Friday, March 21, 2014

Structural Realities in Design

Continuing with the theme I began yesterday, let me be more explicit about the wrong thinking that occurs in Ron Edwards' proposed "Big Model."  Within the context of what Edwards means to do, I don't have issue with it.  Where he discusses the 'structure' of the game in terms of the social contract, exploration, setting and so on, he accomplishes exactly what he sets out to accomplish - describing, generally, the relationships between different parts of the game.  However, this is almost totally useless if your purpose is to actually design a world..

Suppose we should set down to design a phone, and the entirety of our design scheme does nothing more than describe what the phone does, or how people will interact with the phone, or the general value of the phone within people's lives.  We've been very sure to describe how often the phone can be used, what all the buttons are for and so on, in order to convey the usefulness of the phone, and how the phone will affect the relationships people have.

Have we designed a phone?  Absolutely not.  We have followed through ONLY on the marketing of the phone.  We haven't actually engineered the phone.  Nor have we discussed, for one moment, what others will have to do in order to engineer a phone of their own.  This, the reader is expected to know already.

But who does know?  In 40 years of publication of role-playing manuals, where is the manual that does not discuss what your world does, or how your world needs to interact with your players, but actually tells you the components your world needs to contain?

Here is what we see.  A young player, wanting to be a DM, decides to 'make a world.'  Getting out a pencil, and paper of some kind - often graph paper, because inherently we understand distance is going to matter in the campaign - our player draws a little town, with eight or nine little squares meant to represent buildings. What follows is a road, a stream going past the town, a little bridge over the stream, another town next to a coast line, a forest filling up an empty space to the north of the road, a ring of mountains beyond the forest, a few islands spotted in the ocean, some labels here and there describing the forest as "Kettle Woods" or the road as "The Moneychanger's Pike" and so on.  Our player spends two or three days, fitting in a few other things, making the map very neat and pretty, and when its all finished, it is a fine map.  Our player stares at it, and imagines all the places, and is proud of the work.

Then our player takes the map and starts the campaign, and bleh ... nothing.  It's a fine map, but after the five minutes it takes to explain the name of the road and the reason it's called that, and the other features besides, our player discovers that the work done hasn't made a world, it has made a travel poster.

We are not concerned with the 'structure' between the party's social contract and the party's exploration of the world, those are marketing concerns.  What we want is the underlying structure that actually creates the world!  Once the party has put boots on the ground, we want to start regulating their actions, defining a functional relationship that defines the social hierarchy of the world, who can be approached, what will that approach accomplish - not in generalized terms, but in the exact terms of when the party speaks to the bartender in this town, this is all the bartender is able to tell them.  Exactly the same principle as the apps that exist on the phone.  The phone can only do this, and this, and this.  If you want the phone to do something else, you will need to build this app.

We argue endlessly about the apps - armor, weapons, amount of treasure, alignment, movement, limitations of interactive role-playing, weather, spell use and so on.  And no one, not Edwards or any other writer wants to wade into those arguments and say it is this and not that.  Yet what needs to be realized by the adjudicator of the game is that a decision has to be made on all these things ... as well as on the question, why does the town exist in terms of what it enables the party to do.  Is it a functional place where things can be bought, or is it a delicate arrangement which, if messed with, will produce two hundred citizens with pitch-forks and violence.  That has to be decided, and preferably before the party sets foot there.  It isn't just the rules, it is all the elements, or components if you will, of every stone and blade of grass that exists in the actual structure of the world.

True enough, you don't want to map every blade of grass ... but you DO have to decide, absolutely and with certainty, how the blades of grass function in your world.

Take the phone from your pocket and just think about this a moment.  Here is one of the most ubiquitous objects in our worlds right now, and it is quite new.  There are hundreds, even thousands of versions of this little thing you're holding, but this specific phone has specific rules about its nature.  Every single aspect of the phone has gone through diligent testing, from the weight of it to is dimensions, to the way the back panel unclips and clips back in to allow you access to the battery.  You're not holding a drawing in your hand, you're holding a real object.

If you make a map of your world, and think that is your world, you have to understand that your world is only a piece of paper with coloring on it.  You haven't made a world.  And if you think your world is in your imagination, then you have even less.  You haven't made anything at all.  Until you start producing the kind of hard substances that fit and click together like your phone, and transform your voice into electrical processes, you're only pretending to have created a world.  Structure is the synthesis of your thoughts and designs, the part where you make everything you can conceive of real ... real enough that someone else can pick up your world, just like you've picked up someone else's synthesized designs for a phone, and apply it.

It's nice to have a marketing perspective of what your world will do.  But that's not enough.  The real work begins when you settle in to lay down in stone the processes by which your world will do those things.

13 comments:

Giordanisti said...

