Stockholm Syndrome in Game Design

I’m loving Apocalypse World right now. I should just get that out of the way. I’ve played it a few times, sadly just as one-shots or really short games. I’ve run it once, as a con game. And I’m even now starting to make notes for a hack, where I marry AW’s play style with the sweet, sexy stylings of Unknown Armies.[1] (Forum post about it on Story-Games, in one of the sections that for some reason requires you to have an account to view. Easily enough done, though.)

I was talking about AW with folks at PAX this past weekend[2], and one thing that came up was how I don’t like how History is explained — in that it’s poorly explained and confusing as hell. Things made more sense when John Harper talked about how that was Vincent’s intent, how he sees frustrations a group has to overcome as a bonding experience. (Hopefully someone on the Internet can point me to an actual discussion, as while I totally hear what John’s saying, I’m curious to read Vincent’s own words about it. Thus, the rest of this post is about what John said rather than anything else. EDIT: See the first comment for actual text.) I flippantly replied with something like “Yeah, and Stockholm Syndrome is a great way to meet women.”

That decision to inject frustration there for the point of the experience sort of bothers the fuck out of me, and sort of doesn’t in the least. Yay for ambivalence. I wanted to take a moment to unpack my thoughts on that.

How it doesn’t:

  • Shared experience is the heart and soul of RPGs, both in the direct sense (my group did this thing, and we can keep talking about it) and the indirect (my group did the same scenario your group did, and it’s neat to compare/contrast).
  • We should admit that game design is mind control. There are tools and techniques at our disposal, and as game designers we play the role of amateur practical psychologists. We already do it with reward mechanics, so why should this feel different?

How it does:

  • You can come off looking fucking incompetent — either as a designer or as a writer. Remember, those are different skills. And if you don’t communicate your intent to frustrate in even a roundabout way, well, it just looks like shitty text. I personally give Vincent credit in this arena, but if some designer I was completely unaware of pulled the same trick, I would throw the book across the room and use impolite terms to refer to his or her parentage. So one really only gets a pass if their readers know you enough to, well, give you a pass. (Edit: I should also note that I didn’t realize it was intentional until John said something.)
  • It might not work. I’m frequently in unequal states of mastery at a table, and AW is no different. When I ran a con game last month, I walked them through Hx saying “Yeah, it’s confusing. Here’s what you do.” I overcame the frustration for them, because I didn’t have the time to deal with it nor the desire to make my players hostile against the game.
  • I see little benefit in turning the players against me and questioning the confidence in my text. Especially as early as character creation. If they get past this frustration without realizing that was the point of the exercise, any later legitimate frustrations they’ll have will be colored by that earlier experience, and could lead to judgement calls that go against the game and break it.

I’m not trying to say that Vincent’s call is bad. Really.[3] It is fucking interesting. And as I always do, I applaud those who try interesting shit because it gives the community more data and more thinking points. Of course, AW is working for a shitton of people, including me and the folks I’m going to keep running it with. But contact with this idea makes me better understand where my own lines as a designer & writer are.[4]

And I’m not against frustration in games per se. Overcoming adversity, including in frustration, is the hallmark of adventure design. Keep on the Borderlands, man. Shoot, it’s a hallmark of much of computer gaming. So I’m not at all knocking that as an idea. But I better understand now why it’s a writing choice that’s alien to me.

Still, I’m glad Vincent did it. I learn more from people who present very different experiences and viewpoints than when I live in a damned echo chamber. And now I’m left wondering how to achieve that effect while minimizing those issues of mine mentioned above.

(Now let’s see how flamey the responses get as people assume the tone of voice I’m using is harsh. Yay for inflectionless text!)

– Ryan

[1] Those who know me know the highest praise I can give a game is “I think I want to use this to play Unknown Armies.”

[2] Doing posts of PAX recaps seem to be all the rage. Perhaps I will as well.

[3] Responses that don’t get this will be deleted. Fair warning.

[4] My lines as an editor are, funnily enough, somewhat different.


22 Responses to Stockholm Syndrome in Game Design

  1. John Harper says:

    Vincent said it most recently via Twitter. Here it is:

    “Seeing a frustrating episode through (1) increases the group’s commitment and resolve, (2) increases the group’s trust in the rules, and (3) often gives the players a taste of the characters’ experience, which strengthens identification and ultimate satisfaction.

    (A frustrating episode: when seeing through the game’s procedures, when playing by the rules, is frustrating to the players.)

    Assigning Hx, at the end of Apocalypse World’s character creation, is a (small) frustrating episode. It’s frustrating because you suddenly have to organize the players into turn-taking and following rules together. The benefits are tremendous. Not just the benefits of assigning Hx, but the benefits of the frustration, and of seeing the frustrating process through together.”

    I think I paraphrased that okay, but just in case. :)

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Thanks! My google fu was a bit weak, there being a million places these days where one can read us talking about stuff.

