Tuesday, August 8, 2017

StoryGame Design is (Often) The Opposite of OSR Design

(This could also be titled
"Modern" Design is the Opposite of Challenge-based Design
Narrative Design is the Opposite of DIY RPG Design
etc etc)

This post is not about what kinds of games are good or bad.

This post is not about one kind of game vs another.

This post is not about dividing all games into one of two types (there are lots of kinds of RPGs).

This post is about confusing and bad game design advice given by some gamers.

If you read about RPGs online, you notice two things: First, gamers frequently go "Hey those StoryGames designers and the DIY RPG/OSR/Old School Renaissance/Trad RPG scene should learn so much from each other but, tragically, they do not" and second, you notice these two groups of independent game designers and players have a rough time communicating about even the simplest ideas.

There are many good reasons for this, but right now I'm going to zoom in on one:

What people online (but not most people in actual academic game design) call "modern" game design--that is, "Focused Design" derived largely from cliques who met on websites like The Forge, Story-Games.com, RPGnet etc. is largely centered on dedication to a design principle that points in the complete opposite direction from a design principle near and dear to the heart of the kinds of games we like here at D&D With Porn Stars.

A Note On Terms

There is no non-confusing name for anything in this fallen world--as all "John"s who are neither bathrooms nor patrons of prostitutes will tell you. For those not up on all this inside-gamer baseball--

I'm going to use "Narrative games" to mean tabletop RPGs that Indie/Storygamey/Narrativist/Hippiegamer people themselves call Narrativist Games (Dread, Apocalypse World, The Clay That Woke, etc),  even though all RPGs produce narratives. Why do I call Apocalypse World a Narrativist game? The designer does.

It's also worth noting many games (like Dungeon World) are undeniably hybrids of Challenge-based and Narrative-based design and many players are invested in both goals or go back and forth or have other goals entirely. Goals in conflict are no new thing in game design (or anything design--lots of folks need a lightweight chair that can hold a heavy person).

(Some parts of this post will be extra big and/or red because this post has been Reddited and a lot of readers there aren't the best at reading comp.)

I'm going to use "Challenge" to denote the kinds of challenges where a player has to solve a problem in-world the way their character would--especially the way the OSR does it, described below. It's important to note that all RPGs have challenges--anyone playing a Narrative game has lots of creative challenges to solve, like a screenwriter or sometimes an actor does. There are also system-mastery-based challenges (knowing the rules and how to use them better than the enemy) like Magic: The Gathering and some of the crunchier Story Games, but these aren't really what I'm talking about here.

I'm going to use "OSR" to mean games produced by people in a certain blogging and game-writing clique called "Old School Renaissance" even though imitating some way that games were played in the past is often the very last thing on their minds and they're more concerned with using discarded chassis to make new things (like in the actual art historical Renaissance). This is a post about how some people who are alive now think of games, if you want historical research on D&D, go see Jon Peterson. I would use "DIY RPG" instead of "OSR" but this term, like "Indie" is even more confusing in this context where everyone involved is both independent and doing it themselves.

If you're confused about the term "Focused Design"--the Forge-derived term for a certain kind of modern RPG ideas--see my response to Stereotypical Strider near the top of the comments below.

Early RPG theory had many terms I won't use much here--dramatism, simulationism, gamism--for two reasons: first, because they aren't relevant to the split I'm describing and second, because they are basically just misnomers people made up for games they didn't understand. That's a whole other post, and one even more about RPG inside baseball.

Most gamers are motivated by lots of things, this isn't to say someone can't be into both Challenge and Narrative--but the point of this post is merely to say a rule well-designed to go in one direction often is 180 degrees away from a rule designed to go in the other, and people don't realize how many rules that encompasses.


All of the the most popular examples of Narrative design and their derivatives (Fate, pbta, Burning Wheel, Gumshoe, etc) have the following primary goal: to create rule structures that help groups create stories that follow the structure and themes of genre entertainment (usually genre movies and tv shows based on a 3-act drama design or parts of them that are based on 3-act dramas) without relying on pre-written plots.

The last phrase is important: these games generally are deeply invested in the tropes and unwritten rules of the genres they inhabit and most of the rules are about creating incentive structures that make people reproduce these genre tics without any external pre-written plot demanding it.

(Other RPGs put people in genres but don't rely on rules to make the story follow the themes and arcs characteristic of those genres, or at least not in the same way. In the typical 3-act dramas Narrativist games emulate, fate is tied to the protagonist's basic personality and flaws in ways it is not in more picaresque and serial fiction. The games themselves don't necessarily have 3 acts, but the dramatic imperatives work in the way 3 act drama does--Hamlet's adventures relates tightly to Hamlet's essential problem as defined early on unlike, say, a serial hero like Captain Kirk who is designed to address a wide variety of problems. Anyway, if this confuses you: read this.)

As Vincent Baker put it when talking about his wild west game Dogs In The Vineyard, most western RPGs produced shoot-outs (tactically complex things where multiple bullets ping off pianos and spin chandeliers) and he wanted to make a game that was about gunfights (two men with 2 hours of built-up tension squaring off on a dusty street). To this end, he created a game about moral judgments and slowly raising stakes until violence seems like it might be the only option.

These games can incorporate a wide variety of other design goals but this organic emulation of genre is the most important one in developing these Narrative RPG rulesets.

(Note that there are Narrative games that create different incentive structures to, for example, teach you about the evils of colonialism or make fun of people the designer doesn't like. Narrativism as a concept doesn't demand the emulation of specific genres--but the most popular Narrative games do it, and the mainstream games that have learned from them have usually learned about genre emulation from them more than learning anything else.)

OSR design has the following primary goal: to give the players interesting in-world problems that they need to use their brains to solve, where solving them has interesting consequences (a prime example being Get The Gold Out Of The Dungeon Without Dying) which themselves create new problems (and fwiw these consequences and solutions, being sequential events, inevitably produce a story--heist movies, for instance, lean heavily on this fact). Like Narrative games, the idea is also to avoid a pre-written plot and, like Narrative games, these games can incorporate a wide variety of other design goals, but this thing of problems and solutions is the most important one in developing OSR-specific rulesets.

