Here is a playtest draft of Rusty From Disuse, a roleplaying game for 3 players that chronicles the saga of a legendary weapon as it goes from hand to hand, deed to deed. The previous version went by the title “The Book of Armaments” as part of the #Threeforged RPG design challenge. In addition to the title change this version has had several minor revisions and improvements.
In the run-up to the release of Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker and in post-release reaction, “fictional positioning” became a hot topic of discussion in the indie gaming scene. Even though it was a central topic there was much confusion and miscommunication, and for many people it was unclear what “fictional positioning” was. Some of this confusion was likely caused by poor terminology choices in Forge Theory, a lack of conceptual clarity, and the assumption of a need for RPG-specific concepts and jargon which can end up making things seem more complex than necessary since they implicitly bundle in the tricky question of how RPGs differ from other games.
Let’s start by looking at the definition of Positioning from The Big Model wiki, which is the most up-to-date distillation of Forge Theory (note: at the time of this posting there’s something wrong with that website, you need to click on “view source” to actually see the content).
A Character Component. Behavioral, social, and contextual statements about a character. Formerly (and confusingly) called Metagame. See also Currency
Following the instructions, let’s see also the definition of Currency:
The relationships between the things on the character sheet.
A character sheet in a rpg is a list of Resources (things that are used and consumed: hit points, fatigue levels, sanity points, etc.), Effectiveness (skills, characteristics, abilities, advantages, etc.), and Positioning (who or what the character is in the fiction, where he is, in what situation and what does that mean, i.e. “King of Aquilonia”, or “on higher ground than his opponent”)
These things are related and exchanged all the time: being on a higher ground (Positioning) can give you a +1 on the “roll to hit” (Effectiveness) but trying to hit someone can use up your fatigue points (Resources). Or maybe you used up a fatigue point to roll on your “climb” ability (Effectiveness) to get on a higher ground (Positioning)
All [these] relationship and exchanges represent the currency of the game.
No matter if you are playing “freeform” or without character sheets, you still have a system, you still have characters, they still are positioned in a fiction, they still can do some things and can’t do other things, and the things they can do (Effectiveness) can change their positioning, or the other way around. There is always a Currency.
Here we encounter our first element of terminological confusion. This definition of currency is focused on a process of exchanging between various elements. However, a common usage of the word currency is to refer to a token of exchange, such as a Dollar or a Euro. Since many RPGs employ spendable tokens in their rules (which would be Resources by these definitions) it is confusing to build jargon off of a word that has an alternate domain-relevant definition. “Currency” is therefore a questionable word choice for this concept.
We also encounter another element of terminological confusion. The second paragraph suggests that Resources, Effectiveness, and Positioning are things on “a character sheet”, but the fifth paragraph says these things exist even in games without character sheets. This suggests that the “character sheet” mentioned in the definition is a virtual concept that contains Resources, Effectiveness, and Positioning but doesn’t necessarily correspond to the concrete character sheets that exist in many games. So, for the time being, let’s recall that these three things are bundled together in a conceptual category, and defer the question of whether “character sheet” is the best term to label that container.
By looking at the parenthetical after Positioning we see that it means ‘who or what the character is in the fiction, where he is, in what situation and what does that mean, i.e. “King of Aquilonia”, or “on higher ground than his opponent”’. If we look back to the canonical definition from earlier we can see that it’s using “statements about a character” similar to the way we might refer to “statements” in propositional logic. RPGs are a verbal medium that often involve players making statements as part of play, so this specialized usage of the term “statements” is a potential source of confusion. As the parenthetical makes clear, Positioning doesn’t concern statements about relationships, rather it concerns the relationships themselves. And looking at the kinds of relationships described we can find analogs in other games: In soccer we care about the physical position of a player on the field, as well as their position on the team, e.g. “goalkeeper”. By using the slightly unusual term “positioning” it wouldn’t be surprising if a reader assumed it was RPG-specific jargon that didn’t apply to other games, and the way the word “positioning” is used in marketing and politics might give rise to connotations that it’s about manipulatively gaining advantage (you can easily imagine that “fictional positioning” might refer to wheedling an authority figure for a discretionarily-granted advantage by using the fiction as a pretext). The term “position” doesn’t have those connotations in soccer: the relative positions of players matters in terms of who is advantaged at any given time, but “position” itself is a neutral, descriptive concept. Since harmonizing with sister fields is a conceptual and terminological virtue, let’s tentatively assume that the Big Model’s “positioning” isn’t some RPG-specific jargon but is a reference to “position”.
Now let’s look at Resources:
A Character Component: quantities or terms which are directly used to determine the success or extent of a character’s actions during play
Or, as the Currency section more clearly explains, “things that are used and consumed: hit points, fatigue levels, sanity points, etc.”. These are concrete, measurable, spendable things. But anything that can be represented numerically is, in some sense, at a position on a number line. Resources, therefore, might be better conceptualized as a special case of position — positions that have very concrete representations and a well-defined player interface (e.g. you can spend them).
Similarly, let’s look at Effectiveness:
A [[Character Component]]: quantities or terms which are directly used to determine the success or extent of a character’s actions during play.
As the currency section further explains, it’s “skills, characteristics, abilities, advantages, etc.” and ‘being on a higher ground (Positioning) can give you a +1 on the “roll to hit” (Effectiveness)’. The concepts may be somewhat muddled here. If this transient +1 to hit is an element of Effectiveness then it seems counterintuitive to classify it as something that might exist on a virtual character sheet; in most games that actually use character sheets it wouldn’t be represented there but would be a function of the rules interacting with the current game-state. If we separate out the two parts of this concept we can have long-term stable values like skills characteristics, and abilities, which we could call another special case of position. And we also have a concept of Effectiveness which we might describe as the potential to effect change in the game-state. This Effectiveness is normally a function that takes position as an input (including long-term stable positions like skills or abilities, spendable resource positions of things like action points or limited-use special powers, and in-fiction positions like where a character is in the world with respect to other entities — either physically like “standing behind them” or metaphorically like “his estranged son”).
