Design Curriculum 3: Talk/Roll

Justin Nichol and I continue our discussion, or training, regarding game design. This session (in 5 videos) delves into the way we talk / the way we roll. The topic shifts quite logically from whether & when describing things colorfully works, to gaudy and painful consequences of moment-by-moment decision-making.

I have never thought the fiction-first/mechanics-first distinction to be well-constructed. Even setting it up that way presupposes a bunch of things I do not think are correct. So although you might expect that terminology to appear at many points throughout the sessions, it never does. I hope to show my alternate view through example.

We don’t get into much about IIEE (intent, initiation, execution, effect), but if you’re familiar with the concept, I’m sure you’ll see the groundwork being laid for it next time.

Some of the points are harsh. Wushu gets the hardest hit, as I consider it to be blatantly failed design. Dogs in the Vineyard and Primetime Adventures get examined for whether and when playing them leans into the same trap. I planned to talk about the same issue regarding bonus dice for Sorcerer when I brought it up, but forgot about it and missed the chance to discuss its origin in Champions.

Since my YouTube fu hit a speedbump, in that I haven’t yet managed how to make the ending of Vid A flow into the start of Vid B (seriously, how hard can this be?), here are the direct links to the later parts.

The post’s lead image is from Heroic Do-Gooders and Dastardly Deed-Doers, a game which isn’t discussed in the videos but could have been, as its mechanics about stunting should be compared with those of Feng Shui.

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18 responses to “Design Curriculum 3: Talk/Roll”

    • Thanks! I find myself to be

      Thanks! I find myself to be very critical of the argument so far.

      For one thing, I'm thinking that perhaps the Phenomenology / Design / Publishing sequence is missing "Play" as step 2. I really need to distinguish better between the guts of the car vs. what it's like to be driving it, for the obvious reason that they are completely different experiences, and that knowing their precise interface is not actually necessary for anyone except for designers who really want to. A little too much of the current dialogue focuses on play, when it should be referencing a bank of terms or points from its own dialogue.

      For another, the process of the designer keeps being left out. I'm focusing on content, "how the car works," without enough attention to what it's like to be sitting there with a wrench.I think that Justin is OK with this, for his purposes, but a more general presentation will have to shift the focus.

  1. Sitting there with a wrench

    Ron –

    If I see your bold "process" as how to think and act after you find a wrench in your hand – that is, what happens after you decide you're designing a game (with whatever degree of clarity, at various levels, you might have at the moment) … is this where Jared Sorensen's 3 Questions ("What is your game about?","How does your game do this?","How does your game encourage / reward this?") live? John Wick apparently added one ("How do you make this fun?") Then there's Troy's Power 19 (19 is too many to summarize – check the links below). And I REALLY like Vincent's 3 Insights ("something about the subject matter or genre of your game","something about roleplaying as a practice","something about real live human nature").

    Maybe your take on what keeps getting left out ISN'T … overlapping/adjacent to these ideas, but they're what I thought of reading the post above.

    3 Questions:

    3 Questions rephrased and +1:

    Power 19:

    3 Insights:

    • At the time that Jared first

      At the time that Jared first mentioned these, it seemed so sensible. They even arose out of a conversation we had at the GAMA Trade Show in 2001. However, in retrospect, Jared was already designing games with a healthy insouciant, unpressured attitude. He had about five or six at that point, including eight and that weird clowns one with the glass of milk mechanic. In other words, he was not anxious about designing role-playing games, was perfectly happy about setting the ideas down on a page under a title place-holder, and was having fun doing it.

      When others encountered those questions, and when Troy wrote his 19 questions, I observed the most horrifying cognitive traffic pile-ups ever. Anxious and unconfident people are determined to find ways to prevent themselves from doing things, and the questions were nothing but a trap door for them to jump on until it gave way beneath them. You may remember any number of times people responded to "what is your game about" with long dissertations on the race and profession options, or a long setting history. They simply had no idea what was being asked, and it seemed so abstract to them that they almost hysterically began reciting the things that Everyone Knows Must Be In An RPG.

      For the record, I thought Troy's so-called Power 19 was a terrible device and never recommended it to anyone. In addition to the issues I mentioned above, it was too easily read as a checklist and even as a doctrinal menu for the Forge.

