How This Game Ought To Be

There’s this thing that happens in RPGs where different people can bring radically different readings to the same game. This is totally fascinating to me!

Like…in boardgames, the rules are the rules. And you can like what the boardgame does or not. Like, a friend of mine dislikes (despises?) a couple games I adore, like Hegemonic and A Study in Emerald. We’re playing the same game, but I like what the experience delivers and he does not. I’m 100% sure neither of us are drifting or houseruling or whatever.

But roleplaying games though, right? The Burning Wheel forums were notorious for this, with the very hardest core who “got” what the game is going for, and noobs showing up who were absolutely certain that they’d seen through the bullshit and were there to prove the fans wrong. I’ve never seen that in a boardgame community.

Even when you don’t have the vociferous, angry identity stuff motivating the yay/boo sides of rpg advocacy, you can still have two people read the same rules text and come up with very different conclusions, absent any advocacy.

I have to speculate that many, maybe most roleplayers with any experience at all, bring a sense of how a game ought to work. Which is interesting. I suppose there’s a similar set of assumptions at work in the hex-and-chit world of wargames. You expect all chits to represent some abstraction of force (a squad or platoon or division or whatever), you expect the symbol to denote the force type as well as a batch of important reference materials: armor, attack, support requirements, movement, and so on. 

So maybe, given the deep roots in wargaming that lie at the heart of the hobby, it’s not totally crazy that that culture of assumptions has carried through for, jeez, 40ish years now.

I still do this! I mean you folks read my deep-read posts — I work hard at digging into games as they are and try to set aside my projections of how they ought to be. And I still fail. Some scifi game doesn’t care about maintaining your ship? How could it not care? Money/gear doesn’t actually matter, even when working out possibilities and positioning, man what? Seriously, I have to track every bullet? Seriously, I don’t even track bullets?

Advancement schemes. Character competence. Incentivizing economies. Conflict scale. When you roll. All of it.

Further complicating this is the DIY culture of gaming, that has basically assumed that anything that doesn’t fit with your pre-existing mind map can probably be nudged closer to your expectations. Maybe you make a houserule that bridges some procedural gap in the game. Maybe you have a local play culture that breezes past stuff that another culture will totally get stopped up on. I don’t go to a lot of conventions, but I’ve been to some and sometimes I can sense regional differences that are super interesting.

So, anyway. Mostly this is a reminder to me about taking into account assumptions that people probably make about games all the time.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Indie Game Reading Club on Patreon!

0 thoughts on “How This Game Ought To Be”

  1. There are assumption also in board gaming. For example I saw people throw tantrums when their magic opponent blatantly misplayed something, or when they overextend and cage in a player in TI3 and get attacked and trounced in turn 1 (because the proper way to play TI is to build up a big fleet and then attack, right? Right? Or else ragequit)

  2. Oh yeah! I forgot about the space 4x play culture.

    I’ve got a buddy who tries to play Eclipse like TI and is surprised when things don’t work the same way. I’m guilty of that as well, having just played Exodus, which borrows from both but plays like neither.

    But I feel like it’s not nearly as widespread in boardgaming. And I’ve never seen anyone houserule a game to play more like another game (like adding blueprints to TI to be more Eclipse like or something).

  3. This has a pretty sound basis in both neuroscience (I understand from people who know more than me) and genre theory.

    Really. No for serious. One of the main ways we learn, communicate, and engage in joint work together is by building mental models, especially repeatable, modular, reusable models that we use some background heuristics to apply to the situation at hand in like 90% of the things we do in life.

    When you learn a new game with radically different expectations, especially in games when many expectations are assumed and/or unspoken, it is either going to break your brain (‘s mental model) or break the game. Often both.

    Because RPGs leave so much unspoken, they’re pretty high learning curve on this. But when you take Tabletop board games into cultures where that type of game or play is relatively unknown, you’ll see it happen too.

  4. I wonder what an RPG would look like where there were literally no assumptions left unaddressed.

    Probably like a boardgame. Section 1.A.iii: how many dice to make available on the table.

  5. Maybe I’ve got some masochistic addiction to breaking my brain.

    Maybe I’m addicted because it feels so good when I stop.

