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.
Gritty, not grimy
Mouse Guard isn’t the place to find morally compromised anti-heroes who want to burn the world down before they burn out themselves. It also isn’t the place to find above-it-all superheroes who are guaranteed to save the day with style and panache. Mouse Guard is the place to find heroes, people who are doing their best to do a difficult yet important job. The people, in this case, are mice.
Mouse Guard has no fantastical elements beyond semi-anthropomorphized animals who have their own Medieval-level civilization. But once you step into that conceit, the natural world gives you all the larger-than-life drama you could ever need. When you’re the size of a mouse, a snake or an owl can be scarier than any dragon, and defeating them is just as noteworthy. The mouse civilization is always on the brink, with towns one winter, one flood, one drought, one war away from destruction. The Guard and the Guardmice are in a unique position, and their actions and their decisions can be the ones that make the difference between life or death, war or peace, unity or division, justice or corruption, progress or decay. What the characters do matters, not just to them but to everything around them. But it’s not handed to them on a silver platter: maintaining a functioning society in a hostile world isn’t cheap or easy, it takes real effort. And sometimes mice can’t rise to the level of heroism needed, and sometimes even heroes aren’t enough. Nature, both in the uncaring elements and in the needs and passions that burn in the heart of every mouse, pulls no punches. This is a gritty world, it may grind you down, but it’s not a grimy nihilistic world that tries to tell you that nothing is worth fighting for.
This biggest mechanical reinforcement of this thematic element, where characters are kept grounded in the reality of their world, is the Natural Order. Every type of animal in the Territories is rated by size and place in the food chain. Mice can use their weapons to fight and kill things within one rank of them, like other mice or the dreaded weasels. Animals within two ranks, like a beaver or an owl, can be captured, injured, or run off, but not killed by a mouse’s paw. The best that a patrol could hope for with a bigger animal is to merely run them off. If the mice want to have more impact on those animals, or engage with something truly enormous like a wolf or bear, individual mice (even mice with swords) aren’t enough, and they’ll need to raise an army and use the methods of war.
A Goldilocks-amount of setting information
The way Mouse Guard presents its setting is excellent. It provides evocative, concrete details without bogging the reader down with an encyclopedia’s worth of information. It communicates the spirit of the world and puts each GM in a good position to be able to fill in details that are consistent with the overarching ideas without much fear of running afoul of canon.
For example, in describing the towns and cities the book usually presents a few interesting geographic, political, or economic details with each one. Any of them can serve as a “nucleation site” around which ideas for a mission can crystallize. Need to build a scenario around a shipment or convoy of some type? Find a town with an interesting export and a reason why another another town might need it. Want to put the patrol in the middle of a political dispute? Find a town which has a system of government that’s conducive to the kind of dispute you want to explore. Want to feature of particular type of environment in the scenario? Find a likely place on the map and come up with a reason to send the patrol on a mission there.
The descriptions of the environments, weather, and creatures are similarly useful, and the beautiful art definitely helps you connect with them. In our normal lives it can be easy to gloss over woodland creatures or outdoors environments, but the way they’re presented in the book tends to fire the imagination, recasting the back yard as an exotic locale. The book provides enough detail so you can feel confident you’re using things correctly but leaves enough rough edges and empty space that you’re eager to start filling things in on your own. Things as simple as different tags that describe each creature’s Nature are a high-impact way of getting you excited to see that creature “on screen”.
The political tensions in the territories and the rich possibilities of the recent war with the weasels are also great story fodder. Nearly any way you cut across them can produce interesting stories. The tensions between political unity and independence and freedom and tyranny have several good hooks in the complicated relationship between Lockhaven and the outlying towns. The looming weasel threat provides great opportunities to explore the dangers of excessive militarism and the dangers of insufficient vigilance. The prospect of weasel spying provides opportunities to explore issues of trust and loyalty. Even the weasels themselves provide interesting story fodder, since they have an element of both the monstrous and the civilized: demonizing them or ignoring their nature can both be fraught paths.
I was unfamiliar with the Mouse Guard comics before I read the RPG, but was able to play in and run several satisfying campaigns. Now that I’ve had a little exposure to the comics I think those campaigns were pretty consistent with the comics in theme, tone, and focus. While I’m not enough of an expert on the comics to speak definitively, my perception is that the game did an excellent job capturing and communicating the spirit of the property; it’s not just a playground for people already in-the-know to regurgitate what they love at each other, it’s an expression of the ideas of the property in a different medium.
Skill System Matters
There are several elements in the Mouse Guard skill system that make it feel like it operates against a solid foundation rather than an elastic envelope around the players. This is good for the game design and also reinforces the thematic core of the game in which the mice are struggling to survive in a world that is, at best, indifferent to them.
The skills are generally well-defined with little overlap; it’s nearly always obvious which in-fiction actions correspond to which skills and vice versa (Scout is a bit of an exception, since it corresponds to a verb in plain English and the “skills as job titles” framework isn’t strong enough to reliably get people to think of Scout as a shorthand for “the skills that a sneaky scout-y-ahead-y person uses”). Since skill applicability is usually pretty obvious, the prospect of trying to “fast talk” the GM into letting you roll a skill you’re better with than the truly applicable skill is a steeper road than in some other games. The requirements of the advancement system, where you need both passes and fails on a skill to advance it, further undercut the temptation to weasel around the skill system. And the mission creation and twist guidelines will generally make the full cross-section of skills relevant over the course of a campaign. Your skills matter: you’re good at what you’re good at and bad at what you’re bad at, and it all impacts your experience of play. Since the world reacts across the entire spectrum, nobody is quietly papering over your deficiencies or undercutting your excellence. The world isn’t out to puff up your ego or minimize you, it’s there to let you experience your mouse as they are.
