Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Is RPG Game Design a Bullshit Profession?

I've been thinking about this lately.  As a lawyer I can tell you that a lot, if not most, of the profession is complete bullshit.  It's made to sound confusing in order to justify ego's and hourly billing rates.  I know +Zak Smith has said similar things surrounding the terminology and jargon thrown around in art circles.  I remember a conversation with +Rob Kuntz where he described a game, DnD I think it was, that he and a player were so into they continued it at a pizza place, sans dice, books, character sheets, paper and pencils, where Rob had the guy guess a number to determine success or failure.  It worked because there was a trusted conflict or situational resolution system that gave the appearance of stuff not being arbitrary.

At its core, isn't that what all RPG rule systems are supposed to do?

Look what we do with Flailsnails.  Isn't that sort of trust in the fairness of the dm at the heart of it?  Get 12 Flailsnails dm's together and give them a situation or conflict and likely there will be 12 different things made up on the fly to resolve that situation or conflict.  It's not complex, it's not rocket science, it doesn't even hang together as a coherent system.  But it's fair, trusted, and people have fun so it works.  

So why such complexity in RPG design?   I think it's so people can claim to be game designers and puff up the ego. Also, to justify jobs and new editions and a stream of revenue for the corporate overlords.

Read this, then come back and continue with my post:

The famous quote attributed to Gary Gygax:  "The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don't need any rules." maybe ought to be expanded to gamemasters and players, and seems to be the deep dark secret of the RPG game design industry.

Did we really need a Numenara, a game which deals with common themes in RPG's that have been around for decades, and just slapped a new resolution mechanic on all of it?  Do the rules really enhance the game that much?  Do they ever?  The only time I've ever seen rules impact the game is that the more rules you have the more the game sucks ass. 

Beyond a small pamphlet-sized booklet describing some basics, which is really a hobby level publication, not the sort of thing that would support a multi-million dollar industry, what else is really needed?

Also, without new editions there wouldn't be edition wars.  New editions really aren't needed.  Therefore edition wars are basically the fault of the industry pitting groups of people against each other over shit that doesn't matter in the first place, which coincidentally lends itself as a perfect distraction to get stop them from even wondering if they needed a new edition anyhow, while game designers pick their pockets for 40 bucks for a hardcover, unnoticed.

Sounds like a microcosm of the real life plutocracy we live in, now that I think about it.

(Got an comment that says this: "Would you mind adding a credit to "Alan De Smet" to the Gygax photograph, as required by the license? Thanks!")


  1. When you talk about the "trust" part of gaming, I think you really hit the nail on the head. I can really relate, as I've been thinking about that enough lately to do a recent post about it:


    Ultimately, the trust factor needs to flow both ways at the game table. GMs shouldn't be evil overlords/petty tyrants that torment players on a whim for their own glee, and players shouldn't act like a Roman mob demanding to be entertained at gladitorial contests. Both GMs and players need to take responsibility for the health of the game.

  2. That person @ the Next Door Pub (pizza joint) was James Ward.

    As to the rest. The perfect set of rules would be a mere one or two pages. At least OD&D was sparse by comparison to today's continued bloat. But that is what one can expect if they blindly support the game-as-consumer market that won out a long time ago and created a marketed-to generation who will "define" what RPG is all about. Cash, not creativity. Purchases, not personal power. Girth but not growth.

    Have a nice day...


  3. Interesting, but what do you make of folks that buy games but never play them? I do that a lot. I buy them for the ideas, or the nostalgia, or whatever. Truly those are the most unnecessary of games yet they seemingly serve a need (although perhaps a psychologist is needed to really determine the need).

  4. Thank you for commenting Rob. I wonder, would you ever put out your 2 page version of the rules? I'd love to see it man. :)

  5. Hiya Joe. Long time, same old same old, in between.

    I never noted they'd be "my rules," and was in fact taking a side-long jab at the reason why we have so-called professionals producing more material than could be digested in many lifetimes,that is if one could stomach such a repeated menu served over and over with the items changing only in as much their titles and art do.

