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Author Topic: RPG Design Patterns  (Read 36260 times)
John Kirk
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 121


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« on: September 27, 2005, 08:43:09 PM »

Being an engineer by training and a software developer by trade, I have often thought that the tools of the software industry could apply to role-playing game design.  In fact, software design practices influenced much of Legendary Quest’s design, so I know at least some of it is germane. One of the most potent tools in a software developer’s toolbox is the concept of Design Patterns. Design Patterns are well-considered approaches to difficult problems whose solutions have been observed in previous works.  A little over a year ago, it occurred to me that the Design Pattern approach would work equally well in role-playing game design.  So, over the last year, I performed a study of various role-playing games in hopes of gleaning patterns.  Many of the games I examined were designed and written by this forum’s contributors.

Writing a book is an excellent way to force oneself to learn a subject, which I wished to do while preparing to tackle the 8th edition of Legendary Quest.  And, since browsing these forums has enriched my life over the years, I want to contribute something back. 

So, with some guidance from Mike Holmes, I wrote a book: “Design Patterns of Successful Role-Playing Games”.  The book contains patterns, both good and bad, that I encountered in my study.  It also contains design summaries of the various games I scrutinized.  The book is not done yet, but I think there’s enough there to illustrate what I envision.  I also think that it’s sufficiently complete to help out game designers to some degree.  You can download a draft version of the book from the Downloads page of my website at http://legendaryquest.com

I’d like to get feedback about the direction I’m heading with it.  I’d like this thread to focus on the concept of Design Patterns as it applies to role-playing game design.  Are Design Patterns something that can further our understanding of game design?  Should I tweak my approach to make it more pertinent to the needs of the game designer community?  Is this a reasonable step in the direction of RPG engineering?  Or, am I just way off base with this?

If you have questions or comments about a specific Design Pattern or Game Summary, I’ll be happy to respond.  But, please split those issues out into their own separate threads so we can keep this one scoped to a manageable level.  Including the term “Pattern”, “Anti-pattern”, or “Summary” in your thread’s title will help me identify it as something pertinent to this topic.

One final note:  Mike Holmes gave me a great deal of excellent feedback while writing this book, and I’d like to publicly thank him for that.  But, he hasn’t seen all of it yet at the time of this posting.  So, please attribute any blatantly idiotic blunders to me.
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John Kirk

Check out Legendary Quest.  It's free!
contracycle
Member

Posts: 2807


« Reply #1 on: September 27, 2005, 11:48:18 PM »

I think this a fantastic approach that will likely/hopefully produce games that are more purposefully, rather than inspirationally, assembled.  Bravo.  I've only scanned the document but it looks fantastic to me.  On the down side, this sort of analysis has been consistently stamped on to date and we shall have to see what happens.
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Per Fischer
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« Reply #2 on: September 28, 2005, 12:25:56 AM »

This is an awesome piece of work! I can't even begin to imagine the amount of research and work that must have gone into this.

Respect :)

Per
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Per
--------
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
J. Tuomas Harviainen
Member

Posts: 127


« Reply #3 on: September 28, 2005, 02:21:25 AM »

Extremely impressive, John. That's a piece of work that is going to be extremely useful for design, with a side bonus of providing excellent summaries for people considering buying any of the games you describe. You're on a very good path with it.

Here's some small criticism, though:

- The only really significant problem I had with your text was that it constantly changes in style, from analytic to friendly chat to occasional moments of pedagogic condescension. If you have the time and the energy, tone the language a bit towards a more uniform structure (I'd personally prefer increasing the friendly how-to -guide style over the academic tone). Also give some consideration to how you reference the works of people you highly respect; a courteous "credit where credit is due" is better than the nearly fawning tone you occasionally use in those cases. (Not often, but still enough many times that it creates an illusion of not being completely objective, which you actually IMO are.)
- A bit more emphasis on the fact that you're dealing with just tabletop rpg would be nice. You mention it briefly on p. 4, but I think a separate disclaimer paragraph very early on would be good.
- A bibliography on non-game resources at the end would be welcome, and explain the background further. If you add one, consider also moving the ludography from page 4 to the end, but preserving it as a separate list.
- Some reference to Wraith: the Oblivion's Shadow system might be a good addition to the Conflicted Gauge segment.
- Add something to either Endgame, Structured Story, or both on how some games basically deal with just one story concept played over and over while others are broader - or just pretend that they are.
- One reward system that's missing is that some games give bonuses for expressing a character or the game's genre logic. It can be seen as a part of Narrative Reward, yes, but given the excellent precision you use in differentiating things like health/damage systems, this distinction might also be worth making.