Is this the sort of thing your book is intending to address, or is it more of a "now that you have a fully designed game and world, here's how to best use it"-type manual? Because I know my world- and game-building is inadequate, and I feel just as capable of figuring out how to make a phone from scratch as design a world from scratch. It seems a monumental task, and I haven't the faintest notion where to start. I just keep hacking away, hoping for some insight, but the lack of structure to my approach worries me. Anyway, great metaphor, this is a revealing post.

Alexis Smolensk said...

This is exactly what my book intends to address. I'm only writing these three posts, function, behavior and structure, to try to get a handle on the language I need to use in the book. Comments are very helpful, in telling me where I'm making sense and where I am not.

Giordanisti said...

I see. Well that's certainly a relief, as the last few posts are making me thirsty as hell for the manual whose lack you're describing. My confusion with the posts starts in trying to figure out what parts of the metaphor refer to the parts of the game I'm familiar with. Is a trade table an app or a circuit board? How foundational an element is, say, a system for interacting with npcs? While your metaphor makes general sense, and makes me look at design differently, I have tremendous difficulty figuring out on my own which pieces of the puzzle are most important. Clearly, this is THE primary issue, as the dnd blogosphere is concentrating entirely on the will o wisps. Obviously your book itself will make these distinctions clear, but at present, this is what concerning me.

Alan Harrison said...

With reference to Giordanisti's post, a system for NPC interaction might become foundational if your intent is to explore an "alien" culture. Bruce Galloway's much-maligned Fantasy Wargaming may (do I recall correctly?) have incorporated an interaction system that a young teenager found hideously and needlessly complex... but considered now as an attempt to impose on modern players the consequences of a medieval mindset, perhaps those rules were adequate.

Somewhat off-topic: your comments on the difference between "marketing" and "design" would be well-quoted to certain of my clients. May I?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Of course, Alan.

Writing the book has meant needing a lot of definitive terms to describe exactly what I am trying to say, and in many cases, particularly regarding presentation, design and aesthetics, business terms have been the most serviceable.

In fact, it has occurred to me that a business candidate would not do at all bad to read this book, as it discusses creating excitement, handling stress and dealing with people in depth.

Dave Cesarano said...

Do you see system and world design as synonymous or intrinsically linked? Because that is where I think your break from Edwards and GNS theory takes place.

Edwards' theories on design aren't about the world so much as the system and really distinguishes between the two based on what the individual players perceive as "fun." If I applied GNS theory to your design methods, you'd be the sort of GM a Simulationist would love, for example. In other words, Edwards asks, "What is this system supposed to do?" and then evaluates it based on that question. Not everybody wants to play in a highly-defined world with immense systems for trade, work, and sages, especially if they feel that these things needlessly 1) slow the game down and 2) they aren't so worried about GM fiat in order to keep things moving. Notice I'm talking about hypothetical people and their hypothetical feelings, although I do have enough anecdotal evidence to provide in these areas. I still recognize the flaws in my discussion.

That's what I think Ron's theories are getting at. Some people might approach your world and see it as needlessly complex. "Why do you need to know how blades of grass function in your world?" they might ask. "If necessary, we can resolve that issue when we arrive at it with a simple ruling that 'blades of grass do thus and such' and move on."

This player doesn't care much for your perceived need to ensure the elimination of GM arbitration from a lot of situations. Does this make him a bad player? Edwards would say, "No, just a player with different goals and a different concept of fun."

Alexis Smolensk said...

In fact, Dave, Edwards' theories on design don't apply to the structure of my world at all. They don't even apply to the manner in which I run my world, as words like "simulationist" are meaningless.

Ask yourself - is G.B. Shaw a simulationist? How about Shakespeare? How about any performance artist eliciting an emotional reaction? Edwards' theories don't hold up except in terms of roleplaying, and only roleplaying in a very narrow conception. When you see that the logic does not apply to similar situations in other fields, you see that it is all made up. It is the invention of "ether" to explain the movement of light through space in the 19th century.

What my system is supposed to do is produce an emotional investment. I'm not concerned with how that is done, any more than drama today is in any way defined by an "appropriate way" to stage a play.

As far as creating structure goes, Edwards is junk. It doesn't help me. It doesn't give me any direction. And like Giordanisti, it doesn't give anyone else any direction either.

My players don't approach my world and see it as "enormously complex" because my players don't see the complexity. Do you see the complexity of your phone? No. You just want to know how it serves you. My world serves the players in the exact same way. The players understand it is complex, but since they are not compelled to invest themselves in the production of the world, only in the emotional thrill of it, they don't care.

Players don't quit my world because it is complex. Some quit my world because it is 'serious' and they can't do things willy-nilly without consequences. Like people who cannot stop downloading bad files into their phones - they just are not responsible enough to play. But they don't quit my world because it is complex.

