Disconnect Between Designer's Intent and Player Intepretation

MGibster

Legend
I'm about to start a Cyberpunk Red campaign this week, and in an early chapter on character generation, "Soul and the New Machine," we've given these three things that make a character a cyberpunk:
  1. Style Over Substance: It doesn't matter how well you do something, as long as you look good doing it.
  2. Attitude is Everything: It's truth. Think dangerous; be dangerous. Think weak; be weak.
  3. Live on the Edge: The Edge is that nebulous zone where risk-takers and high rollers go.
I started playing Cyberpunk way back when 2020 was part of the game title and the actual year was nearly 30 years in the future. For the most part, looking cool and stylish wasn't the primary motivation for most of our characters. And looking at the adventures from back then, most of them are more concerned about bigger issues rather than style. Even the recent anime Cyberpunk: Edgerunners on Netflix aren't characters obsessing over style or how cool they look, they're obsessing over performance and doing whatever it is to get the edge necessary to survive. For me, style over substance is not what Cyberpunk is about at all.

This isn't to say none of our characters in Cyberpunk didn't care about style at all. One player I knew in the early 1990s created a Fixer whose main weapon was a pistol that looked like Han Solo's blaster and every round was a tracer. And fashion could be important as how you dressed would make a difference in how you were treated by different groups. Don't dress like street trash in a Corpo environment and don't dress in a Corpo at a dive bar in the combat zone.

Another old example I can think of is White Wolf's Vampire the Masqurade which was supposed to be about personal horror, but for a lot of us at least, it was more like superpowered weirdos in trench coats and katanas kicking butts and taking names. I don't think that's what White Wolf was going for originally.

Are there any games you can think of where there's a disconnect between the audience and the creators?
 

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Celebrim

Legend
Quite often a disconnect between the designer's intention and what game the rules actually create is at fault.

VtM described a game of personal horror, but none of the examples of play in the books provided that experience and the rules themselves did little to force players to do anything but indulge their own egos. The actual functional game that the players and GMs made out of the rules was a game of Machiavellian politics in which the fact the characters were vampires was not only not a source of horror but played relatively little role.

If you want a game that prioritizes style over substance, then that game must give you massive rewards for style so that the players are encouraged to prioritize it. If the mechanics prioritize pragmatic substance, well then expect the players to do the same.

Honestly, I feel this way about the venerable CoC game. Despite my admiration for it, in practice, if you are playing anything but a one shot the game ceases to capture the feel of CoC. Typically in my experience the PC's will load for bear, and in a typical CoC game the police represent a bigger problem than the horrors from beyond time and space. It becomes a game of smuggling weapons past the authorities and not facing down cosmic horrors, and this happens precisely because only by being as well armed as a small army do you have much of a chance. All your research is not nearly as important as being a crack shot with a high-power rifle, or having a pump action shotgun with a bayonet lug, or a case of grenades. CoC seems to be recognizing this and moving to settings like Pulp Cthulhu or Delta Green where you have a frame work for being mercenaries and so can focus on actually fighting the horror, but even so this moves away from the tropes of the game and stories.

One of the earliest times I encountered this concept was in a Gary Alan Fine's "Shared Fantasy" that documented as social history the early days of RPGs. He mentions watching sessions of (IIRC) DC Heroes game where session after session was spent on soap opera like melodrama, with the group deliberately avoiding ever getting into combat because the rules for combat were so complex that they made combat no fun for the group.
 

MGibster

Legend
VtM described a game of personal horror, but none of the examples of play in the books provided that experience and the rules themselves did little to force players to do anything but indulge their own egos. The actual functional game that the players and GMs made out of the rules was a game of Machiavellian politics in which the fact the characters were vampires was not only not a source of horror but played relatively little role.
I think originally the creators wanted players to make characters who were anarchs, you know, fighting against or at least trying to resist having the man breathing down their throats, but in my experience most players wanted to be the people standing on someone else's neck.

Honestly, I feel this way about the venerable CoC game. Despite my admiration for it, in practice, if you are playing anything but a one shot the game ceases to capture the feel of CoC. Typically in my experience the PC's will load for bear, and in a typical CoC game the police represent a bigger problem than the horrors from beyond time and space. It becomes a game of smuggling weapons past the authorities and not facing down cosmic horrors, and this happens precisely because only by being as well armed as a small army do you have much of a chance. All your research is not nearly as important as being a crack shot with a high-power rifle, or having a pump action shotgun with a bayonet lug, or a case of grenades. CoC seems to be recognizing this and moving to settings like Pulp Cthulhu or Delta Green where you have a frame work for being mercenaries and so can focus on actually fighting the horror, but even so this moves away from the tropes of the game and stories.
My games are usually set in the United States so smuggling weapons isn't usually a concern. But I see what you mean. I tend to view CoC of an adaptation of Lovecraft's work into RPG form, and as with any adaptation from one medium to another, it's going to be different. The biggest difference comes with the number of investigators in the game versus the protagonists in the stories. Lovecraft typically focuses on one character's perspective in his stories and that just won't work for an RPG (at least not for most groups). I also don't run open ended campaigns for Call of Cthulhu. I have an overarching idea for the campaign and once we're through that arc we're done with the campaign.