From the GM side, the “skill factors” system of calculating obstacles does an excellent job of keeping the system grounded in the fictional reality. When other games ask GMs to make unconstrained judgment calls about target numbers it can be very easy for their attention to drift to the PC’s skills as an anchor point, which makes TN setting an exercise in the GM deciding whether they’d prefer to see success or failure, dynamically scaling the world to provide a specific experience for the player. But when the hand of the GM becomes so important to the resolution system the player’s contributions during chargen and advancement (which are reflected in their skill ratings) necessarily get crowded out. By contrast, the skill factor system makes it easy for the GM to call for obstacles exactly as hard as they ought to be, no more and no less, and if the mice triumph the GM can cheer along with the players and if they fail the GM can commiserate. In looser systems it can be easy to put your thumb on the scales, either intentionally or unintentionally, but when there are such crisp procedures for interpreting the fiction it’s easier to keep your hands off, which lets you gain a truer appreciation for something’s actual weight.
The twist/condition system also does a good job of making failure meaningful without it being catastrophic. Rather than having to construct arbitrary “branch points” into a mission, the twist/condition system allows the players to experience all of the prepped content while also not having their successes and failures feel purely cosmetic. The mechanical and fictional downsides of the conditions are important (although perhaps a little too weighty when it comes to Sick or Injured) and twists add more challenges to the mission, which means they’ll be at risk for more downsides from more rolls (and upsides too, of course, like more opportunities to collect the passes and fails that lead to skill advancement).
The parts all work together
Mouse Guard has several mechanical subsystems that work at different scales, and many of them are tied in to each other so that everything feels consequential, meaningful, and integrated into a greater whole. The interrelationships between the different parts can be complicated, so I created a diagram to show it in a visual way (there’s one static image with the base diagram, and you can click on the thumbnails to see nine animated gifs that highlight particular interactions).
Each session of play consists of learning about the mission, a GM’s Turn, and a Players’ Turn. During those turns, the core of the resolution system is rolling dice to see whether you pass or fail a test: a player roll a pool of six-sided dice, each one that comes up as 4, 5, or 6 is a “success”, and if the number of successes is greater than or equal to the Obstacle rating of the test they Pass, otherwise they Fail.
Passing means that the character succeeds at what they were doing, which generally corresponds to making progress towards completing the mission in the GM’s Turn. If the player fails the test the GM has two options: they can insert a twist, which is a new problem or complication that the patrol will need to deal with before moving forward with the mission, or they can allow the task to succeed but have the character suffer a Condition, such as Angry or Injured. A Condition generally makes it harder to succeed at conflicts or tests, and getting rid of them usually requires mechanically scarce resources, such as using an action in the Players’ Turn to attempt to remove it.
For each test the GM sets the obstacle based on which skill is being used and what “skill factors” apply according to the fictional details of the problem (the game also has conflicts and opposed rolls, but they’re conceptually similar so I’ll just talk about simple tests for this analysis). A mouse can have a variety of Conditions, like Injured or Sick, which may also affect the Obstacle. Once the player knows the obstacle, they start building a pool of dice based on their skill rating. Additionally, if they have a special skill called a “wise” that applies to the situation they can take a bonus die for that (for example, Forest-wise would give you a bonus for a Pathfinder role to find your way through forest terrain). The player making the roll can also ask for help from each other player, and if they can describe how their character helps with one of their skills they can give one helping die, but that also exposes that character to some risk if the roll fails.
Players also have some spendable resources they can use to increase their odds of success. They can spend Persona points to give themselves a bonus die. They can also spend a Persona point to “tap their Nature”, which gives as many bonus dice as the character’s current Nature rating, but at the cost of “taxing” their Nature, which essentially reduces this stat by one for the length of a campaign. Players can earn Persona points during the end-of-session reward procedures (one of the ways to get a Persona point is to accomplish a Goal that the player decides on before the mission begins).
Characters also usually have several traits. A player can use a trait positively for a bonus die if the trait seems relevant to the action the character is taking, but most traits can only be used positively once per session. Another important aspect of using traits is using them negatively. If a downside of a trait seems like it could be relevant to the situation, the player can choose to take a penalty to their roll. By doing this they earn a Check, which gives them an opportunity to make more rolls during the Players’ Turn. The Players’ Turn is when characters can pursue their personal priorities, such as removing troublesome conditions, trying to accomplish things that weren’t done during the GM’s turn, doing things for their friends and acquaintances, or practicing skills that they want to get better at. Without any checks players can only make a single roll during the Players’ Turn, so deciding whether and when to use traits negatively can have a big of impact on what a character is able to accomplish during a session.
While it may initially look like a quirky afterthought, the negative trait / Check mechanic is the primary connection between the events of the Players’ Turn and the GM’s Turn. Players need to get Checks, but they also need to succeed enough to accomplish their mission so that they can use the Players’ Turn pursuing their own priorities rather than fixing mistakes from the GM’s Turn (if that’s even possible). This inserts an element of resource management and risk/reward balancing on each roll during the GM’s turn. Each decision (such as whether or not to ask for help, or whether or not to showcase a facet of a mouse’s character that’s represented by a Trait) has mechanical consequences. These consequences make the roleplaying choices around each die roll feel weighty, but since there are pros and cons for each option you don’t feel like your decisions are being dictated by the mechanics, you can make your own choices, and those choices will have consequences.
Getting Caught in the Gears
While there are many game design advantages in having a complex game with many meaningful interactions between the parts, there’s a flip-side to that coin: Mouse Guard is not very forgiving for people who don’t know how to play it. Consider this scenario:
An enthusiastic new player with little rules-mastery and not-so-great math skills sits down to play. The first test in a mission has a very high Obstacle. The new player, wanting to succeed, goes “all in” to try to pass the test: they use one of their one-use traits, and they spend their only Persona point on a bonus die (sidestepping the “Tap your Nature” subsystem since those rules seem complicated to them). Unfortunately, even with these bonuses, their die pool still provides a small chance of success against the particular Obstacle they’re facing. Even more unfortunately they don’t have a good feel for how to judge whether success or failure is likely based on how many dice they’re rolling, but they’re confident that they’re giving it all they’ve got so their hopes are high. They roll the dice and get a Fail result. The contrast between their hoped-for triumph and their actual failure makes it hit particularly hard. Now, saddled with a Condition or some new twist they have to deal with, they feel like they’re in a hole and they need to climb their way out. Unfortunately, they’ve just used up a lot of their resources, so even though they’re desperate to succeed on their next rolls they’re less able to translate that desire into reality. Trying to avoid digging themselves deeper they avoid using their traits negatively on their other rolls, so they earn no Checks for the Players’ Turn. After feeling beaten up and ground down in the GM’s Turn they may not even have enough rolls to undo all the damage. And then they’ll have the opportunity to go through the end-of-session procedures and reflect on how badly they sucked.
