Worlds of Design: What’s Your Objective?

What is a game designer’s objective? Yes, to design a game (determine how it works, and specify the rules), but what is that game supposed to actually DO for the players?

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Good design is like a refrigerator — when it works, no one notices, but when it doesn’t, it sure stinks.” — Irene Au

The Basics of Game Design​

Paraphrased from my book Game Design (McFarland 2012):
A game designer conceives the framework for a series of interesting challenges in the form of a "game", devises mechanics (rules), creates (or communicates with others to help create) a working prototype, and repetitively and incrementally modifies the design (and prototype) in the light of playtesting, communicating these changes to those who actually produce the game, and monitoring the success or failure of those changes, until it is a good game for the target audience - or until the deadline is reached and the game must be released! (This applies to all kinds of games, especially video games, including role-playing games.)
That’s my formal definition, but there’s more to it than that. What is a game designer’s job? Gil Hova is a well-known board game designer and self-publisher:
It's not a game designer's job to tell a story. Well, not directly, anyway. Rather, it's a game designer's job to create a system capable of telling stories that are always compelling, but not always the same.
I only partially agree with Hova. In my view, it's a game designer's job to enable players to tell a variety of stories through the game, that are compelling to the participants, and might be compelling to others (but often aren't). In other words, I'm more player-centric than Hova’s statement might indicate.

"Not always the same" is certainly true. Games should have enough variety (and, we hope, depth) to be played many times. Yet "Multiple Paths to Victory", in parallel competition games, tell the same stories again and again because a few solutions are built into the game. That's one of several reasons why most new board games are played only one to three times by a person before they move on to another game. (This “play-a-few-times-and-move-on” may also be happening in RPGs, though not necessarily because of sameness. RPGs provide the opposite of the same thing over and over.)

Must Everyone Feel Good in the End?​

Let’s consider a different aspect of design objectives. Is game design supposed to make people feel clever? Make sure everyone has a good time? Make everyone feel like a star? These are common notions in RPGs.

Should designers figuratively hold the hands of players? Reward them for participation? These are common notions in video games.

If you want to do what I’ve listed in the previous two paragraphs, okay. It’s hard to do for board games, but easier with RPGs (especially where there’s a GM). Or, you can design for a more active rather than passive player, for someone interested in an intellectual exercise rather than an easy way to pass the time/amuse yourself.

Attitudes of game players differ. Those who have come into gaming later in their life may have different points of view than those who started gaming when they were small children. Those who have joined the hobby in the past, say, 20 years may have different preferences than those who joined earlier. Some do not want handholding, some don’t feel a need to be clever, and so on.

“Struggle”​

Greg Costikyan (well-known for both board and video game design) is quoted as saying "A game without struggle is a game that's dead." I might substitute "direct competition" for struggle in many cases, but I have to agree.

Can you have a game where everyone will have a good time all the time, yet there's struggle? Perhaps in a co-operative game, but not other games. You can devise pastimes without struggle, but they're not hobby games any more, to me.

Once again, RPGs, because they are (usually) co-operative, can come closer to providing a struggle without requiring there to be a “loser”. The players are not playing against the GM, the GM is more or less neutral. (I’ve heard of adversarial relationships between players and GM, but I don’t understand it; any GM can massacre any party of adventurers, if desired.)

Co-operative Games​

My recent board game designs are often co-operative games. You can have a struggle (against the game, or against a GM) in a game where players aren’t competing with each other. I’ve said many times that RPGs in general, and AD&D in particular, are the most naturally co-operative games. That requires a group rather than individual orientation from the players, quite different from a competitive game.

Whose Story?​

A key in this discussion is that the stories coming out of games do not need to be the kind of formal story that other people will enjoy, as long as the story is engaging for the participants. Games involve participation of the consumers of the “story,” where other forms of story are made for passive consumers.

Your turn: When you run an RPG, are you aiming for a particular kind of outcome?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Your turn: When you run an RPG, are you aiming for a particular kind of outcome?
I tend to run games where the players have to struggle. Overcoming the challenges help create a fun of accomplishment. Many of our combat sessions are more technical, and there is players may get annoyed, disappointed, and upset depending on how things go down. But that's all part of making making success more enjoyable.