    This is formula at work, and it has been so for many, many years. Form was thrown out the window and scientific methodology now occupies its place. Repeat. Dispose. Repeat.

    Listless fantasy, endlessly repeated tropes, sensational imagery and the coolness factor now rule. This is not about movement in either design or play, but in experiencing the sameness over and over, ad nauseum.

    If we had adopted this now entrenched philosophy of stagnation in 1972-1973 D&D would never have been created.

    Have a nice day...


  6. The strange thing is, I thought exactly the same thing the other day.

    Recently, I was chatting about the development of a new RPG with a couple of chaps who have a world they'd like an RPG for, and I think I said something like "the last thing we need is our own system, there are too many damn systems out there - what we need is a setting book and some really good GM hints."

    @ Rob - I think I've got it down to two sides; one for the base mechanic and one for some hints on how to change that up and alter the game's pace and tone. Might post it up later.

  7. I'll just leave this rebuttal from 1999 here: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/_articles/system_does_matter.html

    RPGs are proliferating right now despite the fact that there's generally not much, if any, money in them.

    What's the difference between Dungeon World and OD&D? One has actually codified how to run the game.

    By the logic presented here, why did we ever buy D&D? We could have just played pretend. Everyone knows how.

    People prefer differing levels of complexity, different degrees of commitment to simulating a fictional world, and different approaches to things as simple as calculating hits (THAC0, anyone?).

    I don't see many professional game designers getting rich or even quitting their day jobs. Do you?

  8. @ Ben:

    Playing pretend and being empowered once again to do so with the help of a mutable mechanic and simple base structure are two different beasts. Whereas pretend depends solely upon the ongoing adjudication and understanding of the ever changing aspect of verbalized rules, RPGs meld those two aspects. It's just when one (the Game Theory side) becomes predominant, as it now is in the mainstay market, does the play aspect (Play Theory--NOT to be conflated with Game Theory), or openness and thus unlimited potential of the game as "played," becomes contracted. And I will guarantee that kids daily at play make more strides in creating and transforming themselves and their imaginary environments than does the continued stagnant reiteration of a formula which has been RPG's case for the past 35+ years.

    Have a Nice Day.


  9. Nice Thoughts Ben, but that is not happening today, nor has it happened in the past 35years of the disposable formula that has created a generation, now, of mainstay gamers who perceive the game as solely dependent on the mechanics and that if it is not institutionalized it is not viable; that is, if you wander into open form you are in essence committing a taboo. Nor will this ever happen under the current market-to-consumer situation. There will be exceptions, as always, but these will be not be representative of anything but a minority.

    This, part and parcel with a game-as-consumer mindset it has created, has perforce dumbed the game down and its perception for newcomers now is only of it being just another entertainment, which is true at this point, as those who would teach them the game, sell them the game and play the game with them have all been groomed to be such for quite a long time, starting in 1978. essentially.

    This is not a trend; it is the effect of market forces at work for a generation.

    As for rules getting out of the way, I most definitely adhere to that point as an award-winning RPG and board game designer. The classic games, such as Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Diplomacy, OD&D et al all had rules which were easily assimilated and became invisible thereafter to play. That made them great, in that the seamless integration of play and rules never collided and the rules became secondary, supportive of the game-play; and this has been true of all games that have withstood the test of time.

    You speak of childhood models. Then you will know that OD&D merged game theory with play theory. Game theory today is all about rules and structure; whereas play is about form and openness. As well, play is a transformational model; and I would argue that the play aspect as a transformational model was, and continues to be, severely depleted when you side exclusively, or predominantly, with the rules side of the game.

    Have a nice day.


  10. enjoying the hell out of this conversation guys. very interesting.

  11. Ben cites a bunch of games that have rules that _help the GM adjudicate_ rather than necessarily _use rules to add new content at the table_ .

    The second kind of rules (like spell lists) are way mroe fun.

    I don't need a game designer to tell me how fast fire burns. I would loooooooove a game designer to give me a random table of 100 fun things that could happen when a building catches fire.

