Category Archives: Speculations

Streaming matters for trad play

Midcentury, many educated people thought that hanzi, Chinese writing, was an albatross holding back Chinese modernization and economic development. This included many Chinese, in official capacities. Imagine, prior to modern computer character set support and fonts, how difficult it must have been to transmit documents written in Chinese efficiently. Mao himself, in the early fifties, directed that the government should begin a process to transition written Chinese into some sort of phonetic system 1. This attempt was unsuccessful for a number of reasons, but some historians have argued that it was actually the fax machine, with its easy transmission of complex visual printed material, that helped preserve written Chinese as a practical, everyday means of communication in the modern world. (More citations to be added the next time I am near the relevant books.)

What does this have to do with tabletop gaming and streaming? I have previously written that games can be transmitted through both culture and text. Earlier, Jeff Rients made a related point, focusing on personal creativity rather than cultural transmission:

My advice to anyone currently fretting over which edition or retro-clone or whatever they should use is to just pick one. It doesn’t matter which one. No matter which one you pick D&D isn’t there. It’s your job to take that text and turn it into D&D.

As it would be unreasonable to expect new players to turn such a text into D&D completely unassisted, where did they look? Older game texts are weak when it comes to explanation of what people actually do when playing a roleplaying game, especially when gameplay has many emergent properties, so in practice new players have historically learned from experienced players. That is, they tap into broader cultures of play.

Once people started to talk extensively about games online, this provided a vector for communicating methods of play. Easy sharing of recorded videos and streaming provided another, even broader vector of transmission. Literally: broad-casting. Whether or not you in particular enjoy getting information from YouTube, Twitch, and similar platforms, or think that watching people play D&D marks the decline of civilization, it should be clear that the medium has enormous cultural penetration and influence, especially when it comes to learning how to do something. If you are as yet unconvinced, just look at esports and video game streaming: League of Legends (check out those sportscaster voices!), PewDiePie (who reportedly earns more than $10 million per year from entertaining people by streaming video games), and so forth.

I am uncertain how causal the fax machine was in helping preserve traditional Chinese writing, but the principle of technology facilitating the transmission of complex cultural practice should be clear. Streaming affords a unique opportunity to broadcast cultures of play. Such transmission should be, based on historical experience, especially valuable for games that live more in cultures than in texts, such as OSR games (or whatever your preferred term is).

Online traditional roleplaying culture has unlocked the unboxing/reviewing and opinionating video achievements. Those are useful. There are even some recorded play sessions with nontrivial production values, such as I Hit It With My Axe.  But they lack, at least so far, the communities of enthusiasm that surround successful streamers. Where are the MissCliks, Critical Role, and Adam Koebel of the OSR? Where are the trad entertainer-educators?


1. Mills, H. (1956). Language Reform in China: Some Recent Developments. The Far Eastern Quarterly, 15(4), 517-540.

Mechanical audience

The audience determines how your work is received and evaluated. Similar to perspective in photography, it is impossible to be neutral in this regard. You must decide the audience you wish to address to have any idea what successful communication would look like. This is true because the knowledge an audience already possesses will constrain how you can communicate and shape how they will interpret your work. Some obvious examples include jargon (hit points, tactical infinity, carousing), cultural landmarks (orc, cosmic alignment, tiefling), intended use (self-contained game versus supplement), and received wisdom (XP for GP incentivizes creativity, XP for GP is unrealistic, extensive prep leads to deep fictional worlds, extensive prep is the sign of a wannabe novelist). Jargon can be redefined, new landmarks introduced, and received wisdom challenged, but only if you have some idea of your starting line.

I want to highlight one particular dimension of audience knowledge that seems to often be invisible to both creator and audience. This dimension is whether the audience is expecting a procedure that will yield content or expecting fully instantiated content. That is, does your audience expect a monster generator or a monster manual? Reusable tool or catalog of content ready to use? This also corresponds to the parable of teaching a person how to fish or giving a person a fish. More generally, the tension here is between flexibility at the cost of incompleteness and completeness at the cost of builtin assumptions. A tool without a catalog may seem unfinished while a catalog without a tool may seem inflexible or imposing unwanted world-building. An audience will often evaluate your work based only on the dimension they care about.

This may seem straightforward at some level but can manifest in subtle ways. For example, what determines whether an audience responds favorably to a freeform magic system? Such a system is generally a set of rules or constraints which players must use to create spell effects during play; this places players of magic-using characters into the role of spell authors. However, many players may just want some spells and would rather avoid being put into the role of spell author, at least for that kind of content in that context.

