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What is your game really about? Lordsmerf knows. 
23rd-Feb-2006 08:51 am
chiang 2
Thomas Robertson has an interesting piece on his blog where he takes up the System Matters angle once again to argue that "what your game is about" can be directly inferred from what's in the rules. He makes an analogy with tennis, which lacks any rules saying how high to throw the ball when you're serving; therefore, tennis isn't about how high you throw the ball.

I'm pretty sure I disagree (even though I've always believed that systems matter), but I don't want to get into a full-blown counter-reply. In outline, my argument includes the following points:

1) RPGs aren't tennis; we use the same general word for both activities ("game") but in many ways they are merely analogous. A tennis example may illustrate an RPG point but it isn't a proof.
1a) Nothing is essentially about any other thing. E.g., tennis is about hitting a ball over a net. It's also about exercise. It's also about mating. It's also about money.
2) RPG rules generally contain freeform procedures and the textual guidelines often focus on the freeform aspects. The texts do not prejudice the relative importance of freeform vs. mechanical procedures.
3) RPG texts aren't roleplaying. Actual play gives the lie to the notion that the texts, and particularly the mechanical procedures embedded in the texts, tell us what a game is about.
4) In conclusion, rules texts matter, but they're not all that matters, and in fact their importance can expand or contract depending on context and application.

I'd like to look at the tennis example a bit more closely. Although I don't know the exact rules of tournament-level tennis, I have a basic grasp of the game. Now, as do all games to some degree, tennis requires a psycho-social context, a willingness to obey the rules and ascribe importance to them. If we play tennis and I refuse to hand the ball over (we're poor, we only have one ball) after hitting it into the net, does the game go on? What if on my serve, I stand there for an hour while I wait for you to let your guard down? What if we play for an hour and then I declare that you've forfeited because I called a fault under my breath on your first serve, yet you played on without re-serving?

Obviously these examples all seem ridiculous, like something out of a Monty Python sketch. We know how to play tennis, and anyone who does those things simply isn't playing the game. Well, if that's the case, then for all intents and purposes, we could posit a form of "strict tennis" to force jerks like me to play the game properly. Just put a bunch of killer robots around the court, and if I do something idiotic like not handing the ball over, they'll come and take the ball from me. A somewhat more real-life example would be to stop playing tennis and play a video game instead: all the rules and procedures of the game are physically embedded in the software and hardware; as long as the players agree not to jump "out of context" by, say, reaching over and tickling their opponent, the "point" of the game will reliably be manifested in actual play.

Except for one thing, and this applies to both "strict tennis" and any video game: it is not sufficient to go through the procedures. The players must also buy into the fiction of the game: i.e., they must understand what "winning" and "losing" are. "Winning" is what you want to do, what you're supposed to try to do; "Losing" is what you want to avoid doing. For some games, such as Candyland and Chutes and Ladders, "trying" is irrelevant to the play of the game, but "winning and losing" are still key to enjoying the game. Without that fiction, they're just rather boring stochastic processes--watching Conway's Game of Life would probably be a more intellectually and aesthetically fulfilling activity. (A similar comparison could be made between playing Pachinko and watching a kinetic sculpture.) In most games, though, the fiction of the game not only provides ultimate value but it also motivates the activity within the game.

At this point, the problem with determining what an RPG is "about" based purely on the rules structures should be manifest. Some RPGs, such as My Life with Master tell you explicitly what the outcomes of their procedures "mean" (to some extent through conflict resolution, and very clearly through Endgame). Many or most rules texts do not. Their mechanical procedures circumscribe certain activities (like jumping over a fence) and even in some cases provide small-m meaning (like the development of traits in Dogs in the Vineyard), but the ultimate Meaning of the game is not embedded in the mechanical structure. Instead, it's found in some interaction between the rules, color text, guidelines, and the social context of the game.

In short, the trope about many RPGs being like life and the rules being the physics of the world is true. The mechanical procedures of the game don't tell you why you're playing the game or how to play it; they only tell you, in limited ways, how to get what you want.

