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Loops in RPG Adventure and Game Design

Video game designers use two terms worth understanding for all game and adventure designers, "atoms" and "loops". This time I'll talk about loops.


"In Halo 1, there was maybe 30 seconds of fun that happened over and over and over and over again. And so, if you can get 30 seconds of fun, you can pretty much stretch that out to be an entire game." Jaime Griesemer

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. A loop is somewhat like the chorus of a song, or a repeated guitar or piano riff. Many games (especially video games) amount to little more than the core loop. If the core loop isn't enjoyable, the game fails.

A vital question in any RPG campaign is the nature of action in the core loop. Is the core combat or some part of combat? Planning? Social interaction? Politics? Exploration? Something else? If a player doesn't enjoy the core loop, that player isn't likely to stick with the campaign.

If the core loop in your RPG adventures is that players are on the lookout for traps, that's not likely to be enjoyable with most groups. For a hack and slash RPG the core loop is rushing the enemy and chopping them up in melee. I'd guess that's the most common core loop in fantasy RPGs. If your players are primarily interested in story, you probably don't want a core loop that is combat.

A student in one of my Community Education courses said he started playing the online game World of Warcraft (WoW) as soon as it was released. Exploration isn't the core loop in WoW, but he explored EVERYWHERE. When he finally looked behind the last nook, he stopped playing and hasn't played since!

For many groups, of course, a mixture of loops with none dominating can be the most entertaining. And for best pacing, you probably want to emphasize one loop or another from one session or adventure to the next. For example, one adventure might be combat heavy, another might be puzzle heavy, another might consist mostly of talking with and persuading creatures, and so forth.

The most versatile RPG rules sets are going to be ones that quickly enable the GM to run a variety of loops, and adventures where one loop or another is emphasized. Most of us have read RPGs that are all about story, or all about combat (4e D&D?), or even all about politics. These are fine for people who want to focus on that kind of core loop, and not worthwhile for others.

When you design an adventure, or choose a published adventure to run, you'll likely have more fun if you choose one with loops that your players are likely to enjoy. They still have to do whatever-it-is you require for success, but they'll enjoy the journey.

contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

pemerton

Legend
Authors write stories, whether alone or collaboratively.
Authors write stories. Poems. Scripts. Adveristing copy. Scientific reports. Etc etc.

Role-players don't write stories.
Well, collectively they produce stuff which issues in sequences of imaginary events connected by character, time and place (which is a minimal instance of a story). Depending on the techniques used, they may produce such sequences which are stories in more than a minimal sense (ie involve dramatic conflict, rising action, climax and resolution, etc).

There is a simple example found in Book 3 of OD&D, The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures (pp 12-13) - the interaction is between the referee and the party caller:

REF: Steps down to the east.
CAL: We're going down.
REF: 10', 20', 30' - a 10' square landing - steps down to the north and curving down southeast.
CAL: Take those to the southeast​

It's not the most riveting fiction of all time, and I won't quote any more of it, but look at what is actually happening there. First, the referee establishes, as an element in a shared fiction, that the player characters are at the top of steps descending east. The caller then introduces a new element into the fiction - the PCs are descending those steps. The referee elaborates - the descent is 30' before the PCs arrive at a landing where they can see more steps going down. The caller then authors more fiction: the PCs go down the southeast stairs.

Now we can talk about the methods used to generate the shared fiction (eg the referee is probably narrating the architecural details from some pre-written notes and a pre-drawn map; the caller may be consulating with the other players to decide what the PCs do). But discussion of possible methods of authorship doesn't change the fact that what is going on here is the collective authoring of a sequence of fictional events concerning these characters in this place at this time.

The player cannot decide that their character takes any action. The player can only decide that their character wants to take an action, and the actual resolution of that action is left up to the GM. There is a difference, and it is a significant one.
This claim isn't true as a matter of RPGing procedure. Look at the example of play I just gave: the players (or, at least, the caller) decide that their PCs are going downstairs.

Here is another example, from the 5e Basic PDF (p 2):

DM: . . . From atop the high strong walls, stone gargoyles stare at you from hollow sockets and grin hideously. . . .

Phillip (playing Gareth): I want to look at the gargoyles. I have a feeling they’re not just statues. . . .

