Disconnect Between Designer's Intent and Player Intepretation

Citizen Mane

The Kajamba Lion
Really, the meaning of the text is, at the end of the day, it's meaning as absorbed by the reader, rather than its author's intent.
As a recovering English literature graduate student, I could not possibly be more thrilled to see this discussion here. 😍. But at the end of the day, aren't RPG manuals instruction manuals? If the authors fail to convey their meaning, then that is a failure on their part.
 

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Celebrim

Legend
As a recovering English literature graduate student, I could not possibly be more thrilled to see this discussion here. 😍. But at the end of the day, aren't RPG manuals instruction manuals? If the authors fail to convey their meaning, then that is a failure on their part.

Speaking honestly, there are many otherwise well written instruction manuals that failed because of my inattentiveness, and not because the author didn't include the necessary steps. For example, if I'm making a chocolate cake and the instruction clearly say to add a cup of water to the batter, if I fail to do that it's probably my fault if the cake doesn't turn out as moist as the creator intended. Which isn't to say that instruction manuals or RPGs are always clear, but it is to say that the reader has some requirements as well and not all failures are on the part of the writer.
 

Citizen Mane

The Kajamba Lion
Speaking honestly, there are many otherwise well written instruction manuals that failed because of my inattentiveness, and not because the author didn't include the necessary steps. For example, if I'm making a chocolate cake and the instruction clearly say to add a cup of water to the batter, if I fail to do that it's probably my fault if the cake doesn't turn out as moist as the creator intended. Which isn't to say that instruction manuals or RPGs are always clear, but it is to say that the reader has some requirements as well and not all failures are on the part of the writer.
That's fair, though I'd argue that it really depends on who your audience is. If you're pitching your cookbook at experienced bakers, you can probably talk around the edges of the instructions, trusting them to fill in the gaps. But your readers need to have some expertise to know what gaps they should be filling and how.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
Sure, I was taking it as a premise for my response that we care about conformity to genre.

The issue is that I think you need to recognize there are a lot of people who want some conformity to genre, but not necessarily the degree of stylization to strongly encourage that. That there's more than one set of concerns in play, and the compromises to have those was considered acceptable.


The example I usual give is Champions. Champions is not a superhero game that tries to go hard-in on making sure all the beats of the superhero genre are followed for a number of different reasons including gamist concerns, its age, and others. But contrary to what some people will try to claim, it doesn't ignore genre conventions completely, either (elements of the damage system lean into that fairly hard, which can actually be an issue when the system is being used for other genres).

So a Champions game is going to produce results that look pretty well like a superhero fiction when zoomed out, but it may not always look like one when zoomed in or examined in detail, because of the compromise in design. And that's not an error if you want those elements.

But because those elements are present, you don't get salty about the fact sometimes design elements will produce results you may not have wanted because you were serving multiple masters; you either accept it or fix them.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
They literally shoot at the monster in the Dunwich Horror don’t they? And Cthulhu is rammed with a ship. I think people underestimate how much Lovecraft had people successfully fight monsters in his stories.

There's also some military action in Shadow Over Innsmouth as I recall. But of course you'll note we are mentioning three out of many stories, and in most stories the people involved are simply people who wouldn't think of a violent solution or would be unlikely to be successful at it if they did. And notably, the ship ramming with Cthulhu had an extremely transient effect (which is why I note this is really only an effective response with the lower end opponents).
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
Someone should make a thread to discuss that kind of thing.

One of the problems with that discussion is how much you want the game to put its thumb on the genre scale is pretty much in the eye of the beholder. I don't want a game to ignore the genre for which its designed, but I'm not usually wanting it to hem it in too tightly either, which some people very much do want.

Its just that its an area where you really need to look at what you incentivize. You don't necessarily need to heavily incentivize every play element you want, but if you incentivize things you don't want, that's on you.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
Not of need; in at least a few (HōL comes to min, as does KAMB, Ninja Burger, and the original edition of Og) they're deconstructions. Intentionally reinforcing anti-genre play for its value as humor...

See my comments later regarding this; I doubt the designers of HoL were expecting a different play-pattern than they got, though. And I don't consider that trivial.

Rein‧Hagen may have utterly missed his intent, but the design is no failure - it turned out to be one of the most popular anti-hero RPGs...

I think you have to say a wrench that isn't very good at turning things is a failure of design even if it turns out to be pretty good at pounding nails.

