Author Topic: Ten Things Every Game Needs  (Read 3174 times)

Offline Agita

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Ten Things Every Game Needs
« on: July 15, 2013, 08:29:27 PM »
It may or may not come as a surprise that I spend fair amounts of time thinking about game design and development. In that vein, today I rediscovered an article by Mark Rosewater* entitled Ten Things Every Game Needs and got to thinking about how its contents apply, specifically, to roleplaying games. The rest of this post will largely be me thinking out loud in terms of general deliberations and specific examples, but I believe that both this and, hopefully, discussion on the subject should prove instructive. I don't think you have to read the article I linked to understand this post, but I recommend it anyway.

*Mark Rosewater is the current Head Designer for Wizards of the Coast's Magic: The Gathering. He writes a weekly column on Daily MTG about the design processes of MtG and game design in general. Rosewater is probably the best game designer in tabletop gaming around nowadays, and has been a designer for not quite as long as I've been alive, so his general design articles are recommended reads for anyone remotely interested in game design. Even those specific to Magic can hold useful advice, if you take the time to think on them and generalize their applicability. EDIT: If you're into podcasts, his Drive To Work podcast is similarly recommendable.
(As an aside, despite MtG being the game used as an example in the linked article, this is not an MtG thread. If you want to complain about MtG, don't do it here.)

#1: A Goal or Goals

Simply put, the game needs to have a point, a way to win. In Carcasonne, the goal is to build a territory worth more points than anyone else's. In a puzzle, you win by completing the image. In Magic, the goal is to reduce your opponent(s) to 0 life.

So how do you win a roleplaying game? Most often, nowadays, an RPG takes the format of the GM (usually) devising a plot that is resolved through the playing of the game. In that case, the goal of the game, the win condition, would be "resolving the plot", or more ideally "resolving the plot to everyone's satisfaction".

There's other formats, as well. The iconic image of traditional D&D is that of dungeon delving, killing monsters, and taking their stuff. In this setup, the goal could be stated as "carrying the [dragon/lich/other]'s loot out of the dungeon", and an adversarial relationship between GM and players is more common (and possibly more justified, see later).

In the end, though, it seems to me that "resolving the plot (to satisfaction)" is a generally applicable goal for a roleplaying game in which a plot is indeed present. Note that this does not necessarily mean resolving the plot to the characters' satisfaction (i.e. a happy end), only the players' and GM's.

#2: Rules

Rules are restrictions that keep you from achieving your goal. They tell you what you can't do in order to achieve your goal (you can't, say, wave your hands and proclaim that you win) and by the same token indirectly let you know what you can do. In other words, they are to provide challenge. If it's too easy, victory seems cheap. Conversely, if it's so hard you can't win (or rather, so hard the player doesn't believe they can't win), there's no point in playing.

Often, rules also add a random or uncertain element to gameplay, such as with dice or a shuffled face-down deck of cards, both as part of making the game challenging and for its own sake (see later). RPGs, of course, almost always do this, though there's exceptions (Amber Diceless Roleplaying is, naturally, diceless, as is Golden Sky Stories).

In RPGs specifically, the GM fulfills a part of this role as well, setting the basic premise (which sets its own restrictions, e.g. "a pirate game") and plot (which will place obstacles before the players). They also have the power to add or remove rules as they see fit (a power best used in moderation, but available).

#3: Interaction

A game needs some aspect that encourages the participants to interact with each other. Many games in which players do not have the same goal do this by allowing you to interfere with other players in some way. In many RPGs, the players do have the same goal, and indeed stereotypically work as a party (they also can interfere with each other just fine, though groups sometimes frown on this). The GM, by definition, interacts with the players by having the world react to their characters. Finally, roleplaying itself is a sort of social interaction, as is the ever-present table chatter.

#4: A Catch-Up Feature

As soon as you stop believing you can achieve the game's goal, there ceases to be a point in playing the game. A catch-up feature is some means by which you could still theoretically pull through even if you're behind. In other words, a light at the end of the tunnel.

The most common form of this in RPGs is luck of the dice. The swingier the random mechanic, the more possible it is for an outmatched player or one who started off with an unlucky streak to still manage (of course, too much swing means that all outcomes are essentially governed solely by the dice, which isn't desirable either). Conversely, if the random mechanic isn't very swingy at all (say, a very steep bell curve), then the same is that much less likely.

The GM has the ability to act as this too, after a fashion, for example by introducing an unexpected source of help (or, more controversially, fudging the dice or adjusting tactics and difficulties).

#5: Inertia

The idea behind this is that a game's default state should be moving towards completion. This might, for example, be accomplished with a time limit, after which the player with the most points wins. That way, even if nobody does anything, the game will be resolved when the time is up. MtG accomplishes it by upping the stakes with time as players become able to cast more expensive and powerful spells.