(The fact both of these trends in independent games, Narrativist and OSR,  are all about avoiding pre-written plots is not a coincidence. Pre-written plots are easy to write, easy to sell, and easy to insert your themes into, and so are the bread-and-butter of mainstream gaming, so that base is covered.)

The OSR game assumes (correctly in every OSR game I've ever seen) character, meaning, funny voices, themes etc will largely take care of themselves, but challenges need to be carefully structured. A monster is, in these game design terms, a carefully-designed challenge, or element thereof.

OSR challenges also have a lot of specific qualities, the most important of which is that (unlike Magic: the Gathering challenges) they are not usually meant to be solvable merely by mastery of a specific game system--a knight who can get past a pit of alligators in Labyrinth Lord should, in theory, be able to apply a similar solution in Runequest or Warhammer even though these use different rules.

Goblin Arnold has more on specifically what "OSR Challenges" are here if you need it.

Basically an ideal outcome in a purely Narrative game is either the hero kills the dragon or fails to for really interesting reasons, an ideal outcome in a Challenge-oriented game is the hero is exactly as likely to kill the dragon as the player is good at playing. Either way that should be an interesting story.


There's a (slowly) budding field called RPG Theory and it has been dominated by Narrativists--mostly because they got on the internet and found each other first.

One consequence of this is these folks said many clever things that get repeated, like Paul Czege who said "If the same person who invented a problem also invents the solution, that's boring" but they also said a lot of things about RPGs that seem really clever if the only kind of game you're interested in are Narrative games but which totally fall apart when applied to other kinds of games. The Forge and its proselytizers for Focused Design are like pastors whose Rules For A Happy Marriage are perfectly sound if your primary goal is to prevent cheating but who are just now in 2017 finding out about open relationships.

These ideas have passed into internet and boardroom RPG culture (yes I've seen, first-hand, corporate mainstream RPG company lackeys uncritically use Forgie theory terms in their internal documents) without much examination.

The main way this expresses itself is Narrativist or just sort of casually theory-aware mainstream gamers who are into Focused Design lingo getting ahold of an OSR game or an old game or even just a mainstream game with some old school elements, assuming things could only possibly have been designed this way by accident or inertia, and proceeding to try to "educate" the fans of that game by "Forgesplaining"--telling them to read theory posts they've read long ago and play games they've already played and got bored by- and going on about how ever since the dawn of time cavemen have gathered around fires and told stories. It's embarrassing to such Forgesplainers that are capable of being embarrassed, tedious for everyone involved, and impedes the progress of the human race to the degree that progress expresses itself through having fun playing pen-and-paper role-playing games, so it's probably good to round up all the major points here so it happens less. Share it widely.

Not all of these ideas are held by all Narrative designers, gamers, or theorists, but they are things that get repeated because they make more sense in a Narrative context than in many others. We're going to look at them now:

"The game's about what the rules are about--the more rules a given subject takes up, the more the game is going to be about that, the less space a subject takes up in the rules, the less it'll be about that" 



Now, anyone in academic game design can rattle off 100 ways this is wrong: poker has no rules for bluffing, a video game where sound is essential to the gameplay often has no more rules for sound than ones where it's just decorative, many LARPs are about mostly talking and diplomacy even though they have almost no rules for these things but have (for good reasons) very specific rules mostly for things that only come up once in a while (like flying or turning into a bat), imagery and illustration often provide cues that rules don't, the line between "rules" and "setting" is very thin in some places, language is unevenly compressible (like if I say "you're underwater" I've essentially listed dozens of new rules restricting you by using one word) etc. 

But let's give it the benefit of the doubt look at it just in the tabletop context:

The first time I came across this it was from Narrativist big-daddy Ron Edwards and was phrased in some way I'm finding impossible to Google without finding some very scary websites but was basically something like "You can say your game is about the struggle to maintain humanity in the face of loss but if 60% of your rules are about how to make a hole in someone and fuck the wound that's what your game's about".

This made sense to me at the time--and I'm sure it continues to make sense to people who primarily play games where the rules are procedural guidelines explicitly designed to push you into behaviors characteristic of certain genres.

But then I did something Ron didn't: I looked at actual games as we played them. The vast majority of Call of Cthulhu is details of 1920's stuff and stats for gods, spells, and monsters that never appear in most game sessions. The thematic lynchpin of the game--the insanity rules--takes up half a page.

There's a reason for this and it's not that CoC is poorly-designed. While in a Narrativist game the rules are primarily there to push you into a certain kind of story, in a Challenge-based game the rules are primarily there to establish the most important hard parameters within which problems will be solved. "A barrel works like this, a fireball works like that, flaming oil is this hard to acquire and is this flammable, you will become more powerful if you do this much problem-solving, you will die if you fail to solve the following problems this many times: now here's a dragon, figure it out."

The rules of a Narrative game are a guide suggesting how you get to fun--the rules of a Challenge-based game are a riddle and solving that riddle is itself fun.

In chess (a challenge-based game), the rules say your rook always moves in straight lines. In D&D, the rules say magic missile always hits. Neither game's rules give you any idea how best to use a rook or a magic missile to make a satisfying story not because nobody wants them, but because that's not the reason rules are being provided. In D&D that would be the province of "tips"--often included in the core books.

As Natalie long ago explained here, D&D has lots of rules for combat not because players are expected to do combat exclusively or necessarily even mostly--but to establish clear consequences (and in old versions, a terrible and exciting consequence) for only thinking about situations in way the rules suggest

Narrative games often have very little library content--if the group can agree a spell or superpower is in-genre, why not use it?--there's not always a reason to give the players lists of things that might be in the setting. Challenge-based games often need lots of library content--tons of lists of spells, items, powers--not because the players can't think up "Magic Mirror" on their own, but because the rules are there to provide the limits of the Magic Mirror (and the Lightning Bolt and the Invisibility Ring and the Pig Mask) as a problem-solving tool in a way that everyone present can share and agree on and so move on with what they think is fun by building challenges and solutions with these blocks. 

In a Narrative game, if you're thinking outside the rules, then you are ignoring the sherpa who you hired, in Challenge-based games, if you're thinking outside the rules then you are outwitting the trickster who thinks you only know the common solutions.