And if we check back with the soccer analogy this definition of Effectiveness maps very well: A player’s ability to effect a change in the game-state (for example, scoring a point or triggering a penalty) is a function of their position on the field (things like distance from the goal and the position of intervening defenders clearly affect that), their position on the team (a goalkeeper can use their hands to perform maneuvers not allowed to other players), and other factors in the current game state (the current score and time left of the clock can be a factor in whether or not a player is capable of impacting whether their team wins or loses).
Using “position” as our basic concept also fits neatly with the term “move” which has been popularized by Vincent Baker both as a general game term (e.g. “It’s your move” or “my move is knight to king’s bishop 3” in chess, “the running back pulled off some sweet moves to dodge those tackles” in American Football, or “the alliance made a big move by throwing the challenge so they could vote out a member of their own tribe” on the Reality TV game Survivor) and as a specific game-mechanical term in the game Apocalype World. “Move” already has a semantic relationship to the concept of “changing position” in plain English.
A danger when using a chess move as an example is that the simplicity of the way we represent the change in position relative to the board can hide some of the complexity. Lots of elements can have positional relationships between them. If, instead of using the chessboard coordinates as our reference frame, we chose to represent the state of the game as a set of pairwise relationships between all of the pieces we could see that making a chess move is a more complex transformation than it initially appeared. Indeed, it’s the relationship between the pieces (i.e. which piece can take which) that feeds into evaluating the Effectiveness of a chess player’s position, so this more complex sense of position in chess isn’t merely rhetorical. Another useful analogy for changes in position having complex effects would be to use a metaphor that’s used to help explain the Einsteinian conception of gravity: a rubber sheet with heavy spheres on it. The spheres not only have positions in space, their positions also affect the shape of the space around them.
And this discursion into chess, where pieces have positions but so does the “side” which is constituted by the positions of its pieces, points out that tightly coupling these concepts to “a character” is too limiting. Anything can have a positional relationship with any other thing. For example, a player with multiple characters (such as a GM) might have a single resource that is shared between them (such as a pool of points that can be spent on extra dice or other bonuses).
So now if we begin gluing these concepts back together, we can see that “Currency” is really about understanding how the current game-state (which is made up of all the positional relationships of elements in the game) transforms from one moment to the next, it’s “System in action”. From the section on System:
A good way to look at System is that without it, characters in their settings would merely sit there frozen – once you put System into action, the Shared Imagined Space acquires ”time”, and the fictional situations in play can ”change”.
And this maps nicely to the way other games work. In chess, at any given moment the current positions of all the pieces (and a “whose turn is it?” variable) define the current game-state, the System of chess defines the way that game-state is transformed, and play is a series of transformations of those positions. At any given moment in soccer the current positions of the players, ball, score, and game-clock (and a few game-state variables like whether you’re doing a penalty procedure or the regular game, etc.) determine the game-state, the System of soccer defines the way that game-state is transformed (including the laws of physics which govern things like how a ball moves when it is kicked), and play is a series of transformations of those positions.
Thus, we may not actually need a replacement term for the ambiguity-plagued Currency since the concept it’s describing is the essence of System. Similarly, we can drop “character components” since those concepts aren’t necessarily tightly coupled to characters. We can also set aside the virtual “character sheet” since we no longer need a conceptual container for Positioning, Resources, and Effectiveness because we’ve recast Resources as a special case of Position and Effectiveness as a function that takes Position as its input.
[edit 7/24/2015] The Big Model also identifies Exploration as the core activity of roleplaying. “Experiencing a space by moving through a series of positions” is semantically tied to “exploration” in plain English, so that’s another reason to believe the tweaks presented in this blog post result in a more elegant arrangement of concepts.
On social media I’ve seen some recent RPG discussions about “player empowerment” or games that “give more power to the players”. This is especially common in discussions that involve comparing the nebulous category “Story Games” to other types of RPGs. Frequently this involves something that is difficult for a player to do in Game A being easy to do in Game B. The problem with calling this “empowerment” is that it usually maintains the expectations of Game A as the basis for comparison and fails to take into account treating Game B on its own terms.
For example, if the difference between Game A and Game B is that the scope and scale of the fictional action is simply more grandiose then the difference may be largely cosmetic. Is there a huge difference between Indiana Jones dodging a rolling boulder and Superman dodging a hurtling meteor? If we’re comparing between games, couldn’t a case be made that we should be comparing the Indy-to-Boulder relationship to the Superman-to-Meteor relationship rather than just comparing meteors to boulders or Superman to Dr. Jones?
Another way that this “empowerment” question gets discussed is when players in Game B can make any of the choices they can make in Game A, plus more. A frequent example is when games include explicit “Narrative Control” mechanics, where players can simply cause events to happen in the fictional world whether or not they are directly caused by a character they control. This is often described as having more “player power” than games where players influence the world through the actions of their characters. But, again, there’s a strange oranges to apple-cores comparison happening here: this may seem “powerful” from the perspective of D&D where such things are only the province of high-level magic like the Wish spell, but if a game is designed such that this type of action is commonplace and unremarkable, is it really “powerful” to do that? Is a Monopoly player who can acquire land from the very beginning of the game more powerful than an old-school D&D player who needs to get their character to name level before pulling off a similar feat?
Because it’s so frequently unclear what a “fair” way to compare “power” between games is I’m skeptical that it’s a useful lens for gaining insight into how games work. It seems to have a lot of rhetorical weight, though, so it gets employed frequently in RPG arguments.
