Thursday, October 13, 2011


Now what I know about computers can be summed up as: "What you guys and Wikipedia tell me." but this (probably authentically accidentally publicly posted but no less germane to this here post if it isn't) Google employee rant struck a chord with me, once I sifted through the technical jargon.

The gist of the thing--which I do dearly hope I'm getting right--is that each little part of Googlecorp has been focusing on building ace products that work, rather than on building "platforms"--that is: architectures that anyone inside or outside of Google can use to make their own products that are Google-compatible.

His example is (don't groan yet) Facebook and Farmville. Basically: Facebook did not anticipate Farmville (the current most popular computer game on Earth, literally, I have heard), but they made their code architecture available so that a thing like Farmville was possible.

i.e. Rather than anticipating all possible products and trying to outcompete everyone to find the next product, they built their product (Facebook the website) on a platform (Facebook the platform) which products like Farmville or Mafia Wars could be designed to fit on top of and shared that underlying architecture. And they did this by assuming from the beginning that the architecture they were going to build Facebook on would be transparent.

Probably by now you're already anticipating the first point I'm going to make: D&D is a platform. Third parties have been able to design their own products and "products" (noncommercial things like custom encounter tables for strictly local use) for RPGs since day one.

What I'm thinking about here are some ideas brought more closely into focus if you look at D&D, and RPGs in general, as platforms:

-Every time you hack D&D instead of writing your own game from scratch, you are essentially acknowledging the usefulness of D&D as a platform. Either because it works or because it's so popular that it's easy to get a group together or because you're too lazy to shop around or whatever. Point is: this is one of the keys to it being around.

-WOTC: What makes 3.5/Pathfinder not just a philosophical stepping stone between TSR D&D and Type IV is that 3.5 seems to represent the last time the people at WOTC thought of D&D as a platform. D&D Type IV, is, as I have said, fun. However, its hackability and extendability are compromised by:

*The third-party license problem (which, actually, is the least of it, and largely none of my business)

*The complexity involved in building monsters. This was already kinda nuts in 3.5 for DMs who (unlike me) were not willing to just throw feats, skills, and "yes-that-+5-attack-bonus-is-teleologically-justified" out the window. It's not that it is impossible to build the monsters with simple math--it's that it takes a long fucking time. Here's Jeff talking about how "building opposition was a chore" in an abandoned 3.5 campaign (and if Jeff Gameblog can't on-the-fly something you know it's a mess). In TSR D&D you can just go HD 6 AC 7 Atk 2d6/2d6 and you got yourself a foe.

*(Insidious and maybe beside-the-point corollary of point above:) It takes so long to build an according-to-Hoyle 3.5 or Type IV stat-block that it seems to trick many product designers into thinking they've provided a lot more content than they really have when they give you a monster.

*Though skill challenges can be cleverly designed and thought-out--they have to be in order to work. Although Type IV is designed to be "easy to DM" and it probably is in many ways, it isn't easy to make a skill challenge fun. Once a situation is re-designed as a skill challenge it takes effort to back-engineer it into a situation again and figure out what other ways could provide tension and meaningful challenge. This problem doesn't occur in a situation where a situation is just a situation.

-Platformyness isn't just about making a game hackable (all games are hackable) or about Open Game Licenses (even without them, nothing's stopping you from sharing tools with your friends or with GMs online. Unless you're playing Palladium games.)--it's about making that hacking so easy and fast that the usefulness of the game as a platform is as meaningful as the usefulness of the game as IP.

Savage Worlds seems to have gotten this idea, D20 has this idea, GURPS and Rolemaster were built on this idea--but Warhammer and WOTC seem to want to go a whole other way.

-Vornheim is a platform product--it's a thing, but it is also a set of (hopefully) transparent tools for making things--and when I keep saying I hope I don't have to write another RPG book because I hope other people look at it and make things like it, that's what I mean. Things plus platforms that can be used to make more things. Thought about in that way from the beginning.

