Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Roleplaying games: Designing with "yes, and..."

This is how you make characters in the storytelling game "Do, Pilgrims of the Flying Temple", by Daniel Solis. Basically, you look around the room and choose an object for how your character helps other people, and the word that describes that object describes how your character gets into trouble.

I love it!

Check it out, I spent some time just coming up with characters:
* Unlit Lamp - Illuminating to others, but lacking an insight in hirself.
* Half-full glass - Makes things transparent and clear, but constantly hungry for more.
* Solid Tree - Nurturing and lifegiving, but set in hir ways.
* Dirty Machine - Efficient and uncomplaining, but uncouth and rude...

I think this is excellent design for roleplaying and collaborative storytelling. It is both simple and inspiring, which I consider the two most important principles for designing roleplaying games.

So, why do I choose "simple" and "inspiring" as the two chief principles of roleplaying design?

I'm going to springboard off of this and describe the foundation of my improv/roleplaying theory. What is improv and roleplaying?


I've written an introduction to improv here, but what is relevant to us right now is the process called "Yes, and..."
This is the cornerstone of improv, and it means that instead of blocking other peoples contribution you first accept them, and then build on them. Simple!

Here, check out this short game that plays with the "Yes, and..." principle! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qe2a3ppacUk

(I lack a better word for "yes, and...". In swedish there is a great word, bejaka... (to actively accept, affirmation sort of))


I consider roleplaying as basically the same process as improv theatre:
* A bunch of players talking to each other, creating, accepting and building on each other's contributions.
* Building on other people's contributions rather than blocking them is crucial, because then the game goes somewhere. Blocking instead blocks progress of storytelling.
* Thus, movement is the basic measurement of interesting storytelling. To have a good, creative movement is to have flow. This is the ultimate goal of roleplaying.
* Roleplaying has a unique oppertunity compared to improv, through! There is also a game present in this interaction. A good game will inspire flow, a bad game will block it.

Roleplaying games

I think many roleplayers would consider the roleplaying game as a simulation which you emerge into. Roleplaying is primarily the game, so to speak.

Personally, I consider roleplaying primarily the interaction between players, with the game as another participant. It is the players who set up expectations for the game and a shared vision of the game world, but the game does a very important job of informing these expectations (For instance, saying "You're all supposed to play powerful mages in a medieval Europe setting") and the quality of interactions between the players. (For instance, saying "When you are working magic, roll these dice and tell the game master the results")

Roleplaying can be focused on making strategic and tactically sound decisions, immersion into and acting your character, or creating a story together. All of these cases though, are about immersion into the game, and thus a possibility to attain flow.

Designing with "yes, and..."

Okay, so those are some improv-roleplaying theory basics.

So, if all roleplaying games should aspire to attain flow in the participants, how do you write a game with visions, game rules and other game structures to reach flow? I say there are two principles of game design to attain flow when playing:

1) The game must be clear, and not distracting from flow
Meaning, it should be easy enough to grasp and not slow or requiring referencing during play. It should be clear, rather than confusing or ambigous.

When playtesting Berättelser från Staden, I found that when the rules were newly written, they were often unclear and ambigous, and the players became too occupied with figuring out what they actually were allowed to say and not to say within the game, who held story authority over what, etc. Rather than just going with what they felt like, they had to first figure out the game before they could feel safe in the game.

Just as people can't function in daily life without a sense of security, players needs a sense of security when playing a game. The structure of the game, the rules and boundaries needs to be clear. Not to avoid cheaters, but rather to make the players feel secure in what they are supposed and allowed to contribute to the story. The players needs a shared vision, shared expectations, they need to know where they are, and what what they're doing.

In other words, the players should not be spending time figuring out how to play the game, they should be spending time playing the game.

2) The game should inspire flow

Meaning, the game should add it's own impulses, inspiration and movement to the game, to which the player's can answer "Yes, and..." and add their own interpretation of these impulses.

This way, the game does half the work for you, and you do the other half. It is always more interesting to work on and interpret the impulses of others, than just straight up telling a story on your own - Which is not interesting at all, but rather intimidating, even!