Aside: I think the distinction that gets blurred when games use explicit “narrative control” or “declare a fact” mechanics can be an important one. If a game “exposes the facade” of the fiction by employing a mechanic that draws attention to the arbitrariness and artificiality of the fiction it can make it harder to use it as a shared foundation of play. Similarly, when the mechanics and procedures of a game are made to seem inconstant and ephemeral by lots of fudging or on-the-fly game design they’re also less able to serve as a shared foundation. Not all games need to use those things as the shared basis of play, but all games need some shared basis to function, and many RPGs use those.
Breaking things down to low level concepts, what we want to know when we playtest a game is whether the result of the design is good or not, so we can figure out the next step to take, such as taking the game back to the drawing board, finalizing the game to publish it, etc.. Drawing that in simple diagram form might look like this:
But we don’t have to leave things at this black box level, let’s peek inside the “is it good?” box. Obviously this is a complex question, but we might choose to abstractly model it as some combination of several factors, such as “Did we like the experience?” (if the answer is ‘no’ it’s probably not a fun game), “Did the actual experience match the intended experience?” (if you had a very Star Wars-like experience and you were trying to design a Star Trek-like game it’s probably not a good Star Trek game), and “Did the game run smoothly, or were there unpleasant elements like rules confusion, uncomfortable interpersonal tension, difficulty figuring out what to do next, etc.?”.
If we peek inside the playtesting box, we might think about several things that contribute to an RPG session. Obviously the particular rules, procedures, background information, etc., that make up the game being tested will be a factor. But there are other factors, too. The chemistry of the people you’re playing with certainly influences play. And of course no game exists in a vacuum, every player brings things to the table with them, such as customs, habits, or expectations built by playing other games. Also, since RPGs take place in the imaginations of the participants, pre-existing knowledge of the source material matters, too: from low-level issues like vocabulary to more complex expectations like “what an orc looks like”. Recognizing that any model will be imperfect, we might choose to model the playtest like this:
And of course, we can go inside the black box of designing a game, too. All art both builds upon what has come before and makes its own contribution, so to a greater or lesser degree any given game will be using pre-existing concepts and also bringing new ideas to the table. Some games might re-use a lot of existing concepts, such as when someone heavily leverages an existing design framework, and some games might lean more toward original material, such as a blue-sky experimental game with lots of never-before-seen mechanics and techniques.
Now that we’ve got some conceptual models to work with, let’s imagine two playtest groups so we can compare and contrast. In the first group, the designer has taken a game that his group loves playing and has hacked it to support something else they all love, Harry Potter. They have all known each other a long time, enjoy hanging out with each other even when they’re not roleplaying, and they follow an “as long as you’re having fun you’re doing it right” philosophy toward gaming.
In the second group, the designer has created a weird, new experimental game to produce roleplaying experiences similar to an obscure genre of literature that she enjoys. They’re acquaintances that don’t know each other that well, but they’ve all bonded over a mutual interest in following the rules of each game as closely as possible so they can have a unique and different experience with each game they play.
If we plug our Harry Potter Hack design into our white-box conceptual models, we can see some things:
First, we can guess that they’ll probably have a good time, because these people enjoy each other’s company. Also, because the game-under-test is a hack of a game that all the players are familiar with, odds are good that they’ll be employing a lot of pre-existing habits and expectations while they play, so they’ll probably get up to speed quickly, but might forget about or gloss over some of the new design elements. Since the game re-uses a lot of the structural elements from the base game which already functions well, they’ll probably not run into any catastrophic breakdowns. And since all of the players are very familiar with the source material, their game decisions will probably be heavily influenced by “what would be the Harry Potter thing to do?” thinking, regardless of where the particular mechanics of the game would be guiding them.
If the Harry Potter group has a fun, enjoyable experience in the playtest, what can the designer conclude? Well, it’s certainly possible that their design work was the main contributor to that, but since there are so many other strong signals that would also lead to that result it’s difficult to make that conclusion: this group might have an awesome time even if they were playing a terrible Harry Potter game as long as they could say “Wingardium Leviosa” while miming a swish-and-flick motion as they rolled their favorite dice. If the session turns out all wrong that’s probably strong evidence that there are issues with the design, though, because the other influential factors are unlikely to produce that result.
What about the group playtesting the weird experimental game?
Since the game is highly, perhaps painfully original, the group is unlikely to substitute in any pre-existing expectations from other games even if they wanted to, which they don’t because they’re deeply invested in trying to play each game on its own terms. They don’t know how these types of stories are supposed to work, so the only thing they can do is attempt to follow the rules and procedures in front of them. And they don’t know each other that well, so the pleasant experience of spending time with good friends won’t really be a factor (obviously they might become friends, but they’re not yet).
If the weird, experimental group has a fun, enjoyable experience in the playtest, that’s probably good evidence that there’s good stuff in the design. If the game doesn’t use any tried-and-true techniques, merely getting to the end without the wheels falling off is a nontrivial accomplishment, since it means that many things that could have gone wrong actually didn’t. If the session gives the correct vibe for the source material, that’s probably due to the game design, too. And if it was fun, again, there’s a good chance it’s because of the game design. Obviously these things can never be known with absolute certainty: maybe these people just have awesome chemistry together through random chance, and maybe mere luck kept the game from crashing and burning. Still, it’s evidence that didn’t refute the hypothesis “this is a good game”. What if the weird, experimental playtest session sucks? Well, it’s a bit harder to draw conclusions there. Maybe these people are just incompatible in some way and shouldn’t play together. Maybe the obscure genre is an acquired taste, and the group disliked their first experience with it but would love it if they got to know it. Maybe they’re bringing in baggage and expectations from other games despite their intentions, since their self-described gaming attitude isn’t evenly distributed across all gaming subcultures. Or maybe they’re still in the “learning curve” part of the game and they’d start having fun once some system mastery kicked in after a few sessions of experience.