While that scenario isn’t guaranteed to happen, I don’t think it’s uncommon either. These sorts of problems are exacerbated by the fact that many gamers have habits or intuitions built up by playing other games that make scenarios like that more likely. For example, some games train players to believe they don’t need to invest any effort into understanding the rules since the GM will “handle that”. Some gaming philosophies even elevate avoiding mechanics knowledge to a virtue, believing that asking players to think about mechanics is a threat to immersion. Many games with “spend points to get a bonus” mechanics tend to result in the die rolls become mere formalities on the way to succeeding at the roll, so the more tightly tuned mechanisms in Mouse Guard can end up defying those expectations. Even the notion of the GM’s Turn/Players’ Turn framework is foreign to many gamers, so there is a tendency to treat it as an “advanced” feature they’ll attempt to understand only after they’ve mastered the “basics”, which can leave them lost at sea since managing your resources and the Check economy is one of the main mechanical throughlines in the game. While it’s unreasonable to expect that any game can account for incompatible ideas imported from other games, the reality is that certain common styles of RPG play tend to be especially incompatible with Mouse Guard. In my experience it usually takes about three sessions for the system to “click” for people.
Speaking from personal experience, I dislike trying to teach people how to play this game while I’m sitting in the GM’s seat. A big part of what makes GMing this game fun is seeing how players will react to the situations I’ve prepped. Teaching the players how to play in Mouse Guard isn’t just teaching them how to read notation or properly interpret a table, it involves guiding them through how to make decisions, but when I do that I start to feel a sense of ownership in what decisions get made, which starts to veer into Czege-Principle-violation territory.
Mouse Guard is a great game, but it needs to be played on its own terms, you can’t just plug in ideas or behaviors from other RPGs and expect that they’ll give you the same results here. And if you do do that, this game won’t feel great to play.
What did you do during the war?
The recent war with the weasels looms large over the setting in Mouse Guard. It’s mentioned in the backstory of most of the pre-gen characters, it’s a common source of tension in the territories, and it’s a significant event in the Guard’s history. In the otherwise satisfying character generation system I found the lack of any impact from the war to be curious. This is especially odd since it’s difficult to acquire the Militarist skill in any way, even though you’d think that would be something a high-ranking Patrol Guard or Patrol Leader could have picked up during the war. The conflict subsystem carves out War as a unique attention-worthy thing, but it’s hard to build a character that’s good at it, even though you’d think there ought to be mice like that serving in the Guard given the history described in the book.
When using traits positively you can only use level 1 or level 3 traits once per session, but level 2 traits add a bonus die to every roll whenever the trait applies. The choice to use a level 1 or level 3 trait involves a mechanical tradeoff: do I want the bonus on this roll, or do I want to save it for later? Since there are pros and cons, on each roll you can usually make a reasonable argument for or against wanting to use it so it’s easy to accept that there are situations where the trait doesn’t apply. With a level 2 trait there’s no reason not to use it if you can, which creates a mechanical incentive for motivated perception: you’re tempted to justify the relevance of the trait even if it might seem tenuous from another POV. The “never runs out” feature of using a level 2 trait positively makes it seem awfully tempting to many people, but when you have it on your character sheet it can create uncomfortable tension when you feel dueling obligations between getting the most dice you can and playing the trait mechanics with integrity.
One of the ways to get level 2 traits is to double-up during character creation. This also has the result of leaving a character with fewer traits to work with when angling for negative uses/checks during the GM’s turn. Characters who double-up on traits during chargen will be more one-note and less satisfying to play, but the choices that lead to that result are tied to the highly tempting mechanical incentive of the level 2 trait.
The end-of-session procedures
At the end of each session of Mouse Guard you go around the table and each player reports their character’s Belief, Instinct, and Goal, and then, while thinking back about the session, the group decides whether the character acted in line with that Belief (or dramatically opposed it), acted on their Instinct, and accomplished their Goal. This is an excellent procedure that accomplishes several things at once. First, it provides a mechanical incentive, making it easier to embrace the idea that we should care about our Beliefs, Goals, and Instincts while we play. Second, it’s a good wind-down from play, helping you savor the events of the session but also providing an unambiguous stopping point. Third, having the player take a bigger-picture retrospective look at the actions they took while making in-the-moment decisions is a good way to encourage dramatic engagement: maybe the character has changed and no longer holds the Belief they professed to hold, maybe seeing examples of the Belief in action underscores how important it is, maybe you didn’t act in accord with your belief this session but it’s the exception that proves the rule that this Belief really is central to the character, maybe you acted in accord with the Belief but seeing the consequences of those actions give you second thoughts about whether you ought to continue endorsing it. Looking at events from multiple perspectives almost always produces a richer experience, and this procedure provides a good “excuse” to do that for something as seemingly frivolous as the events of a roleplaying game. When I’m GMing the game I always love it when I get to say “So, did you follow your Belief this session?” and a player holds their own character’s feet to the fire to see if they really lived up to their ideals.
In addition to the per-character awards, you need to name one player the MVP (most important contribution to the events of the fiction) and one the Workhorse (most consistent contribution to the events of the fiction) for the session. This also serves a somewhat retrospective purpose, but it can sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable, as many people don’t like to play favorites with their friends. There is often an impulse to be “fair” with these designations, which can cause tension if your egalitarian and meritocratic intuitions don’t both point in the same direction.