I do agree with your about firepower. Call of Cthlhu's dirty little secret is that firepower very often works.
 

I think a lot of the early World of Darkness games fit this description. Vampire as you mentioned, but also Wraith, which had a ton of cool concepts, but it was still a trad game with trad mechanics and pacing, and no real sense of what PCs should be doing, so you just kind of fell into gloomy murder-hoboing for spooky artifacts and ghost money. Even Mage, which I loved and ran for a long while, felt like it didn't want to admit how people would actually play the game. If it's about being insurgents, lean into that all the way, including the unsettling or disturbing elements.

I haven't played Vampire 5, but from reading it and hearing play reports it seems like it finally hews a lot closer to the personal horror concept. Which also means it's a lot more disturbing, and a lot less generally accessible, than the Blade cosplay that most of us were using it for back in the day.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
I think originally the creators wanted players to make characters who were anarchs, you know, fighting against or at least trying to resist having the man breathing down their throats, but in my experience most players wanted to be the people standing on someone else's neck.

LOL. Yeah, that's got to be the most interesting failure I've heard of in game design. Normally games fail to achieve designer's intent on mechanical failures. You are describing a philosophical failure, which is wryly amusing to me because I would totally expect anarchs to be the sort of people who wanted to stand on someone else's neck.

Although, there is a bit of philosophical failure in the original design of VtM in that it seems to assume that the players will want to be good and want to regain their humanity as a baseline of play if you read the text, and that of course is equally naive. The rules themselves give little in the way of unavoidable penalties and horrors for being a vampire and plenty of rewards. What player reading the rules didn't want to commit diablerie, for example? I never once saw VtM played as an actual horror game or with any real recognition of, "Hey, we are monsters!" which has to count as a philosophical failing by the designer if the intention was to explore that as the text claimed.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I think a lot of the early World of Darkness games fit this description. Vampire as you mentioned, but also Wraith, which had a ton of cool concepts...

Wraith was in some ways the most impressive rule book I've ever read to this day. And it was at the same time, a game I recognized as unplayable as written and therefore probably a failure as a game. Reading Wraith was when I formulated my ideas about examples of play and processes of play being as important or more important than the rules. The game Wraith was describing was effectively only playable as a single player game - one PC and one Storyteller. It wasn't inherently social. It wasn't clear what any two ghosts would want with each other or even if they would see each other. If the PC's really worked hard they could have created ghosts whose lives had been connected in some way, but the text did hard push players in that direction.

And on top of that it was totally alien. It required a fantastic imagination to realize the seeming intention, because the characters it was describing were actually dead and static and past the apparent end of their story arcs. And on top of that they were probably insane. Which is all good for describing a world of undead, but again doesn't make it likely you'll find a group that can play it.
 

payn

Legend
Are there any games you can think of where there's a disconnect between the audience and the creators?
A lot of these examples are going to be personal. The Cyberpunk stuff doesn't bother me at all and sounds about right. So, I'll start right off the bat by saying much of the audience may in fact, be right at home, and it might be you (general), that is the odd person out.

My example is Cthulhu Pulp. Running around killing mythos creatures with shotguns and shrugging it off seems anathema to the cosmic horror genre.
 



Yora

Legend
I didn't say anything about issues, and neither does this topic.

Just saying that nobody can figure out what the intend seems to be.
 


dragoner

solisrpg.com
I think Dungeons & Dragon's alignment probably deserves to be mentioned here. Simply on the ground that nobody has been able to figure out what the designers intent might have been in over 40 years.
It is religious, based off medieval cosmology, like Lawful Good is the Roman Church and your alignment language is Latin, where Common is Koine, Greek. It is adaptive though.
 

Celebrim

Legend
My example is Cthulhu Pulp. Running around killing mythos creatures with shotguns and shrugging it off seems anathema to the cosmic horror genre.

Conversely, I see Cthulhu Pulp as an adaptation to how the game is actually played as opposed to how it was intended to be paid.

This comes back to weapons to me, because if you look at one shots and prepared scenarios the PC's are expected to be armed with derringers, cue sticks, and sharpened fencing foils. But of course, the reality of any campaign is that very quickly the PC's end up armed with 10-gauge shotguns with bayonet lugs, submachine guns, hunting rifles with 10 power scopes, Colt model 1911's, .44 magnum lever action carbines, grenades, dynamite and cans of gasoline. In other words, the players arm themselves like they are facing heavily armored foes that can shrug off light weapons, because that's really what is happening. And the players learn that anything that gets within limb's reach of Lovecraftian horror probably dies horribly, so they arm themselves sufficiently that Lovecraftian horrors notably lacking in missile weapons struggle to get within limb's reach of the party. Anathema or not to the genre, that's how real players react. Anathema or not to the genre, that's what the rules reward. Upping your firearms skill is much more likely to help you survive than upping your anthropology or your Latin, even in most published examples of play. So you might as well run with it and make that part of the game's assumptions.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I think originally the creators wanted players to make characters who were anarchs, you know, fighting against or at least trying to resist having the man breathing down their throats, but in my experience most players wanted to be the people standing on someone else's neck.