Inspiring flow

Some different ways to do half the work for someone and thus inspire flow are...

1) Lists

Lists from which the players can pick concepts. In Berättelser från Staden, play starts with the players choosing from a list of ideas to build a story on, such as...
- The crows whisper their secrets to a man on his balcony
- A young man is going insane over the murder he has committed
- It is the hottest day in summer
The same model is used in In A Wicked Age by Vincent Baker, and called oracles. I provide basic concepts, the players pick one and use hir interpretation of that concept, the inspiration and images that pop into hir mind.

2) Concepts
Rather than a long list with short concepts, you can make a short list with extensive concepts. Character classes are a good example of this, highly stylized character concept choices which inspires and awakens ideas in the players minds. Dungeons and Dragons and Apocalypse World are excellent examples of these. Choosing between an Avenger and a Warden is inspiring. Choosing between proficiency in Electronics or Rifles is does not evoke the same imagery, for instance.

3) Questions
By asking someone a question, you have done half the work for them. When I say "Hey, what does The Great Frog Cave look like? What does it sound and smell like?" I'm making a contribution for someone to build on. Likewise if I ask "This woman, Beth, is coming at you fist firsts, trying to beat you up, why is that?". That is something you can say "Yes, and..." to! Again, Berättelser från Staden and Apocalypse World.

4) Looking at things around you and then interpreting them
Which I've never thought of, but Daniel Solis proves it can be done! Do, Pilgrims of the Flying Temple.

All of the above methods sets the style and vision to work with, relieves you from complete storyship authority (which can be very tiring and anxious-inducing, as we fear failure) and brings ideas to you, ideas you wouldn't normally think of, ideas which hopefully inspires you to creativity. Also, note how they all require you to make meaningful choices. Playing is making meaningful choices, which is a whole fundamental part of game design on it's own.

In conclusion

Good game design achieves the following:
1 - Gives your players a sense of security.
2 - Inspires your players.
3 - Let's your players make meaningful choices.
4 - Clarity, meaning the game does not block flow.
5 - Gives your players techniques to avoid blocking flow.
6 - Profit! (Achieves flow)

The foundations of these achievements is built by communicating a shared vision of the game, through setting, rules, design and accessories (dice, cards etc) and even the wording of the text. A game should put images in the players' heads, and the basis of these images need to be roughly the same.

Compare the rules of a roleplaying game to the set up or rules of an improv game. Improv games also provide some structure for the players to act within. ("The rules are, you may only speak in gibberish, which your mate then translate as he wishes. The setting is, you're holding a lecture on frogs.")

It is interesting to see how my opinion on game design mirrors my views on mental health, with emphasis on sense of security-creativity and meaningfulness. (See my Model of mental health and Meaning, story, understanding) Then again, that's why I started this blog.


Revolverspel said...

Bra skit Arvid, riktigt bra. Personligen tycker jag att "Spänning" är en fantastisk flowgivare. Alltså spännings som i Suspense. Typ det här:

"Suspense is a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety about the outcome of certain actions"

Från wikipedia.

Jag brukar alltid förespråka meningsfulla val. Jag tycker att ett spel ska erbjuda det.

Carl Toftfelt said...

Fint hörru! Bra lista =)

Lite OT: Viktigt att tänka på, tycker jag, är ju att bejakningen ska se från båda håll. Att även SL bejakar den stämning och det som skapas i stunden av spelarna. Det är lätt att blocka som SL om man har en historia att berätta

Arvid Axbrink Cederholm said...

Carl: Åh gud, JA! Jag sågar förberedda historier helt i min bild av speldesign. Impro ska de va!

Calle said...

Hej Arvid!
Första gången jag läser din blogg. Och det kommer inte att bli den sista. Det här var riktigt, riktigt bra! Något att tänka på den dagen jag fortsätter skriva på mitt rollspel.
Mvh Calle

Anonymous said...

Hei Arvid!

Jeg likte særlig denne: "I consider roleplaying primarily the interaction between players, with the game as another participant".

Flott formulert; enkelt og klargjørende! Bravo!

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