As I DM, I have to basically split into two main personalities. One is the game referee where I try to keep the game fair and engaging. But my other personality is adversarial. Where I have to play the antagonists as if they would like to win. Obviously, that means role playing the enemy NPCs to build a sense of conflict and threat. But even in the metagame, as a DM, I like to goad my players, express pleasure when my enemy NPCs get in a good hit, and express displeasure when they die. I think the metagaming trash talking helps build the in-game sense of conflict and danger.

It wouldn't work with all groups and antagonistic DMs are the topics of many bad-DM stories, but when used with restrain, balanced by an overall goal of fairness and wanting the entire table to enjoy the game it can make the game more engaging and help the players gel into a party.

In short, the underlying goal is to help everyone find enjoyment by struggling to overcome challenges.
The hammed-up spoken goal is: to kill all the PCs.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I still hold to my "game purposes" concept, noting in advance that my list is NOT claiming to be comprehensive, just useful. To design a roleplaying game, you must define a proverbial range or space of interest (some property or state or action worthy of pursuit), and a method by which that may be tested, evaluated, or compared. For every TTRPG I've ever been exposed to, at least one (often multiple) of the following game-(design-)purposes applies:
  • Score & Achievement
    The classic, oldest, and most widely-used purpose, which has given it outsized influence over the hobby. The premise is simple: "Score" is the tool for evaluation, giving a (semi-)objective measure of how strong/successful/effective one or more players is, and Achievement is the act or process of proving that you are up for the challenge. In Forge circles, the phrase "step up to the plate" often appears around this notion. That is, you are challenged with a difficult task, to see if you can actually earn the Score that will give you the Achievement. This is also what leads directly to things like an opposition to "Monty Haul" gaming (having a "hollow" Score and thus invalidating the Achievements associated with it), a focus on some form of "fairness" (but different sets of players define this wildly differently: both "old school" and 4e D&D players care about some kind of fairness, but define it in very different ways), and most but not all forms of competitive gaming within the nominally cooperative TTRPG space (the few other forms will come up in the next bullet point.) S&A play often involves grappling with rules, though those rules may not necessarily be written down; the infamous "Tucker's Kobolds" are an example of breaking some of the unwritten assumptions about how creatures will behave, and in so doing radically increasing the Achievement conferred by defeating them, even though their written statistics remain unchanged. Such situations often shift the Score from being more tactile (identifiable tools used cleverly) to more abstract (cleverness displayed through finding or inventing new and unexpected tools), but still preserve the focus on objectively "earning" a victory by overcoming an obstacle.
  • Groundedness & Simulation
    Newer than the previous but still older, this game-(design-)purpose got a LOT of attention in the late 90s and especially the early 2000s. "Simulation," here, refers to what is sometimes called "process sim": the world is one massive proverbial engine, a model of a fictional space, which advances forward based on the state of that space and defined rules for how it should advance. (This is why some folks call this "rules as physics," but I don't care for that term myself, as it has incorrect implications.) "Groundedness" is how you establish the "rules" for reasoning within the simulated space, how you set things up so that the players can predict what the world-space will become in the future. G&S design puts huge value on maintaining what I call "intuitive, naturalistic reasoning." That is, a person can, by applying what they "already know" about our physical world, and the small handful of exceptions allowed for fantastical stuff (aka the new Grounded foundation), usually make useful and productive predictions about how things will change in response to an event. This is usually the players' choices, but it can also be predicting how the world will change after an opponent acts. Often, this game-purpose prioritizes the ability to see the causal chain over other concerns, so it doesn't really matter if things are unbalanced or tactically stupid (S&A concerns), nor that any particular meaning arise from the process of play beyond ticking the world forward to its new state (narrative is the concern of thr next two purposes.) What matters is that the world makes sense if you have enough information about it, and the world is predictable and controllable to the extent that you have power to influence it.
  • Conceit & Emulation
    First real newcomer on the block (since S&A was the hobby's root and G&S appeared almost immediately after the hobby escaped Gygax's direct teaching-lineage.) This is about story understood as examining theme and exploring the implications thereof. That's what the Conceit is: the core premise that drives play. There were pretty early manifestations of this even in D&D, with players wanting to (effectively) re-enact their favorite fantasy literature, often Tolkien, but it really takes off with games like Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: the Apocalypse. These games articulate a clear and consistent Conceit that undergirds every other part of their design: very briefly, "human sanity and weakness vs monstrous power and corruption" for the former, "human connection and corruption vs spiritual purity and rage" for the latter. This Conceit is then allowed to play out, and the players stick to what conventions are necessary for making it work, even if that necessarily results in doing tactically unwise (against S&A) or "unrealistic" (against G&S) things. "Superheroes" is a typical example given here, because it has such a clear and well-known Conceit, and because the Emulation thereof often requires things like ignoring the fragility of the mundane humans that interact with said supers, or not revealing your enemy's secret identity, or intentionally holding back rather than going all out to defeat your opponents (see: Superman's "World of Cardboard" speech.) But even bog-standard D&D can have the Conceit of "adventuresome heroes," with Dragonlance perhaps being the poster child thereof, and thus the demands of Emulation may require that character death isn't permanent because that would ruin the Conceit (even as both G&S and S&A fans grumble about the costs of doing so.)
  • Values & Issues
    The true young buck, Values & Issues (sometimes called "Story Now") is something where the concept mostly developed first, and new design was pioneered to fill that need, rather than the concept being mostly fulfilled by existing games and getting more refined expression later. This can make it tricky to talk about, because zooming out too far from it can make it look like it's just one of the previous ones, when it very much is not. "Values," as the name implies, are the things characters care deeply about, the things that motivate them to take risks because the prize is worth the price. Money, power, morals, obligations, these are all obvious Values, but things like loved ones, revenge, becoming the most popular cheerleader at school, recovering the Holy Grail, all these things are also Values. "Issues" put Values to the test. "
    What are you willing to sacrifice to get what you want? How far are you willing to go before it's too much? Etc. Games like Dogs in the Vineyard and, of course, systems Powered by the Apocalypse are all about this sort of play. Moment to moment, the players are put in the position of having to make difficult choices and decide who and what their characters wish to be; hence why some have framed this as being about "protagonism," because in the ideal case, the game's design puts frequently puts you in the hot seat as the protagonist of the moment, the hero of your own (character's) story. Though it shares Score and Achievement's focus on pursuing worthy goals, it eschews interest in any objectivity, focusing instead on specifically subjective value, and while it shares Conceit and Emulation's interest in narrative, it eschews rhe idea that genre conventions should take center stage (noting, however, that many PbtA games do in fact start from genre conventions, e.g. Masks, Monsterhearts, or even the original Apocalypse World.) It is least like G&S, being so focused on rhe subjective and narrative, rather than the character-independent "objective" world and procedure.
Again, there may be others, but these have thus far been enough to cover any game I have needed to talk about.