"Half and half" books. How many times have you read on some blog about a nifty subsystem buried in an ancient module for a game you never saw? Why not explicitly design the thing that way: here is the thing I thought up, and here are the tools I used to think it up or extend it.

Since we know that hardly anyone uses these things right out of the box anyway, why not start out assuming a toolkit of extensions is step one in helping GMs use your module?

-Modularity is not exactly the same thing as platformyness but it also seems to be an idea implicit in the way we handle game stuff that seems like it could be more explicit in the way adventures are actually put together--by companies and individuals. "I took the pygmy trap from Mountain of The Devil Peach and I took the three-headed ghost from Wheel of Unexploded Fungi and..." well if we all know this is going to happen, why not put together dungeons and adventures as if we knew that to begin with?

Write a little something about why tab A goes into slot B and what you'd lose if you moved them around. Sometimes nothing, sometimes something--if you know your dungeon's going to be hacked, talk about the hacking opportunities. Make the design process transparent.

You don't lose anything by explaining that the pool is in front of the door so the rust monster has a natural barrier between it and the needle-mice. If a distinct area can be completely lifted without interfering with interactions in a module, point it out and graphic design the thing overall so it can be easily chopped into parts.

-Half the time you see a new table or chart on this blog it's because I went "Ok, for my next session I'll need a fortress--hey why don't I spend the amount of time I'd spend designing that fortress adventure making a little subsystem to generate fortresses." This isn't always the best approach but when I do it that way it generally works out--the brainstorming I do to get the entire table might give me ideas I wouldn't have thought of if I'd just been focused on building one location. And, naturally, it saves a lot of time down the road.


Anonymous said...

Great post! This philosophy of gaming is something I have embraced more and more over the last couple of years, ESPECIALLY after reading Vornheim (so I tip my hat to you there), since I was becoming so disheartened and bored with how I was prepping and running games recently.

When I decided to get back in touch with how I used to run games it went back to platform style and the use of tables, charts, and diagrams.

I find taking something and hacking/adopting it to my game not only saves me time, but as you said get the creativity flowing, possibly in a different manner than originally anticipated, but gives extra ammunition for later.

When creating tables on my blog I get excited about all the ideas and can't wait for the possibility for some of them to come up! These are ideas that I may never have conjured had I, as you mentioned, just built "focused on building one location."

huth said...

If a distinct area can be completely lifted without interfering with interactions in a module, point it out and graphic design the thing overall so it can be easily chopped into parts.

My favourite part of the rant is here:

Some people spend all their time on Mafia Wars. Some spend all their time on Farmville. There are hundreds or maybe thousands of different high-quality time sinks available, so there's something there for everyone.

It's not just about the positive modularity. It's the (kind of more important, i think) benefit of being able to throw out the other guy's fortress-generating subsystem if you think it sucks and not having to scrape out the remainder across the rest of the system/game. Since each subsystem consists not only of the system but the clumped expectations that come from re-using it to the point of familiarity, the less those assumptions follow through to other bits and pieces of the build also keeps re-modulating it smooth. I like to picture the mind of someone playing a game as a grain-filled fluid like oatmeal: if it's undulating smoothly, they're having fun, but each mechanical clump is tossed from five feet above the bowl. Tossing it in is a necessary evil, but it doesn't have to leave shrapnel behind when it hits.

A negative example of that in D&D is the whole cleric/HP thing. Dropping magical healing (or using alternative damage systems) involves all sorts of genre rewrites when it comes to how players think about what happens when you lose hit points, both visualizing it and planning around it.

Chris Kutalik said...

The other day I was calling a somewhat-similar approach to "platformist" game design the "phonics" over "whole game" approach.

“Whole game" design gives you a coherent overall package--not a bad thing for time/energy-strapped adults or those looking to put more of their zero-sum in only the campaign-specific parts.

While a creative DIYer can build subsystems and larger variants out of just about anything having a game design language that is more focused on how you can move around small building block elements seems to make it a whole lot easier at the get go.