      As for Vincent's points, I agree with them, i.e., yes, those are insights, but they are not very good instructional process points. They are somewhere a person gets to, or are capable of talking about, only after the instructions in their notes and notions in their head have a foundation of confidence, or excitement. Without that, they seem like an mysterious (and coming from Vincent, unfortunately authoritative) interrogation, some kind of test the person didn't study for and will make or break them, so they panic.

      It should probably be clear from my consulting videos that I really focus, as in maniacally, on the color/inspiration basis for play. It's a pole star, always there, always reliable for its purpose, easy to forget about but reassuringly still there when the person is reminded.

    • They seemed to fit … and

      They seemed to fit … and yet even as I finished the comment I wondered if they were really at all like what you thought was getting "left out". I sure did see folks utterly fail to understand what the 3 Questions were actually asking, and couldn't get behind NINETEEN questions.

      A core of color/inspiration seems great – certainly, if what-a-GM-does (when focusing/playing a particular game with a particular group) is at all like what-a-designer-does, it's where I've spent a lot of time for the past decade-ish. But acknowleding that all your concerns about how folks have responded/are likely to respond to such things with confusion/panic … I do also look for something a bit more abstract. I LIKE looking for something a bit more abstract, not as a first-step, but pretty darn quickly. But maybe that's just me, and/or a different thing entire from the process you think keeps getting left out.

    • We might have to unpack that

      We might have to unpack that in some detail, when our schedules permit.

  2. Another Great Installment

    These conversations continue to impress.

    I think your points about how color and mechanics need to interrelate is powerful and much more cogent than the simple "fiction first" talk.

    You've got several threads leading from this lesson (IIEE, issues of authority, the roll of risk in players'/characters' choices), and I'm interested to see where you take the conversation from here.  You're doing an impressive job so far of giving each lesson a strong, single focus.

    • I am inclined to be unkind

      I am inclined to be unkind about some of the topics out there. The fiction-first conversations were a strong indicator that post-Forge discourse had slipped rather than expanded, along with "push-pull" and the romance with improv.

      The next installment deals with your very own topic of interest, the system diagrams!

    • I’m excited for the next

      I'm excited for the next installment–diagrams and IIEE! Bring it on!

      I missed the whole push/pull conversation, though I saw strands of it in the discussions following a few of Vincent's posts; I didn't bother to chase it down from there.

      Latching on to fiction first seems like a response to seeing how one game (or set of games) interconnected the color and the mechanics and then ran with it as THE solution to a problem they experienced in gaming without exploring why it was a solution or how it could be examined in detail to see what particularly made it work.

  3. Wushu and Authorities

    All right, now I have the chance to get back to this. I'm wanting to fully understand why Wushu is a failed design. In Wushu you get dice for each action detail you narrate, which are then rolled against traits to generate successes. So if I simply say “I attack the bad guys” I get just one die, but if I say more (e.g., “I side kick one guy, foot sweep the fellow next to him, duck beneath a sword swing, disarm him and grab the sword”) I get more dice, up to the maximum allowed.

    So transcribing from the video:

    “[In Wushu] You are coloring it up like [when people describe the results of a critical hit in D&D], but not voluntarily. You’re not working with an outcome yet, you’re working with descriptions of moments until the outcome. You’re not really generating anything – you could say all the same things but in a different order, with the very same dice rolls as you go along. So it really is empty noise. Everybody’s supposed to think it’s so awesome to imagine this, that that’s everything, that’s what it’s for…”

    Ok, let’s see if I’m understanding correctly. Superficially one might think (as I did when I first came across the game) that Wushu is like the Pool, because it gives more authority to the player. However it really doesn’t do that in a significant way; the only kind of authority it gives is incidental details about the situation (in my example above, I added that one of the guys had a sword), so limited situational authority only. But none of what's narrated before rolling has any effect on the outcome, no fictional positioning or anything like that matters (except in getting a die).

    In my experience playing the game, being free to add in all those details was fun at first, but it quickly got old. You really had to get the maximum number of dice, because it was critical to success, and so you had to talk on even if you didn’t feel like it, and the content of what you said didn’t really matter, it didn’t trigger any effects or rules or help in any way – anything you said would add a die, no matter what, and that’s all it did. So this forced creativity that has no real game effect (or very little) gets exhausting. To be fair, once the outcome was decided you got narration authority, but that’s too little too late.

    Ron, is that along the lines you were thinking?


    • Somehow, we were able to

      Somehow, we were able to manage on Discord after all. Here's what it looks like.

      I have no idea whether these are readable here so I'll put up a transcript too.

