The Object of the Game

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?

10 Responses to “The Object of the Game”

  1. bjmurrayhalfjack Says:

    First, this is a wonderful and insightful post. I want (because I am a very superficial man) to look at the concluding statement mostly.

    “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?”

    This question invites, for me, another question: “How come new gamers DO get it?” And I don’t mean this as a defense of not communicating adequately. I just think this is where the meat is. It might, for example, imply that one of the reasons the hobby is small is because our most effective conversions come from that one person in a hundred that accidentally aligns with the author’s unstated intention teaching “correctly” to others. So we remain small because the text alone only seeds in a very small number of people, and we rely on the unstated information being carried tribally.

    Now we could say that leaving explicit instruction is a design decision (and it is, in a sense, though perhaps more aesthetic than functional: Traveller never told me how to play, and the same freedom that gave should be available to the end use of Diaspora, but that same freedom as an unstated assumption becomes a paralyzing conflict of unspoken intentions) but I think it’s more likely just part of the roots of Diaspora and by extension the roots of our hobby.

    Diaspora began as a fan hack to make Spirit of the Century do Traveller. As such, the original text makes many referrals to SotC — go read this for details. After all, in a fan hack, why re-write something you are explicitly assuming the user already owns? Now I think that also the hobby tends to do this in a more general sense, taking as read that we all already know basically what we’re doing before we even read the book. And in some sense that’s true, but it feeds this sort of authorial laziness and, as I say, may contribute to the weakness of the hobby.

    Now I also suspect that playing a large number of focused “indie” (for want of a better word) games actually makes it harder for introspective, thoughtful people to play well (in this context) precisely because there is a pre-disposition towards working with the rules-as-written with a great deal more reverence (out of respect for and trust in the author — we now expect the rules to be very intentional when once they were anything but) than we did in 1979. Consequently we sometimes fail to engage our own creativity unless we are explicitly told to do so (I know this led to constant failure with 3:16 for me — I couldn’t find any place to do anything but fight a string of simplistic tactical fights with occasional strained flashback scenes — but it was me not finding my free space in the rules by adhering to them too narrowly).

    That goes on a bit and probably should have been on my own blog, but I don’t want to appear as though I am broadsiding your observation from out of range. I basically totally agree with pretty much everything you say and I think the problem is very deep in the hobby. Certainly our upcoming titles address it pretty explicitly. So far they kind of suffer for it — they feel constrained in ways that I don’t recall from my heyday of gaming — but they may be more accessible.

    I have no solutions, but many experiments. 😀 Thanks for your wonderful post!

  2. So far they kind of suffer for it — they feel constrained in ways that I don’t recall from my heyday of gaming — but they may be more accessible.


    I think it’s valid to say “this is the default mode of play but, by group consensus and maybe a bit of house-ruling, there are some other workable modes available, too.” It seems like a reasonable compromise between solving the problem Jesse describes and offering the freedom you (reasonably) love. I think calling out the need for group discussion in the text is important, though.

    • jburneko Says:

      Diaspora also takes a half-step in that direction. Two things jumped out at me. There’s a lot of text that implies the characters are traveling around in a spaceship. I mean the only real setting in the book is how space travel works. The only thing the text doesn’t do is come out and say: this is a game about people traveling in a ship through space.

      There’s also text that implies you’ll be moving around A LOT because it talks about making a maintenance roll for the ship *once a session*. That was actually the first warning sign for me that I was on the wrong page because my vision of play didn’t include moving around enough to warrant that frequent of a maintenance roll.

      So, I’m on a ship. I’m moving around frequently enough to warrant a maintenance roll every session.

      But as I said it’s a half-step. I’m not entirely sure what kinds of decisions and actions the players are supposed to be taking. I’m not entirely sure what the job of the GM is supposed to be.

