). The object is to have the most victory points when the doomsday clock hits zero.

For these games, do you still need to insist that the object of the game doesn't 100% match the players' goals, or is that just for rpgs?

Is there something I'm supposed to have added to Mobile Frame Zero's design to accommodate players who aren't trying to have the most victory points at doomsday, some way I'm supposed to have taken them into account in the game's design, or is THAT just for rpgs?


18. On 2013-11-04, Rickard said:

What I think Gordon is aiming at is that the object of the game could create a strive within the game, where the goal for the player could instead be to hang out with friends, to win over the opponents, to gain a new kind of gaming experience and so on.

In roleplaying games, this is more obvious because we got characters. The object of the participant playing doesn't have to correspond to the object of what the character is taken. In a boardgame such as Ludo, you could say (for this point only) that the object of the game is for the tokens and not for the players.

I would add to this the object of the gaming experience, which is created and "chased" by the creator of the game. All are important parts of the game design process, but I also think it's important to distinguish for whom the object is for. The character, the participant, or the creator.


19. On 2013-11-04, Vincent said:

Oh, sure.

Gordon, is that all you're saying?


20. On 2013-11-05, Gordon said:

Rickard's got most of it, I think - yes, definitionally (to my mind) "the object of the game doesn't 100% match the players' goals". I'd flip that around - the point isn't that you're even trying to get an object that's 100% of the player's goals. It doesn't have to do that, it's the object, right? It is what it is regardless of those other goals. I think that's not-bizarre.

But there's a piece that maybe you'll find still-bizarre. I do think there are details about how goals that aren't the object of the game create design complications in a more difficult way "just for RPGs." In Mobile Frame Zero, if someone, oh, takes damage so that their fig stays the most aesthetically pleasing rather than effective, that interferes with getting VPs before countdown. But it's pretty easy to say "hey man, you're weird, and you lost. You make cool lego-mechs, though."

In an RPG, I think dismissing Nick's "for me, to find out what the explorer makes of their terrifying circumstances" in a similar way is not so easy (sometimes still possible, but not so easy). As amazingly useful as all this object of the game is, it does not DISPLACE the fact that when provided with a certain level of engagement with fictional stuff, people will bring goals in no matter what you say about an object for the game. Those things are entirely capable of slapping your object of the game around and taking its lunch money.

To be clear, Vincent, I'm not saying you are dismissing that at all, never mind in the same way - if you had ANY direct response to that bit from Nick, I missed it. I see other goals (social interaction, personal experience, whatever - maybe including good old Big Model CA and "aesthetic priorities" - those were a thing, right?) as design considerations that will interact with the object of the game. Most of what I've read here is entirely consistent with that. Every now and then, I think I see that displacement thing happening instead, and I go "Hurr? That's not right ..."


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21. On 2013-11-05, Vincent said:

Gordon: For all rpgs, or just for some? Which ones do you necessarily include, and which are you willing to consider exceptions to your view?

In my view, The Doomed Pilgrim is exactly like MF0. If you consistently get distracted by other capricious and individual goals, ignoring the object of the game, and so basically always let me win, I'm going to get bored of playing with you. Murderous Ghosts, too.

Is this consistent with your view?


22. On 2013-11-05, Gordon said:

Vincent:All rpgs, potentially - not every rpg, as actually played by particular players at particular times. Maybe I think this because of the presence of "Exploration", and maybe I shouldn't, but - right now, I guess I do.

I wouldn't say that The Doomed Pilgrim is exactly like MF0. It can be, but there's a range between "capricious and individual goals ignoring [emphasis added] the object of the game" and "always let me win," isn't there? 

I could say more, but - am I honing in further where I'm consistent vs. bizarre?


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23. On 2013-11-05, Vincent said:

Gordon: In The Doomed Pilgrim, under what circumstances could you be distracted by the pursuit of some personal goal, ignoring the object of the game, and NOT be basically letting me win?


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24. On 2013-11-06, Gordon said:

Vincent: If it's merely a distraction that causes you to actually ignore the object, there are no such circumstances (while people might still do it anyway, that's a different level of issue than we're discussing here, I think).

But that's hardly the only way that other goals get into the mix, is it? There are plenty of circumstances where you might perceive the addition of something that supports your variant-goal to be compatible with your own winning, right? (checking the marginalia - yeah, sorta-that)

Importantly, you might be wrong. That's always a danger in limited-information exchanges (I hesitantly point to this theorem and Mechanism Design generally (can't have a second link?), hopefully as useful pointers rather than an appeal to authority - they may undermine my thinking when fully understood by serious students rather than partially-grasped like by dabblers like me). But people will run that risk - the reward is too alluring.

Maybe this bottom line: While it is true that players have to fundamentally include and value the object to be considered as actually playing the game, I think it's smart for an RPG designer to accept that the BEST you can expect from the object you design for the game is that players will include and value it (probabilistically) highly, not deterministically follow it. There's a sense in which that's true even in chess ("keep my pawns"), but I'm more interested in the ways it's particularly true in an RPG.

So - sure, there is a class of "just not engaging with the designed game" behavior. Maybe there's something interesting to be said about that, but I'm not worried about that subset. What I'm worried about is valuing a goal regarding, oh, some aesthetic aspect of the fiction generated in The Doomed Pilgrim as well as or even (almost?) as much as dooming/escaping UnDoomed.

I'll stop now, to see if this is helping again.


25. On 2013-11-06, Vincent said:

Gordon: I remain perplexed.