    I would not actually advise this approach to other gamers! Although my gaming brain is now so broken that you can pour it into pretty much any shaped mold.

  6. A couple sort of related things bounce back out of the black box of my brain.

    First — there’s this idea of what feels like a meaningful choice. If enough calculation creates one objectively right answer, it isn’t a choice. If the options are completely arbitrary, without enough information to distinguish them, it isn’t a choice. Choice lives where there’s a sense of real difference, but not the clear-cut calculation. RPGs and board games both thrive on choice, but deal with the realm of possible choices in very different ways.

    Second — As If was talking a bit back about stories and master narratives, and how satisfying stories generally have recognized and accepted master narratives appear as though they were natural and obvious emergent properties.

    But different groups of people accept different master narratives, and seeing an unrecognized or rejected master narrative emerge can be really jarring to the experience of a story. This hits me whenever I play most murder hobo games — I find it hard to ignore that I’m sucking measurable self-improvement from turning people into corpses.

    Third — Vincent Baker talks about the “shared imagined space” in RPGs and wargames, for which I’m going to substitute board games. In an rpg, things that only exist in the minds of the players affect the possible outcomes in direct and often concrete ways. Board games, in contrast, may use the physical bits to inform the fiction of what’s happening, but try really hard not to let the hard represented bits be affected by anything that’s not represented that way, going so far as to make the murky process of choice only matter as it expresses itself in a few predetermined ways.

    I think these are all tied into a single coherent idea that is central to what you’re talking about here, but which I do not have sufficiently grasp of to express directly.

  7. All excellent thoughts, Jesse Cox.

    It was fashionable in Olden Times to make turgid pronouncements on fora like story-games.com along the lines of “RPGs are different because the rules talk back to you.” Which struck me as, frankly, fortune cookie wisdom. I agree that there’s a single coherent idea behind everything you’re saying, but I would not propose that it’s easily distilled down to a pithy quote.

  8. Paul Beakley​ if you have the patience and the aptitude it’s both extremely valuable and very educational to yourself and others. It’s actually a key reason I like your AP posts.

    As for an RPG that did it, the game parts would be brutal hard, but maybe possible. But the daunting issue to me is leaving no assumptions around the whole issue of how we jointly create worlds/fiction/situations that don’t actually exist.

    Like, narrative studies folks have spent a century very seriously trying to break down how a single author delivers a single story to a set audience and have barely gotten anywhere.

  9. I had thought only RPGs have a SIS; it’s their defining feature. I.e., boardgames have no “fiction” as the term is used in RPGs.

  10. It’s magic. /thread

    Everyone go home! We’re done here!

    No but seriously, sometimes it really seems like magic.

    Jason Corley said something really smart recently (broken clocks being right 2x/day and all that) about RPGs being, basically, folk music as performed by families and communities when they had to provide their own entertainment. And I think that is a super true and functional model for perhaps the vast majority of actual play. You show up, everyone knows the tunes, you play together for a while, and the pleasure lies in the shared (amateur) experience whether there is an audience present or not. You might be called upon to perform at a wedding or a fair, but you’d get together with your fiddles and drums and whatever else whether there was an audience or not.

    So what happens as time goes by and not everyone knows the tunes? Or your kids pick up your instruments and start injecting riffs and structures they’ve picked up from outside your community? They might not even have an especially strong grasp of the tunes their parents taught them, but the underlying pleasure of playing together is still there.

  11. “I wonder what an RPG would look like where there were literally no assumptions left unaddressed.”

    Eventually this breaks down. Language is built on assuptions, e.g. I have to assume you know what I mean by “assumption” in order to say this sentence. (There’s a related concept where the fact that game instructions are supposed to be talking about a “working system” helps lend clarity — like when someone is teaching you something like a math technique and you can tell that you’ve understood it because you can see how it works, or “cryptic” furniture assembly instructions that snap into place mentally as the parts snap into place physically). I think a big stumbling block is people figuring out when it’s necessary to start a new mental model and when to piggyback on an old one. Boardgames tend to send a lot of signals that say “this is a new game that you haven’t played before”, while RPGs aren’t always like that (especially for people who don’t want to read rules, etc.).