All in all, a very good book, and something that I know I'll often be referencing in the future.

-Jiituomas
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J. Tuomas Harviainen
Member

Posts: 127


« Reply #4 on: September 28, 2005, 02:28:52 AM »

which you actually IMO are
That vague statement is supposed to mean that contrary to the illusion, I think the book was highly objective and of good analytic quality.
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Jack Aidley
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Posts: 488


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« Reply #5 on: September 28, 2005, 02:33:50 AM »

Wow! Just wow! Great stuff, John. I'll try and get you some more meaningful feedback when I get time to read and digest.
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- Jack Aidley, Great Ork Gods, Iron Game Chef (Fantasy): Chanter
Tobias
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Posts: 446


« Reply #6 on: September 28, 2005, 02:54:44 AM »

New daily commute reading. Thanks!
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Bankuei
Guest
« Reply #7 on: September 28, 2005, 08:30:44 AM »

Hi,

Though I've only skimmed and read bits and parts, this is an incredible document.  I suspect that this will find influence outside of the Forge in a BIG way, due to it's accessibility and focus on the mechanics.  Even at this stage, this document is the sort of analysis that few people have applied to any game, even one they're designing (sadly), much less across several.

I'll drop more feedback as I read deeper.

Chris
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Christoph Boeckle
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Posts: 455

Geneva, Switzerland


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« Reply #8 on: September 28, 2005, 09:16:54 AM »

I just read the introduction and took a brief look at the contents. It looks awesome!

I was wondering if you regard Ritual as a design pattern (Polaris comes to mind). If yes, and since this is still a draft, please consider talking about it, I'd be very interested in a discussion about that.

All the best for your project!
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Regards,
Christoph
xenopulse
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Posts: 527

Heretic Forgite


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« Reply #9 on: September 28, 2005, 09:28:36 AM »

I second everything that's been said.  This looks awesome.

As for Polaris, I was going to bring that up for structured or ritualized drama resolution.  I think it's unique at this point, so it's not a pattern yet, but keep an eye out for more games that learn from it in the future.
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Joshua A.C. Newman
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Posts: 1144

the glyphpress


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« Reply #10 on: September 28, 2005, 11:18:41 AM »

What an opus! I don't have anything intelligent to say yet, only that I'm enthusiastic.
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the glyphpress's games are Shock: Social Science Fiction and Under the Bed.

I design books like Dogs in the Vineyard and The Mountain Witch.
rrr
Member

Posts: 37


« Reply #11 on: September 28, 2005, 03:05:19 PM »

Hello.

It really is impressive.  I started to skim read and then got sucked in to properly reading sections.  I'm going to have to try and get it printed out as I find it difficult to read on screen for such an amount of material!

I love the fact that you've gone for a kind of descriptive analysis of what the games actually do, it's really helpful to some one like me who's only just starting to think deeply about rules and mechanics.

wow.

Drew
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John Kirk
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 121


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« Reply #12 on: September 28, 2005, 07:05:08 PM »

I appreciate all of the positive responses.  Thank you all!  I must say that I wasn't expecting so much enthusiasm so quickly, but am gratified nonetheless.