Lastly, you need to award the Embodiment, which is more or less a “good roleplaying award”. Sometimes this is really easy, such as when someone busts out a fun accent or vivid characterization. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, such as when the same person’s vivid characterization has been outshining quieter players session after session. Personally I hate this award, I hate feeling judgmental about other people’s “performance”, and I’m so prickly about others judging me that unless people exactly thread the needle I’ll frequently feel either overpraised or underappreciated. I’d much rather not end a session on this weird note of social discomfort.
No Fate but what we make More Fate than we know what to do with
The end-of-session rewards procedures give out two kinds of points, Persona and Fate. Persona is very useful and can be used to get bonus dice on rolls, especially when you use the Tap Your Nature mechanic to get multiple bonus dice in exchange for a long-term drain on one of your stats. Fate, on the other hand, is very situational: it can be used to “explode” the 6’s on a die roll so you get to roll an extra die for each 6 that came up. In practice it’s relatively rare to get into a situation in which exploding the 6’s will make a difference, since it only seems worthwhile in the case where the gap between your current number of successes and the obstacle is small relative to the number of new dice you’d get to roll. (It tends to make more sense in conflicts, where the margin of success frequently matters). Since the are lots of ways to get Fate but relatively little reason to spend it, people tend to accumulate a lot of it, so there probably aren’t many incentive effects to gain more, and the decision to use it or not doesn’t tend to have a lot of now vs. later tradeoffs like you get for truly scarce resources like Persona.
The “visual language” of the book
The Mouse Guard book is physically beautiful to look at. The art is excellent and evocative, and the visual design of the pages is eye-pleasing. I’m less sanguine about the functionality of the text. In interviews, Luke Crane would tell this really compelling story: In laying out Mouse Guard he used a “visual language” for how to format the text so that people would be able to quickly and instinctively connect ideas using visual cues like the typeface and color. That sounds really good! In practice I don’t think it works. When I run into some oddly formatted text while reading the rules my reaction is “I know that’s code for something, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what.”
The “visual language” problems are most apparent in the index. As you can see in this image (if you look closely) there’s a “key” to how the index is meant to be read, with various typefaces, colors, and indentation telling you whether something is a chapter, section, heading, or detail. Alternatively, if you’re a human who’s been reading english-language books for a while, you’ll interpret indentation is an indication of a subtopic. This instinct is immediately reinforced by the first entry, where Abilities Can Always Help Abilities looks like a subtopic of Abilities and Skills. However, A Brief History of the Mouse Guard isn’t really meant to be a subtopic of Abilities and Skills, and Accomplishing a Goal is definitely not a subtopic of A Brief History of the Mouse Guard. The apiary-related entries in the second column are also a great illustration of how the indentation strategy is strongly fighting against the actual “flat” structure this index has. The “visual language” of this index wants to use indentation as a per-item piece of information, but it’s nearly impossible to override our instincts to use indentation as a cue to how to interpret chunks of text. As a result people frequently find themselves unable to locate things in the index because they subconsciously decide to skip “subsections” when the “main topic” isn’t relevant to what they’re trying to look up. If you ignore the formatting the index is actually pretty good, but it takes a lot of work to ignore the formatting.
Player Created Conflict Goals
One of my mental stumbling blocks with Mouse Guard‘s game design is in the conflict system, specifically the need for players to declare their own goals for the conflict. The mechanical bits of the conflict are fun and engaging, but the prospect that a GM won’t be able to guarantee what a conflict is about can make it a bit tough to build a conflict into the GM’s Turn mission structure. In reality I know I can generally manipulate the situation sufficiently to have a good guess about what goals players will take, but I feel scummy when I do that since the rules specifically carve that out as a player decision. For example, in one session I wanted to create an opportunity to showcase the War conflict, especially since one of the characters had a Militarist skill that wasn’t seeing much play, so I prepped a situation in which the mouse patrol stumbled across a weasel army bearing down on a village of bedraggled weasel separatists who were trying to build a life outside of weasel tyranny. The players, as I expected they would, sprang into action organizing the weasel refugees leading them in the defense of their village. Instead of just saying flat out “we’re going to have a War conflict about defending the village” I felt compelled to play cutesy magician games waiting for them to say the magic words that would justify doing the conflict I had already prepared for. There are other missions where I more or less arbitrarily declared that we’d be doing a Journey conflict, in effect telling them what their goal should be.
Officially, a conflict’s goals are supposed to “include a statement about your character, and action and a target” a la “kill this snake so that Kenzie and Saxon are safe”. In my experience the “do ______ so that _______” pattern quickly drifts into a more straightforward expression of intent, which makes the conflict system look a lot like negotiated double-ended stakes as you see in some other games. Even if you are scrupulous about the type of goals you take it can be a bit weird. I recall one conflict where the patrol was trying to drive off a bullfrog that had built a lair near a path between towns (I introduced the frog as a twist on a failed Pathfinder test). The frog was aggressively territorial, so we did a Fight Animal conflict where the players’ goal was something like “drive the frog from its lair so that the path is free”. Once we resolved the conflict and it was time to compromise most of the players were completely happy to jettison the “mere color” of dealing with the frog’s long-term presence near the path in order to avoid consequences related to the physical fight which would have been mechanically represented. While I theoretically could have reincorporated the frog into later missions (he would have been an impediment to trade), patrols tend to travel widely so it would have been a long time before those consequences ever showed up “on screen”. The players were excited about having a combat with the frog, the pro-forma requirement that they have an appropriately phrased goal didn’t get them to emotionally invest in that goal.
The expectation of a compromise result also tends to incentivize players to adopt classic bargaining strategies like asking for more than you really want so that you have “someplace to go” in the compromise (as I GM I tend to feel an obligation to be and honest broker and set the goals for what the NPCs or animals would “really want” out of the situation). The artificiality of claiming to be pushing for a goal you’re not actually invested in tends to undercut some of the drama of a conflict, in my opinion. The potential interesting results that could arise from compromises are also undercut when they’re gamed around before you even start the conflict.