Dungeon Master (DM): OK, one at a time. Phillip, you’re looking at the gargoyles?

Phillip: Yeah. Is there any hint they might be creatures and not decorations?

DM: Make an Intelligence check.

Phillip: Does my Investigation skill apply?

DM: Sure!

Phillip (rolling a d20): Ugh. Seven.

DM: They look like decorations to you.​

In that example of play, it is Phillip who authored Gareth's investigation of the gargoyles, and Phillip who made it the case (in the fiction) that Gareth was wondering whether or not these statues are merely statutes.
 

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AriochQ

Adventurer
my .02...I tend to refer to RPG sessions as a 'co-construction of reality' between the players and GM. I think the best GM's allow their players to influence the environment. It is never the case that the DM has worked out every single detail of the adventure, and the players often fill in those voids. For example, a critter is attacking a comrade at the bottom of a staircase. The player asks "is there a bannister I can slide down?". The GM probably hadn't considered bannister location in their planning, but agrees there is a 'slidable bannister' in the moment. [You can easily find another example if you are the type of GM that ALWAYS considers bannister location when planning an adventure].

This has two main advantages...1. It fully supports the Rule of Cool. 2. It adds detail to the setting independent of the GM (although they still have final say). The players have 'co-constructed' reality. If the GM were to later write a written account of the session, it would include the character sliding down the bannister to attack the baddie. Although the player obviously controlled the actions of the PC, they also influenced the construction of the campaign setting to some degree.
 

Saelorn

Hero
In that example of play, it is Phillip who authored Gareth's investigation of the gargoyles, and Phillip who made it the case (in the fiction) that Gareth was wondering whether or not these statues are merely statutes.
Phillip tells the DM that Gareth wants to look at the gargoyles, but the DM is the one who actually makes it so (after stopping to confirm that this is what he actually wants to do). It doesn't matter what a player says, until the DM confirms that it is or is not the case.

Phillip doesn't have agency to decide that Gareth actually does anything. The agency of the player (in the real world) is identical to the agency of the character (in the game world) - they may want, decide, or attempt, but it's up to the DM to tell them what they actually do.
 

pemerton

Legend
Phillip tells the DM that Gareth wants to look at the gargoyles, but the DM is the one who actually makes it so (after stopping to confirm that this is what he actually wants to do). It doesn't matter what a player says, until the DM confirms that it is or is not the case.

Phillip doesn't have agency to decide that Gareth actually does anything.
Phillip seems to be permitted to decide what Gareth wants to do, and to decide what Gareth is feeling or wondering. That is authorship of elements of the fiction.

Also, the fact that under certain circumstances the GM can veto Phillip's desired contribution to the fiction doesn't make the GM the author of un-vetoed contributions. To offer a parallel: I have authored elements of co-authored publications. I have not always been the lead author in such cases, meaning that my contributions have been subject to veto or editing by someone else. That doesn't mean that, in choosing not to edit or veto, they nevertheless become the authors of what I wrote. I authored it, proposed it for inclusion, and it was accepted.

Likewise here. Phillip proposes that Gareth looks at the gargoyles. The GM accepts that proposal. The GM didn't author the proposal.
 


Arilyn

Hero
The player cannot decide that their character takes any action. The player can only decide that their character wants to take an action, and the actual resolution of that action is left up to the GM. There is a difference, and it is a significant one.
Spoken like a true meta-gaming troll. You don't get to change any definitions just because they point out how you're the bad guy in all this. Nobody does. If you insist on dragging the RPG hobby through the mud, you should look for a more receptive audience.
Nobody is dragging the RPG hobby through the mud. This is a very interesting thread on loops in RPG design. You have turned it (once again) into your personal crusade against the evils of meta-gaming. Guess what? As people keep telling you over and over again, the hobby supports many styles of play, and that's a good thing. If you don't like games that give players agency, that's fine, but please quit calling fellow players trolls, and quit claiming modern designers are not writing "true" RPGs.
 

Jhaelen

First Post
If you insist on walking down the only path which is explicitly forbidden, then you are the troll who is guilty of one-true-wayism.
Riiight.
You're clearly on a crusade. I don't think there's any point in continuing this line of discussion with you.
 