  12. Also, members of any given community are likely to talk shit about how other communities are bad and wrong and all their dances suck. Even though people from completely outside the folk tradition totally can’t tell the two apart. 

    After all, it’s easier to assume your mental model is essentially correct than it is to acknowledge that its only one of many potentially valuable mental models.

    And bluegrass sucks.

  13. Dan Maruschak

    In order to create a system with no assumptions from scratch, one must first create the entire cultural universe.

    (end Carl Sagan voice)

  14. Yeah I think that identity stuff is very nerd-specific.

    I cannot imagine sitting in your wagon for the day going to the next town over for (say) a wedding, and giving the next town shit for playing their rondo wrong.

    But — and god I hate stretching metaphors this far — I could totally see the problem when some goons show up with electric guitars and drum machines and algorithmically generated melodies. Probably their product would be judged terrible because it doesn’t fulfill the needs and expectations of the traditional performers. You can’t even dance to this!

    So back to the assumptions of play thing. Maybe what isn’t needed is games that leave all assumptions explicitly addressed, but rather is clear-eyed about where assumptions are about to be challenged. Burning Wheel did this pretty well (the little demon face) but it’s also deeply confrontational: I think we have a better way of doing this thing can be hard to swallow if you don’t (think you) have problems.

  15. Mark Delsing

    This is just my murky memories talking, but I thought that many board games (from Monopoly to Warhammer to Tigris & Euphrates to Settlers) have a shared imagined space, it just doesn’t “talk back” to the mechanics. Roll something unexpected, and we can justify it with narrative — try to use narrative to justify something unexpected, no traction.

  16. Paul Beakley

    You know, when I started writing, there was only one comment? When you say something interesting, trying to talk early on is like jumping into a tsunami with a surfboard.

    And yes — I think that fortune cookie wisdom is a natural and unfortunate side effect of discussions trying to understand something genuinely hard and elusive. Science tries to get around this by redefining terms from Latin and Greek, but humanities are usually at least trying to pretend they’re accessible, so you get pithy phrases that are really just a reference to some nebulous thing hiding in the whole discussion.

    Insert comment about fingers pointing at the moon here.

  17. Mmmmm… Maybe. I don’t know enough about the folk music scene to say.

    I do know the 80 to 90s political punk scene was very full of opinions about how if you do punk with/without X you need to die in a fire.

    And in any case, I agree about Burning Wheel, though only in as much as you can add specifically better for who and in what specific ways.

    Because just “better” full stop is the road that leads to stratification.

  18. Brand Robins

    So, my actual experience from folk music (and gaming, although I understand it’s not the norm in gaming) is that people don’t talk smack about how other town performers are doing it wrong — they either say “Yeah, that’s a smoking fiddle, but (my local music prodigy) would/does do that better, you should hear (him/her)” or call out to said local music prodigy to say “these folks are doing something weird, but I think it has legs.” And hope something new and great comes from the cross-pollination.

  19. Posting from phone. In user experience design we often interview and observe people using similar designs to build up a User Model which is another way of saying their assumptions based on their previous experiences of how things should work.

    We then watch their blood pressure go up as they try to use experiences that differ from their assumptions. Interestingly their stress levels may go up but in that state and they may be more frustrated but also more observant and aware.

    You can guide people past their assumptions to new experiences but it is a balancing act. Depending on the person it can be helpful to first show them the familiar and slowly transition in increments. Or warn them before assumption breakers and ensure them it isn’t them and explain why. Or pair frustration increasing moments with pleasure increasing moments never letting things get too frustrating (two-five familiar point for every one unfamiliar). Also the amount of unfamiliar matters. We try to keep people from having to juggle more than 2-4 pieces of key information at a time. Some of this is also cultural.

  20. Haha! And here I worried about just dredging up boring old shit. The veterans of the psychic wars will never give up the fight. Glad you’re enjoying it!

  21. Jesse Cox There is no narrative in Monopoly. There is no fiction of which all players need to be aware in order to interact with the game. Any player can look at the board and know exactly what their available options are. You can imagine any fiction you want — maybe how the dog feels about the shoe, or the relationships the car makes while in jail — but since that fiction has no impact on play, no one else needs to be aware of it, and thus it’s irrelevant.