One practical takeaway from this principle is simple. To broaden the utility of a game product, make sure that it is useful for players that want a cooked fish dinner and for players that want manuals for how to go fishing. That is, if your product is a generator, such as a method for creating monsters, take that generator and flesh out a catalog of content. Do some heavy lifting for those that want something off the rack. This will have the side benefit of testing your procedure more than I suspect many tools, at least in DIY land, are actually tested. And, if your product is a catalog—bestiary, spell list, populated dungeon with backstory—think about the principles or sources of inspiration that you used to craft that catalog and create a procedure that can help others create similar content.

As a concrete example, my own book, Wonder & Wickedness, is primarily a catalog—spells, sorcerous catastrophes, and enchanted items. Though I do discuss principles briefly, I could probably improve the book by adding more explicit procedures for building spells and so forth.

Deadlift playtesting

The DIY D&D scene has many strengths, but there is notably little discussion about playtesting. This is particularly surprising when viewed abstractly, as people pay a great deal of attention to usability concerns such as layout, stat block efficiency, and creating procedures that, in isolation, are easy to use. The one page dungeon contest exemplifies this concern. When I write about playtesting here though, I mean testing the effectiveness of a more extensive product, such as a larger module or ruleset, rather than an isolated mechanic, procedure, or bit of content such as a player character class. In particular, I am most interested in intermediate level products, such as adventure modules or significant subsystems, rather than rulesets or retro clones, which in the context of the community most players are already relatively familiar with. The definition of adventure module should be relatively obvious, but for significant subsystems consider the supporting rules in Veins of the Earth or Cecil H’s Cold Winter.

This came home to me again somewhat recently when I decided to run a large module by an experienced traditional D&D adventure writer that had been written within the last few years. The identity of the module is unimportant here; the main point is that it was written with access to recent collective community knowledge. I like the content of the module, which while somewhat vanilla is creative enough to be inspirational for me, and the game itself went well, but throughout I felt like I was fighting the product, often unsure where to find the info that I wanted. This was despite being a reasonably experienced referee and spending a couple hours beforehand skimming the module and making some notes for myself.

A while back, I noticed that Vincent Baker’s Seclusium claimed that the product could, with 30 minutes of use, produce a wizard’s tower significant enough to do honor to Vance as inspiration.

I actually like Seclusium quite a bit as inspiration, and want to avoid making this about criticism of that particular product, but I think that the best products should aspire to that level of usability, assuming a reasonably competent operator.

These two experiences together suggest to me a kind of instrumental playtesting that I think may be particularly effective in improving the usability of game products for gaming, which is timed prep starting with minimal specific product knowledge but assuming general familiarity with the base game or style of game. This is in contrast to what seems to me as the ideal of the indie scene, which often focuses on beginners and whether a game can stand alone from roleplaying culture in general, explaining itself to a completely naive reader; hence, the ubiquity of sections on defining a roleplaying game. While that general pedagogical focus has a place, it does not solve a problem that I have, and further I think there is a good case to be made that the larger, more mainstream games introduce the basic idea of imagination-driven fantasy gaming reasonably well and are also more likely to be a new player’s entry point. Instead, what is more relevant to me, and I suspect others consuming such intermediate-level content, is whether this particular dungeon (or whatever) will be easy for me use use as a busy person with a pretty good handle on B/X D&D (substitute your favorite flavor).

More concretely, I suggest that to playtest a product, find someone willing to run it from a dead start, strictly limiting prep time to one of 30 minutes, 1 hour, or 2 hours. Then, get a list of the questions the playtester had of the product that went unanswered. This kind of info is mostly separate from issues of creativity, inspiration, or aesthetics, which the community is already effective at criticizing and fostering (see 10 foot pole reviews, etc). For easy shorthand, call this the deadlift approach to playtesting: start from the ground, do the thing without the blue sky assumption of perfect conditions, evaluate the outcome, and report back.

Text versus culture

I contend that one of the major causes of misunderstanding in discussions of tabletop roleplaying games is differential prioritization of where rules should live. At base, games are bundles of practices that can be stored and communicated in various ways. For example, baseball in the United States started as a game played by amateurs using informal rules that lacked textual basis. A social club wrote the first baseball text in 1845: the Knickerbocker Rules. Tabletop roleplaying game rules can also reside ultimately in culture or in texts.

The community that developed around the Forge in the early 2000s is one influential example of prioritizing texts. The games developed by designers from the Forge and the subsequent Story Games forum tend to have clear, explicit procedures and written creative agendas. Critique often focused on potential disconnect between what a game text promises, either explicitly or implicitly, and what the game delivers. For example, Vampire: The Masquerade promised “struggle for humanity” but “always ended up as emo superheroes” (ref). This disconnect tends to be framed as a flaw or a sign of broken rules. In this tradition, to understand games one returns to the original text, tries to follow the procedures carefully, and then evaluates the outcome. For example, here is Luke Crane on Moldvay D&D and Ron Edwards, quite recently, on 4E D&D. A different community that exhibits strong textual fundamentalism in a different way is the portion of Pathfinder players concerned heavily with tactical game balance and character build optimization.

