The Cult of Emergence

I got the COIN boardgame Liberty or Death this week from GMT Games.

Since I’m talking to my non-boardgaming collection, let me give a tiny bit of background. GMT’s COIN series is a really interesting, innovative take on classic wargaming. No hex-and-chit stacks, no stats. Play uses deterministic resolution based on your action choices: when you move this kind of unit into a space, this other kind of unit dies, or the morale of the area shifts favorably, or you shut down a road. Whatever. 

COIN games are, to my mind, the PbtA games of the wargaming scene. They focus on the narrative arc of the various factions at play — there are always four of them — and they don’t attempt to model the physics of a conflict at all. The goal of the design is to invoke the feeling of the factions: in Fire in the Lake, for example, when you’re playing South Vietnam, you’re fast and vicious and poor, oh god so very poor. Desperate. You make deals you’d rather not have to. If you’re the United States, you don’t want to be in the game at all. You’d think that runs counter to, you know, playing the game, right? But every incentive points at getting the hell out of the game, shutting it down, making it stop. It’s perfect.

Same with Liberty or Death, which frames the American Revolution as an insurgency by the colonists against their British masters (the COunter INsurgents). But there are four factions, right? So the French are there to fuck with the British, and the Indians are there to push back against colonial expansion. Everyone has an agenda, and those agendas sometimes align and sometimes do not. You have to work with your frenemies.

COIN games aren’t stats-and-physics games, but they’re still pretty procedurally complex. So in addition to the rulebook, there’s always a “playbook” as well. This includes a lengthy example of play to show how all the various procedures work, as well as really thoughtful essays from the designer, the developer, the line’s creator, the designer of the game’s solitaire rules, and so on. Tons and tons of opinions about how the game works, but more importantly why it works that way.

I wish more RPGs took this approach.

There’s this thing that happened way-back when small press RPGs started really taking off, and that was to get all stoked about discovering emergent properties of play. I’ve experienced this, and it can feel magical when it happens: watching Urban Shadows players gleefully racking up Corruption and then throttling way back only when they discover it’s probably too late to stop: cool! Watching conflicts spin out of your control in Dogs in the Vineyard because you wanted to win more than you wanted to not kill. Watching your beliefs evolve through play in Burning Wheel. 

So, yeah. It’s cool…when it happens. But the thing is, it doesn’t always happen. 

There came to be this phenomenon where players and fans worshiped the discovery feelings to such a degree that designers started trying to aim for that as a design goal. Well, that means leaving a lot of talk out of the rulebook: how the game was intended to be played (discover it for yourself!), how best to use the tools you’ve been given (discover it for yourself!), and so on.

For me, the latest example of this design approach is Heart of the Deernicorn’s Fall of Magic. There are procedural things left undiscussed that, it turns out, aren’t legal or illegal. I mean there’s precious little “game” there at all anyway, right? So why not do just whatever with this beautiful box of stuff? I’m bugged to discover that rolling up the scroll and covering where you’ve been doesn’t actually mean, or imply, that you can’t go backward on pathways, or the goal to “get the Magus to the Umbra” isn’t actually urgent. The book doesn’t give me enough information to discover this emergent property on its own. There’s no guarantee I’ll discover this (and I didn’t). 

Anyway, back to COIN! 

The COIN Playbook essays go exactly the opposite direction. The designer explains why the factions are designed the way they are — what feelings they’re trying to evoke, what decisions the game will present to you — so you’re fully informed going in. So, of course, there are some unbridgeable differences between loosey-goosey storygames and (oh lordy) wargames. There are non-negotiable procedures that must be followed in a wargame, even a narrative one like COIN. There are victory conditions. But you know what? Those COIN essays don’t talk about “how to win.” They tell you how best to use the tools you’ve been given. And as a result, you’re far more likely to experience the intended emergent gameplay than if you have to stumble through the tools yourself.

Anyway, it’s a neat approach, I feel far more comfortable getting into the game, and I’d love to see more of this in RPGs (small press or otherwise). I don’t know that I ever see much formal talk like this, other than some of the material in the Adventure Burner for Burning Wheel. There’s a little of this in the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide, but the audience is designers, not players. Other end of the telescope. I can’t think of any others. I guess, traditionally, the “how best to use this” talk has come from the fans and players and shows up in the form of flame wars on community boards.

