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trying new design approaches (from Vincent Baker)

Vincent Baker has designed a bunch of RPGs, including two I quite like in Dogs in the Vineyard and Apocalypse World.  Currently, the amount of money he's making off selling his RPGs would be enough for me to live on.  So I'm extremely interested to find out how he's achieved what he has.  One part of that is understanding how he thinks about what he does as a designer.  He explains such things from time to time on his blog, and recently he filled me in on some of the game design ingredients and requirements that are most crucial to him.

The way he sees it, to truly offer value to players, a game must offer unique insights, establish a clear relationship between momentary actions and overall play goals, and create outcomes that the players would not have created on their own.  I can be a bit more specific.  The insights cover three bases: subject matter, roleplay, and real life.  The game-specific outcomes need to include a range that is compelling by virtue of some feature of play and would otherwise be unwelcome.  Further, outcomes that are in fact genuinely unwelcome need to at least be on the table.

My reactions to these principles are all over the map, but a good number of them are things I've never focused on in design before, so I'd like to give Vincent's approach a spin and see how it works for me.


The Basics

Let's start with a game idea.  I like the show Fringe.  The main characters spend most of their time looking at weird disasters, speculating on causes and connections, testing extreme theories with weird, cutting-edge supplies and equipment, inventing solutions, implementing them under time pressure to stop and catch badguys and avert disasters. Occasionally they get shot at, and very occasionally they shoot back.  Most of that sounds pretty fun to play.  So let's say this game is about doing that in some fashion.  We'll call the game FringePlay.

So, what's the point of play?  I like playing creative games with small groups of friends for fun, so I'll start with that. Beyond that, I'll say that play is not primarily about employing some player skill (e.g. strategic logic, system mastery) to avoid losing the game. Instead, it will be mostly about the fiction, with some combo of strategy, creativity, and luck determining whether the characters succeed and what the whole adventure looks like.  Hopefully that's enough grounding to get us to a more specific and compelling statement about why to play this game:

FringePlay is about innovating solutions to unique threats, using super-science to defeat super-science.

It's about other stuff too, but I think that line will serve me well for this exercise.

So, how is this game going to fit into players' lives?  I'll just go with my first instinct and say it's a 4-hour one-shot that can be fit into a campaign if players want.

Now, any group could simply say, "Okay, let's emulate Fringe," and do some improv. So if I'm going to deliver value to players, I need to give them more than that.  I need to take some further stances about how the game should go and what it should produce.  Sounds like a good time to address Vincent's three designer insights.  To cover the totality of FringePlay, my answers to each insight question would go on and on.  So, for this exercise I'll restrict myself to one part of the game: understanding a threat well enough to solve it.

The Insights

My take on the subject matter, in this case super-science-flavored action/investigation fiction:
The race to find a solution never completely fails, it's just a matter of what complications the eventual solution entails. 

I'm not sure how insightful that is, but we'll call it close enough for now.

My take on roleplaying, in this case coming up with colorful solutions to each other's colorful problems:
Riffing off each other's ideas is most fun when you understand what the other player thinks is cool about their contribution, and can respond in a way that explores, celebrates, or otherwise responds to that.

My take on real life, in this case problems with no established way to solve them: 
Breakthroughs come from shifting paradigms.  Zooming in or out (spatially or chronologically), looking through someone else's eyes, using analogy, employing the tools of another scientific discipline, etc.  This was heavily inspired by the show, but rings true to me.

These three stances are what I'll try to apply to play through the rules of the game.  When the characters shift paradigms, they achieve breakthroughs.  When they don't achieve breakthroughs, they still come up with a solution, but it's flawed.  To play the game and pursue their goals, the players will necessarily share and respond to what's cool about each other's ideas.

The Players' Natural Best Interests

How far is that from what players would normally do?  How great a span do the rules need to bridge?  My best guesses:

Subject:
As it's fun to play the characters going, "Oh god, we have to find a solution!" players will tend to assume that they might actually fail to find a solution.  This will cause them to focus on determining success/failure rather than on the costs of success.

Roleplay:
Players will naturally riff off what they think is cool about what you said, not what you think is cool about what you said.  Going with your first inspiration tends to be faster and easier than forming an understanding of someone else's take.