In contrast, some tabletop roleplaying game traditions deemphasize singular texts and are more likely to prioritize norms and expectations communicated informally. The community that developed around the old school renaissance seems closer to this approach on balance. People seem perfectly comfortable with a more distributed storage of practices, drawing from resources such as the old school primer, assorted blog posts, and recalled experiences. In this approach, no single text contains the full game and various aspects may lack textual basis completely. This is not just house rules, where players modify a canonical text to suit local group preferences, though house ruling is a part of how rules evolve culturally. Instead, the full game is more like a cultural tradition rather than a solid, defined, bounded artifact.

In terms of game design, both approaches have pros and cons. A strong textual basis serves as a shared landmark. People or groups that differ in expectations but share a specific, relatively explicit text, such as Apocalypse World, Pathfinder, or 5E D&D, might be able to communicate more effectively compared to people that lack such shared singular text, all else equal. Culture, however, is extraordinarily effective in social coordination, requiring little explicit deliberation to function. For example, norms are more influential in directly coordinating social behavior than laws, and when laws do come into play, few people other than judges and lawyers are familiar with legal details.

The major misunderstanding, as far as I can tell, is the idea that the choice is between system and individuals making things up rather than between prioritizing text and prioritizing culture. For example, in a classic Forge document, Ron Edwards writes, to characterize an objection to the importance of well-designed systems: “It doesn’t really matter what system is used. A game is only as good as the people who play it, and any system can work given the right GM and players.” And, from a DIY D&D perspective: “sometimes people just suck and redesigning the game won’t fix that” and “Reading the book is not and never should be essential.” Now, of course there is also an effect both of well-crafted procedure in text and individual creativity, but players (and cultures of players in aggregate) can differ on preference for textual versus cultural embodiment of rules.

Personally, I see the benefit of both approaches. I spend a lot of effort trying to effectively proceduralize rules that I develop, particularly for many of the less fluent aspects of traditional fantasy games, such as encumbrance, resource management, and bookkeeping, with the Hazard System being a more involved application of this kind of thinking. However, insisting that individual texts be highly pedagogical and entirely self-contained both creates strangely unmoored documents, seemingly unaware of their likely audience, and ignores the massive, brilliant social fabric to which we all belong.

That said, this post is more about facilitating communication than advocating for a particular approach to game design. People with a strong focused design bent might want to consider that games can be stored culturally, similarly to the way traditions develop and propagate more broadly. And, people who feel like they already know how to play and just want the text to get out of their way may find that trying to play some innovative or experimental games may suggest new techniques or even be enjoyable as completely self-contained games. At the very least, recognizing that people may differ on this preference might help prevent misunderstanding.

Credit to a post by Dan M. that helped me crystalize this idea and provided some useful language.

See also: game design as common law, though that post concerns a method to craft rules in the context of a particular group, rather than broader cultures of gaming.

Considering short campaigns

Apocalypse World agendas (2nd edition, page 80)

In my experience, people tend to play tabletop roleplaying games as either one-shots or with the expectation of a perpetual, extended campaign. I have thought off and on about running games aimed explicitly at a midpoint between these extremes. The television analogue here would be the mini-series. Something like True Detective season 1 or a self-contained anime series like Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet.

The challenge would be to serve the agenda of play to find out what happens while also drawing the set of sessions to a close in a way that is satisfying. That is, how can one ensure the freedom necessary for fulfilling exploratory play while avoiding the mirror-image dangers of aimlessness and railroading?

Here is a first pass at how I might think about setting up such a mini-series game. First, determine a handful (say, three) of questions regarding the fictional situation, for which an answer (any answer) would constitute a satisfying arc outcome. Maybe one of these could explicitly be a win/lose condition, as in some tournament modules, but that seems like the easy way out. Then, lay these questions out explicitly before play so the players are in on the particular enigmas. Second, gear preparation entirely toward the details around the enigmas.

If other priorities emerge through play, or players end up more interested in other, unpredicted conflicts, that would be fine too. In my experience though, imminent uncertainty provides gravitation even without any other mechanical support, so just having a few big unanswered questions, such as the outcome of whether an invasion is averted diplomatically or by force of arms, may be sufficient. I might also consider something like building XP reward into advancing a countdown clock, but probably only after trying to run a something like this using an approach resting only on shaping player expectations.

Finally, it seems reasonable to work with the assumption that while some or most such mini-series arcs may connect to nothing else, they also may be continued in subsequent seasons if everyone is enthusiastic, allowing characters to sometimes persist. To have integrity, one would need to sometimes follow through on the promise of continuity, otherwise I suspect everyone would revert to mentality more characteristic of one-shots, which would not quite reach the potential I see for this kind of play. Depending on the particular rules, Flailsnails would be another reasonable approach, but that only works for some types of games.

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.)

References

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.