Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Illusion of Mechanics

According to some, this is good art

According to some, this is not good art
I've seen a couple of posts that touch on a topic very near and dear to me when it comes to game design, not because I agree or disagree, but more that they enter into that arena and invite discussion on the topic.  The first is Creighton Broadhurst's Why Character Optimization Is Pointless (Unless You Enjoy It) and Christopher R. Rice's Building Player Characters To Concept.  The theme they touch on is the illusion of mechanics.  At their core, they say "Mechanics don't matter" Or, at least, these mechanics don't matter, but maybe those do.  And they also point out that this is a matter of taste.  As you'll see soon, I don't disagree with their premise.  This is not a rebuttal of their posts, but a comment on some larger implications, and what their perspectives on game design can do to inform your own perspective, even if you disagree with them.


A Meditation on Gameplay

I'll get into this a lot, over and over again, because it's one of my favorite topics.  Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun essentially boils it down to this, if I may paraphrase my reading of the book: Gameplay is a series of interesting choices that have emergent properties, so that each choice leads to a new set of interesting choices.  "Fun" is the exploration of said emergent properties and learning how to master them.  Raph Koster believes that humans fundamentally enjoy learning, and that fun boils down to the charge we get out of it.  Games and play has always been a learning experience, whether it's cats learning to hunt by playing with one another, or children learning about good teamwork and the importance of hard work on the field of sports.

Consider the typical D&D combat scenario.  You're playing a fighter.  Three orcs have managed to pin down your mage 3 squares away, your rogue is temporarily unconscious, your cleric is trying to revive him, and the Orc Shaman stands 5 squares away, chanting a spell that boosts all the orcs a great deal.  What should you do?  Should you move to attack the Orc Shaman, hoping to distract or defeat him, or perhaps even draw the rest of the orcs to you?  Do you move to attack the three orcs pinning your mage?  Do you retreat to your cleric and thief to stand watch over them?  And how do you position yourself precisely?  What abilities do you use?  Is it worth it right not to burn a daily that tags all the orcs in the area and forces them to draw their attention to you? What's the mage got up his sleeve?  You have a series of interesting choices, from who to attack, with what ability/weapon, and where you position yourself, and each choice has consequences that will lead to new choices, some good or bad, and we're trying to make our choice by trying to model what will happen next.  Our mastery of the game comes from how well we can model what will happen next.  A bad game has no meaningful choices ("Well, all fighters have an 'I win' button, so I just push that and the fight is over. There's really no meaningful choice here") or no meaningful emergence, while a good game has both of those things (and that's your real definition of "game balance," but that's a topic for another time).

This model definitely applies to more than just interactive game play, though.  I feel that narrative follows a similar vein, though usually less interactive.  Most authors will discuss tension and exploring themes.  I argue that they're discussing similar concepts to choices and emergence.  The author poses questions to us that we can think about ourselves.  The characters may make their own choices that we have no control over, but we do have control of how we personally would answer those questions.  Then, the author answers the question by having the character make a choice, and then exploring the resulting events.

For example, we could have a princess faced with a choice between a prince she does not love, and a heroic peasant hero that she does.  With this choice, we pose the question of whether it is better to choose a relationship that is practical and/or fulfills obligations, or for one that fulfills passion and ideal.  We could have the princess choose for the heroic peasant hero, and then unspool a story where the kingdom thereafter falls apart because of the anger caused by her choice, with the spurned kingdom's father either waging war on the princess's kingdom, or refusing to come to their aid when a great evil attacks: the consequences of failing to fulfill obligation.  But, we can contrast this with how faithful the passionate hero is, and how his passion and ambition drives him to great heights, meaning that he can act to help the princess when necessary: the consequence of choosing passion means that you are doing what you love, which makes difficult tasks much easier!

Roleplaying games definitely explore both of these forms of gameplay.  When people argue fluff vs crunch, to me it sounds like they are arguing about whether they prefer the former gameplay or the latter.  I personally feel that an RPG enjoys its greatest success as a medium when it successfully tackles both and explores the tension created by both (say, the princess is a D&D sorceress for whom passion also acts as something that powers her spells, the peasant hero is a rogue who violates social norms/obligations routinely, and the prince of another kingdom is a paladin who is driven by obligation.)  Together, they can tackle problems from both a narrative and mechanical perspective, with the consequences of their choices in the story driving the GM's choice of combat scenario, while the results of their combat scenarios drives the story.

The Point of Mechanics

Both Mr. Rice and Mr. Broadhurst have noticed that narrative can drive gameplay as much as mechanics, and are choosing for narrative over mechanics, though they're doing it in different ways.  For Mr. Broadhurst, he argues that the choices you make in character creation won't actually "let you win" and don't matter for the larger scheme of the story.  The GM will simply increase or decrease the challenge as necessary.  Mr. Rice, for his part, has placed a character concept, a narrative conceit, above points, a mechanic conceit, in importance.

Allow me to play devil's advocate and pick apart their points (though allow me to note that neither is wrong, a key point that I will return to shortly),  In both cases, they note that something is not strictly necessary.  However, I would argue that nothing in a game is necessary.  That's the nature of gameplay.  We use rules not because we must, but because we can. Rules are fun.  The constraints and consequences of rules and choices should work to create the emergence and choices I discuss above.  The question is not whether or not a rule is necessary, but whether or not we want to play that way.