Essentially, "Monsters R Us" as camp rather than serious drama. Rein‧Hagen's intent is irrelevant to play; only the group's intent vs the emergent behavior is important. It's one of the more successful designs, in fact...

But its not successful as a design, because that's not what it was designed for.

Games are not fiction, where what the person experiencing them gets out of them are all that matters; they're (at least also) tools for a purpose, and even if they serve a different purpose well, if they don't serve the one intended they're a failure of design.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
D&D has always been focused around fighters, clerics, rogues/thieves, and wizards. The main systemic difference role-wise was that the designers recognized that you need to fill these roles, and making sure that other classes could do so as well, instead of falling in between the roles and breaking the Ron Swanson rule by half-assing two things. As part of this system change, Defender classes were given the ability to manage "aggro", albeit via punisher mechanics ("You're free to do X, but I'll hurt you if you do") instead of aggro lists like in WoW.

There was also a more specific change with the fighter and ranger, where the ranger became more purely martial and took most of the heavy damage/Dex-based/archery stuff from the fighter, and the fighter became more defined as specifically a Defender.

Yeah. I kind of found a number of things in 4e too formalized in ways I found unpleasant, but it wasn't so much taking things D&D hadn't had before but formalizing things it had had from early on (which some MMOs had formalized earlier, but they didn't pick them out of the air; they were visible in D&D from at least late OD&D).
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
Speaking honestly, there are many otherwise well written instruction manuals that failed because of my inattentiveness, and not because the author didn't include the necessary steps. For example, if I'm making a chocolate cake and the instruction clearly say to add a cup of water to the batter, if I fail to do that it's probably my fault if the cake doesn't turn out as moist as the creator intended. Which isn't to say that instruction manuals or RPGs are always clear, but it is to say that the reader has some requirements as well and not all failures are on the part of the writer.

That's true, but when a lot, maybe the majority of users have a similar failure, I think blaming it on the user is point that arrow in the wrong direction.
 


MGibster

Legend
I have no interest in rehashing this debate, but as someone who played 4e extensively and WoW since the beta that my experiences regarding the "similarity" between the two games differ from your take here. I'm not sure that anything that I say to the contrary will dissuade you of that either.
We don't know if you don't try. It's entirely possible that you put out a well considered argument for your position that leads to a re-evaluation and change in my opinion. But then it's entirely possible that I look at your well reasoned argument and reject it. But if it's not worth the effort, that's cool too. You're certainly under no obligation to make any kind of argument in favor of your position.

D&D has always been focused around fighters, clerics, rogues/thieves, and wizards. The main systemic difference role-wise was that the designers recognized that you need to fill these roles, and making sure that other classes could do so as well, instead of falling in between the roles and breaking the Ron Swanson rule by half-assing two things. As part of this system change, Defender classes were given the ability to manage "aggro", albeit via punisher mechanics ("You're free to do X, but I'll hurt you if you do") instead of aggro lists like in WoW.
Yeah. D&D 4th edition made move to combat that was more similar to Everquest and WoW. Because in the 1990s, aggro wasn't a specific role. My Fighter might try to draw the attention of a monster bashing our Wizard's face in, but so might the Thief or the Monk.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
Yeah. D&D 4th edition made move to combat that was more similar to Everquest and WoW. Because in the 1990s, aggro wasn't a specific role. My Fighter might try to draw the attention of a monster bashing our Wizard's face in, but so might the Thief or the Monk.

The difference was that the Fighter actually probably wanted to, where it wasn't much a better idea for the other two than Wizard.

(I noticed this a while back when in the PF2e campaign I was in, the group's monk had a tendency to get way the heck out in front because of taking advantage of his mobility. Which ended up making it far too attractive to everyone in the opposition to pound at him, something a PF2e monk isn't really set up to take, unlike, say, my sword-and-board fighter in that campaign).
 

Xamnam

Loves Your Favorite Game
There's also some military action in Shadow Over Innsmouth as I recall. But of course you'll note we are mentioning three out of many stories, and in most stories the people involved are simply people who wouldn't think of a violent solution or would be unlikely to be successful at it if they did. And notably, the ship ramming with Cthulhu had an extremely transient effect (which is why I note this is really only an effective response with the lower end opponents).
It also leads to one of my favorite bits of rulebook text ever, from Trail of Cthulhu:
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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.

