08 March 2006

The Beginnings of Structured Freeform (Draft)

These conversations are finally starting, which is terrific, but I wanted to write a substantial post to try to bring a bunch of disparate elements together. Over at Story Games, a portion of the slowly emerging post-Forge indie community seems to be getting serious about trying to do design work specifically aimed at two communities that have traditional been under-supported. One of these are players who see immersion in character as one of the chief goals of play, but that's not the group I want to focus on here.

I want to talk about another group which has a fair bit of overlap with players who love immersion and so is often conflated with them. I see them as pretty distinct, however. The following description of them is a generalization which won't perfectly fit everyone in this group, but I hope it is not an unfair or inaccurate one.

The group of players that I'm personally most interested in designing for wants to see more "low-impact mechanics," game rules that don't require players to deal with many meta/OOC issues once play has begun: including managing game resources, thinking strategically about how best to use the rules, negotiating or competing with the other players to determine "what happens," setting stakes, narrating outcomes not directly related to their character, comparing numbers or fiddling with math to determine results, and the like.

These players want the feeling of being in an interesting story. In fact, among them, there tends to be quite a fetishization of "character" and "story" as high ideals. Many are excited to play every week mostly "to find out what happens next," either to their character or in the overall story as a whole. They are prone to My Guy, not wanting to break their own standards of consistent character behavior even to create more interesting situations. They live for Color. They can often be satisfied with simply being participants in the GM's story as long as they are entertained and are frequently given the opportunity to shine. They thrive in online freeform games, whether play-by-post, PBeM, or chat.

As far as tabletop goes, they have traditionally contented themselves playing games like Amber, Ars Magicka, Changeling, and, in more recent years, Nobilis, Buffy, and Exalted, though you can find them playing anything. In America, quite a few of them have been involved in Mind's Eye Theater at one point or another and, in my experience (though Jere has already disagreed) a large number of them seem to be female, though there are quite a few male adherants too.

They are not necessarily into immersion, but can be. Many simply don't like the idea of breaking the fantasy/daydream to deal with mechanical issues, because this distracts from their experience and enjoyment of the story. They roleplay to listen to and be a part of a story. The fact that they're playing a game is secondary at best. This is often why they end up ignoring most of the rules and largely playing freeform, because the story is more important than the game.

This is the group that White Wolf often tries to play to, with their fetishization of story and storytelling, and their Golden Rule to ignore the rules. Often, game companies play to this audience as a way of targetting female players and mistake their dislike of fiddling with mechanics as a kind of "Barbie says: 'Math is hard,'" and try to streamline or dumb down the rules of existing games, as with Blue Rose. This doesn't really do much to help these players, however.

This group understands that most mechanics can be replaced by a solid social contract, playing with the right people, and building a strong shared history of play with the others in the group. They are less interested in mastering the rules of the game and more insterested in forming a community of practice, most likely with their own idiosyncratic standards and ways of operating.

Many indie designers, even ones that I respect immensely, are frustrated by players with these sorts of desires, because they seem to reject most traditional design work, not appreciating the neat little rules that designers develop to make play more interesting. And they do this from what can seem to be an "allergy to mechanics." Often, to this type of player SYSTEM DOESN'T MATTER and this is antithetical to the soul of the indie design movement. Designers throw their hands up in the air and storm off in a huff. How do you design rules for people who tend to just ignore most of the rules?

I have spent the past year or two trying to answer this question and have had some help along the way from several individuals who've provided exciting insights.

Thomas/Langellier & Peterson: Constraint

Mo: Pull

Me: insights from my 2-player games


Anonymous Thomas Robertson said...

First, I must admit that I don't know that I've ever had much exposure to these kinds of players. With that out of the way, I'm going to make some authoritative statements that I'm not qualified to make.

It seems to me that we're dealing with two fundamentally different ways of approaching gaming as a hobby.

On the one hand we have the "traditional" indie movement which is about, in an important senese, universalising play experiences. The goal is for anyone to be able to pick up (for instance) Dogs in the Vineyard and be able to have roughly the same experience as anyone else. Of course there are differences, but they're supposed to be akin to the differences of two different games of chess. Same form, different content.

On the other hand we have people who are about making play less universal. These people are about making play personal to the group. New players must be taught socially the rules of the game because those rules aren't written down, and they certainly aren't universal. This looks, to me, like the description of a lot of play in the 80's.

I think that part of the indie movement grew out of the desire to get away from that sort of play because not everyone finds it fun. But in the rush to abandon the "this sucks" extremely private (to specific groups) form of play, the indie movement left behind those who actually enjoyed what they were doing.

I'm really excited to see you doing thought in this direction since I think it's pretty cool. The only other work I can recall being done with this sort of thing is Chris Lehrich's Shadows in the Fog back in the day in which he was trying to demonstrate bricolage concepts. Do you think that Shadows in the Fog is something of the type you're talking about, or is it something different?


2:18 PM  
Blogger peaseblossom said...

