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MASS Part One - Design Goals


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Or, what’s with these holes I keep stumbling into in my RPGs, and are they actually evidence of a niche, and can I figure out anything I consider of value to fill that space?

I fear I am going to ramble a bit with this topic, as the goals are multiple and co-mingled. But to give you the shorthand for future reference, there are:
(1) Play-style Preference
(2) Player Empowerment
(3) Tapping into Creativity
(4) KISS and targeting small adaptations
, and last, but by no means least,
(5) Do something new.

Each of these elements contributes something into a picture of what I wanted to have as game design aspirations, but they are not the whole. The aspirations evolved over time, naturally enough, but they were in my head, perhaps less articulated, at the start of this process.

So on to specifics. (1) Play-style preference. I'm going to use the GNS thing here. If you don't know about it, sorry about this bit. Once upon a time about a decade ago I spent way more time than was sensible hanging on to the Forge forum and trying to make sense of game psychological theory. In retrospect I failed miserably at truly understanding it, but it seeded some of my thoughts, and these took a long time to fulminate into something. Yes, fulminate’s the word I meant to use. I put a lid on my cauldron of thoughts and kept the fire going, and at some point or other it burst into a godawful flaming mess in my head.

I have discovered over time that my own personal tendency is somewhere between Gamist and Narrativist. I want there to be challenges to overcome that require gaming of the system, but the objective of that is that a cool story gets told. This is an interesting combination, because where I find holes in existing games is where they get bogged down too much in doing just one or the other of these things really well.

As far as simulation is concerned, I find that if there is enough colour in the descriptions or world-building, I am happy to pick it up and feel it come to life, but then in very short order I am trying to push the boundaries of what is being simulated. I try to find how to use the rules of the simulation in order to ‘win’ or ‘break’ outcomes from the game or I try to figure out how to make a cool story using the simulated elements, and this often requires expanding the simulation into uncharted territory.

So what does this mean for my role playing style and the systems out there? For games like DnD I often find that the rules of the game push me into a particular style of story (messing with my narrativist bent). While I enjoy the heck out of gaming the system (levitate and divination makes a melee end of level boss a pincushion), it often means that the game is about figuring out what tool to use on the relevant lock of the moment.

When I look at games with a stronger narrativist aim I find that the rules generally focus on the adding to the player power over the story. So game systems like Fate do most of the same gamist set up as a DnD, but throw a resource into the mix that is effectively ‘manipulate the dice’ or ‘create or modify a specific set of outcomes if I use this resource’. It seems to me that this is about empowering players to game towards specific plot, setting or character outcomes, sacrificing ‘simulating the situation accurately’ for ‘story outcomes that I want’. I like it, but intuitively I don’t feel as though this satisfies my play preferences. It’s almost like the rules are saying ‘play like this, but if you really want something in the game, here is how you break those rules’. I kind of want the immediacy of saying that I might really want something every scene. Not that the thing I want is always my character winning, mind you. Quite often I get more fun out of situations where characters fail to do what they should be capable of because of situation or choice. But few systems out there that I have found support that kind of play, or if they do, they end up being unstructured very quickly. This is a bit of a segway into (2) Player Empowerment.

So if I am a player, not a GM, I am constantly hitting my head against the role of the GM. This might be seen as a tendency to be a control freak but I think that this is actually a way of marginalizing a key element of a large number of role player’s psychology. By my reckoning role-playing is over-represented with control freaks comparative to the general population, and the very act of participating in a game is an exercise in escapism and search for control.

I believe there is a basic assumption about roles that most RPGs make. There is kind of a binary between the roles of player and games master, and these are the default positions. The power of the story sits with a story teller leading a group. I believe that in systems that break this paradigm, the default assumption is that all the participants want equal power over the story.

My experience of players I have gamed with makes me believe that, like many binaries, this one is a massive oversimplification. I can pick out a number of archetypes among my play group whose roles in role playing groups are as complex as all interpersonal roles. You have leaders and followers, technical specialists, social butterflies, and people who prefer to sit back and let others take the spotlight, interjecting only once in a blue moon. You have people that are only showing up to game sessions because of the social aspect, and others who want total and complete immersion in a game.

So I became conscious of the fact that our default roles as players or GMs in role playing games were not considering the why of the play in anything more than a simple starting model. And I wanted to explore and expand that concept a little. Which led me to consider how games allow or encourage players to tap into their (3) Creativity.

Again getting into assumptions. Role playing is a creative activity, allowing participants to involve themselves in an interactive story in a shared imaginary world. By its very nature, it requires some level of immersion and is always an exercise of the imagination. This is fundamental. So game elements that trigger creativity and allow it to be shared grow the game possibilities and are opposed by game elements that control, limit or even stifle creativity. But playing in a group requires a number of agreed rules in order to be able to have a shared experience. And creativity does not flourish without constraints: in fact it can be paralysed with options. What some people might find confining (for example levels or spell lists or rules about encumbrance) to other people might be a welcome crutch to enable visualization of a realistic simulation, and in fact a springboard into creativity.

The point: it’s not a one-size-fits-all situation, and compromises need to be made in order to play together. But allowing for and supporting as many creativity triggers as might be reasonable should be a principle of design.

Next, complexity is exponential, and KISSing is critical (4). Adding any element of change multiplies all the possibilities of things that would need writing and that a reader would need to adapt to. So keeping things simple as possible is critical, as is asking a reader or player to adapt to any kind of change. But the counterpoint to this is that there is no point in even putting hand to keyboard unless I was adding something to the gaming continuum. So it had to have (5) new elements that contribute something of interest to game design and game play.

So in summary. I wanted a game system that supported my playstyle preference, but also allowed for other play style preferences. While it might be the case that a group might not actually work in getting together to play the one game, at least it would have a better chance and potential to give more of the players more fun. I wanted a game system that supported varying degrees of player actualizing their empowerment, so that you didn’t need to have a GM and Players in simple roles, and one in which a player might have as much power as the GM to create and influence the story at any point, or likewise step back away from creativity and let others take the lead as befitted the situation or their inclination better. I wanted a game in which player creativity could be voiced as it was triggered, allowing for the game to have a chance at a better story. And it has to be simple, but adding something new, as well as making any changes to default paradigms in small, easy steps.

When I looked at these objectives I realized I would fail at most of them. And I have! But at least I had aspirations in mind, and in aiming for the stars I might at least avoid blasting a hole in my own foot.
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