Affordances and aesthetics

Odilon Redon - The Black Torches

Odilon Redon, The Black Torches

Assume for a moment that you have a game artifact. This is a thing, to be “used” with your games in some way. Maybe it’s a setting write-up, or a module, or a bestiary. Maybe you wrote it, maybe someone else wrote it. First: it’s important to note that these things are all the same sort of thing at some level, and thus this is not just a discussion about modules, but of any product useful for gaming. But what does “use” actually mean? Consider the idea of affordances from ecology.

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.

That’s by Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, chapter eight: The Theory of Affordances (bold items were italicized in the original, but my theme blockquote style loses that).

Okay, that’s a lot of words; how about an example? From the same chapter:

The human species in some cultures has the habit of sitting as distinguished from kneeling or squatting. If a suface of support with the four properties is also knee-high above the ground, it affords sitting on. We call it a seat in general, or a stool, bench, chair, and so on, in particular. It may be natural like a ledge or artificial like a couch. It may have various shapes, as long as its functional layout is that of a seat. The color and texture of the surface are irrelevant. Knee-high for a child is not the same as knee-high for an adult, so the affordance is relative to the size of the individual. But if a suface is horizontal, flat, extended, rigid, and knee-high relative to the perceiver, it can in fact be sat upon. If it can be discriminated as having just these properties, it should look sit-on-able. If it does, the affordance is perceived visually. If the surface properties are seen relative to the body surfaces, the self, they constitute a seat and have meaning.

What are the affordances of a game-thing? I’m not talking about the physical object, but rather the affordances of the virtual objects that arise in the shared game space that players conjure together that derive directly from the game-thing. This is the use of the game-thing. Examples. A stat block (or perhaps HD + AC) affords fighting. If a thing has hit dice, it is fightable and killable. An exact site map affords constrained exploration and movement. A more abstract map (graph-style, perhaps) affords a different kind of movement and interaction (where relationships are more important than distances; see page 5 of this, by Patrick of False Machine). A treasure (in GP = XP games), or more generally a rewarded goal, affords character advancement.

Numbers and game mechanics are not the only (or even most important) affordances, however. Because as Roger put it, fluff is crunch. Thus, the adjective “covetous” attached to an NPC may afford more game utility than 100 stat blocks. If that is true though, what isn’t an affordance? Why are so many game-things so hard to use, so badly designed, and so padded with useless information? Some of it is just redundancy (text spent explaining that there are trees in the forest, or fish in the fish market, to borrow an anti-example from Vornheim). Some of it is prolixity (writing in full sentences what might better be apprehended as a list of keywords; there is a reason why referee notes are so often in this form, and it’s not because they are “unpolished”). And some of it is just bad organization (putting things that are likely to be needed together in separate places, thus requiring page flipping or even context switching between different books). That is, there are good forms of redundancy too. So, all those things are non-affordances that take up space in modules, and are all pretty much unarguably bad design.

Even factoring out those mistakes though, game-things are more than just affordances. That paragraph of imaginary history, or an evocative description which you won’t have time to read during a session but which might help communicate a mood. Like psychological priming, and memories, game-things have a lingering (and useful) influence on the consciousness of the referee. On that subject, a while ago on G+, I wrote (in retrospect, incorrectly):

In an adventure all of that backstory is useless unless it impacts the character’s adventures.

And James Raggi responded:

It colors the Ref’s attitude towards the material which should directly impact the way the adventure is run.

He’s right, and such details are often valuable, and can even be independently works of art in their own right, but such details do not afford game play. Further, unless such exposition is organized exceptionally well, this mood-filler detracts from the other useful ideas contained within the product, and may even render them inoperable. Then you get the dreaded wall of text experience where you can’t find the relevant details when you need them in play (and this can be critical to the functioning of the game-thing, such as clues for an upcoming trap, rumors about a nearby area, prophesies of a future doom, or weaknesses of a specific enemy).

The degree to which a game-thing, as game-thing, is game-functional is the number of affordances from the game-thing that are enabled to arise in actual play, and the degree to which the non-affordance aspects of the game-thing get out of the way. This is, I suspect, why so many game products work so poorly at the game table, despite being creative and enjoyable to read.