And, in case it wasn't clear, these game-(design-)purposes can be mixed, though some more easily than others.

Most games, due to having numerical mechanics, have some element of S&A, but not always. G&S is often a "nice thing if you can get it" sort of thing, even if it isn't a top priority. C&E often shows up in the premise of the game...but may be sorely lacking in execution if either of the previous two are too dominant (looking at you, D&D 3e.) V&I, as noted, was generally designed intentionally, as opposed to the more serendipitous manifestations of G&S/S&A, so it tends to be more "pure" in expression, but there are exceptions (e.g. 4e D&D can be interpreted as serendipitously V&I due to the player-authored quests and some other components.)
 
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I'm really struggling to understand what the author means by "handholding" in regards with "younger players"? What does that mean?
It means walking them through the game, or one of its processes, step-by-step (with instruction, models, etc.). If I “hold your hand” when introducing you to something new, it’s an acknowledgment that you need extra help.
 

evildmguy

Explorer
For me, when I run a game, I'm looking to tell a collaborative story with my players. I want the system I'm using to help me with that goal. I'm also lucky that I have players that are willing to go along with this. Several will create characters that have background hooks for me to explore. In play, several revel in the bad rolls as that makes it interesting. Most will do what they think their character will do, not in a CN excuse sort of way, but truly thinking about their characters. A shiny item didn't interest one character and it made sense. Equally, another character ran right toward it!