"Games Teach Appropriate Normative Behavior So Their Content Should Be Considered To Have Great Moral Meaning"

Well, again, if you're playing a Narrativist and the game is a sherpa telling you how best to be like a County Sheriff or a Knight  in stories where these are sympathetic protagonists then it is pretty easy to see how many Narr gamers see a games' genre conventions as a guide to some version of real-life morality, or at least the expression of the author's sincere beliefs about what constitutes The Good.

If, on the other hand, you're Challenge-based and start with the assumption that the game rules are a minigolf-esque set of limitations you are constantly trying to get around to avoid death then it's pretty easy to see how doing What Crom Wants is considered pretty optional by most OSR gamers and not a thing anyone smart would treat as a wokeness guide.

"If you want personality, emotions, romance, you need rules for that"

If the rules are (Narrativist) there to help you get in genre, then why wouldn't these genre staples be in there?

If, the rules are (Challenge-based) simply lists of which things a normal human can do to solve problems that you can't (like buy a gun in D&D) or that a normal human can't that you can (like cast a spell) then why would there be any rules about feelings? From a challenge pov that makes no more sense than a rule about what your name can be--once you say "and the rest is like a normal person" then you've said all the things you need to enable emotions.

If emotions can be used to solve a problem (seduction for instance) then players are clever for thinking of using them, and if they're not then there is no need to make a rule about it unless players want it and aren't getting it--and even then you would default to giving GM advice about it, so as not to restrict the options players have unnecessarily.

"Violating genre expectations is bad"

Well, it definitely is if the whole reason you bought the game was to be your sherpa to help you get to a story in a given genre.

On the other hand, if the point is outside-the-box problem solving, your clever solutions (ie the ones you want to incentivize) are often going to be outside the genre. In fact, the cleverest solutions are often the ones that most violate expectations. Creative problem solving is largely about thinking past expectations, whereas keeping in genre is thinking of ways to take the random plasm of human interaction and shove it back inside expectations.

In a pure Narrativist game, a monk inventing gunpowder to kill the dragon is bad. In a challenge-based game, it's genius. At least until you've heard the story of the D&D guy who invented gunpowder in-game, in which case it's just a hack move where you're copying someone else.

"RPG Rules Should Guarantee A Predictable Experience!"
"I Want To Play The Game, Not The GM!"

Again, this is one few academic game designers would go near with a ten foot pole (lots of games are expected to change based on the personnel)--but then they didn't experience what Focused Design fans did...

Many Narrativists developed their games because they hated, on one hand the swinginess and GM-dependent quality of old games but also the restrictedness of pre-written modules. A cowboy game, with the wrong GM, might end up being about dynamite instead of guns--and that sucks if you wanna stay on-genre, but on the other hand, a GM telling you the dynamite store keeps being closed smacks of railroading.

In reality, they (the kinds of  Narrativists who had this specific experience I describe in the paragraph above) had terrible GMs or were terrible players.

(Proof? Luke Crane, designer of Burning Wheel:

"All of the games talk about fun and fairness, enjoyment and entertainment, but then they break that cycle by granting one member of the group power over all of the other members of the group. It's classic power dynamics. Once you have roles of power and powerless, even the most reasonable and compassionate people slide into abuse."

Luke Crane just said all GMs are abusive.)

Being, very often, nonconfrontational souls who were afraid of telling other players to leave--they blamed the game designs rather than the people and made new games where it was hard to not have the intrigue game be about intrigue or the shooting game be about shooting. The game mimicked the genre even if Timmy was trying to be a jerk and buy dynamite. As Vincent Baker used to say before he decided he was wrong "Play is good to the degree it is thematic".


"I have no clue why my friends stuck with my through the bad years. We had plenty of screaming matches, quittings and walkouts. I imagine that they'd give the reasons that you proposed and that they'd also say that in between the bouts of bad, there was a whole lot of good. Which there was.

A main goal in the rules design was to smooth over those rough patches so we got more good stuff in a shorter time. It worked."

Luke Crane just said his games descended into screaming matches and he designed his game around fixing that.)

Meanwhile people who didn't have this problem and played with people they liked embraced the unpredictability, variety, personalizability and complexity of games that changed with their players. None of it got in the way of Challenge, so...it's not really a problem.

(The irony is most Focused Games are so niche the only people who want to play them are people who are into the same game-goals, so even though they are designed to be personnel-independent, in practice you can only play them with fairly homogenous groups because everyone else will be like "Dude can I just talk to the troll without saying which die pool I want to draw from?". In the end these folks end up doing what they always could have done: play with people who all like the same things. If you can't handle Timmy and his dynamite fetish, just don't invite him.)

"The Game Should Teach You The Best Ways To Play Them"

Again, another Forgie saw that was long ago demolished by academic game design (Hacky Sack, The Floor Is Lava, Soccer, and 20 Questions do nothing to teach you how to play except punish your failure to follow the rules or to use the best tactics or reward your use of the best tactics)--still, it makes sense in Narrativist design.

In Narrativist design, there is no reason to withold the information that "This is how you make a story about space ships". In Challenge-based design there is every reason to withhold the solution to how you get off this fucking planet. The whole point is players enjoy the puzzle of figuring it out themselves.

"It's Escapism! Make Players Feel Powerful And Competent"

Basketball has no rule to make you feel powerful and competent. This is because the game is meant to be exactly a test of how competent you are--at least at the tasks basketball is made up of. It's not escapism, it's just a fun activity you may or may not suck at. (Here's Ninja from Die Antwoord talking about playing basketball and sucking at it and wishing he had practiced more.)

In Narrative design you're trying to create rules that imitate specific types of genre fiction and in those genres the protagonists are generally hypercompetent. In Challenge-based design, the gravity of the game is toward making the characters about as competent at their in-game tasks as you are at playing them out of game. ie: They test player-skill on purpose. Chess is not a test of whether you're good at being a bishop, but it is a test of whether you're good at chess.

A Challenge-based design is testing how thoroughly a player can imagine, and imagine-with, another person in another world. If they suck, it is because they wanted to take on a challenge and they knew sucking was an option.

