I think I just nailed it.
I think I just made the breakthrough in RPG philosophy that I've spent years trying to articulate to myself- a process that started with me noticing a strange phenomenon, where the experience of playing a tabletop game would be compelling in this certain, undefinable way. I could wait to post this, write up the 2 or 3 posts I've meaning to write up which bridge the gap between my last post on game design theory and where I've just arrived. But this is too important, it defines the core thing that makes roleplaying games (in their broadest definition) special. It's a concept I bet alot of us have figured out to some degree, though probably without much apprectiation for (or interest in) the implications. Whatever else, I can be excited that I personally am treading new ground here.
Enough rambling. My personal epiphany is this: Game mechanics are a medium for storytelling.
Let's start by getting our definitions straight. When I say "Game mechanics" I'm talking the mechanics in and of themselves- the numeric bonus your Dodge feat provides, the amount by which the pouncing rat reduces your hp total in a computer game, the rules in a LARP for determining which swings of a padded sword represent body hits on an opponent.
Saying that something is a "medium for storytelling" means that it conveys a story the same way that air conveys sound. The standard medium for conveying a story is words, but a silent film or dialogue-free comic can also tell a story, and compared to words the mediums they're using have their own advantages, disadvantages, and most importantly: unique forms of potential. When exposed to a text description of an angry man, our minds get something out of it that differs from what we get out of the sight of an angry man's face.
I owe that concept of mediums to the insightful Robert McKee, whose book on storytelling also talks about how well-done stories express ideas, and then go on to *prove* them. A story is given meaning by how it expresses these concepts of what the world is and how it works, with a plot coming together to make an assertion like "love conquers all" or "crime doesn't pay".
Game mechanics can do this. When they represent abstract ideas, they can express and prove ideas in such a compelling fashion that I'm scared by their potential in the realm of propaganda.
I'll start with a blunt example: Say that I take a typical RPG and add a "Willpower" stat. This stat is added to all rolls you make, directly increasing your character's odds of success. With this action as a game designer, I use game mechanics to convey an idea: "Willpower always helps you succeed". By varying the degree to which willpower improves the odds, I can tweak what the message says regarding its importance- "With willpower, you can do anything!"
Of course, using such an overtly game-changing and poorly balanced variant rule to convey this message would be like having every character in a story stop and say "Willpower is the key to success" once every five minutes- one is the action of a poor writer, the other the action of a poor game designer. What would be a more complex and nuanced expression of an idea?
Let's say that we have a system that tracks a character's Anger. The stat can be both a curse and a blessing- it helps you shrug off negative emotions like fear and grief and lends you strength, but reduces your capacity for insight and self-control. Now, I mentioned before that your mind gets different things out of words that describe an angry man and an image that depicts him. By the same token, you're getting something out of your GM telling you that a man before you has 5 Anger Points. It tells you this guy is ready to snap, would be dangerous for you to fight when he'd normally be a pushover, and could be manipulated into doing something he'll always regret with a lie he'd normally see through in a second. These are all ideas about the nature of anger which the game has expressed to you via its mechanics- and they are ideas which you have unhesitatingly adopted in the process of learning how to play the game.
That last bit is what really scares me. Other mediums show you an idea. But games tap far deeper into our learning processes- we enjoy the experience of figuring out how to beat them and affirming that we've done so. We're actively participating in the story, making choices and facing the consequences, figuring out the wisest course of action- which is whatever the game designer has wanted it to be. Stories communicated through game mechanics immerse us far, far more than ones communicated through words and sensory imagery.
I mentioned before that this was at least significant to me personally, and it's hard for me understate the degree to which this is true. This is it, the crucial step that has taken me over the ridge and given me a view of what lies beyond: a chance to do something new and original on a large scale, to perhaps even someday be an honest-to-god pioneer. I'm poised to explore a medium that's been consistently neglected despite game designers having drawn on it as far back as the 6th century, when Chess's predecessor appeared in India with pieces to represent the 4 divisions of the military.
I also finally have a decent explanation for why I don't like poker, so that's cool.
Saturday, January 3, 2009
I think I just nailed it.
Labels: Game Design Philosophy