Posts Tagged ‘thoughts on’
As game designers, we have to be careful to not let our own sense of “cleverness” turn into a poor experience for players. Often, we approach this line by making fiddly dice mechanics. When it comes to making games, here’s my philosophy: what’s easy for you to do isn’t inherently easy for everything, especially when you’ve gained plenty of practice at making your mechanic work because you’ve tested it over and over.
What I consider reasonable to have in a mechanic:
- Finding the highest (or lowest) die in up to ten dice
- Finding whichever dice in a die pool are of a certain number or higher, generally not more than ten
- Adding two single-digit numbers together
- Adding a single-digit number to a double-digit number
- Subtracting up to 5 from a number, or subtracting whole tens (10, 20, etc) from a number
What I start eyeballing (but don’t just automatically toss out):
- Die pools that involve more than ten dice
- Adding three single-digit numbers together
- Adding two double-digit numbers together
- Other subtraction
- Subtracting one die from another
- Multiplication involving a single-digit number
- Moving dice around
- Rotating pips/sides (rotating a 3 to a 4, or a 4 to a 3)
What I try to avoid entirely:
- Multiplication of two double-digit (or higher) numbers
- Applying individual rules on dice in a pool
 Mythender breaks this rule, but I was conscious of this while designing it. Because you earn those dice, and because you learn the rules when you have fewer dice, those times you’re rolling 30 dice have meaning (which don’t happen often), and in practice it’s worked out alright.
 Like GURPS’ 3d6. I can do that in my sleep, but I have watched over the years players stumble on adding three dice together.
 Like Feng Shui. This is less about arithmetic than it is about confusion over which die to subtract — something else I’ve seen over the years.
The Test & the Reason
When you’re playtesting your game, refrain from (beyond a demo or two) interpreting the dice to generate the result. Have the players do it. Watch those who do it quickly. Watch those who struggle, and if others have to bail them out.
This is important for two reasons: (1) constantly having to pause to interpret the post-roll beat can break the mood; (2) when you can’t figure out how to interpret the dice and always rely on others to tell you what you rolled, you don’t feel like an equal participant.
The idea that language is fashion comes up constantly, and a recent event brought it back into the nerdgeist: the creator of GIF, Steve Wilhite, receiving a lifetime achievement award. In that, Wilhite chimed in on his soap box:
“The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” Mr. Wilhite said. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”
No, it’s not, Mr. Wilhite. You’re a silly twit if you think it is.
But let’s ignore a stupid little pronunciation fight that no one will give a shit about in a couple decades, if not sooner. Instead, we can turn our attention to someone whose impact goes far beyond “lifetime achievement:” Noah Webster, one of the most powerful memetic engineers and shaper of national identities.
You know how Americans don’t use ‘u’s in words like color/colour, honor/honour, etc? And center versus centre? It’s because Webster had this idea that he could forge a national identity that’s separate from English culture by changing how we spell things.
It worked. Look at how much shit American give Commonwealth spellers and vice versa, and you have the legacy of Noah Webster. But it didn’t happen overnight, and not everything he wanted to do took hold (“tongue” becoming “tung,” for example).
This is possible because language is inherently a fashion. You see this with how kids speak; street vernacular fades in and out of fashion, and people look cool or lame depending on what they say. But that’s not just about slang — it’s somewhat old-fashioned to work every sentence that might casually end in a preposition to not end in one. Passive voice is disfavored in fashion (and rightly so, he says, culturally indoctrinated to believe that), though there are places where such usage is correct.
And don’t get us started on the “number of spaces after a sentence” conversation. There are two strong and heated fashion trends, one more academic that believes in two spaces in between each sentence and the journalistic one that believes in one space after each one. (I’m in the one-space camp, because two looks ugly. “Because two looks ugly” is 100% about fashion, not about function.)
I could bring up instance after instance, but that would belabor the point. The way Old English slowly became Middle English which slowly became the English we speak and write today is about shifts in culture and shifts in fashion. When we’re playing with language, as writers and editors, as designers and developers, we’re expressing fashion — or a multitude of fashions. The words we use, the order we use them in, how we spell them, and how we deal with punctuation around them — that’s all language as fashion.
Once you understand this concept, embrace it, and study it, it can be a potent tool in your linguistic toolbox.
And once you understand that language is fundamentally a form of fashion, you might come to a conclusion similar to the one I’ve come to: if there are different competing fashions, neither is more right than the other. There is a time and place for both. Some might look weird to me, and some might not. Most importantly, if someone goes on about how “wrong” one of those trends is, that person is at best clueless and at worst a language-hipster.