- The only really significant problem I had with your text was that it constantly changes in style, from analytic to friendly chat to occasional moments of pedagogic condescension. If you have the time and the energy, tone the language a bit towards a more uniform structure (I'd personally prefer increasing the friendly how-to -guide style over the academic tone). Also give some consideration to how you reference the works of people you highly respect; a courteous "credit where credit is due" is better than the nearly fawning tone you occasionally use in those cases. (Not often, but still enough many times that it creates an illusion of not being completely objective, which you actually IMO are.)
- A bit more emphasis on the fact that you're dealing with just tabletop rpg would be nice. You mention it briefly on p. 4, but I think a separate disclaimer paragraph very early on would be good.
- A bibliography on non-game resources at the end would be welcome, and explain the background further. If you add one, consider also moving the ludography from page 4 to the end, but preserving it as a separate list.
- Some reference to Wraith: the Oblivion's Shadow system might be a good addition to the Conflicted Gauge segment.
- Add something to either Endgame, Structured Story, or both on how some games basically deal with just one story concept played over and over while others are broader - or just pretend that they are.
- One reward system that's missing is that some games give bonuses for expressing a character or the game's genre logic. It can be seen as a part of Narrative Reward, yes, but given the excellent precision you use in differentiating things like health/damage systems, this distinction might also be worth making.

Your criticism about the style changes is well taken.  You are not the first person to make that point about my writing.  I have a difficult time with that.  What I probably need is a big burly editor with a hairy back and zero patience to bludgeon me into submission.

I added some text to pg. 2 emphasizing the pen-and-paper nature of the games and to Structured Story in response to your comments.  I'll also consider the bibiliography idea.  However, I'd like to keep this thread from drifting into discussion about minor flaws or omissions.  Those kinds of critiques are certainly invaluable to me and will help the book's quality, but would be better handled via PM or e-mail (or split off into a separate thread if they warrant discussion).  What I'm looking for here are more "big picture" issues concerning the applicability of Design Patterns to role-playing game design.  For example, Mike Holmes once suggested to add a "First Known Use" section to each pattern.  I haven't done that because I haven't studied nearly enough games to give a reasonable estimate of the first known use for most of the patterns.  And, I question whether that would add any useful design information to a pattern anyway.  Such a section might be interesting, but it seems more trivia-based than design-based, if that makes sense.  I also considered adding a "Strengths" and "Weaknesses" section to each Game Summary, but it seemed like implementing those would be highly subjective.  I like to base Design Patterns on hard, easily verifiable, concrete facts.

Concerning Wraith: the Oblivion: I understand that many other games follow these patterns.  At least, that is my hope.  But, at this point I am really only interested in adding games to the study if they allow me to add important new patterns to the catalogue.  I hope that doesn't seem snooty or anything.  It's just that there are a lot of games out there and I cannot possibly cover them all.  Still, I am hoping that people will point out when adding a game would achieve this goal.  I'm looking for the fewest the number of games to achieve the largest number of quality patterns.  Appendix A shows that, even if no more games were added to the study, I have quite a few patterns yet to write (although I probably won't ever get to all of them).  I'm going to try to keep the total number of patterns down below 50, though.  I'm hoping that will force me to focus on only the most important ones.

I was wondering if you regard Ritual as a design pattern (Polaris comes to mind).

This actually brings up a very important point concerning Design Patterns in general.  The term "Ritual" as used here on the Forge seems rather fuzzy to me.  That's not a bad thing, it merely indicates that "Ritual" is an abstract concept.  Design Patterns, on the other hand, are concrete methods to represent or support abstract concepts.  For example, a character's "good looks" and "sociability" are abstract concepts.  But, in role-playing games they are often represented concretely via a "Charisma" gauge.  My feeling is that a number of different design patterns may eventually appear to support or encourage "Ritual", but it is not itself a design pattern.  Sorrowfully, I haven't read Polaris yet.  But, perhaps it does contain the first use of a form of drama resolution that will eventually be recognized as a design pattern.

Also, please note that something might be a pattern without being a design pattern.  Many games are written in English, for example.  That's possibly a marketing pattern, but it isn't a design pattern.
 