In general, DND has helped me tell fantasy stories. I liked stories that were a real world with magic overlayed on top. As I have gotten older and read more, now I think Exalted had the right idea for a game world, flat. Why would deities go to the trouble of making a solar system? At the same time, though, the Exalted mechanics are so nit picky, so heavy handed, that it's not fun. (I'm speaking of RAW.) When some players can start with abilities that can effect a whole village but the others don't, it doesn't work well. That's my experience.

What I like about DND is that with the hit point system, it's heroic and can get super heroic. Players can try something at mid+ levels and know it won't be fatal and will probably be fun, regardless of how it turns out. In contrast, skill based systems do have my players making more realistic decisions when a bad hit can be game over for their character. I also think skill based systems are harder to find

I don't want rules lite things like FATE. I think the core mechanic of that is the group sites down and creates the system within the FATE context. What attributes, skills, and so on, that will be important in the game. In general, my players want to come and be entertained, not have to do that type of work. I enjoy it, so I'm find doing it but I want a framework that I'm happy with.

What annoys me, though, are really good concepts for a game that fall completely flat in execution. I'm looking at all of the early White Wolf games. Early Vampire games, for a non scientific group I polled, said they played it as heroes with fangs. They didn't deal with any of the themes that Vampire laid out, like hunger, feeding, and loss of humanity. If the RAW doesn't support the theme of your game, I think that's bad design. From what I have read, I think 5E Vampire does back up the concepts with mechanics but I haven't played it, only read it.

Thanks for the discussion!
 

If I wanted a game where you had to pursue the designers' objective, I'd go play 4th Edition. Nowadays, it's all about being as neutral as possible so the DM will be empowered to take the game where ever their judgement leads them.
 

loverdrive

Prophet of the profane (She/Her)
I don't want rules lite things like FATE. I think the core mechanic of that is the group sites down and creates the system within the FATE context. What attributes, skills, and so on, that will be important in the game. In general, my players want to come and be entertained, not have to do that type of work. I enjoy it, so I'm find doing it but I want a framework that I'm happy with.
Fate (not to be that gal, but it isn't an acronym, by the way) positions itself as a game engine. There are prepackaged Worlds of Fate that come with skills, stunts and good aspects to choose from.

And it's not like Fate is any kind of ambassador of rules light games. Many (if not most) have a strong theme they push forward, especially those which descend from the Apocalypse.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
If I wanted a game where you had to pursue the designers' objective, I'd go play 4th Edition. Nowadays, it's all about being as neutral as possible so the DM will be empowered to take the game where ever their judgement leads them.
It seems, to me, that you don't even really want a game then. All you want is a platform.
 

evildmguy

Explorer
Fate (not to be that gal, but it isn't an acronym, by the way) positions itself as a game engine. There are prepackaged Worlds of Fate that come with skills, stunts and good aspects to choose from.

And it's not like Fate is any kind of ambassador of rules light games. Many (if not most) have a strong theme they push forward, especially those which descend from the Apocalypse.
Thanks for the reply! I like the clarification!

My apologies on the name. I have usually seen it as FATE, so thanks!

Those are fair points. I do have Achtung Chthulu, Dresden Files, and Strands of Fate. I was generalizing too much. There are systems out there and already created.

I should have said that, given my players, they don't like the keyword aspect of the game. Or rather, some embraced it, and some didn't. I did run a group with Achtung Cthulhu and Strands of Fate, and while its failure rests on me, they didn't like keywords or consequences. (This is the same group that I ran through the FFG Star Wars and they refused to use the Force Points in the pool so I wouldn't have dark side points to use.) I don't know if it's older players that remember the DM v players attitude, or if it was passed on, or my GMing style that they didn't want to give me those things? Or is it their style of wanting to show up and play heroes and not have to think about those aspects of the game? It didn't work well.

It's not skill based systems, as they like WoD and Alternity. I think it's not giving themselves negatives? Things to think about for me!

Thanks!
 

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