  4. Minimum Mechanics, Vulnerable Mechanics

    Ron, I've found this lesson so, so helpful in understanding how the placement of dice mechanics in the conversation are crucial to design. Here are a couple of questions I've been turning over:

    Your analysis of the individual actions in Tunnels & Trolls is illuminating, particularly how T&T gracefully orchestrates the fiction with the die rolls: As you note, it makes no sense in that system for a player to say "I'm breaking off from the group to make a level 2 saving throw!" or for the GM to say "Give me a level 5 saving throw!" Engaging with the dice requires engaging with (and in all likelihood enriching) the shared imaginative space. And T&T does this with such a lean ruleset.

    I'm curious, are there other minimalist rulesets you could point me toward that create a rich interplay between mechanics and fiction, just through how they arrange the talking and the rolling? Or maybe even 'heavier' systems that are excellent examples of this placement?

    Also, I'm thinking about how, even in systems with careful placement of rolling and talking, there are places of vulnerability where it's easy for this ordering to go awry.

    In my Champions Now: Last Airbender game last night, I found myself telling my partner "Give me a Perception check" as our heroine palavered with a new NPC (unconvincingly) hiding their dark past. I'd been playing the NPC a little skittish, my partner had been playing her hero a little suspicious—it felt like one or both of us was on the cusp of actually doing something in the fiction…

    And then, out of nowhere, I, who have never played a game with 'checks' or GM-called ability rolls in my life, was saying "Give me a Perception check!" And my partner rolled a failure. And the characters' little ballet of dodged questions and suspicious glances just stopped dead. Since my partner's character handn't actually done anything, the failed roll was meaningless, an empty motion we were going through: 'We have these dice here, so I guess we'd better use them.'

    Now, I think that partly this was a missed opportunity for me to teach my partner about the 'instrumentation' available to her. CN has that great paragraph about a character using Special Effects plus an Intelligence roll to shape when a future event will occur. I could have stepped out of the fiction for a moment and reminded her that she has a few tools (Characteristic checks, Presence Attacks, Skill rolls, etc.) that she can use to act upon the game-world even when she's not flinging goons around with her waterbender octopus arms.

    Stepping out of the fiction might have interrupted a tense scene, but would have hopefully paid off in more active use of those instruments down the line.

    Do you think there are vulnerable places in even well designed rulesets where the rolling and the talking are at a higher risk of coming undone? If so, how do you navigate those places, and how do you approach talking to your players about this when such a breakdown occurs?

    • That’s a bunch of topics with

      That’s a bunch of topics with a fractal spray opening up behind each one. I doubt I can do them justice as a single reply to a single comment.

      I’ll pull this bit out of order to try to dull the roar for the rest:

      I'm curious, are there other minimalist rulesets you could point me toward that create a rich interplay between mechanics and fiction, just through how they arrange the talking and the rolling? Or maybe even 'heavier' systems that are excellent examples of this placement?

      First, I think the minimalist or light/heavy distinction is irrelevant. The perception of such things is a matter of the quality of the design, not a matter of the number of moving parts. Once past the learning curve, you only notice or perceive a system as “heavy” or “complex” when it doesn’t work well. Furthermore, plenty of systems which look like they have only a few rules rely on horrifying complex implied rules of engagement which often require even more table-rigging in order to work at all.

      Therefore, putting that distinction aside, I can point to many such systems as you’re asking about, but there’s some conflict-of-interest baked into my answer, because that’s my specific area of focused design. I can’t be modest in saying outright that my own work is a specific workshop in this very thing, and obviously, I’d privilege it in my answer.

      To pull it away from me a little, I have also decided that The Pool and Cold Soldier are essential learning devices, especially since the former is so widely misunderstood, mistaught, and misplayed. Given your whole comment here, I’m thinking that the latter might be exactly the right place to start – it’s the best place to learn the absolute basics of what you’re talking about, to blow open the possibility of taking the experience to other, more open-scope games.

      Narrowing on the more detailed inquiry, I now realize that I’m immediately stuck. I really don’t understand your implied critique about “going awry” and “coming undone.”

      … you note, it makes no sense in that system for a player to say "I'm breaking off from the group to make a level 2 saving throw!" or for the GM to say "Give me a level 5 saving throw!" Engaging with the dice requires engaging with (and in all likelihood enriching) the shared imaginative space. And T&T does this with such a lean ruleset.