0 thoughts on “The Cult of Emergence”

  1. Me too, my days of having time for an ultra-detailed wargame are behind me – so I thought! A short-form but in-depth scenario might be really interesting.

  2. Yeah, the focus is completely different. It is so interesting to experience the needs of your faction, and how those needs (your victory conditions) shape your decision making.

    The turn I was playing the US and negotiated with the North Vietnamese to extend the war blew my mind. Opened my head to serious re-evaluation of the historic conflict.

  3. Jason Corley COIN is cool – but it’s not exactly light or anything. It’s pretty complex (although some games more so than others).

    The playbook/reference book duality is a really difficult problem for RPGs. Might be even more difficult, since RPGs sometimes try to capture three separate ideas: a playbook / reference book / setting book. Each of which really have different goals in terms of engaging the reader.

    But I’m all for going the direct route in terms of outlining the key parts of the game.

  4. Essays and design notes are highlights in every gaming book I own that includes them.

    The annotated edition of Sorcerer is probably the best example in my collection of a book that does this in spades.

    I agree wholeheartedly that more RPGs should do this. Context is important!

  5. I’ve only played Andean Abyss (three games) but the degree to which it feels like you’re playing a whole different game depending on which faction you’re playing is startling.

  6. Martin Ralya Oh shit, yeah! Forgot about annotated Sorcerer. 

    I don’t have a non-annotated version so the form factor is kind of rough sledding, but sure, yeah, good example.

  7. Ditto Bret Gillan. If someone had said “COIN games are kinda war-story-games” before, I might have paid a lot more attention. Dammit, Paul, you and your infectious enthusiasm are bad for my budget.

    Also, I agree that this kind of commentary and self-analysis is really valuable in a rulebook, and it’s sad that it’s so seldom seen. Sometimes I’ll read a rule and do a little analysis of what behaviours it seems to encourage and I’ll nerd out about it to Erin, and she says “I wish I could sight-read games like that” but really, shouldn’t games be advertising those fun interactions between rules and play experience?

    Sure, some people might not care about how your decisions to use violence in Monsterhearts are constrained by the fact that “Lash Out” is your only directly violent option, but for those of us for whom that’s really exciting, it’s the sort of thing that could be the “indie” equivalent of “50 playable classes and over 200 spells!”

  8. Sometimes I lose track of this as a problem. I’ve gotten pretty good at eyeballing games and seeing how the likely decisions and economies will emerge. 

    But then I remember breaking my brain against 3:16 and experience the buried rage all over again.

  9. Adam D I should totally set up a cafepress shop for that. A shy d20 peeking out from behind a shower curtain.

    Someone do up the logo and I’ll set up the shop. We’ll be hundredaires.

  10. A real thing that happens: the designer is not equipped to write those essays/guides/etc until after the game has been out in the world for some years, and then the incentives for releasing “a new edition” are slim slim slim. It took Ron 10 years to do it with Sorcerer!

  11. Nathan Paoletta I’ve heard that before but I’m skeptical. Are you saying designers can’t explain why a rule/procedure is designed a certain way? They can’t talk about their intent?

    I can appreciate that unexpected properties can emerge (!) once lots of brains start touching the game, but that happens in wargames as well.

    Then again, based on that survey I ran a bunch of months ago, there are plenty of RPG folks who give no shit at all about design intent. Dunno. I do.

  12. Is GMT the only publisher that does these? I’m looking at their page and it seems like a lot of their COIN titles are out of stock or waiting on preorders.

  13. Mark Delsing Yeah. It’s one of their house systems. Starting to open it up to new designers, though! Liberty or Death is the first one by a new person.

    They reprint games but very slowly, via their P500 preorder system. You can usually find titles on ebay but the prices tend to be exorbitant.

    I’m waiting on a reprint of A Distant Plain (soon!) as well as the first printing of Gallic War. And oh gosh yes I’m all-in on Pendragon (god damn you Ralph Mazza).

