Friday, August 11, 2017

The Button

I'd like to say that I've accomplished something with these posts about game inefficiency, rigidity and agility, but the truth is we've come to the end of the track and I have to wonder what's different.  Personally, I feel vindicated on a lot of fronts.  I had begun making my world with an agile design idea decades before agility was even proposed (was talking with a business manager yesterday who made the same remark with regards to his own practices).  I have always felt that the game world had to be rigid, with an understanding that the rigidity had to be improved or made more flexible, if it wasn't producing a good game.  And why wouldn't we want an inefficient game?

The main change for me these last two months is that I now have design industry terms to describe things that I've always thought of in fuzzy dimensions.  I can now use the term and point to the book and say, "Aha, evidence."  Yet on the whole I'm not looking at my world design differently and thinking about things I have to change.

It was a good idea that I began sketching out the various details of the sage tables for all the classes, even if the work wasn't actually done.  That was certain a more agile method: but I took that step to feed the needs of the online campaigns and I did it before starting this long series.  However, I have to point to that as the last radical step I've made in my game design.

On the whole, however, I feel this has been more of an exercise than a reaching out.  I think I could review all the research, now that I'm on the other side of it, and pull these posts together into a single book; I could go off on a number of side discussions that would flesh the book out to 40-45 thousand words.

What I can't do, though I've been trying, is to figure out a way to help others with the metaphorical blank piece of paper that faces them.  I've just finished the last post by saying that a better adventure is not going to make your world better.  Fact is, a quickly produced, well run adventure will be as good for your players as any long-term effort would produce.  Arguably, long-term efforts encourage us to lose our focus about what makes the running good.  The longer we spend making an adventure, the more we become attached to the plan and the less awareness we retain for the players: remember, plans are important but collaboration is more important.

If you approach your players with an adventure that consists of four straight up fights, with treasure, a little personality for the enemy combatants and a strange terrain to give the fights some verve, you will do better than if you created twenty or thirty well-described, mostly empty rooms, carefully crafted and laid out in extraordinary detail.  That's because YOU, your brain, your capacity to make something interesting, is a hundred times more complicated and involving than any lines you can draw (or manufacture out of paper and styrofoam).

An elaborate dungeon drawn with the elegance of three dimensions, figures, shading and color, to scale or upon a scale that provides aesthetic, makes an interesting artwork and that has positive influence over how your players perceive you and your world.  All that effort does produce a level of awe that can work for you.  But very little of that effort actually applies to a game more profoundly enhanced through the imagination.  Artworks help where matters of location, proximity and player planning applies; but it doesn't turn the monster to flesh: it is your heart and your ability to emote that makes that so.

That is so unfair.  We've been sold on the ideal that having the materials and then putting them together in these shapes will make a great game.  We've been duped into thinking an imaginary fantasy game can be plugged together with mechanical movements: read this paragraph, wave your hands, show the players this picture, throw this die and everything else will just be wonderful.

It isn't true.  And we've all known it isn't true, from the beginning, when we first began running games with a pit in our stomach and a doubt that we really knew what we were doing.  But we went on doing it in the way we were told because that was all we knew.  That was what everyone else was doing.  And anyway, a little more often than not the players seemed to be digging it.  But we knew when we started DMing that it seemed like a false front, like we were faking it, hoping eventually that the feeling of faking it would go away and we'd know what we were doing.

But it didn't.  And this last six weeks has been about why.  The goal is to recognize that the effectiveness of play isn't in the tools or the modules.  It isn't in the dice or the clever role-playing.  It isn't in backstories or rules.  It's in the fundamentals of game design.

Success is in understanding, yourself, how to find a way to make the players feel that they might not succeed but that they might succeed at the same time.  To find that button and then to keep hammering that button until your thumb gets raw.  Everything else is just gravy.  Helps you find the button and helps you hammer it a little harder ... but it won't push the button for you.  And in the final analysis, you don't actually need any of it. We could play, you and I, without any dice, without character sheets or maps, in the dark, trapped in a coal mine, if we had to.


Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

I'm not sure anything concrete is different for me after having read these posts, but I can feel it percolating through the back of my brain like only good ideas do. The definition of play you're using is an excellent lens to view the game through, as is the related notion of rigidity. I think it's important that you're doing the work to put this down on paper and think it through as it applies to RPGs. I can feel the "right"-ness of this way of thinking about things.

"Success is in understanding, yourself, how to find a way to make the players feel that they might not succeed but that they might succeed at the same time."

This is a critical insight. That uncertainty is key. The absence of it is one reason I can't play computer games anymore (except the occasional PvP strategy game online, or maybe Dark Souls) - there's no uncertainty. Modern games have lost sight of that tension.

I feel like this is dovetailing nicely with the insight you recorded in "How to Run" that the game and the DM must *elicit an emotional reaction* from the players.

FWIW, I would buy a book about the fundamentals of game design as applied to RPGs. I think it would be a worthy successor to "How to Run".

Ozymandias said...

You may not feel you've accomplished something on your end other than to define what you've always known/done. On my end - and presumably it's the same for other readers - you've provided insight into the game that will profoundly affect our runnings for years to come. Just now, in fact, I'm starting up my game after many years and a lot of my work is heavily based on your analysis and advice.

I, too, would pay for a published version of this advice.

Tim said...

You've been very prolific recently, and it's had me feel like I'm falling behind on all the ideas. I'm running a game tonight (for the first time in many months) and the blog has as usual helped me to relax, take stock and think strategically about how to prepare for tonight. Thanks for that.

I echo the points others have been making that this focus on game design is extraordinarily fruitful and really helps get to the heart of what is missing from many D&D games in my eyes. As well, the connections to other media make for a fascinatingly vast series of nodes we can explore to learn more about these ideas and concepts.

Honestly, I would think that this kind of material, because of its applicability, would sell like hot cakes with any field which discusses game design, without the usual academic jargon that makes in-depth analysis like this hard for readers to approach. Another How to Run formulated as a How to Design could do very well! (I certainly know more people who identify as designers rather than DMs)

I'll be looking over my notes and thinking of this advice later. Cheers.

kimbo said...

Great series of posts Alexis.

From my recent readings, you are on the same page as Kierkegaard...
From wikipedia on existentialism.

Subordinate character, setting, etc., which belong to the well balanced character of the esthetic production, are in themselves breadth; the subjective thinker has only one setting—existence—and has nothing to do with localities and such things. The setting is not the fairyland of the imagination, where poetry produces consummation, nor is the setting laid in England, and historical accuracy is not a concern. The setting is inwardness in existing as a human being; the concretion is the relation of the existence-categories to one another. Historical accuracy and historical actuality are breadth." Søren Kierkegaard

From this i would see the typical rpg game product and blog regurgitation as trying to increase breadth of the experience while you are talking about designing for depth and DMing for player Authenticity even if it creates occasional Angst. Without authenticty (existance by creating self through own freedom of action) there is Despair.


kimbo said...

Addendum, Kierkegaard would have hated Alignment in D&D.

Embla Strand said...

Now that I can read in English again, I want to affirm what others have said about these posts on game design. The framework you have adapted provides such a cleaner, more concrete way of thinking about design in the context of D&D. As I prepare to start a campaign with a brand-new group, this series has given me a lot to think about. Thank you.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you all for this feedback. It matters a great deal to me.

Drain said...

I've erred many times on a lot of these redlines over the years. Formative stuff, important for growth.

But it is true, a running that is wobbly on a lot of particulars, with the bells rusted and the whistles clogged can still be remembered as being pretty great as long as a certain uncertainty is maintained (along with the liberty to make grounded choices that tackle that very same uncertainty).