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

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.
Like pregenerated quests that can turn into a story. I agree the Burning wheel is amazing.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
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.
Using old D&D as an example (simply for the sake of a convenient reference), the player can never declare an action and have it resolve immediately without DM oversight, because the player doesn't know everything that the DM knows which might prevent that from happening. Even something as simple as walking across a room to examine a statue, there might be an invisible wall in the way or the PC could be magically held in place or there might be a sniper down the hallway poised to fire as soon as you're halfway across the room. Sure, most of the time when you want to walk across a room, the DM just agrees that it happens; the player isn't the one who needs to worry about any of those things, unless they actually show up.

The DM isn't a god (malevolent or otherwise) set out to oppose the PCs, and they aren't a frustrated novelist trying to corral the players through a story they want to tell. The DM is merely the interpreter for the natural laws which govern the setting, by whose efforts the players can spend their thoughts happily immersed in the roles of their characters, without having to hop back and forth from the perspective of the character within the world to the perspective of a contributing writer at the table. That is to say, the DM is the one doing all of the heavy lifting so that the players are able to spend the whole game actually role-playing.
 

innerdude

Adventurer
So this is a really interesting topic, especially considering what happened with our group recently. After 15 months of being a player in a mostly-okay-but-somewhat-uneven Shaintar campaign in Savage Worlds, I went back behind the GM screen for a bit, and after some deft persuasion, convinced my group to try Dungeon World.

I was verrrrry excited for this change. I'd done a great deal of research, watched playthroughs on YouTube, read the rules multiple times, asked questions on these boards and got some very good, clarifying answers. If I was still a little nervous, I was confident that I had a good enough handle on the rules to make a decent show of it.

And the first two sessions or so, I was quite pleased with the results. The players were engaging with the fiction, were genuinely considering what was going on around them, were using the basic system "moves" well.

But over the period of four more sessions, my enthusiasm slowly waned. Over time I noticed that the players became increasingly less engaged, and I couldn't put my finger on why. Was I not giving them high enough stakes to pursue? Was I railroading? I hoped not---I was anxiously trying to follow the Dungeon World ethos of "play to see what happens", but that was something I've tried to do for the past four or five years as a GM anyway.

Eventually what it came down to as players is that they didn't feel there was enough "game" in the game. There wasn't enough guidance, or structure in the rules for their characters. They were never really sure what they could do in a given circumstance. Why did failing a "volley" move as an archer mean that the character lost his footing? Why didn't the rules specifically outline what the ranger's animal companion could or couldn't do?

(As a side note, the player in question said outright, "What do you mean there's no rules for what happens when I say I want to send my hunting dog off to fight an orc by itself?" The result was that even in one of the most simple rules systems devised, there was an argument about how to mechanically resolve animal companion actions. Every . . . single . . . time I've allowed animal companions in a game, there's been a lengthy, half-session or longer argument over what the animal companion can actually do or not do.)

The bottom line was, they just wanted more from the system. They wanted more structure. In some ways they felt more free to make decisions when there were more "hard" restrictions on their character's actions. It was weird to see, but in some ways they needed the character structure not just to know what their characters could do, but what they couldn't. In Savage Worlds the action was more engaging for them, because they had a better sense for who their characters were when filtered through mechanics into the input/output of the fiction.

So I'm wondering where the inherent Dungeon World loop went wrong---

1) Ask your players/characters, "What do you do?"
2) Determine based on the shared fiction if what they're trying to do is plausible/makes sense
3) Decide if the intent of their action declaration triggers a move.
4a) If yes, resolve the move
4b) If no, allow the character to succeed and move forward
5) Reset the fictional state based on the result

It sounds like the classic feedback loop we're all familiar with, yet it was leading to weak, unfulfilling, uninspired gameplay moments.
 

Arilyn

Hero
So this is a really interesting topic, especially considering what happened with our group recently. After 15 months of being a player in a mostly-okay-but-somewhat-uneven Shaintar campaign in Savage Worlds, I went back behind the GM screen for a bit, and after some deft persuasion, convinced my group to try Dungeon World.

I was verrrrry excited for this change. I'd done a great deal of research, watched playthroughs on YouTube, read the rules multiple times, asked questions on these boards and got some very good, clarifying answers. If I was still a little nervous, I was confident that I had a good enough handle on the rules to make a decent show of it.