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John Kirk

Check out Legendary Quest.  It's free!
Blankshield
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Posts: 407


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« Reply #13 on: September 28, 2005, 08:06:18 PM »

I
I was wondering if you regard Ritual as a design pattern (Polaris comes to mind).

This actually brings up a very important point concerning Design Patterns in general.  The term "Ritual" as used here on the Forge seems rather fuzzy to me.  That's not a bad thing, it merely indicates that "Ritual" is an abstract concept.  Design Patterns, on the other hand, are concrete methods to represent or support abstract concepts.  For example, a character's "good looks" and "sociability" are abstract concepts.  But, in role-playing games they are often represented concretely via a "Charisma" gauge.  My feeling is that a number of different design patterns may eventually appear to support or encourage "Ritual", but it is not itself a design pattern.  Sorrowfully, I haven't read Polaris yet.  But, perhaps it does contain the first use of a form of drama resolution that will eventually be recognized as a design pattern.

John, take a look at Meguey's excellent post about ritual here.  It may give some strong insight into how ritual pattern may tie into design.

That's all I have of note right now, except that due to a fortuitous need to test a new brand of toner at work, I'll be printing out your book tomorrow, and look forward to reading it. :)

James
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John Kirk
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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« Reply #14 on: September 28, 2005, 10:38:28 PM »

John, take a look at Meguey's excellent post about ritual here.  It may give some strong insight into how ritual pattern may tie into design.

That is, indeed, an excellent post.  It is very clear on what Meguey considers to be optimal Ritual.  It will serve quite well to illustrate the relationship RPG Design Patterns have to RPG Theory.

In the post, Meguey states that the optimal ritual consists of the following phases: Welcome, Gathering, Journey Inward, Work, Return, Celebration, and Release.  Meguey further says:

Ritual has a definite pattern, and if a part of the pattern is missing, the ritual will feel hollow, incomplete, or simply not work. It's an X or hourglass shape, and it flows like this.

Let's assume that Meguey can give explicit concrete instructions on what comprises each of these phases, and those phases can be unambiguously defined so that they can be recognized in a game.  We also know the design goal: Create Intensity.  If so, then what Meguey describes can be classified as design.  For purposes of this discussion, let's also assume that this particular design has appeared in two or more games.  That would make it a design pattern.  Let's call that the Optimal Ritual design pattern.  (It would be similar in many respects to the Structured Story design pattern, although the entire ritual would take place in a single session and would be much more explicit in the phases that it required.)

Now, let's also assume that there are two other games that incorporate the Welcome, Journey Inward, Work, Return, and Release phases, but leave out the Gathering and Celebration phases.  If Meguey is right, then this is a less-than-optimal Ritual.  This is also a design pattern, but one that Meguey believes is inferior to the Optimal Ritual design pattern.  Let's call it the Less-Than-Optimal Ritual design pattern.  Both support Ritual.  Both have concrete well-defined identifiable requirements.  Both are design patterns.  Now, let's assume that after thorough discussion, it is decided that Meguey is actually right and the Less-Than-Optimal Ritual design pattern is always inferior to the Optimal Ritual design pattern.  That makes the Less-Than-Optimal Ritual a design anti-pattern, since there is always a better alternative.

Now, if the term "Ritual" is defined as always having Meguey's phases, then there is no distinction between "Ritual" and the "Optimal Ritual" design pattern described above.  But, prior to reading Meguey's post, I had only seen "Ritual" in more abstract terms as in Chris Lehrich's excellent article Ritual Discourse in Role-Playing Games.  I could easily envision some other sequence of steps that would qualify as a "Ritual" according to this more abstract concept.  It may be a poorly designed ritual, but a ritual nonetheless.  So, yes, what Meguey is describing could be considered a design pattern.  But, I think what she is describing is a mechanical implementation of a more abstract concept intended to satisfy a specific design goal.

We should also be aware that a game may try to satisfy the design goal of creating intensity in some fashion entirely unrelated to Ritual.

Does that make sense?
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John Kirk

Check out Legendary Quest.  It's free!
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