So, system (parsed here as "rules text") doesn't matter? No--see point 4 above, and compare the varying degrees of success of historical efforts at social and political engineering.
23rd-Feb-2006 10:38 pm (UTC)
This subthread at adamdray is highly relevant: Player vs. System: Fight!
23rd-Feb-2006 11:15 pm (UTC)
Not surprisingly, I agree with Rob Donoghue (rob_donoghue) & Jim Butcher (drivingblind).

Also, in many ways this is a recap of the philosophical debate over SIS and The Lumpley Principle, even to the point of spanning Adam and Thomas's blogs.
23rd-Feb-2006 11:48 pm (UTC)
I figured I'd just respond here...

When I talk about "What your game is about" I'm specifically talking about "you" as a game designer. I suppose that should be explicit.

I want to address your point #3 at the moment since I think it gets at the heart of what I was trying to get across: If I can't tell what your game is about by reading the text then you have designed (or at least communicated) poorly. Of course this is drawn from my belief that roleplaying games are (or at least can/should be) fundamentally like other forms of games in some important ways. When I tell you what it's like to play Settlers of Catan, you can read the rules for the game and see that I am right about what play looks like.

As to your point #4, well, uh, yes. That's one of the things about social activities of any sort. I can drive the same route to school, but if I do it with the hot girl in the apartment down the hall then I may have different reasons and added goals. However, that doesn't change what it means/is to drive to school.

Basically, there is something essential about play (and everything for that matter).

Since I think that roleplaying tends to be narrative, lets look at a narrative example: You and I go see some movie. You find it deep and philosophical, it really makes you consider some cool stuff. I'm sick and distracted and miss all that cool stuff. Yet we both saw the movie, and we can agree that we both saw it even if I missed a lot of stuff that you got. There is something essentially movie-watching-ish that we did.

The problem with many roleplaying games is that there's nothing essential about the play of them. There are tons of people who will describe play of their favorite game, but if you read the book it's not clear how the game produces that play. So I can only assume that the play is produced by factors outside the game that may call themselves the game.

Remember: when I say "game" I'm talking about the thing the designer created and tried to teach (generally via text), not the actual activity undertaken by the players.

24th-Feb-2006 09:33 am (UTC)
But if reading the book still produces that play, is it that important knowing *how* it produces that play.

If we examine a number of groups who play a traditional rpg from only reading the book, their games will differ but I'm pretty sure that in most case the designer, if observing them, will conclude that most of them got it right.

If we talk about tennis one more time a short description of the game will make most people play it about the same. Some will enforce the rules stricter than others but none will stand around holdning the ball for an hour before serving.

/ Jonas Barkå

24th-Feb-2006 11:20 am (UTC)
What is GURPS "about"? As near as I can figure it's about simulating a fictional reality (it must be Sim!)--this produces some problems for the rules-based-analysis.

I believe that traditional RPGs are an artistic medium and what is expressed is up to the participants (the "outside factor").

This breaks analysis-by-the-rules in a number of ways:

1. My tool kit is "about" a bunch of stuff I never use it for. There are all the pieces for a socket wrench that I almost never use--they take up a lot of space and I wouldn't ditch them--but mostly what I *use* is the small screwdriver and the wrench. You can't tell that from a mass-based analysis.

2. The outside factor is, of course, the players. Paint and canvas aren't "about" anything until someone makes a painting. Then it can be *interperted* in any number of fashions. This is at least twice removed from the material used to create it.

Worse: people have found ways to use paints in novel ways that the original creators never intended (from cubism to body-painting). If the RPG-author is providing the baseline medium then they are, by this analogy, so far removed from the creative process as to be nearly irrelevant.

[ Clearly RPGs are not paints--but I bet people have done things with Hero that are as far removed from what the authors intended as anything done with paint. Worse, for the analyist, these uses are as valid as running a traditional game. ]

3. I've said before--but will continue to say--that I observer that some people really, really need to have the imaginary conflict modeled by rules and some people don't. This split in perspective (the "layer" on which the Player prefers conflict be represented) results in some people being, for example, absolutely certain that D&D is about nothing but combat and finding people delusional when they say that isn't necesiarily so.