When I see a book where there are two spaces after a period, I don’t think that person is wrong. I think that person is following a silly fashion meant for children. But I also get over that, because it’s fashion, not doctrine.
Finally, I say to the Mr. Wilhites of the world: when you try to assert truth over an existing fashion trend, you accomplish nothing beyond making yourself look like an out-of-touch troll. Language shifts with use and changes all the time, it is a subculture identifier, and no one person — not even the patron saint of American cultural rebellion that was Noah Webster — has a hold on language.
After all, if he did, we’d be typing “tung” instead of “tongue.” And wouldn’t that just look silly.
 And totally in the New World Order’s Ivory Tower.
 Yes, I realize that will stop no one from asserting their smug sense of superiority that their expression of fashion is correct, but now you all will understand where I’m coming from when I laugh at such people and talk about how adorable and precious they are.
 Such as how most people I see who say “irregardless” hold empty MBAs.
Many years ago, I played Spycraft. I loved the first edition, and when Spycraft 2.0 came out, I snapped it up. And promptly never played Spycraft again, and not because I stopped loving the idea.
See, there were somewhere around a hundred little dials the GM could tweak for any given campaign, and many of them sounded awesome. I was paralyzed by choice — I suddenly wanted to run five different games, and consequently I ran none. Similarly, whenever I see a game boast something like “over twenty classes!” in a core book, I shake my head at it.
Here’s the issue: as a designer, you know the optimal choices, the impacts of various choices, and the interactions of compound choices. But that’s you; people new to your game have none of that. Reading all of those options can be overwhelming to some people, because now they’re playing the game of “make optimal decisions.” Others can get inspired with a host of ideas, that can be incompatible with the host of ideas that other players come up with — too many options and choices leads to an inconsistent world.
So, if you end up piling more and more into some part of your game, slow your roll. Strip some of it back. That will help your game get traction as you don’t have such a hurdle of overwhelming information. Pick your favorite half or two-thirds of that content, and hand to the reader what you really love about your game. Play with that — there’s certainly no science to this.
Now, nothing says what you strip away needs to be deleted. If your game takes off, you have more content to hand out, and as people gain mastery of your game, the new sets of choices are not as overwhelming as giving them all at once.
A bit ago, Daniel Solis posted this image on his blog, about an observation on RPG design from intent to play, which Luke Crane titled the Starvo Principle (after the guy who came up with this, John Stavropoulos):
I’m having a complex reaction to John Stavropoulos’ model, because I agree with the base ideas, but see it differently.
User Interface, not Tools
What John calls tools I see as the user interface, the things that the players directly contact with. But it’s not just character sheets, dice, etc. It’s also the text, post-layout. Not only because pages can be printed out in order to to be ad hoc cheat sheets, but also because layout is the tool by which a book cements certain key ideas into the minds of readers.
Which is to say that if rules are the (or an) implementation of intent, and text is the implementation of rules, then user interface is the implementation of text. Although that’s someone strange, because much of user interface is developed in concert with rules, and text is a product of merging the two.
Intent and Play Culture
Here’s where I have a really weird reaction. Intent is treated as a separate thing, and to me, intent is all over that chart, like jam on toast. What I would put in its place is play culture, or reaction to play culture. And our interface axioms start from there.
I’ve been big about discussing play culture over the years. The indie scene in its early days (and sometimes still today) was pretty bad at creating books that required an understanding of the designer’s play culture in order to successfully execute. Or, as my good friend Paul Tevis said about one indie game back in 2007, “The game isn’t in the book. It’s an oral tradition that happens to also have a book.”
Minimalism makes the assumption that the reader either is in or understands the play culture intended by the designer. That understanding is a context channel. It’s easy to unintentionally be deficient in explaining how your game works beyond it’s mechanics if you’re not used to explaining your play culture.
However, when your game is the result of your reactions to a play culture — usually when there’s something you really don’t like or doesn’t work for you in a certain mode — it becomes prudent to go beyond minimalism and explain said play culture. Which, to go back to John’s model, carry your intent all the way through the rules, text, and tools. I’ve had this experience working on Mythender, because the way the GM is suppose to act is a reaction to what people have called “epic” games in my play experience.