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.

Wraith works quite well in mixed party games of non-munchkins. WoD has a large munchkin quotient in the fanbase...
I think the issues with Wraith go beyond munchkins spoiling peoples' fun. It has issues with generally just so much stuff going on. Yes, gamers can limit it to a specific focus (each character resolving a fetter, each character fostering a passion, the group making a lasting structure or social movement inside wraith society, fighting Oblivion in some way), but they do so by carving a game out of the totality. I don't know that it falls into the category of players interpret it far from designer intent, so much as it requires players to keep what they want out of the system the designers made.
Which raises another question, to which I don't have the answer: was Gygax designing with 12-year olds in mind, or was he designing for adults?
By 2e the answer is obvious, it's very much designed for 12-year olds; but 0e and 1e aren't as clear despite the age ratings on the boxes/books.
I think the answer for 1974 is adults -- specifically wargamers looking for a change of pace. Given that the realization that many-if-not-most of the people buying the several waves of sold-out printings weren't wargamers, as early as 1975 (much less by the time AD&D was finished) it would have been clear that this wasn't the exclusive audience. Exactly how much that changed Gary's design decisions, though, is probably an exercise in psycholoanalysis. He certainly has said many (sometimes contradicting) things about the game and audience, and I think his view really shifted over time. What it was in '75 -79, though, I believe, was mostly, 'whomever we can make a sale to.'
Wasn't original D&D a mashup of LotR, Dying Earth, and Conan?
Honest opinion: D&D was a dungeon-crawling treasure-hunting game with a LotR/Dying Earth/Conan/Wild West by way of a Renaissance fair paint job.
If these come apart, to me that suggests terrible rules.
The most fundamental question in re intent was brought up in my English Methods class: Does authorial intent really matter at all?
The general consensus was "Only if they're good authors. Bad ones or mediocre ones fail to enshrine their intent in the text." (Keep in mind, we were all masters candidates between halfway and 3/4 of the way through our programs. Almost all of us with bachelor of arts degrees.)

Really, the meaning of the text is, at the end of the day, it's meaning as absorbed by the reader, rather than its author's intent. It's not VI Lenin's fault I found his address to the first supreme soviet humorous and ironic - and it is a very safe bet he didn't intend it to be... Partly due to my limited Russian proficiency (far better then than now... sigh), partly due to the irony of reading it after knowing all his goals failed, partly because it's written so damned sincerely.

As a recovering English literature graduate student, I could not possibly be more thrilled to see this discussion here. 😍. But at the end of the day, aren't RPG manuals instruction manuals? If the authors fail to convey their meaning, then that is a failure on their part.

Someone should make a thread to discuss that kind of thing.
Well, it would be nice, but it looks like as usual around here it has become dominated by trying to find someone to be at fault for something. Fundamentally I agree with the notion-- if you can't convey your point to your likely audience, then you failed in your mission to communicate it to them. At the same time, I would have thought it more interesting to go through a bunch of games and see where the system incentivizes behavior at odds with the communicated expected gameplay, rather than the 98,317,491st rendition of communal axe-grinding over D&D and WoD.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I think you have to say a wrench that isn't very good at turning things is a failure of design even if it turns out to be pretty good at pounding nails.

But its not successful as a design, because that's not what it was designed for.
There's a difference between intended success (the wrench is good at turning things) and unintended success (it's lousy at turning things but great for pounding nails).

Thus a game - whose designers' intention was to give a hard-core gritty survivalist experience to its players through their PCs - ends up being wildly successful as a game that gives those players a soft-core big-damn-heroes experience through their PCs is still in my view a success in result, even if not a success in intent.

Put another way: while the designers might look at how their game is actually played and consider their design a failure, both the company selling the game and the player base enjoying the game would consider it a success, original intentions notwithstanding. And as most of us aren't game designers it's that end-result success/failure state that matters: does the game's design deliver a clear, consistent, playable game that people enjoy playing, even if that play doesn't necessarily line up with the advertising? If yes, all is good.
Games are not fiction, where what the person experiencing them gets out of them are all that matters; they're (at least also) tools for a purpose,
The game books and rules, perhaps; but the whole point of game play in an RPG is that a fiction is generated (by whatever means) and the people experiencing said fiction get the most out of it that they can. The rules-set being used is but a means to that end, with different rule-sets providing better experiences for different players and player types; and in the end what the end-users (the players and GM) get from the fiction really is all that matters.