If you suck at a Narrative game on the other hand, you need a new game that brings your creativity and collaborative drive more to the fore. You sucking at making up a story doesn't make it more fun or exciting for anyone.

The classic Narrativist-advice-passed-off-as-general-RPG-advice in this sphere is the game Trail of Cthulhu using the Gumshoe system.

"The players aren't Sherlock Holmes," the logic goes "if they miss the clues, you've stopped emulating the genre and also stopped the game, so we wrote a game where you never miss clues, you only have the problem of deciding what to do with them." Well that makes sense if you've decided to mix the Challenge of your sleuth game with some genre-supporting Narrativism.

In a Challenge-based game you'd go "You're not Sherlock Holmes? Well fucking work harder until you are." That's the fun part. And if they fail, don't force them to succeed--make failing interesting.

On the other hand, there's...

"Failing Forward is Always Good And There Are More Interesting Consequences Than Death"

In a Narrative game where the point is to keep the story going as an art-object to be admired in itself then, yes, there are lots of examples of death being a lazy way to punish someone.

In Challenge-based games, you need stakes. And death is a very interesting stake precisely because it is a very boring outcome.

Super Mario tries to dodge the turtle--if he doesn't, he dies and you have to play the level over. So when the turtle appears, it's exciting and there's stakes.

Anything less than death either does one of two things:

a) It's so fucked up it makes the character into somebody you don't want to play (like they're transformed into a limbless pelican that smells like bread mold and is despised by polite society)--in which case it might as well be death because you're going to start over with a new PC and it is, effectively in game terms, death. 


b) It isn't--and the story is going to continue.

If the story's going to continue, you've effectively lost nothing: you were going to face unknown-but-designed-to-be-exciting plot twists and trouble before the consequence and you're going to face them after the consequence.

If you're a Narrative gamer, there's a big difference, you were presumably invested in a certain kind of story and it isn't going the way you wanted--so nondeath can have a real consequence. If you're motivated solely by the next challenge and that there's a story at all--well, you're still going to get more stories of some kind (if it's D&D: lose a finger you're still playing D&D) and more challenges, too. So: no biggie. No stakes.

For Challenge-motivated player the only consistently real stake is not getting to play the game with that character you've slowly decided you like. The rest is just more game played with that game piece--and that's what you signed up for.

(For the player in the middle, stakes in the middle really suck: many people who are invested in both Challenge and My Specific Narrative hate level-drain mechanics. They don't quite kill you but they make your PC just unlikeable enough that you still play them but kind of grudgingly. I'm not one of them, but these people exist.)

"The Rules Should Help You Get Story Moments"

This one goes like this:

"D&D doesn't do story"

"(Someone tells a great D&D story)"

"But that could've happened in any game, the rules didn't help!"

Yes--and from a Challenge point of view that's why it's a good story--because the rules didn't help, your dad didn't help, the milkman didn't help, nobody helped. Ray was given a challenge and solved it with quick thinking and no help, that's why it was an adventure, not a performance.

Narrativist games push characters to do interesting things by incentivizing them toward conflicts that force them to make interesting decisions.

Challenge-based games push players to think up interesting things for their characters to do by threatening them with complex challenges that will kill them if they don't solve them.

Both can produce interesting stories, but they do it in different ways.

"Focused Games Are Good Games"

This sounds so plausible--if you want intrigue, buy the intrigue game!

Well, again, it makes sense if you want, as a primary design goal, your game to help you invent a story according to a familiar narrative scheme.

But, also again, for a Challenge-based player, too tight a focus is just sweeping problem-solving options off the table. If the cowboy has to use a gun or a knife and can never kill the bad guy by, say, tricking him into getting hit by a train, then you've just narrowed the canvas on which to be creative.

Allowing this wide canvas for RPGs' tactical infinity means, yeah, even though most Lovecraft stories don't feature hand grenades, the only way to practically limit a Challenge-oriented Call of Cthulhu investigator to spookiness-approved weapons is to hand them a list of weapons that do appear in his stories and make them memorize it-which not only isn't most peoples' idea of fun, it forces reliance on pre-packaged solutions. Hand grenades are in Lovecraft's setting (1920's America) so they are likely to be playing pieces in a Challenge-based version of a Lovecraft game even if they don't match his themes.

Original tactics are a key thing in Challenge-based play--and so objects, processes, and ideas peripheral to the game's alleged focus are essential to enabling that.

While Luke Crane asserts D&D is about going into dungeons and is best for that and ceases to be D&D when you leave the dungeon (for real, he says that), a Challenge-based player knows that if the best plan is to lock the fast-breeding gas spores in the dungeon and kill the other monsters as they leave, that is the plan.

"Rules That Detail Random Aspects Of The World Are About 'Simulationism'--They're For People Whose Goal is To Immerse Themselves In The World" 

If you're a Narrativist, you may not get why I wrote down exactly how many liters of olive oil are on the goblin flagship--you may think it's because I want the goblin boat to feel real.

Not so much--many novels and stories feel as real as fiction can without such details--these kinds of rules are there because I know my players will try to weaponize them, or bribe warlords with them, or sell them for treasure maps--or otherwise take advantage of anything in their environment to build solutions to problems. A lot of rules that simulate are not there just for the joy of simulating, they are there because they give you more bubble gum and baling wire to Macgyver with.

"Unattached Murderhobo Players Are Bad"

"Murderhoboes" are parodies of typical D&D characters--marauders without backstory, roots, morals or homes who do nothing but kill and take stuff.

Well if the point is to replicate the structures of genre fiction, at the very least being a murderous hobo means a lot of other options are off the table.

However: if you expect stories to arise out of problems and solutions to them, constantly trying to kill people while penniless is an intriguingly complex and evolving problem. If someone spent 2 years homeless and killing people they'd have one hell of an autobiography.

The mere wrecca is only one of the million characters that you can play, so only having them is a limitation on the Narrative palette, but in Challenge driven play their utter lack of social structures and inhibitions to insulate them from problems the GM might invent is a positive asset. A killer on the run generates plot like no-one else.