If valuing this aesthetic aspect of the fiction, for instance, is compatible with pursuing the object of the game, then as the designer, I don't have to think about it, not once, not ever. Posing you the object of the game fulfills my duty to your compatible goal.

If valuing it, on the other hand, is incompatible with pursuing the object of the game, then as the designer, I don't have to care about it, not once, not ever. You'll pursue your incompatible goal to the detriment of your play, and lose, and next time either you'll pursue the object instead, or else you'll persist, and in the latter case sooner or later your friends will stop trying to play the game with you.

In all cases, I'm content to have provided you the object of the game, and to let you tend to your own compatible or incompatible goals yourself. Aren't I?


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26. On 2013-11-06, Gordon said:

Vincent: Valuing the aesthetic aspect of the fiction might amplify the pursuit of the object, or it might get in the way, depending upon details in design and player behavior.

The relationship between goals and objects is, I'd say, more akin to a complex association than a compatible/incompatible dichotomy. People will make decisions based on uncertainty about compatible/incompatible. Probably they'll try and optimize for compatible - but the nature of such things is they'll often be unsure, and sometimes wrong. This is OK - unsure is certainly true for the designer, too (if I understand how Mechanism Design might apply here, there are better and worse methods, but no guaranteed solutions).

But it seems a mistake to ignore the complexity. I mean, as a designer, you might decide not to care and put the onus on the players to, e.g., abandon aesthetics when neccessary to acheive their object. But my experience (and possibly lame-ass understanding of stuff like Mechanism Design) is that that is close to expecting them to not behave like humans. Acknowledging simultaneously that it is MORE than reasonable to expect them to actually care about/pay attention to the object ...

Trying to keep it short - I guess "compatible/incompatible is too simple" vs. "you can always boil it down to compatible vs. incompatible" is a potential "we just disagree" point, and if so, maybe we're done. If not - I'll be back, maybe tomorrow, though.


27. On 2013-11-06, Vincent said:

Oh my god, Gordon! You're right. I've been digging in this whole time, but I've been off the mark.

I'll say more about it tomorrow, with examples from The Doomed Pilgrim and/or Murderous Ghosts, but:

As the designer, you get to choose which independent goals your game considers, and how it handles them. That's all. And that while there are some goals that rpgs have conventionally considered, and some conventional ways they've handled them, we are not bound to follow. We get to choose for ourselves, case by case, every time.

Like I say, examples tomorrow. I think they'll bring us from "I think you're wrong" territory into "I dislike that about the game" territory, which is, I think, where we belong.


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28. On 2013-11-07, Vincent said:

Okay! In Murderous Ghosts, here's a goal that the explorer player might bring to the game: to come to understand the ghosts' backstory. The ghost player has a backstory in mind*, which she'll reveal in play, if only the explorer can discover it. Understanding the ghosts' backstory gives the explorer power to exploit it, either to better escape or even to help the ghost come to a non-murderous resolution and move on to eternal rest.

As the designer, I'm well aware that people will bring this goal into the game. I have a choice whether to acknowledge it, and if so, how to handle it.

In Murderous Ghosts, I decided to yes, acknowledge it, and to handle it by setting a trap. It's a mean, mean trap: the explorer book says that if you help the ghosts resolve their trauma and move on to eternal rest, you win the game. The ghosts book, though, points out that an explorer who's trying to figure out the ghosts' backstory is super easy to murder, so you can encourage them with some early success to draw them into a no-win position. The design of the game goes on to fully support the ghost player in this situation against the explorer player.

Gordon, this is an example of the designer taking into account the possibility that the players will have aesthetic goals for the fiction, yes? I've done it to punish the players instead of reward them, because, yknow, "Trauma Games presents," but this is the kind of thing you're talking about?


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29. On 2013-11-07, Vincent said:

There's a similar trap in The Doomed Pilgrim, more subtle, where the pilgrim player can exploit the internet's sense of dramatic timing. You can see it in action down here. Basically, Ben hoped that for reasons of dramatic timing I would put my own neck in the noose. I was only too happy to seize the opportunity to not do so.

As designer, I knew that the players would bring a sense of dramatic timing to the game as an aesthetic consideration. I designed the game so that if the pilgrim player gets sucked into it, she'll lose, but if she can keep her head instead, it might give her openings to escape.


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30. On 2013-11-07, Vincent said:

Oh! I just thought of another example. For the most part, compared to Murderous Ghosts and the Doomed Pilgrim, Apocalypse World is happy to accommodate the players' outside goals. One exception, though, is the player whose goal is to have his character impose his vision upon the world by will and force. I've written about the trap I laid for that player in this thread over at the Barf.


31. On 2013-11-07, Gordon said:

Vincent: Yes, I think those are all examples of non-object goals (terrible shorthand, but hopefully at least in the context of this thread that's clear enough) that have been taken into account by the design. I was pretty sure you did this, which was part of my "Hurr?" when I thought you were saying "object means we don't do this."

As you point to, I expect there are other aspects of non-object goals, like what happens with those you (for whatever reason) aren't well aware of, or those you choose not to acknowledge. And of course lots of variation on how you do handle 'em when you choose to do so.

But why *I* was getting stubborn (thankfully not futilely!) is that I want to know more about the way the object, the non-object goals included (somehow) in the design, and the superset of those plus "what people actually do" combine to either work or not-work in generating enjoyable gameplay. That seemed a more complex topic than "object: yes or no?" You gave some great examples - thanks!

I may want to drill down on an example, maybe the Murderous Ghosts, to see what happens both in detail and at the fringe possibilities, but - let me sit with it a bit, maybe re-read Murderous Ghosts, and see if I really think that'd be useful.


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