Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Elegance, Emergence, and Role Playing Game Design

In a recent post I remarked that in judging the elegance of a game “it is important to understand the design differences forced upon a game by its [designer’s] choice of scope and granularity.”  Chris Warren has similarly concluded that when he attempts to make his game designs elegant, he’s “actually trying to make the game as un-complex as possible… for the amount… of emergence” that he’s trying to foster.  He defines emergence as being patterns that occur during play “that are not directly defined by the rules of the system.”

Under this measure, Conway’s Game of Life does very well.  Chess has many more than its fair share of openings, combinations, and killer tactics for a game with such few rules.  But interactive fiction’s hardwired emphasis on one-shot puzzles cause it to come up short here.  Computer Role Playing Games might, as a class, fair a bit better if the design is good enough: their model world construction might develop an emergent ecology of sorts in the course of play.  But the Role Playing Games from which the CRPGs originally sprang are an entirely different can of worms.

Role Playing Games seem to be so dominated by the requirements of an adaptive and coherent narrative that most rules tend to get thrown out the window in the heat of the game.  Take Traveller as an example: it didn’t take long for players to realize that excessive space combat lead to a depressing amount of character generation.  Sophisticated modern referees such as Karl Gallagher nearly eschew combat altogether– ultra-violence is reserved for orcs in other settings.  The throws that I require in the course of the game are mostly improvised according to each situation.  In terms of hard and fast rules that actually get used, I’d say that about 90% of them come from the character and world generation.  But those rules are only used to prepare for play.  What gets used during a game is probably only a page or two of charts and core rules.

I wish that modern play-tests for RPGs were more like… well… play-tests.  What usually happens is that the rules get tinkered with, proofread, checked for various flame war inducing factors, and so forth.  You rarely hear about, “when I ran a session with this new rule-set, this is what happened.”  You certainly don’t see transcripts of actual sessions!

I wish there were similar tools for RPG testing like what we have for software development.  I’d like to give a new game to five or ten different groups to play with for a few sessions… and I’d like to not only have a full transcript of the games, but I’d like to have each group’s rulebook automatically highlighted for each rules section that actually got used.  I’d especially like to have sections that were flatly contradicted or house-ruled highlighted in red.  That would give the designers some real information to work with, but I’m not sure that many designers care.  Sometimes I wonder if we’ve really come that far since the seventies.

But back to Warren’s remarks….  How can RPG rules be designed to maximize elegance and emergence?  Are there any good examples of this?  I mostly play the old stuff, so I wonder if I’m missing out on any major improvements….

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6 responses to “Elegance, Emergence, and Role Playing Game Design

  1. Chris April 4, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    Very nice blog, and thanks for the reference and kind words!

    Design in RPGs is a very interesting topic. I’ve generally ended up seriously tweaking any system I’ve run and argued for changes to most systems I’ve played (the one exception that springs to mind is Amber, which is broken in some ways but flexible enough that that doesn’t really matter). I mostly compartmentalize RPG design from board game design. Thinking on it, there’s really no good reason for that, just habit.

    The new version of D&D (3+, or perhaps more accurately the d20 system) actually does a decent job of creating emergent behavior through its feat system and through unifying the underlying framework. E.g. there’s nothing explicit that says Improved Trip and Combat Reflexes and Spiked Chain are a good combat combination, but the way the parts interact that works out to be true. However, it’s certainly not elegant, and in it’s strict form it’s not very adaptive.

    I end up running a lot of stuff in my sessions made up on the spot, but there’s also a place for the intricate combat at times. Partly it depends on the story, partly on the desires of the players, and partly on how much time we have. I tend to think of RPGs as primarily story telling and creating systems, with plenty of hooks for tactical mayhem when people are in the mood.

    A game system with kind of pluggable components would be neat – e.g. here’s the drama-enhanced magic rules, the combat magic rules, the quick-and-dirty magic rules, the free-form magic rules, etc. and the GM doesn’t pick one at the start of the game and say ‘this is how magic works’ but instead can use whatever rule set is appropriate at any given point in the game. Similarly with combat, social interaction, construction, etc. The trick would be allowing one to transition smoothly from one sort of component to the next, and making sure the more detailed and complex rules modules didn’t overwhelm the more free-form ones (or vice versa, I guess).

    Anyway, keep up the good writing!

  2. Linnaeus April 5, 2007 at 1:12 am

    The modern school of vaguely Forge-related RPG designs strike me as scoring far higher on the elegance scale than any game from before 1995. Prior to that, with perhaps a bare handful of exceptions like red box D&D, Paranoia and (by reputation) Tunnels & Trolls, you basically had to choose between overly complex, but tactically interesting games, or games that did little more than offer a framework for rolling dice when you feel it is appropriate during play, with no attempt being made to shape play in any way.

    Depending on your tastes, games like My Life with master or Polaris may go too far toward elegance, but at least they offer a guide to how elegance can be applied to RPG design.

    I feel strongly conflicted over d20 Fantasy/D&D 3.x. On the one hand, it succeeds in achieving a tactically rich play environment, but, on the other, it almost boils down to being an open ended boardgame with a 900+ page rulebook (plus myriad expansions). It does what it wants to do very well — almost certainly better than any other game — but it does not come anywhere close to doing so elegantly.

    I play it largely because my friends want to play it, but the overhead as a player is borderline for me. I’ve taken first steps toward running a d20 campaign, and just given up on the idea because the game, and in particular NPC creation, are far too complicated.

  3. jeffro April 5, 2007 at 11:44 am

    Thanks for the input, fellas. Your commentary on D&D 3.x confirms some of my suspicions.

    The kind of emergent combinatorial texture Charles describes is exactly what I want in a combat or trade system, but the older I get, the less patience I have for the overhead getting up to speed entails. Even if a computer was doing all the work, I’d still want to know exactly what’s happening so that I can make a good strategy, so automization doesn’t necessarily solve the issue. In any event, I’ve been burned by poorly designed systems so many times that I’m not so inclined to embrace any new system on its own terms.

  4. Linnaeus April 5, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    It’s a blind recomendation, but based on reputation, Agon may suit your needs. It’s probably easily hackable to non-Classical settings.

  5. jeffro April 10, 2007 at 8:16 am

    On a first glance, that system looks really interesting: cool use of polyhedra and nifty character sheets… also, the players compete against each other. (I wonder how they can make that fair…. Hmm….)

    Neat concepts; it will take some time to soak it all in, though. Thanks for the suggestion.

  6. Karl Gallagher April 11, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    Heh. I’ve run the occasional bloodbath for players who prefer that option.

    I’d love being part of a serious play-test like that. Though part of the transcript would have to be marked in brown for the more spontaneously improvised bits.

    As for D&D 3.5, I think it’s a brilliant rule system optimized for the selling of books. Each one lets you expand your character a bit more, then you reach a new threshold and need the next book to give you the feats/spells/items to become more powerful. Which is why my house wound up with copies of Magic of Eberron and Dragonmarked, but no DMG.

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