"Hodge Podge Systems Are Bad, Everything Should Work On The Same Mechanic"

1. The complexity of a game system often depends in part on how often you interact with that system.

2. How often you interact with that system depends not just on the nature of the task, but on the genre of the game.

(For example: if you get ambushed by gunmen in a John Woo movie, you might end up fighting for half hour and live and then get in three more fights later, if you get ambushed in The Godfather you are going to die in the next minute, period, and it will probably be the only time you fight. If you get ambushed in a Lovecraft story you will probably not only die immediately but it's the only violence in the whole story.)

3. Therefore different genres may need subsystems of differing complexity.

4. Challenge-based games need to enable tactical infinity and since they resemble serial picaresque fiction rather than 3-act drama, they often stretch the boundaries of genre more than Narrative games in order to enable tactical infinity and keep changing during a long campaign.

5. Therefore different levels of detail for different levels of complexity can be desirable for these games. Sometimes the martial arts system needs to be more complicated than the car chase system and sometimes vice versa.


Zak Sabbath said...


Your first paragraph states the obvious and is unrelated to what I say in my post. not sure why you wrote it.

Your second plugs a game by a known harasser and troll and I'm not ok with people using my page to promote that shit so I erased it.


Feel free to comment again later if you can avoid plugging abusers' games.

Pandatheist said...

I wasn't plugging any game, nor was I aware of the contents of a forum discussion from 5 years ago on a site I've never been to.

Your last section was "Hodge Podge Systems Are Bad, Everything Should Work On The Same Mechanic" and I wanted to point out 3 narrative design style games that were in agreement with your assessment on the application of mechanical complexity.

Having read all 6 pages of the forum thread and seeing neither John Iles nor Paul Riddle, I would again mention that Undying and Legacy, neither of which I am recommending anyone play, are 2 examples of pbta games which are designed with campaigns in mind and have subsystems to match. I don't know whether these are outliers or not, but it suggests that the narrative game design space isn't quite so monolithic in its beliefs towards complexity.

Zak Sabbath said...

I added a note about that.

Narrativism is kind of like big city real estate--The scene is so internally compromised and toxic that the chances of inadvertently promoting someone who is part of that toxcity is pretty massive.

If you're not sure, it's good to as around.

Marquis said...

So your game, Demon City, is a horror game. That is it's genre. How do you reconcile the idea that "focused games" are get in the way of your playstyle with the creation of a "focused game?"

Asking because I'm pretty sure I misunderstood something and I figure asking about it is faster than pondering on it for hours.

Zak Sabbath said...

D&D is about medieval fantasy, it has a genre.

That doesn't make it about Focused Design.


4e is about Focused Design because somebody at WOTC decided _the core experience of the game would be rules-mastery-focused combat_ and so made a system that was all about that and paid short shrift to anything else.

"Focused Design" isn't about having a genre, it's about deciding that the game shouldn't enable behavior outside the core experience *even if that behaivor could be in the setting*.

It's not about making a Wild West game, it's about deciding that the Wild West game needs to be about moral judgment and escalation.

Focused Design is about pushing PCs toward thematically-appropriate solutions.

Marquis said...

Alright, I was confusing genre with game intent. Makes sense. Thanks!

Konsumterra said...

wow now i kind of understand years of terms used on me and my games like simulationist. Still cant get why it is supposed to be bad. Implication that ad some level of undesirable realism or grittiness.

Marvel is a great game because it is simple, tactical and has some simple not heavy handed genre convention roleplaying rules like karma. Yet story and acting in character and tactical consequences important.

5th ed dnd seems to have attempts to make you roleplay but could have simplified all the background stuff for skills much simpler without trying to squeeze roleplaying out of players

Unknown said...

Let me lay this out there: The thing about these 'Narrative' games is that they generally produce a very predictable experience. If you sign up to play Fiasco, you've got a pretty good idea what you're going to end up with at the end of it all. It doesn't even vary all that much depending on who the players are.

With 'OSR' games, you're signing up for an unpredictable experience. You don't know what you're getting into or what you'll end up with. The other players matter a lot. Maybe you roll well and you can turn your body two-dimensional at first level.
Maybe you get stung by a Giant Bee and die.

Now, I don't know whether this is a cause or an effect or what. Possibly it doesn't matter at this point.

I do feel compelled to point out at least one game that might look all Narrative on the outside but is, I think, entirely OSR on the inside: kill puppies for satan.

Zak Sabbath said...

"Simulationism" isn't really a real thing.

Not many game designers went around going "Let's add crunch to make things more immersive"

But the people who propounded early RPG theory didn't understand the role detail played in creating tactical infinity, so they made the mistake I describe above.

The result is that they kind of swept EVERY gam ethey didn't like (Vampire, Champions, DC Heroes, late-TSR D&D) into the "simulationist" bag and wrote this off as some bizarre attempt to pretend to be in the word created via math.

And gamers who went "Well, sure, I guess I'm . a"simulationist"" when really their goals were mostly challenge-related didn't help, --especially as 4e emerged which was all about non-OSR, system-mastery-based challenge and didn't have very many rules to produce tactical infinity.

People who were being called "simulationist" didn't like 4e said "Oh it breaks my immersion", and the Forgies would go "well of course not, you're a simulationist and 4e is gamist!" when really the problem was how system-mastery-based the "gamism" of 4e was.

Zak Sabbath said...

What you describe is definitely an effect of design--

many Narrativists developed their game because they hated, on one hand the swinginess and GM-dependent quality of old games but also the restrictedness of pre-written modules.

They had terrible GMs or were terrible players--they blamed the games and made new ones where it was hard to not have the intrigue game be about intrigue.

Meanwhile people who didn't have this problem embraced the unpredictability.

The irony is most Focused Games are so niche the only people who want to play them are people who are into the same game-goals, so even though they are designed to be personnel-independent, in practice you can only play them with fairly homogenous groups.

Fanfan said...

Interesting post.

I think both sides could 'balance' out a bit form each other.

What is quite effective is for 'challenge' style adventures to have a world or story that reveals it self as you go along.

Similar to the orininal Half-Life game, which was a lot of aciton but had a 'big idea' through out the whole game.

Also telling a story through action can be just as effective- so the PC's go Goblin hunting and fight some Goblins, but then a ghoul army comes and fights everyone, and offers a different combat experience.

