So, my group recently played Diaspora. You can hear us talk about it on our podcast Actual People, Actual Play. During one of the episodes I raised some points that Will thought was worth me elaborating on in an article. I’m hesitant because my points are largely issues of design and I want to keep Play Passionately focused on principles of play. However, once in a while I have a point about play that touches on points of design. So I’m going to create a new section of the blog called “The Design Sidebar” for when I want to talk about things that sit right at that border.
Let me start by saying that our Diaspora game came to a screeching halt because of a serious miscommunication over what exactly we were doing with the game. That wording is pretty important. We had some hiccups over imaginative stuff like what was and wasn’t appropriate for the “genre.” But the much bigger issue was that even though we all understood the tools in our hands we simply weren’t putting it to the same use. I realized that what happened to us is illustrative of what I consider the Number 1 design problem across the majority of RPGs.
Other types of games have a rather crucial design component that the majority of RPGs lack. Most games call this feature the Object of the game. Object is, of course, derived from Objective because most other forms of game are competitive. Many RPGs are not competitive which is probably where the confusion that they some how don’t need an Object arose in the first place.
However, the Object of the game tells you something much more important than just “how to win.” It tells you to what use the rest of the rules of the game are intended to be put. Imagine for a moment if I explained all the rules of chess in terms of how pieces move and how pieces get captured and promoted and so forth but I never told you that the object of the game was “to capture the king.” Instead I simply told you that you had “to win” or worse, “just have fun.” What do you think would happen?
I think what would happen to that chess match is pretty much what happened in our Diaspora game and what I suspect happens to a lot of games that fall apart and never reach a conclusion. Telling the group “to have fun” is not productive. Telling the group “to tell an awesome story” is about on the same level as telling the group to “to win.” Neither of those statements tells you what those phrases mean in the context of the rule set at hand. How I win with Chess is not the same with how I win with Poker. Similarly how I tell a great story with Sorcerer is not the same as how I tell a great story with Grey Ranks.
In my opinion the greatest innovation in “indie” game design in the last 10 years hasn’t been “narration trading” or “conflict resolution” or “relationship mechanics” but rather the return and inclusion of a very basic game design principle: The Object of the Game. Some of these games include very tangible and more traditional sounding objects. For example The Shab-al-Hiri Roach tangibly tracks reputation and tells you the object of the game is fight for it. InSpectres tells you that you have to complete investigative missions while keeping the company afloat and tracks that with Franchise dice.
However, the object of the game doesn’t have to be that concretely mechanized and gamey as that. For example, the object of Burning Wheel is to challenge the character’s Beliefs. The object of Sorcerer is to heighten and resolve the crisis expressed in the character’s Kicker. I’m simplifying the above examples a bit because a lot of RPGs that feature GMs actually have asymmetrical objects. For example the object of the GM in Dogs in the Vineyard is to reveal the town and escalate conflicts while the object of the players to pass judgment and resolve the town’s problems.
Once you understand the object of the game all the other rules fall into alignment. The object is the North Star of play and properly orients the standards of participation. Once the object of the game is known then “good play” and “bad play” becomes a quantifiable and observable standard. An applied rule or technique either moves the group towards the object or away from it.
In our Diaspora game Will, as the GM, was operating under the assumption that the game was fairly episodic in structure. He assumed the object of the game was to deal with a string of sci-fi space encounters as you moved relatively quickly from place to place. I, on the other hand, assumed the object of the game was to pursue my character’s personal goals (my default assumption and preference when the game fails to tell me otherwise). Since we were playing towards two different objectives the game ground to a halt. Will kept considering things done and resolved while I was considering those same situations just the tip of the iceberg.
Which one of us was “correct”? The text of Diaspora is utterly silent on the matter. Indeed we agreed that the game probably could have supported either approach equally well and we simply failed to come to a coherent agreement on which one we were doing this time around. That suggests leaving the object out of a game is perhaps a valid design decision. However, what I’d like to see from such games is more textual acknowledgment that, that crucial design step is required to be taken by the group. I’d like to see more instruction on how to take that design step. Even my tinker toy set as a child came with a set of prefab blueprints to get you started.
Jarred Sorensen once remarked that rule sets like GURPS are not games but are in fact toys. He argued that GURPS was a toy from which each individual group was required to design and develop their own game. I am further arguing that the line between game and toy is whether or not a clear Object for the game is stated. When I mentioned this to Will he pointed out that games like GURPS develop a strong culture around them regarding how they are intended to be played.
He is one hundred percent correct. And I find that statement down right frightening. I ask you this: Are RPGs something you can go to the store, buy, read and play right then and there or is it an oral tradition that you have to be introduced and mentored into by someone already in the hobby. I phrased that sentence very charitably as my first instinct was to use the phrase, “indoctrinated in to” but I’d like to assume that most people are just enthusiastically sharing their hobbies with others and not selectively bringing people into the secret inner circle of the elite.
Along those lines I leave you with this chilling proposition: The five people who played in our Diaspora game are all fairly self-reflective individuals. We’re keenly aware of our preferences and have a pod-cast dedicated to critically thinking about our play. If the five of us totally failed to form a coherent consensus on what we were trying to accomplish with a game, what HOPE does the new comer who wants to check out these “RPG things” have of doing so if the games refuse to instruct them?