Different, Not Necessarily Better or Worse
These approaches are different, but whether that means better or worse depends on what you were trying to get out of it. If the goal of the playtesting is to get the maximum amount of information about the quality of the game design, the experimental “rules as written” group is probably getting closer to that goal than the Harry Potter group. If the priority is to have as high a chance as possible of having a fun session, the Harry Potter group is more likely to get that result while the other group might have to console themselves with feelings of nobility and integrity as they go down with a sinking ship of a game design that didn’t work. (Personally, I think that it makes the most sense to prioritize playtesting for the sake of getting information about the game design, because if your goal is to have fun why not just play an existing game that’s known to work well instead of taking the risk on a playtest?)
And, naturally, the two abstract examples I described don’t represent the only two ways to do things, I selected them to illustrate the point that the way you choose to design and test a game influences the information you can get from playtests and the conclusions you can draw from the process.
From late 2009 until early 2012 I produced a podcast called Designer vs. Reality, putting out 38 episodes by the end. The premise of the podcast was that it was actual play (i.e. a recording of people actually playing a roleplaying game) of RPGs that were still in the design/development process. The kind of game design that I advocate is one of hard-headed empiricism: it’s easy for a designer to think their game works one way inside their head, but the only way to know how it actually works is to get it to the table and see. Then, you use observation of play to guide tweaks to the game until it achieves the desired result. It was my perception at the time that there was a lot of “mysticism” associated with the design process, and I felt it would be valuable for the community to start looking at game design, development, and playtesting as something we could consider objectively, and that we could develop good techniques and methodologies for how to playtest well. Additionally, I was listening to a lot of writing advice at the time and heard several writers say that they learned a lot of stuff by engaging with flawed in-progress stories that they never would have picked up from reading only finished, edited work, and I thought something analogous ought to apply to game design: many of the podcasts of the time were trying to showcase and popularize games, so one that tried to expose the guts would be a valuable addition.
I knew that most people have limited experience with testing (and many people’s first instincts about testing tend to be well-intentioned but misguided), but I felt that I had some things to say about testing that I learned in my engineering career where my job was to help find bugs in microprocessor designs. Being a listener of AP podcasts, and believing that there’s no substitute for concrete examples, I figured that producing my own AP podcast that showcased warts-and-all playtesting would be a good starting point for conversations about game design. It was also my hope that by rolemodeling playtesting games I could encourage more people to want to playtest, either with me (I was playing via Skype at the time) or on their own, increasing the amount of RPG playtesting that was happening in the world. While I started with a burst of enthusiasm it eventually become emotionally unsustainable for me and the show pod-faded (i.e. I stopped producing episodes without an explicit and intentional end-point).
The initial episodes of the show were some very rough play sessions of my game Final Hour of a Storied Age with one of my regular Skype groups at the time (the game itself was rough at the time, and there were some social incompatibilities in the group that eventually led to it dissolving). Then I managed to find some other game designers on a game design forum who were willing to engage in online mutual playtesting where we’d each be playtesters in each others’ games, and that led to a lot of sessions. Eventually the group ran out of inventory we wanted to playtest (the games either needed external testing rather than internal with-the-designer testing, or the designer was insufficiently invested in revising the game based on what they learned from one test to make another one worthwhile, plus we weren’t designing a lot of new games). We ran one external beta test series of another designer’s game, but without the motivation from mutualism we didn’t have a burning desire to continue a regular sessions and we amicably allowed the group to wind down. I tried to recruit some other groups, and also featured some recordings from my regular non-playtesting group playing a game that happened to be in beta at the time, but without the regular sessions to generate the content the prospect of doing the playtesting and producing the podcast was taking more emotional energy out of me than I was getting back from the process and I had to stop. Here are some of the reasons I couldn’t continue:
Editing a podcast is work
Doing the audio-editing on a podcast is work. It’s work I don’t particularly hate, and sometime even enjoyed to an extent, but I didn’t enjoy it intrinsically enough to do it without it serving some external purpose. When it became clear to me that it was unrealistic to hope that I’d get the audience response I wanted I had a hard time maintaining motivation to do the audio editing.
Evangelizing an AP Podcast became exhausting
Actual Play Podcasts are a niche medium. When I’d try to drum up listeners for the show I’d rarely encounter enthusiasm or even open-mindedness. By far the most common reaction was “oh my God, that must be sooooooo booooooooring…”. Hearing that from seemingly every other person ground me down. The obligations of politeness always prevented me from retorting the way I’d like to, which was to note that the only basis people who haven’t listened to AP would have for speculating would be by projecting from their own gaming experience, which would be an indication that their own play was pretty lackluster. Of course, the other big misconception is that many people imagine that you give your undivided focused attention to the audio, as if it’s the 1940s and you’re all gathered around for a radio show, when the reality of podcasts is that people use them as supplements to other activities, e.g. I listen to them when I take long walks. Some games are indeed boring to listen to in AP format, but there seems to be a pretty strong correlation between those games and games I don’t enjoy playing, so I don’t blame the medium. Regardless, facing the same blanket resistance to the show’s concept over and over and over again was emotionally rough for me, especially when I felt I needed to self-censor my desire to correct people’s misconceptions (I know that you can’t lecture someone into liking something).
The Cult of the Designer
I didn’t get a lot of buzz for my show, but some of the conversations that did happen highlighted the prospect of listening to people “playtest with the designer” as the best thing about the show, as if this should be some special treat. Personally, I think that if you get a “truer” experience by playing a game with the designer it’s a symptom that the designer hasn’t done a very good job with the game text. We don’t expect to have a unique and special experience when an automotive engineer is driving a car. The entire point of my podcast was to try to remove the personalities and mysticism from the process of playtesting so the games themselves could be laid bare to be observed objectively, not to be a vehicle for fanclub-building and treating designers as gurus or VIPs. Seeing that I was unintentionally feeding into the dysfunctional Cult of the Designer meme in the indie scene made me deeply ambivalent about putting out more shows.