For more 'Story' Games, I think its really important to have SOME action to add some non rpg challenge - the typical action movie has 40% of screen time as action, and character based action movies have 20%.

You need SOME action to break up all the story!

Zak Sabbath said...

I don't think you get it.

Challenge games don't lack for world or Sstory and many storygames have action.

The difference isn't that--it's how they use rules.

FM Geist said...

Wow, enjoyed the hell out of this; I think perhaps an illustration would help (at least with my thought processes). So to make up an example:

Challenge games ultimately utilize a set of rules onto which a set of additional constraints may be imposed (ex no gunpowder weapons in many rulesets, or only in appropriate settings or w/e) and the limitation is what can be projected on them (which since they lack narrative kludges to rules can be quite wide; I'm thinking for example QeLong v R&PL v Blood in the Chocolate all of which are the same rulebase for very different outcomes although you can connect them in a variety of ways) while narrativist rulesets constrain the utility of rules to emulating genre conventions (ex all 3 of those examples would perhaps have their own ruleset which would also implicitly promote particular solutions). Which tbh I agree with, I'm making sure that my gloss is correct?

Also you wanted to read more of my thoughts, I wrote something vaguely relevant so shameless self plug:

Which is rough as hell (even after edits) cause my writing is rusty in all honesty

Pedro said...

The thing is: Where do you get most of your fun from? Challenges, the structure of an emergent story, socializing, etc. If you are very challenge focused you don't need a focused game because broad games make better challenges. On the other hand, if you are narrative focused you need a focused game because thematic stories need structure, theme and scenes.

Zak Sabbath said...

Yeah that's what the post you just read says, Pedro.

Unknown said...

I suspect the folks you refer to as "early" design theorists are actually no such thing. There were those of us discussing such things long before the Forge spewed its toxic fumes all over the internet.

And the simulationism spoken of in the RGFA Threefold--which predated the Forge GNS nonsense by years--spoke of decision-making interests in play, not about game design.

And as one of the proponents of gamism in the Threefold, don't get me started on how horrible Edwards' take on it from the Forge is!

Zak Sabbath said...

The pre-forge 3fold model (gamism/simulationism/dramatsm) was bad and is objectively wrong, just like gns.

Both as a theory of "decision making interests" and of anything else.

Anonymous said...

I think that in OSR games, there are factors at play other than challenge. Sometimes the GM must make choices that are outside of evaluating PCs tactics and simulating the game world.

Your GM decides that Mending can be used for killing giant snakes. Jeff Rients decides that a vorpal sword shattering on a critical against a clay golem is only appropriate.

I often find many different choices to be appropriate. If a player wants to gather a mob against a local vampire, and I don't have at hand rules for mob gathering, I decide how likely the plan is to succeed.

I wonder what you - and other OSR veterans - do if you see many choices like that. One solution would be to have detailed rules for everything, but that sucks. Another would be to use Jeff Rients' d6 table for outcome of any player plan - but then, any two tactics that aren't absurd become equally effective, so maybe this removes a part of the challenge.

Another solution would be to choose on the basis of genre, story, or player agency, but this feels very story-gamey or mainstream.

Zak Sabbath said...

As the post says

Most gamers are motivated by lots of things,

This post is just about 2 of the many things that motivate gamers--and design decisions.

Unknown said...

I think by this definition "give the players interesting in-world problems that they need to use their brains to solve, where solving them has interesting consequences" 3.5/pathfinder are OSR, which is strange.

Perhaps you'd point at 'in-world' as the saviour clause there, saying that the challenge in those games is too much 'sit down with 18 splatbooks and devise a plan to kill god'. The level of complexity in combat at the table, even for minmaxed characters would probably still justify their inclusion under the umbrella, even though by default what everyone mostly means by OSR is 'not what 3.5/pf/4/(5e for some people) is doing'

Zak Sabbath said...

Depending on who is running it and what level you're at, 3.5 and Path can be more about system-mastery based challenge or more about osr-style player skill challenge.

I address in the post how OSR is about the second kind

System-mastery based challenge is a big part of

Burning Wheel
and many other games

The world is not divided into 2 camps--its just the particular spat I describe in the post is about that.

Unknown said...

self reply for a 2nd point I thought of:

Is OSR about rule structures, or is it about reading, playing, learning from and writing your own OSR adventures/content? If I go to a random forum right now, and say that I've never done OSR stuff before, never played any dnd before, how am I more likely to be recommended to start? Where will I learn the most about what OSR style games actually are, so that I'll be able to start running them myself?

I dont think the two lists; the recommendations people would give, and the things which would actually be helpful, would match up at all well, because I think the mistake you're making here is general, translated across most other online communities. I totally disagree that OSR lives mainly in the rulebook, in how the game sets you up to play, and I think that most online communities (this article included) tend not to look at that.

Zak Sabbath said...

I don't know what you're talking about in the following cases:

"the two lists"

What is that?

" think the mistake you're making here is general, translated across most other online communities."

What mistake? I didn't make a mistake.

"I totally disagree that OSR lives mainly in the rulebook"

Who said that? What post are you even reading?

Unknown said...

I was trying to make a general point, and trying to do it in a more clever a way than I'm capable of making clear. Please disregard previous post.

I totally disagree with your statement on how OSR games deal with the "The Game Should Teach You The Best Ways To Play Them" thing.

The way people learn football is by watching other people play it, ocassionally getting rules clarification, and playing it themselves. This is the same as they way that people learn to play dnd.

OSR games are exactly like this. The rulebooks don't do heavy lifting on teaching you how to play OSR; most people learnt by playing in OSR games, enjoying them, running their own and spreading it. That's category 1; natural spread. This isn't what I'm talking about, because you are 100% right regarding this category. There is no need for additional resources to teach this lot to play.

Category 2 is the important one, becuase it's the one that the "The Game Should Teach You The Best Ways To Play Them" thing focuses on. This is people who haven't ever played an OSR game before. They might not ever have played dnd before, but they end up playing or running games which are OSR all the way through. Category 2 is No play exposure, plays OSR anyway.

