Who’s in control, you or the game?

There is an intersection in any game, where the player and the game structure meet. For nearly everyone, where that intersection lies it hidden to us. We just feel it out.

For example for video games, I like playing Sim City. I really liked Age of Empires. These days I’ve looked around for games like them that I might also like. But the popular interface in almost all the new games is wrong for me.

Some games just don’t feel right. I think this interface between the game’s structure and the player is something that deserves to be explored for a possible cause to that.

One aspect of this interface is control. Is the player the one that dictates what’s about to happen next, or is it the game? There are a huge number of variations of that one question. There is a texture of the interface. I think we pick up on it instinctively and we know what we want when we find it.

For me, I like a game that has a very heavy structure for low-level choices. Video games and table top RPGs I like have a rigid set of options but there are a large number of options. There may be dozens to hundreds of things that the player can activate, but the set is finite. For example, in an RPG, the player can choose to attack, defend or any of other concrete defined actions, there are options within each of those options. In a video game, I can build, destroy, move, with a myriad of possibilities within those.

But I like my high level options to be open. There is no structure that says I can’t make certain moves when I want to. Sim City is a good example of this. The play is open ended. The only thing that limits my options is money. In Age of Empires, there is no explicit winning strategy other than gather materials before you are wiped out by an enemy.

My likes in RPGs are similar, although this high level control is usually the default. In some cases it’s not though. Games that have phases of certain kinds of action bother me. Games that have scenes that dictate what can and can’t be done in them bother me.

Video games often limit a player’s options on the high level these days. Even building games seem to be doing this more and more by giving the player an endless string of “Missions” or “Goals” that you can’t ignore. A lot of them will not allow you to continue playing the game until you’ve accomplished those missions.

In these games, I wonder, who is in control? The player or the game? To me it feels like the game is playing itself an I’m just along for the ride. On the other hand, this kind of game set up is apparently very popular since there are so many of them.

I assume then that I’m in the minority in wanting open ended freedom to take the game where I want. That makes me wonder, is that a reason RPGs are not attractive to many people? Precisely what attracts a player like me, is not desirable to others?

This would seem to be bolstered by the fact that a lot of people that play RPG for a short time and then move on may be playing because of the GM’s style. Maybe the GM is giving them what they want, by sending them on very specific missions. They’re not there for the high level choices. They’re there to push the button, or roll the die that they’re being told to.

This might seem cynical but it seems to be borne out by the evidence. Games are obviously not a one size fits all endeavor. In a lot of situations, we have a lack of language to figure out why. So let’s try and create some language to talk about it.

Some games give some control to the player, others give control to the game. Although in RPGs the control can be shared between the two. It’s often up to a Game Master to set the levels of control. In some cases though, RPGs can set these exclusively to player control.

High Level Control

This is an open ended game that the player sets the agenda. There may be an overall mechanism for survival (this is usually defined in the low level), but beyond that, the player calls the shots.

Player Control Examples: Sandbox RPG play, many story games, Microscope, Archipelago, Sim City, Legos, building blocks

Mid Level Control

There may be a stated goal, take over the world, defeat your enemies, get to the finish line first. How to accomplish that goal is up to the player.

Player Control Examples: Traditional RPG play, many story games, Archipelago, Fate, Age of Empires, Risk, Chess, Catan, Sim City, Legos, building blocks

Low Level Control

The player can define how the game will work on a mechanical level.

Player Control Examples: Some story games, Archipelago, Fate (to a minor degree) building blocks, toy soldiers, cops and robbers

For me, I enjoy games with high level control (HLC) and Mid Level control (MLC) but tend to not enjoy games with low level control (LLC). For example, Legos. They don’t set the goal, they don’t set how to get to the goal, but they do have a low level set of rules that if written out, would be extensive.

Building blocks on the other hand, have almost no rules other than gravity (although I could glue them together) and their geometry. There’s relatively few mechanisms that enforce how they are played with. This makes them easy to learn, but also have limited options.

I think a lot of story games are in that way similar to building blocks. They’re easy to learn and there’s nothing preventing you doing what you want. However they don’t always have a structure that tells you how to accomplish the higher level goals.

