Category Archives: Speculations

Ultimatum games and shared narrative control

Narrative control is the degree to which fictional authority is shared between referee and non-referee players in a tabletop roleplaying game. This is one of many properties useful for categorizing and understanding games. Traditionally, narrative control is centralized in the person of the referee but can also be shared either informally based on social norms or formally using game systems. For example, in the Fate engine players can spend fate points to establish facts in the fiction of the game world.

Spreading fictional authority over multiple people can lead to greater recombinant fictional potential. However, delegating authority also decreases puzzle complexity, challenge, and potential surprise (see Zak quote below for more on this dynamic). Spending a point abstractly to make a door be unlocked does not require any creativity or lateral thinking.

At one level, moving along the dimension of narrative control in game design caters to different player preferences. Some players are more interested in being challenged and solving problems while others are more interested in formally structured shared storytelling. Given a set of clear preferences, groups can tailor systems and practices. However, authority in games, just as in the broader social world, is continuously negotiated, even when formally addressed by laws or rules. That is, there are more settings or levers available for games regarding narrative control than simply picking a point on the spectrum.

Anecdotally, while I am generally more in the traditionalist camp of centralized referee narrative control, on reflection I have noticed that I often both explicitly and implicitly delegate fictional control to non-referee players. For example, see how ratlings became part of my Vaults of Pahvelorn. However, the way I find myself delegating fictional authority entails implicit veto power. Though all players, referee and otherwise, contribute to fictional game outcomes, the referee acts as steward. The responsibilities of stewardship in my games include balancing present play against future play and attending to the engagement of individual non-referee players. While this does not mean I adjust outcomes based on what I predict will give particular players more pleasure, it does control whether I linger on a particular fictional experience or work out fictional imperatives quickly.

Based on this understanding of stewardship, as referee I might ask a player what kind of farm a character grew up on or whether they might have relatives in the current town. It is not against the spirit of the game for a player to use this opportunity to gain some present problem solving advantage. However, the player has an incentive to restrain themselves. The more ambitious, far-reaching, or obviously self-interested the interpretation is, the more likely the contribution is to fall afoul of the referee’s steward responsibilities and be rejected. To clarify, this is not at all about protecting a static, perfect setting from the grubby hands of players or ensuring that a plot conforms to a desired narrative arc. Instead, the approach attempts to harness shared creativity while not sacrificing exploratory potential or challenge.

This process works like the ultimatum game in game theory. In the ultimatum game, two players divide some resources between themselves. Player A proposes how to split the resources. Player B decides whether to accept or reject the split. If B rejects the split, both get zero. Empirically, people in the player B responder role are more likely to reject inequitable splits even though such rejection entails personal monetary cost. After all, even one penny is greater than nothing. Because of this empirical fact, proposers have an incentive to not be perceived as too greedy, even though no proposal is formally defined by the rules as invalid.

Mapping this structure to gaming, non-referee players take the proposer role while referees take the responder role. Even this description oversimplifies, as in practice non-referee players may iterate proposals following referee rejection. That said, potential negotiation is limited in practice as groups will not tolerate perpetual renegotiation. Further, once new facts settle, offhand details may lead to surprising fictional consequences, potentially both advantageous and disadvantageous to player goals. This adds to the richness of the game as players incorporate the fictional logic of more inputs. Like butterfly wings shifting weather patterns.

Comment from Zak on the effect of narrative control locus on challenge:

the problem for me with a lot of player-created content ( as a GM ) is the fact that what I then give them then has less of a chance of being a surprise and less of the character of a puzzle. If what’s there has even a 25% chance of being what they decided would be there every time then that’s 25% less fear and dread and giddy anticipation.

The problem for me as a player is that I don’t get surprised, it’s less of a puzzle, it’s less challenging for me (the more info I have, the easier a challenge is), it bores me (I can create content whenever I want when I run a game, why should I do it when I’m playing?) and it robs me of the specific challenge of “If I want something to exist in the game I have to find a way to build it”.

