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Understanding Your Game’s Core Activities

One of the things that people get hung up on when designing a game (definitely with RPGs, but not just) is understanding the game’s core activities — the very things you’re doing in the game that make the game fun, interesting, or at least move it forward.

Looking at the archetypical “traditional game,” there are three super-broad core activities:

  • Action/Conflict — the players expressing agency in the fictional world through their avatars
  • Discovery/Exploration — the players (and usually their avatars) learning more about the fictional world
  • Recovery — the players’ avatars dealing with consequences and spent resources

If there’s any litmus test for if something’s a “trad game” (spoiler: there totally isn’t), whether a game’s core activities mesh with games like old-school D&D, Traveller, GURPS, Champions, etc. would be it.

Those are almost too broad to really work with, but it’s a start, because what I want to talk about is how many games make discovery weird. In fact, that segment of RPGs is one of the most hotly contested topics when it comes to game design. This has lead me to a potential truth.

Most game designers focus only the action and conflict components of their games, using that to back-engineer recovery. Discovery is an afterthought.

Yet, discovery is a really fucking big deal, because (a) some people play to explore worlds and (b) information flow is key to making any imagination game work.

In typical fashion, discovery uses the same system as action — you might succeed, you might not — except when the advice in the book tells you to not do that when that would such. I wouldn’t call that an incomplete system or a dysfunctional one — I would just say that’s not a system for handling the activity at all, but one that forces the participants to come up with their own system using the tools provided.

Which, honestly, we’ve done over the years. How many times have you read an article about information management in a mystery or horror game?

Modern sensibilities in this regard can be boiled down to: “how about we get the game to help us here?” (Or “How about we inject some fairness here?”, which is more or less the same thing.) So, let’s look at some that execute this core activity differently for various effect:

GUMSHOE is the now-ubiquitous example of modern implementation, between the explicit “you will always find out the clue” mechanic (which I like, when it works) and the “spend points to find out more information” (which is where the system totally loses me). After playing and running some GUMSHOE — Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, and Night’s Black Agents — I’m pretty sure that it’s investigation mechanic isn’t for me, because it executes that core activity in a way I find unsatisfying.

However, it’s actually executing that core activity. Robin understands that discovery is a core activity, and built something to address it. He sees that the role of discovery is to link narrative beats, so GUMSHOE is meant to not have those information beats take up too much time.

A different example is Apocalypse World, which is a game about dangerous cloistered drama. Information there is a resource, an edge, and scarcity of it can be palpable — so getting information isn’t certain. Some of the ways that you can gain information (which has a mechanical benefit) involve rolling and getting to ask a certain number of questions based on the roll; failure means something dangerous will happen to you or you’re otherwise exposed, but you still might get to ask questions. Other ways involve getting to ask a general question of your choosing, with (to be quick about it) roughly the same effect.

Here, the core activity around discovery involves danger and risk, and its uncertain. But failure never means stasis — if you fail in Apocalypse World, bad things always happen.

To take a third example, let’s go to The Dresden Files RPG, which more or less does relegate discovery into “here’s an idea, and you guys handle it.” In the Running the Game chapter, there’s a bit about making investigation work in the game, specifically about how failure shouldn’t be about the denial of information. Now, that’s advice rather than codified rules, but it’s also what lead to Fate Core’s “Succeed With Cost” element. It becomes a bit more complicated when information can directly become game mechanics, in the form of aspects, which can make it hard to manage compared to other mystery games with a nebulous discovery implementation.

Which is to say that Fate Core’s “hey, make an aspect” implementation of this core activity starts to fall down a little in games where this activity is as crucial as action. (Which just makes it on par with all other games that handle discovery in a loose fashion, no worse.)

So as I’m working on things like Achtung! Cthulhu’s Fate Core edition and the Emerging Threats Unit, I’m thinking about how to execute this core activity in a way that’s faithful to the investigative horror genre (especially where information can come at the cost of sanity), compelling in its own right, and is just plain interesting.

And that isn’t easy — it requires me to actually do more work than just figure out if the action and recovery feels right. It makes me have to understand my game’s core activities.

– Ryan

(Fun fact: I didn’t have any caffeine in my system while I wrote this.)

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One Response to Understanding Your Game’s Core Activities

  1. Carl Klutzke says:

    This is great stuff. I look forward to hearing more about what you come up with. Now that you’ve called it out so explicitly, I’m thinking that Discovery may be the main reason I want to play RPGs at all. (And incidentally, I think it’s why I find many story-games, where I contribute to the creation of the situation, so dissatisfying: I want to _find out_ what’s going on, not _decide_ it.)