And the first two sessions or so, I was quite pleased with the results. The players were engaging with the fiction, were genuinely considering what was going on around them, were using the basic system "moves" well.

But over the period of four more sessions, my enthusiasm slowly waned. Over time I noticed that the players became increasingly less engaged, and I couldn't put my finger on why. Was I not giving them high enough stakes to pursue? Was I railroading? I hoped not---I was anxiously trying to follow the Dungeon World ethos of "play to see what happens", but that was something I've tried to do for the past four or five years as a GM anyway.

Eventually what it came down to as players is that they didn't feel there was enough "game" in the game. There wasn't enough guidance, or structure in the rules for their characters. They were never really sure what they could do in a given circumstance. Why did failing a "volley" move as an archer mean that the character lost his footing? Why didn't the rules specifically outline what the ranger's animal companion could or couldn't do?

(As a side note, the player in question said outright, "What do you mean there's no rules for what happens when I say I want to send my hunting dog off to fight an orc by itself?" The result was that even in one of the most simple rules systems devised, there was an argument about how to mechanically resolve animal companion actions. Every . . . single . . . time I've allowed animal companions in a game, there's been a lengthy, half-session or longer argument over what the animal companion can actually do or not do.)

The bottom line was, they just wanted more from the system. They wanted more structure. In some ways they felt more free to make decisions when there were more "hard" restrictions on their character's actions. It was weird to see, but in some ways they needed the character structure not just to know what their characters could do, but what they couldn't. In Savage Worlds the action was more engaging for them, because they had a better sense for who their characters were when filtered through mechanics into the input/output of the fiction.

So I'm wondering where the inherent Dungeon World loop went wrong---

1) Ask your players/characters, "What do you do?"
2) Determine based on the shared fiction if what they're trying to do is plausible/makes sense
3) Decide if the intent of their action declaration triggers a move.
4a) If yes, resolve the move
4b) If no, allow the character to succeed and move forward
5) Reset the fictional state based on the result

It sounds like the classic feedback loop we're all familiar with, yet it was leading to weak, unfulfilling, uninspired gameplay moments.
Okay, I haven't played a lot of Dungeonworld, but the system is really popular and many players swear by it. It may just not be a good fit for your table. The little experience I have had with the game led to strong stories. I can't get into Savage Worlds, but it's not the system, just doesn't work for me.
 

innerdude

Adventurer
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.

I think there's a danger here, in that postulating this kind of granularity helps create the illusion of agency which doesn't exist.

**snip**

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.
Well, it's funny, because unless I was completely mis-interpreting what was happening, this is how my players felt playing Dungeon World. Here I was, trying to go completely out of my way to give them more creative freedom with their characters, more creative control, more opportunities to create and interact with the fiction, play a "Say yes or roll the dice" kind of game . . . and it ended up being the opposite. They could never decide what to do, because the rules simply didn't give them enough concrete/discrete information about the material effects mechanically.

So in the end, it did start to feel like it was me, the GM, playing fiat all the time.

Me, to Player 1: "Ummm, okay, you partially succeeded at your volley, so you do damage, but now [insert hard choice or tough circumstance].

Player: "Wait, what? It wasn't like that a second ago, what the heck's going on?"

Me, to Player 2: "Okay, while Player 1 was shooting, your failed Discern Realities move from earlier comes back to haunt you. Some orcs are coming through the trees and they're now attacking, tossing spears in your direction. What do you do?"

Player 2: "Wait, no! My character totally would have been aware of that! You're telling me all of that happened based off one failed Discern Realities? Come on, of course my character would have noticed! I fundamentally disagree with the premise of what's happening here."

Me: "I'm just trying to represent the real state of the fiction, as interpreted by your successes/partial successes/failures on your triggered moves."

I'm freely willing to admit I may simply not have been GM-ing correctly, but despite Dungeon World's proclamations to the contrary, my players felt that the locus of control had radically shifted into the GM's hands, and they were simply playing along.

