Don't Lose The Forest For The Trees
  • Don't Lose The Forest For The Trees


    Most people know the expression "can't see the forest for the trees," that is, you get lost in details and fail to see the big picture. In game (and level/adventure) design it's usually the big picture that counts, for players. Yet many designers, even experienced designers, sometimes get bogged down in details at the expense of the quality of the game as a whole.


    The main objective in RPGs is a "forest" (an adventure) that players can enjoy, whether they like "trees" that involve combat, or story, or puzzles, or politics, or something else. To put it another way, the forest has to consist of the right kind of trees. But the rules themselves are also a matter of forest and trees, because the rules can require players (and GM) to focus on trees to the detriment of the quality of the forest.

    Let's look at a general example, both from the player point of view and a designer point of view. Say you're making a game depicting the entire Pacific War in World War II. It doesn't make sense to ask players to manage minute details, such as determining the airplane loads on an aircraft carrier: whether they are armed with torpedoes or bombs, when they were gassed up, and so on. During an aircraft carrier battle such as Midway, yes, the Japanese decisions of this sort were very important, but can you ask players to keep track of such minute details at this entire-Pacific-war scale? It becomes a grind rather than a game.

    Keeping track of details isn't always too much attention to minutiae. Some would argue that keeping careful track of inventory is, but I don't, because it's only an occasional thing, and it helps belief in what's happening. If players can carry "anything and everything," as they often do in computer RPGs, we lose suspension of disbelief (break immersion).

    Let's take an example from the game Dystopia Rising. This very atmospheric post apocalyptic game, originally a LARP, is lumbered with a set of rules apparently designed by someone without experience. The setting cries out for simple rules to highlight the setting, but is lumbered with detailed combat rules (including determination of where you hit, and lots of dice rolls), and an awkward roll of several 10 sided dice that must be added up individually (a real no-no in game design these days) to resolve anything . The forest is obscured by those details. (I'll talk about this game in more detail another time.)

    Game design is an invitation to get lost in details. It's easier to add things to a game to solve a problem than to remove things, even though games generally are better when all unnecessaries are removed. As a freelance game designer, I like to set aside designs for months and then come back to them because that helps me see the forest, and it helps me recognize when trees need work (or need to be excised).

    Many modern board and card games are puzzles rather than games, where there are a few always-correct solutions ("paths to victory"), or only one. It might make sense to complicate a puzzle in order to make it harder to solve. Nonetheless, even when you're doing a puzzle you need to try to keep the forest in mind as you wander through the trees you're growing all over the place in your puzzle. Moreover, role-playing is the genre of games least amenable to being made into puzzles.

    The designer always has to ask himself (or herself), "what am I trying to show in my game?" The question isn't as important for an adventure designer, but still worth asking. This not only applies to game design but also to many creative activities.

    contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
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    Comments 25 Comments
    1. DRF's Avatar
      DRF -
      I'm not sure what kind of discussion you were hoping for. The presented ideas are simple and self-explanatory.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      I can agree with most of thing.

      I'm not sure what you mean by "modern ... games are puzzles rather than games." Can you give me some examples?
    1. Polyhedral Columbia's Avatar
      Polyhedral Columbia -
      Thanks for this Lewis - a good reminder which is often overlooked - historically even more so. And even Basic 5E could use some trimming.
    1. Grumbleputty -
      As someone who played "The Morrow Project" back in the day, I couldn't agree more!
    1. practicalm's Avatar
      practicalm -
      Some of the balance points is where the designer (or the target audience) falls into the Game, Narrative, Simulation spectrum.

      Lots of early games tried to be simulations. There were charts for everything and there was more worry about was it realistic and the deterministic series of events would be balanced by the players doing things in response.

      Not every game with charts was very realistic. Rolemaster's critical hit charts were more gamist since there were certain results you tried for (e.g. 66 result on the critical hit table was always good). But their weapons charts tried to be realistic of weapon types against different armor types.

      I more appreciate games that are internally consistent. The first version of Paranoia for example was a mess of skill trees and other complications that didn't reflect the theme and setting. The game was improved by moving to a easier lighter game system in 2nd edition. (I don't know about later editions as much).

      I'm always very cautious around games that use a new dice or random mechanic. I worry that there are exploits in the math of the mechanic the designer didn't intend.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by practicalm View Post
      Lots of early games tried to be simulations. There were charts for everything
      Some games suffered from this. Others didn't.

      Tunnels & Trolls is an early RPG, but its rules are easier than Moldvay Basic. And it's not at all simulationist in its design.

