söndag 17 november 2019

Table-Centric Design

Recently, I've been questioning the primacy of "Design" within RPG products. There's a kind of determinism that is generally accepted among RPG folks that Design determines what Play looks like. Listening to some versions of what Game Design is, you'd get the sense that the job of a designer is to manipulate and mind-control the people who play it, and perhaps to teach lessons about some things. If they are correct, and game design truly is a form of Vault-Tec style behavioral control, we might have to ask ourselves if this is even desirable?

I don't doubt that design to a certain extent shapes the behavioral patterns and the choices role-players make, but I find that designers more often than not overrate their own presence at the table in a rather self-aggrandizing way. There is a famous, perhaps dubious sentiment surrounding Vampire The Masquerade - that the games mechanics seemed so contrary to the intended playstyle of the game that it is a wonder anyone played it at all. You'd wonder if that would make these creators question the primacy of game design, or find a separate explanation for why thousands of people still play that game to this day? Instead, they conclude that it is the players who are wrong, and are merely ignorant of the fun they could be having.

When the theory of something and its practice differ, then we first question theory. Our first job as "theorists" is to interpret, and the Design-Centric view has failed to account for how RPGs are actually played at actual tables.

The truth is that our preconceived notions about what a specific RPG is will do more to form the actual play of the game than the rules. The entirety of DND5E is designed around this fact - entire swathes of what defines a DND adventure is left out or assumed to be understood. That has been rather successful for 5E, since it could use it to accommodate those who only know DND from pop culture, or who learned what DND is from different editions. 

Other games work like this too, except perhaps not intentionally. The reason why people play and played Vampire the Masquerade in-spite of its allegedly broken system is that its premise inspired play, its aesthetic sparked creativity and its rules could be easily ignored, and even more easily forgotten if you so wished. This is of course sacrilege to certain designers, but it is not really a problem. If playing at the aesthetics and framing of a game is not the real playing of the game, then I am here to inform you that the vast majority of people who say they have played DND, VtM or even Apocalypse World are liars!

And that's obviously not a workable position. So what is?

Centering the Table 


What if we designed with the knowledge that the table is in control? I know it hurts to think about, but what if our jobs aren't to treat players as lab mice, and instead as the primary creative force in games as a medium? What if we designed games with the premise that diverse people all around the world are going to make it their own inspite of our design?

It is clear to me that we've merely replaced "The Dungeon Master Is God" with "The Designer Is God". I propose a theological paradigm shift - the "Table Is God". I want to create design with the assumption that it is incomplete without the people actually making use of the design. This doesn't mean system-neutrality, or that the text and presentation lack a genre or reference to external media. It means that whatever happens after I've given (sold, most likely) my design to you, is out of my hands.

Such a design would : 
  • Leave spaces, not fill them in 
  • Enable fiction, not dictate it
  • Enable homebrew rulings, avoid standard actions
  • Multi-task, not uni-task
  • Be the spice, not the protein
  • Be the border of the game, not its end-goal
  • Create tools, not rules
I'll probably dedicate full blog posts for these, but to clarify:

Leaving spaces


If your system or setting is a complete ecosystem that needs no intrusion from players and GMs alike, there is no need for anyone to play it. Leave space for the table to play in, don't overdefine or map it all out.

Enabling fiction


A role-playing game has the ability to inspire and spark creativity, imagine different outcomes and undermine existing cliches. A role-playing game should help this by providing fictional material - game text, character/NPC creation procedures, cool and dynamic equipments or ways of navigating space, and tools for creating scenarios and adventures. It should not be canonical or rely on specific narrative structures to work. 

Enable homebrew rulings


Most games have standard actions. Your lock-picking, your have-sex moves, your hack-into-computer-whilst-in-a-moving-vehicle. Get rid of em, and just have intuitive descriptors (DnD Attributes, Blades Action ratings, "Skill" in Troika) and a way to develop whatever expertise characters have during play. This isn't to suggest that the skill-lists common in Percentile-based systems and post-AD&D fantasy gaming are mechanically useless, but rather that we don't know what the characters might attempt and what worlds the GM (if they exist) creates yet. There might not exist a lock to pick, nor might the players want to if they could. It is perfectly allowed to use a mechanical shorthand if certain skills and targets become generalized and repetitive during play, or to represent certain advances the character has made, but don't start there. Empower the players to interpret the world through a set of simple mechanisms, instead of providing that interpretation beforehand. This prevents us from presenting the world as a set of mechanical tasks and instead as a real, dynamic place.

Multi-task


Table-Centric Designs have no core-loop or universal mechanic. They are not what Alton Brown would call a "uni-tasker" - they should provide tools, rules and language that can be approached from several angles. Consider the ole DnD "6 attributes between 1-20 and derived modifiers from -3 to +3" - you can use those as follows:

  1. Roll 1d20 and add the modifier to beat a target number 
  2. Roll  1d20 at or below the target attribute (alternatively, roll above)
  3. Roll a number of d6 at or below the target attribute (alternatively, above)
  4. Use the modifier to add or subtract another roll - e.g adding the Charisma modifier on a reaction table 
These different ways of mechanically engaging with the same information also enables the table to make their own decisions about how to create fiction. A Table-Centric design doesn't tell you exactly when and how to use them, but provides them as suggestions, and a way to navigate the space. 

Be the Spice 


With such a hands-off approach to gaming, it can become rather boring for the designer. After all, if the role of design is minimized, then what is the fun in it? Well, even in minimalist design, the text and the presentation is incredibly important for the table. Remember what we said about aesthetics and framing being a determining factor to play? Do that. That's the spice. 