      Interestingly enough, it makes me better understand why “Hx” was chosen as the shorthand. It adds to the initial confusion/frustration in the form of questioning an odd thing. And then it just becomes a thing we take as normal, like how we do with D&D stats. (And our conversation in the car is why I’m calling Obsession in Unknown World ‘Ox’.)

      – Ryan

    • Ewen Cluney says:

      I saw when Vincent posted that on Twitter and didn’t get the context at all, in part because when I played Apocalypse World (one table over from where Ryan was running it) the Hx part seemed really painless and straightforward. I don’t know how much was the particular MC (Carl) and how much came from the game (I haven’t gotten to read it yet), but in that particular game it felt like just one step in a long series of steps to develop our characters. The MC was constantly asking us interesting questions about our characters, and compared to, say, figuring out how and why my Hardholder decided to take power, following the simple choices laid out by the game for History seemed really easy.

      I *think* I get what Vincent means by “frustration,” though I’m not sure that that’s the best choice of words. To me it seems more accurate to say that Hx is where the game starts challenging and mechanically engaging the players.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Carl’s run many one-shots of AW. I should sit down with him and find out how he explains Hx now, given his experience with having to.

      – Ryan

    • Chris Bennett says:

      I had lunch with Carl recently, and during our discussion of AW he didn’t feel like Hx was a bit issue. I bet his explanation of it would be a useful tool.

  2. Doug says:

    I haven’t read through AW, but as a reader I’ve encountered enough intentionally-frustrating texts that I’m quite certain it is not my style. I like encountering Vincent Baker’s games because they come off, to me at least, as thought experiments taken to a conclusion. This sounds like another case of that experimentation. I definitely find your reasons why in this instance you are bothered by the experiment more convincing than the reasons it doesn’t bother you. It sounds like, in your case, you needed the help of an oral culture around AW’s text, and I don’t think it’s fair to assume there will be one. A game text should describe a game as clearly and as interestingly as possible, IMO, so that a theoretically reader can just pick it up and start playing.

    Can you imagine a board game making the setup of the board intentionally frustrating and difficult to understand? There are enough unintentionally frustrating games out there. That game would be interesting as an experiment, but like you describe yourself doing, people teaching it to new players would have to revert to explaining the game apart from the actual instructions. This seems like a waste of text, now that I think of it, with a real risk that someone will, like you would for another designer, toss the book across the room with some choice words.

  3. Vincent says:

    Poorly explained is not my intent! The text isn’t supposed to be frustrating.

    “Now we all have to stop, pay attention, and go through this process together and in order” is my intent. “Poorly explained,” that’s too bad. I wish I could have seen a way to explain it more clearly.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      My apologies for saying so. Like I said, this came from a conversation between John & I, and are really about reactions to his comments.

      Have you given thought to working with an editor? I’m not saying me, but someone not directly in your play experience can make a ton of difference in these cases without killing your intent or style. (I honestly take pride in seeing the range in the books I’ve edited, from the mad prose of Don’t Rest Your Head to the clinical work on Penny to the in-character voice of Dresden. Our job as editors is to make text match intent.)

      Of course, there are editors that squash intent & style. I call those “ex-editors.”

      – Ryan

    • Vincent says:

      I’ve thought about it! I think about it every time. This game was a close call for me, but the timing was wicked tight and finally I decided that the text was really thoroughly playtested (even that part), so I was confident (and as you say) that it wouldn’t be dysfunctionally unclear.

      My next project won’t put up with the same, y’know, barfiness in the text, so an editor will be a must.

  4. Chris Bennett says:

    >>Things made more sense when John Harper talked about how that was Vincent’s intent, how he sees frustrations a group has to overcome as a bonding experience.

    To me this just comes off as elitist. Either you went through the ringer and are part of the in-crowd who “got” the game, or you didn’t and aren’t.

    Perhaps I just prefer my adversity at the table to be involving the story and not the rules.

  5. John Harper says:

    Yes, to be clear, it’s not the instructions that are frustrating (they’re quite clear in text). It’s the *process* of shifting gears from “let’s talk about our characters and the world,” to “let’s take turns and start doing rules-y stuff.” It takes a bit of gear-shifting and everyone has to pay attention to each other and work together.

    That’s the kind of thing you’re about to do when you start play, so it’s a nice little lead-in.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      I don’t entirely agree with that. I don’t think the text is clear. It’s not so unclear as to be dysfunctional. But if this is a frequent point of friction, the text is unclear (though the design is totally clear).

      But that’s a longer conversation than I have bandwidth for right now. I think that, at a minimum, stronger segue text would have gone far in bridging this gap. And I think overall we don’t place as high of a value on segue text as we should for communicating idea transitions.

      – Ryan

    • Perhaps it’s just the play-books that I’ve seen in action, but History didn’t seem that complicated to me. The text, I feel, leaves it a little mysterious, but as you compare play books it reveals itself… well enough. It could use a counter, like experience, maybe, to help people grok the roll-over mechanism. Am I weird that I don’t see much of a hiccup in transitioning from talk about the characters to talk about the characters that comes with numbers attached?

