Atoms In Game And Adventure Design
  • Atoms In Game And Adventure Design


    Video game designers use two terms worth understanding for all game designers and adventure designers, "atoms" and "loops". Some time ago I talked about Loops, this time it's about Atoms.


    Why do we care about Atoms? Adventure design is a subset of game design, and I'd expect most of the GM's who read this are more active designers than the typical RPG GM. Game design cannot be done by rote, by following a formula, it's about critical thinking and observation. Game design theory is mostly intended to help people focus on what's important (and not important) as they design games.

    Like Loops, Atoms are simple. Mostly.

    An "Atom" is the smallest part of a game that could be regarded as whole and complete, e.g. play of one hand in a card game, play of a round (a turn by each player) in board games, one "encounter" with significant opposition in an RPG. Players usually want to play at least one Atom during a session, often more. Consequently the Atoms – especially the common ones - have to be self-contained and enjoyable. If Atoms are enjoyable, players will keep coming back to the game.

    Loops don't depend on the specific goal of an adventure. Specific Atoms can partly depend on the goal, but rarely depend heavily on the goal (if any) of the campaign.

    There is no hard and fast rule about what you regard as an Atom. Can an Atom be as small as a swing of a sword? Swinging a sword might be a major loop in a melee-only game. I can't say it cannot be an Atom, and if that helps you focus on what happens when someone swings a sword that's not a bad thing. But you certainly want to do more than swing a sword during a typical FRPG session, so I prefer the Atom to be regarded as an encounter with some opposition/non-player entity. If the players tend to be combat-oriented, most Atoms will include fighting. If they like to talk and role-play a lot, most Atoms won't include fighting.

    Within each Atom, at least one of the primary loops of your campaign will be running. Recall, a "loop" in a game is a repeated action that makes up a significant part of the game or adventure. A "core loop" is a part of the game repeated many times during play, or perhaps more than any other loop. Aiming and shooting a gun while dodging in a first-person shooter is a core loop.

    The Atoms in an adventure derive partly from the game rules (which tend to supply the loops), partly from the GM's intentions and actions.

    The success of the Atom derives mostly from the GM, some from the rules. I was once asked whether you could run any kind of campaign with any RPG rules. My answer was, more or less yes. That is, the nature of the campaign depends far more on the GM (if a good GM . . .) than on the rules being used. There are extremes, of course: it's really hard to run a wargame-like campaign with FATE rules, for example.

    The success of the Atom is much more in the hands of the GM than success relies on the rules of the game. I'd expect regular readers of EN World to be the kind of GM who takes responsibility for their campaign and modifies rules accordingly. But your average GM relies heavily on the rules and on adventures devised by someone else, so that the Atoms don't really come from the GM (though a poor GM can still screw them up).

    Some rules are going to emphasize different kinds of typical Atoms, whether combat, or intrigue, or stealth and thievery, or war-oriented, or interpersonal relationships, or interaction with other races and species, or many other possibilities. In other words, different rules will focus on different kinds of "fun."

    So what are the Atoms in your game like?

    contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
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    Comments 9 Comments
    1. estar's Avatar
      estar -
      While interesting if you want to make the next Settlers of Catan, Munchkin, or Magic the Gathering, it not helpful with RPGs. The trick with RPG adventures is not loops, atoms, or any particular game mechanics. It imagining an interesting situation. Then making up the locales and personae involved with that situation. And the motivations and personalities of the personaes. Then throwing the PCs into the mix to see how it shakes out.

      With Settlers of Catan the point is to play the game and to win via the victory conditions. In contrast RPGs are about a referee creating an experience that players hopefully find interest. The rules of a wargame focused on individual characters is used to resolve things when the outcome is uncertain.

      Regardless of whether you use Microlite or GURPS the process is the same for all RPGs. The circumstances of the character are described by the referee, the players decide what to do as if he there as the characters, the referee then tells the players what were the result of the action. When the result is uncertain, like swinging a sword, then dice is rolled using the rules of the game.

      What makes a good set of rules for a given group is whether; they account for the factors that the players and referee think are important, is it resolved in timely manners, and does it make sense in terms of the setting of the campaign? For the best rules set the answer is yes to all three for a given group. But in the end it about preference, while Microlite doesn't account for all the things that GURPS does, some group don't care and appreciate how Microlite resolves things. The same with GURPS and other RPGs.
    1. DMMike's Avatar
      DMMike -
      Quote Originally Posted by estar View Post
      While interesting if you want to make the next Settlers of Catan, Munchkin, or Magic the Gathering, it not helpful with RPGs. The trick with RPG adventures is not loops, atoms, or any particular game mechanics.
      While this may be true, it actually is helpful to think about your game design in different ways, especially if it helps you see a problem differently or if you're stuck and thinking about loops and atoms gets you unstuck.