The GM’s mission-preparation procedures
The GM Prep procedures are excellent: they’re fun to do and cause you to create content that contributes to a fun experience during the sessions with little or no wasted effort. A key element of the mission creation procedures is that the Beliefs, Instincts, relationships, and unusual skills from the players’ character sheets are fantastic flags for creating rich and engaging situations. This combines in a very satisfying way with procedures that tell you how much “content” is the right amount to create for a given mission: the rules tell you to pick two things from the list of: weather, wilderness, animals, and mice, and build your mission around them (keeping the other two as potential twists). With a framework for the “form” of the mission in place, you can express your constraint-guided creativity as you mix and match elements, creating opportunities to interrogate the flags on the character sheets. You can explore the nuances of the beliefs, play them off against each other, pit relationships against instincts. It all forms a rich tapestry that becomes the foundation for each session of play.
For example, in one session I had a patrol with one mouse whose belief was “The Guard looks after its own”, and who had a rival that had previously been a patrol-mate in a patrol led by the PC’s now-retired mentor. Another member of the patrol had the belief “The Guard must do the most good for the most mice”. I thought that it would be interesting to explore how the plight of a retired guardmouse would intersect with the “looks after its own” belief, which could play off the more utilitarian belief of the other PC. I created a situation in which the retired mentor wasn’t being particularly well cared for by the guard: her pension wasn’t enough and she was making ends meet by doing difficult physical labor (does the Guard really take care of its own?). The PC’s rival learned of this while on a mission to guide a convoy of food supplies to a starving town. She decided that she would stop the convoy in the wilderness, and once the starving town was desparate enough they’d be willing to pay extra for the food, which would give her the funds to pay for the mentor to retire in comfort (is it OK to risk the welfare of many mice for the good of one?). The guard leadership only knows that the convoy they expected to solve the starvation problem hasn’t gotten through yet, and the PCs are assigned the mission to resolve the situation. They go to the convoy’s starting location and find out about what’s going on with the mentor and the rival’s involvement (a mouse problem) and then need to track down the convoy along the route it would have taken (a wilderness problem) at which point they’ll have all of the elements of the ethical thicket and will need to decide how they want to resolve things.
In another mission, I decided to explore a political situation by playing the PCs’ enemies against each other. One was a government official in a character’s home town, and another was an influential civilian consultant on military and defense issues (who had been quietly exacerbating tensions with the weasels so that he’d have more business). The mission begins as a labor dispute: a guild of stonemasons has been hired by a town to build some fortifications but the town isn’t paying them. The town-government official in charge of the contract is one PC’s enemy, but the reason he won’t pay is because he’s already spent all the money in his budget to pay the other PC’s enemy to create the high-quality plans for the fortifications. There are more mice demanding payment than the current budget allows for (a mouse problem) and the stonemasons are stuck without payment or a way to get back to their home town and the military consultant has already left town (wilderness problems). Who gets stiffed when there’s not enough money to go around? The laborers? The hated expert? Maybe the taxpayers? What does it feel like to try to resolve a problem that someone you dislike is currently embroiled in?
In another mission, one PC had a belief along the lines of “The Mouse Guard takes care of its own”, which I thought had the interesting nuance of being ambiguous between whether that meant “protects its own” or “polices its own”. Another PC had a belief like “A guardmouse never gives up, no matter what”. I thought it would be interesting to see how they’d deal with a situation in which a guardmouse had given up unnecessarily. I created a situation in which a bird was using its mimicry abilities to make hawk cries (an animal problem), thus scaring mice away from grain shipments they were delivering, including a small guard patrol that was supposed to be escorting one of them (a mouse problem). Once the patrol resolved the bird situation, how would they react to the patrol that had failed to address it due its leader’s cowardice?
The mission creation guidelines do an excellent job of creating RPG-session-sized chunks of content. Knowing that the Player’s Turn will provide lots of opportunity for player-directed activity frees the GM to be comfortable creating a roller-coaster (i.e. a fun railroad) through the adventure-y parts as the mission, but doing this sort of prep also encourages you to create a hands-off playground for meaningful choices when the patrol is confronted by the interesting situation. Prepping a mission in Mouse Guard is a fun, game-like creative challenge on its own (i.e. filling in the “slots” of what makes for a properly-formed mission by using the flags from the character sheets and the setting details is an enjoyable creative puzzle), and then this preparation helps ground the GM in the proper posture so they can be a combination of impartial referee, proud craftsman showing off the result of their creative work, and enthusiastic audience who’s eager to see what the players/characters will do once the situation is introduced. Plus, since the mission was inspired by flags from the character sheets, it’s almost guaranteed to seem engaging to the players and is likely to tie into Belief-relevant actions, which helps the end-of-session reward mechanics work.
I think the mission creation procedures in Mouse Guard are a brilliant piece of game design. They’re fun to do. They encourage the creation of morally or ethically interesting situations without ramming head-on into hot-button issues like in Dogs in the Vineyard. They lead to fun and engaging play during the sessions. They’re meaningful without dominating play. They encourage the creation of exactly the right amount of content, with not much throw-away work (I also think it’s wise to prep twists, which don’t always come into play, but are often portable to future sessions if you don’t use them). They help put you in the proper frame of mind to have the most fun during a session. They’re great.
Mouse Guard is a great game, but because most of it is so good there are a few sour notes that stand out due to the contrast. I’ve had a lot of fun playing the game and GMing the game. It’s a useful and important game for RPG design enthusiasts to study
Note: It looks like there is a new edition in the works that will have some small changes.
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
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.
I recently read a psychology paper and was deeply struck by the implications it might have for a wide variety of tabletop roleplaying game and RPG design issues. If I’m right, it speaks to issues of immersion, a difference between RPGs and so-called “storytelling games”, the social power dynamics between players and GMs, the reason that many of the techniques used in Apocalypse World work well for many people, and more. The paper is Construal-Level Theory of Psychological Distance by Trope and Liberman, and it summarizes and consolidates findings from many individual experiments into a unified theoretical framework. I’m going to give a brief overview of the theory, and then talk about some of the lower-level details and experimental findings, and then talk about some of the links to RPGs that I find so exciting.