When I’m asked “so, Zak’s PC, what’s over the ridge” my immediate response is “all the treasure int he world and the big bad’s head on a spike”–not because I don’t like making stuff up but because when playing I am conscious that I am trying to direct all my mental energy to exploiting every affordance to get specific goals done that could take years . Asking me to then turn to Author stance is just asking me to do a much easier job with much lower stakes that is consequently less fun.

(Click this link to return to pros and cons paragraph above.)


Forber, P., & Smead, R. (2014). The evolution of fairness through spite. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 281(1780), 20132439.

Let It Ride or Push Your Luck

Following is a designer note from the current working draft of Hexagram, the ruleset I have been working on.

The game Burning Wheel has a principle called Let It Ride:

A player shall test once against an obstacle and shall not roll again until conditions legitimately and drastically change. Neither GM nor player can call for a retest unless those conditions change. Successes from the initial roll count for all applicable situations in play (Burning Wheel Gold, page 32).

This means that once the players agree upon a particular test to resolve an uncertain outcome, the result of that one test fully determines the outcome. For example, a player may roll to determine if a character is able to open a lock. According to the Let It Ride principle, the player gets only one try to accomplish this goal using this means. Spending more fictional time for another attempt is not possible. Players must consider other means to get past the lock, such as smashing it with a hammer that may come with additional unintended consequences.

Hexagram play is based on a different game design principle: Push Your Luck. In Push Your Luck play, the number of attempts is not limited but risk attends each try. Additional tries tempt fate. In Hexagram, making Moves requires taking a Turn and taking a Turn requires rolling the Hazard Die and possibility of setbacks. In other words, potential mechanical reward entails potential risk. Part of the risk in taking another Turn comes from advancing fictional time. For example, taking a Haven Turn to recover could result in opponents gathering reinforcements, weather taking a turn for the worse, a political crisis, or a natural disaster. Though Adventurers may be making the same Moves, the setting does not remain static in response.

From a general perspective, Let It Ride and Push Your Luck can be seen as two poles of a bipolar resolution finality spectrum. Let It Ride specifies that a resolution is final after one iteration while Push Your Luck specifies that resolution may be indeterminate. An Adventurer may fail to open a lock, take the outcome of the Hazard Die in stride, and then try again, repeating this procedure as many times as desired assuming the Adventurer remains capable. Various intermediate principles are also possible along this spectrum. For example, limiting the number of potential retests to some arbitrary number or requiring players to spend some consumable game resource to try again.

Neither principle is inherently superior, but they do have different properties and structure play differently. In Burning Wheel, the purpose of Let It Ride is to continuously push the fictional narrative forward. Additionally, Let It Ride may encourage more diverse problem solving over time as probability suggests that a given means will be insufficient at least some of the time, forcing players to use alternative strategies. Push Your Luck leverages the psychology of temptation, assuming the uncertainty in question stands between players and their desires. By allowing players to take on greater risk in pursuit of outcomes judged important, Push Your Luck also lends weight and consequence to player decisions.

Alternatives to genre

Genre emulation in tabletop RPGs, as I understand it, is the attempt to write game rules that when followed result in play experiences congruent with the genre being emulated. More specifically, the fictional events that occur and stories generated retroactively should conform to various genre patterns and expectations. For example, the rules of Pendragon are designed to result in stories recognizably similar to Arthurian romance, the rules of Monsterhearts are designed to result in stories recognizably similar to young adult contemporary fantasy, and the sanity death spiral of Call of Cthulhu intends stories in the key of Lovecraft. This allows game designers, and so referees, to leverage shared meanings.

Despite this benefit, games that attempt to emulate genres flexibly tend to be somewhat bland. While this might read as a criticism, and it is to some degree, it should not be surprising considering that genre is, at some level, structure without flesh. The horror genre is the collection of structures and properties shared by, for example, The Exorcist, Psycho, and Night of the Living Dead. This means that the referee, or gaming group as a whole if setting and narrative responsibility is shared, must add this layer of aesthetic detail atop the genre-supporting framework or be satisfied with a more stereotypical or conventional realization of whatever genre is being emulated. Every dwarf gruff, every elf haughty, and every private eye cynically jaded. Even though such direct reliance on genre can sometimes result in elements of questionable uniqueness, the now widespread availability of many different genre emulators is a real advance for players desiring such tools.