Where do you fall in the games you like? Do you think this language is useful for figuring out what kinds of games you like? Are there other variations that you think would need to be accounted for?


Update: I thought of one more control level that’s worth mentioning.

World Level Control

This is the ability to define the world in which the game is played in.

Examples: Microscope, Possibly home-brew games since the GM is creating the world, Generic games like Risus and Gurps don’t make world level control part of the game but require it by default, I’ve included limited world control in a few games like SPF and my 24hr game Starpunk.

I know that there should be more of these out there, I’m not thinking of them at the moment though.

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Let Me Tell You My Character’s Story!

Yesterday, we looked at how sharing a character with others can go wrong. I don’t like to leave things on a negative note though. It’s one thing to have a list of don’ts. It’s another to have a useful list of do’s.

So how can we share and have it got well? Like I said last time, people are often willing to hear a GM talk about their games. I’ll add the criteria that they’re willing to listen when said GM is brief and doesn’t delve into all the minutia of their “well laid out” campaign plans. “Let me tell you about my campaign” can be nearly as painful. The important thing is that people listen to the places where characters, players and the campaign intersect. That’s where the sharing is worth while.

What does that mean? That when your character does something in a game, it’s more interesting than anything you planned out on the character sheet. What you planned out on the character sheet may have made it possible for you to do cool things but stick to the action. It’s even more interesting when you ran into something you thought you couldn’t handle and then pulled it off anyway. Emphasize the reason you thought you weren’t going to make it. That’s your hook. That’s how you get your listener to say “I wonder what happened next!”

GMs are used to dealing with hooks, but hooks are something that work when you want to share a story.

Show what it’s like to have your character interact with the other PCs and the GM. Is there a funny conversation you can relate?

Is there a part where your character became pivotal to the campaign? That could be an interesting story too. Is that something the GM planned? Was it something that happened by accident?

You want to focus on the action of the game, it doesn’t have to be the fighting but is should be where something happened. Got the deal you wanted on the new equipment? Didn’t get it? Had a funny interaction with an NPC?

The intersection of the players and the rules can sometimes be interesting, but the feelings you have during those interactions are more important. Rolling two or three perfect rolls in a row is not that significant. The feeling it gave you is. “I rolled three perfect rolls! Do you know what the chances of that are?” is a dull conversation piece. “I rolled three perfect rolls in a row! Do you know how good that felt? It was amazing!” is something that will get even veteran players nodding their head. Positive feelings and energy are infectious.

 

Some things are just general good conversation rules. Remember shorter is better. Enthusiasm can make us ramble but fight it! Know when the story is done and make it time for someone else to talk. Maybe they’ll ask you to continue, that’s a sign that you’re doing well but again, give room for them to talk if they want to. Or maybe they have to do something and would like the story to end so they can. Give your listener that dignity. They’ll appreciate it.

So tell me your character’s story. Tell me your story. That’s something unique. That’s something entertaining. Lets learn to share so that it’s not just the guys at our table that get to share our experience. Let’s get good at brining in people from outside our gaming group in on the fun we’ve had. Maybe they’ll join you in your next game.

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Let me tell you about my character!

Cringe! That phrase is probably the most frightful thing a game designer can be cornered with. On the one hand, it’s your game, and you want to reward the player’s enthusiasm for your game. On the other, your brain is screaming “Dull! Boring! Painful!”.

Why is this? Where is the player’s enthusiasm for the thing they’ve built, failing to come out as an interesting story? You have people that pride themselves in complex back stories and acting out what their character would do, telling a painfully dull explanation of their character.

Maybe it’s because we’re given tools for playing the games but we’re not given tools to tell people about them. Lets look at some examples of other story telling that is boring and see what it teaches us.

Mary Sue” is a label given to a character that is good at everything. A Mary Sue is often seen in fanfic writing where an enthusiastic fan is writing about their favorite character. The beloved character overcomes every obstacle with ease, nothing can stop them. Mary Sue characters are boring. Any enjoyment from a story featuring such a character is purely on the part of the writer.