Summarizing the Theory
The basic idea of Construal-Level Theory (CLT) is that we humans are generally capable of interpreting the same thing through different “construals”, either at a low, concrete level which includes lots of contextual and peripheral details, or at a high, abstract level, which will be schematic, decontextualized, and focused on central, prototypical features. For example, we might think of a baseball bat at a concrete level as “a Louisville Slugger”, while we might think of it as “sports equipment” at a high level. Naturally, the same thing can be abstracted in different ways based on which features are considered central for the way the brain is trying to use it, so another abstract construal of a baseball bat might be “a bludgeoning weapon”. Generally speaking you can nearly always get even more abstract (weapon, hand-held object, thing) or more concrete (an autographed Louisville Slugger, the bat used to hit the game-winning run at the World Series last year). CLT suggests that operating at a high or low level of construal is a mindset, vaguely analogous to shifting gears in a car: the way we process one thing tends to be sticky and influence the way we process the next thing.
It’s important to note that CLT doesn’t frame this in terms of laziness or quality of representation, since high- and low-level construals are better suited to different kinds of cognition, neither one is “better” than the other. For example, high-level construals lose the peripheral details but they add meaning and the ability to put things into systems: no amount of zooming-in on the bat’s woodgrain will give you insight into how it’s used in a baseball game. It’s beneficial to be able to see both forests and trees, but often hard to do both at once.
CLT further proposes that human brains have an association where we tend to use high-level construals for things that are far away and low-level construals for things that are close. If you think about this in terms of visual perception and physical distance you can see why this association makes intuitive sense: When something is far away we may not be able to make out all of the details, and the contextual ones may change if and when we actually interact with it, so in general it makes sense to use high-level construals for distant objects. And when something is close we have access to all of the details and may not have strong reasons for abstracting it in a particular way so we tend to use a low-level construal. But since this association is somewhat automatic we do it even when those justifying factors aren’t true: even if we could access all of the contextual details of a distant target we still tend to use a high-level construal, and even if it might be beneficial to think of something close in an abstract way we’ll tend toward the more concrete construal. So, for example, we’re likely to think of a distant car in an abstract way even if we’re familiar with the minute details of that particular make and model.
CLT notes that this phenomenon seems to be consistent across multiple dimensions of psychological distance. So, for example, we tend to abstract to the same degree when thinking about something that happened long ago as we do when we think about things that are far away. In addition to temporal and spatial distance, CLT also says that hypotheticality (e.g. a near certainty vs. a remote possibility) and social distance (a close friend vs. a distant stranger) work the same way.
The final piece of the CLT puzzle is that the association is bidirectional: we use psychological distance as a guide for what construals to use, and we use the construal mindset we’re using as a guide to what sort of distance something has. Something construed more abstractly will tend to feel more distant, something construed more concretely will tend to feel closer. This struck me as highly relevant to roleplaying games, where we often seek to feel close identification with characters and want a sense of here-and-now experiencing of fictional events unfolding rather than merely knowing that they happened. The research tends to be much coarser-grained than this, such as comparing next week to next year or this city to a city on the other side of the country, so extending the ideas to the fine-grained world of RPG experience requires some speculation, but I think that speculation is warranted. As I’ll explain below, I think there are several successful RPG design features and common RPG breakdown modes that map to predictions from CLT, which make me think this could be a very useful tool for understanding RPGs.
Differences Between High- and Low-Level Construals
The experiments have noted several differences between operating with high- and low-level construals. Since the relationship between construal level and distance is bidirectional, sometimes the high- or low-level construal condition is used as the input to the experiment and sometimes it’s used as the measured output. Here are some of the things that the research associates with the different levels of construal:
Seeing forests or trees: In several experiments, working with big-picture “gestalts” tends to be associated with distance, and nearness lends itself to working with constituent details. For example, in images where there’s an overall gestalt effect made up of smaller individual elements (such as title image for this blog post, where there’s a big RPG made up of little CLTs), people in the distant condition tend to more quickly and reliably detect the large gestalt image, while people in the near condition tend to more quickly and reliably notice constituent details.
Broad or narrow categories: High-level construals tend to be associated with fewer, broader categories while low-level construals tend to be associated with more, narrower categories. In experiments where subjects were asked to categorize a list of items into as many groups as they felt appropriate, subjects in distant (high-level) conditions tended to create fewer groups with more members in each while subjects in near (low-level) conditions tended to create more groups with fewer elements in each group. For example, when asked to break a video sequence into “meaningful actions”, subjects that believed the video was shot nearby tended to break it up into more, shorter snippets than those in the distant condition.
How vs. Why: When examining actions, focusing on “why” or the consequences of the actions tends to be associated with high-level construal while a focus on “how” or the feasibility of the action tends to be associated with low-level construal.
Situation vs. Traits: Low-level construals tend to include consideration of situational factors while high-level construals tend to be associated with things that look like stable properties, e.g. your friend didn’t respond to your e-mail because she has many demands on her time, a stranger didn’t respond to your e-mail because she is inconsiderate.
Weighting of attributes: When operating at a high level of construal people tend to put much more weight on some attributes of choice than others, while operating at a lower level tends to lead to attributes being more evenly weighted.
Alignable vs. Nonalignable attributes: When people are comparing things in low-level conditions, traits that are easily compared between items tend to heavily influence preferences (e.g. this meal has less calories than that one) while high-level construals more easily allow preference formation between nonalignable attributes (e.g. this meal is from Italian cuisine, that one is from Vietnamese cuisine).
Generating exemplars of a category vs. naming a category for an example: In a very direct manipulation, having subjects generate subordinate members of a category (e.g. “A type of soda is ________”) tends to put them in low-level construal mindset and finding superordinate categories for objects (e.g. “Soda is a type of ____________”) tends to put them in a high-level construal mindset.
Values: Things like values and morals tend to be abstract ideas, and seem to show the same associations with distance, e.g. people tend to make harsher moral evaluations in distant conditions than in near conditions.
Types of Near and Far
Spatial Distance: Different experiments have manipulated distance in physical space in multiple ways, both by linking events to real geographical distance by telling people where events are taking place, or even by getting them to plot two points on a Cartesian plane that were close together or far away from each other.