  14. IME, there’s three buckets:

    (a) the procedural how-to-play-the-game text is done, you’ve gone through the whole design and writing process and you’re ready to pull the trigger on publishing, and thinking or writing any more on the game is the last thing in the world you want to do

    (b) you have a design goal of letting emergent play emerge, with the attendant risk that it’s not going to emerge for everyone

    (c) you think you know how to talk about your game but you don’t yet because you yourself have only scratched the surface and what you think you meant isn’t actually correct

    and there’s some mix of those for every project, and for one-person outfits exhaustion tends to dominate, tbqh

    Also, for me at least, explaining your game is a skill that takes time to build and is different from designing your game, so. I bet there’s lot of games that think they’re explaining stuff that get to readers and don’t actually, y’know, explain stuff.

    COIN has, like, a whole team that puts out the same style of game over and over, right? That’s a deep well of experience where they can make a priority of this thing that I think a lot of indie RPG publishers just can’t, even assuming they see value in it in the first place.

  15. There’s an unformed thought in my brain on connecting this to hacking guides, too, like the last section in Apocalypse World… and how not knowing the designer’s intent can lead to hacks that miss the core principles that make a game engine work.

  16. I hear you on the exhaustion thing. Fair point.

    GMT has a big burly crew of supernerds chained to keyboards. I can appreciate why their operation is nothing like Nathan gleefully getting WWW the fuck off his hard drive and on to other things.

    That said, I think the better small-press games often have really smart playtesters on their teams. I don’t know that it’d be that hard to get essays out of them. Totally speculating! Maybe everyone’s sick to death of the thing once they’re done with it!

    Maybe GMT dusts their playtest materials with cocaine or something.

  17. Christian Griffen Dude. Yes. Not to open the “terrible PbtA hacks” can of worms but I do lay some of that at Vincent’s feet. He loves being coy! I’ve watched him do it again and again!

  18. Paul Beakley also, the fact that (IMO) WWWRPG is my most clearly-telegraphed, extra-material-added, pull-back-the-curtain effort, and that that never seems to be noticed or commented on tells me that my last paragraph is a real thing 🙂

  19. I’m going to look for a COIN game at Origins this summer. I’ve been wanting to try one for a couple years now, but no one local is interested.

    Thanks for reminding me!

  20. Nathan Paoletta further thought: This isn’t just on the designers, it’s on the players, right? As you say, nobody talks about it and probably nobody appreciates it. I don’t know that that should remain unaddressed even if a sizeable % of players are firmly in the Artist is Dead camp. Games might be art but we don’t observe them as static creations. 

    But, as Christian Griffen is getting at — and I can appreciate why nobody wants to say it outright — being coy about (for example) the design intent behind PbtA isn’t doing the hackers, players and buyers any favors.

  21. Paul Beakley I think you’ve nailed why the COIN games are great.

    So Liberty or Death is good? I was skeptical if the system would work as well in pre-modern eras.

  22. I think a good chunk of Urban Shadows is written with the explicit intention of making our design intent known. I think we were maybe a little coy about Corruption, but it’s pretty obvious. 

    I think part of this is also a function of product design. We were lucky with US to be pitching a low cost book; the book doubled in size (to address these issues) without our production costs doubling. That’s not possible with a game like Masks where it’s already full color and packed with illustrations.

  23. Larry Lade it looks really hot. I haven’t played it yet, though! Just eyeballing the system (like I do with RPGs) and I think they’ve nailed it.

    The COIN terminology sounds ahistorical but the British, apparently, did use the term “insurgent” to refer to the Patriots. The insurgent/counterinsurgent frenemy relationship is maintained as it appears in other COIN games (colonists + French vs Brits + Indians, each half pushing the territories to support or oppose British rule), then each faction also has its own victory condition: Brits want to kill colonists, French want to kill Brits, colonists want to build forts, Indians want to build villages. 

    There’s this fascinating bit in the designer’s essay about how he wrapped his head around framing the American Revolution in COIN terms: the Sullivan Expedition, where Washington takes valuable time and materiel away from, you know, fighting the American Revolution to go murder some Indian tribes. Ostensibly the Iroquois were allied with the British, but they had their own motives for doing so and they weren’t BFFs with the British. Or the fact that the French had just gotten done killing a lot of colonists during the French and Indian War: again, the French and colonists were not suddenly and mysteriously BFFs, but useful temporary allies.