      For example, let’s say I botch one of these maintenance rolls I’m not really sure what my reaction is supposed to be. Is it “Oh crap, I need to find a job and that becomes the basis for our current session?” Or am I just assuming that the abstract maintenance system accounts for that and all that’s happening is pressure being mounted and relieved on something else I’m focusing on.

      It’s stuff like that I’m talking about. I think Will made a good point in our podcast that the target audience for the book is a bit obscure. Do you basically have to know both FATE and Traveler to “get it”? As a reference I’ve never played Traveler. For that matter, I’ve never even READ Traveler.


  3. standardgravity Says:

    I totally agree with the issue you raise in your post. The strange thing is that designers surely have an idea in their head of how to use and play their game, but they keep that idea in their head when it belongs in their game in caps and bold letters!

    Having said that, a certain degree of “this goes without saying” is to be expected. I for one do not want to read chapter after chapter on general role-playing advice in each game I buy. Sure, I want to know what makes this particular game important, what techniques to use, what the themes are, and what the rules are designed to do. But I don’t want to read “this is an RPG” etc.

    What we need though, are beginners games (lots of them, in all kinds of settings etc) that are very hand-holding as to what RPGs are and do. And we need those games marketed and retailed all over the place. Obviously easier said than done…

    • jburneko Says:

      I think that “general role-playing advice” is not very useful. If there are not highly specific techniques applicable to your specific game then what is the function of your design?

      I think this idea that you can write general purpose “role-playing advice” is one of the great fallacies of wider gamer culture that not only leads to ineffectual game design but deeper social problems as well.

      No one should need to be taught “how to role playing” in the abstract. They should only need to be taught how to play an individual game.

  4. […] few days ago, I shared an amazing piece by Jesse Burneko.  Well, Jesse’s at it again.  He and Justin Achilli always seem to challenge me and make me think about games and my views […]

  5. norwoodgamer Says:

    I see your point, but at the same time, all I could think of when listening to the podcast (and reading this article) was that it was a failure of the group rather than of the game. Because, really, the “sandbox” idea of game design is the industry standard, where the game gives you tools to make your own story and style. So that shouldn’t be new to anyone, even if “modern” RPG design has spoiled you a little bit to expect more.

    And more importantly, one of the most freaking awesome things about Diaspora is that both the “world” and the characters are created collaboratively. So it’s not like you made up your character in isolation while Will developed the world and the campaign arc alone as well. You were all sitting around the same table doing all those things.

    And Diaspora, like all FATE games, uses Aspects. Aspects are like big, flashing pointy signs telling the GM and other players exactly what you and your character want to be doing. In the whole character creation process, how did the point and style of your game NOT come up at some point?

    My group just went through this process, and from the first part of discussing home planet and overall character concept, we were on the same page. And frankly, if you’re communicating much at all, I don’t see how you wouldn’t be…

    • jburneko Says:

      I’ve been mulling over how to reply to this. Because the simple reply is, “Yeah, Sure.”

      But I feel like you missed the point I made about RPGs being an “Oral Tradition.” You point out that sand box game design is “industry standard” and that it “shouldn’t be new to anyone.” To which I ask, “So you have to be part of entrenched gamer culture to know how to play?” You can’t just read the book and be instructed? You HAVE to find an experienced mentor to teach you?

      I’m not *just* talking about a communication breakdown. I’m FINE with “sandbox”/”toolkit” design as long as the text provides you with tools and educates you on how to do that. Diaspora doesn’t. You’re suggesting that I can’t just mail a copy of Diaspora to my cousin in Connecticut because I know he’s into Hard Sci-Fi and introduce him to a neat new game. I actually have to FLY out there and teach him, in person, how to play because he doesn’t have the cultural exposure to the “industry standard” to know what to do?

      I don’t know about you but I’m NOT okay with that cultural state of affairs. I think a lot of gamers are. That saddens me.