Temporal Distance: Remembering the past and predicting the future seem to be roughly equivalent in terms of greater distance being associated with greater abstraction, i.e. next week and last week are about the same, and they’re closer than the distant past or far future.
Hypotheticality: Several experiments have shown similar construal-level effects to other distance dimensions by interpreting low probabilities as far (a remote chance) and high probabilities as close (a near certainty).
Social Distance: The amount of “social distance” seems to have similar effects, e.g. self vs. others, people in similar organizations compared to different ones, etc. Social power seems to have an effect as well, since priming people to think about high levels of social power tends to be associated with abstract construal and priming people to think about having low social power tends to be associated with concrete construal.
Putting it Together with Some RPG Examples
In Dogs in the Vineyard, when players are engrossed in a blow-by-blow conflict they’ll tend to escalate violence or use weapons because the rules make those options seem like “easy” ways to get extra dice. After the conflict ends and players are encouraged to look back at what happened in order to add new traits to their characters they often become uncomfortable when they realize how their in-character actions diverge from their contemporary morals. The short action snippets encouraged by the mechanics and the need to produce examples of “how” you are using your traits tends to lead toward a low-level mindset, so the feasibility of using violent escalation matters more than the desirability of using violence (and in the heat of the moment the “why” of what’s at stake in the conflict overall becomes less and less relevant). By contrast, in the post-conflict Fallout procedure, looking backwards at the gestalt entirety of the conflict makes it easier to process the events thematically, morally, or in terms of overall character, often leading people to morally disapprove of actions they themselves decided the character should take.
Sometimes players choose to play Dogs in the Vineyard in a way that focuses on stable traits of personality, such as violent tendencies, religious zealotry, etc., instead of engaging in-the-moment with the situations before them and the psychological pushes and pulls cooked into the design of the game. These two approaches seem to hew closely to different levels of construal, and people tend to report different subjective experiences of play from the two approaches (the people in the second group are sometimes described as playing caricatures rather than characters in order to keep their emotional distance).
Apocalypse World seems to have multiple techniques the lead people to operate largely with concrete construals. Rather than tying actions solely to a few global attributes, AW gives each play an abundance of “moves” through which they can affect the world (more, narrower categories). Focusing on “how” a character is making a particular move, or what particular thing they’re doing that’s in the category of the move, also tends to push toward a low-level construal. The GM is encouraged to dynamically scale the pace of resolution, breaking things up into a zoomed-in action-by-action level when they want especially strong connection with the fiction or characters. The relatively high probability of succeeding with any given move may also lead to low-level construals. Like DITV, AW also has several mechanics that sometimes ask players to step outside of their concrete interactions and interpret things in a more abstract way, such as with the Read a Person questions like “what does your character wish I’d do?”. While this is good for gaining insight into characters, it can sometimes be difficult for players to get back into a flowing interaction after answering them, perhaps due to different mindsets being conducive to the different types of processing.
Choosing Continuous Coverage Instead of Scene Framing: Some games give players the choice to set up their own scenes, but many people use this power to simply continue what was happening in the previous scene, sometimes seemingly getting bogged down in “logistical details” like how characters get from one place to another rather than jumping forward to get to “important” scenes. A focus on “how” is what CLT predicts for people operating in a concrete mindset, while figuring out what the most thematically appropriate or interesting-for-the-story next scene should be is something that involves relationships between abstract ideas and is therefore the kind of thing that’s easier to do in a high-level mindset. If people are having a very here-and-now experience with a scene and feeling very low distance between themselves and their characters then they’re probably going to see things through the concrete mindset and probably have a harder time shifting gears to do good “scene framing”.
“Storyboarding”: An experience that people sometimes report in games with explicit-stake-setting conflict-resolution mechanics is that they’ll elaborately negotiate out the possible consequences of a conflict, roll to determine which outcome happens, and then move forward with the game knowing which outcome occurred without ever having the here-and-now feeling of experiencing the scene. CLT suggests that focusing on the “why” of conflict stakes will shift people toward abstract construals and therefore increase their associated sense of temporal distance, i.e. move them away from “now”.
GM/Player Social Dynamics: Some games or playstyles explicitly vest the GM with special social authority (e.g. the ability/responsibility to determine who is “playing well”), sometimes this happens as a byproduct even in games that desire egalitarianism despite the asymmetry in roles. If being “a player” in a game involves mostly being in the concrete-construal mindset and being “a GM” involves more abstract interpretation and categorization then the perception that a GM has more social power than a player may reinforce that (or be a byproduct of it).
Some Questions That Arise
Since several of the experiments show distance-related effects merely from telling the subjects that they’re dealing with near or distant places I think it raises some interesting questions for RPG settings, since we often set our games in times or places that aren’t here-and-now. Do “modern” games tend to feel more immersive? Do games set in exotic locales make it harder to feel a strong sense of here-and-now? Although I don’t have much personal experience, it may not be a coincidence that players of urban fantasy games like White Wolf’s Vampire seem to prioritize immersion and strong character connection and also tend to pretend that the fictional events of the game are secretly happening in their own city right now. What about the fantastical element? Most RPGs have some “genre” element of fantasy or science fiction, and most “medieval fantasy” games are set in other universes rather than historical earth. Is that conducive to low-level construals, or a distraction? In the paper, Trope and Liberman say:
We argued that because high-level construals are broad, they bring to mind more distant instantiations of objects, and because low-level construals are narrow, they bring to mind more proximal instantiations of objects. It is also possible for construal level to affect the psychological distance of objects through metacognitive inferences (N. Schwartz & Clore, 1996). People may interpret their low-level construal of an object as indicating that the object is close and their high-level construal of an object as indicating that the object is distant. This metacognitive inference of distance from construal level might involve a more complex attributional calculus when one or more other distances are known. Specifically, the construal-based inference that an object is distant on any given dimension will be discounted when the object is known to be distant on another dimension. Correspondingly, the construal-based inference that an object is distant on any given dimension will be augmented when the object is known to be proximal on another dimension. For example, one would attribute a detailed construal of a meeting with a friend to a relatively close relationship with that friend when the meeting is known to take place in the distant future rather than the near future. Thus, direct implicit associations among different distance dimensions generally result in positive relationships among those dimensions. However, when inferring distance from construal, adjusting the inference of distance on one dimension for distance on other dimensions may result in a negative relationship among those distances.