One thing I have noticed from most if not all the retro-clones and the new second generation games coming up behind is that they have played it pretty straight whole game (at least with the game systems proper, there is a still a lot of awesome subsystem tinkering out there).

I tried--operative word here--to embrace that modular approach in the Borderlands/Domain Game design ( ), each subsystem was supposed to be designed to be able to drop into extend play in an existing campaign as much or as little as a group wanted.

But it's a tough habit to break, the closer I got to the end of the project the more unified all of it seemed (not totally away from the platform-thinking, but more than I wanted). Good intentions and all that...

To stretch the language metaphor a bit longer, I sometimes wonder if it's the case that D&D provides such a convenient platform because of it's role as the Roman Empire equivalent in rpg history.

Whatever it's faults it left an almost universal game language that made it easy to develop your own "local dialect" and still have it be easily intelligible by those in the DIY side of the hobby.

Also whatever the faults of WOTC and the OGL that shit made our bastardized "Latin" more robust--and legal.

Paul said...

You pack a lot of ideas into a few words.

As for the computer programming analogy, there may be some distinction between a platform and a framework/scaffold, but what you're talking about is fundamental to D&D and its longevity.

Your final point is what programmers call "writing reusable code". It not only saves labor in the long term, but also results in more robust systems.

Telecanter said...

I agree wholeheartedly. In trying to make something that other people can pick up and plug in, it's forced me to boil things down to their archetypal essence (at least from my perspective). But, once you have that foundation, and you're aware that not everyone is interested in the default, you can make a chart that goes crazy, pushing the archetypes until they just, almost break.

huth said...

I wonder if people could attempt a taxonomy of the different kind of mechanical modules that make up most RPGs.

Roger G-S said...

The hanging question here is that Facebook monetizes its platform through advertising revenue. How can D&D as a platform translate to revenue for the company? By selling stripped-down basic rule books? By leveraging resources to sell books of spells, items, monsters that have been playtested to a pitch that people can run them without hacking?

Brandon said...

Roger, what you point out is indeed a concern. But you should note that TSR was relatively successful until they sank their own ship. Early D&D did not suffer from being relatively basic in places. 3.5 was successful in the market in part because it was so easily licensed and extended. Many of the more popular licensed versions were simpler than the original source material.

But it wasn't necessarily a success for WoTC/Hasbro. The trouble WoTC/Hasbro has had in making D&D successful monetarily, from 3.x through 4, has something to do with complexity, I think. It requires such commitment that it's easier for many players to simply play a computer game that tracks all the details for them. I think if D&D were to make a change to simpler, more open play, it might actually do wonders for their sales, done properly.

They shouldn't tout that it's hack-able so much as make it more easily understandable. Those who want to hack won't wait to be told they can or how. They will simply do it, and a simpler system that still preserves the feel of the game is an excellent way to encourage that without explicitly encouraging it.

John said...

This seems germane, although I'm probably behind the times: according to the grapevine Monte Cook is currently working on Type V, expected to be announced next year. I don't know enough about Cook to be able to draw any inferences from that, but I'm somewhat curious. It seems to me that the only logical direction WoTC can take is to simplify the game, as Brandon said, but that hasn't exactly been the trend so far. Maybe now that Paizo is outselling them they'll try a different tack.

Kiel Chenier said...

@John Ugggghhhh...I don't wanna even THINK about a Fifth Edition yet. I've just sunk my teeth into Type IV and am getting pretty good at it.

Speaking of, I agree with Zak in that Type IV is an absolute boondoggle to try and hack. As a 'platform', it sucks pretty hard.

That said, that's not stopping me from hacking it to create my own version of the game to support a Mass Effect RPG (which would borrow more from Type IV Gamma World than D&D). It's a tough hack, but it's coming along.

Zak Sabbath said...


who cares? that's WOTC's problem, not ours.

Adamantyr said...

Yeah, I read that Google rant myself.. since I work for the competition, it made me grin a bit...