      Classic Traveller is another early RPG. It clearly has simulationist ambitins. Its rules are a bit more complex than Moldvay Basic, but are simpler than AD&D. And yet I think as a game it has far more scope than AD&D, because of the elegant way that it puts its simulationist sub-systems to work. One way it does this: instead of a chart for everything, in many cases there is simply a check difficulty number plus a modifier based on appropriate skills. And when it comes to social encounters, it skill descriptions (for Streetwise, Admin, Bribery, etc) plus its rules for reactions, law level and morale require fewer pages than the rules for reactions, loyalty and morale in Gygax's DMG, and yet cover a wider field of action and produce more determinate outcomes.

      I guess my point is that we don't want to overgeneralise either about early RPGs, or about simulatonist RPGs.
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      DRF - I write to educate/illuminate/enlighten, not necessarily to generate a discussion. Sometimes discussion happens, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes because English is easily misunderstood, and I am not perfect.


      Hussar, someone could write a book about puzzles vs games. I've written somewhere between 6K and 10K words, not published. Also addressed this some in my book "Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" (McFarland 2012). Very briefly, most single-player (and by extension, cooperative), games are puzzles. The exception is RPGs, cooperative but you usually have human-controlled opposition rather than programmed opposition (a deck of cards as in Pandemic counts as "programmed"). "Multiplayer solitaire" (I call this parallel competition) is usually a puzzle, and that includes a great many Eurostyle tabletop games. If a game has an always-correct solution - or a few, as in "multiple paths to victory" - it's a puzzle. This is why people usually stop playing video games when they "beat the game" - they've solved the puzzle. It's also why players can do "speed runs" of video games, they already know the solution. Chess is a puzzle, but too complex for humans to solve: a chess match played perfectly will always end the same way. Most if not all two player perfect information games are puzzles, from Tic-Tac-Toe through Go. There is always a best move. In games, especially games for more than two, there is no best move (frequently) .


      Practicalm, I don't think simulation and determinism go together. In board games, such as SPI's wargames, some designers try to force the historical result by making a puzzle rather than a game (puzzles amount to a form of determinism insofar as there's one or a few always-correct solutions). This is always ahistorical, because history isn't what was inevitable, it's what happened as a result of many often-random events, the result often less likely than other outcomes that didn't happen. You can try to simulate without forcing a particular outcome/determinism.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by practicalm View Post
      I'm always very cautious around games that use a new dice or random mechanic. I worry that there are exploits in the math of the mechanic the designer didn't intend.
      Even old games can have unintended features due to unfortunate mathematical choices.

      In 3.X the way saves worked for multiclass characters who had multi-ed in classes with two good saves that were the same (e.g., Barbarian and Fighter), it was not difficult to end up totally rocking one of the save types while being slightly poorer in the other two. This happened because WotC rounded in the middle of the calculations. As anyone who's taken high school chemistry knows, this is a major no-no. They eventually published a correction in Unearthed Arcana but for most of 3.X's life cycle, saves were "wrong." Well they were wrong in the sense that they were based on poor arithmetical practice but may well have created an exploit if there were feats that substituted one save for another. I fixed it in my campaign because things like this bug me a lot, but I'm sure most people didn't. In 5E they have some similar issues, again with saves, whereby high level characters develop a "glass jaw" in non-proficient saves. They don't advance in a non-proficient save but all other things being equal, save DCs go up as CR goes up, and sometimes end up extraordinarily high in an attempt to challenge people with proficient saves that align with their key stats. The effect can be quite marked. The save system is rather complicated due to the fact that there are six of them, compared to previous editions' fewer, leaving more room for "whoops".

      A lot of this happens because I suspect the math gets checked only at lower levels---to the extent it is at all, I'm not too sure that the WotC group actually has anyone good at even fairly basic math on it. Lots of problems take a while to emerge due to compounding of errors, such as the effect of rounding during a calculation.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      I'm not sure what you mean by "modern ... games are puzzles rather than games." Can you give me some examples?
      Lewpuls is using more specific terminology for puzzles vs. games than is ordinary parlance.

      Many people refer to an RPG as, well, a game. In the broad sense of the word, it is. The dictionary has multiple definitions, one that's looser and covers RPGs and a tighter one that requires head to head competition. A video game without head to head competition is, therefore, a puzzle, not a game. If you play the single player version of Call of Duty, that's a puzzle but if you play multiplayer versus maps, that's a game. Most RPGs are puzzles because they're a team of players working (mostly) cooperatively to "solve" the story that the GM is running.

      Specialist language is necessary to think and talk intelligently about things in any depth, so I get the point, but it can be confusing and seem pedantic when one isn't prepared for it.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Seems somewhat unnecessary splitting of hairs though. If your definition of games excludes most of what people would call games, then I'm thinking that the definition is pretty flawed. And, it seems like a rather convenient definition as well, based on personal preference (RPG's are games, but, these other activities, that I don't really like, aren't games, they're puzzles. )

      I'm not getting this point:

      In games, especially games for more than two, there is no best move (frequently)
      I've gambled more that I care to admit, and I'm going to tell you that there are moves that are better than other moves. "Best" is a bit hard to quantify since it's rare that you have enough information to ever have a "best" move.