However, for those not satisfied with more agnostic toolkit rule systems but also lacking enthusiasm for genre emulation, another option would to be prioritize what Ynas discusses as thematic concerns. Tabletop RPGs have always had aesthetically engaging settings such as Tekumel or Dark Sun, but this thematic approach, which may be somewhat recent, blends setting with rules while still building on recognizable frameworks. This approach leverages as many commonly known elements as possible to communicate setting flavor and may use rules to generate setting details rather than taking an encyclopedic approach. For examples, consider the character creation rules of a Thoroughly Pernicious Pamphlet and the tables constituting the setting of Yoon-Suin.

Some additional recent standouts taking this approach:

Doctrine of proceduralism

Proceduralism is the degree to which a game relies upon explicit procedures. It is one of many different descriptors that can be used to understand and classify games. Other examples of descriptors include mechanical complexity, optionality, loci of narrative control, and so forth. My intent when I build game systems and content is to encode procedures efficiently into the process of play rather than adding rules overhead necessary for the desired relationships. That is, I want the procedures to feel like a part of the game that players sit down to play, not some cost that must be paid. This has been my intent especially with the Hazard System.

In my view, many game designs underweight the immediate cost of performing game procedures during play. For example, in early versions of TSR D&D, encumbrance is handled by measuring weight carried in coins and summing over all gear carried. Though the coin counting encumbrance procedure would probably have the intended effect if it were used, it is often ignored because it takes effort that does not seem to be play. Though individuals differ regarding their tolerance for such hassle, there seem to be few inherent benefits to adding purely transactional costs to the process of play.

Further, procedures are maximally effective when all players in a group comply, meaning that procedure effectiveness is often subject to the player with the least tolerance. In a traditional tabletop RPG, a conscientious referee can often take on an additional burden to mitigate the cost of procedures on other players, but this has its own drawbacks.

This is probably a domain-specific manifestation of general decision-making myopia. For example, people tend to underestimate the amount of time a future task will take even given domain-specific experience. (This is the Planning Fallacy.) In games, this tendency often comes, I think, from a designer focusing more on the desired outcome of a procedure and less on the effort or hassle involved in the practice of using the procedure.

To formalize different kinds of proceduralism, consider that a procedure may either feel like play or feel like work. Call the first kind of procedure intrinsic and the second extrinsic, mirroring theories of motivation. Intrinsic procedures are not always simpler. Instead, they focus attention and effort on the game processes that are most rewarding to the players. For example, more procedural combat rules may be more engaging due to the immediate stakes. That is, they feel like play rather than work or hassle. Procedural fluency then could be thought of as the overall balance between intrinsic and extrinsic procedures.

The definition above incorporates player taste. While my general sense is that heavier logistical procedures are almost universally experienced as aversive, there do seem to be some exceptions worth noting. For example, competitive players or those that value game mastery may appreciate highly extrinsic procedures as long as they can be used, respectively, to gain a relative advantage over other players or overcome game challenges effectively. Though there may be some fit effects between procedure and player personality, even entirely ignoring this nuance there seem to be many opportunities to make game procedures more generally fluent given that few tabletop RPGs pay attention to the concrete experience of procedures in play.

Though play testing could evaluate a game on any number of different dimensions, such as inter-player power balance, compliance with some aesthetic standard, or pedagogic efficiency, I believe that procedural fluency is a particularly good candidate for evaluation. Some questions that might help identify procedural disfluency include:

  1. Are players following the rules?
  2. What are players handwaving?
  3. Are players creating shortcuts?
  4. Do the shortcuts accomplish the same goal?
  5. Is the reward payoff disconnected from the procedure’s deployment?
  6. Do players not understand the intended impact of the procedure?
  7. Do the procedures feel like a drag outside of the game itself?
  8. Is the procedure designed to solve an extra-game problem, such as argumentativeness?
  9. Does the procedure require prosthetics such as spreadsheet software?

Finally, to distinguish this doctrine from the old “system matters” position, it is worth emphasizing that proceduralism is only one dimension of many that define a game and that the experience of a particular game arises from far more than just following the procedural rules.