Ask yourself ... do you have any idea what in your phone is 'needful' and what isn't? Does anyone ask you? No. It's not your business. It's the designer's business. You trust the designer by buying the phone, and if you want it to work, you adjust yourself to learning how to work the device.

NONE of this is discussed by Edwards. Edwards is junk.

Dave Cesarano said...

As usual, Alexis, you're definitely good at nailing me and making me think. Which is good--my M.Ed. is nowhere near as intellectually challenging as my MA was and I feel like I'm slipping.

In fact, Dave, Edwards' theories on design don't apply to the structure of my world at all.

No, they don't. I agree. That's the entire problem with label-use. They're part of the human desire to organize and fit everything in a neat little taxonomy.

Ask yourself...

Well... see the easiest answer is "no" to just about all of them.

Edwards' theories don't hold up except in terms of roleplaying, and only roleplaying in a very narrow conception. When you see that the logic does not apply to similar situations in other fields, you see that it is all made up. It is the invention of "ether" to explain the movement of light through space in the 19th century.

Okay, now I totally see where you're coming from! It's that his theory doesn't apply anywhere else but in the extremely narrow context of table-top, pencil-and-paper role-playing and perhaps not even in that, entirely.

What my system is supposed to do is produce an emotional investment. I'm not concerned with how that is done, any more than drama today is in any way defined by an "appropriate way" to stage a play.

I see where you're coming from but I'm going to disagree because of the analogy. Drama is very much invested in how to create an emotional response and there are definitely methods to "stage a play" appropriately... according to criticism and criticism of drama is older than Aristotle's Poetics--Aristophanes (a contemporary of Socrates) often critiqued the tragedians of 5th century Athens through his comedy. However, the established rules are there to be broken just as much as they are to be obeyed--consciously and deliberately, not accidentally and haphazardly.

Assuming role-playing is a nascent art-form, it is less than a century old. Drama was already centuries old by the time Aristotle penned his Poetics (Aeschylus' first surviving work, The Persians, was around 140 years old when Aristotle wrote it). In comparison, tabletop role-playing games are barely in their 40s.

What I'm saying here is not that Ron Edwards' GNS Theory remotely approaches the level of criticism and analysis of role-playing as Aristotle's Poetics is for Greek drama--it doesn't. However, I see value in it as a nascent stage in the development of criticism and analysis of role-playing games, design, and play.

What I can perceive, and my perception is limited by internet-correspondence and I've yet to see actual successful applications of GNS Theory (although there are tons of anecdotes attesting to such at The Forge--these could just be gushing fanboys) or your game in practice (it seems you play online mostly and I hate online gaming). So, there is the caveat emptor to anything I'm saying here. I'm trying to figure this stuff out and I know that there's a metric ton of data I don't have.

Anyway, what I'm trying to get at is that theorizing, analyzing, and critiquing game design is a useful tool, especially when considering what a system is meant to do, especially when you are dealing with something as important and universal as combat (cf. my comments on AC/DR, HP, etc. in an earlier post). But I'll go back to responding to your statements...

Dave Cesarano said...

My comment was too long so I have to break it down into more than one.

As far as creating structure goes, Edwards is junk. It doesn't help me. It doesn't give me any direction.

Another "Aha!" moment for me. Edwards doesn't help you because, frankly, you already know what you are doing! Edwards is quite helpful to those who aren't metacognitient regarding their own game design by nudging them toward that mental state required to really start critiquing the purpose of their game's design. I'll be honest, when I ran into Edwards, I saw it as this sort of holy grail but as my own gaming has progressed, I've applied its precepts to my own games and discovered that some of the things he describes in his theories aren't actually possible. Hence, my posts examining my own game. Humorously enough, I came to the same conclusion as you when I had finished thinking about what I had written--my players had a blast, therefore I'm doing it right. GNS is no longer useful for me. I like to think about it... but I've come to the realization that I've left it behind since further criticism of my own style and method of running will violate the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" rule.

And like Giordanisti, it doesn't give anyone else any direction either.

Well, there's something I'll disagree with as well but only slightly. It does give some direction but it does so through the development of more and more jargon and categories (cf. "fortune mechanics" of which there are several--"What kind of game does everyone want to play? Select an appropriate fortune mechanic."). And Edwards' ruminations on how system does matter are also spot-on, I think. 4th edition D&D encourages a certain style of play and simultaneously discourages other styles of play. I have written extensively about 4th edition in this manner.

So, there are merits but to really understand what I'm getting at, let me use an analogy. Most GM manuals are kindergarten and first-grade books on shapes and colors. Ron Edwards' is early middle-school math (a smattering of geometry here, algebra there...). You are college-level Calculus. No wonder you have no use for Edwards' theories! (There are flaws to this analogy, I'm aware.)