I'm not sure how clear that is, on re-reading it, but I can't think how better to put it without filling several screens with text. I'll spare you that. :)
and even if they serve a different purpose well, if they don't serve the one intended they're a failure of design.
Failure of design as intended, perhaps, but I don't see unintended success as failure overall.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
There's a difference between intended success (the wrench is good at turning things) and unintended success (it's lousy at turning things but great for pounding nails).

Thus a game - whose designers' intention was to give a hard-core gritty survivalist experience to its players through their PCs - ends up being wildly successful as a game that gives those players a soft-core big-damn-heroes experience through their PCs is still in my view a success in result, even if not a success in intent.

We're just having a terminological disagreement; what you're using the word "intent" for I'm using "design" for.

Put another way: while the designers might look at how their game is actually played and consider their design a failure, both the company selling the game and the player base enjoying the game would consider it a success, original intentions notwithstanding. And as most of us aren't game designers it's that end-result success/failure state that matters: does the game's design deliver a clear, consistent, playable game that people enjoy playing, even if that play doesn't necessarily line up with the advertising? If yes, all is good.

The problem is I'm not convinced a game that misses its design that badly is not going to have failures in other areas. The WoD was a success more by hitting the zeitgeist and doing something new than being of particularly sound design. As noted in many places, Vampire had issues even as a supers-with-fangs game, and same for the others in the series (and that's not even addressing the two that weren't exactly dramatic successes even in grabbing that zeitgeist).

The game books and rules, perhaps; but the whole point of game play in an RPG is that a fiction is generated (by whatever means) and the people experiencing said fiction get the most out of it that they can. The rules-set being used is but a means to that end, with different rule-sets providing better experiences for different players and player types; and in the end what the end-users (the players and GM) get from the fiction really is all that matters.

I'm not sure how clear that is, on re-reading it, but I can't think how better to put it without filling several screens with text. I'll spare you that. :)

I understand what you're saying I think; I'm just unsold on it being actually true in most cases.

Failure of design as intended, perhaps, but I don't see unintended success as failure overall.

Depends on your use of "success". There are lots of things that contribute to the sales of a game, and good design is only one of them and not always the most important one.
 

They literally shoot at the monster in the Dunwich Horror don’t they? And Cthulhu is rammed with a ship. I think people underestimate how much Lovecraft had people successfully fight monsters in his stories.

On a similar note, they grossly overstate the number of characters who go insane. Many of the characters who ended up in madhouses were simply assumed insane because of their outlandish stories. In addition to these, Edward Derby, Joe Slater, and Nathaniel Peaslee were possessed, and Charles Dexter Ward was replaced by an imposter.

There we are told by the game developers that the only reason that the turn-based D&D became Real Time With Pause is because of how massive Diablo 2 was at the time. But people weren't upset that the games were RTWP rather than turn-based; instead, they were happy that it was RTWP.

I personally was infuriated and I still think Baldur's Gate and Planescape Torment are crap games. Especially Torment. Torment indeed.
 
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On a similar note, they grossly overstate the number of characters who go insane. Many of the characters who ended up in madhouses were simply assumed insane because of their outlandish stories. In addition to these, Edward Derby, Joe Slater, and Nathaniel Peaslee were possessed, and Charles Dexter Ward was replaced by an imposter.
Yes and the narrator of Innsmouth doesn’t go insane, he justs becomes a Deep One. You might say by his new perspective his old life was the insane period.
 

Larnievc

Adventurer
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?
I always thought the bit about style over substance was a response to ‘hold on, though: doing that doesn’t really make sense if you think about it’ comments when swordsmen cut a swathe through guards armed with smart guns.
 

BrokenTwin

Biological Disaster
On a similar note, they grossly overstate the number of characters who go insane. Many of the characters who ended up in madhouses were simply assumed insane because of their outlandish stories. In addition to these, Edward Derby, Joe Slater, and Nathaniel Peaslee were possessed, and Charles Dexter Ward was replaced by an imposter.



I personally was infuriated and I still think Baldur's Gate and Planescape Torment are crap games. Especially Torment. Torment indeed.
Planescape Torment would have made a great visual novel. I remember loving the characters, dialogue and the intrigue, hated the D&D mechanics constantly distracting me from them. And that was back when I was still in love with D&D!
 

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