A lot of player characters are Mary Sues. At least their player is trying to make them into one. At one time, most of us tried to build an uber character that would beat everything in their path. It can be an interesting goal, it can be highly rewarding to reach toward. Once a character gets to that point, they usually get retired. Why? They’re no longer fun to play. They’re not making an interesting story anymore.

What do we learn from this? Telling about all the monsters you can beat and all the toys you have is dull. Telling me about your “fascinating” back story is usually an exercise in Mary Sue character building.

Why does this fail? After some examination, “legitimate” characters might seem like they fall into this category.

It’s not the skill of a character that’s interesting. It’s the challenges they face. But the challenges don’t usually get written down on the character sheet. It’s the GM that comes up with challenges. People will much more often listen to a GM’s tale of the games they’re running or even the plots they’re concocting, than listen to a character’s back story.

The second area that players run into when telling about their characters is they focus too much on stats and possessions. Do you want to read a book full of measurements of Mount Rushmore, or would you rather hear a story about the faces carved into the rock, why they’re important, and the great effort that it took to do the work and the current efforts to preserve it? Obviously it’s the latter.

Why? Stats tell a story but a good story, shows. There’s a huge difference in telling the story and making the listener feel like they’re in the middle of it. Showing them what it’s like to be there. Yes, on occasion a stat may be important but they’re rare, often one time thing and they should be connected to a story the tells the listener what it would be like to have such a good stat.

Early players frequently obsess about stats, but stats enable great things to happen. They aren’t great things happening.

These are two of the reasons that “Let me tell you about my character” fails. Next, let’s see if there’s a good way to share a character with others and make it interesting.

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Shared Experience and Rules That Prove Your Worth

RPGs are complicated webs of a game. They can be immensely satisfying or to many, far too dense to cut through to find satisfaction. For a while, a number of game designers (myself included) thought that maybe, if you could explain the kernel of what makes an RPG fun, you could help more people play.

That may still be a goal worth chasing.

In the process, we found that the fun being had was very deep and difficult to describe. Maybe too deep for some.

I tried my own interpretations multiple times. I focus on the ground level, the technical so a lot of my efforts fell flat but I’ve gotten closer over time.

The experience of playing RPGs can be likened to a number of entertainment experiences. Reading a book, watching a movie, playing a board game among others. The simple reason for that is they all are telling a story. Most are where you the one being entertained is passive. Some, when likening to other kinds of games, you’re more active. But you’re telling a story.

There’s been a lot made of this and some have reacted by saying that if it’s just a story we want, who needs rules? Let’s just freeform it. After all, the only thing those rules are doing is getting in my way.

But we’re not just here to tell a story. That’s why freeform isn’t more popular than traditional games.

We’re here for a shared experience.

What’s the difference? What does that even mean? A story is a series of events that are interesting in some way. A shared experience is what happens when we all agree to the same story.

When we all watch a movie and one person hates it, you don’t go quoting the movie with them. It’s almost like they’ve rejected that experience. Even if you loved it, you don’t share it.

But when a beloved movie is quoted, everyone chimes in. You can trigger the emotions of that story with a phrase. You share an experience.

It is possible to have a shared experience with freeform story telling. It happens all the time in improv theater and comedy. That’s not what’s happening in RPGs though. An RPG is a game, and games have rules.

Why do games have rules?

It’s because rules show that some things are allowed, and other things not allowed. Rules are a contract that tell us when we’ve done it right or wrong.

This is another reason people get rid of rules for. They don’t want to be told they’re doing it wrong. What they’re missing out on, is the rules that are telling them how to do it right. Rules can restrict but they can also exalt.

This is why an RPG is different than telling a story. If I follow the rules and I do well, even great, my fellow players accept my experience. We now share that I’ve done these great things, because I followed the rules. It’s no longer me just telling you about a character in a story you’ve never heard of and how great they are. It’s something built. Something that I had to follow a path for.

I’m not just saying to you that I beat Usain Bolt in a race. You’d look at me like I’m nuts since I’m a lousy runner.

Without rules I could say that I beat him because I drive my car faster than he can run. I didn’t follow any rules. I didn’t really do anything.

