Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Thing I've Been Thinking About

At the risk of stirring shit up just when folks were starting to have productive conversations.

"Play should be personally and socially fulfilling" is the one big thing to come out of the Forge in the last ten years, apparently. I'm like "Yup. Cool." Creative Agenda, as a thing that exists and makes play personally and socially fulfilling is something I can get behind, no problem. Things happen in a game, stuff changes, on your character sheet, in the fiction of the game, and in the social relationships between the players, and you notice and appreciate that change. You see it as "progress" rather than just change, because you've got a creative agenda.

So no problem with that.

But! I'm not sure that the specific formulation of creative agendas as falling into three general categories of "Story Now", "Right to Dream", and "Step on Up" is a useful way of thinking about Creative Agenda. I don't see it helping in design, nor do I see it helping in fixing problems in play. I do see specific understandings about how to design for Story Now play as being useful, but I don't see correlated insights into Step on Up and Right to Dream play. I do see a lot of arguments and explanations and wars over definitions.

So, anyway. Maybe related to that, maybe not, here's a thing I've been thinking about: There are three general things going on in roleplaying games, all of which seem rewarding to players in greater or lesser degree.


If you looked at the fiction of play as if you were reading a book, what would the book be saying? What's the game "about"? Is it about good triumphing over evil (or failing to do so)? Is it about what difference one person can make in a corrupt society? In the ficton this looks like when you find out that no, your Dog isn't going to shoot that woman in the face, or oh shit yes he is. It's when you discover (to little surprise) that there are no repercussions for killing all those orcs. On character sheets, it's you scratching out that "I will become King" belief, and writing in "I have no use for Kings". It's you checking off that last experience point for killing that dragon, and leveling up your character. Socially, it's having this shared understanding of an issue or an idea not because you've argued about it or maybe even talked about it, but because you've shared a story about it, and maybe you don't quite agree on how to interpret that story but you both see the story itself as true and right.


How does it feel when you're playing? Are you feeling what your character is feeling? Are you sweating over tough decisions for your character, or do they come easy? Is it scary? Is it sad? Is it hard to do or is it easy? In play this looks like how it feels when you are playing The Mountain Witch, and you're looking around the table trying to figure out what Dark Fate the other players have drawn. Or in Apocalypse World, your character is pinned down, under fire, and the MC gives you an ugly choice and you can feel that knot in your stomach. Or in Bliss Stage, that kind of weightless, shadow-punching feeling the first time your character goes into the dream, where you don't know how to make it work and you and the anchor play feel it out together. Most noticeably, it's that thing some people get where if their character is sad, they're feeling sad themselves, or angry, or whatever. I don't experience that so much myself, but it totally happens. I don't know what this looks like on character sheets. Maybe it's the feeling of leveling up a character - choosing different options and thinking about their consequences. Socially, it's that thing where, hey, our characters slept together and we both know that it's just a game and doesn't mean anything, but at the same time it totally does mean something and you flush a little when you think about it.


What skills are you showing off when you play? Acting skills? Like, you're speaking for your character, trying to give a convincing portrayal of emotions, an entertaining performance. Also, it's when you're showing off other skills, like, putting your guy in the right spot in a combat so you improve your chances of winning, or when you think of a smart plan and enact it well. In play it's any time you're speaking for your character, but especially when everyone is watching you speak for your character, the big moments. It's when you spend an hour arguing semi-in-character about the best way for your made-up dudes to attack a made-up fortress. On character sheets, I guess it's choosing the best options to level up your dude, or to demonstrate that you can make a better, more creative, more interesting character. Socially, it's like, when you are around the table, who shines brightest? Who is the best? How well did you do last week, and how well will you do this week. More charitably, it's like, we're all playing at a certain level, and we're all egging each other on, trying to see if we can take it to that next level. How far can we go, as a team? How good can we get?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Review Manifesto

Here's what I want to see:

"I played this game X many times, with Y people, in Z circumstances."

"I think the circumstances in which I played the game had the following effect on play:" (If you do a bunch of stuff in play that's not in the text, talk about that and why you did that stuff. If it's in the text, but maybe not obvious, point it out.)

"I was expecting this from the game, but the experience it gave me was like this"

"The effect of this mechanic on play was to..."

"This aspect of the game was effective in producing this kind of play"

"Games with similar mechanics are the following...'s how this game is the same, here's how it's different"

Criticism sandwich! Say something nice about the game at the beginning and the end of the review. Even if you don't really mean it. Even if you have to work hard to think of something. I cannot overstate how effective this technique is in making people actually read and understand things they don't want to hear.

Comparison with other games, or other techniques (in terms of effect on play, not in terms of quality).

Discussion of principles of design.

I care about what the experience of play is like, and how the game's mechanics influence that experience.

Oh! Make the review as short as you reasonably can, without compromising the content.

Here are some things I don't want to see:

A review of the game as a product. I don't care whether you would recommend I buy it.

A biography of the designer. It's cool to put the game in historical context, but it's a review of the game, not of the designer.

Words like "good" or "bad" or "quality". I think words like "useful", "effective" and "taste" are better (and more useful).

A review of the text. I don't really care if the text communicates effectively or not. Let someone else review for that.

Argument from authority. Don't reference theory in the body of the review, unless it's straightforward enough to be explained right there. It's cool to link to "further reading" at the end though. Quotes in the body are iffy. Only do it if it's really the best way to communicate the idea, not to make it sound like some important internet person agrees with you.

Don't make a whole bunch of other essays required reading for your review. Absolutely draw on that knowledge and those ideas, but if it's too complicated to explain in the review, it's probably not that clever anyhow.

Don't affect academic language. The Academic style is a shibboleth for excluding those who haven't paid their dues to the academic hierarchy. Just write like regular. Conversational.

Here are the kinds of games I think should be reviewed:

Any game. All games. Probably your decision about what to review should be informed by how useful your review will be to helping people understand broader concepts of design and play. So, probably a bunch of reviews of near-identical trad games isn't super useful. But I'd be pretty interested in a good review of a few of the more diverse traditional games.