Couldn’t find a way to get trusted content from others
The one common thread in all of my episodes was that I was either playing or GMing in every session. This was because those were the session recordings I had access to. Even though it wasn’t an intentional plan, it had the effect of making me a central focus of the show. I didn’t want the show to be “listen to Dan playtest”, but I couldn’t figure out a way to get other people to generate content that I wanted to feature. I couldn’t offer a blanket “send me your recordings and I’ll edit them into a podcast” because I wasn’t interested in featuring all styles of games (e.g. I find games in which you aren’t expected to follow the rules to be utterly useless from a game design or playtesting POV and wouldn’t want to waste my time with them, but I couldn’t figure out a non-rude way to say that) and I didn’t want to have to deal with any awkward conversations where I might need to say “no” after someone submitted a recording. Unfortunately there weren’t any good rallying points for the kinds of games or game design I was interested in so I couldn’t connect with many like-minded people. As a result the only content I had to work with was stuff I generated it myself.
Not enough conversations
It had been my hope when I started the podcast that I could get a “best of both worlds” effect by appealing to both AP podcast fans and game design fans, having both groups listen and engage in conversation. AP fans would be able to bring their breadth of experience, e.g. picking up on patterns or emotional cues that they recognized from listening to a lot of play, and design fans would engage with the nuts and bolts of how the games were (or weren’t) working. I think the audience was more like the intersection of those sets rather than the union: not a lot of people cared about the show, so there wasn’t critical mass to have self-sustaining conversations. The conversations that did happen tended to be people talking directly to me. My hope had been that the conversations would develop some energy of their own rather than being carried on my shoulders as host, and my self-consciousness about not wanting to “dominate” conversations made some of these interactions anxiety-inducing for me.
When we ran out of internal content that needed playtesting I figured I would try to be a positive force in the community and offer to playtest other people’s stuff, so I posted on a forum asking for games in need of playtesting. Unfortunately a lot of people buy into the conventional wisdom of needing to “sell” their games to potential playtesters so it immediately became labor-intensive to try to separate the wheat from the chaff and the actual design information from the sales pitch (if the game didn’t do anything new from a game design POV but was just “roll + attribute vs. target number as the GM railroads you through a plot” there was nothing that could be gained by playtesting it or podcasting about it). It also left me with a general antipathy toward all the “shills” who weren’t actually interested in real playtesting but just wanted more cheerleaders for their game. It was probably unfair of me to tar everyone with the negativity caused by the bad apples, but it’s an understandable emotional reaction, and the feeling that my generosity was being taken advantage of was more weight than I could realistically carry.
I can’t stand organizing sessions
I have some social anxiety issues, and I find initiating a conversation with someone extremely aversive. I am also much more of a “big picture” than “detail oriented” person, I find it emotionally exhausting to need to keep track of lots of details. Therefore trying to wrangle groups of people to show up at particular places at particular times is one of the things I particularly hate doing. When my recurring session trailed off I figured I could build up some new contacts in the community and find other people to play with, but the emotional drain of trying to set up the play sessions was too much for me.
Some RPGs are more popular than others, and it can be difficult to figure out why. This is not unusual, many “culture industry” products work this way: some movies are hits and others are flops, some songs top the charts and others are ignored, some books hit the best-seller lists and others are never read. It’s reasonable to want an audience for the things you create, but it is difficult to engineer a hit. One notable factor is that social influence plays a role: we humans can use the opinions of the people around us to help us identify good things, since personally investigating each and every song, book, movie, RPG, etc., is an intractable problem.
Recognizing that this is a pattern in multiple contexts, some social scientists have attempted to study it. In one study, the experimenters set up a website in which subjects could listen to, rate, and download songs. However, they arranged the experiment so that different subjects ended up in different “worlds” from each other. In the control group the participants had no idea how well-liked the songs were, but in other worlds people were able to see the “charts” that indicated how good/popular the songs were with their peers. One thing you might expect is that some songs are just better than others, so the best songs would tend to bubble up to the top in a Darwinian fashion. Another thing you might expect is that, due to social influence, a “rich get richer” effect would come into play as people gravitated towards songs that were lucky enough to be identified as good early on. Running in parallel like this let the experimenters compare the how the “worlds” developed. As their abstract summarizes:
Increasing the strength of social influence increased both inequality and unpredictability of success. Success was also only partly determined by quality: The best songs rarely did poorly, and the worst rarely did well, but any other result was possible.
What I think we should take away from this is that there may be things that are in our control and things that are not in our control when we create things that will compete in a cultural market. The quality is under our control: the best songs rare did poorly, and the worst rarely did well. But any other result was possible because in a chaotic social environment we have little ability to predict with certainty how well something will be received: not every flap of a butterfly’s wings causes a hurricane. When we’re designing an RPG we can control things like whether the rules are fully explained, whether we’ve included proper examples, whether the information is presented concisely, and whether people have fun when they play the game properly. We’re far less able to control whether the game will hit the zeitgeist and have whatever combination of features make something the “new hotness”.
Now, some might argue that even though it’s difficult you need to craft your product so that it appeals to an audience. And perhaps you can use testing to see what does or doesn’t appeal. The problem with this approach is that it’s very difficult to extrapolate from thin data. Anyone who follows politics can tell you that asking around among your friends is a terribly unreliable way to judge how the population as a whole feels about an issue. Statisticians and pollsters are very attuned to the issues of sample size and nonrandom samples. The field of statistics is built upon the idea of making inferences about the world from limited data. There are mathematical rules that can tell you how confident you should be that the results of querying a random sampling of a particular size would generalize to the overall population. On the one hand this can be pretty impressive, political pollsters are able to make reasonable predictions about the entire voting population of a country as big as the United States from samples of hundreds or a few thousand. But even though that’s a small number when compared to the population of a country, it’s a big number when compared to the customer reach of independently-published roleplaying games. Furthermore, size isn’t the only thing that matters: it’s common for political bloggers to have “web polls” of their readership but it would be foolish to extrapolate from them no matter how many people responded because the tools of statistical inference only work from a random sample. If your sample is biased it is incredibly difficult to extrapolate from it. So, if you’ve floated your RPG but haven’t gotten a positive response from an audience, should you conclude that no one will like it? No one will stop you from extrapolating from a small, biased sample if you want to, but that’s generally not the way that data-driven decisions are supposed to work (of course there’s also the question of effect size: extremely strong reactions may be easier to detect with smaller samples). Measuring your success at finding playtesters for your game is not a very reliable tool for figuring out if people will want to play a game, but if actual playtesting is done well it can be an excellent too for determining if the game is fun when people do play it.