      What would also be helpful is a couple more examples...I can't quite distinguish loops from atoms yet
    1. Sunseeker's Avatar
      Sunseeker -
      Quote Originally Posted by estar View Post
      While interesting if you want to make the next Settlers of Catan, Munchkin, or Magic the Gathering, it not helpful with RPGs. The trick with RPG adventures is not loops, atoms, or any particular game mechanics. It imagining an interesting situation. Then making up the locales and personae involved with that situation. And the motivations and personalities of the personaes. Then throwing the PCs into the mix to see how it shakes out.
      Suggesting that each encounter should be so unique as to not follow any standard game design elements is not only unrealistic, but that way lies madness.

      Loops and atoms don't merely exist for the player. They also work as building blocks (much as atoms do in real life) for DMs. You can do many things with "fighting orcs" but fundamentally, "fighting orcs" could be your core atom here. It provides the player with an idea of what they're getting themselves into, and it provides the DM/game designer with an idea of what they should be regularly providing more of.

      If Newbie were to come up to you and ask you "What id this D&D thing all about?" you are farm more likely to respond with something along the lines of "Being an adventurer traveling the lands, fighting interesting monsters, meeting interesting people and taking their stuff." These are the "atoms" of a game like D&D. Being an adventurer. Traveling/exploration. Fighting monsters. Meeting interesting NPCs. Taking their stuff. You would probably not tell Newbie that D&D is "Anything and everything and totally unique and different every time!" because while that might catch a few fish, fundamentally you haven't actually told them anything about D&D. If D&D can be everything it can also be nothing. It is if unique and different every time, there are no expectations of what a player might be interested in, maybe Newbie wants to kill some orcs, maybe Newbie doesn't. If you or D&D itsself doesn't tell Newbie what to expect, Newbie might just walk away.

      The advice above is TOTALLY helpful with RPG design, both in terms of rulesets and campaign design. Not every game is going to appeal to every person, understanding what the "atoms" of your game are, the "fundamental elements" are helps give your game direction and helps give prospective players an idea of what they're getting themselves into.
    1. estar's Avatar
      estar -
      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      Suggesting that each encounter should be so unique as to not follow any standard game design elements is not only unrealistic, but that way lies madness.
      There techniques that apply to tabletop roleplaying encounter however they are not the same as techniques one use to make a interesting boardgame, or wargame scenario.

      Encounters are a situation occurring in a place at a particular time That likely but not always have one or more NPCs (creatures or characters) with motivations and reasons for being there. Where the referee creativity comes into play is to pick out from all the myriad possibilities inherent in a setting, something that is interesting to the players.

      For example if the players are in the City State of Invincible Overlord and dealing with the Thieves Guild in someway, they decide to go to the Tanglebones Tavern in mid afternoon. I would look at the description of the patron, who works there, and come up with the situation that would exist if you actually visited the Tanglebones Tavern in the mid afternoon. And because life isn't always predictable I would throw one or two random results.

      I am not concerned over what are the irreducible actions (atoms), or any particular sequence (loops). I would tell you are standing in the doorway, tell you what you notice right off the bat, and then ask what do you do.

      There are technique that apply to this. For example most player don't like playing Twenty Questions. Do I see that? Do I see that? And on and on. One reason for this is that the referee doesn't describe enough important details. Another the player often have trouble trusting the referee won't pull a gotcha. Once I became aware of these issues, I figured out ways to eliminate them as issue so that when a player standing in the doorway of the Tanglebones they are thinking about what they would doing as their character rather than metagame issues.

      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      You can do many things with "fighting orcs" but fundamentally, "fighting orcs" could be your core atom here. It provides the player with an idea of what they're getting themselves into, and it provides the DM/game designer with an idea of what they should be regularly providing more of.
      Then you are turning the exercise into an elaborate wargame. What separate tabletop roleplaying games from their wargame progenitors is the ability for players to do anything their character is capable of doing. The fact there is a neutral human referee is what enables this to be possible. There is no expectation of doing anything other than that the players as their character are probably be looking for some type of adventure.

      As for the specific concern of "regularly providing more of" that not a game design issue. Rather that part of the back and forth social interaction the referee should doing out of game as part of the social aspect of getting together to play a campaign. Getting to know your players and what they like.

      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      If Newbie were to come up to you and ask you "What id this D&D thing all about?" you are farm more likely to respond with something along the lines of "Being an adventurer traveling the lands, fighting interesting monsters, meeting interesting people and taking their stuff."
      My explanation that it is a pen and paper virtual reality where you can pretend to do interesting things in a setting as a character you make.

      D&D focuses on the fantasy genre like Lord of the Ring, Games of Thrones, and Conan. D&D uses a human referee, so that you and a group can make a character and experience Middle Earth, Westeros, Hyboria, or an original setting created by the referee for yourself. You listen to what the referee describe and decide what to do based as if you are there as the character. If what you want to do is risky or has a chance for failure, then you will be using the rules of a game and dice to determine what happens.

      At first the rules will seem strange and some hard to remember, but focus on what being described about your character and the location find yourself visiting. If you are strong, then do things that you assume strong characters can do. If you are quick do the same for that attribute and so forth and so on for all the other skills and attributes of your character. Very quickly you will learn the rules and how they interact with your character.

