Saturday, January 5, 2008

My Philosophy of Game Design

noun, plural -phies.
3. a system of philosophical doctrine
4. the critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge, esp. with a view to improving or reconstituting them.

This is an outlook that I have held in some form or another since soon after I first began to play 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons back in 2003. Over the years it has transformed from a vague, fleeting idea to an increasingly articulate concept. This will be the first time I have attempted to sit down and express these ideas in a coherent fashion; here goes nothing. (Note: There's no content to be had in this post, just musing. Those of you who are solely after material for your games can skip this section. Philistines.)

My philosophy/theory/goal is based around the relationship between a game's fluff and its crunch. It's a relationship that I first began to consider last year after reading Ralph Koster's A Theory of Fun, which is an excellent book that you should all be sure to check out. In this book, the idea is raised that when human beings play games, they are working within an established system in order to gain an advantage. We become better at games mostly by learning the system and recognizing the patterns at work. The thought processes the lead to us recognizing and exploiting flaws in a computer game's A.I., rather than playing the way the designers intended, are the same thought processes that kept our ancestors from being eaten by tigers. Apply this lesson to roleplaying games and the resulting implication is that “rollplaying”- thinking more in terms of numbers and die rolls than in-game storytelling – is the natural, smart thing to do.

I see a lot of discussion on the rules used for roleplaying games. People talk about the merits of various levels of complexity in rolls, the practicality of large dice pools, detailed rules vs. simplicity. . .what interests me is the idea of effective abstraction. Since it's natural to think about things in statistical terms, the challenge for game designers is to create systems where the user can better make that connection between a game's fluff and its crunch. In other words, it isn't enough for an abstraction to simplify while still providing balanced/enjoyable gameplay (in a statistical die-rolling sense); it also has to directly connect to what's going on in-game.

A good example of what I'm talking about is the vitality/wound point variant for D&D. See, hit points are a terrible abstraction. When you think about someone getting injured and thus dying, do you imagine that after a person rolls with the blows and avoids any sort of debilitating injury for a period of time, but then a serious injury occurs and immediately knocks them unconscious? That only the toughest of individuals would remain conscious at this point, and even then one more injury will instantly kill them? That the only exception is a minuscule (1 hit point's worth) chance that they'll first be injured to the point that any strenuous action will put them in the aforementioned coma of death? This is not something you normally see, either in fiction or real life; in fact, I'm hardly able to describe it in in-game terms. The vitality/wounds variant is much easier to visualize, and thus increases immersion for the player, adding to the game as a whole.

I've yet to come across any discussion of this topic anywhere, online or in print. Now, I know this is already a standing request for all my posts, but I'd like to reiterate it in this case: Can I get some feedback/comments/discussion on these musings? Am I making sense? Does this seem like something that's important to keep in mind?


BlankRider said...

Yours is an old question. And you never did tell me your idea of a philosophy, other than "mating fluff and crunch." Perhaps I should move on to your next posts where you tear to pieces the viscera of it all.

Dagda said...

Yeah, as attempts go I feel like this one fell flat (or at least did a alot of stumbling around).

Lemme try this again.

"I want the player to have his cake and eat it too; to be able to analyze a situation both from a tactical number-crunching standpoint and an in-game one. And the key to that is usually writing crunch that intuitively translates into fluff, and vice versa. Some people call this roleplaying vs. rollplaying. I prefer to call it roleplaying vs. game."

That any improvement?

Markus said...

Well spoken (writen?). What you say is true and pretty much in the same line that I work in, even though you were able to give me some new things to occupy my thoughts with.

As an exange for you insigt I can give you a fraction of my latest thoughs. I've been thinking of wound system that works somewhat similar to what you see in the super smash bros series. Now how to implement it in a simle and fun way is another question. P:

Dagda said...

One simple way would be the damage saves from Mutants & Masterminds (and later Unearthed Arcana; it's on I considered using it briefly with d20 Rethought, with different results for failed saves based on the type of damage. In the end I guess the answer I settled on had more in common with Halo than the Smash series, though.

Dagda said...

It's interesting to come back and reread this post two years down the line. At the time I honestly couldn't pin down what it was I wanted to articulate, but now I can see the key line was "what interests me is the idea of effective abstraction."

In other words, this post is attempting to explain why you need easy-to-grasp links between the game's fiction and its mechanics, with an emphasis on moving people past the "role vs. roll" oversimplification.