04 January, 2011

Game Mechanism of the Week Redux

I had fun doing my “Game Mechanism of the Week” series in 2009, so I’ve decided that I’ll do it again. It’s not that I’ve instantly thought of 52 more mechanisms to look at, but rather that I could do the series better. Maybe do things in a more focused manner; then combine what I’ve developed in Vector Theory in the hope that both concepts will be stronger for it.

Where possible I’ll be trying to pull in some new game mechanisms, but I’ll be drawing on some of the previous mechanisms for a more detailed analysis. It’s the kind of things that I was hoping to do the first time around, but this time I have a better perspective, grounding in my own game design theories, and hopefully a better way to explain things.

The concept of the “Game Mechanism of the Week” is important to me for a few reasons. It’s my way of understanding the elements that make up games, and the way those elements combine into unique play experiences. Finally, the way I see it, the analysis of game mechanisms takes a step toward a new layer of game design theory. I joined up with the forge after the theory discussions had closed down, and I was one of those many people who encountered the mass of posts and essays with a bewildered WTF before sitting down to read a few of them, misunderstanding them at first, then finding elements that meshed with actual play and achieving zen-like moments of satori (“Oh, so that’s what he means by Step On Up”). Where possible I’ve tried to share my understandings in the hope that other people might also see the value in these ideas. I didn’t realise until 2010 that “The Big Theory” (around which the Forge is centred), was actually just a method of describing the issues inherent in play groups. It doesn’t really affect the design of games, it affects the way those games are played. The way I understand it now, it was never intended to be a design methodology, but numerous new designers would encounter it for the first time, misunderstand what it was truly trying to say; then they’d have a head full of slightly-off but dangerous misconceptions as they plunged off to design a new game.

In the posts describing the “Winter of the Forge”, Ron Edwards and a few others have written some great stuff that confirm a few of my posts about the Forge and the Big Theory in the last few years. I guess that I was starting to “get it”, even if I didn’t realise it. The big theory was only ever intended as a tool to show people why certain aspects of the game were falling down…different people seeking different types of rewards, different people imagining the fiction in different ways, different people using different methods to interact through their characters. Once it has been categorised we can see an issue for what it is; that’s the aim. Once we can identify the problems we can move to the step of resolving them. If we try to resolve them without identifying them we might get lucky, but it’s far more likely that well run into new problems (often without successfully resolving the first lot). “The Big Theory” gives us a starting point to fix games in play, it even provides a few tools for looking as specific inputs and outputs for the game to understand how they might best be played within our gaming circles (“What does this game give rewards for?”, “Is the game setting internally consistent?”, “If there are inconsistencies are they intended to produce competition between participants, or simply the result of poor design?”). In the past few years some key independent designers have latched onto one or two identified inputs/outputs and have used these as starting points to develop games that have shaken up the way we play. These design methods have even begun filtering through into mainstream games. Many gamers (and game designers) are not only starting to see that their experiences have been good or bad, they are starting to understand why. The core gamer audience of D&D* still have a preconceived notion of what a roleplaying game is, and why their game is a proper roleplaying game while other games aren’t. They still work off the idea that “Joe is a good GM, Dave is a bad GM”, rather than analysing the techniques used by each GM and working out how either of them could be better. Many still cower at the thought of stepping up to take control of the story for themselves, believing that this is the sacred space of the GM, while they simply undertake the role of a reactive audience (“When do I roll?”, “What kind of die?”, “What number do I need to roll?”).

I’ve also mentioned the work of John Kirk, who has created a great book on the design patterns of successful RPGs. A few steps removed from Forge theory, it gives some great analytical tools of it’s own. It offers some nice flowcharts for how systems and patterns work within a game, noting how one die roll might lead to another die roll, a table, a comparison to another die roll or a target number. For a guide on how randomisation and die rolling principles work in an RPG, you’d have a tough task trying to surpass it; and while this isn’t it’s intended purpose, if you’re looking for a way to abuse one of the mentioned gaming systems, this text is downright brilliant. But I don’t recall it providing information on how to interact with the flow of the story being developed communally through the games.

Vector Theory was my attempt to link these two ideas into a tool that could actually be used to create mechanisms of specific types. Then by mixing these mechanisms, very explicit play experiences could be tailored.

I’m hoping that this year’s round of Game Mechanisms will be more focused than the 2009 offering. With the context of Vector Theory I’m hoping that I can really show my points about why mechanisms seem to work in specific ways.

But first, a lexicon for the year (there will be a webpage for this lexicon soon, to allow for updates and amendments).

*(that should probably say d20/D&D/Pathfinder these days)

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