But the product itself isn’t the only thing that you’re creating. What about things like marketing campaigns, establishing brands or reputations, or building notoriety in related fields? Interestingly, some of the same authors from the study I described above ran a very similar experiment in order to observe what would happen when subjects were exposed to intentionally manipulated market information. What they discovered is that there was indeed a “self-fulfilling prophecy” effect of songs that were presented as popular continuing to be popular (and similarly for those presented as unpopular to remain unpopular), but the effect wasn’t overwhelming. Some element of the songs’ intrinsic properties must have an impact, because the artificially popular/unpopular songs didn’t seem to match the trajectories in conditions where the songs achieved that status “naturally”.
Interestingly, they observed an overall effect on the manipulated markets:
A final and unexpected consequence of the inversion was a substantial reduction in the overall number of downloads. … [S]ubjects in all social influence worlds tended to listen to the songs that they thought were more popular. In the inverted worlds, however, the songs that appeared to be more popular tended to be of lower appeal; thus, subjects in the inverted world were more exposed to lower appeal songs. For example, in the unchanged world, the 10 highest appeal songs had about twice as many listens as the 10 lowest appeal songs, but in the inverted worlds this pattern was reversed with the 10 lowest appeal songs having twice as many listens. As a consequence, subjects in the inverted worlds left the experiment after listening to fewer songs and were less likely to download the songs to which they did listen. … Together, these effects led to a substantial reduction in downloads: 2,197 and 2,160 in the inverted worlds, compared with 2,898 in the unchanged world.
The combination of increased success for some individual songs … on the one hand, and decreasing overall downloads, on the other hand, suggests that the choice to manipulate market information may resemble a social dilemma, familiar in studies of public goods and common-pool resources … but less evident in market-oriented behavior. [Some of this data] suggests that any individual band could expect to benefit by artificially inflating their perceived popularity, regardless of their true appeal or the strategies of the other bands; thus all bands have a rational incentive to manipulate information. When too many bands employ this strategy, however, the correlation between apparent popularity and appeal is lowered, leading to the unintended consequence of the market as a whole contracting, thereby causing all bands to suffer collectively.
Obviously there are differences between the experimental conditions and real-world markets, but it does suggest that the strategy of intentionally “hyping up” your own product may seem smart in a zero-sum world but can contribute to a “tragedy of the commons” when everybody commits to that strategy. It seems to me that the wiser course would be for everyone to make the best products they can and try to operate in as fair a market as possible so they are most likely to get the results that they deserve (including players getting to play the best games). To the extent that our markets are imperfect, I believe it’s most important to care about removing barriers to entry so that potentially-good games get at least one bite at the apple, and we don’t need to worry so much about “promoting” games/people who are already getting a chance to let their games speak for themselves.
In this blog post I’m going to articulate a theory of what “fun” is. I’m using the word theory in the scientific sense of the word, in that I intend for it to be a useful abstract model grounded in empiricism which makes falsifiable predictions. My hope is that it is also a practical theory, one that we can leverage in game design. All theories are provisional so I make no promises that it’s fully baked, but I believe it conforms to my observations about games and life so far, and I’m not aware of any counterexamples. This blog post isn’t a polemic or manifesto to convince you to buy into this theory, it’s meant to be as full and clear an articulation of it as I can manage as a step to either finding counter-evidence or extrapolating from the theory to find ways to make more and better games.
Here’s the claim:
Fun is when you experience something that feels meaningful from one perspective but is balanced by another perspective where it doesn’t feel meaningful.
Let’s break that down a bit. First, it’s a theory about fun. Not all pleasant experiences that happen during a game are necessarily fun, and fun is not restricted to only games. But fun is the archetypal subjective experience we strongly associate with playing games. Fun is the thing that’s conspicuously absent from a boring game, such as when an adult attempts to play Candyland or Chutes and Ladders. Second, this claim clearly hinges on what meaningful means. I’ll elaborate more below, but for the purposes of this theory I’m claiming that “meaningful” is the name we give to the sensation that we associate with things like “doing meaningful work” or “achieving a meaningful goal”.
The most straightforward example of this formulation in action is children “playing house”, wherein they go through the actions of household chores but, since they do it within the confines of a magic circle of play, it becomes fun. Household chores are necessary and meaningful (although they’re normally un-fun work), but the “magic circle” perspective allows those tasks to be seen as meaningless inside it, so they become fun. Many adults perform similar alchemy of transforming work into fun when they set up businesses inside the virtual world of a MMORPG. Fun occurs in non-game contexts, too: It’s common to experience solving your own personal problems as weighty and difficult, but working on other peoples’ problems (either as a nosy busybody or a charitable soul) can often be fun; the effort matters but you’re not on the hook for the consequences.
What is meaningful?