The one who struggled with it the most was the player with the extensive World of Warcraft background. Like, this guy has at least ten or eleven different level 80 characters, he's logged 5k+ plus hours on it. He has always struggled to some degree with pen-and-paper RPGs because he gets the idea in his head that there's always some button to push, some ability, some counter-move he can make that will help him avoid damage, negate an imminent threat, etc. For that reason, Dungeon World did not sit particularly well with him.
 
Last edited by a moderator:

chaochou

Adventurer
I'm freely willing to admit I may simply not have been GM-ing correctly...
That happens. I messed up a lot of games unlearning techniques I no longer wished to employ while GMing.

But let's assume, given sound intentions and a solid understanding of the game, its design intent and principles, that you were GMing just fine.

... but despite Dungeon World's proclamations to the contrary, my players felt that the locus of control had radically shifted into the GM's hands, and they were simply playing along.
Lots of players want their RPGs to be competence ego-boosts. Spot the 'right' thing, get rewarded. Pick the 'right' feat combo, get rewarded. Pick the 'right' spell load out, get rewarded. Spot the optimal build / equipment combo, get rewarded.

'Character' is just a silly voice and bit of empty banter with the mission-of-the-week patron and obviously telegraphed 'important NPC' informant - or in WoW, completely non-existent. Equally important, the subtext is that there is a 'right' thing. That the mission is pre-determined (by the GM or programmer) and the players' job is to exploit the available micro-mechanics to ensure optimal performance in a series of tightly constrained challenges.

Usually that is an utterly anodyne combat model in which fatigue, fear, pain and memory are surgically removed from the human experience. Real combat is petrifying, brutal, mind-shattering, facts which are conveniently ignored by players who imagine that heroism means not being affected by such things, instead of seeing heroism as accepting and dealing with such things.

These players are going to hate Dungeon World, or similar games in the genre like Burning Wheel or Apocalyse World - which can be harsher still. Such games aren't there to showcase competence. They ask you to reveal your character's emotions, desires, fears and failings through hard decisions, which get harder as the walls close in. They ask you to struggle and show what happens when that struggle becomes critical.

My current group wanted more player freedom and it still took maybe two or three years and three or four different games for them to unlearn 30 years of play and understand how to create characters with dramatic needs and play them with conviction.
 

pemerton

Legend
Lots of players want their RPGs to be competence ego-boosts. Spot the 'right' thing, get rewarded. Pick the 'right' feat combo, get rewarded. Pick the 'right' spell load out, get rewarded. Spot the optimal build / equipment combo, get rewarded.

<snip>

the subtext is that there is a 'right' thing. That the mission is pre-determined (by the GM or programmer) and the players' job is to exploit the available micro-mechanics to ensure optimal performance in a series of tightly constrained challenges.

Usually that is an utterly anodyne combat model
In a thread last year I called this the "sudoku" model of RPGing.

I think at it's best (White Plume Mountain; perhaps Tomb of Horrors though personally I'm not sure I see it; Keep on the Borderlands as reported by Luke Crane's actual play posts), challenge-based play goes beyond "sudoku" because (i) there may be no single "right" answer, and (ii) any "right" answer isn't just mathematical/mechanical manipulation, but requires somehow engaging the fiction (my poster example for this is surfing the doors over the tetanus pits in WPM's frictionless corridor).

But a lot of D&D play seems to not involve this sort of engagement with the fiction, and to just be "sudoku" - mathematical/mechanical optimisation within a challenge framework that has no non-mathematical/mechanical parameters.

These players are going to hate Dungeon World, or similar games in the genre like Burning Wheel or Apocalyse World - which can be harsher still. Such games aren't there to showcase competence. They ask you to reveal your character's emotions, desires, fears and failings through hard decisions, which get harder as the walls close in. They ask you to struggle and show what happens when that struggle becomes critical.
Burning Wheel is pretty brutal, I think. That's why I always laugh at posters who equate "fail forward" with "you never fail"! - they're obviously playing some bowdlerised game in which "failure" equals "succeed what you want but also suffer some modest cost or resource consumption".

But another reason I think BW, DW etc can be hard is because the players have to supply characters with commitments/concerns/motivations beyond "I want to win at this combat the GM has framed for me". There has to be some sort of non-challenge-related engagement with the fictional situation. That's not a side show, or mere characterisation ("I turn the undead . . . with my symbol of Bahamut!"). It's at the centre of the game.