So my point in badly-worded comment #1 was meant to be "If I'm Category 2, aren't I going to learn more about how to play an OSR game from reading Tower of the Stargazer than the LotFP rulebook?" I don't think there's a higher than average chance that the first adventure anyone runs after just reading LotFP rulebook of being 'challenge focused'; it's just as likely to be 'railroad focused', as they try to design for everything the players might do, and leave only one option in most cases. If you read 'stargazer' first, the first adventure you run is incredibly likely to be OSR.

People in Category 2 get taught challenge based gaming, but not by OSR-style games/rulebooks. Narrativist games are actually designed relatively well around category 2, assuming 'everyone plays a game that works the same, acheives some things they want, and consistently produces a coherent narrative' is your goal.

I don't think there is any single place I can point to and say 'well OSR games have solved this problem and the solution is this thing HERE' for category 2, in the way that you have in this article for category 1, and in which narrativist games do to both categories.

Zak Sabbath said...

I really don't know what you're talking about.

A few things I should clarify so maybe your next comment can make more sense to me:

"A game text" explaining how to play a game is different than "the rules" telling you how to play a game.

The rules of Apoc World _literally consist of game advice written as rules_ . The AD&D DMG is advice written as advice.


The way games






is not addressed int he post.


The way games



to be


in solving problems

is addressed in the post somewhat.

How do OSR games traditionally do this? By killing players who aren't creative in problem solving.


The fact players learn by example how to simply play period is undeniable.


The point of this post is to point out bad game advice and say why it's bad.

The bad game advice addressed in this section is that players should be _told by the rules_ how best to use their PC.

this is obviously not a good idea in a challenge-centric game, it's like revealing the answer to a mystery.

Gauntlet said...

On the rules thing and D&D has combat tules but not because you do combat all the time. I would say that yes genrally you can ignore or use other systems but if the rules focus on a thing 90% of the games you play will be on those rules.

Anecdotally this is the case with d&d where most games I will play the focus will be on combat because most of the rules are about combat(also XP is based on killing monsters) so I would argue that the rules should be more general in a lot of things because most people will do what's in the book.

Zak Sabbath said...

There are 11 paragraphs above in the thing you read about why that isn't true.

Like: Call of Cthulhu isn't mostly the stuff in the book for most groups so correlation is not causation.

People may fight a lot in D&D because it's fucking fun, regardless of rules weight--besides, most of the rules in D&D are actually spell descriptions, not combat

Gauntlet said...

Again anecdotally but when I GMed D&D I remember wanting to do the OSR anything goes type game but evertthing eventually devolved into me making balanced encounters and everything turning into combat stuff.

I've also seen other GMs struggling with this. Its almost as if the rules of the game are slowly taking over our ability to play any other way which is why I think its genrally true...

Gauntlet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zak Sabbath said...

The OSR thing to do would be to change the rules.

Unknown said...

I like the post. It was very interesting.

I used to play a lot of freeform games (we mostly used character creation rules, then abstracted everything else down to a simple 1d10 roll).

A lot of it was about challenges towards the player. Negotiate, bluff, figure out the leads, combat was run less like an intellectual challenge and more an action sequence.

It was a lot of fun.

There's been a lot of times in discussions about rpg theory I felt player skill should be taken into consideration more.

I think with rules, they are excellent at modelling things characters do, but players don't do.

Because rules are an abstraction. Example: Combat. There's no, (least none that I know of) system that acurrately models a swordfight. Very few even tries, because that's not what combat rules are therefore. And since none of the players are trying to conduct actual combat at the table, there's no problem with it.

Compare to say having a conversation, which is something a lot of people have tried making rules for. Because that's something players do as well, the more rules you put in, the more you get in the way of what you are trying to do.

Making rules for something the players do, as well as their characters is always more difficult than something just the characters do. Not impossible, but more difficult.

Also: Storytelling. Or acting. Or tactical thinking.

I think that's the main thing that makes me sceptical against narrative games. Though I have to admit to having very little experience with them.

Zak Sabbath said...

Well here's the thing:

Most storytelling games appear to be written by people who dont' grasp what you managed to lay out in paragraphs 6-8 so you'd be playing games written by people who aren't as smart as you.

Unknown said...

Yeah I feel like I should add I hadn't thought about what I and my friends were doing as being challenge based before. That was a very interesting perspective.

Tommi said...


"I often find many different choices to be appropriate. If a player wants to gather a mob against a local vampire, and I don't have at hand rules for mob gathering, I decide how likely the plan is to succeed."

Ask for more details: How do they do it? This is a good idea in case of complex actions.

After that, you estimate the probability as well as you can, tell what you come up with to the players, and ask if they think the probability is unrealistic. If they object, discuss and adjust the probability until you agree or the discussion stalls, in which case make a decision now informed by the discussion and your own estimate.

If you have no idea, go with 50 % chance if it could go either way, 1/6 or 5/6 if it is quite likely or quite unlikely.

Adjust with relevant mechanical details of the characters. All of the following give roughly 50 % chance of success for someone with average charisma, for example: roll under charisma, or d20 + charisma with target number 20, or d20 plus charisma modifier with target number 10.

AuraTwilight said...

I finally have words to explain something I've been struggling to tell people who recommend me FATE and other games for years. Thank you so much.

Johann said...

When you start rounding up the narrativists' major points, you paraphrase Ron Edwards, then use lots of quotation marks, then quote and link Luke Crane. This gives the impression that all those quotes in between are from Ron Edwards or from Edwards and other Forgites.

If this is the case, I think providing actual quotes (and links for context) would be a good idea.

If this is not the case, isn't there the risk that you are refuting your own interpretation of what you think the narrativists are saying?

In any case, it's a very interesting post with lots of keen observations on challenge-based gaming.

Zak Sabbath said...

1. I do paraphrase Ron Edwards

2. I do use quotation marks, but do not attribute the quotes to specific people, so anyone who thinks they are meant as specific quotes from specific people is not reading carefully and so is not intelligent enough to care about in this context.

3. I do quote and link Luke Crane

4. "If this is the case..." but it's not the case so it doesn't matter. No intelligent person would think I meant to attribute all these quotes to one specific person said all

5. "If this is not the case, isn't there the risk that you are refuting your own interpretation of what you think the narrativists are saying?"