      I guess we’ll have to discuss this more carefully so I can understand. To me, it’s perfectly sensible for the GM or player to say those things. Narrowing on the more detailed inquiry, I now realize that I’m immediately stuck on your concerns about “going awry” and “coming undone.” This is an important issue but I think you're focusing on the wrong place for its cause.

      For example, for you, play seemed to stop or cease or come undone when you called for the perception check in Champions Now. It’s true that we could discuss whether you “should” have done so, but let’s just run with your intuition of the moment to do so. It seems to me to have been perfectly appropriate to run with the result, to establish that the “ballet” had run its course and she wasn’t going to get anywhere with more verbal footwork. Whether this is established through role-playing what the other guy says or just saying it outright as table-talk doesn’t matter at all, either is fine.

      As you wrote regarding T&T,

      Engaging with the dice requires engaging with (and in all likelihood enriching) the shared imaginative space.

      Exactly. So the question seems to me not to be “why did I ask for perception, it ruined everything,” but rather, “why did I stall out when looking at the results of the roll, for no inherent fictional or procedural reason.” It's hard for me to see how the same person who wrote that would have the experience you described. Clearly we are starting from very different vantage points or at least reading different things upon seeing the same words.

      Given that, this topic probably can’t be addressed well as a written exchange here (and similarly, would definitely be doomed as a typing-based exchange at Discord). But I do think that we could reach excellent results with a screen conversation, regarding your “vulnerable places in well-designed rulesets” questions.


    • Hi Ron, thanks (as always)

      Hi Ron, thanks (as always) for the depth and detail of your reply.

      The second, more specific question I asked about "fiction and mechanics coming undone" was probably an instance of me enthusiastically noticing (making? fabricating?) a connection between a recent moment of actual play and a design concept I've been working to understand. It was a very small moment in a very successful hour-and-a-half of play, but perhaps for that very reason it stood out to me as a weak point.

      I should have maybe stepped it back and simply asked "Do you think there are vulnerable places where the rolling and the talking are at a higher risk of coming undone," rather than placing the question in a context that implied that there are such places, and that I had discovered one.

      It may be, as you note, that the answer to "why did I stall out when looking at the results of the roll, for no inherent fictional or procedural reason" is less a design question and more a question of my own play.

      In turning over your response, it occurs to me that maybe I was using the die roll as a scene-framing device. Instead of being a director and saying "That seems like a great moment to halt on! Shall we cut it here?" I used the die roll as punctuation. In either case, I think part of the reason the die roll didn't work (or we didn't make it work) was that I didn't step out of character to establish the intentionality behind the roll.

      Agh! All these 'ifs' and 'shoulds.' A screen conversation sounds wonderful—I'll get in touch over Discord.

  5. Let me see if I have this straight

    Ok, I think I have the concept down, but if not please let me know. 

    Procedures are fun/useful to the degree they require you to listen to what another person is saying. 

    The way I see it this functions as a subset of the lumpley principle (Something is true in the game when all the players agree it's true). Since in order to agree to something, you have to know of it. In order to know of it, you have to be listening

    Good procedures work because they enforce the lumpley principle. Did I miss anything?

    • I’m OK with people finding

      I'm OK with people finding their own ways to articulate ideas, and I can't see anything I'd disagree with in what you're saying …

      … until you bring the named principle into it. Your phrasing is different from the concept which I originally assigned the (semi-joking) name to. The concept that Vincent had raised, or at least, the one that I decided was worth highlighting with a name is this: system is the means by which we agree on what is happening, or has happened.

      This next part isn't necessarily relevant to you and what you're saying, but I want to be really clear about some history here. Over the years, people were attracted and distracted by the "agree." As if we could, for example, merely agree that X or Y happened and move on, and that would be play like any other. I consider this modification to miss the point entirely. If we were to highlight the important point-of-attention in the statement, it would be the means, not we agree. I even considered replacing "agree" with "know," but didn't because that is a bit too epistemological for my tastes. However, perhaps it would have been better in the long run.

      To bring it back to what you're saying, then yes, the phrase you've isolated from this conversation is synonymous or at least wholly compatible with the Lumpley Principle as I originally named it. As far as our own dialogue is concerned, I don't know if it's necessary to be so specific. However, for purposes of readership and open discussion here, since I'm so grimly familiar with the misstatement, I need to nail down the meaning here with some force.

    • Gotcha, and thanks for the

      Gotcha, and thanks for the history. I hadn't known that, and I think it helps clear up some things for me. 

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