    I want the game because I want to invite _the player that the game can represent_ to be at the table. Not because I need help making the game exist and run and be a game.

  12. "more fun"
    "mroe fun"

    that's Island of Lost Souls fun

  13. Joe said: "enjoying the hell out of this conversation guys."...

    Good. Seeing that you are bored with your vacation time, it no doubt set well with you, being the sensation seeker that you are. :)

    But I am off to greener, more fervent pastures (2 design projects) and have no more time to educate. Read the book when its out: "Form & Formula in RPGs." I've logged 6 years of research for it, this in combination with my experience derived from 45 years in two industries as a designer and game publisher.

    Toodles... or...

    Have a nice day (especially you Joe...)

  14. Take care Rob. Good to hear from you again. :) Please let me know when the book is out, man. Hopefully someday I can get to the NTRPG and we can meet in person.


  15. Sorry, but I call bullshit.

    People write RPGs for the same reason they create anything. For the same reason they want to write a book, make some music, design a game.

    Because its an artistic endeavor.

    I tried recently to design my own rules system. Why? Because I wanted something different than everything else. Were there dozens of other systems that would have suited me? Sure. Were there some that were really, really close? Absolutely.

    But I wanted "mine." I wanted to spend the time thinking about mechanics and game design and stupid things like hit location. I wanted to CREATE something that was mine.

    If that's bullshit, then every creative endeavor is bullshit.

    If you are saying that coming out with tired editions on top of old revisions and charging an arm and a leg for it, just so you can justify your existence, then you better call bullshit on most of Hollywood. And here's a hint - they don't care. They are watching you spend ticket money every week and laughing all the way to the bank.

    Maybe I'm missing your point. Because it seems like a really poor one, so I'm sort of confused. But if I think you are saying what I think you are saying then the best advice I can give you is "stop buying games." Problem solved.

    Oh and stop buying anything else made by humans. I mean, you have an old copy of Huck Finn right? WTF would anyone need to write again?

  16. Citing Dungeon World--the ultimate "rewriting D&D procedurally but not really adding new content" (and purposefully not adding new content, the authors explicitly go for what they call "pop fantasy") --as a _good omen_ in this context is baffling.

  17. I think, in the current circumstances, that 'bullshit' is:

    - designing something which is very, very hard to internalise and play seamlessly because of the sheer bulk of its mechanics
    - designing something which isn't effectively different from anything else out there

    I take the point that Ben made about systems sometimes creating an effect appropriate to what you're trying to achieve in play. If you're playing a game about Hermetic wizards casting their long, complicated Hermetic spells, having a huge spellbook to flick through and refer to creates that feeling of having to deal with obscure tomes and arcane lore. (Personally, I preferred the basic 'five verbs ten nouns' spellcasting model, but I suspect I lack the patience to Hermetify.) I can see some merit in a system which in some way imitates the thing-that-the-game-is-about (and if your game isn't About anything but having madcap adventuring fun then your system should enable the having of that fun as hard and fast as possible and I guess your game is actually About something after all, when we think about it, just not something that needs extra rules to depict).

    What I wonder, though, is whether we necessarily need that. If I want to run a game of Arthurian fantasy, wouldn't I be better served by going off to read/watch/generally saturate myself in my favoured versions of the Arthurian legend, and chat about it a lot with the people who are going to be playing it, and devising a few extra rules to govern that experience the way that kids do them (while playing pretend) rather than the way grown-ups seem to want them (as a prerequisite to playing pretend in the first place)?

    All I know is I've been running diceless by default for about eleven years and I sure as hell don't puff myself as being one of 'the best and most creative GMs of our age'. I'm just a dude with some friends who have similar sorts of ideas about what makes a good story in X genre. I think that's all that diceless or near-diceless roleplaying needs, really. The idea that it's something that only the great, the talented and the mythologised can accomplish is - forgive me - bullshit.

    (Unless it turns out that I am one of the great GMs of our or any other age, in which case I expect my laurel wreath by Tuesday.)

  18. Depends if you hate being knocked out of your comfort zone to any degree. If so, yeah, rules are always going to suck.

