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A word for "what do the PC's do?"

Started by Vaxalon, June 08, 2005, 12:28:53 AM

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Hey Joel, the idea wasn't that every game should duplicate D&D's kill and loot motif (a good word for this I think)...but that every game should have one and it should be easily articulatable in a just a couple of sessions.

This isn't really that revolutionary idea outside of the gaming hobby.  In business we call it an elevator pitch...meaning that you should be able to summarize your product or service succinctly and compellingly in the duration of a short elevator ride.

A game...and yes, IMO ALL games (at least all games I'd consider well designed), should have a succinct and easily articulated thing that they do better than any other game.  That thing should inform the design process and it should form the cornerstone of the marketing process as well.

Joel P. Shempert

That's fine but I think if the formula employed is just this endless treadmill, that's creatively stifling on the play side, and really just lazy on the design side. It really amounts to "doing the same thing over and over again." And reading the blog link, I'd say that's exactly what people were advocating. The general agreement was that a game can't be successful without some sort of "thing that you endlessly repeat," even if it isn't exactly D&D's Dungeon Crawl motif.

I guess my underlying question is, "why does the motif, formula, whatever, have to be so short-term?" What if, for example, my "motif" is something like "dramatic tension building over time to a satisfying climax?" A theme like that certainly isn't going to deliver its goods over the course of a session or two; in fact it'll take the entire campaign to deliver on its motif. Note that the campaign could be five weeks or five years; what's important is that the whole play experience has a single dramatic "arc," rather than a string of mini-climaxes or kill-loot-level drudgery.

I think this whole thread is a throwback to the old Gygax assumption that a campaign should go on forever.

Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.


I'm not sure I follow you Joel.

I didn't get that sense at all.  Perhaps you're reading into what's there.

Granted most of the thread is about D&D...and D&D *IS* about doing the same thing over and over, so pehaps that's where you're picking up the vibe from.  You're clearly seeing "thing that you endlessly repeat" as being a negative and not likeing the idea that that seems what people are recommending.

Let me give you 3 examples of games that get the whole "succinct motif" thing down completely right...examples that I think should absolutely be emulated by designers wanting to design quality games.

Prime Time Adventures:  Very solid and succinct motif of playing the characters of a TV series.  Every session is an episode.  Every game is a new season / series.  Every character has issues and spotlight episodes.  Would you consider this game to be a "thing that you endlessly repeat"?

Dogs in the Vineyard:  Another very solid and succint motif of playing wild west paladins traveling from town to town rooting out Sin.  Every session (or thereabouts) is a new town.  Every town has the same progression of Pride to Sin to False Doctine to False Priesthood to Sorcery to Murder.  Every town has a variety of elements who all want the Dogs to act in their favor.  Would you consider this game to be a "thing that you endlessly repeat?"

My Life with Master:  Very solid and succint motif about playing minions serving a mad master in a very dysfunctional family.  Every game will be minions vs. master, every minion has more than humans and less than humans, every game ends with the master's death, every game involves acquiring and losing connections.  Would you consider this game to be a "thing that you endlessly repeat?"

Those games clearly have a much more indie bent than the d20 Eberron game that was a large part of the blog discussion.  But they illustrate what I took away from it. Which is that a clear concise message to the players about "what are your characters expected to do in this game" is a good thing.

Joel P. Shempert

OK, I have to confess that I'm new to the Forge and indie games in general; thus I have not played any of these games though I very much want to. So. I think the key difference between most of the examples that you mention and the D&D paradigm is that these games have a very defined progression that, when done, is done. PTA has a set number of episodes, during which the story builds, peaks, and resolves. You don't simply pile episode upon episode until you're old and gray. Sure, you can start another series once you finish the first one, but this will be just that: a new series. Thus not the same thing enedlessly repeated. Same thing with MLwM: it's even more finite than PTA. Presumably the fun of multiple MLwM games is observing the variation in how things turn out beginning with the same set of variables, similar to party games like Mafia.

Dogs in the Vineyard is a slightly different case. Again, I haven't played it, but it seems to me that the Go to Town, Hunt Sin, Repeat motif seems to be one weakness in an otherwise strong game. It may be structured so it's very fun and rewarding to do so, but in the long run, how many times is that really going to stay fun? Without anywhere to "go," a point to progress towards, the campaign either continues infinitely or peters out. That's why I'm attracted to something that does what it's supposed to do, builds engagingly, peaks satisfyingly, resolves and is DONE.

So the answer to your question is No, Yes, and No.

You are right, though, that it's easier to describe a wide variety of games in a succinct "sound bite" or "Pitch" than I had thought at first. I guess I just react negatively to the whole Modern Marketing and Mass Entertainment paradigm of "gotta say it in a sound bite." I always feel like "Why should I *have* to say it in a sound bite? What if it's more complex than that?"

As far as the connotation of the blog discussion goes, it seemed to me to have two components:

1) D&D works a certain way.

2) Don't you wish more designers caught on to this and made THEIR games work this way too?

What was really glaring to me was the complete lack of any concept that games may work a different way. D&D seemed to be equated with all roleplaying by omission.

But it may be just me. Respond if you wanna, but I'm willing to drop it.

Story by the Throat! Relentlessly pursuing story in roleplaying, art and life.


Its cool.  I don't think we're really disagreeing so much as coming to a meeting of the minds.

Don't think of the succinct message as being a sound bite...think of it instead as being a mission statement.

And Mearls is pretty widely known in d20 circles as a primarily d20 designer, so its only natural that the responses to his remarks were very d20 focused.

I don't think I've done any damage to his central thesis, however, by applying it to other titles.  But he can pop in and correct me if I've misconstrued him at all.


Quote from: ValamirI don't think I've done any damage to his central thesis, however, by applying it to other titles.  But he can pop in and correct me if I've misconstrued him at all.

I think you pretty much nailed it on the head. As you point out, my essay focused on D&D/d20 because that's what I work with.

It's interesting to see how many people in the "industry" gush about the three titles you mentioned, but they're so caught up in the prestige economy of the "industry" that they ignore the real lessons in design they could extract from them.


We constantly ask designers in the IGD forum, "What do the characters do in this game," so (to state the obvious) finding a term for this seems like a good idea.

And Contracyle and
points work for me:

'Situation' – I know it's already defined in the glossary, but I remember reading in a Big Model discussion that Situation is the interaction between Character and Setting. First off, that seems to perfectly encapsulate the question, "What do the characters do in this game (setting)?"*

And I don't see this as formulaic at all. This concept is more about feeling out the boundaries of your game. TV example: if Battlestar Galactica is about humans in a rag-tag fleet evading Cylons, then fully resetting the series on a planet where humans and Cylons are trying to co-exist pushes way outside what we expect to see on the show.

So rather than creating a formula, you use your understanding of the game's situation to test out variations and push the story in unexpected directions ... while still staying true to everyone's expectations about "What the PCs do".

* Or rather, three questions: What type of character do you play? What setting do they exist in? What do you reward them for doing?

Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs


The only problem with "formula" and "formulaic" is that these terms have slipped from descriptive to perjorative, especially when talking about TV.... but most of my favourite TV shows are formulaic (Alias, Doctor Who, The Prisoner... in fact, most prime time TV). Jacobean drama was deeply formulaic, but very few people bitch that the conventions imposed on, say, Hamlet make it any less a unique and valuable work.
Pete Darby