Ravenloft as setting

Image by Stephen Fabian from I don't know where.

Image by Stephen Fabian (unknown source)

I am conflicted. On the one hand, I do not think it is a good setting at all. The domains are single-dimensional. Like Megaman bosses. Frankenstein man. Dracula man. Etc. There is little mystery to uncover and minimal scope for players to affect the setting. There is a kind of metaphysical restraint.

I suppose a campaign could end with “beating” Ravenloft, with each domain as something like a level with a boss (thinking again in video game terms). I did not see that at all when I first encountered the setting in the 90s and I do not think it is really present in the actual materials (though admittedly I have not read them in a while). It is something that the referee and players would need to bring themselves (and could just as easily be brought to any other setting). The Hammer Horror cliches are a nice variation from traditional fantasy cliches, but are cliches nonetheless (and can easily result in similar saturation).

On the other hand, the mists are an atmospheric mechanical constraint and explanation. They provide a reason for the relatively static nature of the place and also serve as a form of magical-realist logic that can give the setting a dreamlike sense of archetypal reality (much like the mythic underworld or the setting of Dark Souls) if handled well. That is, the distinctive part of Ravenloft seems to be a good justification for having multiple, target rich environments. I am not sure that such justification is really all that necessary for a satisfying game though.

This reflection was prompted by Jeff R.’s recent posts on what makes a good setting.

Resonance and aimlessness

Prompted by nothing in particular, some thoughts about Game of Thrones.

At one level, Martin has an amazing accomplishment. His world is symbolically believable. Many of his characters have become almost iconic. Most creators never reach the point of establishing even one such character. In contrast, for example, Moorcock, despite all his creativity, really only has one or two (the character of Elric, the idea of Stormbringer; maybe a popularization of the struggle between the principles of law and chaos).

Consider in contrast the list of powerfully identifiable Game of Thrones characters. Circei, Tyrion, Brienne, Jon, Arya, Daenerys, Joffrey!, Petyr, Samwell, Davos, Melisandre, and that is just off the top of my head. “Winter is coming.” The new gods and the old. Wargs. The faceless men. Melisandre’s summoning. The wall. Even Tolkien might have fewer such characters and concepts. Bilbo, Gandalf, Golem, a realization of the Norse Ring mythology, Smaug, maybe Thorin, maybe the Steward of Gondor. There are probably a few more, but not that many and either way the contest is close.

Now, I am not really interested in arguing whether these characters resonate or not with you or any other person in particular; I think it would be difficult to reasonably claim, however, that they do not resonate more broadly. Madonna cosplaying your character is some sort of achievement unlocked.

Back in the late 90s, I read the first couple Song of Ice and Fire books and liked them well enough, but at some point Martin fell afoul of my Wheel of Time rule* to avoid multivolume doorstop fantasy sequences unless they are finished. So my experience with Westeros is mostly recent and through the HBO series.

In contrast to the power of his characters and setting, the plotting of Game of Thrones is muddled. Part of this may be decisions that were made for the TV adaption, but I suspect that this is true of the novels as well based on the few that I have read. When you have 10+ plot lines moving in parallel, it is difficult to make them all matter. For example, how can it be that Bran Stark has not showed up at all in the first five episodes of season 5? The story sprawls too large and loses its focus. It almost feels as if Martin himself sometimes forgets about what is happening to some of his characters. I find myself caring less about what happens, and this is not because of the low character life expectancy. Living or dying, the outcome just does not seem to matter all that much.

* Still active and broken only once for The Name of the Wind.

Ruins of Valeria (source via Google Images)

Ruins of Valeria (source; via Google Images)


Naively, the current RPG community breaks down into three basic camps. New school, old school, and indie or story game. While this is an oversimplification, a perusal of a number of games on offer lends some substance to the categories. Fourth Edition D&D and Pathfinder: new school. B/X D&D and Lamentations of the Flame Princess: old school. Apocalypse World and Torchbearer: indie. This division exists based on a number of factors, including marketing reach, the fuzzy borders created by online forum participation, player expectations about game objectives, and differences between the actual texts of written rules.