In RPGs, this rests on the head of the GM. The game itself doesn't force you towards completion, but the GM can have the plot advance and involve the players.

#6: Surprise

An element of surprise adds the thrill of the unknown as well as depth of play. This can be accomplished through random events and hiding information. When playing Monopoly, you don't know what tile you're going to end up on next. When you play chess, you don't know your opponent's game plan.

The most obvious way RPGs add surprise is, again, luck of the dice. You don't know beforehand whether your attack is going to hit (though you might have an idea of the probabilities). Just as important is the players' lack of knowledge of what the GM plans - broadly speaking, plot twists and other information hidden from the PCs.

#7: Strategy

The complexity of decision-making that can go into the game. This goes into depth of play, but it also adds to replayability, since you can get better at the game.

Like trading card games, RPGs have multiple layers of strategy. There's strategy in building your characters (i.e. character optimization), and strategy in play. In ongoing game lines, you also have new content added every now and then to both layers.

Incidentally, while rules-heavy games certainly have more complexity, it's not necessarily true that they also have more strategy. If a rules-heavy game were to allow one obvious build that is clearly superior to all others (sometimes called "One True Build"), there would end up being little strategy in character building. When in D&D 3.5 you play a Fighter whose only option in combat is to make a full attack, charge, or move and make a regular attack, there's very little strategy in play.

Conversely, FATE has a surprising amount of strategy in character building and gameplay despite being effectively freeform with dice, thanks to aspects. Burn Legend is less than 40 pages long (owing to its very tight focus on one specific kind of game), yet it has a high amount of emergent complexity.

#8: Fun

This most likely seems obvious, but it's not as simple or easy as you might think. For one, what's fun to one person might or might not be fun to another. More importantly, whether a game is fun isn't something you can predict on paper. It's something you have to playtest.

Interestingly, in RPGs, a bad group can make playing the world's best game hell, while a good group can make a horrible game highly enjoyable. It's an old and highly true adage that the players can make or break the game. I've had a few of my better gaming experiences while playing systems I hated with the fury of a thousand blazing suns, because the GM and players were fun to game with. This is also, unfortunately, something a designer can't control in any way.

So how does a designer make a game fun? Hell if I know. Playtest, playtest, playtest. Over and over.

#9: Flavor

Another highly interesting aspect. Flavor is an incredibly powerful and versatile tool: It helps you explain your game, it creates attachment, it adds appeal. In the RPG industry, it can even sometimes make up for a game's lacks in other departments, if the players like it enough (a phenomenon that confounds me to this day). The World of Darkness gamelines and Exalted's first and second editions catch staggering amounts of flak for their mechanics, even from their own fans, yet they still retain a sizable fanbase. D&D's third edition portrays the same phenomenon.

Conversely, a game with a perfectly good system will fall flat if its flavor does. This was the doom of D&D 4e, and generic systems usually risk the same. Mutants & Masterminds dodges this by supplying a default flavor (superheroes) in addition to its customizability.

#10: A Hook

You could also call this "the sell" or "the pitch". Literally, it's like a movie or book pitch. The concept that's supposed to sell your game. In Monopoly, you're an investor trying to make it rich. In Magic: the Gathering, you're a wizard (planeswalker) fighting other wizards (planeswalkers). This is different from flavor in that it's not an explanation, but a teaser. What is, when you get down to it, the core essence of the game, the reason people are supposed to look at it?

In RPGs, this usually boils down to either what you play as, or the premise of the setting or default game. By necessity, this isn't going to be accurate or complete, and games can obviously deviate, but it's the selling point of the game. In Spycraft, you're secret agents in the style of James Bond. In Dungeons & Dragons, you're wandering adventurers who save the day. CthulhuTech is about "giant robots punching Lovecraftian monsters". Legend of the Five Rings is about "adventures in Fantasy Japan".

The hook is still important if you aren't actually looking to sell anything for money. After all, if you're writing a game at all, chances are you want it to be looked at. If you're writing homebrew on this board, you want it to be seen, read, and commented. The hook is the reason people should read what you wrote.

And these are my... significantly more than two cents. There's likely tons more that could be said on the matter, so discuss. Or don't, I'm not a cop. How does your favorite game fit in? In what ways are these ten traits accomplished in games you know that I didn't mention? What other things did I fail to mention or take into account?
« Last Edit: July 15, 2013, 08:42:06 PM by Agita »
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Offline Raineh Daze

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Re: Ten Things Every Game Needs
« Reply #1 on: July 15, 2013, 08:53:33 PM »
I agree with the fact that the Exalted is an absolute nightmare of a system. Taking dice pools and adding ways to artificially inflate everything to hell and back was definitely not a good idea.

... but yeah, the fluff of it is amazing.