Be the Border 


The end-goal of a Table-Centric RPG isn't to randomly generate a piece of fiction, nor is it to engage with a core mechanic. You haven't failed to play the game if you never triggered any dice-rolls, you've just played in the spaces between. Now, rolling the dice (or whatever) is fun, and more often than not you will do that, but the mechanic is there to simulate uncertainty, represent complexity or impose difficulty, and none of those are necessarily a given part of every game-session. This is not a failure to play the game - players and GMs are aware of the rules, but because of the Tables decisions, they have chosen to stay within its borders. These borders define play just as much when they are not crossed as when they are. 

Creating Tools


As a Table-Centric Designer, you do not know what your players will do with your work, and you are discouraged from telling them what to do. This shouldn't meant that you under-define what can be done. Create a diverse set of tools or templates that help the table make sense of and resolve things. Make random-table style prompts and imply world-building. An NPC reaction table is not a rule, it doesn't need to be used if other things make more sense, and nothing breaks if you don't use it - but it can add something if it is applied. These are tools for generating fictional materials, not laws of physics or statements of legality, and they help the table rather than constrain it.

Possible Shortcomings

First, lets imagine a possible, surface level objection to this:

Isn't this just a restatement of the same old OSR-philosophy? Do we really need another word?


Not really, since I think it has applications beyond it. I think a "story"-game like Fiasco falls under these definitions. I've talked to several people who've successfully played the game Fiasco, while having no idea what the rules actually intended. There are passages in the original edition that are quite muddled. And I shared that assessment - we all, however, played Fiasco, based on our assumptions of what a game of Fiasco would be. It gave us fictional material and a way of framing play (being the border!) that we were able to navigate in a fairly simple way. Sure, it is sold as a game that emulates a specific narrative - the Coenesque dark comedy, but the stories of the Coens are in themselves multilayered and ambiguous. The meta-narrative of Fiasco isn't singular and intrusive, but multifaceted and dependent on who plays it. There are a thousand ways to make things go to hell.

It doesn't really matter if your game tools imply High Romance or Grognardy Meat Grinders, what matters is how the game presents itself to its players, and how much it forces players to align to a singular meta-narrative structure, or how much it ties actions to an unavoidable monolithic "core loop".

So, on to some actual problems, as we are in the business of honesty.

Lack of Depth

The strength of rules-heavy, core-loopy games that center around advancement, character builds and tactical actions is that they are rewarding in the same way most computer and board games are. The designers can put more time into a specific, long-term play experience and predict some sort of outcome. You invest into a strategy and you are able to see it pan out. This is part of why those games are so popular. When it comes to the Table-Centric vision, where rules are assumed to emerge out of the basic framework of play, some players might find this aspect lacking. When the table are already the "Masters" of their play, the act of "mastering" something external to them becomes less exciting. If you want the feeling of being the person who knows what all the Spells in DnD does, this is not for you.

Lack of Incentive

Authority and responsibility is a daunting thing. When there's nothing to tell you exactly what to do and how to make people do it, there is a risk that they won't do anything at all. But we shouldn't let the lack of an intended playstyle and meta-narrative be confused with a laziness regarding presentation and set-up. You should still tell players about the Magic Spire of Immortality hidden in the Volcano Of Sorrow, but what the players do with that information is up to them. You have to be more of a Poet than a Warrior, is what I guess I am saying.

Lack of Objectivity

For some players, the existence of a canonical rule-book external to the GM or other players is a necessity. There is sometimes a legitimate worry that loose structures and vague frameworks can be abused and unbalanced. Having a tome of rules can be a huge comfort. While this is sometimes a more personal or inter-personal issue, I think it is at least useful to consider adding tools for the social aspects of play, the generation of a social contract and the establishment of who has the authority to do what and when. 

___________________________________

Epilogue

I had started writing this before the entire twitter discourse around just this topic broke out. A lot of things have been said that summarize my position, and a lot of valid criticism of the position has come up as well. 

The most common objection is that the intrusion of Design is necessary to keep players from merely replaying the same story, and challenging them to imagine something different. There is a simple distrust of player intuition on display here, or perhaps, a distrust of ones own intuition. I could add that anecdotally, some of these attempts to "force players out of a narrative" have made the entire experience stale and frustrating, playing me more than I played it. But I see the concern.  

Let me provide a solution: add a rule that the GM, or whoever has narrative control at the moment, has to test every 30 minutes of play. Roll any even-sided die. On uneven numbers, a Monkey God emerges from a dimensional portal, begging to have his belly scratched. Upon belly-scratch, banana-peels begin randomly appearing on surface of the earth, making any number of people trip on it like a skit in an old silent film. You try telling inherited, rehashed, cliched narratives with that possibility constantly looming over your tables fictional world.

If only I was joking. 

To the objection that people do feel like changing system has changed their play-style and outcome, more power to you. I don't deny that different design-choices can have different outcomes, or I wouldn't have written an entirely list about how to approach design. 

What I am advocating for is a broader understanding of why tables don't behave in ways that designers intend them to, why that's probably fine, and a generous, comradely attitude toward the people we are designing for.

If I'm successful, I will create or inspire systems that can be engaged with in many different ways, by many different people, for many different reasons. 

And above all else: Role-playing game design, as discussed on the internet, has no semblance of actual academic work or epistemological attempts at reaching a truth. Let us be clear that we are all making assertions, based heavily on personal experience, biased toward the things we already like, and the people we surround ourselves with. Be excellent to each-other.  

1 kommentar:

  1. Nothing to really say except that I agree 100% and will be pointing people towards this for reference, since it explains a bunch of ideas better than I can.

    SvaraRadera