      To put it another way. Any definition of game that excludes chess and go is a poor definition that is only going to confuse the heck out of people.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Seems somewhat unnecessary splitting of hairs though. If your definition of games excludes most of what people would call games, then I'm thinking that the definition is pretty flawed. And, it seems like a rather convenient definition as well, based on personal preference (RPG's are games, but, these other activities, that I don't really like, aren't games, they're puzzles. )
      Actually I thought Lewpuls called an RPG a puzzle, so it's not his preference necessarily.


      I've gambled more that I care to admit, and I'm going to tell you that there are moves that are better than other moves. "Best" is a bit hard to quantify since it's rare that you have enough information to ever have a "best" move.
      This is an important point. Game vs. puzzle relies on state of information and computational resources, so the definition gets rather blurry. From a game theory standpoint, in many situations there is a best move (called a "best response") although one often doesn't know what it is in a real situation. With enough computational power, chess is indeed a puzzle, because we know that there actually is an optimal play. It's still a game from the human perspective because human players (and for the moment computer players, too). Tic-tac-toe illustrates this. Except for three year olds, it is a not much of a game. With rational players, it always goes to a draw. Rochambeau (as opposed to Cartman's manifestly unfair version) is a game because of imperfect players; with optimal players it's just randomness.

      I will say this, though: I did feel that "puzzle" clarified to me what an RPG is, but...

      To put it another way. Any definition of game that excludes chess and go is a poor definition that is only going to confuse the heck out of people.
      I agree about the fact that this language parsing is overkill.
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      "In his Philosophical Investigations,[4] Wittgenstein demonstrated that the elements of games, such as play, rules, and competition, all fail to adequately define what games are. Wittgenstein concluded that people apply the term game to a range of disparate human activities that bear to one another only what one might call family resemblances."


      Wiki http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game

      People are very sloppy when they use the word "game". For some, it's more or less synonymous with "play". But such broad words become virtually useless. So I try for more specific definitions, and that means some things people call games are actually puzzles.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Excuse me for being a bit slow here, but, I'm not catching the point. If we use narrower definitions and say X is a game and Y is a puzzle, well, so what? What's the purpose of the narrower definitions?
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      "In his Philosophical Investigations,[4] Wittgenstein demonstrated that the elements of games, such as play, rules, and competition, all fail to adequately define what games are. Wittgenstein concluded that people apply the term game to a range of disparate human activities that bear to one another only what one might call family resemblances."
      Ah, good old Ludwig... such as boozy swine. At least he was just as shloshed as Schlegel.

      And indeed, "game" is really a family resemblance.


      People are very sloppy when they use the word "game". For some, it's more or less synonymous with "play". But such broad words become virtually useless. So I try for more specific definitions, and that means some things people call games are actually puzzles.
      The problem is when those definitions are deemed correct and most people don't know the context of the technical language. I work as a statistician. Lots of terms in statistics have OL meanings that mean one thing and in statistics they mean another. This really messes up casual users. A good example is the word "bias". I mean, who'd want a "biased estimator"? Nobody wants to be accused of being biased! Well the reality is that most of the time the answer is everybody because in most problems a little bit of bias drastically improves the estimate.

      Technical language is both powerful and dangerous, which means users of it really need to alert readers to the fact that it's being used in the technical and inevitably more restricted sense.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Excuse me for being a bit slow here, but, I'm not catching the point. If we use narrower definitions and say X is a game and Y is a puzzle, well, so what? What's the purpose of the narrower definitions?
      Narrower definitions are more specific and thus it's possible to talk about comparing things like a single player campaign video game vs. online play intelligently without longwinded, reaching constructions. A single player campaign isn't a "versus" whereas most online play is "versus". Thus if you define a "game" to require "versus" competition, most TTRPGs are not games, just as single player campaigns are not. So that's an example.

      The problem is that technical language is dangerous when many readers don't know that it's being used, e.g., when the citation to it is a several year old book as opposed to, say, a Wikipedia citation, or no citation at all. Then it sheds more confusion.
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      Rochambeau[/URL] (as opposed to Cartman's manifestly unfair version) is a game because of imperfect players; with optimal players it's just randomness.

      I will say this, though: I did feel that "puzzle" clarified to me what an RPG is, but...
      XP for bringing Cartman into this.

      Quote Originally Posted by lewpuls View Post
      Moreover, role-playing is the genre of games least amenable to being made into puzzles.