    SIS is what makes an RPG an RPG. It’s the clouds in the people, clouds, and dice in Vincent’s diagrams. In Monopoly, there is no cloud.

    (And I’m not berating you; I’m just helping to define. Like a good nerd, I get pedantic sometimes. 😀 )

  22. I’ve seen games of Monopoly where there was a cloud.

    It broke the game. As soon as the dog’s unrequited love for the shoe lead him to not charge the shoe rent, shit went sideways.

    There was screaming involved.

  23. Also what Brand Robins says is right on.

    We don’t really perceive reality but models that are usually pretty effective (and fast).

    Our ability to work with abstractions on this level is quite useful (and problematic, especially when we don’t realize what we are doing and mistake models for absolutes). I suspect this is also partially why roleplaying is so powerful. we can use our empathy to feel things that aren’t actually happening.

  24. Past experience plays a huge role here.

    If you never experienced role playing games, the learning curve will be steep. You either will like them in the end or not, but once you had some experience with them, as many people in this thread pointed out you are open to the world of assumptions, shortcuts ect.

    Paul Beakley as to the boardgames and rules in them.

    First rules in boradgames are way shorter than your average RPGs. Usually quite easy to assimilate and after a game or two you know how the game works, got basic strategy down and know the goals. We all know how long does it take to figure out currency mechanics to a well developed game, essential step for system mastery and “getting full experience form the play” (not for everyone but for rather big chunk of the fans).

    Second RPGs are notoriously bad (getting better as time progresses!) at explaining rules and even more broader concepts – playing the game and roles at the table. ect. That creates a lot of assumptions and pointless discussions, trying to figure out what author said. That is to your point about BW boards, people just assume that rules are full of holes, and they have easy fixes for problems that do not exist in one game, but they encountered them in the other games they have played in the past.

    Third thing – time commitment. I think this is a main factor in why people are hacking the games to their liking, and do not want to play by the rules. If you are aware how much time the average game will take, you are less likely to even approach a game with an open mind – 6 session for beginning to comprehend what is going on systeme wise? Way too long for some. Boardgames have rather clearly specified time frames for a round of play. In RPGs everything depends on people involved.

    Fourth. Social aspect and table dynamics. A whole different can of worms as there are infinite variables. But I saw that people who game with a lot of strangers, or are in multiple games with different people better handle new system exploration and are more willing to try something new.

  25. This also goes a long way toward why I loooove playing with non-gamers. And why deep trad history is so hard to overcome. God, what an elaborate mental model we/they have built for our/themselves.

  26. Consciously? Few can, unless you take hella notes.

    But liminally it does tend to coalesce into a sort of situational and contextualized awareness of rulings. Much like how lawyers know which case president to cite.

    Of course, this assumes honesty of engagement and a good deal of time. Like, I’ve seen it work when I used to run the same game for the same group for hundreds and hundreds of hours of play.

    Happening in a con environment or without long term deep interpersonal engagement, on a model of friendship I personally no longer have access to? Harder.

  27. Which also makes me wonder if part of the work of the OSR community is moving part of the time burden of that development off the individual group and into a more communal or mentoring model.

    (This is really random speculation.)

  28. Okay, so! One thing that I believe is central to this? The fact that so much is subjective in RPGs. It’s that grey area of interpretation that defines RPGs. They are deliberately written for players and GMs alike to interpret them particularly, not just in how the rules mesh with the fiction but also with what they’re about.

    See also: the concept of the Fruitful Void, which has shaped a lot of indie RPG design.

  29. Andy Hauge “The fact that so much is subjective in RPGs. It’s that grey area of interpretation that defines RPGs.”

    I’m skeptical of this, it may be RPG-special-snowflake-ism. I think there are plenty of other games that have judgment calls. Twenty Questions, for example, is pretty much nothing but making judgments about things. In boxing or MMA the ref and the fighters have to make lots of judgment calls about what would be legal or illegal strikes. In Pictionary you have to judge whether something is a legal picture or is illegal symbolic communication. Is this feature really so uniquely true of RPGs that it’s definitional to them?

  30. They are two very different activities, both just contain rules.   It’s Chess vs Cowboys and Indians.  Chess is a foundation of rules and every action is governed by the rules there is no outside of the box, no real arguments to be had about what that piece can do.