      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      If D&D can be everything it can also be nothing.
      It not about everything. The setting sets the limit. The D&D rules focuses on a fantasy setting with technology similar to the early medieval period of our history. Unless stated otherwise, character can do what normal humans given their character's abilities.

      The rules are tools used to adjudicate things when something is attempted when a chance for failure or the result is certain.

      But tabletop roleplaying is not a game in the sense that Clue and Settlers of Catan are games. It something different, it's own thing.



      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      The advice above is TOTALLY helpful with RPG design, both in terms of rulesets and campaign design. Not every game is going to appeal to every person, understanding what the "atoms" of your game are, the "fundamental elements" are helps give your game direction and helps give prospective players an idea of what they're getting themselves into.
      The key to a good set of tabletop roleplaying rules is like I said in previous post. Does it reflect the chosen genre or setting in a way that is clear, concise, and easy to understand. It easily used during the session?

      To be clear, I am not saying there are NO design principles just are not those that make for good wargames or boardgames.
    1. Sunseeker's Avatar
      Sunseeker -
      Quote Originally Posted by estar View Post
      To be clear, I am not saying there are NO design principles just are not those that make for good wargames or boardgames.
      Amazing. Everything you just said is wrong.

      But frankly, I don't have the time to explain this to you, and its fairly obvious from current games on the market why and how you are wrong.

      You may have your own ideas on game design, that's fine, but they're not even remotely representative of how RPGs are designed.
    1. estar's Avatar
      estar -
      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      Amazing. Everything you just said is wrong.

      But frankly, I don't have the time to explain this to you, and its fairly obvious from current games on the market why and how you are wrong.

      You may have your own ideas on game design, that's fine, but they're not even remotely representative of how RPGs are designed.
      I have eaten my own dog food so to speak as I am a published RPG author. And what I wrote above is how I write my material.

      https://rpggeek.com/rpgdesigner/22847/robert-conley
      http://www.batintheattic.com
      http://batintheattic.blogspot.com/

      My view is that there too much of a focus on the rules in the industry. What sets tabletop roleplaying apart from other forms of gaming is the flexibility of the human referee. That the hobby would be better served by teaching people to be better referee and give them the better tools to prepare their campaigns. For example my How to make Fantasy Sandbox on my blog is designed to structure the process of creating a setting for a fantasy campaign to make it managable.

      I don't design it like a game, I design like it a place with people with lives of their own doing things that would be interesting to somebody who like the fantasy genre.
    1. Jhaelen -
      I wouldn't have thought of considering encounters atoms (for the purpose of adventure design), but maybe it makes sense. I find it easier to identify atoms in RPG design:
      In a way they're indicated by the 'granularity' of the rules: Some types of actions are described in more detail than others. Combat is often (but not always) the most granular system. Other encounter types are usually less detailed, sometimes being resolved with a single or even no roll. In systems based on Gumshoe, the investigative actions are the most detailed, in Ars Magica you have a very detailed system for creating spells and magic items.

      In the context of adventure design, though? I suppose, when thinking about the general outline of an adventure, when I'm deciding which encounters are key, which are optional, and which I'd gloss over, I'm subconsciously determining my 'atoms'. Hmm. I guess, I'm not really sure how useful it would be to think of encounters as atoms.

      In an RPG like 'Ashen Stars', the guidelines for adventure design already identify the typical 'building blocks'. Since adventures are mimicking episodes of a procedural tv show, certain types of scenes should be present in (almost) every adventure. If scenes are just a kind of atom, then maybe the concept isn't just restricted to game design. It would be just as fundamental when writing a story or a screenplay.
    1. Schmoe's Avatar
      Schmoe -
      This is actually a pretty interesting concept, and I think it meshes well with some other advice about DMing. I think of atoms as "scenes", and as such the framing of the scene is important. The impact of a scene directly ties to its resolution. Some scenes may result in nothing but setting the mood, and if you understand that you can resolve the scene once the mood has been set. Some scenes may provide the resolution of a conflict, such as a combat, and the resolution typically comes when the party is victorious (or not). Obviously not everything in the game strictly maps to one scene, or one atom, but being mindful of the scene can help me figure out figure out pacing to prevent boredom, help me convey important information, and help me keep the game entertaining.

      When you look at it through this lens, there are several broad categories of atoms, such as combat confrontations, role-playing confrontations, role-playing "character" exposition, mood setting descriptions, dungeon/wilderness navigation, searching a room, etc. Each atom may share some similarities with other atoms in the same general category, but the specific goals and circumstances will usually be significantly different so that they don't play out the same way. Nonetheless, there are enough similarities that you can start to derive some best practices for a particular type of atom/scene.

      Cool, thanks for the post. It was thought-provoking.

      Edit: I also want to point out that I think the choice of terminology between loop and atom is ironic. The loops are actually the independent actions that you will do over and over again while resolving any number of different atoms. In that way, the atoms are actually composed of loops, rather than being the atomic elements of a loop, which might be intuitive. Maybe loops should have instead been called "strings" and then you could invoke string theory.
    1. Russell Kirkby's Avatar
      Russell Kirkby -
      What was wrong with the word: scene?

      But no really, we need new hip cool words for things we already understand...
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