Real life:
Players who already like shifting paradigms would do it, others wouldn't.  Other approaches would seem just as viable and likely to succeed.
 

The Rules

I'll try to start with a ruleset that's easy and gives people what they want:

Roleplay:
There's a Villains Player who makes up the threats, the people behind the threats, and the evidence left by these people.  For each piece of evidence the VP introduces, they secretly write down what's most cool about it, and then also write down at least two other features

When the Fringe Unit Players encounter the evidence, they examine it, ask each other questions, and form theories.  Whenever their attention lingers on the facet the VP deemed most cool, the VP yells, "Cutaway!" and narrates a brief separate scene that gives more information on that facet.  The FUPs now know what the VP thinks is cool, and what's important to this episode, and what they should address when they attempt a solution.  If they do in fact do this, the VP hands them a bonus die.

Let's add a little drama to the evidence-pondering.  When the FUPs' attention lingers on one of the not-the-coolest labeled features, the VP puts a die in his Attack pool

Real life:
Each FUP picks a few fields of science for their character, no overlaps.  Each character who can pull in one or more of these fields to explain a theory of the evidence adds a bonus die to the group pool.

Subject:
At any time, the FUPs can roll their pool of dice.  Each die is a success if it comes up greater than the number of FUPs.  The target number is 2 successes, which gives you a Solution with two Advantages of your choice.  For every number under 2, turn one Advantage into a Complication.  For every number over 2, add an Advantage.

When it's time to employ a Solution, the VP plays Complications from both their Threat and the Solution (if applicable).  The FUPs can counter Complications with applicable Advantages.

Connecting roleplay rules & real-life rules:
The VP can roll an Attack die at any time to neutralize one or more fields of a given character.  (1-2=no effect, 3-5=can't use one field, 6=can't use any fields)

I just made all those rules up on the spot.  It took me a few hours and I can't immediately tell if they're any good.  I have no idea how Vincent approaches that stage of the design process.  I'm ready for the next step, though: introducing the unwelcome.


The Unwelcome

Time to look again at what the players will naturally want out of this.  I'll concentrate on the FUPs for now.  They'll want to (a) guess correctly which aspect of each evidence will get them a die from the VP, (b) think up ways to apply their fields to get dice too, (c) get lucky on the roll to minimize the Complications when they implement their solution.  Failing at any of these is somewhat unwelcomeHow unwelcome?

A. Guessing wrong on evidence:
Gets you Attacked, which may then limit your creative options the next time you're charged with inventing a solution. 

How could I make that worse?  I could have an Attack remove a character from play entirely.  Removing a player from play sucks, though.  Is there some way I can make character-removal palatable? 

They could always become a second Villain Player.  But I don't know that there's enough for multiple VPs to do.

They could miss out on a given solution-pondering, but have something else to do.  I hate making people wait with nothing to do until their turn, though.  So the "something else" has to be in the solution-pondering scene itself.

I can come up with all sorts of things, but mere time-filler isn't enough.  It needs to be something with a clear connection to the point of play: innovating solutions to unique threats.

How can you effect the solution-forming if you don't control the evidence and have no character? Well, you could help the other characters, but that isn't very unwelcome.  So maybe you should interfere with the other characters.  Nix one field use after it's narrated and explain the interference by way of your character's absence.  If you haven't spent your veto by the final player's narration, you have to use it on them.

That's workable. And pretty clearly more unwelcome than just not getting to use some of your own fields.

So, how much does that cut my audience, and am I comfortable with that?

Well, it cuts the people who want every opportunity to engage in the point of play (innovate solutions) directly.  It cuts the people who like the basic concept the most.  Fuck that.  I'm sticking with losing fields.

B. Failing to think up ways to apply your fields:
This can't really be on the table without further rules arbitrating how long you have to think of something to say and how to qualify it as applicable or not.  So I'll make a new rule.  The VP judges the FUPs' field-applied theories, picks the one they like best, and narrates in a development that compels the characters to pursue that theory.  The author of the chosen theory gets a Shield, which can be spent to dismiss an Attack die before it is rolled.

Let's try again.  The dice are guaranteed, but the Shields are not.  So now:

B. Failing to think up the coolest way to apply your fields:
Leaves you vulnerable to Attacks.  Which I already tried and failed to make more unwelcome.