    Otherwise rules can take you to places your imagination otherwise would not have tread.

    Now are current designers bad at taking advantage of this principle - well okay...

  19. Von quoth: "What I wonder, though, is whether we necessarily need that. If I want to run a game of Arthurian fantasy, wouldn't I be better served by going off to read/watch/generally saturate myself in my favoured versions of the Arthurian legend, and chat about it a lot with the people who are going to be playing it, and devising a few extra rules to govern that experience the way that kids do them (while playing pretend) rather than the way grown-ups seem to want them (as a prerequisite to playing pretend in the first place)?"

    I was not going to comment further, but must stress the importance of his statements.

    This active, and activating, philosophy was the mainstay of 20,000+
    gamers from all walks of life 1974-1977 until the "pretending" was then codified into a formula via AD&D and the sampled and repeatable adventure format. Before these limited and limiting choices became available and played upon the human laziness and group standardization ("I do it that way, you do too, cool!") which has been ingrained in human experience (and at all institutional levels) ever since industrial/marketing formats came into being--before that, there was no other choice but to eagerly fall in a make it your own and thus rise to your strengths and TRANSFORM, not only yourself but those around you during that process of creative enlightenment. This in turn fed distinct creative evolutions in the game; and due to this, thousands of distinct conceptual variations began to occur, not just variations to one model with myriad attached templates as has now been, in the latter case, the "marketed" prescription for the past 35 years.

  20. @ Callan

    OK, I can get behind that. There's something about twisting and turning your thoughts around within constraints that unlocks the old creative nodes, for sure.

    I wonder, though, if 'rules' necessarily needs to mean 'mechanics' in the exhaustive 'three hundred page rulebook' sense of the word. If we go to the trouble of devising unwritten rules (cultures and contexts, for folks as like their alliteration and ampersands) for our game world, what options do we have for imposing them and thus pushing people to do some thinking?

    Do we say "elves in this world are like THIS" and trust people to make up their own rules out of their lets-pretend (like real children do)?

    Do we say "elves in this world are governed by this precise series of mechanical effects, and everything about these elves can be enumerated through their mechanics"?

    Do we go for something in between, where there are mechanics governing some of What Elves Are Like and unwritten implications about elven culture that suggest What Elves Are Like? I get the impression that's where most RPGs end up, somewhere on this spectrum where (frustratingly) not every limitation actually exists within the game's mechanics but there are enough mechanics for people to avoid engaging with the unwritten rules. This seems to guarantee that your game has the potential to annoy everyone, rather than the guarantee that it'll please you and yours.

    Dave, up the line there, is dead right to suggest that designing your RPG that works for you and your friends is an entirely worthy and laudable thing. It may be the only way you're guaranteed to get a game you like, after all.

    That all seems like a very happy ending, where everyone's a game designer after their own heart. How do we get there from here?

  21. addicted2aa said: "I'm not saying you can't tell any story you want, in any system. I'm saying certain system are far better for certain styles of play."

    I concur. And the best system that I've ever found to promote my ideas is my own system.

  22. "That being the case, I make the same argument for well designed rules."

    It's a good argument, although I wonder if we can actually pursue it without someone coming along saying "but I think that's fun" and us having to say "oh, well we can't say you're having badwrongfun, so it must be good."

    And Dread's use of the Jenga tower, incidentally, is ace and I'm glad we can agree on that (although I'm pants at Jenga, and doesn't being pants at Jenga mean you spend most of the session going "well, I'm out, who wants tea"? Honest question; I can't remember...).

    I'm trying to keep a distinction between "I want the absolute minimum amount of mechanics in my game" (I recognise that something to resolve 'I shot you' 'nuh uh you missed' conflicts is generally in order, for instance, and something which creates an appropriate set of feelings in those around the table is appreciated) and "I want NO RULES AT ALL" or some such nonsense. I don't like the majority of RPGs because the majority of RPGs seem overloaded with mechanics. Ars Magica, for instance, is in my opinion very elegant at its core but drowned in minutiae the second you start actually generating a character.