... I don't really have much to add.
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Offline veekie

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Re: Ten Things Every Game Needs
« Reply #2 on: July 16, 2013, 11:54:28 AM »
D&D funny enough, is pretty weak on a lot of those as well, which might have something to do with it's status as first mover in the market. You see a lot of the load being placed on the GM rather than the game designer. It might be enabling, but it also makes for a daunting first step(which is helped by the large community, since unlike other games you could quite feasibly find someone to show you the ropes)

#1 goes deeper, it also defines what the game's system is focused on. Most RPGs focus on combat(which helps, it's simpler to write material for combat as primary conflict), and everything else extends from that with subsystems. That's also where things go wrong though, any peripherals have a higher chance to fail than core functions. You can see it from the skill system, the social system(especially the social system), the total disregard for character traits outside of combat traits. Which I guess is fine if the system is designed to primarily supply satisfaction in combat and loot.

#5 I think, is more a matter with episodic games. Most of the popular games on the market mechanically reward you for fucking around, and generally taking your own sweet time, barring GM intervention, you do things and get rewarded regardless of if progress is attained. You gain experience and loot. You save on resource pressures(the 15 minute work day sort of extends from a lack of inertia), and heck, if you press on you only put yourself at a disadvantage. Might be interesting to see a game which can put the pressure on without being heavy handed.

#7 meanwhile tends to be weakly done. Two main flawed varieties are common, one strips out variety to keep outcomes fair and predictable(where you get all attacks being fundamentally the same barring a few differences in metrics), another lets emergent complexity do what it like with the game(this is sort of where BFC got out of hand). Neither are that satisfactory, but then most games aren't that good at modeling game rule interactions to generate the right amount of emergent complexity without breaking the operating parameters.

#9, the story rules. It's a weird mix of novelty and relatability. It needs to be interesting to catch attention, but also similar enough to things you've engaged in that you have a frame of reference. Time travel tends to fail on the latter, since most players just can't wrap their minds around the necessary logic, not and have fun anyway, but Fantasy Heartbreakers tend to fail the other way. They get so wrapped up in making the rules work 'perfectly' that the world building is left as a generic blob.
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Re: Ten Things Every Game Needs
« Reply #3 on: July 16, 2013, 08:22:56 PM »
I think the main problem with attempting to apply these rules to RPGs is that the DM is sitting there. You note it several times, but I can't think of a single one that can't be radically altered by the DM. I think about half the posters on this board have house rules documents that may exceed five pages, and things like Tucker's kobolds hint at what the DM can do to strategy if she puts her mind to it.

I'd say that the "Ten Things Every Game Needs" are more useful as a checklist for DMs than as a method of judging roleplaying systems. After all, I'd argue that the system, by itself, isn't a game. Instead, it offers the tools with which a game is created.
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Offline veekie

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Re: Ten Things Every Game Needs
« Reply #4 on: July 17, 2013, 02:56:17 AM »
The problem is the load on the GM, especially GMs new to the system. There are a lot of factors the GM can't easily manipulate, particularly anything relating to emergent complexity or game rule support for particular situations. These are considerations for the game designer, to make it easy and attractive to pick up, and to run.
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Offline Agita

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Re: Ten Things Every Game Needs
« Reply #5 on: July 17, 2013, 09:55:45 AM »
I think the main problem with attempting to apply these rules to RPGs is that the DM is sitting there. You note it several times, but I can't think of a single one that can't be radically altered by the DM. I think about half the posters on this board have house rules documents that may exceed five pages, and things like Tucker's kobolds hint at what the DM can do to strategy if she puts her mind to it.

I'd say that the "Ten Things Every Game Needs" are more useful as a checklist for DMs than as a method of judging roleplaying systems. After all, I'd argue that the system, by itself, isn't a game. Instead, it offers the tools with which a game is created.
Not quite. The toolbox itself, as it were, is still effectively a game, in that it does need to provide the tools. For example, the feasibility of Tucker's Kobolds is a direct function of D&D 3.5's trap rules, which provide that kind of strategy in the first place. You wouldn't be able to replicate it as well in a system that has only rudimentary trap rules, or none at all (say, D&D 4e, straight out of the core books), unless you write the rules yourself - and then you're using your rules, not the game's.

In principle, this is similar to how the GM's ability to create houserules that smooth out a game's mechanical flaws doesn't excuse the existence of those flaws. By the same token, a roleplaying game still ought to give consideration to these ten, adjusted for the nature of the beast. I think the presence of the GM is more of another versatile tool in the designer's toolbox than something that diminishes the applicability of these ten rules.

The idea of using this as a checklist for GMs is interesting, though. Now that you mention it, these points tie into all kinds of common issues in game philosophy that probably bust the scope of this thread, but might be worth another one (each, potentially).