Many rules properties have been highlighted as potential differences. For just a few examples: lethality, quantity of character options, thematic coherence, rules coverage comprehensiveness, friendliness to ad hoc rulings, loci of narrative control, amount of prep required, rules heaviness, the number of resolution mechanics used. None of these factors is necessarily primary, as the old/new/indie categories are vague, though many of them are important. A dimension which I have rarely seen discussed, however, and which seems core to the difference in the approach many of these games take is the idea of proceduralism, by which I mean the degree to which a game directs your actions as a player or referee.

Many old school games do not provide direct procedures. Instead, they give examples of the kind of things participants might do, often with a short script-like example of play. This is both a weakness and a strength. It is a weakness because it is notoriously hard to learn how to play an RPG (which involves conversational form, conflict resolution, rules math, and many other components) from a text alone. It is a strength because it leaves the borders of potential wide open, assuming that you want to use the rules more like a toolkit than a how-to manual.

Of the old school games that I have read, OD&D and the Basic/Expert series have the most direct procedures. The first most likely because Gygax was essentially just telling you to do what he had done (“Before it is possible to conduct a campaign of adventures in the mazey dungeons, it is necessary for the referee to sit down with pencil in hand and draw these labyrinths on graph paper”) and the second because Moldvay was trying to create a self-consciously pedagogical text (more than a game with focused design, I would argue). Both of these works are only peripherally (or unintentionally) procedural; certainly nobody reasonable would claim that a referee that did not “sit down with pencil in hand and draw these labyrinths on graph paper” was breaking the rules of OD&D.

Skipping forward a bit over the “story focused” 90s, we arrive at the Forge, the post-Forge indie scene, and the games that arose from those seedbeds. For some concrete examples, consider Apocalypse World, Dogs in the Vineyard, Torchbearer. Apocalypse World puts forth the rules as conversation mediators; they are things that kick in “when someone says particular things” and that “impose constraints.” Dogs in the Vineyard, Chapter VI: The Structure of the Game begins: “If Dogs in the Vineyard were a board game, this would be the board” and then presents an outline in the form of alternating directions to player and GM. And later in the book: “Every moment of play, roll dice or say yes.” That is a pretty strong directive.

Torchbearer moves play through a series of different phases in a predefined manner, sometimes requiring character tests for transitions. Town phase leads to adventure phase, which may lead to camp before adventure again, or back to town. To someone used to D&D, this may just sound like shorthand for referee narrative, but it is structurally different. After three adventures, there is a winter phase. Wait, what? But what if we adventured three weekends in a row? No, that is not how Torchbearer works; you can’t do that. It breaks the rules, which abstract time in a certain way. D&D flirts occasionally with turn structure at different time scales, moving from the dungeon, to the wilderness, to the domain (“wargame”) turn as needed, but in a less defined, sometimes confusing, and certainly often overlooked manner.

A game may be procedural in one domain but not others. For example, combat in all editions of D&D is more procedural than many other fictional activities. The game grabs hold of you and does not let you go until you have performed the necessary steps. Though there are little islands of such proceduralism, no edition of D&D really tells players what to do when moving between these islands. This is not necessarily a flaw, but rather a different rules property that creates its own set of consequences.

It seems to be an implicit article of faith among many game designers that proceduralism has pedagogical advantages, and that games written with strict procedures are easier to pick up. This is possible, but far from established, and any such claim must also take into consideration extratextual resources such as the oral knowledge of communities, both distributed on the Internet and as passed between groups of friends in person. The game is more than the text.

At a first glance, this may seem like a critical evaluation of the procedural tendency in many of these more recent games, but that is not the intent. In fact, the rules project that I am working on right now (which grew mostly out of my “JRPG Basic” Gravity Sinister experiments) is highly procedural. The many procedural additions I have made to my ongoing OD&D game have mostly resulted in gameplay improvements. You can see further gestures toward this direction in A method of play and Gravity Sinister gameplay. However, all that said, it seems to me that there are some real trade-offs involved in going in either direction along the proceduralism axis. This is not at all a case of more procedural games being more advanced or more evolved than less procedural games.