Sunday, October 16, 2011

Dumping the Black Box of Roleplaying Game Design

Flip to the back page of a set of a hex-and-counter wargame circa 1979 and you'd more often than not see a dense little section titled “designer's notes.” Though most of these rulebooks—especially those of the big name companies like SPI and Avalon Hill--were often the polar opposites in tone from the heavy writer's voice I was lauding the other day in their rpg contemporaries, this was the section that game designer cut loose from the opaque blandness of the preceding sections.

Here was suddenly the voice of the person behind the game, but most interesting of all here was the building of a case of how and why the game existed in the first place. Here was the defense of an abstraction—why the complex politics of a civil war were boiled down to a “political resource chart”--there a ranty polemic on how a competing game of the period got it wrong in its simulation.

Even as an (admittedly geeky, history-obsessed) kid in that day it was the section I often turned to first. It was the game designer talking to you directly as a critically-thinking peer, not just as a consumer of the game. There was a presumption that there was a hobby where game design was not only taken seriously by other professional designers, but by those playing it.

One of the interesting points that came up in the conversation about the disappearing act of the writer's voice here the other day was that there was a similar trend to hide that kind of direct talk in rpg games over time. (And when I say trend here let's be clear that I mean a tendency from a common occurrence to a less common one; I am not denying the reality that there are counter-tendencies in the smaller, limited pockets of indie and DIY hobbyist rpgs).

Telecanter nicely alluded to this in his comments:
“It's a small step from trying to hide the writer to trying to hide all thought behind the rules. But a writer presenting rules as covering all contingencies is at best being naive at worst disingenuous. I want to know what the tricky bits are, what trade offs were made, and if rule A doesn't work a possible B. I want to know what the goal of a particular subsystem was (maybe I can tinker to make it work better). These don't make the writer fallible in my eyes, but real.”
A dead-on observation because it's not just similar to the rollback on author's voice, it's likely related. Pulling out at random second-generation rpg rulebooks right now I am struck by how downright argumentative they seem at times.

Take this unflinching, highly-opinionated example, from Chivalry & Sorcery, second edition arguing why the game cleaves so close to a more-or-less historical model:
“The worlds of a C&S campaign are modelled upon a real culture—that of feudalism. We believe that it is necessary to provide a coherent world if fantasy roleplaying is to be a coherent activity...[Feudalism] also has the virtue of being a real way of life, existing for well over 1000 years in Europe...The feudal system was a working culture, and thus it can be used to very good effect as a model on which to base a fantasy role playing culture that will also work, often to the finest detail.”
The section goes on here for almost an entire page stating essentially that your campaign and other games totally fail unless they take a similar hardcore “simulationism.” Whatever you think about the merits of their passage, clearly they were not afraid of making cases with you the reader and hobbyist on why the chose to do things as they did. It essentially forces you to agree or disagree on a key issue motivating the game. (I so happen to be highly conflicted by that passage--which makes it all the more great as an example of something that inspires you to think.)

And it wasn't just the knock-offs making these arguments, it was the big-fish, who still had some heads at least in part in a free-flowing, thinking hobby culture. Take all those odd-seeming passages in the DMG, perversely arguing why you WON'T find rules for something. One of my favorites is an obvious answer to the in-roads of second-generation games like above:
“There is no random table for determination of a character's social status to be found here. That is because the inclusion of such a factor will either tell you little or nothing of useful nature, or it will abridge your freedom with respect to development of your campaign milieu. That is, if such a table tells you only a little so as not to force a social structure upon your campaign, the table can contain nothing of use. If it states rank, it presupposes you will, in fact, have such classes in your campaign when you might not desire them at all. There are dozens of possible government forms, each of which will have varying social classes, ranks, or castes. Which sort you choose for your milieu is strictly your own prerogative. While this game is loosely based on Feudal European technology, history and myth, it also contains elements from the Ancient Period, parts of more modern myth, and the mythos of many authors as well. Within its boundaries all sorts of societies and cultures can exist, and there is nothing to dictate that their needs be Feudal European.”
Just wonderful. A hobbyist reader was expected to think and take a stand--in cases written right into the rulebooks themselves.

Somewhere down the line, that conversation began disappearing, along with the writer's voice. Readers and players of mainstream games became consumers of opaque finished products that rare demanded that they argue with them. That's a loss.

Let's here for reviving a counter-trend: a model that returns to revealing the mind and thoughts of game designers. Not just because it appeals to the intellectual curmudgeon in me, but because like Telecanter points out in the rest of his comment that such more direct designer-to-reader conversation would “push toward making our games more 'platformy'... ”

Because, damn it, we could use a sight more tinkerable platforms and a ton fewer “complete” black box games. We could use a correction.