#1 goes deeper, it also defines what the game's system is focused on. Most RPGs focus on combat(which helps, it's simpler to write material for combat as primary conflict), and everything else extends from that with subsystems. That's also where things go wrong though, any peripherals have a higher chance to fail than core functions. You can see it from the skill system, the social system(especially the social system), the total disregard for character traits outside of combat traits. Which I guess is fine if the system is designed to primarily supply satisfaction in combat and loot.
True. A good example of this kind of focus is Burn Legend, which devotes nearly all of its mechanics to resolving combat in the style of a fighting game. The resolution of the bits of story in between combat consists of you just rolling Resources, or Magic, or Followers, or another of a number of stats that are basically "this is what you use to solve problems that aren't combat and therefore not the point".

I've mentioned in private before that a lot of D&D 3.5's problems that aren't directly related to broken mechanics seem to end up originating from the system itself being fundamentally still built around the original premise of going in, killing monsters, and coming back out with swag, while both the fanbase's and the designers' idea of the premise changed to a more general one. However, instead of the system being entirely overhauled and adjusted to the new premise, the focus was left largely alone - likely for legacy reasons.

#5
I'm principally leery of mechanics introduced to put on the pressure, since I've yet to see any that don't annoy me. Even just the GM pushing the clock on some event further while the players converse tends to tick me off. However, in a non-roleplaying game, a lull in the action is just a window where nothing happens, which is boring. In an RPG, on the other hand, a lull in the action is a possible opportunity for roleplay that's not framed in terms of action of whatever kind - if the players take it, anyway. In that light, it might not be as categorically bad as it is in another kind of game, though the onus is on the players and GM to make something of it.

With that in mind, I think the main problem to tackle is the 15-minute workday. If a designer doesn't want to leave that solely to individual groups (remembering that some might be fine with or even embrace it), the games resource mechanic or mechanics will need to take that into account. Anything that requires you to do something specific (rest, wait a day, perform a ritual) that doesn't directly involve action in order to function at full potential again will be an invitation to drop everything and do that whenever you've spent resources and nothing immediately pressing is on the horizon.

#7
Interestingly, of the games on the market, rules-light games tend to handle this better, by mixing a degree of emergent complexity with fewer moving parts that can break (and a lot of GM and player intervention). FATE is a good example. I've no doubt that more complex systems can achieve good strategy as well, but the difficulty of achieving the same goes up witht he number of moving parts in the system, and most people in the RPG industry don't come from backgrounds that help with that.
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Offline nijineko

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Re: Ten Things Every Game Needs
« Reply #6 on: July 17, 2013, 12:42:06 PM »
interesting thoughts.

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Offline veekie

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Re: Ten Things Every Game Needs
« Reply #7 on: July 18, 2013, 06:02:05 AM »
FATE is mostly doing emergent complexity away entirely, it's all in how much time and resistance you're facing to stack up aspects to punch through whatever defenses, there isn't much of a limiter on things other than narrative plausibility and entertainment value.

So does M&M for the matter, both of these deal with complexity by ignoring the process, your mechanics reflect the outcome of your action, not the process or activity taken. Which makes for great balance, but strategy is another thing. Strategic depth requires some form of strength and weakness, the classic weapon triangle in strategy games(Spear>Cavalry>Archery>Spear), elemental vulnerability cycles or the more involved sort(control, weenies, beatdown, acceleration and all the variations and subtypes interacting through playstyle) that MtG has.
D&D sort of goes for the latter, but it doesn't properly account for differences in value between targeted effects and area effects, the qualitative differences between direct damage, buffs, BFC, action restriction, SoD and the chances of defending against each. A lot of noise is made about how they aren't comparable, but they do have measurable metrics, particularly where and how they contribute to the flow of battle.


As for pressure mechanics, FATE has one in the reverse approach,  if you don't spend your FP you basically lose them because you aren't getting the most of your Refresh.
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Offline Agita

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Re: Ten Things Every Game Needs
« Reply #8 on: July 18, 2013, 01:18:12 PM »
To the contrary. FATE has a highly simple structure (a character largely consists of aspects and skills) that branches out into more complex considerations than you'd expect if worked right (mainly in working aspects). That's the definition of emergent complexity, and it's not limited to heavy mechanics.

More than not properly account for the differences between effects, I'd say they were misjudged. Which is the same thing, in the end. When reading designer quotes from D&D 3.5, it looks a lot like designers were stuck in older assumptions, which their playtests backed up (because they never challenged those assumptions), while at the same time working with a new system. A recipe for disaster if there ever was one.

FATE's 'pressure mechanic', as it were, is potentially a good point. Use it or lose it type resources do encourage you to, well, use them up before the recovery cycle is over, but not always. This might partially be an outlook thing for some players, which isn't something that's easily fixed with mechanics.
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