I think this is a pretty fair description of a style of game (I'm not going to say it's necessarily my style of game, because I like lots of different games, but it certainly links up with many of the things I enjoy in a game), but I have to ask why you refer to 'they' rather than 'we'? Is this a style of game that you're interested in playing? If not, why are you interested in designing for it?

3:42 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Walton said...

Jess, I guess because, like you, I don't want to define myself as ONLY liking this kind of play. I can certainly do other things too, but this is a style I do like and wish was better supported.

I may make that clearer in the final draft. Thanks for pointing that out.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Walton said...

Thomas, I think you're also talking about the move from long-term games to short-term games that actually have a clear ending. Or the desire to write games that can be played as one-shots or quick demos, or where you can jump right into the heart of the matter and deal with difficult issues right off the bat, balls-to-the-wall. This, in effect, skips the step of actually building the social contract beforehand, learning to trust and work with the other players.

Hmm... I need to think more about this.

6:10 PM  
Blogger Mo said...

This kind of player comprises about half to two thirds of my gaming groups. In fact, there is much (though not all) of it that would be an accurate description of me, at least me before I started to get a design head on.

The game group as a community of practice - bang on, Jonathan. I wouldn't necessarily have connected these two concepts on my own, but that sums up a lot of how I feel about them.

because the story is more important than the game

Brand and I have had a number of discussions (especially when we were back in the beginning of the push/pull talk) where I have dismantled wholecloth mechanics, or randomization or chance mechanics out of system and he has ended up saying something like: "But then it's not really a *game*, is it?". To me it is. Game in an RPG context is more synonymous with the concept of play than it is with game in the sense of Risk or Football.

How do you design rules for people who tend to just ignore most of the rules?

I think it can be summed up in one word: Modularity. In 1000 Stories this has turned out to be one of our big goals, to conceive of system elements in modules that can be turned up or turned down, or adapted on the fly. The system gives the players permission to turn the rules off because it acknowleges and accounts for the reality that there are multiple paths through the system and some dont't work for one person while others do.

Of course, we haven't gone through playtest yet, so I may well be talking out my ass, but there's something bright and sparkly in my head about the potential of modularity for these folks.

11:40 AM  
Blogger annie said...

Reading this, I'm anxious for action, yee-haw. Anxious to try out this online play deal.

Three nerves were touched going through this draft.

I have a gut reaction whenever I hear about online play. Maybe this is too much from the days of seeing "role play" in my Neopets days being defined as Mary-Sue characters flouncing around in fan-fiction-esq settings... with no real direction.

I go back to the advice I hear from Jared and JohnW when it comes to gaming: What do you do? What do you Do? and How does the system support that?

A dose of good online RP is needed to wash that out my mind. I have yet to see purpose in online game... likely because I haven't been looking since those bad periphrial experiences.

Thus, "Structured Freeform" (it took me a while to grok the post's title) is intriguing (nerve number 2). It offers the possibility of focus, of bounderies, of drive, to the typically amorphous blob that is online... whatever.

I can't really comment on your charachterization of these players in the tabletop scene. The only one of the games listed that I've played is Amber, and even without dice, there was extreme crunch, little direction, and player in-fighting that didn't jive with me.

MET has (again, in my experience) the player-vs-player aspect, too. Feh.

a large number of them seem to be female, though there are quite a few male adherants too
Perhaps a larger whole number of males, but a larger percentage of the female population?

If I am one of these players, I prefer to ignore rules than play without rules. Rules provide a safety net and an entry point. (There are about six different images in my brain explaining this.)

Rules, playing a game instead of just playing, draws a clearer boundery between real life and character life.

The more I think about this, I realize I am the fish of more than one horse. I game in multiple ways, and I design in multiple ways. To narrow either part down to "one way" would diminish my rock star nature.

3:39 PM  
Blogger annie said...

erg, didn't proofread enough. I added a graph and forgot to change later antecedents. I need to wash bad online RP experience out of my mouth, not J&J game theory.

3:45 PM  
Blogger WiredNavi said...

I've had some experience with online freeform RP. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though I've since moved on to mostly tabletops and larps.

I don't think that the difference between these groups is really universal experience vs. non-universal. That seems to be the effect. In my experience, though, the online freeformers really want consensus roleplaying. That is, they don't want to have conflicts between players at all, even.

The people I RP'd with online were not interested in resolving their conflicts in a fair and interesting manner. The best game was one where everyone was riffing off of everyone else, and everyone was into everyone else's ideas to the extent that those conflicts simply didn't happen. Characters came into conflict all the time, but players avoided it.

This is in direct contrast to the indie RPG scene, which is very much about making rules for resolving conflict between the players. This is pretty diametrically opposed to what I think those players want - though I admit freely that I may be speaking of a small subset of players. I think in order to make a 'system' for players like that, you'd have to focus on making a system out of expectations, coming up with ways to codify and hold to the communal expectations of each group.

6:59 PM  
Anonymous Arref said...

Very exciting declaration.

I want to see you succeed. I believe there is a way to deliver a system that communicates the 'community of practice' and therefore delivers the game options without dragging each Player into the design world of RPGs.

Go for it.

8:24 PM  

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