Saelorn

Hero
Nobody is dragging the RPG hobby through the mud. This is a very interesting thread on loops in RPG design. You have turned it (once again) into your personal crusade against the evils of meta-gaming.
I'm not the one who derailed this thread. I'm the one who tried bringing it back on topic. Blame those despicable meta-gaming trolls for going off-topic.
Riiight.
You're clearly on a crusade. I don't think there's any point in continuing this line of discussion with you.
I will continue to fight for as long as villains stand here and spew their disgusting meta-gaming rhetoric all over the hobby. I'm certainly not going to let those monsters have the last word.
 

Saelorn

Hero
Phillip seems to be permitted to decide what Gareth wants to do, and to decide what Gareth is feeling or wondering. That is authorship of elements of the fiction.
[...]
Likewise here. Phillip proposes that Gareth looks at the gargoyles. The GM accepts that proposal. The GM didn't author the proposal.
Phillip doesn't just decide that Gareth should do a thing, in his capacity as creative-consultant on a work of shared-fiction, and then look toward the DM-as-editor as to whether they're going to move ahead with that. Phillip simply imagines himself to be Gareth, inputs all of the information that Gareth has, and whatever his brain spits out as the next step becomes his best model for what Gareth will try next.

It's a difference between first-person decision-making and third-person decision-making. Role-playing is first-person decision-making. You might be able to argue that Phillip is authoring Gareth's thoughts, if you really wanted to be pedantic about it, but you couldn't argue that he authors any elements of the fiction any more than you could argue that your own thoughts define any element of our reality; the two are directly analogous.
 

pemerton

Legend
Behaviour in the real world is governed by causal laws (plus the exercise of free will, if you believe in such).

The behaviour of a character in a PC is authored. That authorship is an instance of behaviour in the real world (qu [MENTION=99817]chaochou[/MENTION] upthread, pointing out that he plays games in houses, at clubs etc). So whatever causal laws govern the behaviour of a character in a RPG, they are real-world causal laws.

Authoring something by imagining yourself to be someone else is a pretty standard case of authoring.
 

chaochou

Adventurer
You know what's really funny? Is that even though he claims to be defending all that is true and righteous and is the final godlike judge of the only correct way to play - he's completely ignorant of everything pre-1985.

Asked in another thread what he actually considers roleplaying games he said: "You know. The Classics - D&D (2e & 3e). Palladium. Gurps. Shadowrun." ROFL! The classics!

Not only does Saelorn think he defines roleplaying, he wasn't even around when roleplaying was being shaped by OD&D, Tunnels and Trolls, Boot Hill, Empire of the Petal Throne, Traveller, Runequest, AD&D, Call of Cthulhu, Pendragon, Champions. You know, The actual classics. The foundational games of the hobby.

Rabid anti-metagaming certainly isn't a product of any of the original roleplaying games.
 

pemerton

Legend
Not only does Saelorn think he defines roleplaying, he wasn't even around when roleplaying was being shaped by OD&D, Tunnels and Trolls, Boot Hill, Empire of the Petal Throne, Traveller, Runequest, AD&D, Call of Cthulhu, Pendragon, Champions. You know, The actual classics. The foundational games of the hobby.

Rabid anti-metagaming certainly isn't a product of any of the original roleplaying games.
Agreed. What Saelorn sees as "the classics", I think of as a somewhat unhappy period where a style of play I really don't like (ie railroading through a GM's pre-authored story) became the norm.

I like the stuff that came before, and has come since, better.
 

FickleGM

Explorer
I think that many PBtA games are loop-driven, but the loop is an adventure-length loop, rather than a Halo-esque 30-second loop.
 

chaochou

Adventurer
Agreed. What Saelorn sees as "the classics", I think of as a somewhat unhappy period where a style of play I really don't like (ie railroading through a GM's pre-authored story) became the norm.
Yes. I'd say this goes way beyond railroading though. His version doesn't countenance player agency at even a micro level. The quotes are right there:

The player cannot decide that their character takes any action. The player can only decide that their character wants to take an action, and the actual resolution of that action is left up to the GM.
If I deny you any agency, can you even be said to be 'playing' a game in any sense? The answer is no.

