Hamsterprophecy: Prevision

It\’s All About Pen, Paper and People.

Structured v. Emergent

Posted by Nathan P. on September 2, 2005

This ties into the larger discussion of Craftsmanship that was all over the blogs some months ago.

The first step, from my own experience and from reading many posts in the Indie Design forum at the Forge, in Forge-style design is to create mechanics that directely support whatever behaviour you want to happen, especially in terms of reward cycle. For example, in Timestream, I want access to the cool stuff (time travel Aspects and temporal manipulation Techniques) to be contingent on pursuing a characters goals – so, the only time you get Aspects/Techniques is when you mechanically acheive a Goal.

This is all well and good and workable, but it seems…clunky. Kind of transparent, as in “the designer obviously wants me to do X”. Now, part of truly great game design, true craftsmanship, is supporting behavior through the emergent properties of the rules. This is where PTA and DitV, among others, shine, especially PTA. I haven’t yet seen the updated second edition, but PTA’s core mechanics are very spare and basic. But they have the emergent property of getting people to hook into each others creativity and excitement in an organized and focused manner. And thats awesome.

Incidentally, much of the criticism I’ve read of PTA (again, 1st edition) in particular stems from this issue. You read it, and you go “oh, so you compare some dice to determine the outcome of the conflict, and you can give people dice if you like what they do. Whats the big deal?” And its defenders go “you have to play it to see what the big deal is” – because, when you get right down to it, thats where the big deal is. It’s emergent.

So, my ambition with Carry is to create an emergent dynamic that’s not really spelled out in the rules. And I think that that’s going to be far more difficult to design that anything else I’ve done thus far.

Slightly related rhetorical question: I wonder how much of general geekdom and fanboyarry stems from not actually playing, and subsequently mistaking written mechanics for the sum total of the game?

8 Responses to “Structured v. Emergent”

  1. Bankuei said

    Hi,

    Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about Emergent properties of games for awhile. Vincent also wrote recently that the best rules “point to the moon”, but aren’t the moon itself- they lead you to the final goal, without being a glaring obvious signpost.

    Most fanboyerism isn’t even drooling over the rules- it’s drooling over the implied kinds of stories(or experiences) you’re supposed to get from the game, usually loaded in the setting.

    For example, L5R has all kinds of cool heroic samurai stuff going on in the game fiction- but actual play for the most part tends towards either D&D or Call of Cthulhu type play in actuality, which produces very little heroism or samurai action. In the same sense, consider how little D&D play resembles fantasy fiction in any way, shape or form.

    Although, I do find that most of the criticisms (and even defenses) of games online are rarely backed by actual play experience.

  2. Shreyas said

    “mechanics that directly support whatever behaviour you want to happen”

    How correct do you feel this description is?

    I feel that one great weakness of this method of design is that it doesn’t invite playtest; it is very tempting to believe that our rules are so straightforward that they’ll bring about exactly what we expect them to. I’ve been a victim of this temptation.

    With emergent effects, you absolutely must hold the rules up to playtest, because interactions are so much harder to predict than singular rules effects.

    I think the “German” school of boardgame design shows that it’s quite possible to create structured rules that are really fine rules; the stumbling block with RPGs is that we’re not as practiced as boardgame designers, yet.

  3. Nathan P. said

    Chris,

    Yeh, thats where I was going with that. I completely agree – the emergent patterns of “traditional” rules all seem to end up working out fairly similarly. And your last paragraph is spot on, though I was referring to a particular exchange I was reading on RPG.net (though I’ll be damned if I try to dig that thread up).

    Shreyas,

    As have I (fallen into that trap). I feel like theres always emergent dynamics, no matter how structured the rules are, and thats a huge thing to be aware of.

    As for your other point, perhaps I need to play more German board games. Though, my gut reaction is that its not a direct comparison – the open-endedness of roleplay as a form lends itself more to emergent dynamics, while structured dynamics support the board game form in a similar fashion.

  4. Shreyas said

    Open-endedness, eh?

    I dunno, I tend to think that’s another monster in our collective closet…there are increasingly numerous games that show that, regardless of imagined events, the system can be closed.

  5. JasonP said

    IMHO, the best systems are closed.

    Back to the original post, your ambition with Carry to create emergent dynamics (rules with soul?) shouldn’t be as hard as you think.

    Look at it this way, you simply need to create rules that A) Embrace the themes of the game. B) Interact with each other in interesting ways. The rest will come on it’s own. I can’t imagine designing for emergence, since it’s something that is half-play anyway. You simply drop and change rules until you capture that magic you are looking for, at least, that is how I approach it🙂

  6. Vincent said

    I think playing good non-rpg games is crucial for rpg designers, open-ended or closed- irrelevent. It’s a craft thing. You want an in-your-fingers feel for good game design, and that means handling as many well-designed games as you can.

    Like, you wouldn’t build an rpg based on Carcasonne’s mechanics, no, but playing Carcasonne will teach you something useful about game design principles.

  7. Nathan P. said

    Shreyas (& Jason),

    Good points, but not really where I’m trying to go…To refocus the discussion slightly: an intrinsic quality of role play as a form is that it generates emergent dynamics, whether in system or in imagined content. Thoughts?

    Jason,

    Well, yeh. But deciding what the magic is that you want, that can be pretty hard. And on a personal level, I like to strive to be right the first time. You know, craft again.

    Vincent,

    Oh, for sure! I wasn’t saying that one shouldn’t look at other game forms, but that I, sadly enough, haven’t really played that many euro-style board games.

  8. Spot-on, Nathan.

    You can also take a more ‘evolutionary’ look at it, and see a sort of realization that games could address different themes, making game rules that hit those themes directly, then making game systems that hit those themes through emergent properties.

    We’ve got a good number of techniques to hit themes directly; we’re only starting in on the techniques to build emergent play.

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