      Now the Aspects as tools for communication issue. First of all FATE games tend to generate A LOT of Aspects. There is still nothing that communicates what thing *this* game will about. I think in our first podcast episode I said something like, “I don’t feel like we’ve preped *A* game of Diaspora. I feel like we’ve prepped 30 games of Diaspora.” You just hand all this raw data over to the GM and hope it gets sorted out in a manner that excites you.

      After all I had “The Company Is Breathing Down My Neck” as an Aspect. And Will tried to use it as a motivator to keep me moving. While I saw it as a driving force to really put together my own operation to meet demand. The problem is that Aspects only tell you about raw surface content they don’t generate specifics.

      Consider for example that I generate a planet Aspect of “Long Forgotten Ruins of the Elders” and on my character I have “Shoot First Ask Questions Later”. The general interpretation of how to apply this is that the GM should make sure I get to shoot stuff in the ruins. Really? As long as I’m shooting stuff in ruins I should be happy?

      Again, I think a lot of gamers ARE satisfied with that. The sort of raw thrill of “Oh my god, I’m shooting freaking LASERS in alien RUINS!” is enough. So Aspects are an effective tool at communicating that raw surface imagining of what a player wants to day dream about his character doing. That’s all they want. Again, this saddens me.

      My entire Play Passionately blog is an appeal to this kind of gamer. It’s there to ask the question: “Really? Is that enough? Really and truly?” Maybe after some hard reflection the answer turns out to be, “Yes.” To which I can only shrug and say, “Then I hope you find many spece ruins to shoot lasers in.”

      All I hope to do here is provoke that moment of self-reflection.

      • norwoodgamer Says:

        Jesse – First of all, let me start by backing up a little and saying that my first post came off, I think, as being way more confrontational than I meant it to be. I am totally enthralled by Actual People, Actual Play these days, and your site here is a work of genius. I am just getting a campaign started with Diaspora as well, however, and am also pretty enthralled with it at the moment, so maybe I got a little defensive.

        That being said, I still think that you’re bringing your dissatisfaction with the “cultural state of affairs” and applying it, somewhat unfairly in my opinion, on Diaspora as a bit of a scapegoat. Your ideas are correct; I’m just not convinced that Diaspora is the target you need to aim about.

        As Brad said above and even as you alluded to, Diaspora is not a “beginner’s” game. And in fact, I would not think it would be appropriate for you to send it to your cousin in Connecticut because not only is FATE a relatively new and challenging system for new roleplayers to get their heads around, Diaspora is an advanced form of FATE that goes to places that even very experienced RPG’ers (like me) have some trouble picking up.

        And also, I think that you missed some of the guidance actually given in the book where it talks about the kinds of things you’re mentioning. Just for clarity, I’ll quote from page 3, in the section titled “The table is the consensus.”

        “So when we say ‘at our table’ we are not talking about rules or even house rules per se, but rather interpretations arrives at consensually. We leave a lot here up to your table and encourage you to seek genuine consensus when elaborating your clusters, your systems, and even your characters. To this end we grant equal weight (though your table may choose otherwise) to all players throughout the first session. Cluster, system, and character creation are all egalitarian pursuits.”

        “Wer’re also, then, tacitly acknowledging that every table is distinct. We wrote this game and play tested it, so it reflects the interests of our table. Your table, however, will necessarily create a different game. That’s not just okay with us, or even expected, bur rather that’s awesome. And so, in realizing this, we have decided to stay as far away from territory that belongs to your table as possible. Diaspora recognizes that almost everything past the mechanical is your territory.”

        So right there on page 3, it essentially tells you that it’s a sandbox. Setting, character and group dynamics, and theme are things that need to be decided by table consensus. My opinion is that the issues which came up in your play were due more to you not coming to this consensus rather than due to any failing in the game itself.

  6. […] few days ago, I shared an amazing piece by Jesse Burneko.  Well, Jesse’s at it again.  He and Justin Achilli always seem to challenge me and make me think about games and my views on […]

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