Forging Motivation: Game Design Is Mind Control

(Game Design is Mind Control was the title of a talk given by Luke Crane; one of the best things on the internet about game design this side of Mark Rosewater’s blog on Magic the Gathering).

Where I left things last time was with D&D and White Wolf largely dominating the market.  There were good games being produced – but the market was being dominated by the two major game systems.  And people were noticing that the so-called Storyteller system didn’t really bring anything to help you tell stories or make them more intense, or even help you really get into character – which wasn’t a good thing for something that was supposedly a roleplaying game.  Something needed fixing.  And (arguably) something was.

Starting in 1999, Ron Edwards pointed this out in a series of articles at The Forge and proposed his own model for RPGs.  Ron took the old threefold model that indicated reasons GMs should make a decision in roleplaying games and turned it into the GNS (Gamist, Narrativist, and Simulationist) system of classifying games.  He then declared games that only matched one classification incoherent and declared this to be a bad thing (me, I just call them flexible and inclusive).  GNS was a flawed system to the point even Ron Edwards gave it up – but it sparked a lot of interesting conversation and some very interesting games.

Gamist play is all about “Step on up”.  The goal of gamist play is facing what should be an overwhelmingly difficult challenge and beating it.  Which, of course, is where D&D (and hence tabletop RPGs) started – and it’s entirely possible to argue that there’s never been a better cooperative gamist RPG than original D&D or a better competitive one than either Amber Diceless or even the Diplomacy board game.  The Forge didn’t have that much to contribute to gamist play, but by making it a core aspect GNS helped rehabilitate it as a legitimate part of roleplaying (rather than accusing it of being “Rollplaying”).

Simulationism is something Ron Edwards didn’t understand and so accused of being incoherent.  I believe my toolbox game description is a much better indication of what he was trying to get at – and people who like big simulationist games really dislike GNS because the theory is flat out wrong here.

Narrativism or “Story Now!” is where the Forge and the rest of the associated wave of Indy-games concentrated.  In a traditional roleplaying game, dice were used to inject an element of chance and the important part was whether you had the tools and the skill required to do the job.

Stories, generally, don’t work that way.  In a story, what tends to be important is much more along the lines of what the stakes are, the place within the story (ever watched an episode of House and realised House was wrong because you were only 20 minutes in?), the narrative consequences, how hard people are trying, and much much more.  And most of the major detail about characters can be written down in a dozen sentences rather than the exact ratings at dozens of skills.  Also because the rules are directly oriented to producing a story, so-called rollplaying normally leads to a better one.  The only real way I know of to show how it was done is to illustrate by using a few games in this category, almost all of which were produced in 2003 or later.

Dread:  Dread is a horror RPG which uses a jenga tower as the resolution mechanic – if your character tries something difficult, pull one (or sometimes more) blocks and if you succeed you succeed.  If you knock the tower over, your character dies.  This leads to massively escalating tension and the players’ hands literally shaking as they try to pull a block (which doesn’t help, naturally).  Because there are no mechanical skills, and the game is a one-shot the character sheet consists of a series of loaded questions (such as the one I wrote for a Star Trek away mission about to go wrong).

Dr Who: Adventures in Time and Space: only just fits in this category – but it does for two reasons, and otherwise it’s a fairly traditional toolbox game.  The first are Story Points (turning up in other games as Fate Points, Drama Points, Plot Points, and other names) which represent an arbitrary pool of points the player gets to either represent extra effort and the character’s heart or simply to say “I think it would make a better story if [this] happened”.  Story points on their own aren’t enough to qualify; many modern toolbox games such as the Cortex RPG or the very good Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG have them.  Dr Who on the other hand also has an initiative system that makes scenes play out as for Dr Who; Talkers act first, then Runners, then Doers, then finally fighters.  So the Dalek has to wait to shoot the Doctor until after the Doctor has finished talking and the companions have finished either fleeing or executing their own plans.  Utterly ridiculous physics but really works for getting scenes to feel like scenes from Dr Who.