That would be difficult to support, given that Anarchs didn't appear as a player option in the core rulebook.
 

payn

Legend
Conversely, I see Cthulhu Pulp as an adaptation to how the game is actually played as opposed to how it was intended to be paid.

This comes back to weapons to me, because if you look at one shots and prepared scenarios the PC's are expected to be armed with derringers, cue sticks, and sharpened fencing foils. But of course, the reality of any campaign is that very quickly the PC's end up armed with 10-gauge shotguns with bayonet lugs, submachine guns, hunting rifles with 10 power scopes, Colt model 1911's, .44 magnum lever action carbines, grenades, dynamite and cans of gasoline. In other words, the players arm themselves like they are facing heavily armored foes that can shrug off light weapons, because that's really what is happening. And the players learn that anything that gets within limb's reach of Lovecraftian horror probably dies horribly, so they arm themselves sufficiently that Lovecraftian horrors notably lacking in missile weapons struggle to get within limb's reach of the party. Anathema or not to the genre, that's how real players react. Anathema or not to the genre, that's what the rules reward. Upping your firearms skill is much more likely to help you survive than upping your anthropology or your Latin, even in most published examples of play. So you might as well run with it and make that part of the game's assumptions.
I've never ever played CoC this way. Ever. Though, I can totally see the D&D playloop drift making players want to do this.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I didn't say anything about issues, and neither does this topic.

Just saying that nobody can figure out what the intend seems to be.

I wouldn't put it that way. I think people who are philosophically close to Gygax in their real personal beliefs probably don't struggle much with the concepts that he lays out because they have the same tuition about what "weal", "woe', "law' and "chaos" mean. Certainly lots of people believe that they understand the intent, and in the broad terms are in strong agreement with each other.

The trouble with alignment is that while it doesn't document real world belief, something like alignment exists in the real world and so just as the members of D&D universe don't agree with each other about which alignment is best to have, real world tuitions about the subject matter of alignment disagree and create biases and beliefs about it that are inconsistent with each other. And because Gygax only sketched out alignment broadly, probably because he assumed that the meaning of the words was obvious, this left people massively free to diverge in practice.

As just one example, many people in the real world believe words like "weal" are subjective, and so those people tend to have massive problems with the very concept of alignment and are biased to reject it. But that's very much not the same as being unable to figure out the intent of the rules. That's actually a sign that they do understand the intent, and are rejecting it.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I've never ever played CoC this way. Ever. Though, I can totally see the D&D playloop drift making players want to do this.

How do you manage to have an extended campaign if you don't do this? And I don't think it's the D&D play loop that causes it, although there are examples of published CoC modules that are effectively D&D dungeons with maps of sprawling underground locations and keyed encounters. I think it's the rules themselves that do it. CoC is written using the simulationist BRP ruleset which intends to model the game universe as a natural procedure of play. As such, the rules don't privilege in response to seeing a ghoul, doing something like, "I roll Occult to destroy it.", which would be perfectly fine in a game where the players can set stakes and declare into existence aspects of the game universe. They do privilege, "I roll Firearms to fire 10 rounds from my Tommy Gun into the moldering horror."
 

payn

Legend
How do you manage to have an extended campaign if you don't do this? And I don't think it's the D&D play loop that causes it, although there are examples of published CoC modules that are effectively D&D dungeons with maps of sprawling underground locations and keyed encounters. I think it's the rules themselves that do it. CoC is written using the simulationist BRP ruleset which intends to model the game universe as a natural procedure of play. As such, the rules don't privilege in response to seeing a ghoul, doing something like, "I roll Occult to destroy it.", which would be perfectly fine in a game where the players can set stakes and declare into existence aspects of the game universe. They do privilege, "I roll Firearms to fire 10 rounds from my Tommy Gun into the moldering horror."
Dont do extended campaigns as they dont make sense. Characters more likely to go insane (even armed to the teeth) than die from being ripped apart, but even that's still common. The point isn't to go around killing monsters, I've never really gotten that as intent. Its akin to old school D&D where combat is a failed state. You want to avoid it if possible.

Now I think things like Delta Green, Cthuhlu Pulp, Cthulhu Tech, etc.. are designed to give the extended campaign experience, but they move away from base assumptions.

Did I miss the chapter that says folks in the 1920's had easy access to B.A.R. Rifles, sub-machine guns, and grenades?
 

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