And the analogy to role-playing systems was also immediately familiar to me... The big problem that D&D 3E ran into was by platforming it, the amount of product got out of hand.

It was only a few years into 3E that I stopped buying 3rd party products. So much retread and reprinting of the same materials got dull...

Also, notice how instead of publishing a wealth of modules and adventures, like WotC hoped, most of the 3rd party companies turned out their own rules sets and supplements instead? Instead of getting the product gap filled, they got tons of small competitors in the same space.

Jeff Rients said...

Somedays I think about giving 3e another go. I got sucked into "rules as written" and "rules mastery" the first time.

Richard Balmer said...

Are skill challenges that complicated to run? I've been doing them almost entirely on the fly whenever the players have come up with something awesome and weirdly complex. For me its just been a matter of asking the players how they want to try to do what they're attempting and what skills they want to use to do it and then going through the steps based on their descriptions of how they want to go ahead and the dice rolls. I can't really see much more than a dice mechanic to allow PCs to creatively use their skills, really.

(I'm sure lots of people regard this as some kind of heresy but one of the reasons i'm getting into the OD&D blogs these days - aside from the awesome artwork that seems scattered across them - is that i'm finding it really easy to apply most of the ideas in them to my 4e campaign...)

Adam Thornton said...

Someday I will have a real post, or maybe an essay on this.

I come to it from...well, OK, let's put it this way:
1) the group I'm leaving at work to go join Infrastructure was called Platform Engineering
2) I applied (unsuccessfully) for Google SRE
3) I've played D&D for more than 30 years (holy shit, he said, as the realization of THAT hit him)
4) I appear to be obsessed with collecting, reading, and often trying to play D&D variants.

So: D&D is *of course* a platform. It's an extensible framework for building The Awesome on.

The interesting discussion comes from what parts of D&D are Platform, and what parts are Product.

And, you know what? There's actually a canonical legal answer to that. That would be the d20 SRD.

Now of course that only really refers to Type III, but still, that's going to be a useful and not-wholly-inaccurate starting point. The Platform is everything that you could extend with the OGL.

Of course, that's way too big. The Platform as thus-defined contains a hell of a lot of Product. The way I currently like looking at this is the question "What Is The Essence Of D&D?" I remember several months, maybe longer, ago, reading someone's argument in the OSR Blogosphere about: "Six ability scores, saving throws, classes, levels, Vancian magic, abstract hit points, fantasy-melange setting" and probably some other stuff I've forgotten about.

Me, I'd say even that's too big a tent. I'd say that Microlite20 and, especially, Microlite74 ( are D&D...but they have 3 ability scores and no Vancian magic.

And then there are experiments like Terminal Space--or for that matter, Gamma World--that use the D&D Platform to do completely different genres. And given that GW and Boot Hill were TSR games, clearly Gary and Co., early on, saw D&D as a Platform.

The point is: whatever that irreducible core of D&D is is *definitely* Platform, not Product. Platformy bits go out at least as far as the borders of the SRD, although towards the edges it's mostly more Product than Platform.

To bring it back around: Platforms by their nature say, "Hey! Go make something cool with this." Products don't, although they may not discourage it either. The OSR, and gamers who dig stuff like the OSR (and, although it will make them vomit into their hipster goatees, I include Forgeites in this) inherently dig Platforms over Products. Sandbox play? Platform. Dragonlance? Product. Vornheim? Some of both. The Zoo? Product. The charts? Platform. The city itself...more Platform than Product.

Also, screw it, I'm gonna post this on Dreamwidth too.

Delta said...

As a case study, I did run into this with my recently-released wargame rules. Initially I thought that I had to detail a whole bunch of set scenarios for play -- because that's how it was done in Battlesystem 1, 2, and WarHammer. But then I realized that it was a better idea to provide well-tuned rules for randomly setting up terrain and the environment. In playtests that's given it much longer legs, and we've been playing every week for about a year now, and not tired of it yet (in fact, it's our favorite game in the house at the moment, even with just the Basic rules).