Fate: Fate started out with the extremely rules-light Fudge and adding elements to help you tell rather than simply resolve a story.  In particular, in addition to Fate Points, it added Aspects, Consequences, and pacing.  Fate points are a near mirror for the story points above.

Aspects are factors describing a character – in Fate Core (linked above and well worth the $1 + pay what you like price for the GMing advice alone) a character has five aspects, each of which is a sentence saying who the character is.  Such sentences can either be invoked for a large bonus  by spending a Fate Point or Compelled to get the character to do something that’s not in their best interests so the player gains a Fate Point.  The consequence of this is that you want your character’s weaknesses to be played on as part of the plot because this is one of the best ways of getting Fate Points and rather than smart play involving an alcoholic staying as far from alcohol as possible, smart play involves an alcoholic regularly turning up drunk.  As for what makes an aspect, the answer is “Anything you consider important”.  So “Born duellist” would be one aspect, as and more interestingly, “I am the brute squad” or “Captain of the Rangers”.

Consequences are temporary aspects.  It’s a simple system that allows a sentence of the problem to be modelled quickly and easily.  Consequence: Arm in a sling or the like.

Pacing.  One of the first things Fate was intended to do was model (and be the official RPG for) The Dresden Files.  In the Dresden Files, Harry Dresden tends to spend the first two thirds of the book failing and getting beaten up.  In Fate the way to gain Fate Points other than having your aspects compelled is by giving in; in other words accepting the loss.  Harry Dresden is therefore being played by a Fate min-maxer who takes loss after loss until act 3 when he drops a stack of Fate Points a foot high onto the table and blows away the opposition.

Dogs in the Vineyard: a game about consequences and a game of chicken, Dogs in the Vineyard gets intense fast.  The resolution mechanic involves with each confrontation the players trumping each other three or four times (with words, fists, or guns) before the loser has to decide whether it’s worth escalating from words to fists or from fists to guns – with the consequences being progressively higher.  Which, of course, heightens the tension massively each time.

Wushu: The rules of Wushu have one purpose only.  To draw descriptions out of players for high octane action games.  In any scene of Wushu you get one dice per scene element in your description.  So even the most reticent player puts four or five separate elements into their descriptions – and because there’s no penalty for hard actions, you get your heroes dodging through hails of bullets.

Anyway, that’s an overview of some of the games I consider most interesting of the motivation-forged RPGs.  They IMO tend to be more varied than toolbox games because the rules of physics don’t change that much – but the expected consequences change a lot from story to story.  There are plenty more, but I’d say those are all good places to start.

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One thought on “Forging Motivation: Game Design Is Mind Control

  1. Edwards didn’t abandon his GNS classificatory scheme. Nor does he say that simulationinst games are incoherent – he is obviously a great admirer of Champions, RQ/BRP, and Call of Cthulhu, nominating the latter as a coherent instance of a simulationist game. (Simulationist because the player is there to enjoy the experience, but not really to help create it – there is almost no player protagonism in CoC.)

    Of the games you mention in detail, I think (from reputation rather than actual play experience) that Dread and Wushu are both more simulationist than narrativist in their inclinations. They are about eliciting a certain sort of description from the players, and a certain sort of emotional engagement/response, but they are not about player protagonism, which is the core of narrativist play.

    The key word in “story now” is not “story” but “now”: narrativst-facilitating RPG design is about having player decisions drive an emotinally engaging and satisfying story in which the players get to choose the thematic stakes, but no one – player or GM – knows how things will resolve (either from scene to scene, or overall) until actual play delivers an outcome.

    Edwards flags Maelstrom Storytelling (1996?) as one of the earliest games to tackle this design problem head on. Over the Edge also has a go at it, but I think Maelstrom is more innovative in its design. And obviously heaps of more recent games – DitV, Burning Wheel, HeroWars/Quest, Edwards’ own Sorcerer, etc – try and achieve the same thing.

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