You are not a player in any game unless you can affect the gamestate. Saelorn specifically defines roleplaying as an activity in which the 'players' are not allowed to affect the gamestate. It follows that in his neutered version of roleplaying only the GM is ever actually playing.
 

pemerton

Legend
You are not a player in any game unless you can affect the gamestate. Saelorn specifically defines roleplaying as an activity in which the 'players' are not allowed to affect the gamestate. It follows that in his neutered version of roleplaying only the GM is ever actually playing.
So the players are kibitzing on the GM's game?

One issue here is what is meant by action declaration - I think the idea that "players can only say what their PCs want" is ambiguous over possible meanings of action declaration.

Thinking first from the perspective of the fiction, (A) one meaning of action declaration is "My character wants to do this". So all the changes in the fiction is my character's inner state (desires).

Another meaning of action declaration is (B) "My character tries to do this" - so the player's declaration of an action brings about changes in the fiction (eg my PC's body is moving, so other stuff is being affected by it - we need to look to the resolution process to learn exactly what and how)

There are also multiple meanings from the mechancial point of view:

(1) Does declaring an action for my PC trigger a resolution process which I, as a player, get to participate in?

(2) Does declaring an action for my PC do nothing but oblige the GM to possibly think about what might result?

These two dimensions are largely independent, I think, so you can have A1: action declaration doesn't change much about the fiction, but activates a resolution mechanic to find out what happens. This feels rather weak, because it's close to "fortune at the beginning" (The World, The Flesh and The Devil, maybe?). Not much sense of "inhabitation" of the PC - more like being a spectator.

A2 - when I declare an action, even whether or not my PC's body moves in response to that desire is up to the GM. That seems like the ultimate in "RPGing as kibitzing".

B2 - I suspect this is how most of those who have preferences similar to [MENTION=6775031]Saelorn[/MENTION]'s play their games: action declaration has very modest effects on the fiction, very "local" to the body and immediate surrounds of the PC, and then the GM mediates the rest.

B1 - This is something like 4e, Burning Wheel or Traveller as I understand it - declaring an action means that my PC is doing something in the fiction, hoping to achieve some outcome, and we use the appropriate mechanics to work out what that is.

It's probably pretty obvious that I prefer B1.
 


chaochou

Adventurer
So the players are kibitzing on the GM's game?
One issue here is what is meant by action declaration - I think the idea that "players can only say what their PCs want" is ambiguous over possible meanings of action declaration.
I agree that there can be many processes used for action resolution. But Saelorn's position is unambigious. The players get to do nothing beyond give the GM their ideas and suggestions. The GM then plays, using or ignoring action resolution mechanics, inventing new ones, or simply deciding outcomes.

Thinking first from the perspective of the fiction, (A) one meaning of action declaration is "My character wants to do this". So all the changes in the fiction is my character's inner state (desires).

Another meaning of action declaration is (B) "My character tries to do this" - so the player's declaration of an action brings about changes in the fiction (eg my PC's body is moving, so other stuff is being affected by it - we need to look to the resolution process to learn exactly what and how)
I think there's a danger here, in that postulating this kind of granularity helps create the illusion of agency which doesn't exist. In fact, I'd go further and say that GM controlled, zero player agency games rely exactly on the illusion of agency provided by (B) in order to be accepted by the players.

For instance:
Player: I walk across the room
GM: You fall down a pit and break your arm

The change in gamestate is discrete - from person in a room to person in a pit with a broken arm. The fact that you can momentarily imagine the walking and falling didn't give you agency, although the illusion is strong enough that people will argue otherwise.

The illusion is broken when you understand the GM, in Saelorn's game, can say anything. Your feet are stuck to the floor. You explode. You fall asleep. You're sucked into a mirror. You spin round three times and end up in Kansas.

All the play - the changes in gamestate - are on the GM side. What the players do is ask the GM to read them a bit more story.

(1) Does declaring an action for my PC trigger a resolution process which I, as a player, get to participate in?

(2) Does declaring an action for my PC do nothing but oblige the GM to possibly think about what might result?
In (1) I think 'participation' is weaker than 'play'! I say that to be a player you have to have the ability to change the gamestate. I could be playing a game and ask a passer-by the roll the dice for me and they have now participated. But did they get any say in why we rolled the dice or what the outcomes mean?

You know as well as me that games designed to offer player agency provide transparency in resolution (so the stakes and outcomes are defined) and make it clear that the MC / narrator / DM is just as bound by the action resolution process as the player(s).