24th-Feb-2006 07:13 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Thomas, I appreciate your reply. I also know you've got more important things going on right now. These issues will undoubtedly arise again in the future, so please read the following (if you get a chance to read it) not as an effort to put a cap on the discussion, but just as what's running through my mind at this moment.

I understand that you're talking about game design--although stating that more explicitly would be helpful, yes, since otherwise we have to worry about defining the System, or the portion of System, which is the scope of discussion.

If I can't tell what your game is about by reading the text then you have designed (or at least communicated) poorly.
What's problematic about this is that an RPG rules text generally contains far more than a set of mechanical, formal procedures. Settlers relies on a well-understood cultural context of winning/losing; I haven't read the rules myself but I'm sure the game can easily be conveyed through a series of direct instructions ("Do X. Do Y. Do Z") and a paragraph or two on "object of the game" or "how to win". RPGs are much harder to define in those terms, thus all the fuss over the various "what is an RPG" texts.

So then we can look at that text, and the setting/color and the GMing/playing advice, and consider how it relates to the mechanical procedures. If all that text is just commentary about the game, then yes, the procedures do sometimes undermine it. The introduction says "This is a game of epic adventure," but the rules themselves don't create epic adventure, and in fact they may sidetrack the action. (E.g., if your idea of epic adventure entails taking on 30-1 odds to save the twon, or fighting a dragon to recover the lost treasure, then you might have to put off the adventure while you crush the kobolds to get the experience to be able to fight the bugbear to get the experience to etc.)

On the other hand, if the text is part of the game, then in important ways the text actually contributes to the expectations that motivate and contextualize play. Furthermore, what makes RPGs very different from other games is the "space" they allow for freeform construction of meaning. I think that these characteristics are particularly true of "toolkit" games--most obviously, those games that are designed and marketed as "core books", though also nearly any design which tends to be labeled as "simulationist" in Forge-influenced discussion. You can see this, I believe, in the critiques, both pro and con, of a number of popular systems such as Tristat (look at this Forge post) and True20 (e.g., this rant by John Harper, with sundry comments). In short, I'm inclined to believe that the very "incompleteness" of these systems is part of the appeal, at least for some audiences, and a reasonable design feature to aim at, in terms of a published text. I think my position here is similar to ones expressed by Chris Lehrich and Malcolm Sheppard, which I mention not to add any authority to what I'm saying, but just to serve as a hook for drawing together conceptual threads.

And finally, if there's a possibility of synthesis, I'd point to various rpg-theory discussion of "fruitful voids", with the reservation that while Forge-influenced thought on design tends to point to mechanics as the shaper of the void, the balance can really tip in favor of things like setting and color text, or group social context--and the designer should be aware of the varying benefits of trying to control the balance vs. letting it run out of control.
24th-Feb-2006 10:12 pm (UTC)
Still more connections to the ideas in this post:

Storygames: I don't believe it...but it's true!", down a ways where Bruce Baugh, Ben Lehman, Judd, and Brand get into it.

Vincent then comes in with a very important point about the mechanics being fun--since fun is seductive, and that takes us back to the way that mechanical procedures or interactions can create focus.
6th-Mar-2006 09:49 pm (UTC) - More yoinking
Via When Worlds Collide, look at this Forge thread on Conflict Resolution.

Incidentally I find it difficult not to see Ron's first post as a condemnation of Simulationist mechanics, and by implication Simulationism as a failed form of Narrativism. When you switch to conflict resolution:

"The aesthetic fascination of what "would" happen goes away. The social system (or un-system) founded on arguing over that, with its attendant status and authority games, just vanishes. Adding up and balancing points becomes utterly absurd as a proposition; good vs. bad ways to do it seem like cults rather than design principles. System becomes socially functional, rather than substituting for socializing."

The issue here is starkly one of emergent meaning versus explicit meaning.
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