  23. @Rob, man you use some precise language that can really obfuscate your meaning. No idea what your reply to VON meant.

    Your reply to me on the other hand, that's great. But maybe I(stand in for Joe Gamer) don't want to spend time building my own system. Maybe I don't have the skills to make a good system. Maybe I'd rather pay someone to do it.
    Much like I'd rather pay a mechanic to fix my car, it doesn't make a mechanics job bullshit because I could do it myself.

    Continuing that line, there are advantages to using Designers systems. Other people can learn those systems independent of me. And then, when we meet, we can just get to playing without having to discuss system.

    Two thoughts.
    One, I can't comment on the majority of RPG's but there is certainly a Rule lite trend in vogue right now.

    two. I hate D&D. I despise HERO. I loathe GURPS. That said, I can see the reasons for such complex and bulky systems. I can see the desire for interlocking mechanics and measuring exactly how a gun fires, a sword swings, or how rocks fall. While it may not work for you, there are those who find that to be the epitome of what an RPG does.

    I couldn't detect if that was sarcasm about Badwrongfun that I missed and same with Jenga. That is indeed a problem with Dread, not everyone can make pulls. You can substitute to have another person pull, but I can see that still ruining a persons fun. No game is perfect for everyone.

  24. "@Rob, man you use some precise language that can really obfuscate your meaning. No idea what your reply to VON meant."


    Preciseness as a fault? That's a first. Then again, I was addressing Von's question which was pretty open. But I rather feel that there is less understanding than there is disagreement, no? We are obviously championing two different courses in these interchanges and if preciseness obfuscates, then there is a lack at not grasping the point and most likely due to divergent paths and not much else.

    Your reply to me on the other hand, that's great. But maybe I(stand in for Joe Gamer) don't want to spend time building my own system. Maybe I don't have the skills to make a good system. Maybe I'd rather pay someone to do it.
    Much like I'd rather pay a mechanic to fix my car, it doesn't make a mechanics job bullshit because I could do it myself."

    Then that's your imposed choice, whereas that may not be the choice of others, notwithstanding your interspaced hyoerbole to the contrary.

    Have a nice day.


  25. @ Addicted

    One - As a matter of curiosity, how are you defining 'rules light'? Genuine question; your 'rules light' is probably not the same as mine or Rob's or Monte Cook's or whoever's.

    Two - If people like that sort of thing, good luck to them (even if I do think they're mad). I'm not trying to say "it's wrong to like these things", I'm saying "these things are not in the strictest sense necessary components of an RPG, and it's probably better to start light and build up rather than start heavy and have trouble finding what to strip down".

    I guess what I'm saying is that my perfect RPG starts with a pamphlet and comes with other pamphlets that scale it up and add complexity for them as likes it, rather than starting as a weighty tome?

    I'm not really inclined to sarcasm, although there may have been a teensy bit echoing around the 'badwrongfun' part; I'm not one for relativism either, and it sometimes feels to me that there's a relativistic cop-out hovering around the 'badwrongfun' argument. I'd like to avoid copping out if I can help it, because I do think some things are objectively 'bad', just not necessarily 'wrong' with it.

    If an analogy helps: I like Army of Darkness but I ain't pretending for a second that it's an objectively well-made film. Similarly, I play Vampire: the Masquerade, but I think it can be argued that it's an objectively 'badly designed' game considering what it's ostensibly setting out to do.

  26. Would you mind adding a credit to "Alan De Smet" to the Gygax photograph, as required by the license? Thanks!

  27. This is why RPGs never have and never will be popular with most people: It's called a game, but there are no rules that really count. The DM can do anything he wants and the players can do anything they can talk the DM into.

  28. I am going to slightly disagree. Yeah it is completely useless and frankly it is not something to have a large ego. Those things I agree with you, however, what I don't agree with you is your link you gave out. These people are doing what they love to do. They are not some office worker slaving away long hours with nothing to show for. They got their craft and they love doing it. Now only if they stop acting like it is the most important thing in the world where they should be treated as if they stand on some high ground.


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