  1. It's perhaps worth mentioning that the new Savage Worlds edition is full of designers' notes spread throughout the text, not only explaining how certain rules work, but why they were designed in such a way. That said, Savage Worlds has always had a strong -- if somewhat anonymous -- authorial voice, so it's not much of a stretch.

  2. Great series of posts, and really thought-provoking. I find the trend among players is to rely very heavily on what is explicitly stated in rule books. The idea of having some background knowledge in history, or fantasy literature, for example, is not as integral to the experience.

    That said, I think that's one of the reasons that the OSR has arisen. There are many players with years of experience with history, literature, and gaming, who are not satisfied with the limits and structures imposed by the mechanically "balanced" ecosystems of modern games.

  3. @Kelvin
    That's a positive development, I will have to take a look at the new SW as I am looking for ways to present this kind of designer's voice.

    I like how you put this hidden strength of classical and neo-classical games. One of my frustrations with the black box is that I can't bring in all that great melange of things I have thought, read, and struggled around in four decades of my life as easily as I can with the older "platforms".

  4. I remember the early Paranoia RPG boxed set having designer's notes as well -- it blew my mind that it was designed to run counter to the "dead character -- roll up a new one" experience of D&D. At the same time, the game seemed to run counter to the concept of campaigns with the same characters, given the adventure types and body count.

  5. It was the game designer talking to you directly as a critically-thinking peer, not just as a consumer of the game.

    Truth. In the current era there's simply no excuse for ex cathedra game design.

    "Because I say so" simply isn't good enough.

  6. Fascinating discussion. I also went first to the back of those SPI games. Part of the reason too was that the notes quickly imparted what was important about the game--which rules mechanics were key, for example--and thus better prepared your brain for slogging through that 20 (or 50) page rule book, as well as even then giving you hints as to strategy.

  7. @Oakes
    True on all those points, plus there was the big factor of actually learning a lot about the period the game covered.

    I went and opened AH's Kingmaker this morning just to make sure I wasn't talking out of my ass. Sure enough in tight 8-point font there is two dense long pages of historical notes followed by a page and a half of designers note.

    And what a jam packed discussion of the War of the Roses, civil wars in general, and the mechanics/design choices to model all of them.

  8. Great post Chris. I find myself in total agreement with the quoted passage from the DMG.

    Its an issue I think ACKS faces; the assumptions there being designed around the setting, usually top down, may be making certain sections difficult or impossible to translate into other mileaus.

    If it helps your C&S confliction (heh) the trouble with

    "Feudalism] also has the virtue of being a real way of life, existing for well over 1000 years in Europe...The feudal system was a working culture, and thus it can be used to very good effect as a model on which to base a fantasy role playing culture that will also work, often to the finest detail.”

    Is the clear assumption that 1000 years of European feudal history are perfectly well understood, agreed upon "to the finest detail", and can be consistently modeled by any competent game designer. That's almost laughably naive, but perhaps forgiveable given the positivism prevelant in historical narratives of the time.

  9. I love designers notes and getting a chance to learn why things were done one way and not another. Such fun.

  10. I notice that none of those quoted explanations contains any acceptance of the possibility that the writer's (or GM's) own social prejudices and social milieu might be influencing their game, or the ways in which this might happen. It's implicit in the DMG explanation but the C&S one seems to be claiming that their feudal world is an objective representation of reality ('simulationist' as you say). That's highly unlikely!

  11. It was also reflective of a time when it was possible to actually know the designers of the games you played, and the hobby was sufficiently small that conventions were as much about seeing old friends (i.e. EVERYBODY at the con) was playing games.

  12. As much as all the talk was about the tag system (which is great), the standout part to me in Stars Without Number was the couple of pages of Designer's Notes. They went in a slightly different direction, in explaining the whys of the design, but then peeling the system back a little and showing how the GM could change the parts and how that would effect the rest of the game.

  13. One of the things that made me really like the fourth edition of GURPS was the inclusion of sidebar discussions titled "How GURPS Works", each discussing why design decisions were made. For instance, in GURPS Martial Arts we find "How GURPS Works: 'Stun' vs. 'Real' Injury" (chosen because that is the book in front of me, and that's the first such discussion I found right now), with a discussion of why there is no fundamental difference of damage type in the game between punches and weapons, taking direct aim at HERO System's "STUN" rules.