Monday, September 05, 2005

Five Games

Under the Bed, Breaking the Ice, Death's Door, The Mountain Witch, and I'm going to include my own Polaris in the list if people don't object to me analyzing my own work.

These games all have something in common. Ken Hite, bless his old heart, universally calls them "almost a game, but not quite." He's wrong, of course. They are perhaps more like games -- by which I mean the ordinary sort of board, card, video and computer games -- than any role-playing game, ever.

These games have learned and studied and digested all the lessons of Dogs in the Vineyard, Sorcerer, My Life With Master, Primetime Adventures, Trollbabe, and Universalis. In that order, in my own case, although I think that each of the authors would order those games differently. It's a moot point.

All of these games have:

  1. The expectation that the game will be played to the fullest extent that the rules allow, and no further.
    1. The expectation that people will not be anti-social within the context of the rules. By which I do not mean not taking advantage of rules loopholes. These games have no rules loopholes.
    2. These games have no rules loopholes. (Possible exception: Polaris.)

  2. Incredibly focused design. These games do what they do very well, and don't care to do anything else.
    1. The central issue of each of the games is an incredibly important human issue: Childhood (Under the Bed), Romance (Breaking the Ice), Honor (The Mountain Witch), Death (Death's Door), and Duty and Disillusionment (Polaris).

  3. A definite and finite play period. Polaris has the longest of these at 20 hours or so. Breaking the Ice is the shortest at 1 1/2 hours.

    These three things are pretty much things that most people expect from normal games. Then, there are the other two.

  4. Strong scene framing.
    1. In all but The Mountain Witch, rotating scene framing.
    2. Strong Director Stance. In all but The Mountain Witch, no singular GM figure, and TMW has such strong Director Stance as to render ordinary GMing moot (players get to hide information from the GM, to pick one thing at random.)
    3. All players are expected to generate material for play, including conflicts (see also 4).

  5. All players are expected and required by the rules to bring intensely personal issues to the table. The absolutely strongest case here is Death's Door, where you have to write down things you want to do before you die. The weakest is Polaris, where you are required to participate in ritual but that's about it.

Furthermore, absolutely none of the above things is regarded as special within the game text. Nothing says "in this game, which is different from other role-playing games, we do ____" It just says "As long as you are not playing a scene, any player may start a scene for..." We, the designers of these games, have played enough of the other games that none of this is important anymore. Of course you can have a game that does these things. I think it is because of this that a lot of folks, like Ken Hite, are going to call these "not quite games." The rules aren't any further from a role-playing game than in the previous texts, but since we don't apologize for it, we're not really quite right.

I had a conversation with Frank T about these games. He was doubting that any game could unseat Dogs in the Vineyard as a favorite game for him. I said:

"Look, man, you may very well be right. You know the way that Dogs in the Vineyard focuses play exactly on the problems of the town, and the players have to pass judgment on them? Well, it could be that judgment of sins is the most interesting thing for you. In which case: Yes, none of these games will unseat Dogs as your favorite game.

"But if you're interesting in Childhood, or Romance, or Death, or Honor, or Duty, then you might want to check out these games. Because you know the way that Dogs works really well to focus on its single point? These games all do that exact same thing, but for a different point."

In other words, Dogs is a good game. These are all also good games. And they are all, also, different games. We aren't good just by hitting the same note over and over again.

Different and good. That can only mean one thing. We've done it, guys and girls. We've created a set of techniques which allow us to consistently and repeatedly make good games, without simply copying the work of a genius. We have taken RPG design and turned it into an honest-to-goodness craft.

I'm not saying that there's no need for further experimentation. Clearly, we will add new techniques to our set in the future, and I'm totally into trying to figure out what those are. What I'm saying is that we're not fumbling in the dark anymore. Anyone who wants to, who cares to listen and the learn, can design a good RPG.

Which means that these five are just the beginning of an explosion. It'll be a wild ride. I'm looking forward to it.


Blogger Brand Robins said...

It's odd, when I see comments like Ken's, I have a split reaction.

On one hand, if he is trying to say, "These are almost but not quite roleplaying games, in the standard mode of such things" then he is quite right. They are more "limited" than most traditional RPGs -- becuase they don't want to do the same thing.

But when he says flat "not quite games" he is totally wrong. They are playable, and very much in the standard definition of game.

So they are games, but they may not be RPGs in the same sense that D&D or GURPS (for example)are. However, its funny that in our little ghetoized corner of the world that "not like the things we normally play" has come to be synonomous with "not a game at all."

6:58 AM  
Blogger John Harper said...

Since when did "RPG" mean "Like D&D and GURPS?" I don't think it's ever meant that, even to the pickiest grognard.

And "limited?" I feel a rant coming on. Better to do it on my own blog.

I honestly don't know what Ken means when he says "not quite a game." He didn't say it about Nobilis, for example.

I agree with your last statement, Brand. Except instead of "funny" I would say "very, very sad."

9:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This whole idea that these games with a razor sharp focus aren't games or are too narrow is bullshit.

Can't stand it.

I don't want every game to be Mountain Witch or Polaris but I don't want every game to be GURPS either, dammit.

Give me my variety and please don't tell me that I'm not playing a game. I am playing a game, a rockin' good game, thank-you-very-much.

2:08 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Dudes --

Ken means it as a compliment. Chill.