In some ways this is the same issue Traveller was often reported to have back in the day - whereas D&D games defaulted to "raid the dungeon", Traveller had no "default" challenge-mode (be it sudoku, or richer in its engagement with the fiction). The players have to actually engage with the fiction; and the GM has to put forward a fiction that will engage at the character/thematic level and not just the mechanical/mathematical level.

Well, it's funny, because unless I was completely mis-interpreting what was happening, this is how my players felt playing Dungeon World. Here I was, trying to go completely out of my way to give them more creative freedom with their characters, more creative control, more opportunities to create and interact with the fiction, play a "Say yes or roll the dice" kind of game . . . and it ended up being the opposite. They could never decide what to do, because the rules simply didn't give them enough concrete/discrete information about the material effects mechanically.

So in the end, it did start to feel like it was me, the GM, playing fiat all the time.

Me, to Player 1: "Ummm, okay, you partially succeeded at your volley, so you do damage, but now [insert hard choice or tough circumstance].

Player: "Wait, what? It wasn't like that a second ago, what the heck's going on?"

Me, to Player 2: "Okay, while Player 1 was shooting, your failed Discern Realities move from earlier comes back to haunt you. Some orcs are coming through the trees and they're now attacking, tossing spears in your direction. What do you do?"

Player 2: "Wait, no! My character totally would have been aware of that! You're telling me all of that happened based off one failed Discern Realities? Come on, of course my character would have noticed! I fundamentally disagree with the premise of what's happening here."

Me: "I'm just trying to represent the real state of the fiction, as interpreted by your successes/partial successes/failures on your triggered moves."

I'm freely willing to admit I may simply not have been GM-ing correctly, but despite Dungeon World's proclamations to the contrary, my players felt that the locus of control had radically shifted into the GM's hands, and they were simply playing along.
Two thoughts.

(1) It sounds like your players may not have been engaging with the fiction at that character/thematic level.

(2) Obviously from your post I can't say anything very concrete about your game or your GMing - but your example makes it seem like the attempt to connect the failed Discern Realities to the failed Volley didn't work. The players couldn't see, or weren't invested, in how past failures could come back now to bite them. That may be an issue with your players; in which case perhaps there's nothing you can do about it.

But if you want to think about it from your GM-side of things: is there more you could do to identify the dramatic needs of your players' PCs, and to make sure that you bring those into your resolution as much as possible? The idea (at least as I see it - admittedly I'm bringing in sensibilities learned from Burning Wheel and The Forge, rather than DW itself) is that when a player fails "Discern Realities", the players look at one another and say "Bugger, now innerdude is going to hit us with the . . . [pursuing orcs? whatever is salient given the state of the game and the evinced concerns of the players and their PCs] . . . Get ready for it." And then when the Volley check fails, they say "Bad shot! For sure some pursuing orc will have noticed that misfired arrow, and used it to work out our position." So then, when you tell them "The orcs crest the ridge, throwing spears" the players don't complain - they groan "OK, here they are . . ." and gird their loins for the coming battle.
 

innerdude

Adventurer
Lots of players want their RPGs to be competence ego-boosts. Spot the 'right' thing, get rewarded. Pick the 'right' feat combo, get rewarded. Pick the 'right' spell load out, get rewarded. Spot the optimal build / equipment combo, get rewarded.

'Character' is just a silly voice and bit of empty banter with the mission-of-the-week patron and obviously telegraphed 'important NPC' informant - or in WoW, completely non-existent. Equally important, the subtext is that there is a 'right' thing. That the mission is pre-determined (by the GM or programmer) and the players' job is to exploit the available micro-mechanics to ensure optimal performance in a series of tightly constrained challenges.

***snip***

These players are going to hate Dungeon World, or similar games in the genre like Burning Wheel or Apocalyse World - which can be harsher still. Such games aren't there to showcase competence. They ask you to reveal your character's emotions, desires, fears and failings through hard decisions, which get harder as the walls close in. They ask you to struggle and show what happens when that struggle becomes critical.
What in the . . . how did you . . . holy cow, in four paragraphs you've summed up my friend's gamestyle so perfectly, it's as if you were sitting there watching our group. Even to the "silly voice" assertion. His last character? The most stereotypical dwarf fighter known to man, right down to the faux-Scottish accent.