My players don't approach my world and see it as 'enormously complex' because my players don't see the complexity.

I wasn't certain how transparent your behind-the-DM's-Screen mechanics were. This clarifies some things.

Players don't quit my world because it is complex. Some quit my world because it is 'serious' and they can't do things willy-nilly without consequences.

Some may say this is another "style-of-play" problem. I say it's more of a maturity problem. If you want to play that kind of game, be mature and upfront with your desires. I guess this goes back to being metacognitient about what you want from play. The problem I've run into, however, with many players is they lie... to me and to themselves and (here's part of the problem of Edwards' that I'll happily admit) they use GNS Theory to support it.

I had a player that said he wanted to invest in a character and essentially play a (to use GNS Theory) Narrativist game... but came off as utterly Gamist in his actual wants and desires.

Not only is this immaturity, it is cognitive dissonance.

But I digress... and to be concluded....

Dave Cesarano said...

To conclude...

Ask yourself ... do you have any idea what in your phone is 'needful' and what isn't? Does anyone ask you? No. It's not your business. It's the designer's business. You trust the designer by buying the phone, and if you want it to work, you adjust yourself to learning how to work the device.

NONE of this is discussed by Edwards. Edwards is junk.


Hmmm.... I think this is probably the most poignant problem with Edwards. He hinges game design on the players' needs and not on adapting to already-extant systems. In other words, if I understand you correctly, TSR gave us the phone and Edwards is off trying to invent... something else that's like a phone but isn't by totally going to the customer.

I'm reminded of an episode of The Simpsons where a car company asks Homer to provide input on the ideal car and his suggestions result in an impossible-to-afford ridiculous, nigh-undriveable piece of junk.

If what you're saying Ron Edwards is doing is precisely what the car company in The Simpsons was doing, than I totally comprehend everything you're saying. I don't necessarily agree with everything... but as always, you've given me a lot to think about, a lot of critiquing and analyzing (of Edwards, primarily) to do, a new tool or two with which to do it, and a lot of questions to ask myself (and Edwards).

Alexis Smolensk said...

Dave,

The three terms I've been using - and all the terms in my book - are real terms. I am using them in the sense that every designer uses them. I didn't have to invent terms, because I did my research. There is already an ontology in existence to talk about designing and human-to-human interaction. Edwards ignored it all, because Edwards didn't research anything of what he wrote. He wrote it all from the gut.

There's a certain 'cohesiveness' to what he wrote, but it doesn't bear up under close scrutiny because it doesn't apply to other pursuits. That makes it weak and ultimately useless. If I read Edwards, he doesn't help me understand other interpersonal relationships. Nor can I take situations from elsewhere and see where they fit into Edwards.

I can TRY to label things in the outside world with Edwards' ontology, but it is always going to be a reach. In any case it would mean ignoring the academic ontology that exists - and can be improved upon by others in the same field. Edwards' can't be improved upon, because far too much of it is Edwards going right up his own ass.

One final point. It has been what, 10 years since Edwards proposed his 'theory'? Where's the effect? Where's the enlightenment? Where are the tools that have been developed to apply his theory concretely? That is the proof. There aren't any tools. There is this document, and the arguments over what the document means, and that is all.

That argument is the sign that the theory is valueless. If it were clear and helpful, there would be less argument over what his theory meant, and more effort to apply its meaning to the creation of tools.

I hope I am not just another Edwards. Judging by the comments on this blog, where people talk about applying my statements to making their worlds better, I don't think I am.

That is the proof in my pudding.

Barrow said...

I am trying to incorporate your ideas into my own campaign. I am sure my players would thank you for the insightful framework that helps me create interesting content. You always put the player's experience first when sharing ways to make the DM's experience richer.

"why does the town exist in terms of what it enables the party to do."

"The real work begins when you settle in to lay down in stone the processes by which your world will do those things."

What I spend a lot of time searching for on the net are essentially templates. I thirst for a useful ways to organize campaign content. I have been running my first campaign for 2 years, I have so many notes its unbelievable. I know other people do notes better than I do. How does a person effectively prepare for their campaign? A note on a single NPC, is it a whole page, is it a few lines in a running journal of NPC's, is it input into a computer program? What about a note on a city? You have the rulers, merchants, NPC's, events, etc.. and how they interact with a PC. What is the best model to record this? What has worked so far is a large 3 ring binder, but it takes time to root out old notes at this point. This is information that is not widely published on the net. Would love to get my hands on your notes or thoughts on organization, either on the blog or in a book.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I am working with the book to give a big picture solution to these questions, Barrow, without micromanaging the details.