22 thoughts on “Affordances and aesthetics

  1. PW Shea

    How about: “gameable elements” and “non-gameable elements.” Like, something is “gameable” if it can be used at the table; this includes not just stat blocks and mechanics but also the various bits of color that seep from the text into the GM’s mind and then from there, onto the table.

    So like: for any given product, the ratio of gameable elements to non-gameable elements is directly proportional to the products usability at the table. Do I have that right?

    1. Brendan Post author


      Or perhaps direct and indirect use? Our terminology here is quite lacking. I think affordances fits the technical meaning of the one kind of thing very well, but the other thing, often distracting, but still nonetheless useful (and maybe necessary) is harder to get a handle on.

      1. PW Shea

        @ Brendan. Yeah, I like Affordances too, Here’s a question:

        Do you see Affordances as exclusively, clearly definable elements or are they relative? IE, are we talking about a style of writing and design more than we’re talking about actual products?

    2. Brendan Post author

      Beyond the ratio in the product is also the empirical measure of things that actually get manifested in play, which is a combination of both the product and the user. Like, a smaller ratio of gameable elements might actually have more practical utility if presented in a better form. I guess what I’m saying is that content designers should experiment with more innovative layouts and presentation forms to find the things that give rise to the best results (which may also to some degree be affected by individual differences; for an extreme example, someone with an eidetic memory is going to be much more able to handle a tide of texture than someone like me with a terrible short term memory). I think there are probably some yet to be widely understood best practices though.

      1. PW Shea

        @ Brendan. Our comments passed eachother. I think we agree, but you’re making a distinction between Affordances (what gets offered) and something else (what actually gets used) and I don’t think you need to do that.* I think the more useful distinction is between what gets offered and what is actually usable. Where the line gets drawn between usable and being too broad, prolix or focused varies per user but I’d think the ideal for which you aim is the highest number of Affordances possible with the fewest impediments to use. I mean, I don’t think you need to worry about fluff being or not being an Affordance, just with how the fluff is presented so that you maximize the ease of translating fluff into Affordance, right?

        *Setting books are all about providing you more than you need, for example. As are hexcrawls and megadungeons (really, as are _most_ dungeons).

      2. PW Shea

        Crap, after that asterisk I meant to say, “I think the more useful distinction is between what is written and what is actually usable.”

      3. Brendan Post author

        “I think the more useful distinction is between what is written and what is actually usable.”

        Yeah, that seems about right. The nuance I would add is that both usable and positioned to be available when needed are required. Where “positioned” could mean physical location in a book or presented in mnemonic form so as to be easy to recall or even derived from a cliche that is easy to reason abstractly about. The things need handles that are easy to grasp. To push the example of the seat, both a stump and a pile of rocks might afford sitting, but if you have to stack the pile of rocks first, the stump makes a better seat (because there is lower cost involved).

  2. richardjohnguy

    this is the conceptual distinction between fluff and crunch, isn’t it? Previously described imprecisely with exemplary definitions that obscured the real issue (stat blocks are the Platonic “crunch;” the exemplars of the class, but an NPC’s greed is also an “affordance” ie “crunch” – it just falls outside the exemplar offered by the stats – so that is the “fluff” that turns out to be “crunch” after all).

    The “trouble” (not really trouble) here is that games are so situational – as the DM, I think the rivalry between wizards that finished 50 years ago is absolute fluff – it informs my idea of how a place got to be the way it is but that’s all. Until the players suddenly decide to mention one of those old wizards to an NPC and identify themselves as on Wizard A’s side. And then suddenly that bit of history is operational in the present.

    This happens a lot in the game I’m running right now, often with players just volunteering stuff that I have to interpret. I have a lot of background that they don’t know. And it wouldn’t matter, but then they have a knack of saying exactly what I didn’t imagine they would, and suddenly I’m scrambling to figure out how the NPCs are going to deal with this new development. It’s got to the point where I don’t think I could reliably point to what “affords” and what doesn’t.