This theory uses “meaningfulness” to label a low-level psychological perception, in the same category as things like pain, anger, or saltiness. It’s an inwardly focused meta-sensation, in the same category as the feeling of confidence we use to gauge how well we know something, or the kinsesthetic sense that tells us how our body is positioned. As an allegedly foundational concept it can’t be further defined in terms of other things, but we can attempt to characterize the conditions under which it occurs, just like we would use “that feeling you get when…” style formulations to describe something like anger or pain. Much of the work of refining this theory will likely involve figuring out how to reliably produce or avoid feelings of meaningfulness, but I think we have a few good candidates:
- Goals: Moving toward or achieving goals feels meaningful. Goals are concrete and measurable. “Winning” is the most obvious goal used in games, but things like getting the ball over the net in volleyball, getting to the end of a racecourse, or forming a valid word from your available tiles in Scrabble are all goals. They’re discrete, identifiable chunks that have recognized value to all participants.
- Self expression: Signaling value judgments about multiple non-aligned dimensions feels meaningful. Choosing whether to hit or stand in Blackjack tells the table things about your stance on risk vs. reward. Choosing to play one class over another in a roleplaying games tells the table things about what sort of activities you want to engage in during play. Choosing a “sounds like…” vs. “act it out” approach to charades signals what you think the best way of communicating a particular idea. Sometimes the dimensions can be clear and discrete, such as how much Science, Food, and Production you assign your city to generate in Civilization, sometimes they’re more abstract, such as the decision between the importance of getting what you want vs. moral complicity in violence when choosing whether to escalate in a Dogs in the Vineyard conflict. Playing a particular card in Cards Against Humanity sends signals about what you think is funny, what you think the judge will find funny, what you think is within the bounds of humor, and what you think the group will find within bounds.
- Morally relevant: Moral psychology is still a developing field, but it may be the case that humans find things related to moral judgments to be intrinsically meaningful, thus accounting for our consistent interest in gossip about moral transgressions and crime stories being a perennial touchstone in popular fiction. One interesting development in moral psychology to keep an eye on is Moral Foundations Theory, which posits that there are some universal moral “taste buds” that different people might different sensitivities to. It’s also possible that this is merely a special case of the already-described factors, since signaling moral values is important and we may spontaneously generate goals to respond to moral infractions.
- A social component?: There may be a social component to meaningfulness, especially with regard to sending signals. Having a human observer might justify expressing things even when they don’t have direct consequences, as with an artist’s relationship with an audience. Some boardgames that have a “roleplaying element” to them sometimes play very differently when played solo or in a group, even if the same mechanics apply, since it’s easy to bypass things like “creative description” when playing alone. Humans are social animals, so the perceptions of our peers may be as important as physical reality when it comes to determining how “real” or “meaningful” something is to us.
What isn’t meaningful?
- Inconsequential: When things are ignored, or can be ignored, they generally don’t feel meaningful. For example, when children play pretend-games like Cops and Robbers they can easily degenerate into “I shot you / no you didn’t” disputes, i.e. what one child is pretending may end up having no consequence on what the other child is pretending. More broadly, the concept of the magic circle keeps the events of a game from impacting the world outside of it and is therefore an important element in making games fun.
- Not salient: In order for the self-expression meaningfulness described above to work, the relevant dimensions need to be salient. When a person kills an orc in a roleplaying game, if they see the orc as tantamount to a piñata filled with loot then they aren’t sending any signals about their or their character’s values with respect to cruelty or harm, while a person treating the orc as a kind of person might be sending those signals. There are many ways of making things salient, such as by explicitly flagging the relevant factors (such as by associating a game statistic with it) or evoking pre-existing associations in players’ minds.
- Overdetermined Signals: When there are multiple salient factors but some are overwhelmed by others it feels less meaningful. If there’s a nigh-universally regarded “better choice” then the choice doesn’t seem real or meaningful. Similarly, if factors aren’t sufficiently independent it may be difficult to signal tradeoffs between them, they can collapse together into a single dimension. In playing a party-based roleplaying game with niche protection, sometimes people feel they have “no choice” but to do what their role requires, such as a cleric who uses all of their actions to heal other characters. Several psychology studies have demonstrated that financial incentives can have the effect of crowding out other motivations.
The “balanced by” element of the theory
The theory doesn’t call for maximizing meaningfulness in order to make something fun, it calls for balanced meaningful/meaningless perspectives. Games can become unfun if they’re not meaningful enough, but also if aspects of them are too meaningful. If people expect winning or losing to haunt them for a long time a competitive game may not be fun. Some people find it impossible to engage with Dogs in the Vineyard because they have such intense egalitarian convictions that the gender roles in the setting are repugnant to them. Some people find some of the subject matter in Cards Against Humanity to be beyond the realm of things it’s OK to joke about. The roleplaying game Novanta Minuti/Ninety Minutes deals with the prospect of having or missing a final conversation with a dying parent, and such high emotional stakes could easily be so weighty that it doesn’t register as “fun”. In roleplaying games that have a player associate with a single character for multiple sessions, “character death” is often a tricky issue. Light beer-and-pretzels strategy games tend to focus on just engaging with the game’s mechanics while more hardcore strategic games tend to require a playing-the-player approach, which could extend to making judgments about people that go beyond the game, such as the legends of Dimplomacy ruining friendships.
An avenue for exploration: Minimal Games
One way to explore the predictions of this theory is through the development of games which use as few factors as possible so that we can use an “is it fun?” metric with as few confounding factors as possible. For example, my game Four Panels was constructed with the intention of demonstrating that a purely procedural game with self-expression and consequentiality was enough to produce gamelike fun and that things like an “object of play” or win/loss conditions aren’t necessary. The web game Cookie Clicker is a surprisingly fun game built on little more than a score that increments in response to player action (combined, to a degree, with goal-setting in the form of purchasable power-ups). Simple push-your-luck dice games seem to be reliably fun games where valuing risk and reward seem central to the experience.
We can leverage psychology about non-game topics
By using a definition of meaningfulness that can apply to both work and play we may be able to leverage psychology findings that are focused on work and motivation. For example, in this video Dan Ariely describes several experiments that he associates with work and meaningfulness. Compare the results of the experiment described from 9:55 to 12:40 to this observation by game designer Vincent Baker about the “Okay Cycle” in roleplaying games — it seems to me that they’re both observing something about the impact of social acknowledgment on a feeling of meaningful contribution.