C. Rolling badly:
Sticks you with way more Complications than Advantages.  Some stuff's going to go horribly wrong when you apply your solution to stop the threat.  You'll find out what when the VP reveals the Complications in play.  The way to make this as unwelcome as possible is to come up with some really nasty Complications.

What's the worst possible thing that could happen when you take your cool serums or magnets and dash with them into some terrorist operation?  I guess... you all die, and so do all the intended victims, and the badguys are gone without a trace.

That sounds like a perfect thing to scare people with.  But can the odds of it happening ever get high?  If you enter the finale in the worst possible position, and utter failure is guaranteed, and you just listen to the VP narrate how it goes down...  How much am I cutting my audience then?

I guess I'd be cutting people who don't want to have the emotional climax of the game before the characters do the dramatic action finale.

But maybe I could solve that by rolling the dice that determine Advantage vs Complication one by one instead of all at once.  So the emotional climax lasts until the final die.  Which probably means you've already had 4 or 5 rolls worth of action in the fiction.  So now how much am I cutting my audience?

I guess I'd only be cutting people who (a) don't want to die, (b) don't want to fail, and (c) don't want to remain ignorant.  On that last point, I don't want to penalize players for caring about the badguys, so new rule: VP gets an epilogue.  That leaves death and failure.  Hmm.  I feel fine about saying, "If you can't handle failure, go play something else."  Same with death in a one-shot.

The Takeaways

Well, that was interesting.  Not too different than my usual process of thinking about "what do I want to get players to do", "how can I get players to do that" and "how will players respond to this rule".  I feel it's possible that I haven't tapped this approach for all it's worth, though:

  • identify more insights?

  • stick more closely to the insights I did write?

  • make complete, playable game?

  • don't base primary action and rewards on something you can't fail at unless you feel like admitting failure so as to avoid being a drag?

All of these are obviously good for the game.  I'm not sure which are crucial for getting the most out of Vincent's specific tools.

One thing I can definitely say is that this approach allowed me to start typing with much less of an idea for a game than usual.  So if churning out many games quickly was a goal, this methodology might be a good way to get started on new ones.

It was also fun to note that I'm cool with killing protagonists, even though that doesn't happen on Fringe.  

Vincent, I'd love to hear how this exercise is similar to and different from what you actually do when designing games.

Ps,
-David

Comments

Well, this kind of blank page brainstorming is something I do a lot, but I've never gotten a game out of it directly. I fill notebooks with this kind of stuff. But all the games I've actually designed start with a compelling-to-me synergy between insights, out of the blue, not with this kind of grasping.

Is that what you're asking?
Hm. I'm afraid of seeming crankily dismissive! What I mean to say is, yes, I do things like this a lot, as part of my overall creative process, exactly like this is part of yours, but no, it's not how I start a game for reals, just like how you're probably not going to finish this one.
No sweat, a lot of my friends work that way, starting their best stuff from inspiration out of the blue.

I'm not sure whether exercises like the above make inspiration more likely, or mean there are more tools and solutions at the ready for when inspiration strikes, or something else. You got any thoughts on that?

For my part, I have plenty of inspirations for bits of games -- a setting, a die mechanic, a social structure (e.g. 2 GMs) -- but never for a game concept built out of multiple ideas.
Now that I know you don't start for-real games with "Fringe might be fun, lemme brainstorm some insights on that", my main question is, "what about the rest?"

After you've had the sort of inspiration that does get you making a for-real game, how similar is the process I wrote up (starting from "The Players' Natural Best Interests" header, I guess) to what you actually do?
Hard to say! At that point, I have a finished game in my vision, to hold my brainstorming, development and revision up against. I still do plenty of brainstorming, but it's well-bounded by the becoming-inevitable finished game.

Holy crap I'm talking crazy.

Anyhow, I don't imagine that you can learn about designing games from me by hearing about my creative process. You have your own creative process to contend with. I'm more interested in talking about what to design than how to design it.
D'oh! I think we agree on a lot of the stuff a good RPG should have. But man, I am at a loss for a process to produce that.

I'm not assuming that your process would work for me, but it would be nice to see an example of one approach that's working for somebody. :) So, any summaries or links you could provide to that effect would be most appreciated!

If the interest in discussing process does strike you at some point, just let me know, and I'll be happy to chime in with what does and doesn't work for me.