    1. PW Shea

      @Richard Yeah, I think? At least, how you’re using “fluff” and “crunch.” I think the problem with fluff v crunch, fluff & crunch or flunch is that they have been so widely abused, misused and re-defined that using them causes more trouble and wastes more time than using a familiar term ought to. I also suggest that your use of fluff and crunch would be baffling to a lot of rpg and wargame players.

      1. richardjohnguy

        let’s call it all discourse!

        yeah, I haven’t been privy to whole fields of discussion so I’m bound to upset apple carts left and right.
        Maybe it is better to deploy new words after all.

      2. Random Wizard

        I believe richardjohnguy has got the right of it. The terms fluff and crunch are the adjectives that have been used for ages now to denote how useful something is at the game table. It is a shame that the word fluff carries with it negative connotations, as the ability to spin a small offhand description into something interesting is one of the great resources of reading through a module.
        I also disagree with the phrase that fluff is crunch. Fluff is whispy, airy, describing things that may have a low, low chance of coming into play or not even necessary to the game of hand but they can be great at giving a GM a sense of what is going on behind the scenes. Crunch is much more likely to be viable in more situations that pop up at the game table. The orc guard has 7 hit points is very concrete. The orc works for Gertrude the drunkard is fluff as that might not even come into play, and can easily be discarded as the orc is still going to sit there and guard the door. You can discard that the orc works for a particular person. It is much harder to discard that the orc has hit points.

      3. Brendan Post author

        @Random Wizard

        I disagree, and believe that the terms fluff and crunch are next to useless without qualification and discussion (such as Roger’s post). The culture that gave rise to fluff/crunch is wargaming optimization (“just the facts, ma’am”) which seems to consciously scorn taking less quantified aspects of the game seriously.

        I think that as I am talking about a dichotomy here, and fluff and crunch is also a dichotomy, the ideas can potentially be mapped to each other, but in all the common discussions I have seen crunch refers to game stats and fluff to everything else, which discards a tremendous amount of useful information. That is, I think the notion of affordances is much wider than generally denoted by the word crunch, and is also dependent upon the presentation of information (the same information may be useless if buried and an affordance if made available in the right context).

        Consider your example:

        “The orc guard has 7 hit points is very concrete. The orc works for Gertrude the drunkard is fluff as that might not even come into play, and can easily be discarded as the orc is still going to sit there and guard the door.”

        Servant of Gertrude the drunkard is just as concrete as 7 HP. 7 HP will be more useful if PCs fight the orc, the orc’s allegiance will be more useful if the PCs decide to engage in factional skullduggery. Either or both may come into play (my players generally try to co-opt monsters when they can). A richer relationship than “works for” would probably be more useful (fanatically? as a mercenary? as a slave?), but even “works for” affords quite a bit of game play.

      4. Brendan Post author

        For another example, look at Pearce’s response here:

        “C. Noisms’s 25 word description of Yoon Suin”

        That is 100% description, and would likely be considered pure fluff by most of the world using the fluff/crunch framework, yet it is offered as an example of pure affordance (and I agree). A 25 word setting description is a really useful thing. Short enough to keep in your working memory, short enough to scan before a session to “get into a mindset,” and able to directly give rise to improv that will conform to the underlying idea of a setting. This is why guidelines for making useful products needs to rise above the idea of crunch, in my opinion.

      5. PW Shea

        @ Random

        I disagree (obviously). Like, look at how Monte describes the two terms:

        Monte’s more or less states that crunch is rules/mechanics and fluff is story/plot/everything else, which is very much not how you’ve characterized them.

        I was under the impression that crunch & fluff come from wargaming where fluff are the books you buy to read about Inquisitors and crunch are the actual rules for how to play the game. In fact, I hear the latter usage on a regular basis when talking about and playing war games.

        I’ve also seen the term “crunchy” as shorthand for “rules- and/or math-heavy games (I’ve heard it used to described 2e, 3.x, PFRPG and 4e on a fairly regular basis, though, obviously, these are highly subjective classifications), without a clearly corresponding “fluffy.”