This is why I see intent not as the bottom rung but as a separate input to rules & text. Intent as expressed by mechanics & rules isn’t the same as intent as expressed by advice, which is in the realm of text. Which leads us to…
A Place for Advice
There is no clear place where advice or best practices hooks it. It doesn’t really hook directly into text, because it’s parallel to rules. It’s developed along the same time as rules, even if not yet clearly explained until a first draft is written. Some instances of advice live in the intent/play culture layer, yes, but not all of it. And because of the language used in the chart, rules are prioritized far over the idea of advice & best practices.
Unless you consider advice to be “rules” along with mechanics. Then cool. But many people don’t see that definition of rules. (I do, but I tend to have to explain such things assuming that a good portion of my audience doesn’t, thus this entire section.)
To phrase another way: the when & why of rules is as important to the interface as the how.
John Is In No Way Wrong
It may sound like I’m criticizing John, but that isn’t my intent (hah). John has gotten me to think about my own model, and in blogging about it, made some of those thoughts concrete. I invite you to do the same — I know some folks have around the internet.
John Stavropoulos is one of the sharpest guys I have ever had the pleasure of chatting and dining with. He could write papers on RPG scholarship, GM practices, group dynamics, all sorts of things. he’s achieved something pretty cool here (which Daniel has then turned into something somewhat larger, by applying a visual tool to John’s text).
So, what has it made you think about?
 Remember, I never talk about a product publicly unless I think there’s some merit to it, however flawed.
 Tomorrow’s blog post (which was actually written before this one was).
 Which is a great illustration of the top tiers of John’s model.
Success is unpredictable. Enough said.
Wait, you need more? Heh. I did as well years ago, before I crossed into the Fog of Achievement.
I saw some stuff lately that’s caused me to write about this. First, the image to the left, reading “i do not fail, i succeed in finding out what does not work.” Now, sure, that’s funny and gets a snort. But here’s the thing: if you actually do that last part, you’re on the path to success.
Back in January, I wrote this when I wrote about Luck and Wisdom:
If I am at all wise, it is because I neither ignore nor obsess over the mountain of failure I have created in my years.
Since then, I’ve had some more failures that I’ve learned from — professional, creative, personal. Nothing that’s disheartening, because the point of experimenting it to see what works, what doesn’t, and to move on. Because you can’t really predict success in the creative landscape, experimenting is what you gotta do. Each failure is just more concrete in your creative foundation. (Also, a good place to hide the corpses of past projects.)
Now, I’ve become a fan of Nice Peter and his Epic Rap Battles of History. He does some other weekly shows that are neat (though he lives up to his moniker of “Nice Peter”, so if you’re expecting disses like the raps, you’ll be disappointed. I am not). One from earlier this October, he crossed the threshold of having one million YouTube subscribers. He talked about that a bit on this video:
He starts talking about how it took him twelve years to get to this point, and he didn’t expect to get to this point by being an Internet rapper. Start at 1:02, for around 30 seconds. Or watch the whole 6:41 of it, because he’s upbeat, chill, nice. And if you’re looking at the Internet, chances are you need a dose of that. :)
If there’s one thing I learned from this experience [of getting one million subscribers on YouTube and being an Internet hit], it’s don’t ever give up on what you’re doing! But, remember it’s not going to end up exactly how you thought it was.
- Nice Peter
I totally understand that. When I started as a RPG design podcaster, I didn’t expect I would be a multiple award-winning game editor/developer. I didn’t know that was in me.
And when I think of unexpected successes, I think about one of the people that I…fuck, I hate saying “look up to” because honestly uncomfortable when people say that to me. It implies some sort of distance between a creator and the person saying it that isn’t there, some sort of status bullshit. But it’s a useful phrase, so sure…look up to, Wil Wheaton. Did he expect to become the cornerstone of geek culture that he is today? Not really. But that’s the thing about success — if you keep at something, examine your successes and failures, adapt, and be patient, it’ll happen. Just not how you expect. Wil adapted and became the dude he is today.
Now, when I say “be patient” I don’t at all mean “be still,” which is how I used to hear it when people said that to me. Success is like baking a cake. The cake is constantly becoming the thing you want it to be, not just sitting around unchanging. But if you rush it or open the oven too early, you’re going to fuck it up. Patience is constantly acting knowing the big payoff is years away, and not letting that deter you.
But patience isn’t never throwing in the towel, saying “fuck it” and going off to drink or play video games. That happens to all of us. We all need breaks. We’re not emotionless, tireless robots.
Patience is knowing you’re going to pick the damned towel back up in a moment and keep pushing. Patience is when that towel never leaves you for long.
Success is the long game. It’s unpredictable, it takes time, and it’s fucking exciting. Go grab some.