      I’ll have to wait and maybe see longer play one day before I form a more thorough opinion on History, though.

  6. Grant says:

    Hey Ryan. I played in your Story Games Day game as LINE. I gotta say that I had a lot of fun, and the way you ran it, I didn’t really run into any confusion at all. Hoping we can maybe run that again sometime.

    I feel like ambiguity in mechanics can be interesting, but only under some very specific circumstances. Taking an example from a computer game for a sec, there’s this Russian game called The Void where the only way you learn game mechanics is through talking with NPCs and trial and error, and the NPCs will often lie to you or neglect to mention things like “Using this skill causes a horrible monster to appear”.

    This is something that’s neat and fascinating, but doesn’t work quite as well in a tabletop game, since someone still has to read, interpret, and execute the instructions. And I’ve been through a ton of that, having played a ton of Fantasy Flight games with beautiful rules and godawful information design.

    I know now that this totally wasn’t Vincent’s intent, I think one way of handling a challenge for both players and GM is by throwing both of them a curve ball, and the simplest way of doing that is usually through random events or developments that are outside of their control. Though this does carry with it the risk of derailing a game.

  7. Mikael says:

    I don’t see this issue with Hx at all, actually. I’m not claiming that means the text is perfect, mind you, just that I’m above-average in the intelligence department.

    Bragging about the awesome power of my mind aside, two games that do this well – intentionally or not – and which might spark interest in future thinking on Stockholm Syndrome in game design:

    Weapons of the Gods, by Rebecca Borgstrom (and I understand others claim the same of another game of hers, Nobilis)
    Lacuna, by Jared Sorenson

    The text in WotG is incredibly evocative but nigh-impenetrable, the rules existing mostly as semi-modular inferences of things gleaned between lines of prose. After 8+ sessions and a crapton of work on part of the GM dissecting the thing, we’re still trying to figure out how advanced features of the game works. I’m talking things like using one’s skill in Music to transform an opponent’s Fear into debilitating stomach cramps through the use of mystical courtesan kung-fu shit, and determining what to roll, what the opponent’s defense is, what sort of mechanical effect it will have, or hell, if it’s even possible to begin with given the complex diagram of mental afflictions and their relationship to physical conditions. The text becomes a beast of convolution, to be conquered by team effort, and in the end we invariably arrive at a solution that is uniquely catered to our table and possibly not even portable to another group.

    Regarding Lacuna, the text omits so much that both GM and players can fill in the blanks. But better than that, the times I’ve run it, I have been in-character 95% of the time – playing the mission giving agent during character creation, asking the players to fill out their form as a kind of password-recovery security question due to Company data loss, giving them as little information as possible (or misleading information) about the mission, who they are, what they’re doing here, or even what the rules of the game are. Instead, I cue them in-character; “Would you like to requisition a gun from Control to deal with this Personality? Roll your Access.” “Congratulations! You have been awarded a Commendation Point!” “Your heart rate is very high, Agent. Would you like to eject now? EJECT. NOW.”

    That first session, the players are busy struggling – in and out of character – with figuring out how the hell things work around here. Which is totally in theme with the game, yet frustrating as hell, but does provide a bonding experience.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I’m not claiming that means the text is perfect, mind you, just that I’m above-average in the intelligence department.

      I’m going to file that until “statements you shouldn’t make unless you want to alienate the person you’re talking to.”

      – Ryan

    • Mikael says:

      File it under “self-deprecating ironic humour” instead, it fits better.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Fair enough, but you should know that you’re not in control of how your tone is read when it’s just text. Or the mood of the reader. But that’s beside the point (and will *be* the point of a future post, I’m sure).

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Also, I’m on my first cup of coffee with a headache right now (hence while I’m otherwise quiet on the net). I should have followed my rule of “if I *need* to post within seconds, I’m probably going to be an asshole.” My apologies for not!

      – Ryan

    • Mikael says:

      Well, that’s disappointing. I thought you were maybe instead nursing a whiskey and not wearing pants, thus why you chose to purposely misinterpret my jest as a jab at yourself and inflict a playful jab in return. And now I learn, to my dismay, that you were angrily lashing out at a perceived injustice. Oh, the glory of the Internet.

      If we meet sometime, remind me to buy you a beer. Hope my exposition on those games spark any ideas, and take care of that head of yours. Cheers!

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      I’m not wearing pants.

      Was less “angry” and more, I guess, crabby? Like there’s a difference online. Anyway, it’s disappointing on my end as well that I feel into my old habit. :/

      I cannot say no to a beer. Everyone on the Internet knows this. I mean, you could be all “Hey little boy, want a beer? Just come into this grey windowless van!” and I would.

      Oh god, I just said that aloud.

      – Ryan