        Also, I think one of the fundamental merits of “old school” and “new school” games are that both recognize how porous the boundary between crunch and fluff is…

      6. Random Wizard

        @Brendan @PW Shea I suppose we will have to agree to disagree then. I accept that the phrase “the orc works for Gertrude the drunkard” might be an equivalent statement to the orc has 7 hp for you guys, but I don’t see it that way (personally). I see it as a giant sliding scale with many divisions. Saying that a column is painted purple because that was the cheapest paint available when the evil acolyte was charged with cleaning up the blood stains from 100 years ago is at one end of the spectrum of the scale, denoted by “fluff”. Saying the orc is guarding this door lies on closer to the the side with “crunch” on it. Saying the orc has 7 hp lies even closer to the “crunch” side. They are not exactly exclusive, but are adjectives to give a relative sense of what something is. Much like many words, they are subject to interpretation.

      7. Random Wizard

        I have been giving this topic a little more thought this morning. Specifically, Brendan’s counter example about how his players might want to intimidate the orc, or use the information about his employer. I think it is a good example. But continuing on from this example, surely there is a point in describing things that you feel is just too much. Take Gertrude the drunk. Was it important to know that she has the title “the drunk”? Surely, I could keep going on and on about details about Gertrude. If I said, “Gertrude has 3 sisters and worships Garrumsh, but has been missing services at the sacrificial pit on the weekends for the past month. One of her sisters recently started collecting copper coins from the various local kingdoms and is looking to complete her set of 3rd dynasty Barrinmort pennies.”
        Surely, you can recognize that their is a progressing scale of “fluff” involved in the description. Working for Gertrude is only slightly removed from the “action at hand” which is there is an orc guarding a door (and it is highly dependent on what the adventure is about) If Gertrude were described later on in the adventure, and was detailed in another encounter in the setting, then it shifts to more of the crunch side.
        Going on about her sisters, and what they do is really shifting over to the “fluff” side.
        Also, don’t mistake my descriptions here as a mark against fluff. I like it (to a certain degree) as I see more like window dressing.

      8. Brendan Post author


        Yes, but you are talking now about information overload, which is related but not exactly the same thing. The same thing that you describe can happen with traditional crunch as well. There were plenty of times when I ran 4E where I forgot about auras, vulnerabilities, or special attacks, and looking at some high level stat blocks for Pathfinder makes my head swim.

        I think Scott M. said it well on a G+ comment about this post:

        On the Raggi exchange you close with, why not drag in another discipline (economics) and look at “fluff” as the point at which text crosses the point of diminishing returns?

        Sure, every extra word “colours the Ref’s attitude towards the material,” but the incremental benefit of knowing where the now-Proustian fish monger went to school and where he dreams of investing his 31 c.p. only adds up to a faint sheen of “colour,” while the effort (and page space) is probably better spent on the evocative adventure seed / rumour yon monger heard about once. Or on an NPC more likely to generate more drama across total play time.

        Of course, “returns” are subjective so the fluff line will vary. But fluff can always be fortified to give more people more crunch. Many writers still focus on “more” detail and miss the chance to provide “better” detail.

    2. Brendan Post author


      Yeah, I agree, though there is an added dimension in your example because you already have all this stuff in your head (because you made it up). Your wizard rivalry would certainly afford some game play if presented in a module, assuming the referee was able to have that knowledge when needed. Hypothesis: what affords game play has a higher barrier to entry when presented by a third party (and this added cost is what many people are talking about when they criticize the basic idea of modules, I think). Of course, making an affordance more accessible can be useful even in your own creations, especially if you are not going to use them immediately (much like good commenting of code).

  3. Telecanter

    I’m late to the discussion here. I think the first time I heard the term “affordance” in regards to gaming was on Alex Schroeder’s blog:
    But, then maybe it was a different post about programming languages somewhere. It’s kind of the fancy way of saying system matters, no? You give the gods hit points and someone is going to try to kill them.

    And reading your post now, I wonder if affordances was what I was getting at when I asked what the art in modules was *for*.

    Some people seemed boggled that I’d even ask. But I was wondering is it to help me as DM envision a mood, or just sell modules to people?

    Anyway, keep up the interesting posts!


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