Isn't 'fun' completely subjective? It's all just personal taste!
But aren't the things you're calling 'meaningful' just you projecting your own tastes?
There are things I like about games that aren't accounted for in this theory!
Are you sure meaningfulness works like a basic sense?
Is this theory of any use in analyzing game designs?
Self-created goals AKA 'what about Minecraft?'
Does this theory have anything to say about the Czege Principle?
Raph Koster's Theory of Fun
Sid Meier's aphorism 'A game is a series of interesting choices'
Flow and Gamification
The Forge's Big Model / GNS
Human capacity is limited, so it shouldn’t be surprising that humans can’t operate with an infinite number of salient dimensions simultaneously. The three “modes” identified by GNS theory can map to several sets of dimensions that have been discovered to work well in concert. Story Now play requires elements of human drama and morality to be salient. Step on Up play requires the difficulty of overcoming legitimate challenges to be salient. Right to Dream play requires certain expectations (e.g. genre, iconic characterisation, “realism”) to be salient.
The Forge's Big Model / Currency
That image has the complete rules, but you can also read them in this more convenient PDF format.
An example of a session I played on Saturday with my nephew Jonathan, my niece Anya, and my sister-in-law Jill:
A few weeks ago I was trying to teach my niece and nephew how to play ping pong. For anyone unfamiliar with the game, you use little rubber-covered wooden paddles, a bouncy ball, and a table with a net in the middle, and you get a point if you successfully hit the ball over the net with the appropriate number of bounces (once on each side for the first hit in the round, only one time on your opponent’s side thereafter) and your opponent is unable to do the same back to you. As is natural while learning a new game they were very interested in figuring out how well they were doing, which they attempted to ascertain by asking “did I get a point for that?” a lot. I told them not to worry so much about whether they were getting points, but to just focus on their technique and getting the ball over the net with the appropriate number of bounces. I did this because I couldn’t remember at the time whether there was some interaction between winning points and who served in a round, but more importantly because the “and your opponent can’t return it” part is such a huge factor in whether you score that it takes the focus of what you are doing, which is only realistic to focus on once you have solid enough fundamentals that you have a decent amount of control. If they wanted to be truly competitive they’d eventually need to learn how to take their opponent’s capabilities into account (e.g. I have decent accuracy with my backhand but my forehand is terrible, so trying to get the ball to a place where I have to use my forehand to hit the ball is a good way to get a point against me), but for casual play and practicing basic skills they should focus on what they were doing and how that was interacting with the ball and the table. This casual interaction was enjoyable for all of us, especially since I’m not that great a player myself, but if I was more skilled and was looking at the game very competitively their capabilities would have loomed large: either I’d be getting hollow victories by beating opponents who couldn’t play or I’d be patronizingly letting them win. It occurred to me that how much attention we’re paying to our assessments of other participants has a big impact on the feel of a game, and I think it relates to an important concept for RPG design.
The term I’m picking to talk about this is Posture. Posture is about where and how participants stand with respect to a game (where I’m using “stand” metaphorically). The thing that most strongly controls this posture is what we’re paying attention to or what we care about on a moment-to-moment basis. If I have a competitive posture in ping pong I care about winning and I need to pay attention to the capabilities of my opponent in addition to the bouncy-ball-physics element of the game. RPG mechanics can lead us to focus on things in ways that affect our Posture. For example, both Fate and Mouse Guard have a mechanic where the GM sets a “target number” that players must “roll against” to see if they succeed or fail at a task, but there are big differences between them. In Fate, the GMing instructions tell you to set the target numbers relative to a character’s skill so that you can orchestrate the experience of play: if you want the player to have a chance to “showcase their character’s awesomeness” you give them a low difficulty number, if you think that have “too many” points of a spendable resource you give them a high difficulty number so they’re likely to spend them to succeed. By contrast, in Mouse Guard the GM compares the fictional situation as-described against a series of factors in the rules for each skill: finding water in the wilderness is always the same difficulty, no matter whether the game been tense or leisurely, or whether the player is excited or reluctant. Fate wants the GM to focus on their moment-by-moment assessment of the player: what target number should I give them to provide the psychological jolt I think they need to get the best experience? Mouse Guard wants the GM to focus on filtering the fictional situation through the game procedures, presuming that faithfully engaging the process will produce the desired fun. Since the games put you in different postures for making this superficially-similar decision there is a difference in the subjective experience of play. And, since the people are a vital component of an RPG-in-operation, giving them different subjective experiences also impacts their behavior, which makes the games different in play.
Getting participants into the proper posture can have a big impact on RPG play. The GMing rules in Apocalypse World, for example, are largely about getting the GM into a posture so that they can comfortably make the decisions they need to make in that game. (There’s also a rule about player posture: “play your character like they’re a real person”, but it’s less conspicuous and frequently ignored). A game like Primetime Adventures that’s built around character-conflict tends to need players to lean in aggressively and can flounder if players adopt a more passive don’t-rock-the-boat posture. In a sandbox-y “dynamic world” game the GM might be flummoxed if the players adopt an accommodating “we’ll do what we think you want us to do, because we want to experience the story you planned” posture. Players bringing goals and ideas from other games can often give them an incompatible posture for a game: if a game expects you to be a self-directed goal-seeker but you’re playing with a performative improv-actor “I’m trying to entertain everyone else” posture the game may break down.
While I’m saying that I think Posture is an important concept, I don’t want to give the impression that I think it’s simple or one-dimensional. In general, the posture players take has a huge impact on which directions they can experience tension or pressure without suffering excessive strain, which means that properly orienting the players’ posture is an important part of game design. It seems to me that in the RPG design space we’re just beginning to learn how to do this effectively, so I believe it’s a fruitful area for further thought and exploration.