Games & Systems: My Thoughts

I worked my way through both the post by (on) Liber Ludorum and the original post by Linda Codega, both of which I have linked. Codega’s post is on Gizmodo and by definition is more focused / influenced / to be read in as commentary on more commercial ventures. Whereas LL’s post moves further afield than that.  I want to speak on the Gizmodo post first, and then circle back to the Liber Ludorum blog post. 

System Design vs. Game Design

I liked what Linda Codega had to say in the paragraph under Unconventional Wisdom. 

…I want more games(emph. mine). I want games that are built up around a system, or a system that is specifically designed for a game, that supports the game from the ground up.”

I would go out on a limb here and say that is a lot of what we focus on in design here at Adept Play. System matters, clearly, but without purpose (game), systems are just a bunch of flashy lights. As an example, the Year Zero Engine is a system, but it finds a purpose when paired with Forbidden Lands or Mutant: Year Zero. Without those specific instances of purpose, a GM could still use the system and provide their own purpose through some amount of design work.

A better example of ‘game’ would be games like Sorcerer or Lacuna, Part 1. Neither game is meant to create a system for wider use and to be applicable to a broad array of idioms. They come with their purpose / game all in one package. And purpose is not setting, though setting could be part of it, providing fictional vocabulary and visual inspiration to support play. 

Paida vs. Ludus

I have to admit the terms have a certain appeal, especially to a native English speaker. We tend to gravitate towards words and terms that highlight well known phenomena because it provides gravitas. Who would speak of Four Act Structure when they could wield the beauty that is Kishotenketsu in their lexicon? The problem here is that I do not think their initial concepts translate that well into RPG design terms. Maybe the better way to say it is, I think that it would be better to look at existing games in terms where they fall on the paida – ludus spectrum as opposed to redefining that spectrum to fit RPGs. 

In my head, The Pool sits at the medium point where Paida fades and Ludus gains traction. I feel like that point, with whatever system you assign there, is the part of the spectrum when the author’s definition of system rests. Anything to the left of that, towards less well defined procedures, fits into more free-form play as defined by Callois in Man, Play, and Games. Everything to the right, is system to some degree paired with context and purpose. At the far end of this (or towards that end) would be a game like The One Ring, whose very specific instance of fantasy (Tolkein) is the entire purpose of that game. 

An Ant Hill Worth Kicking

We do have language for some or most of what has been described above here at Adept Play, at least I think so. I understand the dichotomy of what both authors are looking for: boiled down, with any commercialization evaporated, they are seeking games where the purpose of play is well or at least somewhat defined. Less generic and more specific. But I think the idea or the possibility of discussing Paida and Ludus as their own contribution to the understanding of design is far more interesting. Especially if we can find recognizable vocabulary in our discussions to compare them with.

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6 responses to “Games & Systems: My Thoughts”

  1. This is really interesting. The Liber Ludorum post also talks about the terms “langage” ([concept of] systematic speech), “langue” ([system of] speech) and “parole” ([instance of] speaking) as a useful homology for thinking about games as systems of play versus instances of play. But that conflates the textual and the experiential dimensions of a game. For role-playing games you’d need: the category of TRPGs; game systems and families of game systems within that category (“D&D,” pbtA), and then specific games (5th edition, Monsterhearts). You’d probably want to add the level of “module” or “adventure” or “story arc” below the level of game. You’d also need to broaden your focus beyond TRPGs as textual forms (“TRPGs” -> SRD -> campaign setting -> module) to include TRPGs as social encounters (“TRPGs” -> communities of play -> play groups -> sessions).

    • I spent some time thinking about D&D 5E as an example of these concepts, especially compared to previous or other editions that have D&D stamped on them. In terms of Paida and Ludus, D&D 5E is very much system; there is no game there, no real situational conceit to hang its hat on. Whereas Monsterhearts is a game, whether we feel it executes that well or not, I still feel it fits into the Ludus end of the spectrum.

      Using the three tiers draws a better comparison, though I find it interesting that you could turn D&D and PbtA into verbs. We are going D&D tonight or PbtA tonight. And although that would make sense to most people familiar with the games, I am not sure at what tiers the verbs belong.

      As for what’s at the bottom, I feel it needs to be defined in a more narrow way. Module/Adventure/etc… are manifestations of what it is, which really is just backdrop and some degree of prep. But the tradition of D&D is that the lowest tier is a highly prepared piece of work that is to be explored. Whether that tradition serves the latest edition, I am of the opinion that it does not.

  2. On the Discord, Helma asked me my definitions of Paidia and Ludus. So there is this:

    In Man, Play and Games, Roger Caillois (trans. Meyer Barash) distinguishes paidia (a term derived from childlike activity, “a kind of uncontrolled fantasy”) from ludus (formalized activity defined by “arbitrary, imperative, and purposely tedious conventions”). Paidia and ludus, he says, “are not categories of play but ways of playing.”

    That last sentence makes sense. But translating them into the ideas of system and game, which Codega is trying to do in their Gizmodo article, is a little more difficult. Paidia, from what I have read, would only use procedures to control the chaos, to make things fair to all involved. Everybody gets s turn, for example. Ludus on the other hand is less concerned with the fun or fiction as it is in the process being completed in the right order and the right way. It is the imposition of more procedures, more structure, and perhaps less concerned with whimsy but its still not a “game”. Its just system, just more system than before. That is why I think its a spectrum more than easily defined boxes you put games into. In fact, I dare say you could graph Paidia and Ludus on one axis and System and Game on the other axis and that would provide more clarity. Whether it is clarity of any use to us, more conversation would need to happen.

    But you asked for a definition and so I will take a stab at it, noting both the original definitions and Codega’s transfiguration of the terms into system and game.

    Paidia – games that provide a minimal of procedures and purpose that require a person or group to import the entire range of fictional backdrop and situation. The text or oral tradition provides very little in that regard. The Pool might be a good example, as is D&D5e. Ribbon Drive is another.

    Ludus – games that provide procedures that are more robust and/or more clear, to in theory support a stated purpose or fiction within the text. Sorcerer or most of Ron’s games fit this; none of them are generic systems and they provide specific context for play. I think Holmes & Moldvay D&D are other examples, as even though they do not provide specific worlds, the fantasy they are going for is obvious and the games are about dungeons. Runequest fits this as even if you strip out Glorantha and put in your own stuff, the game orients you towards the bronze age mythological fantasy play.

    Hope this helps. Note the examples are not perfect, obviously, but let’s not get caught up in the examples themselves.

    • I think Caillois may have needed to introduce paidia and ludus as conceptual terms at least partly because, as I understand, the French word jeu encompasses both the meanings that in English are distinguished by “play” and “game”: the German word Spiel is similar in this regard. I am drawing upon Salen & Zimmerman’s game design textbook Rules of Play where they worry about defining games. So Caillois is highlighting the distinction between play as free-spirited exploration or experimentation and play as gamebound rule-following.

  3. This phrase gave me pause:

    “RPGs obviously fall at the ludus end of the spectrum”

    Is it that obvious? I would assume they’re more like a paidia and ludus relay race.

    • I agree that the “obviously” is anything but.

      I’m even more suspicious about the whole thing, really. There seems to be a reified concept of “game” or “play” which I don’t credit as real, and there’s no economic context.

      I’m not ready to dismiss it – after all, it’s a good discussion topic – but I think I’m better off as a spectator to see what others develop.

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