      The designer always has to ask himself (or herself), "what am I trying to show in my game?" The question isn't as important for an adventure designer, but still worth asking. This not only applies to game design but also to many creative activities.
      I was, unfortunately, asking myself "what is Lewpuls trying to show in his article?" My best answer is, "don't lose the theme or vision of your game while designing the parts." Sound advice. But in keeping with the course of the discussion...

      What is an RPG then, if it is composed of several puzzles, as well as game elements? Game, puzzle, or maybe just something that defies alternate classification?

      Complicating nonsense:
      Spoiler:
      In another thread I ask the question: what makes an RPG different from improvisational acting (improv)? Improv is required in an RPG, but some people's RPGs look more like improv than a game.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      I'm not getting this point:

      In games, especially games for more than two, there is no best move (frequently)


      Any definition of game that excludes chess and go is a poor definition that is only going to confuse the heck out of people.
      In @lewpuls's terminology, chess and go are puzzles because there is a solution (though it's cognitively/mathematically in accessible to most players).

      I assume that backgammon is a puzzle for the same reason, although its parameters can change from move to move because of the dice results.

      Maybe I'm wrong, but I would assume that Diplomacy is a game in the relevant sense. And I guess many other blind declaration wargames (inlcuding CCGs) might count.

      As to the bigger issue of "why bother"? I assume that this sort of analysis is helpful to game design. (Also - as something of an expert on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, I can confidently state that his discussion of the word "game" has no bearing on the current topic of games vs puzzles, except in the trivial sense that he is pointing out that words can have varied uses. But making that rather banal point is not what makes the book an important work of philosophy; and the philsophical points have no bearing upon game design.)
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by DMMike View Post
      what makes an RPG different from improvisational acting (improv)?
      RPGs typically have rules allocating responsibility for establishing different elements of the shared fiction - the most important being responsibility for establishing situations, and responsibility for declaring actions on the part of the principal characters. These rules can be formal (eg Burning WHeel, Fate), or presented informally (eg the 4e PHB has a list of the jobs of the GM), or implicit in the way the game is presented (many "traditional" RPGs tend to gloss over this aspect of the game, or take it for granted).

      RPGs also often have rules for determining if, and how, a player's declared action for his/her PC changes the established situation - these are action resolution mechanics. (I say often - there is an important trend in RPGing which takes the view that one participant - the GM - is in charge both of establishing situations, and determining whether or not declared actions change those situations, with the outputs of action resolution procedures being, at best, one factor that the GM might consider in making such a determination. 2nd ed AD&D is one high watermark of this trend.)

      These are two important differences from improv acting that go to the structure of play. There are other differences, too, that go more to the ephemera - eg improv acting is more likely than (tabletop) RPGing to use actual space, props etc as components in establishing the shared fiction, whereas RPGing is more likely to depend on narration and (perhaps) illustrations.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by DMMike View Post
      XP for bringing Cartman into this.
      Cartman is almost always relevant, somehow.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      In @lewpuls's terminology, chess and go are puzzles because there is a solution (though it's cognitively/mathematically inaccessible to most players).
      Yes, that's how it works I believe. Chess is a puzzle, strictly speaking, because it can be solved with backward induction. Computationally speaking backward induction is not practical on chess and go, and likely never will be (to my knowledge), but there actually is an answer as to whether white or black wins, given optimal play.

      I assume that backgammon is a puzzle for the same reason, although its parameters can change from move to move because of the dice results.
      The role of randomness in this set of terminology is tricky but randomness can be incorporated into decision theory and game theory. Here I'm using these terms in their technical senses; to be clear I'll say "mathematical game theory" henceforth. As I recall, backgammon is essentially a race between players... been a while since I played it. However, it does have an aspect of strategy and it clearly has a versus (or zero-sum) aspect.

      Maybe I'm wrong, but I would assume that Diplomacy is a game in the relevant sense. And I guess many other blind declaration wargames (inlcuding CCGs) might count.
      I think Diplomacy would be considered a game in the proposed sense. The problem I have with the proposed terminology is that in mathematical game theory one thinks about both cooperation and competition. The proposed terminology seems to exclude cooperative games, for instance, which are studied in mathematical game theory alongside competitive ones. Indeed many games have aspects of both.


      As to the bigger issue of "why bother"? I assume that this sort of analysis is helpful to game design.
      I do agree that the distinctions can be helpful, although I'm not entirely sure that established terminology from mathematical game theory wouldn't be easier.

      (Also - as something of an expert on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, I can confidently state that his discussion of the word "game" has no bearing on the current topic of games vs puzzles, except in the trivial sense that he is pointing out that words can have varied uses. But making that rather banal point is not what makes the book an important work of philosophy; and the philsophical points have no bearing upon game design.)
      Huh, I'll trust you on this, I don't really know Wittgenstein in detail. I do know that I think the notion of "family resemblance" makes a great deal of sense for much of the terminology here.
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