Could fantastical elements create a plausible place for players to shunt unwanted perceptions of psychological distance, thus facilitating feelings of closer distance on other dimensions?
Also, it seems like the experiments that used Cartesian coordinate-plotting to prime distance might have implications for games that make extensive use of physical maps, from the maps-and-minis tactical combat games like D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder, to map-focused games like The Quiet Year or Chronicles of Skin, to games that use relationship maps to represent character relationships. The physical distance priming involved in working with these maps could be having an interesting and perhaps previously-unrealized impact on play.
Some Areas For Further Exploration
Several of the distinctions and manipulations associated with the different construal levels seem like useful guides for some common design decisions. For example, the differences between few/broad categories and many/narrow categories in these experiments might help a designer choose between a large skill list or a short pool of attributes to achieve different effects. The research might also suggest different effects for different types of player-authored traits, e.g. broad dispositional traits like “clever” or “rigid” would be expected to guide players toward abstract construals while traits that are more likely to interface with the situation like “well-armed” or “quick” might guide players toward more concrete construals.
There are also intriguing structural possibilities to explore. For example, Apocalypse World, like many other RPGs, uses character attributes to modify the probability that moves will succeed or fail, with the results of those actions generally fixed on a per-move. However, it could be interesting to create an AW hack in which we switch things around so that different moves (i.e. different types of character action) have identical high likelihoods of success but different levels of impact based on character stats. This change might make a player’s choice of move more revelatory-of-character by making that decision more intuitive and in-the-moment if the effect of different stats is “hidden” in the consequences (which people are more prone to discount when they’re operating with a concrete mindset) rather than putting a thumb on the scales of feasibility.
Hopefully I’ve done a good job of summarizing the research, but obviously that involves employing some editorial judgment in my choice of what to say and how to say it, so wherever possible I’ve provided links to the source material (with citations in the alt-tags). As I said earlier, my linkage of some of these RPG design issues to this theoretical framework involves some speculation, so we shouldn’t necessarily assume that the inferences I draw are rock solid. Furthermore, much of the social psychology research that feeds into this theory involves somewhat coarse-grained between-subjects statistical effects, and the effects measured in the experiments are not always strong night-and-day differences, and not all of the experiments have been widely and reliably replicated. And, like any scientific theory, it’s a model that attempts to account for the observed data, not necessarily anything that can be directly confirmed. Additionally, the experiments rarely speak at all to issues of individual variation (e.g. even assuming the theory is roughly correct, are some people able to switch back and forth more easily than others?). And, since most of the experiments are about merely establishing a difference between near and far, abstract and concrete, the research doesn’t give us anything like nicely parametrized curves which we can plug directly into some kind of game design formula.
Those caveats aside, though, I think it is intriguing research that suggests relationships and general patterns of human thought and behavior that we may be able to leverage to make better games.
I recently learned about the “Benign Violation” theory of humor which some researchers are using as a framework for studying the psychology of humor. The basic idea is that we find something funny when it’s both 1) a violation and 2) benign. So tickling is funny because it’s an attack (a violation) but harmless (benign). Puns are funny because they violate expected usage but in a way that carries no negative consequences. Self-deprecation is funny because it is saying something negative (a violation) but in a way that we can tell isn’t sincere (benign).
It’s an interesting theory because it predicts both what is and what isn’t funny. Tickling by a stranger, for example, isn’t funny because we don’t know if it will be harmless. And self-deprecation isn’t funny if we suspect the person saying it is serious. It suggests that to be funny something needs competing interpretations, one where it’s OK and one where it’s not OK, and they need to be relatively matched in intensity: something that’s a trivial violation in an entirely benign situation isn’t funny, nor is a major violation with a figleaf, at least according to this theory. Intuitively it sounds like a pretty compelling argument to me, and it may be a useful framework for exploring the design of comedic RPGs, a famously fraught endeavor where plenty of games are maligned as “funny to read, not funny to play”, or for keeping unwanted comedy out of dramatic or gritty games.
It seems to me that many classic funny RPG situations map to this theory: The dragon opens its jaws and lunges forward to [rolls to hit] bite you for [rolls damage]… 1 point of damage [laughter ensues]. In the hit/miss framework it’s a violation, but in the damage framework it is benign, so we are amused. One of the most reliable design techniques for comedy RPGs is to have players describe their own character’s failure: since they failed it’s a violation, but since they have control over the situation it’s benign. If a player makes an out-of-character joke it can be funny, and a pretty reliable technique for eliminating that humor is to make it consequential in the fiction by acting as if the character rather than the player said it (i.e. it’s no longer benign). The gold-standard of funny RPGs, InSpectres, seems to fit the pattern, too: it instructs you to play “normal” characters rather than outlandish ones, which would seem to help with interpreting the supernatural events of the scenario as “violations” but the relatively low stakes of the situation make them benign (these supernatural situations are so commonplace in the in-game world that resolving them is a viable franchise business model, and a session is about whether players satisfactorily complete the job to bring in money to keep their business afloat).
While this framework seems appealing at first glance, a deeper analysis is probably warranted. It would be beneficial to go beyond cherry-picking examples that seem consistent with the theory and look at a spectrum of games and see how well the funny/not-funny predictions hold up (analyzing Cthulhu games could be a particularly fruitful way to approach this, given the diversity of approaches in that genre and the fact that they’re sometimes played seriously and sometimes for laughs). Additionally, to be useful as a design tool we’d need to see if we can translate the concepts into game design elements: What counts as a violation? What makes things benign? How do we evaluate the relative intensities? How does wanting games to be “fun” interact with the “funny” that we’d include or exclude when employing this framework? Attempting to use this theory as a prospective guide to designing a new funny (or reliably unfunny) game could also be a fruitful avenue of exploration.