See all the happiness in the essay? This is a happy thing. I demand Happiness!


4:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did Ken say that in an online column or other thing that can be linked to, or is it just something that came up in discussion at GenCon? I'd be interested to read the context around such a statement.

2:01 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

It's on his interview with Paul Tevis of Have Games Will Travel.

Again, guys, Ken likes these games. It's a statement in a purely complimentary and slightly humorous context. No need to get a bee in our collective bonnets about it.


3:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just for the record, my comment was pure curiosity. No bees in bonnets. In fact, the bees were making sweet, sweet honey.

As requested: Happy!

3:59 AM  
Blogger Bankuei said...

Hi Ben,

Yep, yep. Good times. :)

6:34 AM  
Blogger Nathan P. said...

Dude, thats awesome.

A question, though. Are we still talking about specifically "thematic" games (or however you/Vincent refer to Narrativist designs. damn memory) here? I mean, it's awesome that I can focus on human issues with these games. But are there comparable games with other focused design goals out there yet? Or is that somewhere else we need to go? Or is this question outside the scope of your blog?

6:36 AM  
Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Nathan, I'm not sure you're getting at this angle, but it sounds like you are, so I'm going to jump on it.

It looks like we've got games that get this great laser-focus on human issues from a number of different perspectives (Romance, Honor, Duty, etc). Now can we turn that laser-focus onto other elements besides human issues? Can we apply it to setting, to interpersonal politics, to social issues, to... I don't even know what, cause I haven't seen it yet.

The individual character is the easiest element of any narrative for the audience to identify with; that doesn't mean that it's the only important component, though, or the fundamental building-block of everything else. We've nailed one element; now can we start hitting the others?

1:07 AM  
Blogger Nathan P. said...

...i.e. What Joshua said.

1:52 AM  
Blogger --timfire said...

"It looks like we've got games that get this great laser-focus on human issues from a number of different perspectives... Now can we turn that laser-focus onto other elements besides human issues? Can we apply it to setting, to interpersonal politics, to social issues, to... I don't even know what, cause I haven't seen it yet."

I agree that we've gotten really good with thematic play. But I think you're looking at things things a little too narrowly. I believe it's a pretty small step to move from "the character" to "the setting" or social issues or whatnot (my next project hopes to do that, we'll have to wait to see if I'm successful).

But I will say I think we still have alot of ground to cover with Gamist & Sim play. Especially Sim play. Gamist play can look to board, card, or video games for inspiration (those types of games to the game-y thing better than just about any RPG), but Sim play is still pretty underdeveloped.

2:05 AM  
Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Roleplay focusing on character issues =!= Thematic Play =!= "Narrativist" Play.

There is -- or should be -- more under the artificial heading of Narrativism than just character issues.

But yes, we have lots of ground to cover still. I tend to be rather structuralist, so my "route" to that other ground is by designing and collecting new tools. We've got great tools for character issues; let's get more tools for other parts of play, and apply them to new kinds of play.

4:20 AM  
Blogger Emily Boss said...

Can we apply it to setting, to interpersonal politics, to social issues, to... I don't even know what, cause I haven't seen it yet.

Joshua's game, Shock might just fall under this category since the way you generate characters is by making a matrix between new technologies & social issues. (Thx to Ben : ) Have to see what comes out of it.

And Tim's right, there's a lot of other known ground to be covered too.

5:33 AM  
Blogger Brand Robins said...


Any links on Shock? I'm tinkering with a transhumanist game myself, and the mechanic sounds very interesting.

6:38 AM  
Blogger James said...

[Looks left, looks right]

Wow. This is some pretty hefty company I've been set in. I'm not entirely sure I belong here, but I'll limit my inherent Canadian humility to that single statement.

My list of "learned/studied/digested" would go: My Life with Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, Universalis, Sex and Sorcery, Cheapass Games.

Cheapass Games is where "Incredibly focused design" was really driven home to me. Take an idea, make a game that just does that. A lightning strick at the time. Ken Burnside (Ad Astra Games) has mentored me through some of the rough spots of going from nothing to Game, and I've said to him more than once "I want to be the Cheapass Games of RPGs, except not with the crazy fun parts."

As to applying this same kind of craft to things other than strong human themes, I say to thee "Game Chef 2005". Lots of folks this year that pushed out some strong contenders for "craft-learned" sim- and game- leaning designs. I fully expect and predict that Ben will be able to post a nigh identical post to this one a year from today, except it will have about ten games cited.



9:33 AM  
Blogger Ron Edwards said...

A) Word.

B) Politics? Yes. En route.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Joshua A.C. Newman said...


I've talked about Shock over at my LiveJournal and just did a little rundown at the glyphpress forum over at The Forge.

It's firmly on schedule for next GenCon. It's just barely possible that it will be out before then.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Brand Robins said...


Very cool. Am reading.

Will probably bug you more later.

1:34 AM  
Blogger xenopulse said...


Laser-focused Gamist design? Working on it. It'll be Polaris-inspired, believe it or not :)

- Christian

12:23 PM  
Blogger Paul Czege said...

It's on his interview with Paul Tevis of Have Games Will Travel.

About one minute into In Have Games, Will Travel #4, in reference to Bacchanal, and then twenty five seconds later in reference to Breaking the Ice:


10:38 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Thanks, Paul!

6:06 AM  

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