    It is a really smart design. Adds some interesting wrinkles.

  24. Mark Diaz Truman maybe supplemental PDF or something? 

    Urban Shadows does have quite a lot of useful discussion. Agreed re Corruption. Factions and Faction Moves could use some more talk (maybe, IMO, etc.).

  25. Paul Beakley – But is there a market for this kind of thing? We need to have some sense of financial return to put in the effort to making it a product instead of just talk at the bar after a con.

    Say more about what you want to know about Factions and Faction Moves. We’re working on Dark Streets now and fishing around for one or two more essays to write.

  26. I am going to have a good bit of free time on my hands in the near future. I think it’s time to go back to Navajo Wars, because you reminded me of how cool it is.

  27. Mark Diaz Truman I’ve been chewing on your question! It’s a good one. I mean I assume there’s a market for that kind of thing, which is why you included so much of it in Urban Shadows (which I totally should have remembered when I was thinking about games that explain their intent). Like, I’m sure you could have saved many pages of print if you’d left out the material like what players are expecting when they play a vampire, and how their powers play out. That’s solid material, useful! But it’s not even roooolz so why did you include them at all? I assume it’s because improved usability is a better long-term strategy than bare-bones hope-it-works-out design.

    Factions/faction moves, I can discuss that in sidebar.

  28. Am I off by saying that one of the things I loved about the Dresden File RPG is the commentary that is running in the margins about what the rules are saying and aiming for, and that is akin to the annotation that would be so cool in many other RPGs?

  29. The Cult of Emergence is also why you get insider-y cliques of players who “get” games, claim special access to designers (another cult), shut down conversations, and so on.

    Honestly I can’t think of any upsides to aiming for obfuscation.

  30. I don’t know if it’s obfuscation, exactly, but there’s a thing where people over-interpret “the intent” of a mechanical incentive and think they should use their contributions to short-circuit the mechanics and directly achieve the allegedly intended effect. For example: Oh, the DITV mechanics are about incentivizing violence? I’ll have my character be maximally violent all the time, since that’s what the game wants!

  31. I’m of the opinion many designers*, including some very good designers, don’t specifically know. They have intuition, and some loose non-scientific testing, and are guessing and hoping. 

    If they try and actually put it down in cold hard words then they can be held responsible for it. And they have to be right about it — because if their intuition tells them one thing and they say it out loud and folks start driving at that rather than doing what the system actually evokes… it can take the wheels out. 

    So, folks play coy. They pretend they know exactly, when they actually don’t and are guessing as much (or almost as much) as everyone else. 

    *Not all designers, obviously. This is not about ethics in game emergence conversation. 

    That said, for designers who can do it, I fucking fully support doing it. Like, 100% alignment with the OP.

  32. Wow.  Brand Robins actually being diplomatic.  They really did remove the source of your gall, didn’t they.

    Ok, I’ll step up:

    “Discovery of Emergent Properties” = “I don’t actually have a clue and couldn’t be bothered to find out, so I’ll let you do the work for me and then pretend I meant that the whole time, ain’t I a genius.”

  33. Well, I definitely disagree with your sentiment, Ralph Mazza, but I suspect you’re being at least a little bit cute. It’s certainly possible to know the implications of a system, but present it as nothing but procedure (i.e., to “remove” everything but procedure).

    Question: If presented with enough clarity, can procedure enough satisfy a need for guidance? In other words, to what degree is this a problem of murky thinking/writing generally?

  34. I second what Nathan Paoletta and Mark Diaz Truman said.

    I tried three times to make a point about how explaining the context of how to make up fictional material colors the method of that fictional creation in a way that choosing from a menu of options doesn’t. But I’m really tired and I couldn’t stick the landing.

    Suffice it to say, I put a lot of this kind of stuff in the classic edition of With Great Power. And over the years, only two people have ever mentioned that they got anything good out of it. And both of them were fellow designers (Hi, Ralph).

    But then, again, maybe the 2005 hobby wasn’t ready for it.