But what if I say, I beat Usain Bolt in a race. He and I met (this did not happen) and he said he could outrun my car. I took him up on this challenge and I beat him. Well now, you may not be overly impressed with my accomplishment but because there were agreed on conditions (AKA rules), you’d understand how I could validly make that claim.

Rules validate accomplishment. Rules establish a shared experience.

Epilogue

There is a disconnect between groups of role players. It is often the case that a player will try and translate their character to another player. “Let me tell you about my character!” But listening is painful to the other player, even the game’s designer. Why is this? I can say “I made it to level 8 of Super Mario Bros” and then tell about how I got there, and it can be interesting. Why can’t we tell each other about our characters? Don’t the rules validate our accomplishments?

Yes and no. Theres an admonition to writers, to make an interesting story, show, don’t tell. More verbosely, walk me through the action, don’t tell me about it like it’s a history lesson. We need to learn to tell each other about the games we’ve played, not the possessions or skills of the character. If we could learn to do that, “let me tell you about my character” could become a joyful thing to hear instead of something cringe worthy.

I think this is important. There are walls that separate role players from enjoying each other’s story. We’ve always wanted to tell our stories to other groups but it rarely goes well. We need an inter party language that makes the translation process enjoyable.

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The Artifact Player Handbook Hardcopy

It’s finally here! The Artifact Player’s Handbook is available as a hardcopy.

Player Handbook Cover
Order your own copy today!

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A hardcopy for cheap

Full color books are great, but what if you’re strapped for cash? What if you already have the full color book, but want another for passing around the table? What if you have a son like mine that destroys books?

For you, I introduce The Artifact RPG Economy Edition. The same great game, in black and white. You get the full book for less than half the price!

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Character Sheets are for Wimps!

A character BOOK is for AWESOME people.

Character Book

It’s time to let your character stretch their legs, throw their equipment around and keep all those notes somewhere.

The Artifact Character Book

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The Pitfalls of Publishing

A minor change to the Player’s Handbook.

I check and check and then when I think I’ve got it, I release a file. Almost without fail, the moment I publish, I find an error that just galls me. I know this happens, so I’ll even go over the text several times just before, but I find it after publishing. Maybe there’s a change in psychology that happens after publishing? I go over the file with new eyes, maybe more relaxed than before?

I debate if I should leave it as is, after all it would be easier than reworking a whole new PDF. But no, It’s bad enough, or prominent enough that it really needs to be changed. In this case it was a non-sequiter in the introductory paragraphs.

It probably was a thought that made some sense in the original text, but the surrounding writing had been edited and now no longer had a place.

I fixed it and now I’m happy again. The links to the file have been updated.

 

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After a very long pause . . .

It took me long enough but I’ve made a lot of progress on the Player’s Handbook. The file in the downloads section is updated. It’s not substantively different from the Beta, but there are many corrections. This means that hard copies could be coming soon!

Player Handbook Cover

Player’s Handbook

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Still Alive

I’ve been away from forums and the blogs for a little bit now. I could make excuses, but I just wanted to pause for a while. I wanted to see what some distance from thinking about all this social internet stuff would do. All in all, not a lot has changed. My brain filled with other things that were present, I worked on a couple games.

There is a lot I want to do with The Artifact. There’s another sourcebook to write, there’s the Player’s Handbook to edit (No, I haven’t finished that, I’ve been lazy). But I have a few very difficult nuts I need to crack to keep moving on. There’s the warping technology that I’ve written a dozen times but I can’t seem to get to the place I want. There’s the equipment generating rules in the Player’s Handbook, that are flexible to a fault but very involved, I’d like to ratchet down the intensity of. There’s the new aliens that I want to introduce. I want to get their mentality right.

There’s a lot to do but I feel like I need some inspiration that’s beyond me to get them right. I want them to be perfect, but as Dr. Lang says, “Perfect is the enemy of done.”

And come to think of it, that hasn’t been my development method so far. My method has been to publish something that works and then refine it as it’s played.

So I really should drop my worries about getting it just right. I should just get it out and work my way toward right. The Artifact has always been a case of “bit off more than I can chew”. I should be used to it by now.

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