That doesn't even make sense.

You can't "refute" an argument by wholly accurately making the opposite argument. I think you must mean something different than what you said.


To head off what you might be trying to say--the things in quotes are such hacky familar online blather that not even the many Narr gamers who stepped up to complain about this post made the argument that "no NArr gamer ever said these things".

So if nobody's even claiming these are straw arguments, there's no point in sourcing them (and even if you did, someone bent on claiming they were straw arguments would simply argue they were non-representative).

Zak Sabbath said...

(and, of course, even if they are non-representative, they're still not true. The post doesn't claim they are representative.)

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

"Most storytelling games appear to be written by people who don't grasp what you managed to lay out in paragraphs 6-8 so you'd be playing games written by people who aren't as smart as you."

Besides what I've read in this blog, I don't know anything about storygames. Maybe storytelling games are written by autists? Cause I'm into the Autistic Spectre and can't handle a conversation on my own, in spite of scoring an IQ of 142. I totally could use rules for personality, emotions, conversation and romance both ingame and outgame.

I can't handle OSR style of play as defined by Goblin Punch because I'm unable to improvise on the spot or thinking outside the box. But if mainstream gaming relies on pre-written plots, then mainstream gaming can go and fuck itself.

"since none of the players are trying to conduct actual combat at the table, there's no problem with it."

Sometimes I've wished there were rules about punching the GM in the face.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

Simulationism is not a thing?!? I wonder: what do you think about, for example, "Rolemaster"?

Zak Sabbath said...

I think there are several pieces of circumstantial evidence tying spectrum behaviors to some behaviors and design features especially characteristic of storygamers.

But i am no expert and there are alternate explanations I may be missing.

Zak Sabbath said...

Rolemaster fits what I say above:

If you're a Narrativist, you may not get why I wrote down exactly how many liters of olive oil are on the goblin flagship--you may think it's because I want the goblin boat to feel real.

Not so much--many novels and stories feel as real as fiction can without such details--these kinds of rules are there because I know my players will try to weaponize them, or bribe warlords with them, or sell them for treasure maps--or otherwise take advantage of anything in their environment to build solutions to problems. A lot of rules that simulate are not there just for the joy of simulating, they are there because they give you more bubble gum and baling wire to Macgyver with.

AndreasDavour said...

That was a very good and insightful post. Thanks!

Verdancy said...

This is really good on the differences between the two design styles but I think you are off on the psychology of their fans, there's an elephant in the room here: boardgames.

At least in my experience, everyone who has tried to get me to play Monsterhearts or Apocalypse World has been a big euro-boardgames fan, and I think they see those games and RPGs in general as being a text based variant of those (often literally, as they can be played by email when you can't meet up to play Diplomacy).

So they aren't assuming that players are assholes who will ruin the game for everyone by playing ultra-competitively, they are assuming they are good sports who will try and make the game fun/challenging for other players and not take things personally. They don't like non-rules based requirements because it complicates this.

And they want games to be accessible, predictable and narrow because they want to play a whole bunch of different games (half the fun is in learning the game after all) with different people (games are a great way to get to know people, right?).

And so on, if you think of storygames as being a specialized case of eurogames everything odd about them shifts into focus (including the confusion that anyone would prefer to play a different type of game, have you played Settlers of Catan, come round some time and we will play Settlers of Catan and you will understand why your game is no fun). Though it seems from your quotes that some of the OG designers were operating from a sillier impulse.

Zak Sabbath said...

I think you're half right

Storygames _are_ part of a conservative shift from the innovation and open-ness of RPGs back toward the constrained and less-creatively challenging nature of boardgames.

Lots of them still do assume that RPGs will be ruined by competition and taking things personally, it's very explicit. Like Ben Lehman *author of many terrible and indie-popular narrative games) here:


anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

What I don't get about "Rolemaster" has nothing to do with goblins trading olive oil. I don't get what's the point of having a separate damage table for every weapon... there are like, maybe one hundred or one thousand different weapons (I lost count), and every single of them takes a whole sheet. For game purposes, it seems a waste of good ink and paper. Don't you think that this is "simulationism"?

Zak Sabbath said...

It doesn't matter how many pieces of paper are involved.

Unless the point of the exercise is to SIMULATE it is not simulationism.

The reason there's lots of different sheets for each weapon is to make choosing a different weapon interesting tactically, not to simulate.

Read through that a few times if it confuses you.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

"Read through that a few times if it confuses you."

The more I read it, the more confused I feel.

"The reason there's lots of different sheets for each weapon is to make choosing a different weapon interesting tactically."

But this doesn't work. Don't you know?

Rolemaster is a no-brainer. I played it once: every player choose the weapon which his PC was more skilled at, and called it a day. Where are the tactics in this?

Moreover, the decision was so obvious that the Game Master -who was a wise guy, god bless him- didn't even bother to ask us.

Rock-scissors-paper, with only three weapons, manages to be tactically more deep than Rolemaster zillion of arms. I'll repeat it: for game, I mean, for TACTICAL purposes, it seems a waste of good ink and paper.

Zak Sabbath said...

Rolemaster is a no-brainer. I played it once: every player choose the weapon which his PC was more skilled at, and called it a day. Where are the tactics in this? "

Matching the weapon to the specific foe and situation.

You don't use a lance at 3 feet away.

Please think harder before leaving comments.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

"Please think harder before leaving comments." I always do.

I was wondering if you knew something that I didn't. Now I'm sure. Asking directly is the best way, don't you think?

Whatever, thank you for your cooperation. :)

Joaquin Ollo said...

Zak, that link you posted doesn't make you look very good. 3 pages into it and found no abusers' comments, only you putting so much passion and effort into derailing the most plausible interpretation of Holmes' narration and making an otherwise civilized discussion a muddy zone.

Joaquin Ollo said...

Ok, every new comment of that linked thread makes you look more and more like a jerk. The only harasser and troll I see in that thread is you.

Zak Sabbath said...

either you hold to 'innocent until proven guilty' or you are, objectively, a bad person.

so: defend your desire to not hold that standard or apologize.

also: you can't "troll" with an honest opinion stated honestly. so you are mistaken or lying

you must address these 2 points or be banned