    In Cowboys and Indians you have some rules but most of the game is happening outside of those rules and it’s only when there is an event that the rules come into play.  Where the arguments come into play are when players have different expectations of what should trigger an event and in many cases in what rule governs it because the action isn’t always cut and dry..  Is that an attack, did it get surprised, oh I have to make a climb check to get up that tree etc…

    RPG”s don’t have a rule for every action and because of that they are subject to interpretation and previous experience.  Which usually means that someone is being told they are wrong with no cut and dry proof behind it.  Just my feelings and my experience vs yours.

  31. I’m…not totally sure how to fit your comment into the conversation, Chris Groff. I don’t think anyone is disputing any of what you said.

  32. Dan Maruschak​ Andy Hauge​ you might be onto something regarding the centrality of rulings. What makes them different from mma is that they are mostly a tabletop activity where statwments of intent are resolved. RPGs are defined by their fuzziness/tactical infinity and the need for a referee more than, you know, actual roleplaying. You can roleplay Monopoly or Catan but it doesn’t make them an rpg. But I’m not sure an RPG without judgment calls (not necessarily a gm figure though) would still be an rpg.

  33. Honestly not really sure myself. Random musings of a fried brain after agreeing to take my daughter and her friend to a board game Cafe.

  34. Paolo Greco: Indeed! I think the difference between an RPG and another game where you make judgment calls is that in other games, you make judgement calls in order to fit ambiguous events into predetermined categories. In RPGs, you make judgement calls in order to figure out what the heck happens when you combine X with Y in Z fashion.

  35. Paolo Greco “RPGs are defined by their fuzziness/tactical infinity”

    Are you saying “tactical infinity” is unique to RPGS, i.e. that no other game has this feature? Does football have tactical infinity? How about poker? Twenty Questions? The basketball-variant HORSE? (Personally I’m not 100% sure what “tactical infinity” actually means. What test would we use to determine if a game/activity has it or not?).

  36. Definition: What happens when you try to put words on a pre-verbal mental model, and then tell everyone else the words they try to put on a different model are wrong because it sounds like you might be talking about the same thing.

  37. Let’s get a couple of things out of the way first.1. Paul Beakley how dare u.  2. it is now 100 percent legal to point at Brand Robins and frown whenever he speaks; he doesn’t like bluegrass, I cannot stress this enough.

    You just have to look in magazine (and zine) letters columns in the early 80s to see that hating how other people play RPGs and considering them awful, terrible people is baked straight into the DNA of this hobby. Look at the first extended communication between designers and players on Usenet in the 1990s – designers almost universally hated virtually everything every player reported to them about what they were doing. This should have been a clue that once you got away from 1983 by more than a few months in any direction, people simply despised what each other wanted to do and all had different ideas. The failure to embrace this is the main failure of the hobby so far. Punks bought guitar strings and drumsticks; jazz musicians bought saxophones and quilters bought fabric, my great-grandmother bought a shit-ton of canvas and paint, so there’s still money to be made selling raw materials of individual expression to individual groups and then making the hobby about expression and learning instead of consumption and purchasing. Yet somehow that isn’t the direction we’re going. Or the direction we’ve ever gone.

  38. Paul Beakley​ I think that it’s exactly because RPGs are fuzzy in their rules and what happens at the table that you have expectations. Other boardgames have less of that because they are complete formal systems and everything that alters game state is subject to strict rules.

    Still, they have some. Because gamestate is big, and its connections are many. And not all those states and connections are “ok” for some people.

    Another example, a friend of mine spent time in Friesenland and told me that the locals were perturbed when, in a game of settlers, he built roads and villages to tactically block other player’s expansion.

    Dan Maruschak​ what I wrote was definitely more complex than just that. If you want to discuss it let’s bring it somewhere else.

  39. I really want to talk about how Cowboys and Indians totally has rules that apply all the time and stuff, but Paul said cut it out so okay.

  40. That’s an awesome cartoon.

    I almost want to make Corley’s Second Law that “when a RPG person makes a statement about an RPG comparing it to chess, it will inevitably display an ignorance of both RPGs and chess”

Leave a Reply