In any event, we can see from Saelorn's posts ('actual resolution is left up to the GM') that he doesn't just believe (2) but discounts anyone else's right to do otherwise and still call it roleplaying.
 

pemerton

Legend
[MENTION=99817]chaochou[/MENTION], good post, some thoughts that were prompted by reading it:

GM controlled, zero player agency games rely exactly on the illusion of agency provided by (B) in order to be accepted by the players.

For instance:
Player: I walk across the room
GM: You fall down a pit and break your arm

The change in gamestate is discrete - from person in a room to person in a pit with a broken arm. The fact that you can momentarily imagine the walking and falling didn't give you agency, although the illusion is strong enough that people will argue otherwise.

The illusion is broken when you understand the GM, in Saelorn's game, can say anything. Your feet are stuck to the floor. You explode. You fall asleep. You're sucked into a mirror. You spin round three times and end up in Kansas.

All the play - the changes in gamestate - are on the GM side. What the players do is ask the GM to read them a bit more story.

<snip>

to be a player you have to have the ability to change the gamestate.
This - or something in the neighbourhood of this - seems to get to the heart of classic D&D/OSR-type RPGing, and why it falls apart as the game moves into the 2nd ed AD&D era and beyond.

For that sort of RPGing to work, these changes in gamestate (1) have to be pre-given, and (2) have to be knowable by the players.

(1) is (meant to) be achieved by a combination of (a) pre-authored GM notes on the dungeon (that mention the pits, the secret doors, etc) and (b) generic resolution systems. An example of (b) is provided by the rather elaborate rules for evasion and pursuit found in Gygax's DMG.

(2) is (meant to) be achieved by a mixture of mechanics (everyone knows you can search for secret doors, with a default 1 in 6 chance of finding one if it's there) and unmediated fiction (there are 10' poles on the equipment list; you can capture an orc and use ESP to learn the layout of the dungeon).

If there is a breakdown in either (1) or (2), the players can't change the gamestate. (1) can breakdown even in a dungeon - eg the GM places a clue that the treasure is in the room with the red ceiling, but then forgets to note the ceiling colours in his/her dungeon key; as a result, when the players start trying to collect information about ceiling colours the GM has to just make it up.

(1) really starts to creak in classic D&D wilderness adventuring - Luke Crane has commented on this, in the context of playing Moldvay Basic:

I'm nervous about the transition to the wilderness style of adventure, since the beautiful economy of Moldvay's basic rules are rapidly undermined by the poorly implemented ideas of the Expert set. . . .

[W]hile the original designers may have wanted an inclusive and expansive design, their best rules focused on underground exploration and stealing treasure. . . .

The Basic D&D line is a product line. As you know, each successive product attempted to reintegrate into the game the features [eg wilderness adventuring, aerial and naval combat] present in the earliest editions. My assertion is that none of those rules were as well-designed or well-supported as those for the core activity of dungeon crawling. . . .

I understand that the designers may have thought their game could do anything. I understand they may have wanted to bend it to a variety of circumstances, but in truth their design had narrow application. It does most things poorly, and a few things exceedingly well​

Wilderness adventuring, even in the ecologically and culturally sparse wildernesses of classic D&D, makes (1) virtually impossible, and the random tables that are substituted in make (2) almost impossible on the (non-GM) player side. Once we get to the "living, breathing worlds" beloved of 2nd ed-era D&D players, (1) and (2) are both gone completely, and the sort of situation you decribe becomes more and more common. Even when the game itself is confined to a pre-authored dungeon, the sorts of devices (like swords and wands with detection powers) that used to underpin (2) have been dropped from the game; and that's even before we get to the advocacy of GM fiat to manage outcomes and prevent the players "running roughshod" over the campaign world (as seen eg in the discussion of the infamous chamberlain on these boards, back in the day).
 


pemerton

Legend
Has there been any boardgames/tabletop rpgs that have been able to do this well ? Looping a story I mean.
I'm not 100% sure what you mean by "story" here, but there are plenty of RPGs that have "story" - in the sense of situation informed by dramatic need => crisis/conflict => resolution that engenders new situation, etc.

Burning Wheel is the RPG I know best that works in this way.
 

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