The Point of Character Optimization

Mr. Broadhurst notes the "arms race" of character optimization.  Say that Alice, Bob and Charles are playing a game with Mr. Broadhurst.  Alice, cunning as she is, works out a wizard who is far more powerful than Bob's Rogue or Charles's fighter.  That means that Mr. Broadhurst needs to increase the challenge, which means that Bob and Charles need to optimize as well, so you get into a pointless arms race.  Ultimately, Alice ends up "no better" than Bob or Charles, and she does not "win" the scenario.

But I would point out that if gameplay is all about mastering the emergent properties of our choices, then what Alice is doing and encouraging itself looks like gameplay.  She has learned how the game works and has correctly modeled it.  She has displayed her mastery of the character creation rules, and thus has a superior character.  By seeing what she has done, the rest understand something new about the game and adapt.  Some may complain ("Mages are overpowered" says Bob, who starts to cross-class as a Rogue/Mage), while others might grasp important concepts ("This is really about controlling the battlefield, and my fighter can do that in a way that's different from Alice, that's kind of neat!" says Charles).  The GM might point out flaws in their model ("Wait, you mean these monsters are immune to magic?  Hmmm...") and the learning process can go on as the game evolves from the choices the players made.

Character optimization is gameplay.  The arms race is a feature of gameplay.  Of course, Mr. Broadhurst doesn't contend this point.  He specifically notes that if you like it, that's fine.  He merely feels that it's less interesting to him and his players than other forms of gameplay.

The Point of Points

Christopher Rice makes a similar point: You don't need character points.  What you need is a concept, and the concept should be king.

But why do we have points?  Do people who use points not also have concepts?  Of course they do! I'm playing in one of Chris's games (Aeon-D), and my concept loosely boils down to "Brick" and I have about 250-300 points to make this.  Can you make a brick on that point total?  Of course you can.  I had originally wanted a variety of other traits, like some medical skills, but it quickly proved impractical and it wasn't that important, so given a choice between these traits and others, I chose the other, brickier traits. Whereupon I was told to stop worrying about it and to make the character "to my concept." I don't know what the final point value will be, but I can tell you it will be far north of 250 points.

Point-based systems like GURPS give us interesting choices between a variety of advantages, skills and ways of modeling our character on a particular budget.  It also offers us disadvantages that we can accept if we'd like to make a choice of being even weaker than average in an area in exchange for being stronger than average on an area.  Because these traits interact in interesting ways, the very act of character creation becomes an exploration of a series of interesting choices and their emergent properties; GURPS character creation is gameplay.

By removing the conceit of point totals, Chris is removing that gameplay.  Why would he do that? Like Mr. Broadhurst, Christopher enjoys other gameplay more.  I cannot speak for him, of course, but I could guess as to why someone might feel that way.  They might feel that the point totals don't actually create interesting gameplay ("Supers are better balanced by focusing on limits other than points"), or that they'd rather focus on gameplay that isn't tied to PC power level ("I want to see what happens when you have Thor on the same team as Hawkeye!  Can we make that interesting or must it necessarily devolve into Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit?  How can we make it interesting?")

A Matter of Opinion

At the beginning of this post, I include a picture of a minimalist Star Wars posters by Andy Helms and contrast it with the Sistine Chapel, noting that some people prefer the former to the latter.  This is not intended as a tongue-in-cheek condemnation of philistines who prefer the former to the latter, but an important observation: Art is subjective.  But what Andy and Michelangelo both did are conscious choices. Michelangelo is showing off all the supreme artistic skill he has acquired, while Andy Helms is making a point about how much beauty you can create with a minimum amount of lines or design.  They both demonstrate important artistic principles, but in different ways.

Who is right? That's a matter of opinion.  In fact, given how subjective it is, I think it would be inappropriate to say that one is right and the other is wrong.  In fact, I would argue that you have a lot to learn from both.  What matters most is they knew what they wanted and went after it.

Game design is not science, but art.  When you create a game, you are creating gameplay, which means you need to pick out your preferred series of interesting choices and emergent properties.  Someone who favors a more narrative sort of gameplay is not better or more mature than someone who picks out a more mechanical sort of gameplay, but it's important to make conscious choices of how you want your game to work.  Your game cannot be everything to everyone, and attempting to do so will ruin your game.  By focusing on the elements that you want, you can bring your players attention to that which matters.  In a way, what the two articles are doing is more like what Andy Helms is doing: Removing elements from gameplay to get a more focused game. That's good!  But that doesn't mean that games that don't adhere to their suggestions are necessarily bad, anymore than Michelangelo is a "bad artist."

(As a player, we should be willing to accept this, and to try new things, which I believe is Chris' point  when he says his approach required "maturity." I believe he's not arguing that someone who prefers people stick to agreed point totals is somehow less mature than someone who comes up with concepts but can't be bothered to stick to an agreed point total.  If I enforced strict point budgets in a game and Chris were to play in it, I doubt he would say "Point totals?  How immature!" And, in fact, if someone were to say that, he's probably call them immature, because I believe his point is not "Point totals are stupid and immature" but "An unwillingness to try new things is immature", and if that is his point, we are in total agreement).

Thus, the whole point of this post is not that Mr. Broadhurst or Mr. Rice are wrong, but that they are right to make conscious choices that benefit their game, and that I encourage you to be conscious of the choices you make.  They both re-examine sacred cows and correctly note that they are not necessary, but that does not mean that they are not fun.  They have just chosen to focus on other, equally unnecessary things that are also fun,  When you design your gameplay, I encourage you to do the same: think about what you're trying to do, understand that rules are there to help you create gameplay, and make them the tools you use to create that gameplay, rather than constraints that must be followed to please the Gaming Gods.
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