  35. I have so much to say on this topic, but in case my irony meter isn’t broken:

    GMT is small-time. Super small-time. Big for wargames, but they’re a niche of a niche. Probably more copies of WWW out than any given non-reprint GMT game from the same year.

    COIN is Volko Ruhnke’s baby — Andean Abyss is almost entirely his work. Triumph and Tragedy is a 20-year labor of love from Craig Besinque pretty much solo. Churchill is Mark Herman solo. The later games in the series tend to be paired designers, but I know that at least Cuba Libre was the guy approaching Volko and asking for help.

    As for pre-modern warfare, I was a playtester for Falling Sky, and I think it may be my second favorite in the series (right behind A Distant Plain, though that may change on release).

    My own (slow-moving) COIN design is set in 1901-ish, during the Boxer Uprising, and the system works fine for that. To use Paul’s RPG analogy: it’s like the Apocalypse World hack-splosion. People want to shim everything into the system, and since it works so well, even odd shims that aren’t a good match still play well enough.

    So much to say.

  36. Hi Michael Miller 

    For those who haven’t heard me say it.  WGP was IMO one of the best written rule books to come out of that period of the Forge, and totally influenced how I write rules from that day on.

    And this is largely why.  Even when the mechanics didn’t work smoothly…we knew exactly what they were supposed to be doing and could adjust accordingly.  As opposed to minimalist procedural rule sets like say Ghost Echo or Poison’d where if you lose the train of the mechanical procedure you just founder on the rocky cliffs of WTF are we supposed to do now.

    Telling me what is good.
    Telling me what in a clear and concise manner is better.
    Also telling me why is best.

  37. Another big thing: wargames have several major design schools. Primary among my favorite designers is “design for effect” where you add a mechanism to get a specific historical result.

    Grognards also put a ton of weight on how well a design reflects history. If a game can’t produce the historical result, that designer will hear about it. This is similar to RPGers putting a ton of weight on what story comes out of a given title.

  38. Maybe procedure by procedure. But they tend to interlock and inform each other, and that’s where the so-called emergence takes place.

    Probably my single favorite bit of emergent play in rpgs ever is in Burning Wheel. The interplay of Let it Ride, explicit intent and consequences, Roll or Say Yes and the entire reward cycle come together in a way that I’m skeptical was by design. Each procedure was individually designed to address dysfunctional play problems, but they come together to create an entirely new play structure.

    This doesn’t discount the genius of the design or the designers! But I think there’s a difference between those games, and games where the designer hides a cutesy psychological or mathematical or ethical trick inside their game.

    Edit: this was in reply to Tim Koppang​. Y’all ran away with the thread there! (Please continue!)

  39. Hi, Ralph. You were one of the people I was thinking of. And rest assured, I haven’t completely abandoned my sidebars in new With Great Power. I need them like Luke needs imps.

    Speaking of Mr. Crane, I just want to respond to Paul Beakley’s “[they] come together in a way that I’m skeptical was by design.” I can attest that the conversations were happening in 2004-2005 when BW Revised was being put together that they most assuredly were by design. Some of the conversations were at the Forge, some were on anyway, some were private messages and IMs, lots were face-to-face. But they happened and those systems were there very much on purpose.

    Another thought occurs to me and them I’m really, really going to bed. If the game contains the procedures AND the commentary on the procedures, what the heck do you do to promote the game? Maybe the value that Mark mentioned lies in using commentary as promotional material. Vincent sustained a blog for over a decade on commentary. BW has the richness of its forum community.

    Hmmm. Maybe I should take those sidebars out of the game and post them on the blog every so often.

  40. Confidence. In other words, confidence in the designer determines whether auxiliary or advice text is helpful for me as a player/GM/reader/whatever.

    These games are really awesome and really weird (speaking of RPGs and story games) and a lot of the time really hard to figure out how to play. The last thing my brain wants when trying to figure a game out and play it the first couple of times is extra text that isn’t rules and procedures. This is where the confidence comes in. For a new game, I’m going to try my hardest to give it the benefit of the doubt that the designer knows what they’re doing. If advice/guidance text IS needed, I lose faith in the design, honestly.

    Now I’m just talking about learning games. As far as emergence goes? I don’t know, but I do love it when I get to discover it myself.

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