This bit too rings especially true:

the players' job is to exploit the available micro-mechanics to ensure optimal performance in a series of tightly constrained challenges.
Of all the players in our group, he is BY FAR the one most likely to call 'foul' when the GM does something that changes the fiction that reveals some weakness in his character. He very much demands that his character is in control, that all challenges should be tailored to his character's strengths. Anything that intimates that he did something "wrong," or calls his competence as a player into question by bypassing his character build (skills, edges/feats, abilities), is seen as diminishing his fun.

And it's not that he's a bad guy, or even consciously states it in these terms, it's just his natural inclination. Your insight, [MENTION=99817]chaochou[/MENTION], is spot on. This is very much a learned mindset garnered over thousands of hours of World of Warcraft play.

My current group wanted more player freedom and it still took maybe two or three years and three or four different games for them to unlearn 30 years of play and understand how to create characters with dramatic needs and play them with conviction.
And this sums up what I'm now looking for in my RPG play. I dropped D&D five years ago and have never looked back, to the point now where I wonder why I even hang on to what little material I have for it. I may play in a D&D/d20 system again at some point, but I KNOW I will literally never run it again.

Savage Worlds has been a great "mid-point", with its added flexibility and freedom of character building, and it's a breeze to GM. But it's still very much a "traditional" RPG, in the sense of the gamist/player reward cycle that is the hallmark of AD&D. If it's traditional, gamist, action-oriented RPG play I'm looking for, Savage Worlds is by far the best representation of that style of play I've tried, but at some point I'm hoping I can get my group to really---REALLY---try something different. Before my foray into Dungeon World, I seriously considered doing Burning Wheel instead, but for at least two of the players, I knew it would be a bridge too far.

I think I may just need to realize that my group really is a "traditionalist" group at heart. Ah me. Such is life. :)
 

chaochou

Adventurer
I think I may just need to realize that my group really is a "traditionalist" group at heart. Ah me. Such is life. :)
I don't know your players, so I wouldn't like to say. You could be right.

But you might also want to try again with something different from Dungeon World. I actually think the two big 'crossover' games - Dungeon World and FATE - are also among the hardest to play well. Not so easy to run either, but definitely hard to play.

Dungeon World, for example, started as a hack of Apocalypse World - so at it's very core is the assumption that you know and are familiar with all the procedure and principles in that game. The 'how to play' stuff in DW is, with all respect to Sage LaTorra, something of a pale imitation of the original. For example, here's Vincent Baker explaining one of many things to do when running Apocalypse World:

"Leave yourself things to wonder about. You'll know it when it happens. A player will say something and you'll be like, hey wait, there are fish swimming down there. So you'll ask and the player will answer, but you'll be like 'I don't think that's the fish I'm after. The fish I'm after is still down there, deeper than I thought and bigger than I thought'.

"Sometimes it'll happen with one of your own NPCs. You'll be talking along and you'll be like, hold on, this guy Scrimp is a weasel but he isn't afraid of Marie, like at all. How can that be?

"You don't need an explanation. Don't look too deep - this is just session one. Back away and make a note under 'I wonder...'. Don't explain everything."

All that advice, central to the Apocalypse Engine and written with urgency and personality, gets cut from a lot of the hacks, or watered down to something tame and generic. The moves are far more bland as well. For example - Discern Realities says 'when you closely study a situation or person...' whereas AW has Read a Sitch (when you read a charged situation) or read a person (in a charged situation). In other words Apoc World assumes you are acting in tense, difficult circumstances. The ethos 'why would we need a roll otherwise?' is built in.

I honestly think ultimately the game you're looking for is Burning Wheel. It invites players to optimise, and can withstand it and still draw the players into caring and fighting for more than the numbers on the sheet.

But, you may want some more stepping stones to get there. FATE is difficult and yet worth the struggle, and Blades in the Dark may work well too. The aim is to see if your players can learn to accept failing at stuff as a major source of complication (and therefore fun for them, if not their character) and if they are willing to invest more of themselves and their emotion than just a voiceover (as @pemerton alluded to in a post above). Don't mess up the game you're trying to get to on these experiments!
 
Last edited by a moderator:

In Our Store!

Advertisement

Advertisement

Top